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Mermaid Advocacy
Episode 69th June 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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On this week’s episode, we dive in with Anna Oposa, co-founder, director, and Chief Mermaid of Save Philippine Seas, to learn how she is working to mobilize “sea-tizens” to take action to protect marine and coastal lands on a local and global scale.


Anna Oposa:

I am the co-founder and executive director and chief mermaid of an organization called Save Philippine Seas, that was created as a response to a major illegal wildlife trade case that happened.

At that time, I had just submitted my thesis for my undergraduate degree and I was looking for a job and I had a lot of free time to, you know, comb social media.

I always say that my advocacy was built on the foundation of my, my English language education and my English studies education, because I think when you are an English major, you're trained to read a lot, you're trained to listen to the way people use language. Um, and I was taught by my teachers to ask, like, the right questions and the good questions, which I feel are things, you know, they're life lessons that help me everyday.

I grew up wanting to be a Broadway star, that's what I thought I was going to be. And ever since I was maybe 11 years old or 12, I was in voice lessons and I spent summers, uh, being immersed in musical theater workshops and dance workshops and teaching musical theater. So, that's another part of my background that was really formative for developing discipline.

So, sometimes people ask me, you know, "What do you do when you're not motivated to, like, work on saving the seas?" And I always say, “It's not about motivation, sometimes it's about discipline,” right? So, it's, like, getting up and putting in the work, whether you feel inspired or not, which I think being both an English major and a theater, um, actor taught [me].

So, my dad was an environmental lawyer. He actually started environmental law in the Philippines. So, even since I was young, I was really exposed to a lot of environmental issues, not just fishing, you know, not just, like, illegal fishing issues or marine conservation issues, but even, like, reforestation projects and illegal logging and different kinds of environmental injustices. So, I always joke that my environmental law degree came from the dinner table because our everyday conversations with my family would be about politics and environmental laws and issues like current events.

So, it's always been there, and I actually deliberately did not want to pursue environmental law. Because.

I, didn't want people to think that I was just where I was because of my last name or because of my connections.

So, I really resisted it and I think even when Save Philippine Seas already started, I was still very hesitant to think that it would be my, my path, my chosen career.


And I remember one of my Filipino students, when we ate spaghetti for the first time -- so, for context, in the Philippines, spaghetti is very sweet, like, there's a lot of sugar and there's a lot of hotdogs, it's very strange, I know it sounds strange, but it's really good --and she was so confused why the spaghetti didn't have hotdogs, and why it was a little bit sour and salty (laughs). So, those are other things that I wasn't really expecting to have to explain, but on a personal level, uh, we got exposed to so many different programs in the US. We got to travel to, like, aquariums and speaks with environmental educators, and that really left a big impression on me and.

I still actually continue applying the lessons that I learned during that exchange program to this day.

old. And then I went back in:

Being in the U.S., and specific to the program that I was part, um, under the State Department, one of the, I don't re- I don't remember exactly where we were, but I remember what the topic was about, the speaker was talking about this concept called science cafes, and she said that the point of the science café is to make science more engaging and more approachable.

So, that's left a big impression on me and I, I was asking myself, how do we bring science to, to, closer to, you know, people who are not, you know, studying marine biology or, and, and we decided that (laughs) with another YSEALI alum actually, to create what we call conservation workshops, so communicating for cons- conservation in a brewery, and I think that, that experience was something that planted a seed in my mind to do something like that in the future.

You know, before, pre-pandemic (laughs), we used to travel all the Philippines, holding workshops, um, you know, working with communities closely in a physical, face-to-face setting.

as planted in my mind back in:

What I'm thinking about now is. If we can't bring people to the sea, then how do we bring the sea to them?

You know, when you're eight, you don't really have a grasp of how things affect you so much, you know?

You know, coming from a tropical country and suddenly having four seasons, I mean, that is, like, I still, it's still so clear to me the first time I ever saw snow. It's like one of my core memories. Um, but it's also, like, little things like eating TV dinners and, like, doing my own chores, um, and then watching Nickelodeon all day, 'cause we didn't have Nickelodeon in the Philippines back then (laughs). And of course, as an eight year old, these are things that you get super excited about.

It was also hard to learn to speak English the whole time, because in the Philippines, we mix English and Filipino a lot when, in, when we converse, we code switch a lot.

So, I had to train myself to speak in straight English, which, you know, can actually get really tiring.

I feel like I had to grow up quickly.

And I remember there was even a time I started crying because I just felt like, "Oh my god, how can people know, how ca- how, how can people have figured this out?" And, like, you know, I do well in school, but in, like, real life, it - it's hard (laughs).

Um, and then the pace of the education was also different and what I valued in that, in that, um, creative writing space was how much, um, the class put value on, like, poetry and fiction and non-fiction and the creative space, which I felt like, you know, in the Philippines, we are always conditioned that you have to be a lawyer or you have to be a doctor, and because I got good grades, you know, people always assumed that I would go down those paths, and I think that course really influenced me to major in English, much to the, um, disappointment of my parents (laughs). But, you know, it was just another reality that, oh, there are other choices, there are other care- career paths that I can take.

