Yasmin D. Arquiza emerges from the center of the world’s marine biodiversity as Criselda Yabes dives into it.
Stretching from Batangas province in the west to the island of Romblon in the east, the Verde Passage is a busy sea lane. Many coastal villagers still set their daily rhythm to the regular schedule of passing ferry boats.
For scuba divers and other tourists, probably the most popular destination in the area is Anilao where a string of resorts caters to the needs of visitors, especially on weekends. Another perennial favorite is Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro where the beaches and coral reefs vie for the attention of holiday makers.
In recent months, Verde Passage landed on the front pages of newspapers following a report from prominent scientists Kent Carpenter, global marine species assessment coordinator for the World Conservation Union, and Victor Springer, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution.
Analyzing almost 3,000 maps showing the distribution of marine species from all over the world, they found that the highest percentage (2.5) of biological diversity was found in the Philippines. Aside from having the most number of species that are found nowhere else, the highest number of 1,736 species found in a single 10-by-10 kilometer square area was also found here–in the Verde Island Passage.
"This result is important to marine conservation because habitat threats in the Philippines could result in mass extinctions of species similar to what is occurring in the Amazon River Basin," the report stated. "The Philippines can therefore be considered as the marine counterpart of this famous terrestrial center of biodiversity."
The study was based on identification guides to marine resources written by more than 100 of the world’s foremost experts and covering a wide range of marine species, including algae, corals, crustaceans, mollusks, fishes, marine reptiles such as turtles and snakes and marine mammals like dolphins and whales.
A weekend visit to Verde Island, named after the Spanish explorer Capt. Juan Verde, confirmed the findings for our group of divers and snorkelers from Manila. From Verde Island Resort (www.verdeisland.net), a sprawling collection of beach cottages and modern structures on the beaches of barangay San Antonio, a few minutes’ ride on an outrigger banca took us to dive sites that have attracted many tourists for their unique underwater scenery and abundant marine life.
One of them is the famous "washing machine" where a violent swirl of currents can make it difficult for divers to navigate round the reefs. Under water, the whirl sounded like a howling wind, and we had to hold on or maneuver to safer corners. But down to 80 feet, there were surprises: a porcupine fish hiding in a barrel sponge, a lion fish here, a puffer fish there and different species of the tiny nudibranch or sea slugs.
The other site is the "pinnacle," a small summit around which is a garden of soft and hard corals. Along the way we also had to make another turn because of a current rush, taking the path of a void called the blue water. We dove nearly 100 feet and saw a giant clam, groupers and jacks. As we were doing our safety stop before breaking up to the surface, we came across a banded sea snake twirling in a trance. Never go near one.
Following our surface interval, we had to go back to the "washing machine," if only to shake off the bad spell from the previous dive. It was worth it. We roamed for nearly an hour at 60 feet, taking in the beauty of the corals in a mellower current. We saw porcelain crab, moray eel, Moorish idol, surgeon fish, wrasse and fusiliers. That relieved and reassured us.
After spending a night in the balmy island, we took the leisurely, one-hour boat ride back to Batangas City for the scenic drive to Anilao. The area is more snorkel-friendly than Verde Island. A great spot for beginners is the fringing reef near the Twin Rocks dive site. Various types of clownfish, not just the orange-and-white striped species popularized in the film Finding Nemo, can be found here along with colorful Moorish idols, angelfish and parrot fish.
Twin Rocks was playful. We were like children scurrying to find our own interests. Strangely, our air tanks permitted us to prolong our dive to about an hour and 15 minutes. There were schools of fish everywhere–silver jacks, rose-colored anthias, small barracudas and yellow and black-striped batfish–as if they, too, came to play with us. Movement and color enveloped us, and we wanted more of it. Before heading back to Manila, we were content with our finale.
Conservation International (CI) is one of the environmental groups working to save the reefs from threats such as destructive fishing practices, pollution from the fuel refineries and ships at the Batangas port and anchor damage from tourist dive boats. Together with the First Philippine Conservation Inc. (FPCI), CI is encouraging the business sector and local government officials to support "green practices" and community projects designed to protect the marine resources of Verde Passage.
Although the area also embraces part of the coastline of the two Mindoro provinces and the islands of Marinduque and Romblon, much of the conservation efforts are centered in Batangas due to serious problems such as mangrove conversion and marine pollution. "Batangas is a busy international port, and invasive alien species from the bilge water of foreign ships is a major threat," said environmental lawyer Rodolfo Quicho Jr., FPCI executive director.
Affiliated with the Lopez group of companies, FPCI works closely with the power distribution company First Gen in implementing its projects. These include setting up marine protected areas through local legislation, promoting environment-friendly methods for catching aquarium fish and encouraging marine research in universities.
Beyond the blazing sunsets and postcard-pretty views that evoke nostalgic memories, Verde Passage is an international treasure in need of greater appreciation from a greater number of Filipinos. Environmental groups taking care of these resources seem to be on the right path, and they deserve all the help they can get.
Verde Island Resort
Tel. no. 750 0466; fax 840 2529
First Philippine Conservation Inc.
Tel. no. 631 8024; fax 631 4089
Email [email protected]
Diving is in the Breathing
There is a debate on whether or not scuba diving should be called a sport. Others say it’s a hobby. I say it’s a form of meditation because at no other time am I so aware of my breathing. Only fellow divers can understand what takes place below the surface, and this binds us with our shared senses of danger, excitement and adventure.
Psychologically, diving can break barriers of fears and trust issues. I will always remember my first dive master for that, and I have no qualms at all of holding hands with my dive buddy.
To become a diver, an introduction dive is the first step. Once you get a taste of it, you’ll know if you can go for it. It is a private experience. Only you can tell how far you can go. You will learn how to equalize when going down, how to use the Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), knowing if you’re a floater or a sinker, how to get a feel of whether you should inflate or deflate, which is very important, and breathing through the regulator. Proper breathing helps control your buoyancy and keeps you steady, maximizing your air consumption.
The next step is to look for a dive instructor for an open-water course (check out PADI or NAUI). You can also inquire from any local dive resort in the Philippines. For marine conservation work, you can reach the First Philippine Conservation Inc. which can give you a background on divers’ responsibility to protect rich marine biodiversity. It may also point you to a small circle of old-time divers, one of whom is Romeo Trono, director of the Philippines’ Conservation International.
The son of a marine biologist, who is an expert on seaweeds, Trono typifies the diver-ecologist. "The excitement will never disappear," he says of diving. "You can go to the same spot on the same day, and there’s always something new. The underwater is very dynamic." There are days when he is in the mood to go down to just 20 feet or as far below as 140 feet. He taught his father how to dive at the age of 60.
I took my diving course in Palawan years back and had my check-out dive, which is similar to a final exam, at the world heritage site of Tubbataha Reef.
Trono is right: each experience is different. I cannot describe them all. And even now, as I put my gear back on, I still have mixed feelings of fear and anxiety. After a dive, we can all name the kinds of fish we saw and relish our highs, but little can be said about what went on between you and the world beneath.
*This article is reprinted from Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Magazine.