Descendants of HMS Bounty mutineers see new treasure in their extreme isolation

Here’s the full version of a story of mine that appeared in the Sunday Times today. I’m posting it here because it’s a remarkable tale that in the paper got mushed together with the lightly-related news that a Belizian coral reef has been ‘saved’ by a billionairess (‘Beauty and the Reef: billionairess dives in to save coral‘, behind a paywall).

The waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands have some of the highest proportion of sharks found anywhere in the world. Photo: Enric Sala / NGS

More than two hundred years ago the mutineers of HMS Bounty used the extreme isolation of Pitcairn Island to hide from the wrath of the Royal Navy. Now their descendants plan to take advantage of their seclusion and turn the surrounding waters into the world’s largest marine reserve.

The South Seas paradise they sought has been plagued by murder and sexual depravity ever since they arrived. But beneath the waves, seclusion has allowed the marine environment to escape the overfishing and pollution that has impacted so much of the ocean.

Like the seven generations before them, the forty-two islanders who live on the tiny volcanic rock will still supplement their diet with fish, but they have voted to turn away any new applications for commercial fishing ventures in favour of the potential they see from adventurous tourists and visiting scientists.

An expedition to Pitcairn by the National Geographic Society and the Pew Environment Group in March this year surveyed the full extent of these pristine waters for the first time. During 450 hours spent underwater, scientists found a thriving, well-developed coral reef at a depth of 75 metres – the deepest ever discovered.

“The clarity of the water is extraordinary,” said Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at the Society and the leader of the survey. “This is one of the best-preserved ecosystems on the planet, and many of its species are only found there.”

Cameras lowered over the side of the ship into deeper waters observed rare creatures like the false catshark and rich coral gardens untouched by trawlers. At a depth of 382 metres plant life was detected. If confirmed it would be the deepest that a photosynthetic organism has ever been found.

“In only sixteen drops of the camera we found eight deepwater species of fish that are new to science,” said Dr Sala.

Around Ducie Island, the most southerly coral atoll in the world, sharks and other top predators made up two thirds of the biomass of fish on the reef. Such a high proportion has very rarely been detected, and indicates an ecosystem that is almost entirely undisturbed.

Without fishing, corals are far more resilient to the warming waters that threaten reefs worldwide. A 1971 expedition to Ducie found many corals had been killed by a warming event, but this year’s expedition found that the corals have recovered ‘spectacularly’.

Oeno Island had many fewer sharks, an indication that it had suffered some fishing pressure.

“In the seventies we used to get a few ships coming in from Asia, decks covered in drying sharks fins. We haven’t seen them for a while. They said it was getting unprofitable for them,” said Steve Christian, a direct descendent of the leader of the Bounty mutineers, Fletcher Christian.

Although diverse and thriving the waters are not rich in nutrients, making ecosystems fragile and unable to support commercial fishing. In 2005 a tuna fishing fleet operating in Pitcairn’s waters caught five hundred times less than in French Polynesia. Other proposals to fish for snapper were also judged unviable because of the extreme distances involved.

While their total land area of the islands is only around 47 square kilometres their Exclusive Economic Zone covers 836,108 square kilometres. The Island Council recently voted unanimously in favour of banning commercial fishing from the whole EEZ. Subsistence fishing by islanders would continue to be allowed within ten nautical miles of Pitcairn itself, as well as around ’40 mile reef’, a nearby undersea mountain.

A Foreign Office Spokesman confirmed that they were considering the plan which would create largest fully-protected marine reserve in the world, surpassing that which they created around the British-controlled Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean in 2010. In a recent white paper, the government committed to preserving the rich natural heritage of Britain’s overseas territories through protected areas.

The principal challenge is defending such a remote reserve against illegal fishing. Dr Sala proposes that teams of online volunteers could monitor live satellite images for the presence of unregistered vessels which could then be apprehended when next in waters with a naval presence.

“Pitcairn is a rare piece of undisturbed ocean,” said Alistair Gammell of the Pew Environment Group. “It has great value as a scientific reference site, as well as a global biological treasure, and should be protected.”

Tourism currently makes up 80 per cent of local incomes, said Michele Christian, the director of Natural Resources for Pitcairn. Local artworks, lobsters and commemorative stamps are sold to the dozen or so cruise ships that pass every year. Honey from the island is famously pure, and is reported to be a favourite of the Queen’s. The UK spends an average of £1.5 million a year supporting the island.

“We didn’t know what we had in our waters until we were showed a documentary made by the expedition. Now we have a greater appreciation of what a jewel they are,” said Mrs Christian. “Declaring this reserve would put us on the map and help us be a bit more recognised. We’re quite an unknown destination and this could help our tourism.”

It would also give the island a chance to move on from the sex scandal that saw most of the island’s men locked up on the island in a jail of their own making in 2006. These days a policeman, a social worker, a teacher, a doctor and a government representative from ‘off island’ live on Pitcairn. To guard against impropriety, each is required to come with a partner.

