Operation Restore Hope: Diving Danajon’s double barrier reef

Well, reputations can be misleading.

I’d heard that the famous ‘double barrier reef’ of Danjon in the southern Philippines had been totally trashed by dynamite fishers. I was fully prepared for a heart-breaking time when visiting the country’s biggest Marine Protected Area, Minantaw, today.

A sparkling new guard post has been erected to defend the reserve. There’s no land within a thousand metres or more, so this sentinel stands on unbroken water like a benign oil platform. (That might be more than just coincidence, since it was paid for by Chevron.) But it’s only just been completed, and Project Seahorse only managed to get the reserve in place in 2009. So, given the rampant dynamite fishing in the area, I was not expecting much.

There weren’t many fish, that’s for sure. But the coral… At points it was like visiting another planet, seeing the reef take shapes that I’d never imagined it could take. There were fields of bright green spires with one spire in its midst identical in every respect except it was bright blue. Other areas looked like a festival of a thousand silken flags all waving in the wind had been frozen, the fabric solidified mid-billow.

My fellow diver Heather (Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London) was equally staggered. She ¬†showed me parts where things weren’t quite so rosy, too. Big bald patches several metres across where the coral was levelled by a single blast. Some were six years old, wrote Hazel, a biologist from Project Seahorse, on her slate. On those patches there was not a sign of recovery – once fragmented, any storm will move the bits of coral around too much for any new polyps to take hold.

So, don’t take peoples’ word. Go look for yourself. I’d never been to the Coral Triangle before, but I truly felt today that I’ve witnessed the centre of the ocean’s biodiversity, the Amazon of the sea. It might not be pristine, but it’s still utterly jaw-dropping. Imagine what it could be if it was restored.

I don’t have any underwater pictures to post, but if I get a chance before heading off to more remote islands tomorrow I’ll post a photo of the nearby island La Caubian. It’s 3 hectares, and is home to 3,000 people. It’s a stereotypical coral isle but literally overflowing with humans. But they’re the ones that have decided to protect Minantaw.

More soon, I hope…

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About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London. View all posts by Frank Pope

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