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Dive, find jewels of the deep in Mindoro

/ 05:05 AM May 15, 2011

<em>Editor’s Note: The author is the communications and media officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines).</em>

THIS TALE is fraught with sharks and treasure, pirates and poachers, strife and solutions. Come, dive with me!

“Apo Reef is the ‘Jewel of Mindoro,’” former Sablayan Mayor Godofreido Mintu told me recently over a seafood dinner. “Perhaps you may come to realize just what its treasure is, but only after you dive.”


Having nursed a lifelong fascination with both pirate lore and bizarre quests, I felt the old man’s words strike home.

And now, surrounded by undersea life 65 feet below the eastern face of Apo Island in Occidental Mindoro, I pray to Poseidon and embark on a treasure hunt—a quest to find the true “jewels” of the deep.

I drift leisurely, propelled alongside a heavily encrusted sea wall by invisible ocean currents. My attention shifts to the wall, where neon-hued fairy basslets frolic amid the swaying tips of crimson gorgonians.

I peer in to inspect their knobby rows of polyps, careful not to touch anything, Leave No Trace principles being of primary importance.

A minute later, an impossibly huge school of yellow-dashed fusiliers (Pterocaesio randalli) appears. I try to estimate their number but they coalesce into a single mass that fills my vision end to end. In a moment they are gone.

This is truly Poseidon’s realm. Consider that 71 percent of the planet is covered in water, and 97 percent of that forms its vast oceans.

Covering just 1 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs host an incredible variety of life: One in four marine creatures live within these undersea oases, and nowhere are these more beautiful and productive than in the wondrous Pacific archipelago known as the Philippines.

<strong>Origin of life and legend</strong>


Apo Reef lies at the northern tip of the Coral Triangle, a 5.7-million-square-kilometer region that spans the seas of six countries—the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

A fourth of the world’s islands lie nestled within this exquisite region, distinguished by the presence of at least 500 species of reef-building coral.

The Coral Triangle is so abundant in marine life that it has been hailed by globally renowned coral expert and author Dr. Charlie Veron as “the center of Earth’s marine diversity.”  It is home to 605 of the 798 known reef-building corals and 2,228 types of reef fish that include the Sulawesi Coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis), a living relic of the dinosaur era thought to have been extinct for some 70 million years.

Like the Bermuda Triangle, the Coral Triangle has spawned a variety of folklore. During the Age of Sail, both pirates and privateers swore of surmounting enchanting mermaids, wailing sirens, ship-tearing kraken and all manner of sea monsters.

The region is actually an enormous undersea food factory, whose produce directly benefits half a billion people yearly. A single square kilometer of healthy reef can produce more than 40 metric tons of grouper, oyster, tuna and other forms of seafood year after year.

Obviously, the potential of our seas to sustain life, both human and otherwise, is leviathan.

<strong>Troubled Paradise</strong>

In Greek mythology, the infant Zeus nursed from a bountiful horn carried by the nymph Amalthea. This so-called Cornucopian Horn came to be associated with wealth and abundance.

Properly protected, the Philippines’ 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs can turn into a Cornucopian Horn, providing for the needs of millions in a very real bid to stamp out Asian poverty.

But Paradise lies troubled. For more than a century, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, coral mining, sedimentation, overfishing, chemical pollution and the effects of climate change (such as ocean warming, acidification and coral bleaching) have been waging an undersea war against our marine enclaves.

The Philippines, together with Indonesia, hosts the world’s most threatened coral reefs, less than 5 percent of which remain in excellent condition. Faced with this problem, many countries within the Coral Triangle have established Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to conserve what’s left.

“[MPAs] evolved when people realized that portions of coral reefs needed continual protection to stay productive,” explains Joel Palma, conservation programs vice president of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “These areas go by a host of names: MPAs, fish sanctuaries or no-take zones. All of them are loosely defined as inter- or subtidal spots reserved by law for the protection of a given area.”

<strong>Undersea enclaves</strong>

Today, the Philippines hosts about 10 percent of the world’s MPAs—more than 500, more than any in Southeast Asia. Established largely through local government initiatives and maintained through the blood, sweat and tears of coastal communities, these undersea enclaves provide safe havens for Philippine marine life as well as a growing number of eco-conscious tourists.

But many MPAs are plagued by a lack of funding. Mismanagement is rife: Only a little over 100 are properly administered; the rest are “paper parks”—areas urgently needing funding and professional management.

Hunting incursions are recurring sources of friction between the Philippines and its neighbors.