Including these ten outsiders, Pitcairn’s population is 52, down from a high of 250 in 1936. To reach the nearest airport takes two days by ship.

“If tourism could increase jobs and income then it might just attract people to come and repopulate,” said Mrs Christian.

The great explosive mountain range under the sea

Deep beneath the oceans lies a huge, 70,000km-long volcanic ridge. Yet it’s little explored and its wonders are only now being revealed

On April 4, 1991, the US deep-diving submersible Alvin was nearing its target depth. Two and a half kilometres beneath the surface of the Eastern Pacific, the three-man crew were on a survey mission for a scientific drilling programme, but as they neared the seabed they realised something was wrong. Swirling around the vessel was a mysterious blizzard of white snow-like flakes. Slowly, they continued downwards. When the bottom finally appeared, they found it was riven with fresh lava. Trapped and half-buried by the molten rock was charred deep-sea life, including the giant tubeworms that thrive at chemical oases even at this depth.

By pure chance, they were witnessing the immediate aftermath of an underwater eruption, one of the planet’s most important and least well observed geological phenomena.

Sub-sea volcanoes are responsible for Earth’s biggest and most dramatic feature: the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Like a necklace of underwater Everests interspersed with gorges that dwarf the Grand Canyon, this vast mountain range snakes down the middle of the Atlantic ocean from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean, then continues through the Indian and Pacific Oceans for 70,000km. It is a rugged volcanic seam ten times longer than the Andes, sprouting the tallest mountains on Earth.

Where the great terrestrial ranges are continental crumple zones of ancient rock, the ridge is forever a fresh creation. Its peaks and cliffs are thrown up not by impact but by magma boiling up from the bowels of the planet. Only a tiny percentage of this remote and jagged realm has been explored, but it has already produced some extraordinary discoveries. Scientific papers on ridge expeditions read like the log of an 18th-century voyage of discovery, recording every observation in long, dry descriptions that, still, barely mask the writer’s wonder.

Experts are divided on how best to unlock the mysteries of the ridge, but this much is clear: it holds the key to fundamental revelations, not least about the functioning of our planet and its evolution over billions of years.

As it encircles the planet like a giant zip, the ridge’s defining feature is a central cleft. This gorge marks the border between oceanic plates as they are pulled apart by vast geological forces, allowing the magma to rise. Some plates — as in the Atlantic — spread apart as slowly as fingernails grow and the molten rock piles up in vast ranges. Others, such as those in the Pacific, separate five times faster and leave gentler rises on either side of the rift.

These new mountains then start a long march across the ocean basin away from the ridge, borne by the dense oceanic plate, sliding inexorably towards the continents in a process known as “seafloor spreading”. At the edge of the ocean basin, 200 million years later, they will slide beneath the lighter continental crust in a final volcanic firework display.

Volcanoes are one window on to the centre of the Earth and its many mysteries, but despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of volcanic activity takes place underwater, only a tiny number of sub-sea eruptions have ever been observed.

After Alvin’s 1991 mission, efforts to see one began to intensify. Scientists managed to persuade the US military to let them access data from a vast array of underwater microphones used primarily for snooping on enemy submarines. In June 1993 ocean scientists in Newport, Oregon, had been monitoring the data for only four days when they detected an earthquake swarm similar to that that would accompany an eruption on land. A quick-response mission was scrambled to the site to investigate its effects.

The next time that an eruption was detected in the area was in 2006, when seismometers suddenly went dead. The eruption-response mission scrambled Alvin, whose crew eventually found the instruments encased in lava.

The seas off the Northwestern coast of the US, near the Canadian border, are a particularly good place to study these eruptions. Here the ridge is close to land and is one of its fastest-spreading sections — and therefore one of the most volcanically active. The accessibility and the likelihood of seeing a marine eruption in the area has made it a focus for scientists wishing to study what the oceanographer Professor John Delaney at the University of Washington calls the “heartbeat of the planet”.

Here, on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, he has led the creation of a huge cabled undersea observatory as part of a worldwide drive to take ocean exploration into another dimension: time.

Until now, ocean science has relied on ships as its workhorse. Research expeditions have always been expensive affairs, and few scientists can guarantee even an annual visit to a study site. No matter how much information is gathered on those few occasions, trying to piece together a complex process from these snapshots is like trying to work out the rules of football from a few snapshots of a match. However high the resolution, without a movie-style flow of images you’ll struggle.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative, a £485 million project funded by the National Science Foundation in the US, is wiring up the seabed at several locations around North America with high-power, high-bandwidth nodes to which a wide variety of sensors can be attached. Undersea drones will use them as charging and communication posts, allowing them to patrol continuously. Other similar networks are being installed around the world, among them Canada’s parallel Neptune project, but the one on Juan de Fuca is the most ambitious. By the end of this summer the backbone will be complete.

“At the moment it’s like we’ve got the nervous system in place but not the sensory capabilities,” says Professor Delaney in Oregon, where he is overseeing construction. “Next summer we put in most of the instruments, at which point anything that takes place in the restless tectonic plate will be monitorable.”