Sometimes you get scared to ask questions because you feel like people will think you're stupid.

So, I remember being in the, like, the laundry room in the school, and I'd never used the washing machine before, so, I remember being there and just standing with my laundry and someone went up to me and was like, "Are you okay?" And I said, "I don't know how to use a washing machine." And she was like, "How can you not know?"

So, so that, I felt like, oh my god, I shouldn't be asking people these things, I'm supposed to know these things.

So, when I had my opportunity to mentor these young students who are going to the U.S. for the first time, I just always reminded them that, "You can ask me anything, um, there are no stupid questions, uh, whatever it is that you're thinking, just let me know. Um, you know, if you're shy to ask it in the group, then you can ask me during the break," you know, things like that.

I don't think I can run out of challenges (laughs). But there are of course, like, the organizational ones, which, you know, if you're running a non-profit, then you're always going to be financially, um, un- unstable I guess because as a non-profit, you kind of have to keep raising funds, and I've been very fortunate to have the US government support our work in the last maybe six, seven years already. Um, so that's been a huge part of being able to sustain our organization and the work that we're doing.

But on another, um, aspect of it, whatever you do to one sea, you do to another. And I think that's why I like the, the US calls it Our Ocean, right, that's the branding that they created because they want to emphasize that it's ours, and whatever you do in one country, you do to another.

And still, it's hard to advocate for the seas when there are bigger or, I guess, more urgent issues like health and, you know, economic, or economic situations. So, it's kind of been pushed a little bit lower compared to other development issues.

When we protect our environment, we also end up protecting our- ourselves. Um, so whether that's clean air or clean water or a clean environment, those are all related to, to the state of our health and the state of our wellbeing and our, and our physical health as well.


I've seen a lot of face shields, you know, being blown into the streets in, in the coastal areas. So, the medical waste is part of it.

But also being on lockdown means there's inception of e-commerce packaging because, like, the plastic is wrapped in another plastic, which is wrapped in a bubble wrap, which is wrapped in a paper bag and which is wrapped in another plastic, so that's another, um, another challenge that we're facing.

A lot of people who are working to protect the oceans also were related to the tourism industry. So, you know, dive operators and diving, um, patrol boats would be around marine protected areas and these, th- they can't run without the income coming from the tourism sector.

I've always been a very, like, internally motivated person, I guess, um, and there are days that I really don't want to work or I don't feel like, like what I'm doing is actually going to result in something. But what motivates me is knowing that, well s- there, there are different ways that I, like, give myself a pep talk. So, on some days, it's like, you have a deadline," (laughs), "you can't miss this deadline. So, for practical reasons you have to get up and work, even if it's just for two hours, just start.

I always have to remind myself, okay, I'm doing this so that I can, you know, work with young people or work with fisher folks or work on shark conservation. So, it's just finding what inspires me or what can motivate me on that day. And sometimes it's not always the same.

If you don't know something, you can't love it. And that kind of approach has made me a big advocate for what we call experiential learning.

So, for example, in our programs, we learn that 90, 80 to 90% of the students that we, that we work with have never been in the water. And for me, that's very strange knowing that we're the second largest archipelago in the world. Why are we so scared of being in the water?

So, in every program that we did pre-pandemic, we would always make time and allocate resources to bring people into the water because it's one thing to watch, you know, documentaries and see photos, but it's completely different when you're there and feel this sense of connection and this kinship with, with the environment.

Growing up, we've always been snorkeling and we've always been, you know, going to beach trips as a family, but going underwater, I was just so blown away by it (laughs). It sounds silly now that I'm talking about it, but I was like, "Oh my god, there's so many fish," (laughs), "there's so many colors underwater."

Um, and I was thinking, oh my god, if I were an artist, I wish I could draw, I could paint and, like, make people see what I'm seeing and make people feel this excitement and this sense of wonder that I'm feeling.

I've done maybe, I would say, let's say over 400 dives, um, in different parts of the Philippines and in some parts of, other parts of the world, and it still brings me so much li- life.

No two dives are ever alike. You know, even if you go to the same spot and you dive on the same day, uh, same time, it's just always gonna be different, and I think that's part of the thrill of it.

So, my story of the chief mermaid, um, we had a volunteer who said, you know, "Why don't we come up with business cards so that people take us seriously?"

This was like, you know, a few months into Save Philippine Seas. And I said, "Oh my god, that's a great idea." And then she said, "Okay, I'll design it, what title do you want?" And I said, "Chief Mermaid," and she said, "You're joking, right?" And I was like, "No, I mean, others have chief executive officers and chief finance officers. Why can't I be the Chief Mermaid?" Anyway, it's just for fun.

So, I printed it on my business card and so I would give it to people and one time I was giving a talk in a- in a university, and someone got my card and it turns out that person was from the government, and then a few days later I got a letter with a letterhead of the, of, you know, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the letter said, you know, Anna Oposa, co-founder and chief mermaid, and I was like, “oh my god, people are taking it seriously.”

And then I tried to, like, rebrand myself and drop the Chief Mermaid.

But then people love it and people still call me Chief Mermaid.