So I've finally said goodbye to the islands. It was quite a sad moment, stepping onto the boat for the last time. Being here has been a life changing experience. I don't think anyone could come to Cambodia and still be the same person when they left. But it's been important in other, more trivial, ways too. All my life I've been afraid of deep water and have never gone out of my depth even in a swimming pool unless I was within snatching distance of the edge. But here, surrounded by clear turquoise water, I listened enviously while everyone talked about the beautiful things they'd seen on the coral reefs and I decided that the fear had to go!
In the last week I've learnt to snorkel - nervously in the shallows at first and then, sure that I could breathe, I struck out for the reef. The adrenaline high when I came back (without having panicked or drowned!) was unbelievable. Then one of the diving instructors offered to take Neil and I out on the 'Introduction to Scuba' course. Without knowing quite how I'd got myself into that predicament, there I was underwater, floundering around breathing compressed air like something out of a BBC wildlife programme. I found it rather claustrophobic at first and difficult to achieve perfect balance in the water. You have to equalise the weights around your waist with the right amount of air in your flotation jacket. I kept bobbing about like a cork, but I'm sure that after a few more attempts I can get the hang of it. From now on, I'm addicted!
The reefs are much more beautiful when you are there than on the TV. I saw electric blue clams, spiny sea urchins, shoals of damsel fish, zebra fish, hermit crabs and a dozen different sorts of coral. I was very disappointed that I didn't manage to see one of the sea horses, but their numbers have declined so dramatically it wasn't surprising. The marine conservation divers used to see twenty in a dive - now they are lucky to see three or four.
I was very interested to read in the local papers after I'd arrived back in Sihanoukhville that the Maldive cabinet had been holding an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the effects of climate change. It's good to know that someone is doing something.
Photographs courtesy of Paul Ferber at http://www.marineconservationcambodia.org/