The best job on the planet? Life on a Philippine coral reef

Protecting endangered coral reefs in the Philippines
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Protecting endangered coral reefs in the Philippines 03:06

Story highlights

  • Reefs in the Philippines are among the world's most threatened
  • Eight are now Marine Protected Areas
  • El Nino events and decades of over-fishing have degraded the coral

Philippines (CNN)One of Olly McGuinness's greatest pleasures in life these days is a really good cup of coffee.

He has a secret stash of the good stuff for special occasions, but mostly he makes do with whatever is on the table. And it's not great.
    "Seriously, I'd kill for a decent cup," he says, sipping something coffee-colored from a mug as he prepares for another day at work. But there is compensation for the hardship.
    Take the view, for example.
    Just a few steps from Olly's front door are the dazzlingly-clear waters of a coral bay. Palm trees sweep down from the emerald green hills behind to create a spectacular scene, crowned by a pillow of white cloud.
    And then there's his job. The 35-year-old Londoner will spend the next few hours in the waters of the bay, diving on reefs and helping to save the planet.

    An underwater Amazon

    Olly is base manager for Coral Cay Conservation, a London-based NGO that operates here in Napantao village, a remote part of southern Leyte in the Philippines four hours by car from Tacloban, the city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan two years ago.
    He leads a small but colorful team of volunteers -- young backpacking scientists, Philippine students and village helpers --- all drawn by the same thing: a desire to help save one of the world's most diverse and important marine areas.
    The Coral Triangle, as it's known, is a series of reefs that extends across Southeast Asia: a sort of underwater equivalent of the Amazon.
    At its heart is the Philippines, with 27,000 square kilometers (10,400 square miles) of its own reef.
    But these reefs are also among some of the world's most threatened, says the World Wildlife Fund.
    Decades of overfishing, extreme weather, predatory starfish and El Nino events, where warmer-than-usual sea temperatures have damaged the coral, have left many of them dangerously degraded.

    Protecting the reef

    Coral Cay arrived in southern Leyte in 2002 to map and monitor the reefs of Sogod Bay. Their job is to provide information to local government who can declare damaged reefs a Marine Protected Area (MPA).
    So far they have surveyed more than 20 reefs and eight have been declared MPAs, protected from exploitation.
    "It gives the reefs a chance to recover. You dive here and what you don't see are big fish. They are being fished out and an MPA gives the ecosystem a chance to recover,'' says Olly.
    "But it is difficult. Many of the local people here need the reef fish for their survival. They have been fishing here for generations and they don't understand the need for preservation and conservation."
    Indeed, as we sit on the dive boat above the protected house reef, a couple of young men paddling an outrigger appear with a net and begin fishing.
    Coral Cay's best chance of success is education, and that's where the local people come in. It awards two full scholarships each month to local students.
    Fisherman in the Coral Triangle prepare their nets before taking off to sea. For generations coastal communities have relied on the wide range of fish available in this diverse marine area.
    They will be taught how to dive to an advanced level, and learn about marine eco-systems. They are also shown how to map the reef and invariably stay on at Coral Cay for a few months to help with the mapping.
    Some then go on to become conservationists and activists in their own right.
    After completing the course, teacher Grace Quiton-Domingo gave up her job to start an NGO in another part of southern Leyte.
    "I saw that we had so many resources in our backyard, the sea, and we knew so little about it. People just assumed there would always be enough fish for everyone, it was endless. Not any more," she says.

    International support

    Coral Cay's model draws heavily on volunteers and they don't appear to have any problem attracting them.
    The backbone of the team here is an eclectic bunch of scientists and travelers from around the world.
    The chief science officer is from Scotland, the lead dive master from Switzerland. And there are recently-graduated marine biologists from Australia and adventurous travelers from Germany.
    They all live on-site in a faded blue concrete bungalow, sleeping in dormitories, eating communally and occasionally taking trips to nearby towns to stock up on supplies.
    The conditions and the diet are basic. There is electricity most of the time but the single (communal) shower runs only cold water.
    Their big night out is usually just a trip up the bay to a hut that doubles as a bar.
    But no one appears to mind the six-day-a-week job and the rustic conditions. It's still a paradise for many of them, even if this particular paradise doesn't come with a decent coffee.