Priests take mission from pulpit to the depths
At least once a month, Fr. Tito Soquiño slips into a scuba diving suit and joins fellow priests as they take their mission from the pulpit to the sea.
Down there, they scoop out trash, feed the fish and do what they can to revive the country’s vanishing coral reefs.
Soquiño is the founder of Sea Knights, a faith-based group in Cebu who has been enlisting Catholic priests to become “scubasureros” (a play on scuba diving basureros or garbage collectors), one of its many initiatives aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change and pollution on the environment.
At least 10 priests mostly from the Visayas have signed up with Sea Knights since its founding in 2008. Before hitting the water, they take a two-day crash course in diving to better prepare them for what Soquiño calls “ecological evangelization.”
Formally known as Knight-Stewards of the Sea, the group has also attracted other volunteers—professionals, athletes, journalists, policemen and government officials—for its diving expeditions.
“We are taking seriously what Pope Benedict XVI is telling us and the fact that climate change is upon us. Being Christians, we are asked by our faith to take active participation in protecting our environment,” Soquiño said at a recent press conference in Intramuros, Manila.
Apart from ridding the sea of trash, the mission also involves setting up marine sanctuaries and promoting local ecotourism to wean fishing communities from illegal, destructive practices, Soquiño also told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The priest, the executive director of the Sto. Niño de Cebu Augustinian Social Development Foundation, flew to Manila early last month to promote the first out-of-town tour and fluvial procession of the centuries-old image of the Sto. Niño de Cebu.
Permanently housed at a minor basilica in Cebu, the icon was brought to Naval, Biliran province, and then to Calubian, Leyte. It was only the third time in its history that the image left its home province.
Soquiño explained that under the foundation’s “Duaw Sto. Nino” program, the image of the Child Jesus would be visiting 1,000 islands in the Philippines, particularly those considered vulnerable to climate change.
The scubasurero priests last went underwater when they joined environmental activities in connection with the 12th fiesta celebration of St. Theresa Diocesan Shrine in Calubian in early October, he said.
‘Crown of thorns’
According to Soquiño, he and his fellow Sea Knights go on a dive mainly to remove plastics and Styrofoam containers from the sea, and also to search for a certain type of starfish—the so-called “crown of thorns”—which are known coral killers.
“We consider these starfishes garbage because they feed on the corals, so we also remove them,” said Soquiño, who studied ecosystem management as part of a course he took at Asian Institute of Management more than a decade ago. The course introduced him to scuba diving, he said.
In the last three years, the Sea Knights have plunged into the relatively “unexplored waters” of Cebu and Bohol and have done their own assessment of the state of coral reefs in these areas.
Double barrier reef
Among the dive spots they have seen were the Danajon Bank, the only double barrier reef in the country, located off northern Bohol Island. The group has also explored coral reefs in Aloguinsan and Moalboal towns in Cebu, and in Biliran province, among others.
The scubasurero priests take videos and photos of the reefs and present these underwater shots to their respective congregations as part of their Sunday homilies.
“Part of our advocacy is to gather information. We take underwater footage, which is part of our protocol, and we present this to the community during Holy Mass to show them the situation underwater,” Soquiño said.
For the priest, one way of effectively educating the people about the country’s threatened marine life is providing them with hard facts rather than merely telling them “stories.”
During one dive, for example, the group discovered that a coal plant in Cebu was flushing out toxic wastes into the sea aside from dumping coal ashes on the soil, he recalled.
The group took footages of the conditions underwater near the plant and presented these to the community, he said.
The scubasureros’ task can be perilous at times: Soquiño’s group once had a close encounter with a shark off Maripipi Island in Biliran just a few months ago.
“For a couple of minutes, no one moved and the shark even seemed to stop and had eye contact with us. There was an uneasy ‘silence,’ so to speak,” before the group was able to swim away to safety, he recalled.
It was such a close call, but the environmentalists were actually happy about the encounter. The presence of a shark, a creature on the top of the food chain, was an indicator that a coral reef was healthy, Soquiño said.
Part of their procedures in reviving a dying reef was to bring along pieces of pandesal (bread) underwater to attract and feed the fishes. “We did this on a regular basis so that the fishes would get used to visiting the coral reef and eventually start dwelling there,” he said.
But in one memorable dive in Lagundi Reef off Talisay town in Cebu, the divers were already in the water and attracting a myriad of colorful fishes expecting a pandesal feast, when they realized that they forgot to bring any.
“We were signaling to each other with our hands and shoulders to check if somebody brought pandesal, and (eventually) the fishes went their way and disappeared,” he recounted. “It was as if they understood and had this communication with us.”
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