Time passes slowly when days are full. It’s been nearly three weeks into the California Academy of Sciences’ 2011 Philippines Biodiversity Expedition. With well over 1000 dives, 100 collection sites and as many new species we have barely scratched the surface of this amazing country of islands. With over 700 islands, volcanoes and rainforests, this island nation has many untold stories and species awaiting discovery and description.
Spending most of my time with the aquatic team, and having an aquatic bent, the undersea world is what I’m most familiar with on this expedition. While the botanists and entomologists are searching Mt. Makiling to the south (and scratching at leeches and mosquito bites), we are exploring the coral reefs, soft-coral forests and rubble pits for nudibranchs, sea urchins, bobbit woms, limpets, sea horses and representatives from the score of other phyla that live in the sea. While there are few insects, there are lionfish, blue-ring octopus and the beckoning spines of Dr. Mooi’s creatures of choice to navigate among.
Dr. Gossliner has upped his new nudibranch count is over 30 undescribed species, and the total number for this colorful and complex shell-less marine snail is over 800! Not to be out done, Chrissy Pietrowski is finding new species and possibly even genera of worms on her dives as she scours the rocks and dead coral. The reefs in this region, located on the Verde Island Passage are abundant and diverse. Scores of coral species color the reef system, enchanting octocorals – the eight-tentacled soft coral Dr. Gary Williams studies – flow and float like vespers in the current. One species common here called Xenia appears to be feeding as it closes and opens its eight-fingered flower-like tentacles. In fact, they are shading the Zooanthellae – the photosynthesizing symbiont who live in their tissues. Like us, too much sun is a bad thing, and this is how this organism protects itself from its own form of coral bleaching.
Another favorite are fire urchins: puffed up echinoderms with spines of electric blue which move around the bottom at amazing speed for an animal without muscles, a neurosystem or backbone. Endowed with small spines, a serious sting makes up for the lack of sticking power. Its cousin the Diadema is protected by wicked long spines which are painful when they embed the accidental hand or foot brushing up against them (and they do).
There is too much to describe and it is like being in school again being embedded with so many experts.
The footage I’m collecting along the way is as vivid and compelling as it is daunting to collect and review. Sometimes it’s challenging like when a night dive was aborted due to a strong current that left me paralyzed with my big camera housing and weighted tripod. I sucked half my tank trying to keep up with the fish team. Spare parts are non-existent and as fasteners fall out, fittings get broken, my gear is starting to look more Frankensteinian each day.
Like developed countries, the Philippines has a number of challenges from human impacts. Over 100,000,000 people live in the islands, and like California, the preponderance live near the sea. The sea is everything here. Everyone fishes. Fish and rice are staples. Kids play in the warm waters and whole families pile aboard slender bamboo Bankhas to visit one another. The people here love the ocean. It’s in their stories, their daily lives and in their faces. But as elsewhere on the planet, modern technology and population expansion have made their mark on the land and seascape.
Sobering is the amount of plastic littering the reef, scattered along the shoreline and along the reef crest. Plastic bottles, bags and containers drift among the coconuts, broken bamboo mats and driftwood on the weathered coral shoreline. Debris lines of plastic mark the tidal currents and beneath the surface plastic threads itself into the mosaic of coral. This is a solvable problem, one we are struggling with at home. With a trillion single-use plastic bags used each year, we have our work cut out for us.
Also present are the scars from illegal fishing practices. Dynamite fishing has left coral rubble where there was once an undersea garden. A decade ago, Terry describes hearing dynamite percussions every dive. Here in Anilao, at least this destructive fishing practice seems to have been stopped. Intensive subsistence fishing is prevalent and all the top predators are gone. In response, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being established by local townships to provide refuge for large fish and other heavily harvested species. In one of these MPAs, we saw more large fish than on all the other dives combined. Here in the field, time passes slowly but the need to explore, explain and protect natural systems like Philippine coral reef systems is urgent.