Other scientists feel that because the ridge is so unknown, such enormous sums of money would be better spent on raw, geographical exploration in three dimensions before trying to tackle the fourth. “We know so little about the vast expanse of the ocean floor that we may be missing something absolutely vital if we don’t keep physically exploring,” says Dr Bramley Murton, a geologist at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who is also the chair of InterRidge, an organisation bringing nations together to collaborate on investigatingocean ridges. “There’s so much we don’t yet know about.”

That said, Murton admits that his fantasy is to witness an undersea eruption, some of which are so enormous that they have left lava slabs hundreds of kilometres long across the seabed. Imagining the energy involved in such an eruption sets his mind whirring with questions.

“It’s paradoxical that we’ve hardly ever seen any of these eruptions,” he says. “About 95 per cent of Earth’s volcanoes are underwater. Basalt from the Mid-Ocean Ridge is a direct geochemical window into the interior of the planet because it’s not contaminated by the continental crust. If we saw one we could learn an awful lot about the processes going on deep in the Earth’s interior.”

There is another geological holy grail, and finding it will take more than seabed sensors and serendipity. To understand how the planet was formed and how it has evolved we need to observe the mantle itself. Fully 68 per cent of the planet’s mass is contained in this zone of viscous rock, yet our only samples so far have been spoiled by the eruptions or tectonic shifts that delivered them to us. To reach the mantle from land would mean drilling at least 30km straight down. But beneath the thinnest ocean crust the mantle is a tantalising 6km away.

To drill a hole this deep is a challenge comparable to landing a probe on another planet, says geologist Dr Damon Teagle of the University of Southampton. It’s technically possible, but will be extremely challenging to pull off.

The Japanese are leading the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program in an effort to make this a reality. They have built a £500 million drilling ship for the task, but it is currently occupied with seismographic work to help Japan better predict and respond to earthquakes and the tsunamis that result from them. Besides, the billion or more dollars that would be required for the estimated two years of continuous drilling has yet to be secured.

“This is planetary science,” says Teagle. “These would be the first unaltered, fresh samples of the biggest component of our planet. We’d learn about where water comes from, how much there is, how much heat is generated there, how it’s evolved since the Earth was first accreted. In terms of understanding the evolution of our planet, this is key.”

The ridge harbours more than secrets of the planet’s evolution. It also holds clues to the origin of life. It has changed our perspective on what life is, and where its limits might lie. The constant volcanic activity creates jets of superheated, mineral-rich water in which life thrives independently of photosynthesis, giving biologists a glimpse into how the first organisms might have evolved. The blizzard that greeted Alvin’s arrival at the 1991 eruption was not ash, but microbes ejected from deep within the Earth. This dark biosphere may be the world’s biggest living space, but it remains mysterious.

“How active this life is and what it’s doing is rather unknown,” says Teagle. “It’s life, but maybe not as we know it.”

The Mid-Ocean Ridge beckons for many reasons. Some invoke pure exploration: how will we know what is there unless we look? Others seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But Professor Delaney, close to the Juan de Fuca Ridge in Washington state, sees ridge science in more pressing terms.

The undersea volcanoes along the ridge and elsewhere on the seabed are prolific enough to create two-thirds of the planet’s surface afresh every 200 million years. In the process they release prodigious quantities of energy and inject geochemistry and microbial life into the oceans on a planetary scale. This makes the ridge a crucial component in the mechanisms that drive Earth’s climate and form it as a habitat.

“Sooner or later we’re going to have to start managing the planetary ecosystem,” Delaney says. “We had better understand it.”

Have we left it too late to save our seas?

Marine life is reeling from overfishing, but the oceans — and some of those who depend on them — are fighting back

elcome to Caubian Island, one vision of Paradise Future. The white sand beaches have been overrun by plywood huts that spill out to the sea on stilts. The few remaining palm fronds wave forlornly from among their roofs. Onshore, the narrow sand lanes are crowded by chaotic constructions of cans, bottles and rusting piping that attempt to catch every last drop of rainwater.

Caubian lies in the Philippines on the Danajon Bank, a rare double barrier reef in the Coral Triangle, the heart of the ocean’s biodiversity. Yet all that can be squeezed from the surrounding sea — short lines of yellow reef fish, each no bigger than a credit card — lie drying on the hot, corrugated iron roofs.

As the Philippine population exploded in the second half of the 20th century, the reef turned from subsistence supplier to cashpoint. Stockpiles of dynamite left over from the Second World War found a new purpose as a quick and brutal new fishing technique. Other hunters took to squirting cyanide into the water around coral heads, killing it and any fish sheltering in their folds.

On a reef near Caubian, I float above a lifeless circle of shattered coral skeletons the radius of my arm. Six years after a single blast the scar has not healed at all.

