Saving the seas must be a way of life

JCI Manila’s ‘Sea of Life’ has helped restore marine life around the Philippines, specifically in Batangas, Bohol, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Cebu, lloilo, and La Union

By Lauren Wendell C. Ng

WATER WORLD Due to reef degradation, only five percent of our country reef's remain

The Philippines is home to some of the world’s greatest natural wonders. Looking at many of our popular tourist attractions—Palawan, Boracay, Siargao, La Union, and other named and unnamed coastal beauties—it is difficult not to see how these coastlines have brought in people from all over the world, all with a common appreciation for the magnificence of our finest beaches.

What’s more is that the appeal of these sites does not stop at the earth’s surface. Looking beneath the waters, you will be fascinated by the sheer diversity of life thriving within the seabeds, which people so often overlook because there we are, overwhelmed by the surfing, water sports, and life above sea that we barely have enough time to consume all what these wonderlands have in store.

Fishes, corals, and rock formations of various vibrant colors, sizes, and shapes inhabit these seas. As a diver myself, I can stay underwater for hours on end, indulging in the vitality of the Philippines marine life.

Devastation of marine life

Due to reef degradation caused by pollution, mangrove destruction, coral bleaching, dynamite and cyanide fishing, calamities, human malpractices, and other factors, only five percent of the Philippines’ coral reefs remain in good condition. Hundreds and thousands of years are required for these reefs to regenerate naturally. Should these thoughtless and destructive human acts persist, we are looking at irreversible consequences weighing down generations to come.

AQUAHOLIC Tim Aukshun of Ocean Deep

Such devastation is the obvious case in La Union. We had the chance to interview Sir Tim Aukshun, owner of OceanDeep Diving Center in La Union. Having been in the diving scene for almost 50 years, where he has been instructor to dive instructors, his experience throughout the decades is vast, a great source of extensive insights. He was initially deployed by the US Army to Clark in 1967 and then he served the next 20 years in different cities all over the Philippines. Aukshun eventually married an Ilocana, bought a piece of land, and set up his own resort and dive shop along the coasts of San Fernando, La Union.

Asked about the marine conditions in the early days, he reminisces: “During my first year here in 1974, I would dive around 250 times a year, that’s almost six times a week, sometimes even more. There were definitely a lot more marine life back then. You can snorkel off the beach and see lobsters. Every time, you would see a shark, or two, in waters 18 meters . During night dives, you could fill your bag with lobsters, lapu-lapu, tuna, and everything.”

Yet the same can’t be witnessed in the present day. It saddened us to not find any lobsters, no sharks, only lifeless corals and only a handful species of fish. Dynamite fishing had blown life away from what was once marvelous waters. During our dive there, we had firsthand experience hearing blasts underwater, in broad daylight. The bombs were apparently set off just kilometers away from us. There had been persistent efforts and pressures from the government to stop these practices. Although the situation has improved over the past years as fishers lay fire less closer to the coastal areas, it’s still difficult to keep an eye on those who come from the smaller towns who sail out in the middle of the night, bomb away early in the morning, and disappear quick with their harvests, depleting these waters further. What’s more terrifying is the threat of these fishers seemingly not hesitant of setting dynamites up in the houses of people who come in the way of their livelihood. Considering limited sources of income opportunities available for these fishermen, unsustainable fishing methods such as this impose a deep-rooted problem that sees no easy fix.

Biodiversity under threat

While there is no immediate end in sight for these systemic issues threatening our biodiversity, small efforts executed by many could snowball into solutions that could parallel their adverse effects. One of the approaches that have proven effective all over the world is by deploying artificial reefs that would not only restore the reef system, but also act as fish nurseries and restore balance to the eroding shorelines. Many prestigious organizations have dedicated their resources to enriching this endeavor, and one worth highlighting would be JCI Manila. Distinguished for its wide range of developmental programs engaging in leadership, socio-civic, and environmental aspects since inception, JCI Manila has since 2011 launched its sustainability project “Sea of Life.”

SICK SEA Deployed artificial reef with marine life

Over the last decade, “Sea of Life” has helped restore marine life around the Philippines, specifically in Batangas, Bohol, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Cebu, lloilo, and La Union. In coordination with various governmental and environmental agencies, including DENR, Philippine Coast Guard, NAVSOG, and LGUs, this project aims to revitalize marine biodiversity, improve water quality by providing a surface for algae and microorganism reproduction, protect the coastal areas from erosion, boost ecotourism, provide income opportunities, and present recreational opportunities in a greener economy.

What was once a plain underwater sand dune has now developed into a growing habitat for various kinds of fish and marine lives.

Backed by scientific studies and environmental guidelines, artificial reef balls deployed through “Sea of Life” utilizes a mixture of pH-neutral cement and materials that have zero negative impact on marine life. It is not prone to underwater corrosion, giving it an expected lifespan of 500 years or more, therefore making it a sustainable means for fish and coral reproduction.

Artificial reef balls

Following the July 2022 “Sea of Life” implementation in La Union led by project chair Jesus Antonio in which 20 artificial reef balls and statues were deployed, we were assigned as the new project committee to further continue this rehabilitation effort. Headed by chair Felipe Michael Cruz, vice-chair George Kim Jr., committee members Donghyn Shin and Lauren Wendell Ng, our team conducted subsequent ocular dives in January 2023 to monitor the progress of the deployment. To no surprise, these sites have contributed positive changes in a short period of time. What was once a plain underwater sand dune has now developed into a growing habitat for various kinds of fish and marine lives, some of which take refuge from predators, some just playfully swimming in and out of the crevices, some attached peacefully on top of the reef structures, proving the impact and effectiveness of this project, and attesting to the potential of this project to be nurtured into something bigger, achieving the long-term goals that JCI’s “Sea of Life” has set in motion.

KEEP CALM AND DIVE Sea of Life Team at Ocean Deep Diving Center

We have heeded advice and gathered insights from our predecessors, leading the way to an improved implementation strategy focused on expounding on past efforts, which should take effect beginning this March. Aside from aesthetic enhancements, we will be utilizing organic materials with the addition of plant-based elements into the structure, with the hopes of promulgating underwater vegetation. Furthermore, it will be part of the implementation design to enshrine plaques of appreciation for the project’s partners, donors, and sponsors, as means of acknowledgement and appreciation for the support they have extended to “Sea of Life”—as we aim to garner more awareness and encourage successive investments toward this project.

Call for action

It’s been humbling, yet we are aware that implementing “Sea of Life” is only the beginning. It takes baby steps to achieve marine life rehabilitation. Months of exploration have put all angles of biodiversity into perspective. Humanity has clearly destroyed what nature has created over billions of years, and there is no taking it back. It is no longer acceptable to allow momentary gains and mere apathy to continue the devastation. No amount of technology can replace the ecosystem organically nurtured by the web of life.

Hence, we must take bold actions to halt and correct all the damages that have been done. Big steps start with the most simple thoughts and acts, which give nobody an excuse to fail. “I believe we Filipinos should be more involved in taking care of the natural beauty of our country,” says Felipe Cruz, project chair. “I don’t want to reach a future where I have to tell my kids and younger kids that marine life was more beautiful during my youth. I want the future to experience the same or even better abundance in aquatic beauty.”

With continuity, determination, and passion, there is so much potential for our efforts to translate into something transcending. Urgently, we are called to take decisive actions, starting today. We cannot afford to pay the price of environmental degradation. Time, which is no longer on our side, is ticking.