Thursday, January 31, 2008

USS Germantown

Almost two months ago to the day this big ship was in port! The USS Germantown.

When it and the crew were here Angelo wrote a good story and both the Tribune and Variety did stories as well.

I had planned to do a post about my experience back then but that was just about the time Christmas season got into full swing. In fact writing this now I'm reminded how I was unable to take the ship tour Angelo talks about because it was during the local artists Christmas bazaar and I was selling DVDs! More on that another time...

I recently received this in the mail! A note from Commander Steve Vincent himself!

I first heard about the ships arrival a few days before it was due primarily because I'm a member of the Chamber of Commerce and they alert us of the ships arrival. With a reception and the Adopt a Sailor program the Chamber attempts to welcome personnel as warmly as possible and ensure their experience here is as enjoyable as it can be. By the way MVA also alerts its members but that is usually on the day the ship arrives or after it leaves!

I also knew of the ships arrival a head of time (by now you must realize that the military really does not advertise it's moves) because of discussions within the dive community regarding how the industry would cope with a large influx of customers. This particular ship had a large crew, I believe upwards of 800 or so, and they were here for R&R after a tour in Iraq.

When I received the Chamber email I contacted Angelo and as Angelo does he organized a large clean up of Garapan on the Friday which just happened to be a "Daddy Day" for me and my first, "never to forget" memory of that weekend.

At the first word of a clean up this seasoned veteran was off to the races! She even made it on the 6PM news! Not only is she ready to work but she also turned out to be a pretty good little ambassador herself! It took her a bit but she was soon the entertainment!

She even met this fella who has the same first and middle name only reversed! How cool is that. Of course I'm not too sure how good I'll feel about her ability to attract so much attention when she's 18!

I didn't get to take many pictures. I had to keep a sharp eye out but, I did manage to talk to some of the guys and what genuinely came across was their desire to pitch in and help out as well as meet the people they are serving. The service men teamed up with students from Garapan Elementary and you could see everyone had a great time. Of course the other thing that stood out was just how young these guys were! I mean I know I'm getting up there but I felt OLD!

It was here I had my first opportunity to meet the Commander and some of the officers. While chasing a 22 month old around the post clean up BBQ I managed to hear a little bit of his appreciation for the warm welcome he and the crew were receiving as well as be part of conversations regarding far away wives, babies and kids. I honestly can't imagine it! They change so fast - to miss 6 months, a year or more at a time would devastate me.

It was here I was also able to pass on a DVD to Commander Vincent. Yep, I'll admit doing so is in part a PR move but, as I've discussed on this blog before, it also has to do with the joy of giving. After speaking with many of the crew it was obvious that not all of them - in fact most, were not going to experience our diving first hand so my DVD would bring it to them! At the time Commander Vincent expressed how he wished he'd had a copy on the way into port so he could have played it throughout the ship!

The second opportunity I had to meet some of the guys was at the Chamber reception held on the beach at the Hyatt. For a time I went into photograph mode. Only about 30 or so very similar sunset photos! No green flash.
Then on into the reception where former Chamber President Won Pon gave a plaque of appreciation.
Judge Wiesman who heads the Chambers Armed Forces Committee said a few words and also presented the commander with something but to be honest I've forgotten what!

And of course all the special people pose for a picture! That, by the way, was Executive Director Christine Parke's last official function - she will be missed.
Then another plaque and more gifts from the ship. This time it was Ruth Coleman from the Veterans Affairs office giving the one above while receiving her very own embroidered USS Germantown cap below!Another picture of the important people! Including Thomas in the red shirt. There's an inside joke with him in there which I don't have time to elaborate on but he'll get it because he knows I'm really bad with names!Another picture of the important people!

Besides all the warm remarks and happy faces and the open bar a couple of things stood out to me when the Commander made his remarks.

First, he commented on what a great reception they were given all over the island and that they really felt it was genuine and not a contrived effort on the part of the residents.

Second, he also took time to explain that when his crew come to a port like this they truly feel safe and can relax more easily than in other areas of the world where, although they may be among allies, they are not necessarily on sovereign land or among people with similar ideals! A R&R port stop in the Philippines or Africa for example does not necessarily come with the same comfort level as a US territory such as Saipan.

These factors coupled with our beautiful beaches, warm sunshine and clear waters make the islands an ideal retreat for these military personnel. To not take full advantage of such an opportunity on both sides would be ridiculous. Of course Guam can offer a similar atmosphere but with the military build up over there the number of service men / women that will want to get off that rock for a vacation is sure to increase as well!

The question is can we handle it? Specifically can the dive industry absorb large one-time influxes of English speaking customers? This is a debate that is going on within the dive community right now. One of the officers who had a great time diving with Speedy Tertle told me there was at least 60 certified divers and that, if they had of known about our diving, they potentially would have taken advantage of it. That does not even include those who want to learn or who dive but are not certified.

We cannot take this market for granted and should cater to it as much as possible. Another aspect of the commander’s comments that stuck with me was the importance his crew places on the service and ambassador roles that come with being a soldier.

I think Commander Vincent’s note clearly indicates there is a tool available to attract potential divers in the DVD as well as evidence that our natural resource deliver a world-class standard.