Beyond the Philippines and across the world’s oceans loom threats able to outdo even the destructive power of dynamite and cyanide. The impacts of pollution, invasive species, coastal development, warming waters, ocean acidification and overfishing are combining with such ferocity that 80 per cent of Caribbean reefs are gone, and even the relatively well-defended Great Barrier Reef has lost around half of its coral cover. Many coral scientists now say that coral reefs, the world’s largest living structures, are unlikely to survive much beyond 2050.

The loss of these fragile, spectacular jewels may only be the start. The ecosystems of more temperate seas are also under siege from the same storm of adversity. If they fall, our grandchildren’s oceans will be dominated by jellyfish and slime. The decline appears relentless.

But there is one ray of hope. In the Philippines, fishermen have begun banding together to create reserves where all fishing is banned, and around the world similar movements are gaining momentum. Wherever it’s given a chance the ocean shows enormous power to bounce back, and fast. Recently, vast areas of ocean surrounding distant, sparsely populated islands have been declared sanctuaries. The race is on. Can adequate protection be put in place fast enough to prevent the complex weave of ocean ecosystems from unravelling?

The 1960s were another era for the ocean. This was Jacques Cousteau’s heyday, and while his dive team sailed the globe finding marine life flourishing, the British government decided to loan Diego Garcia, a remote coral island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to the US military. To ensure the military’s privacy, the 2,000 inhabitants of this and the other islands in the Chagos archipelago were relocated. The move remains controversial in terms of human rights, but for the ocean it was one enormous win.

Since then, the seas around Chagos have remained all but frozen in time. The Diego Garcia military base is the main transit point for US operations in the Gulf, but it is kept scrupulously clean and is ranked as the least polluted inhabited coral atoll in the world. What’s more, even though ships arrive from all over the world with stowaway species attached to their hulls and riding in their ballast water, the waters of Diego Garcia harbour are the only place in the world where not a single invasive marine species has been found.

The remainder of the archipelago has been entirely free of people for almost 50 years. The only human impacts have been from Sri Lankan shark-fin hunters and an offshore tuna fishery. Without sediment from construction, pollution or exploitation of near-shore fish, the coral ecosystem is in spectacular condition.

“I was completely blown away for the first two or three weeks,” says Nick Graham, an ecologist at James Cook University in Australia who has spent his career studying reefs and recently returned from a scientific expedition to Chagos. “It felt like going back in time. I hadn’t been to any coral reef before that which came anywhere close. The big difference with Chagos is the sheer abundance of large fish. I had a school of two to three hundred giant trevallies swim around me for a while, each more than a metre long. I’ve not experienced it anywhere else.”

The clear waters and profusion of life have made Chagos resistant to the threats that loom over the world’s coral reefs. In 1998 an El Niño event saw surface-water temperatures across the Indian and Pacific oceans rise by almost three degrees and reefs across the region bleached to sheet white as the coral polyps ejected their colourful algal tenants.

The reefs of Chagos were not immune to this heatwave, but while almost all other reefs in the region have remained barren, after ten years those in Chagos have recovered. Fish grazed the coral in sufficient numbers to prevent it being taken over by algae and, thanks to the gin-clear water, species that usually only thrive in the shallows survived in the cooler depths. These re-seeded the areas above, and Chagos now contains 25%-50% of the Indian Ocean’s best-preserved reefs, as well as the world’s largest contiguous undamaged reef area.

In 2010, the British Government declared 545,000sq km surrounding the islands a reserve off-limits to fishing — an area the size of France and the biggest such reserve in the world. At a stroke there was hope that an entire ecosystem could be preserved in this near-miraculous state. What’s more, thanks to the central position of the archipelago and the two major currents that pass through it, there is hope that the reefs may replenish the rest of the Indian Ocean seaboard.

In the Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, other giant reserves are being created around sparsely populated far-off fragments of empire. Big is best, but, where space has been won for smaller reserves, they still show themselves remarkably effective at restoring ecosystems, fish and the communities that rely on them. The concept of banning fishing in an area to allow marine life to recover is not new. Hawaiian rulers would declare certain zones to be kapu, or off limits, with violators punishable by death, while in Polynesia reserves were also tabu or tapu (one origin of the English “taboo”). Both protected an area for a certain period of time, then allowed fishers to return.

Temporary closures of some areas are a staple of traditional fisheries management, but the concept of making a fixed area permanently off-limits is part of a newer, ecosystem-based approach. Professor Callum Roberts, a marine scientist at the University of York and long-time advocate of the power of marine reserves, studies how permanent protection from destructive fishing techniques helps sea life to thrive.

“If you could fast forward through the years after a reserve was created, you would see kelp forests rise from the seabed, sea grasses thicken and spread and sediments disappear under crusts of invertebrates, such as oysters and sponges, which elbow their way above the bottom. The gradual rebuilding of these underwater metropolises increases the capacity of the sea to sustain life. There are more ways to make a living and more places to hide,” he writes in his new book, Ocean of Life.

As the habitat becomes richer, the ecosystem becomes both more resilient and productive. According to one 2009 analysis of reserves, full protection from fishing typically results in life being bigger (by a third), more plentiful (by 466 per cent) and diverse (by 21 per cent) within the reserve.

