After a couple of months of habagat, the Coral Gardens dive site at last had awesome visibility when we went to dive there last Saturday. It wasn’t spectacular — only about 40 feet — but it was much, much better than before. So Christian and I decided to do a blue-water entry, together with two divers we met on the boat.
Christian, Patrick , Emit and I plunged to 106 feet (32 meters) from the surface, at the southern end of the Coral Gardens dive site. We bottomed away from the actual reefs and onto a sloping sandy bottom. (My dive buddies and I enjoy this kind of descent, ever since we did it for the first time with Carabao Dive Center instructor, John Neri. You sink into the sea, usually to the very bottom, with no reef or wall as visual reference, only your bubbles to tell you that you’re going down.)
It was Patrick’s first time to dive Davao, so it was a pleasure to show him around what was once Davao’s pride. However, while the visibility was really good, the dive site itself isn’t what it used to be.
As recent as a decade ago, the Coral Gardens site was an underwater world teeming with all sorts of tropical fish and burgeoning with large coral heads. But now, due to an infestation of the crown-of-thorns sea star — its overpopulation caused by the near extinction of its main predator, the giant triton — you see large patches of dead coral all over the site. It’s a depressing scene.
Crown-of-thorns sea stars feed on coral polyps and are known to be voracious eating machines. Each animal can lay waste to about 65 square feet (6 sqm) of live coral per year! They are very hardy, able to regenerate damaged limbs, and can survive without food for half a year. Divers report that killing these sea stars causes them to spawn, so that the only way to dispose of them is to bring them to the surface to die in the sun. Another way would be to somehow bring back giant triton into the picture…
But it’s not only the imbalance of the marine ecosystem that is being harmful to this once-lush undersea location. People are also to blame.
Beach-goers, snorkelers and divers — who come in droves each month — contribute to the destruction of the Coral Gardens. There are spots where coral heads are as shallow as 10 feet, and they bear the brunt of people’s presence. This place is also a preferred site for check-out dives, where student divers, who aren’t yet in control of their buoyancy, often cause damage to soft coral, sea anemones and other marine life. Not to mention, boat’s anchors…
I am pretty sure all conscientious divers who’ve seen Coral Gardens lately will agree with me that this site is under a great deal of stress. However, I don’t know how many will take my side in this proposition: Close down Coral Gardens for rehabilitation.
It’s been done before. Access to Mt. Apo’s trails was barred for a few years, to allow the mountain some breathing time, so to speak. Why can’t it be done for dive sites?
After our dive, Patrick, who’s also a seasoned skin diver, remarked that he didn’t see a lot of fish at Coral Gardens. Unlike in other sites, we saw very few anemonefish and parrotfish, or commensal shrimp and cleaner crab. It almost looked dreary. Maybe it was because the sky was completely overcast (which made sea anemone to close up), so that sea life slowed down that time. But I think the stresses caused by people — including unscrupulous fishing practices — are taking their toll on the site. It was pretty sunny the previous time I was there, and fish density was obviously very low even then. And no big fish at all.
That’s why, before it’s too late, I believe that the Samal local government unit, or the Department of Environment & Natural Resources, should exert the necessary efforts to rehabilitate the Coral Gardens. If closing down the site for a year or two turns out to be the best solution, then I’m all for it! (Imagine how totally thrilling it would be to re-enter the site once it’s opened up for diving again!)
If government won’t do it (for lack of political will or, more likely, absence of concern), then dive operators should step up for the Coral Gardens and abstain from this dive site themselves. In the final analysis, the marine environment’s health is paramount and should supersede our own pleasure-seeking activities.