Dear friends, my time in the Philippines is almost over. This tiny island called Malapascua has been my base for the last 6 weeks working as a Green Fins Coordinator. But why did the conservation program bring us here? There are 7107 islands in the Philippines, why Malapascua?
Malapascua has a thriving dive industry. There used to be 8 dive operators on the island, now there are 21. Diving is the only reason to make the effort to come here, to be more specific Thresher Sharks are the reason divers come to Malapascua – to dive at Monad Shoal. These sharks look very distinctive with a long tail fin that can be the same length as their bodies (2-3m). The tail fin is used like a whip to stun their prey.
Monad Shoal is famous for being the only place in the world where thresher sharks can be seen regularly at and just before sunrise. What is so special about Monad Shoal that the sharks go there every day? These sharks are a nocturnal and pelagic (deep water) species but they come up to shallower depths of 25-30m between 05:30-07:30, not to find food, but to be cleaned. Small wrasse fish clean the gills and mouth of the sharks and remove parasites from their bodies.
This week, I went to Monad Shoal for the first time and it was amazing!!
I was so thrilled to see a thresher shark I almost forgot to breathe! (the number one rule of scuba diving is never hold your breath!). The sharks circle around the seamount (underwater mountain) waiting to be cleaned and our guide strategically positioned us in a sandy area so we’d have a great view and cause no damage to the reef – very important to remember while diving! As we swam back towards our boat, we saw another shark at 15m, which apparently is not very common to see at that depth so that was extra exciting and we all did a little happy wiggle dance underwater! Our group emerged from the water with big smiles and feeling exhilarated.
The diving industry on Malapascua is dependent on Monad Shoal and the regular presence of the thresher sharks. The sharks are the reason divers come to Malapascua. The tourists who come to Malapascua sustain the livelihoods of the locals. Fact. Because of the sharks and the diving industry, the locals have jobs and can provide for their families.
All businesses benefit from those who come to dive, from local accommodations to bars, restaurants, shops and of course the dive centres. Tourism however is both an opportunity and a threat and must be controlled if it is to be sustainable. If the locals benefit from tourism, then how is it a threat?
To put it bluntly, divers are damaging the coral reefs around Malapascua. How is this happening?
- fins coming into contact with fragile coral and breaking it (this is the most common cause of damage)
- fins stirring up sand which then smothers the coral, this can also disturb animals that live in the sand
- sitting/standing on the reefs which can break the coral
- equipment such as depth gauge, spare regulator and camera hanging down which then can hit corals, causing them to break
- touching corals which can break them
- resting camera equipment on corals to take photographs
- not being aware of surroundings while taking photographs can cause damage
- not having good buoyancy skills means you are less able to control your position in the water
How are these threats controlled and minimised? Green Fins is the solution!
During these past 6 weeks, we have trained almost 200 dive centre staff on the island to empower them to help change the behaviour of divers so the above situations do not happen. As well as training we also gave the dive centres lots of materials they can use to help get the message across to their customers, such as this poster:
The above threats are all about corals and do not mention sharks so what is the connection between coral reefs and sharks? This diagram shows how corals support everything on the reef:
To relate this to Monad Shoal, if there is no healthy coral, there are no fish (fish live on the coral reefs), if there are no fish to clean them, there are no sharks.
One dive centre manager made this honest statement:
“no sharks, no divers, no business, no jobs”.
By following the Green Fins advice, the impact on the coral reefs is reduced. Fact.
Green Fins works! The results of our assessments on the dive centres have shown a decrease in the negative effect on the coral reefs, which is fantastic news. The dive centres on Malapascua are adopting the Green Fins guidelines enthusiastically and in so doing are protecting not only the reef and the thresher sharks but also their business and jobs and of course meaning that divers will have beautiful healthy reefs to visit for many years.
Thank you for reading!