Species that thrive inside often spill out beyond the reserve, providing reliably rich fishing along its borders. Three quarters of the US supply of haddock is now caught within 5km of the edges of the areas off Newfoundland, which were closed to fishing in the wake of the great cod crash of the late 20th century. The benefits to the wider surrounding sea reach far further.

“If you think of a marine reserve as a fountain of microscopic eggs and larvae pouring into the sea you won’t be far off,” professor Roberts writes. “As populations recover and individual inhabitants grow larger, the flow increases from a trickle, to a stream, to a gush. Like dandelion seeds caught in the wind, currents carry offspring away from their parents for distances of metres to hundreds of kilometres, depending on the species.”

While most fisheries’ scientists base their expectations of the sea on their earliest systematic data (those recorded from the 1950s onwards), Professor Roberts and other scientists have peered further back, using historical records and archaeology, to the days before trawlers. What they found was extraordinary — the seas off Britain, for example, were once 20 times more productive than they are now. But in such busy seas, sweeping, blanket protection is impossible. Here, the ocean is under pressure to pay its way with protein (and increasingly, electrical power), not simply the harder-to-grasp, long-term services of recycling nutrients, cleaning pollutants, consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, which are often taken for granted.

Fishing is hunting, not harvesting. Because they are wild, fish and other marine life require a complicated ecosystem to allow them to flourish. But in the seas around Europe and elsewhere, powerful bottom-trawlers and dredgers scrape the seabed as though ploughing fields. As a result many of England’s fishing grounds are now effectively barren. Scotland’s have survived longer but are now dwindling. The Firth of Clyde, once a wondrous producer of herring, halibut and cod, now yields only filter-feeding scallops and prawn-like langoustine.

The objections of small-scale local fishermen to trawlers have been recorded since bottom-trawlers first appeared. At first the destruction was so obvious (thanks to the clear, life-filtered water) that in the 16th century men were executed for destructive trawling. As the years went by the seas around Britain became murky enough that the damage was no longer visible from the surface and the practice became entrenched. The slow slide to today’s situation had begun. Nowadays, only the areas that are too rocky to drag gear through are spared.

Traditional fishermen who use lower-impact methods are left on these rocky margins. With little remaining for small operators to catch, remote fishing villages are dying out. Bottom trawlers and dredgers often burn more money on fuel than they make from the catch, and are only kept at sea by subsidies from taxpayers.

The British Government is consulting on the creation of 127 protected areas around English waters, called Marine Conservation Zones. But despite the glaring need for restoration, pressure from the fishing industry (and other sea users) have seen the proposals watered down so far that many now fear that they will end up stripped of all power to regenerate sea life.

The solution may not even have to be as unpalatable as banning all fishing. When just towed fishing gear is banned the results can be almost as effective. In 1932 trawlers were banned from the Öresund, a narrow strait that separates the North Sea from the Baltic, to prevent them being a hazard to shipping. In the 1970s trawlers caught an average of 15,000-20,000 tonnes a year from the nearby Kattegat region, compared to 2,000 tonnes brought up in fixed gillnets from the Öresund, which is less than a tenth of the size. Come 2008, many previously important species had disappeared from the Kattegat and the area was yielding just 450 tonnes of cod, while catches from the Öresund remained the same as 30 years before. Research also showed that the cod were much bigger where trawlers had been excluded, and between 15 and 40 times more abundant.

Guy Grieve, a scallop fisherman and founder of the Ethical Shellfish Company, dives Scottish seas three or four times a day, and sees the damage that trawlers and dredgers cause. “If you had a competition to design equipment to destroy life on the seabed you couldn’t do much better than dredge gear,” he says. “Areas of seabed are being repeatedly raked clean or rubble-ised, and, as a result, there is zero complexity of sea life allowed to develop.”

Rather than a patchwork quilt of protected areas that is hard to enforce, he would like to see dredging kept out of the shallow waters where photosynthetic seabed life is most important. As an example of how different things could be, he points to just the other side of the North Sea, home of one of the world’s best fisheries. Their secret? Dredging is banned, leaving the seabed able to produce a profusion of life.

“Scallop divers I know there say that it’s like a jewel box,” Grieve concludes. “Our shallows need to be protected so that they can not only replenish the deep ocean but also provide remote coastal and island communities with a real chance of making a truly sustainable living.”

On the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, I drift away from the skeletal rubble of the dynamite blast zone. Beyond its sharp border my eyes are soon struggling to take in an entirely different sight. Corals twist upwards in impossible, undreamt forms, while below them lie rumpled carpets of astonishing, colourful complexity. Given the area’s history the best I’d expected to see was wearied, ashen reef, but this coral is sparkling brighter than any that I’ve seen in more than 15 years. Initially, fish seem scarce, but occasionally I glimpse fleeing fins in the distance. It seems they have yet to trust the protection afforded to them.