In September 2007, 126 endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard China’s F/V 01087 in Sulu.

In August 2008, 101 critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) were found aboard Vietnam’s F/V 91234-TS near El Nido in Palawan.

In April 2009, 14 green sea turtles were found aboard an unmarked Chinese speedboat near Cauayan, also in El Nido.

Since the 1990s, WWF has been working with the private sector, the government and civil society in furthering scientific research, policy reform, protected area and community-based management within the Coral Triangle. Its Philippine office has pioneered the establishment and upkeep of MPAs in some of the country’s best-known and most productive coral reefs.

Two of the best-managed MPAs are Apo Reef off Occidental Mindoro and Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan.

<strong>Wonders of ‘payaw’</strong>

Much of Apo Reef, the country’s largest (34 square kilometers) and a former world-class dive site, is in an abysmal state after 30 years of destructive fishing.

In October 2007, WWF and the local government of Sablayan in Mindoro spearheaded the total closure of Apo Reef to fishing. Alternative livelihood programs and a robust ecotourism drive were instituted to keep livelihoods afloat while allowing the reef ample time to recover.

Giant fish aggregation devices—locally called payaw—were installed to provide alternate fishing spots for coastal communities.

The crude but effective contraptions feature a buoy, a counterweight and 10 to 20 giant coconut fronds. Algae growths on the decomposing fronds attract herbivores such as surgeonfish and rabbitfish, which then draw larger predators.

Local group leader Elmo Bijona testifies to the effectiveness of the devices: “A single payaw can daily yield maybe 15 kilograms of good fish per boat. You can land tambakol, tulingan, galunggong and even yellowfin tuna on any given night.”

The steady rise in the size and number of fish has been matched by an upsurge of tourists, proving that ecological stewardship goes hand in hand with profit.

There are even more dramatic results in other model sites. From 2004 to 2005, the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs doubled yearly fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tons per square kilometer—a yield seven times more productive than a typical reef.

Tubbataha’s fertile reefs also constantly seed adjoining regions such as eastern Palawan and western Visayas with fish and invertebrate spawn.

Through the work of WWF and its allies, Apo Reef may one day be what Tubbataha is now.

<strong>Natural investments</strong>

Apo Reef differs from all other WWF project sites in that it is kept afloat almost exclusively by donations.

For example, “Bright Skies for Every Juan” enjoins Cebu Pacific passengers to indirectly offset the ecological impacts of their flights by donating to the upkeep of the reef.

The program combines the efforts of WWF, Cebu Pacific, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Sablayan government to boost the region’s resilience to climate change impacts through MPA protection, promotion of responsible ecotourism and introduction of alternative livelihoods.

“Cebu Pacific’s decision to spearhead climate adaptation is a prime example of private-sector leadership,” says WWF-Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan.

“Our government alone cannot turn back the tide of climate effects. It is the private sector that has the skills needed to think incisively, move efficiently and manage risk,” he says.

In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. “Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focuses on more than just biodiversity conservation: Should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks to restore natural mechanisms that provide food and livelihood for millions of people. This is a natural investment,” Tan says.

<strong>White-tipped oracle</strong>

Back in Apo Reef, the hunt continues. Over an hour’s exploration has yielded little in the way of jewels or answers.

The dawn rays slice through the water, reflecting off a shadow 30 feet away. Perhaps, I reflect, what’s important in treasure hunting is the journey.

The best hunters have all learned to pick out treasure from trash. So too must we allow the hunt to transform the hunter.

Inexorably, the shadow morphs into a white-tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus), itself on a hunt, as evidenced by its menacing motions. I tense up, one gloved hand cupping a dive knife used more for show than anything else.

The shark torpedoes onward. Time slows down. Suddenly an enveloping shadow smothers all light!

Puzzled, I gaze upward and realize just what drew the shark in the first place. The fusiliers, thousands upon thousands of them, have returned. The shark pulls up and dives into the mass.

As I watch the fascinating interplay between predator and prey, I notice, as if for the first time, the fusiliers’ gleaming hues of cobalt, ruby and gold, gloriously illuminated by the morning.

Then and there I realize that the shark’s hunt has led me to the end of mine.

As in the grandest treasure tales, the most valuable fortunes really do lie in the depths. As inhabitants of the world’s second-largest archipelago, we must realize that the sea’s greatest treasure is its ability to provide, but that providence can only continue when we learn to protect what we have been gifted with.

At the apex of the Coral Triangle, 65 feet below the Jewel of Mindoro, I finally accomplish my treasure hunt.

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