THE TURTLE, THE KIDNAPPERS & A LITTLE BOY
Jason Kovac isn't the first person to decide to leave it all behind - to sell up and and set sail out into the wild blue yonder, but he and his partner Jolene are doing it a bit differently. After being posted in East Timor as part of the UN peace keeping mission in 2012, Jason decided he couldn't continue with his old life and used his life savings to buy an old yacht, refit it and embark on a voyage across the Coral Triangle. But instead of just making it a personal experience, Jason decided to tell other people's stories, with a specific goal in mind - to document the ways in which people and organisations are trying to sustain marine environments all over the Coral Triangle.
It was on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, he came across a little boy called Nico. The boy's father, a fisherman, had pulled up his net to find a critically endangered Hawksbill turtle trapped inside. Nico decided to save the turtle's life - even though the shell could have fetched his family $250 - a small fortune for them. Instead, he handed it over to a local NGO called Amihan, which works with the local community including at risk kids to drive ocean conservation through education and action at the grass roots level. It set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Nico getting rewarded, revealing himself to be an amazing singer - and inadvertently prevented the probable kidnapping of Jase and his wife by Islamic Militants, who took four other foreigners from a marina where the couple would have been had they not met Nico...
What made you leave your life and embark on this voyage?
It's always been a dream of mine to own a yacht and sail around the world. I expect is the reason is watching too many Jacques Cousteau movies as a child. I never thought I would ever be able to afford it, but in 2013 I found my boat, Labyrinth, at a bargain price in Malaysia, so I took the plunge and bought her.
How did you find out about the Coral Triangle and what does it mean to you?
Jolene and I did our divemaster qualifications in Malaysia. When you are diving in areas rife with environmental problems, the differences between a managed reef and an overfished one are stark. The damage caused by blast fishing is plain to see. Since we were diving in the region, it was only natural that we learned about the Coral Triangle, its importance to the global oceanographic system and its fragility in the face of the myriad of threats and challenges humanity presents. Since we had made the sea our home it would be insane for us not to protect it. We looked at the equipment, skills and experience we had and decided making the films was the best way we could help.
How does grass roots, local conservation like this take root?
Through inspired local leadership. It doesn't have to be from the area but it has to be in the area. By that I mean, it can't be helicopter programs, where the conservationists turn up every six months, do a couple of surveys or seminars and then leave. It has to be constant, in the community and part of the community. People like Alvin Chelliah, from Reef Check Malaysia, who we featured in our film Coral Island Clean Up has the right idea. He has based himself on Tioman Island for five years, to develop recycling, waste management and conservation programs and to mediate between the locals and the authorities and, because he has made the commitment, is achieving real results.
What do you think made Nico save the turtle instead of seeking financial reward?
Over and over we see that the best way to influence parents behaviour is by teaching their children. Fishermen and village folk see their way of life, even the parts with plastic, outboards and dynamite fishing, as traditional and don't want to change. Children aren't hung up on tradition and don't need a reason to do the right thing. Even so, Nico is almost a man and his weekends are spent working on a fishing boat himself, so he was well aware of what he asked his father to give up. His selflessness was one of the reasons it was important to reward him.
Where will your voyage take you next?
We will be around the Philippines for the next few months, filming more local projects and raising funds to continue filming. I particularly want to look at whale shark tourism and compare and contrast different approaches to find a best practice model. Then next we'll be heading to Indonesia, where we will explore Indonesian Borneo, Suluwesi and Raja Ampat and look at some of the unique ecological challenges found there.