Above us a faded plywood hut perches on stilts above the coral. This guardhouse is, I’m told, key to the survival of the staggering habitat that I’ve just witnessed. As early as the 1970s, some fishermen in the Philippines were persuaded to try setting aside some areas of the reef as reserves that could act as seed banks for the surrounding sea. Guardhouses were erected to give the reserves a physical presence on the otherwise featureless sea, as well as giving shelter to the villagers on lookout each night. The effects have been powerful. The first, near Apo Island, now harbours 11 times more fish than before.

“Enforcement may not be a challenge at first, but when a protected area becomes known as being good for fish it can become a victim of its own success,” says Dr Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London, who has worked in the Philippines throughout her career and advised fishermen on where best to place the 34 reserves created so far on the Danajon Bank.

As more and more villages declare certain areas off-limits, scientific expertise and funding for guardhouses has been provided by foreign NGOs. The latest protected area was paid for by a campaign called Project Ocean run by the London department store Selfridges. Fishermen are usually the last to be persuaded that their livelihood can be improved by a reserve, but not here.

“Fish need a place to breed,” says Jelson Inoc, a 31-year-old fisherman from Caubian Island. “Almost everyone agrees that we need to close these areas to allow fish to come back.”

Most of the Philippine reserves are small — 90 per cent cover less than one square kilometre — and they vary widely in how well defended they are. Sometimes no beneficial effect is discernible in the scientific data, but often the locals say that they’ve seen a difference nonetheless. At first Dr Koldewey suspected some kind of village-wide placebo effect, perhaps natural in a fishing community that has peered over the edge and recoiled. But the bi-annual scientific surveys are fairly basic, and the selected fishermen that gather the data see the area in much more detail.

“These are people who are in the water almost every day of the year. It may be a real effect that we’re not capturing in the data,” she says.

Dr Koldewey knows that there’s still a mountain to climb. “The protected areas need to be bigger. If the Philippines were to set aside ten per cent of its waters as Marine Protected Areas [as is its stated goal] and they are all the present size of around one hectare, it would need 500 million of them. But it’s happening. Our first MPA was just 50m by 50m. It’s now 50 hectares.”

For those living on the Danajon Bank protecting the areas of ocean does more than just produce more fish. Caubian, like countless other coral islands, is only a metre or so above sea level. Its only defence against storms is the natural breakwater formed by the crest of the reef. As Caribbean islands have already been experiencing, when reefs die this barrier is rapidly eroded away, leaving islands exposed to gradual erosion, storm floods and permanent displacement from rising sea levels.

Temperate seas also have much to lose beyond seafood if their ecosystems are not nurtured. Poisonous seaweeds have choked beaches on France’s Atlantic coast killing dogs and wildlife with its fumes while decomposing. Toxic algae regularly wreak havoc in New England. Jellyfish swarms have wiped out entire fish farms, closed beaches and shut down nuclear reactors by clogging their cooling systems. All of these can be attributable to degenerating marine ecosystems. But there is also much to gain. Europe could produce 60 per cent more fish if its seas were managed properly. Worldwide, supplies from wild fisheries in the open sea could be increased by a third to a half.

As more areas of the ocean are protected both in national and international waters the seed of a solution begins to grow roots. Currently little more than one per cent of the planet’s seas are defended in any way, and most of these 6,000 or so Marine Protected Areas are woefully under-enforced. To create a network able to support the ocean as a whole and guarantee productivity and resilience, expert opinion suggests that around a third of the sea must be set aside.

It’s an ambitious target, and efforts to reach towards it have so far made only slow progress. Adequately protecting such a huge chunk of the planet’s surface will be costly, but remote-sensing technology is allowing cheaper and more sophisticated enforcement, and some believe the expense could be more than offset by cancelling the harmful subsidies paid out to global fishing fleets.

In the Philippines, guardhouses remain the best solution for keeping looters out of the reserves. After one villager described a long-distance chase by moonlight, I tell a local outreach officer from Project Ocean that I’m impressed by their dedication to the task.

She smiles. “What other choice do they have?” she says. Indeed.

The human fish

On just one lungful of air and at depths of up to 214 metres freedivers are reaching the limits of human endurance111819248_fish1_333276c

It’s dark. Only a few tendrils of light penetrate from the surface, 100 metres above. There’s no up or down, only a deep blue that glows above and glowers below. The lungful of air that you had — your only air — has been compressed to a mouthful. Your lungs have filled with fluid. Your heart beats just once every five seconds. Welcome to the terrifying underwater world of freedivers.

Holding your breath for the four minutes or so that it takes to dive this deep and return to the surface is hard enough, even without the pressure. After not much more than a minute, most people start feeling their lungs twitch, and a primal part of their brain starts screaming. Yet some divers have held their breath for more than 11 minutes. How they survive without air, how they can survive such pressures are questions that delve deep into the workings of the human body. Wearing only goggles, a wetsuit and a fin, these men and women are investigating the fundamental relationship between humans and the ocean.

“Scuba divers look around them; freedivers look inside,” says Tanya Streeter, holder of the women’s world record for the deepest dive, off the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean in 2002. Before she slipped under, medics warned her that what she was doing was impossible, but her instincts told her otherwise. Her trip to 160m down on a single breath was ten years ago and has yet to be beaten.

