October 14, 2022
PHNOM PENH – After spending time studying on the island of Koh Ach Seh in Kep province, Lor Samphors – a student of Fisheries Sciences at the Royal University of Agriculture – began to take an interest in environmental research and seabed biodiversity, which is a rare profession for anyone to have in Cambodia and even more so for women.
Samphors, a resident of Phnom Penh who is used to urban living, is fascinated by the beauty of the sea and says she is now fully committed to a mission of conserving Cambodia’s natural resources found at the bottom of the sea in the Kingdom’s territorial waters.
Undergraduates under the sea
“The day of the first research at the bottom of the sea was an unforgettable time in my life, seeing many species that I have never seen before, especially the activities of their lives and the views of the seabed by my own eyes,” Samphors told The Post.
She said that a presentation she saw given by Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) and the lectures of her professors about marine biodiversity first made her aware of the many things about the seabed that interest her and make her want to learn more about the sea.
The 23-year-old, who just graduated with her Bachelor’s degree one year ago, said that in Cambodia there are not many marine researchers and it would be helpful to fill in the blind spots of the existing international research if there were native Cambodians involved with the work full time and year round.
In the field of seabed biodiversity research, it is in line with the interests of Samphors and she decided to come to research and learn more about the sea at the MCC.
Samphors has been learning about the field of seabed biodiversity research from the staff and volunteers at the MCC.
The MCC is currently focused on a number of projects aimed at conserving marine resources in Kep, and especially at Koh Ach Seh, which is about 13 km offshore from Kep. The projects include the Cambodian Marine Mammal Conservation Project, Seahorse Project, Seaweed Conservation Project and the Seagrass Project.
“I have been directly involved in the seaweed project and I have been involved in a number of other projects, such as the seagrass project and the stone drop project to establish artificial habitats and also doing general coordination within MCC,” Samphors said.
Start seeing seaweed
However, seaweed conservation is the organisation’s first project and Samphors is now the Khmer project manager working under the coordination of foreign experts from Japan and her co-workers at the organisation.
She said that no scientists have done extensive research on seaweed in Cambodia, but a 2003 report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said that only 16 types of the seaweeds are found in Cambodia.
“We also decided to start researching seaweed to find out their type and we will continue to conserve them in the future. According to my research around Koh Ach Seh, I actually found at least 45 different types of seaweed present there recently, which is fully three times more than the 2003 report relied on by the agriculture ministry, and all of that was discovered on just one island,” Samphors said.
She stated that in the future she will continue to study all of the waters off the coast of Koh Kong to do a more comprehensive survey of seaweed types in the Kingdom.
She said that for seaweed analysis, the research team collected seaweed samples by swimming on the surface of the water or diving under the sea about two meters down to take samples.
However, the types of seaweed on Koh Ach Seh are not limited to the 45 types she found as the young researcher is also going to begin studying larger seaweeds and micro-seaweeds, which is a project for the future.
“Conservation of seaweed is important because it is a vital part of the ecosystem, which is the basis of the food chain. We should also know what resources we have in our country, because we still lack all this basic information and that is why I was motivated to start studying seaweed,” Samphors continued.
According to Samphors, there are tens of thousands of species of seaweed and some species of them can be eaten by humans, but many others cannot.
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Samphors is not the only young Cambodian woman doing sea conservation work as at the organisation, as she works with Thap Rachana – one of the first young Cambodians to pursue a career in marine conservation and to become executive director of the organisation.
“There are young Cambodian women from Phnom Penh who work like me and work with the same spirit and heart. They also sacrifice a lot of their physical and mental strength,” Executive Director Rachana said.
However, the task of conserving the seabed’s resources has not always been going well for these young women, especially with pressure from their families who are worried about their daughters’ safety.
“At first, my family and friends were not very supportive. They thought that because I am a woman, I should not go to work far away, especially on a remote island. So it can be very difficult and they are worried. But I’ve tried to explain to them the importance of my work and they have learned to support and respect my decisions,” she said.
For the past year, Samphors has visited home every two or three months usually, though she’d like to increase it to once a month eventually, but it will depend on her availability.
With a year of hard work put in conserving seaweed, she has successfully learned the skills required for snorkeling and diving as well as other skills related to carrying out underwater research.
Samphors works from 9am to 4pm, usually sitting on the bow of their boat, exploring the sea and sometimes they stop and she has to dive into the water wearing fins and a mask to reach the seabed below to check what seaweed is present.
“My favourite sea animal is the nudibranch, which is a colourful snail that looks like a doll crossed with a dolphin,” she said.
Out of the 10 staff members employed at MCC, Samphors said that half of them are Cambodian women and the other half are foreign volunteers essentially.
“There are serious problems affecting the sea today such as the loss of important habitats due to the destruction caused by illegal fishing boats and other issues,” she said.
Samphors admits that she sometimes struggles to communicate with her foreign team members due to her lack of English skills and that the physical fitness required to lift and carry a heavy cylinder of gas for diving was a challenge at first.
“In the beginning I was not very strong and I was too thin to carry a gas cylinder weighing almost 20 kg, because I had never worked out that much. But after a while, when I studied with the teacher and they started coaching me on fitness and included a lot of exercise, I eventually got to the point where diving was no longer a problem for me,” she said. “Now, my future plans are to study abroad somewhere and then return with new skills and knowledge and continue this work helping my country,” she said.