Officially, even to the Philippine Government, Anna Oposa is Chief Mermaid. Unofficially, she is lover of lipsticks, hater of mediocrity, and the tiger mermother you don't want but probably need. When I started working with her, Anna seemed to me like the mythical power woman and siren in one—she was awe-inspiring and terrifying—making saving the Philippine seas both relatable and sexy. She is the friend you drink beers and talk about your love life with at the beach and, at the same time, the person who pushes you to always be at your best, even when it hurts.
When meeting her for the first time, it would seem like Anna’s been doing this all her life. On the contrary, she started her work in marine conservation while waiting for college graduation and looking for jobs. Before then, she spent almost a decade doing creative work like writing for magazines and websites, hosting and singing for events, and performing for Repertory Philippines and Stages Inc.
During my first months with SPS, I immediately learned three things from Anna. One, it's never too early to lead and never too late to make a difference (but don’t be late for anything else). Two, you don't need to be a scientist to be an environmentalist. Three, great things take time… and a lot of hard work.
Anna’s always been a hustler, as she calls it, and perhaps that’s where her strength lies. She figured out early on that saving the world takes many scary decisions and so much hard work and, unlike many young people, she didn’t turn away. That she ended up as one of the most influential and empowering voices in Philippine marine conservation always felt to me like the universe's grand design for which Anna was Chosen. But I know now that I was wrong. I think the Philippine seas chose her because she chose the Philippine seas.
Tell us about your current work.
As the Chief Mermaid of SPS, I oversee all our projects and campaigns. No two days are ever alike – I can be meeting with potential partners, creating content for our website and campaigns, facilitating a workshop, or writing narrative and financial reports. Outside SPS, I work as a consultant for other environmental conservation projects, which takes me everywhere from government agencies in Quezon City to Solomon Islands.
I usually sleep between 12-2AM because my brain is most active at night. I do most of my desk-based work from the afternoons to late evenings. I usually wake up between 8-9AM. I make time to work out 3-4x a week, whether it’s indoor cycling or yoga or HIIT. I also love going out, usually for coffee or dinner that turns into w(h)ine night.
What’s the best and worst parts about your job? How do you overcome the negative parts?
There are so many aspects of my job that I love. I love working in a small team to create campaigns – everything from thinking of puns, choosing the typeface, writing captions. I love designing workshops and then being able to facilitate them. I am most excited about seeing our participants grow from them. I'm always excited to work with different kinds of people, from people’s organizations in far-flung islands to legislators to students to children.
The worst part is fundraising. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. Right now, I’m working on diversifying our income so we’re not 100% reliant on grants.
At the Conference of Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species
What can people do to help your cause?
Write letters to leaders. If we had more proactive seatizens than complainers, we’d live in a much better world.
What 3 pointers would you provide for people who'd like to start seriously pursuing an environmental lifestyle?
Honor your pace. There are some habits that are easier to change than others, and you can only truly commit when you’re ready (hugot?!). For example, I first heard about the menstrual cups in 2016, and it took me two years to finally switch because I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of it. And even then, I was having panic attacks in the bathroom when I first tried it. Now I can't imagine life without it.
Make time for nature. I don’t mean going on a vacation to the beach/mountains (though that’s nice too), but to appreciate your surroundings. My little exercise to keep my sense of wonder is looking at the different species of plants in a park or street. You’d be surprised at how diverse one site in the Philippines is – we have more species in one mountain than entire countries in Europe.
Stop thinking of environmentalism as activism. Being an “environmentalist” means advocating for clean seas, streets, and surroundings. Why is that activism? Isn’t that something ALL OF US want? Labo.
What is your why - why you do what you do?
The ocean is our source of life. Literally. 50-80% of the oxygen we breathe comes from it; it regulates our climate and acts as a carbon sink; it gives us food; it improves our well-being; it brings income through tourism activities – the list goes on. It’s only common sense.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
“Being the best” and “doing your best” are different. Not mutually exclusive, but not equal. You really can’t be the best in everything, no matter how hard you try. Sleep more and party more!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Skincare and makeup! I can talk about skincare and makeup with as much enthusiasm as marine conservation. Aaaaand I have ridiculous number of red lipsticks.
What are three of the most personally moving moments you've had in your time with SPS?