Humans have been freediving for food for thousands of years but, as a sport, it began to take off after the Second World War when a small group of Italian men began trying to outdo each other for depth records. It took an epic, decades-long rivalry between the Italian Enzo Maiorca and Frenchman Jacques Mayol to push the discipline to new depths, and popularity. Their competitive relationship was immortalised (albeit with poetic licence) in the film The Big Blue.

Despite their other-worldly feats, champion freedivers insist their ability to dive is not unique. “I’ve been poked and prodded like a lab rat over the years and nobody’s ever found anything different about me. It’s a human trait,” says Streeter.

Somewhere deep inside, our bodies know how to respond to the ocean environment. In the 1950s it was thought that the chest would be crushed below 50 metres. Instead, divers found that their lungs fill with pink, frothy blood plasma to keep them from collapsing, a fluid that is quickly reabsorbed when the pressure drops again. Our heart rates slow to as little as 15 beats per minute and blood is diverted from our extremities to our core.

Like many freedivers, Streeter can’t help but believe that there’s some truth in the idea that our ancestors went through an evolutionary stage where they lived in and around water long enough to forge aquatic adaptations. Our hairlessness, large amounts of sub-cutaneous fat, and descended larynx are all put forward as evidence, together with the much-vaunted “mammalian diving reflex”, whereby heart rates drop and blood vessels constrict on contact with cold water. Most scientists now agree that these features originated in other ways, but the elemental simplicity of a semi-aquatic phase in our evolution still appeals.

Strange as it may seem to reluctant swimmers, there is no doubt that we are, at the very least, a capable aquatic ape. Children raised foraging underwaterhave subsea vision twice as good as ordinary kids. Their parents can hunt for five minutes on a single breath, prowling without weights along the sea floor 20 metres down.

The rest of us do need a few tools. Most humans need some sort of goggles to see. To get around the problem of a shrinking air space that threatens to suck out your eyeballs, competition freedivers use special fluid-filled goggles. And while the British-born world-record-holder William Trubridge can reach more than a hundred metres down without fins to assist him, propulsion helps. Given a carbon-fibre monofin, he has dived to 125 metres. That’s deeper than the Galapagos fur seal has ever been known to dive.

Others can go still further with the help of weighted sleds to drag them down and up again. Earlier this summer the Austrian Herbert Nitsch took a single breath of air and plunged deeper than the Canary Wharf tower is high, reaching a depth of 244m. But, despite his long record of doing similar dives, this time was different. As he came to the surface he indicated that something was wrong. He was rushed into a series of emergency recompressions. Despite a long spell in intensive care, three months later he’s still recuperating.

While we share our diving reflex with mammals (and, indeed, all vertebrates), the aquatic ape is sorely lacking in other adaptations. The biggest obstacle is our air-filled sinuses. Equalising the pressure on the eardrum is easy enough when air is plentiful, but not when your air has shrunk away to nothing. “By storing air in your mouth you can leave your lungs to collapse and just shift that air from your mouth into your ears using your tongue,” says Trubridge. “That allows you to go deeper than you could if you used air from your lungs — at a certain point you can’t get the air out of your lungs as there’s not enough volume for you to exhale.

Beyond a certain depth no diver will have enough air left to be able to prevent the eardrum bursting. One strategy now being pursued by a radical freediving fringe to counter this involves forcing seawater from their mouths into their sinuses early in the dive, ending the need to equalise. It’s painful and can lead to infections, but it removes a big obstacle.

The other factor holding humans in the shallows is the inability of their blood to store oxygen for long periods. Freedivers try to boost their levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells through training. Deep-diving mammals, such as elephant seals, use their spleens as a bank for red blood cells, squeezing them into the blood stream when at depth and reabsorbing them into the spleen at the surface. The more haemoglobin they have, the more oxygen they can store and the longer they can dive. But they have another key advantage over us: far more myoglobin, the potent breath-battery, in their muscles.

All these adaptations allow marine mammals to conduct most of their diving aerobically. For human freedivers the most strenuous part of the dive is when striking back for the surface. To reach a depth of a hundred metres Trubridge takes only seven kicks before the air in his lungs is compressed to the point that his body becomes negatively buoyant and he can freefall to his target depth. To return, however, requires more than 30 agonising kicks. All his muscles are burning with lactic acid, while his carbon dioxide-laden blood is making his mind see fireworks.

While a capacity to store oxygen in the blood and tissues is crucial, the neurological siren that starts screaming when you’ve been holding your breath too long is triggered by rising carbon dioxide levels, not the lack of oxygen. With practice, the alarm can be ignored for a while without repercussions. Staying calm is key. It’s no surprise that yoga is a crucial part of training for its ability to increase the flexibility not just of the lungs, ribcage and diaphragm, but of the mind.

