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Our Blue Planet

Exploring the Amazon of the seas

By Sally Snow

If you want to be an explorer, dip your head beneath the waves.

Water covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface and yet, as “Her Deepness” oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle has repeatedly pointed out, we know more about deep space than the deep ocean (https://ensia.com/interviews/sylvia-earle-exploring-the-worlds-oceans/). This is both scary and amazing. Scary, because our blue planet is intrinsically linked with our green one and it is fast reaching crisis point; and amazing, because there is still so much to explore. Luckily, exploring is something all of us can do and I’ve made a career out of it.

A quick adjustment to my mask and then I’m ready to slide between worlds. The warm water washes over my body like some kind of teleportation, I know in a second I’ll be transported to another planet. It’s our our blue planet and I’m obsessed with it.

For the past seven years, I have been “exploring” the waters of the Philippines as part of a non-government organsiation (NGO) dedicated to marine conservation. The Philippines is the world’s second largest archipelago, and lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global centre of marine biodiversity, the ‘Amazon of the seas’.  The Coral Triangle covers over 5.7 million square kilometres across Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, it is a biological resource that sustains the lives of over 120 million people. It is an area where it’s clear to see that the health of the ocean affects not only marine animals but also people.

The oceans are at a tipping point and the Philippines Seas are no exception. Never before have the oceans been under so much pressure: habitat destruction, overfishing, plastic pollution, irresponsible tourism, the list goes on. These are challenges I face daily in my work studying and conserving marine megafauna in the Philippines. One of the species I focus on is the the whale shark - the worlds largest fish and an icon of the Philippines. The team and I have been studying them since 2012, but sadly in 2016, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reclassified them from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’. Their numbers have halved over the last 75 years, with illegal fishing, entrapment in nets and collisions with boats being some of the main reasons the species has slipped further towards extinction. What’s more, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species report that a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, with ray species thought to be at a higher risk than sharks (https://www.iucn.org/content/quarter-sharks-and-rays-threatened-extinction). A daunting prospect for a marine conservationist attempting to ensure the future of marine megafauna in a biodiversity hotspot.

Despite these overwhelming truths, there is constant inspiration in marine conservation. Not least because working in the field allows me to be an explorer.

In 2013, I photographed a whale shark in the south of the Philippines that had last been seen by scientists in Taiwan. It became the first international photographic match in South East Asia (https://www.lamave.org/press-releases/2018/1/29/press-release-5). In 2016, I was part of a team that started the first tiger shark tagging study in the Coral Triangle (http://www.sunstar.com.ph/manila/local-news/2016/06/28/researchers-tag-first-tiger-shark-coral-triangle-482084). We know almost nothing about the ecology of tiger sharks in this area, which to me is simply crazy – it is 2018!? To ensure the future of our oceans, we must protect all levels of the ecosystem – from the primary producers to the top predators. Top predators like tiger sharks sit at the top of the food chain. They can only exist if the food chain below is thriving, but they also play an important role in maintaining the balance and biodiversity of an ecosystem. Understanding how tiger sharks use an environment can help us understand how to protect their habitat while also providing a piece of the puzzle to protecting the entire ecosystem. It’s not just tiger sharks that we know so little about. Most recently during an expedition to an isolated group of islands called Cangayacillo, a chance encounter made me realise how little we know about sharks and rays in general.

Video property of Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE, www.lamave.org)

Submerged beneath the surface, diving off a remote reef I suddenly came face to face with a stranger. An animal so familiar, but so different. It was a ray, but not one I had ever seen before. My heart beats as her wings moved. Two meters wide and coming straight for me. I moved further away from the coral wall as she swam past, climbing shallower as the reef flattened out above. That’s when I saw her back (her dorsal side), her colour, her pattern. This wasn’t a species of ray that I’d encountered before. This chance encounter turned out to be the first live sighting of an Ornate Eagle Ray in the Philippines, expanding its current known range which previously included among others: Mozambique, the Maldives, Indonesia, Taiwan and Northern Australia (https://checklist.pensoft.net/articles.php?journal_name=checklist&id=20838). The encounter took place within one of the largest, and newest marine protected areas in the Philippines, highlighting the importance that protected areas can be for marine megafauna.

It’s amazing to think that an environment riddled with so many challenges and despair can also give you the greatest hope. Last October, I met Dr Sylvia Earle for the first time after a talk. She’d mentioned in her speech that some of her colleagues had given up hope for the recovery and the future of our oceans. Sylvia on the other hand has not and neither have I. My generation and those to come have a really difficult task ahead, but we have hope feeding our determination. Sometimes hope comes in the beats of wings of a rare species, sometimes it comes in the development of new technology. We have engineers to design solutions for waste and sustainable development, creatives to market them, consumers to use the power of choice to make sustainable decisions, technology to push the boundaries and entrepreneur to enhance corporate social responsibility. To me, hope is whatever deepens my determination to keep chasing a future of chance encounters, breath-taking reefs, food security and coastal protection.

The question is not whether we need the oceans or not (we know we cannot survive without them), the question is; what are you going to do about it?

Find your hope, and find your place in that journey. And if you don’t know where to start, put a mask on and become and explorer like me.

Sally Snow is a Zoologist and Filmmaker. She is one of four Executive Directors for the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), the largest independent non-profit non-governmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of marine megafauna and their habitats in the Philippines. LAMAVE strive for conservation through scientific research, policy and education. You can find out more at: www.lamave.org

Twitter: @sallyjsnow / @lamaveproject Instagram: @sallyj.snow / @lamaveproject Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lamaveproject/

By Sally Snow