So now, surrounded by a plethora of undersea life 65 feet
below the eastern face of Apo Isle in OccidentalMindoro, I pray to
Poseidon and secretly assign myself a treasure hunt – a quest to find
the true ‘jewels’ of the deep. Not real jewels, of course – but whatever
makes this area unique. Through the years, I’ve endured enough trips to
unearth everything from bargain sports goods to the comics of a
forgotten age, so this quest feels strangely familiar.
Seven-strong for luck, both our WWF dive column and my thoughts
drift leisurely, propelled alongside a heavily encrusted sea wall by
invisible ocean currents. My attention shifts to the wall, where a
neon-hued array of fairy basslets frolic amidst the swaying tips of
crimson gorgonians. I peer in to inspect their knobby rows of polyps,
careful not to touch anything, Leave No Trace (LNT) principles of
A minute later, an impossibly huge school of Yellow-dashed Fusilier
(Pterocaesio randalli) appears from beneath. I try to estimate their
number but simply cannot – they coalesce into a single mass which fills
my vision end to end. In a moment they are gone, and I am left looking
down into the blue.
This truly is Poseidon’s realm. Consider that 71% of the Earth is
covered in water, and 97% of all this forms its vast oceans. Covering
just 1% 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.
The Origin of Life and Legend
Apo Reef lies at the northern tip
of the Coral Triangle, a 5.7 million square-kilometre region which
spans the seas of six countries including 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
The Coral Triangle is so abundant in marine life that it has been
hailed by globally-renowned coral expert and Corals of the World author
Dr. Charlie Veron as ‘the centre of Earth’s marine diversity’ – home to
605 out of the 798 known reef building corals and 2228 types of reef
fish which 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 area has also spawned a menagerie 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.
In actuality, the region is an enormous undersea food factory,
whose produce directly benefits half-a-billion people yearly. A single
square kilometre of healthy reef can keep on producing over 40 metric
tonnes of grouper, oyster, tuna and other forms of seafood year on year.
Obviously, the potential of our seas to sustain life – both human and
otherwise – is Leviathan-sized.
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 both wealth and
abundance. Properly protected, the Philippines’ 27,000 square kilometers
of coral reefs can too, turn into a Cornucopian Horn, providing for the
needs of millions in a very real bid to eradicate Asian poverty.
Paradise lies troubled, however. For over a century, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, coral
mining, sedimentation, overfishing, chemical pollution and climate change consequences such as ocean warming,
acidification and coral bleaching have been waging an undersea war against our marine enclaves.
Now the Philippines, together with Indonesia – hosts the world’s
most threatened coral reefs, less than 5% of which remain in excellent
condition. Faced with this problem, many countries within the Coral
Triangle established Marine Protected Areas or MPAs to conserve what’s
“Marine Protected Areas evolved
when people realized that portions of coral reefs needed continual
protection to stay productive,” explains WWF Conservation Programs
Vice-President Joel Palma. “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
Today the Philippines hosts about 10% of the world’s MPAs – over
500, more than any in Southeast Asia. Established largely through local
government initiatives and maintained through the blood, sweat and tears
of local coastal communities, these undersea enclaves are scattered
throughout the archipelago to provide vital safe havens for Philippine
marine life as well as a growing number of eco-conscious tourists.
Sadly, many MPAs are plagued by a lack of funding. Mismanagement is
rife, and it is estimated that little over 100 MPAs are properly
administered. The rest are dubbed as ‘paper parks’ – areas urgently
needing funding and professional management. MPA incursions due to
hunting have been recurring sources of friction between the Philippines
and its neighbours.
In September of 2007, 126 endangered Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia
mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard Chinese fishing vessel
F/V 01087 in Sulu.
In August of 2008, 101 critically-endangered Hawksbill Turtles
(Eretmochelys imbricata) were found aboard Vietnamese fishing vessel F/V
Q.ng 91234-TS near El Nido.
In April of 2009, 14 Green Sea Turtles were found aboard an unmarked Chinese speedboat near Cauayan Isle, also in El Nido.
Since the 1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been
working with partners in the private sector, government agencies 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
Marine Protected Areas in some of the country’s best-known and most
productive coral reefs.
Two of the country’s best-managed MPAs include Apo Reef off the western coast of Occidental Mindoro and the Tubbataha Reefs off the Sulu Sea.
A Jewel in the Orient’s Pearl
Hailed as the Jewel of Mindoro
and a former world-class dive site, 30 years of destructive fishing has
left much of Apo Reef in an abysmal state. In October of 2007, WWF and
the local government of Sablayan in Mindoro spearheaded the total
closure of Apo Reef, at 34 square-kilometers – the country’s largest –
for fishing. In its stead followed alternative livelihood programmes and
a robust ecotourism drive designed to keep livelihoods afloat while
allowing the reef ample time to recover.
Giant fish aggregation devices, locally termed Payaw, have been
installed to provide alternate fishing spots for coastal communities.
The crude but effective contraptions feature a buoy, a counterweight and
anywhere from 10 to 20 giant coconut fronds. Algae growths on the
decomposing fronds attract herbivores such as surgeonfish and
rabbitfish, which then draw in larger predators.
Local group leader Elmo Bijona testifies to the effectiveness of
the devices, “A single Payaw can daily yield maybe 15-kilogrammes 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.
Even more dramatic results are evident in other model sites. From
2004 to 2005, the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan doubled
yearly fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tonnes per square kilometre –
a yield seven times more productive than a typical reef. In addition,
Tubbataha’s fertile reefs 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.
Apo Reef differs from all other
WWF-Philippines project sites in that it is kept afloat almost
exclusively by donations. Bright Skies for Every Juan is a pioneering
programme which enjoins Cebu Pacific passengers to indirectly offset the
ecological impacts of their flights by donating to the upkeep of the
The programme synergizes the efforts of WWF, Cebu Pacific and the
local government of Sablayan to bolster the region’s resilience to
climate change impacts through MPA protection, the promotion of
responsible ecotourism and the 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 which has the skills needed to
think incisively, move efficiently and manage risk.”
In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity
enclaves makes perfect sense. Says Tan, “Our work in Apo Reef and other
protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation:
should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine
resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural
mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people.
This is a natural investment.”
A White-tipped Oracle
Back in Apo Reef, the hunt
continues. Over an hour’s exploration has yielded little in the way of
jewels or answers. Everywhere the dawn rays begin slicing through the
water, reflecting off an innocuous 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 and
exaggerated 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 up and realize just what attracted 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 led me to the end of mine.
As with the grandest treasure tales, the most valuable fortunes
really do lie sunken beneath the blue. As inhabitants of the world’s
second-largest archipelago, we in the Philippines must realize that the
sea’s greatest treasure is its ability to provide – but that providence
can only continue when we in turn, learn to protect what we have been
gifted with. Satisfied, I nod to the scene and swim off to rejoin the
65 feet below the Jewel of Mindoro, at the apex of the Coral Triangle, I have finally accomplished my treasure hunt.