When we booked our flights to Kwajalein, we really didn’t know much about the atoll except that it was part of the Marshall Islands, that the underwater life was supposed to be spectacular, and that the US had done nuclear testing in the area and still continues to use some of the islands for military purposes. Initially, Rich wasn’t even going to go on the trip – John Coppalino and DJ Linehan (owner of Tropical Fish Emporium and sole permit holder for Marine Ornamental export from Kwaj) had worked it out to go with Matt Wandell and Luiz Rocha and meet Connor, a local Marshallese fish collector for a week of diving. Near the last minute, Luiz had to go to the Red Sea for work (poor guy), so a spot opened up for Rich. As we started packing, John had to back out, and we found ourselves getting onto a plane without much information about where we were going, where we were going to stay and just how the diving was going to be accomplished.
We did know we were not going to be staying on Kwajalein Island itself because it is a military base; if you aren’t military you don’t get to stay there. Instead, we would stay on Ebeye, where all the local Marshallese live. We also knew that at some point we were going to take a sailboat to camp and dive around some of the outer islands. And that was all we knew. It was actually liberating to jump into such an adventure with no real foundation about anything at all, ready to take what the trip had to offer. As it turns out, the trip was filled with endemic fish, the ups and downs of trying to get stuff done on a small pacific island, terrible and fantastic culinary experiences, exposure to a unique local culture directly resulting from US military practices…. and fantastic underwater life.
This video from the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition give you a good idea why the Verde Island Passage has been called ‘the center of the center of marine biodiversity’.
Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting the Verde Island Passage area off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during this period has suggested that this area may be the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site than in all of the Caribbean.
Funded by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, the 2011 expedition was not only the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines, but also the largest expedition in the history of the California Academy of Sciences. Over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum, and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources came with a mission to survey and document various aspects of the various ecosystems in the area. A further team of Academy educators attended with a mission to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening. As part of the expedition’s shallow water team based at the renowned Club Ocellaris, Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I focused upon the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit.
In part one of this series, we covered getting the the Philippines, the realities of being on an expedition and our lucky observation of hard coral spawning. In part two we’ll look at how we collected octopus and corals, how we shipped those animals back home, and more.
After two weeks of slogging through the jungle, being forced to endure huge stick insects, wild pygmy elephants, several species of hornbills and a Tarsier, we are finally getting down to seeing some “good wild life.” (Ow. My wife just kicked me, but she knows I am kidding – the land portion of this trip has been astounding). So far we have dived house reefs of various resorts, all of which have artificial reef structures that are rather mature and teeming with life. Not only are they fantastic to explore, but it’s great to see local operations building habitat. Tomorrow we dive Sipadan Island, and I can hardly contain myself, but that has to be its own blog post.
I woke up this morning in my room on stilts built over the reef. From the font window I watched the sun peek up over the Celebes Sea and bathe my sleeping daughter in ‘sweet light’. I walked out the front door, and as I made way to the 5 star dive center, I watched the local village come to life. The juxtaposition between the luxury of the resort, and the stark substance lifestyle of the local community was sobering as I prepared for the first dive of the day.
Less than 30 minutes later, fishing village forgotten, we were diving paradise. My wife was swimming through a tornado of jacks when a tremendous KRACKKKKKKBOOMMMM shattered the idyllic experience. What the hell was that? The dive master and the 5 newbie divers with us didn’t react at all. To me, the sound was overpowering and terrifying. I hoped it was some kind of construction project, but the recent round of dynamite fishing and reef destruction in Komodo made me think it was not construction at all. Twice more on the dive, the calm was split by the jarring shock of explosions. The sound was unbelievable. It was awful to be surrounded by life and beauty but to know that animals and habitat were being destroyed nearby in the name of easy food. I was moved to tears both under water and now while I write this.
At the surface the local dive master confirmed that it was dynamite fishing but that it was ‘far away’ – sound travels far underwater. The aquarist in me was horrified, but I couldn’t help thinking as a father; my family has never gone hungry. It’s easy for me, with my first world values, to wish education and responsible practices would prevent this kind of destruction…but if my daughter needed a meal, I would do whatever I had to do to provide for her. And, if I found a practice that worked, that ensured that my little girl would have a full belly at night, I am not sure what anyone could do to make me give it up.
It’s a heartbreaker. Lets keep that in mind as we are tempted to judge real world practices that we feel might impact our hobby of keeping reefs in our living rooms. We need solutions that fill bellies as well as fill glass boxes.
PS I was filming during the dive and I think I was shooting during the one or two of the explosions. When I get back to my computer, I’ll listen to the footage and if I have any of the explosions recorded, I will post a follow up. For now, I have to go prepare for another dive in some of the most beautiful reefscape I have even been on, and hope that I won’t hear any more destruction in the distance.
It was exhausting. It was grueling. It was worth it.
Part of the reason the water and jungle at Milne Bay is so pristine is that getting there is an adventure in and of itself. It took us 4 flights (23 hours in the air), two hours by car (also an adventure,) and a half hour boat ride to get from San Francisco to the Tawali Resort.
