Jerome was a curious child. While exploring the shallows of the sea around his small island-home of Apo Island in the Philippines, he once touched the poisonous skin of large stonefish. He wanted to pick it up and take it home to eat. Instead, when he went to touch the stonefish, it released poison deep into his veins.
He began to cry. He ran and ran as fast as his young legs would carry him to his grandmother, while clutching at his large swollen hand. He was afraid because he did not know what to do. He moaned as he felt the poison of the stonefish run up his arm, all the way to his armpit.
His grandmother was a witch doctor and so knew how to cure her grandson. Jerome trusted his grandmother to save him. As she applied a traditional remedy, she chanted a magical spell. That night, this terrified young boy went to bed nursing his swollen hand but, by the morning, his tears had melted and his hand had returned to normal.
The second time young Jerome was poisoned by a creature of the sea was when he was hauling in a fishing-net. He accidentally touched the poisonous spine of a lion fish caught in the net.
He was learning that the sea, which fed him, also had the power to give and take his life.
Once again, he ran home to his grandmother clutching his swollen hand. The pain of poison ran right up to his armpit; it was a familiar feeling.
As soon as he reached his grandmother’s house, she quickly applied her folk remedy, again while chanting a magical spell. And again too, by morning, Jerome’s hand was as good as new.
As Jerome grew older, he would gather many tales to tell about his life growing up with sea creatures. He had begun fishing when he was just seven and so had quickly become used to catching all sorts of creatures from reef fish to giant manta rays and sharks.
However, the sharks were sometimes small.
There was this one time when he was with his grandfather and they caught what was thought to be a baby shark. His grandfather picked up the baby shark so he could hold up this prized creature to show Jerome. The grandfather then slipped his finger inside what he believed was its harmless tiny mouth, in order to get a better grip. Instantly, the shark bit his finger and blood began to trickle down his hand. It turned out that it was not a baby shark at all. Its mouth was not so harmless; indeed, it was full of teeth, because it was a cookie cutter shark, and was a full-grown adult.
Jerome’s grandfather was angry at the cookie cutter shark for hurting him. Its ferocity had surprised him. So, in retaliation the old man killed the tiny shark.
It was what fishermen were supposed to do - everything a fisherman could possibly catch from the wild sea was their private bounty. So he mounted the tiny shark on a display inside the wooden hut of the local grocery store for everyone to see. The mounting was a reminder to take care when catching untamed, dangerous creatures of the sea – no matter how small. In the old days, there were plenty of sharks; so one less cookie cutter shark in the sea was of no concern to him.
Indeed, once upon a time, Jerome’s grandfather caught three or four sharks a day, until one day this figure slowly dwindled down to one or two sharks a day, and then eventually there were none.
The last time Jerome caught a shark was about five years ago. Since then, he rarely sees any. The seafarers from near and far had somehow managed to catch them all. The sea had become empty of its greatest predators.
Gone were the days of a guaranteed catch.
Although Jerome saw that the world had changed as he grew up, he did not know of any other way of life. There was no other option, but to catch whatever he could whether it was a bat, a monitor lizard, a sea cucumber, a sea anemone - to be soaked in hot coconut milk, or some other strange creature from the sea.
There were mouths to feed.
His father was a fisherman, and although Jerome had grown up in a broken home and was forced to travel from house to house, from one grandmother to the next auntie, fishing remained in his blood. He was good at it. He had to make ends meet and so worked hard until, one day, the former chief of the village noticed Jerome and changed his life forever.
The chief was named Mario Pascobello. He was searching for a number of pupils, whom he could teach. He wanted his pupils to lead the next generation of his people.
At the time, Jerome was already working as a boatman for Mario, picking up foreigners to take to the guesthouse that Mario owned. He saw Mario training a group of youth how to dive, and so asked if he could become Mario's pupil. Mario welcomed Jerome to the class, and went on to train this young fisherman to become not just a dive master, but a marine conservationist - learning lessons which would change his way of thinking for ever.
Mario was creating a bountiful path for his young pupils, like Jerome, so they could not only earn more in the tourism industry than in fishing, but so that they would gain a worldly education and inherit his skills and knowledge on how to protect the sea and the land.
Jerome grew to greatly admire his elder, Mario, as a great and kind leader. He dreamt of growing up and becoming like him one day. So Jerome worked as hard as he could and also watched his mentor very closely. He learned how Mario had grown up as a fisherman just like him, hunting for all sorts of fish.
Although Mario was older by a few decades, they shared a childhood full of fishing. There were many great things they had learned from their elders but, like Jerome, he had been groomed to think of only of today and never the next day – the day the sea no longer offered a bounty of fish to catch.
Destiny, however, had a special path in mind for both Mario and Jerome.
The sea had turned Mario into a guardian of the blue at the young age of twelve; he grew up searching for ways to restore the natural world that his ancestors had taught him to destroy. Early on, he decided to share this knowledge and to teach young Jerome what he knew – that protecting species and places from the mangroves to the trees and the birds and the turtles and the sharks was a good thing to do.
As chief, Mario had put restrictions on sea cucumbers, so people could now only eat sea cucumbers to fill their hungry bellies, while they were forbidden to sell cucumbers on the mainland for profit. This was a clever way of reducing the impact of overfishing this voiceless creature of the sea.
Mario also moved to protect many species and places, including the ‘man-biting’ cookie cutter shark.
Under the rule of Mario, so much life began to return that even the numbers of green sea and hawks bill turtles began to flourish.
People began to hear of Apo’s fat healthy turtles with their shiny shells munching on green algae as a cow munches grass. They came from many countries, near and far. In turn, the young ones like Jerome grew up to respect and adore everything Mario cared for.
Then, finally, the eve of graduation day came for Jerome. The night before Jerome’s big graduation day as a new Dive Master, Jerome could be seen walking alongside Apo’s marine sanctuary, which his elder, Mario, had helped to protect. The sun was setting, and Jerome’s silhouette could be seen on the shoreline.
There, Jerome bent down and gently picked up a pineapple sea cucumber that had been stranded by the outgoing tide. He took a few steps forward across the spiky coral rocks worn by the rise and fall of waves. He placed the sea cucumber gently in the salty sea and waited for just a moment to contemplate whether the cucumber would be safe.
He wanted to give it a chance to live, so it did not just wither away into a useless, lifeless form during the night.
So, here, on the shore of Apo’s marine sanctuary, this young man who had once hunted sharks and had been poisoned by the sea creatures he tried to eat, became rescuer of a simple sea cumber, before walking a few steps more, and finding another. Slowly, he picked it up, walked a further few steps, and gently placed it in the sea.
Jerome would graduate the next day, not only as a ‘Dive Master’ but also as a wise soul and guardian of the sea - because it is not often that people think to rescue a sea cucumber.