1. It took nearly two years to get the local government of Daanbantayan to co-organize the Bantay Dagat Coastal Law Enforcement Training. Lots of sweat, blood, and tears (literally). At the end of the training, we asked for feedback, and one fisherman said that he’d been fishing all his life, but he only found out that corals were alive during the training. He used to throw dynamite at them, and because of our training his new task will be protecting the reefs. I started crying in front of everyone (and I was the only female in a room of 60 men).
2. My dad told me before that 90% of Filipinos didn’t know how to swim. I’m not sure if he made up that number, but through my work, I did learn that a lot of Filipinos don’t know how to swim or are scared of the water. So, when I started working in conservation, I had this dream of bringing as many Filipinos as I could underwater to get to know their own marine resources, so they’d be inspired to love and protect the sea. During the first SEA Camp in 2015, I was one step closer to that dream because we took 30 participants snorkeling and scuba diving. It was so surreal to listen to their reactions – how excited and in awe they were. To date, SPS has brought over 300 people snorkeling all over the country.
Moments like #1 and #2 remind me of how much work still needs to be done, but also how education and experiential learning are transformative.
3. What most people don’t know is that SPS was a one-woman NGO for a very long time. Of course there were project-based volunteers and consultants who helped grow the movement, but for the most part, I did everything from fundraising, to creating content, to banking errands, to photocopying documents, answering interviews, etc. (I still do a lot of these.)
In 2015, I had just finished my MSc in Conservation Science, the first SEA Camp grant had just closed, and the last of the SPS co-founders decided to leave. SPS had less than PhP300,000 left in the bank because I had no bandwidth to fundraise while running our projects AND writing my thesis all at the same time. It was a painful realization that I was alone, and that SPS’s sustainability depended on me. I was burned out, but didn’t want to admit it. When one is unhappy, that negativity infects all aspects of life. I had faced many challenges before – volunteers flaking, dealing with bullshit from different stakeholders, grant rejections – but those suddenly seemed easy compared to my internal unrest.
For about a year, I’d wake up filled with dread on most days, going on auto-pilot mode to meet deadlines. It didn’t help that my mom kept asking when I’d get a real job. I turned down a lot of speaking engagements and media features because I didn’t want to talk about SPS. The only time I enjoyed my work was during the SEA Camps, my short trips to Malapascua, and the 2016 Shark Summit. Without telling anyone, my plan was to close our two existing grants, finish a series of international trips that had been scheduled months before, then let SPS die a natural death. I’d look for other jobs. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I just knew I didn’t want to run SPS anymore.
When I was in Hawaii for the IUCN World Conservation Congress, I attended this small session on marine debris. It was an exchange of good practices on reducing plastics at source. You know those movie moments when your surroundings blur and the sounds fade? That happened to me. I had a movie moment where I realized that there was nowhere else I wanted to be or do – I wanted to reduce plastics at source and teach and learn and bring people underwater and think of ocean puns. The next day, I received a message from our partners at the US Embassy in the Philippines, saying we received funding to implement the first SEA Camp for Southeast Asian youth. I was so dizzy. It was the Universe saying, “Kapit lang, Bes.”
I had to change my relationship with SPS and look at it differently: while it still largely depends on me, it isn’t about me, but the vision, the movement, and the work. When I keep my eyes and heart on that, the load becomes lighter and I ask for help.
What/who inspires you?
Believe it or not, the skincare/makeup brand Glossier. In one interview of Glossier’s CEO, Emily Weiss, she said that she wanted Glossier to be a brand people identify with and have a relationship with, and a brand people want to wear a sweatshirt of. This is how I see SPS: I want people to relate to SPS as a friend or kabarkada: someone you can have fun with, but also someone you're a little scared of and won't mess with because she will fight back – hard.
Where do you see SPS in five years?
Still puntastic! Haha! I see it making a systemic change on a national scale through environmental education and shark conservation.
At the 2018 YSEALI Mindanao SEA Camp in Cebu
What for you is SPS's greatest accomplishment?
Our capacity to empower people. I don’t take the word “empower” lightly. I see SPS as a platform for seatizens to be a voice for the sea, because each of us is – whether it’s through downloading and using our toolkits, learning how to reduce plastic wastes, or writing letters to leaders. I am working towards a future where environmentalism is ordinary and SPS becomes irrelevant.
Follow Anna Oposa on Twitter and Instagram @annaoposa.