It was exhausting. It was grueling. It was worth it. The Tawali caters to divers, and serves no more than 30 guests at a time. I cannot speak highly enough of this operation. Even though we were in a remote location, every luxury was provided. The rooms were spacious and air conditioned, the food was fresh and tasty, and the dive boats and equipment were top notch. The resort even had a mascot, a female cassowary in a very large pen – apparently there had been two cassowaries, until the local tribe decided to redistribute the bounty by eating the male during a local feast. Management arranged great childcare for our 4-year old daughter, who happily went off to play in the local village every day as we readied our dive gear.
I believe that part of our challenge as aquarists is to find creative solutions to complex cultural and ecological conundrums. Tawali navigates these issues with grace. The resort was built next to a beautiful fringing reef that the locals fished for food. In order to protect their patch of coral from over-fishing, the resort spent the time and money to build an artificial floating ‘reef’ platform a few hundred feet away from the coral. The larger fish love the new habitat, the locals love the convenience of being able to fish from the platform, and the divers love the fact that this leaves the coral undisturbed. This creative solution has resulted in a house reef full of cuttlefish, bobtail squid, balls of coral cats, and giant nudibranchs. The highlight of the house reef is a nook with two large patches of branching Porites where, as night falls, pairs of mandarin dragonettes rise from the coral head and hover in a mesmerizing mating dance.
Milne Bay’s deeper waters are home to spectacular coral reefs. These are the healthiest reefs I have ever seen – no trash, no breakage, no bleaching, and populated by plethora of vertebrae and invertebrate animals. Mantas, rhinopias, turtles, crinoids, clams and the giant schools of anthias fill the water. Below the reefs, were gorgonian forests, home to many animals, including two species of pigmy seahorse.
As a reef keeper, I was astounded by the variety of both hard and soft coral. Branching, tabling, plating… it was all there. There were fields of staghorn that took minutes to swim over. Heavily prevalent were large branching colonies of green Tubastrea, bright pink/purple Acropora and red/orange softies. I was torn between wanting to get someone to set up a collecting station right away, and wanting to never tell anyone about this place. On the one hand, the income would certainly be welcome to the locals while reefkeepers back home would certainly would love to get some of the animals from the area into their home tanks. On the other hand, there are so few pristine areas left in the world, I couldn’t help but hope that this one might be left alone.
As wonderful as the reefs were, our favorite marine environment in Milne Bay was the muck fields. These huge, undulating vistas of settled silt and mud appear gray and lifeless at first glance. The creatures living there are generally masters of disguise; but if you have a keen eye, or a good dive master (which Tawali provides) the landscape is crowded with bizarre and wonderful discoveries. Pegasus Sea Moths, seahorses, crocodile fish, cuttlefish, octopus, ghost pipe fish, mantis shrimp, frogfish, and an unbelievable assortment of nudibranchs inhabit the landscape. Most of them live in shallower water, above 60 feet, which can lead to some seriously long dives – 90 minutes plus of slow, effortless, bizarre discoveries.
Occasionally, you’ll find small patch reefs right in the middle of the muck, which the local dive guides call ‘cleaning stations.’ One minute you are swimming along over a desert of colorless muck, and suddenly you encounter a colorful oasis. Huge brain corals, branching corals and an overwhelming density of reef fish all crowd together in spaces as small as 8 feet in diameter. These little reefs are like fantasy tanks: densely populated by lionfish, pipefish, cleaner shrimp, coral banded shrimp, anemones, clown fish, puffers – even a giant school of cardinal fish. You can’t take one fin stroke without seeing something bright, exotic, or rare. It is an aquarist’s dream.
While my wife and I spent most of our time poking around underwater, I would be remiss in not mentioning what there is to see on land near Tawali. There are no roads, so the only way to a get anywhere is on foot or by boat. The jungles are thick and green, and just a few feet away from the coast the heat becomes oppressive. But, again, your suffering will be worth it. Hornbills fly overhead, their wings rasping together with a sound like a swarm of bees. You trudge and trudge, and finally come upon a fissure in the limestone, only to find a skull cave, where the bones of the locals ancestors’ are stored in astounding quantities. You are led past orchids, clouds of bugs, and walls of greenery to a crystal freshwater stream. You follow the stream to a clearing where a picturesque waterfall plunges down the rockface to pool just deep enough for a refreshing swim. Yes, there is suffering. But it’s worth it.
PNG is very strange, culturally speaking. Many of the body language clues we use to communicate with those who don’t speak our language, simply don’t translate here. If someone looks at you and doesn’t smile, you have no idea what they are feeling. As long as we were traveling with someone from the resort, we were met with warmth and hospitality; wander off alone, and we found ourselves in an environment of suspicion and territoriality.
Rather than lessening our enjoyment in the trip, this strangeness added to it. When we finally arrived home, I felt as if we had really traveled. The time, the difficulty, and the expense were all worth it to see a glimpse of this pristine and strange world, both above, and below the surface of the water.