Now, the dive community, business and MVA need to work together to ensure these ambassadors have every opportunity to experience what we have and receive safe, world-class service. With this scenario will come a wave of word of mouth that can be spread around the rest of the world free of charge!

If a ship of 800 men and women spreading the word can use my DVD to help showcase what we have to the world then I think it's a little well placed PR. Besides, especially with notes like this, it just feels good to know someone has appreciated your work.

Thanks Commander Vincent and the crew of the USS Germantown - hope to see you again soon!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Canadian Winter

In an effort to send a little cheer my way today my little sister sent me this!
That's a wind chill of minus 42 degrees! Ouch!
I guess we'll just have to deal with a little rain and overcast skies!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Rare’s mission is to conserve imperiled species and ecosystems around the world by inspiring people to care about and protect nature".

Once again this past week Saipan's coalition of conservation minded individuals and organizations came together in an effort to protect our environmental assets for generations to come. Last week DEQ and the Nature Conservancy lead the way with Conservation Action Planning for a specific area of the island, Lau Lau Bay.
This time it was Brooke Nevitt and CRM leading the charge by bringing the Rare Pride campaign to our shores. Basically, in a nut shell, what this program attempts to do is raise awareness of environmental issues while helping to facilitate the behavioral change necessary to address those issues.

From their website....

Rare’s approach has been to develop a suite of social marketing and business development tools that motivate local communities to protect their natural surroundings. Rare’s signature Pride campaign builds grassroots support for environmental protection by training local conservation leaders in the use of commercial marketing tactics to build awareness, influence attitudes, and enable meaningful change. Pride campaigns produce a groundswell of support that leads to tangible conservation successes, such as new national parks, reform legislation, or reduction of threats from forest fires or over-fishing.

This campaign will focus on the CNMI's coral reefs. One aspect of the program is to determine and develop a mascot that will help spread the message of conservation and get people to rally behind the cause. The idea being that a flagship creature people recognize and identify with will inspire them to retain and promote the message and therefore extend the protection to other lesser known creatures and ecosystems.

The idea is that we need to identify and deal with the issues threatening the reefs as well as motivate people to take action. In general however, coral is not so sexy or exciting. It doesn't move, or smile at you like a dolphin. It's there and it's important but it normally does not instill any type of emotion in the casual observer unlike Nemo or some other loveable creature.

So once Brooke and community stake holders have an opportunity to put together the plan we will be asked to identify a creature we think is most appropriate to represent the mascot and motivate others to protect our reefs.

Pictured above is Reina Camacho of DEQ furiously trying to take notes and vote in my online poll all at the same time.

Which marine creature do you think the community will rally behind and therefore most effectively help raise awareness and save our reefs?

In upcoming posts I'll discuss each creature and give you my perspective but first I want to hear from you!

Vote now! Or leave a comment if you think of another one not yet mentioned in the poll!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fishing Line Clean Up at the Grotto

This scene occurs repeatedly on a daily basis at the Grotto.
First a look from above!
How does it look down there?
Then, lets go!

But wait, first we need a picture to take home!

Hundreds of divers a day come from around the world to repeat this pre-dive ritual and experience one of the most unique cavern dives anywhere on the globe.

It's easily accessible by car - that's of course followed by a 100 plus stair decent into the depths of what used to be a huge limestone cave. Today the one time roof acts as an entry and exit point for divers, swimmers and snorkelers. In a single day it is not uncommon for more than a thousand visitors to enjoy this incredible place, one way or another.

Thankfully, some years ago people recognized the importance of this site and made it a marine sanctuary.From DFW website.
"Designated as a marine sanctuary for the conservation of wildlife and marine life. The site will serve as a natural laboratory for continued propagation of wildlife and marine species, which gradually and naturally can re-populate depopulated areas. The sanctuary will also provide a laboratory for students, teachers and research groups to study wildlife and marine species".

Unfortunately, despite the fact the Grotto, including the cliff line above, is protected by law another activity is also carried out here all too frequently.

Illegal fishing.

Thankfully, Saipan is lucky enough to have a few divers concerned about the negative impacts of fishing and harvesting the reefs, including damage to the corals lining the walls that tourists pay good money to see. Harry Blalock and Mr. Lee from Dive Saipan (below) frequently take time out from their dives to pull mono filament fishing line , hooks and primitive sinkers from the area - otherwise, along with dead coral, this may be all divers would see.
On Monday many members of Marianas Dive opted out of our monthly clean up for various reasons including the conditions at the Grotto. It was a rough day and the high waves brought strong surge especially in the first 30 feet outside the cavern where most of the fishing line is found. After these two guys had scoured the wall between hole one and hole three my dive added little to the pile they amassed but, with a few lingering scrapes, I will attest first hand to the strength of the waves pounding the coast line!

Now that we've managed to "clean" the area we are hopeful that a repeat clean up in 2 or 3 months will yield little, if any, evidence of continued fishing. However, I suspect this will not be the case and efforts will need to continue. Not only to educate but, to also push for increased enforcement and consistent sentencing for those caught breaking the law and in fact the back of our economy. If there is to be a future dive and tourism industry on this island people need to get serious about protecting the resource that everyone depends on - AND QUICK.