Despite the physical challenges they confront, both Trubridge and Streeter say that the secret to their abilities is mental. Both grew up in and around the sea, and are only completely relaxed when in the water. For them, the deep-seated comfort that they feel in the water is the most tantalising clue to our ancestral past.

“There are a lot of people out there who could dive deeper than me, but you have to have the lack of fear. It’s not a place that human beings survive for many minutes, there’s a lot to be afraid of — it’s very, very deep,” says Streeter. “But it’s weird what happens to me when I get in… I flick a switch. I feel the protection of the sea.”

Listen to Frank’s interview with William Trubridge in the ‘exclusive audio’ tab


Dive gauge

As depth increases, so does the hostility of the conditions (Depth | Temp | Pressure)


0m | 20C | 1 bar

At the surface of the ocean the pressure is equivalent to 1kg on a single fingernail

10m | 19C | 2 bar

80% of light absorbed. Pressure same as in a car tyre. Scuba leisure dive limit is 40m

50m | 18C | 6 bar

No red light. Pearl diver max depth. Record non-assisted freedive by a woman: 66m

100m | 17C | 11 bar

Pressure same as espresso machine. Record non-assisted freedive: 101m (Will Trubridge)

150m | 16C | 16 bar

99% of light absorbed. Record assisted free-dive by a woman: 160m (Tanya Streeter)

200m | 15C | 21 bar

Translucent blue. Record assisted freedive: 214m (Herbert Nitsch). Scuba record: 318m

500m | 8C | 51 bar

Pressure same as a small fridge on a single fingernail. Max depth of Navy sub is 600m

1,000m | 4C | 101 bar

Total darkness, only bioluminescence exists. Max dive depth of elephant seal: 1,256m

2,000m | 3C | 201 bar

Max dive depth of sperm whales (deepest diving air-breathing animals): 2,250m

4,000m | 2C | 401 bar

Pressure same as a motorbike on a single fingernail. Average depth of oceans: 4,267m

8,000m | 1C | 801 bar

Maximum operating depth of undersea cables and remotely operated vehicles

10,994m | <1c | 1,100 bar

Challenger Deep, deepest place on Earth. Pressure same as 50 jumbo jets on a body

How a tiny seahorse is riding to rescue of natural wonders wrecked by dynamite

105719974_seahorse_288963cUnder a starlit sky Eduardo Alivo swims slowly across the surface of the sea, face down as he peers into the corals beneath. In the time-honoured fashion of Filipino seahorse hunters, he tows a canoe, on which is mounted a home-made kerosene searchlight.

After 15 minutes in the water he stops and duck-dives. Delicately clasping a finger of coral on the seabed is his quarry. The seahorse, the length of a pen, makes no attempt to escape, relying instead on its camouflage.

Seahorse numbers on the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, where Mr Alivo works, plummeted by 90 per cent between 1998 and 2005. Worldwide, 20 million are sold every year, more than any other wildlife commodity, in a trade worth around £24 million.

Luckily for Mr Alivo’s find, after 15 years of catching seahorses destined for western collectors and eastern medicine chests, he now uses his hunting skills to protect them. In doing so, he is helping to restore a rare coral reef driven to the brink by decades of dynamite fishing, and to revitalise a seafaring community that has found itself short of fish.

The population of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines has grown to an estimated 100 million people, but explosives left over from the Second World War have wreaked havoc on its reefs. Yields from the Danajon Bank, one of only six “double barrier reefs” in the world, have plummeted.

“I used to easily catch 20 kilos in a night. Now I catch only two,” said Jelson Inoc, 31, a squid fisherman.

In 1996 two of the researchers who had identified Danajon Bank as the main source for the seahorse trade began Project Seahorse, an NGO that aimed to secure a future for the creatures in the area by persuading local fishing communities to create sanctuaries where they could safely breed.

Heavy-handed attempts by the Filipino Government to control the seahorse plunder have made the trade more valuable and have driven it underground. A total ban on fishing for them was implemented in 2004, causing the price to rise. Fishermen can now sell a single specimen for almost a pound.

According to Heather Koldewey, co-founder of Project Seahorse and a biologist with the Zoological Society of London, seahorses produce few young and those young do not disperse far, making their populations slow to recover. “The protected areas have helped, but seahorses naturally occur at low densities. We haven’t seen big increases in their numbers, but they are bigger inside the protected areas, and bigger seahorses produce more babies,” she said.

Guard houses are mounted on stilts over the sanctuaries to help keep raiders away, and when such policing is successful the reserves help fish stocks and corals to recover as well.

There are 39 protected areas on the Danajon Bank, the most recent of which was funded by the department store Selfridges with money raised during a month-long campaign last summer. Across the Philippines more than 1,000 protected areas have been established, but they cover just 3 per cent of national waters (against a national target of 15 per cent).

“There are more fish in the sea now and communities are actively supporting the protected areas. We can now look at expanding into other habitats like the outer reef,” said Dr Koldewey.

Philippine photos

The guard platform at Minantaw reef, Danajon, La Caubion island and some fishing boats against a darkening sky…

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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