The Carabao Dive Center asked me to accompany two Japanese divers today. Of course I didn’t pass up the chance to go scuba diving, and I was really looking forward to it because we were going to San Juan Reef.
This dive site, which is very close to the Hof Gorei beach resort on Samal Island, is a favorite of mine because of the abundance of huge coral heads present (mostly hard coral) and the myriads of species of marine life that call it home. I was telling the Japanese couple (retirees from Tokyo) about how I enjoyed San Juan Reef, and it turned out really well in the beginning — visibility was at least 30 feet and there was hardly any turbidity (in spite of the heavy downpour last night).
We planned a dive where we would bottom at about a hundred feet, take in the surroundings for a few minutes, skirt the sloping wall towards the southeast while climbing, then explore the reef level at about 40 feet for the remainder of the first dive.
It all went quite well — lots of photo opportunities for my charges, great visibility, warm waters (max of about 85°F / 29°C), thousands of colorful, hyperactive tropical fish — until we got to the last leg of the plan.
What greeted us at the southeastern portion of the reef was dismaying. No: horrifying. Looming in the distance, it was like an apparition that seemed to blur the coral formations ahead. It didn’t register in my mind right away because of its unthinkable size. Then it hit me, and the realization was painful. It was a fishing net, covering an area the size of a
volleyball basketball court.
For some inexplicable and unfathomable reason, local fishermen dispose of old or damaged fishing nets into the sea. Some months ago, a diver-photographer told me that these underwater pollutants were called “ghost nets”. I’ve been seeing such things from time to time, but usually no bigger than a few feet long. I wish you would never have to see what I did today — it felt like a punch in the gut.
On my second dive, two fellow Dabawenyos — Bgy. Capt. Jun Laud of Ma-a and Van-Van, one of his volunteers from the barangay rescue team — joined me in an effort to clear as much net as possible. It was in shallow water, about 20 feet, so we were able to stay underwater for a solid hour and a half. But we could only do so much. The offensive netting covered a lot of bristly coral heads, so that it was extremely tasking trying to extricate the super fine threads.
A lot of fish were caught in the ghost net’s deathly clutches: angels, damsels, puffers — most of them doomed to die. I was able to free a filefish and a juvenile triggerfish and another that I didn’t recognize, but that was it.
What was most gut-wrenching for me was seeing two peacock mantis shrimp, hopelessly entangled in the net’s nearly invisible fibers. We were desperate to free the pair, but to no avail. One was above the net and the other below, both beyond rescue due to their constant struggling to get free. What if they were mating? What if more were trapped? It was my first time to see this dazzlingly colorful creature… but in such a depressing circumstance!
Ghost nets are highly destructive. They ensnare marine animals, big or small, and they can suffocate coral. In this incident, it was very shallow and currents at San Juan Reef are nutrient-laden, so that algal growth is at an accelerated rate; I saw a few staghorn coral heads already completely covered by algae. Endangered marine turtles, even dolphins, can also get entangled in these wantonly discarded nets.
Three months ago I wrote about destructive fishing practices and that it would take a bottom-up approach to curb them. Clearly, what’s needed is to get local fishermen to truly understand the harm in their actions. I mentioned that it would take time for this to happen. But when??
Tomorrow, I hope more divers will join us in getting rid of that nasty fishing net from San Juan Reef. It will take a concerted effort, and it will certainly take time and lots of patience. I’m just glad that the people I dive with are as conscientious of the environment as I am, and are always there to lend a hand.
Aside from the environment, the presence of these undersea pollutants will hurt our tourism industry. It was quite embarrassing for me during our surface interval, talking to the Japanese tourists about the ghost net. The couple came to Davao for scuba diving, nothing else. I wonder how they truly felt about seeing that horrific sight…
When will the local government units involved take action? When will the plans emanating from the various organizations active in the Davao Gulf finally see the light of day? Clean-up dives, while noble, are transient measures, mere stop gaps that don’t really address the root of the problem. What we need are rigorous and resolute actions by everyone concerned.