For more on the Grotto visit here and buy this DVD to see first hand the unique underwater world deserving of our protection.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Governor signs International Year of the Reef proclamation

Saipan kicked off the International Year of the Reef on Friday when governor Ben Fitial signed the proclamation designating 2008 as the year of the coral reef!

As part of the proceedings government and non-government agencies dedicated to protecting the aquatic ecosystems were asked to set up displays to raise awareness about what we have and what each organization is doing to help protect our resource for generations to come.

Marianas Dive early birds, myself, Mark and Bruce were the first to arrive and set up, thus, the primo location next to the entry way and the food!

The proceedings got underway shortly after 9AM when Teny Topalian from NOAA introduced the dignitaries including Dr. Joyner from CRM who read the proclamation.

The proclamaition.....

Whereas, coral reefs are of outstanding beauty, have long been connected to our subsistence and culture, provide a home for thousands of reef organisms, are known for their medicinal value, protect our shoreline from large storms and erosion, provide the foundation for our eco-tourism industry, and

Whereas, coral reefs are threatened by human impacts such as improper watershed development, sedimentation, marine debris, nitrification from sewage discharge,
over-fishing, boat groundings and anchor damage, chemical spills and global climate change, and

Whereas, the CNMI government and numerous community based organizations have implemented projects to reduce the threat of human impacts such as marine monitoring, bio research, re-vegetation and tree plantings, community awareness and outreach projects, public service announcements, community forums and workshops, development and distribution of marine educational resource materials, and

Whereas, there continues to be a need to increase awareness and understanding of coral reefs and to further conserve and manage our valuable coral reefs and associated ecosystems, and

Whereas, we the people of the Commonwealth have a responsibility to protect our coral reefs for future generations,

Therefore, I, Benigno R. Fitial, Governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, do hereby proclaim 2008 as International Year of the Coral Reef. I urge all citizens to become aware, knowledgeable and action oriented towards the protection and conservation of our invaluable coral reefs.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this 18th day of January 2008.

That's the governor above and the Lieutenant governor below giving his remarks about the value of our coral reefs. He was followed by a tag team state of the reef address by John Starmer of CRM (below) and Dr. Peter Houk from DEQ.

CRM, DEQ and DFW are the three main governmental agencies responsible for monitoring and enforcing the rules and regulations affecting our waters. These three agencies have rarely seen eye to eye, it was interesting that both DEQ and CRM scientists gave presentations but not so of DFW.
All in all, two solid presentations with a primary message of conservation in order to ensure future generations can count on the sea for years to come. Many aspects of coral reef ecology were discussed including pressures such as global warming, population increases, improved harvesting techniques and others. Possible solutions such as improved enforcement for, and expansion of, marine protected areas were presented.

Really the only disappointing thing about the event was the lack of people, specifically the general public and school kids attending. The crowd was made up mostly of employees from the government agencies closely involved with the reef, as well as the MHS My Wave club. It seems to me with such an important message AND the governor in attendance that there should have seen a much higher turn out. The TV press didn't even cover it and news photographers missed the actual signing! MVA did not have a single representative!

Above the lieutenant governor visits with members of My Wave club during one of the breaks.
Following the formal speakers the floor was opened to those wishing to give a personal testimonial about the reef. Lino Olopai is never one to pass on the opportunity to address a crowd and to speak about how things once were. Extremely proud of his Carolinian descent Lino is always quick to point out that in the olden days when only traditional fishing practices were used many of the concepts presented by the experts today follow models his ancestors adhered to many, many years ago. Things such as marine protected areas were known simply as areas you were not aloud to fish because an elder told you so. Things such as not fishing during the July full moon when the coral spawns were respected!

Unfortunately, the reality of today's Saipan is that there are many more mouths to feed and many different cultures trying to live off of the sea. Traditional fishing practices to one group may not be so traditional or have much meaning to others.

After the speakers and before lunch attendees had the opportunity to visit various displays set up around the theater.

DEQ's non-point source pollution model.
Kathy Yuknavage from CRM showing off her new zories and the next event in the line up of activities for IYOR 2008 - Take the Right Route day - March 7th - everyone is encouraged to car pool or use some other form of transportation and in general reduce your carbon foot print for the day.
She was very popular but not as popular as Nate the snake guy! 28-SNAKE. If you see a snake kill it! What's with the terrestrial guy getting all the traffic.

Next time were bringing in a live Whale Shark! We may not have had the same numbers as the snake whisperers but we did have interest in our booth and our group. Below, Joe Kaipat discusses things with Mark James of Underexposed. Mark's the one who did the Marianas Dive year to date slide show and made our booth what it was with all the great photographs!

The truth of the matter is the booth and the display really didn't get high reviews until Rose showed up! Here she is with her three Amigos. Mike, Mark and Dennis.

All in all a great job on getting the word out about this group and our goals to not only improve the dive destination but also to increase the awareness and ultimately the number of people who dive our waters including local kids.

Of course who could forget Mr. Bateman and a couple of hot chicks!