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The GRID Expedition II


Scientists, conservationists, travel industry professionals, fishermen, and travelers speak to us about the state of our oceans.

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Story by
Sonny Thakur
Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
Additional underwater photography by

Francisco Guerrero

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The story of this year's GRID Expedition is a hard one to tell, because it sits at the intersection of what is very important and what is rather difficult to care about.

So let's begin with something we can all agree on: awe.

The ocean is a realm unto itself. Forget extraterrestrial travel; the deep blue is an alien world begging to be explored. It’s full of behemoths like great white sharks and giant spider crabs; and tiny creatures like nudibranchs, polyps, and krill. It’s also full of improbable creatures: jellyfish that could theoretically live forever, and vampire squid that produce flashes of light in the dark.

The sea is so vast that it hides them all—and hides them so perfectly that, while almost 95 percent of life on earth is aquatic, scientists estimate that we only know about two-thirds of all aquatic species. We’re discovering new ones all the time. Just in 2015, for example, scientists announced the discovery of over 100 marine species around the Verde Island Passage in Mindoro. Every year, the oceans turn up more wonders, even as the rest of the world thinks wonder and astonishment are no longer possible.

When we enter the water, we do so as explorers and tourists: We are entirely out of our depth and our element, literally and figuratively. We have to relearn how to move, how to breathe. Time slows down. Gravity loses its power. Every diver can describe the moment they were struck by existential awe: It feels like flight, or a spacewalk, or a dream.

Tara Abrina freediving at Apo Reef
There isn't a shortage of underwater sights to behold at Apo Island.

It’s no wonder that so many people fall in love with the ocean; it’s made for awe. How lucky we are that the world is mostly water. And how lucky that the Philippines isn’t just an island-nation; we’re an archipelago, surrounded by sea and ocean.

The Philippines is part of the fabled Coral Triangle, the center of marine biodiversity in the world. Including the waters of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, it is home to about 37 percent of the world’s entire reef fish population, and 76 percent of the world’s coral species.

The 161-km long Tañon Strait separates the islands of Negros and Cebu. It was declared a protected seascape in 1998, and encompasses a good number of marine protected areas.

If the seas were forests, the Coral Triangle would be the Amazon, except it is larger by about 200,000 square miles. Between 100 to 120 million people depend directly on these waters for livelihoods: Fisheries exports rake in billions of dollars—as does tourism. As the “nursery of the seas,” the impact of the Coral Triangle on the rest of the world is simply incalculable.

And that’s just the Coral Triangle. As a whole, the oceans are even more vital than most of us understand: The oceans are responsible for producing most of the world’s oxygen, and absorbing most of the carbon from the atmosphere.

Now, imagine that thousands of travelers—including you—have access to the heart of the Amazon, with its uncountable number of plant and animal species. Imagine the beauty, the sheer wonder. (And imagine how vulnerable the area is.)

Sample fish for study at Silliman University Marine Laboratory.


There were three mermaids, they said, that were being held captive for study at Silliman University; attracting curious visitors to Silliman Beach. It’s said that the mermaids’ mother had held the weather hostage until her babies were freed. She had caused either the floods or the drought, depending on whom you ask.

There were no mermaids, of course. This happened in 2009, though people still whispered the story a year later, when I first visited Dumaguete City. It’s a funny story to hear in a university town, especially one that’s home to some of the country’s finest marine science programs. But perhaps that’s indicative of the relationship the people here have with the water—reverent and flippant at the same time; boldly curious, but fearful of what isn’t understood.

What would push a fisherman’s son to try and understand the mysteries of the deep? For Dr. Angel Alcala, it was wonder. “I was filled with wonder. We were swimming in the sea and I saw various colors of coral reef and the fishes,” he told the Philippine Star earlier this year. At 88 years old, he has a long and illustrious career behind him: he has served the country as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and as the chairman of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED). But his true legacy is work as a marine biologist and as a pioneer of marine protected areas (MPAs); work he started in the 1970s.

National Scientist Dr. Angel Alcala pioneered the creation and study of Marine Protected Areas in the country.

Some isolated fishing communities already had basic concepts of conservation, but for most of the world, it was as if there were no limit to the bounty the sea could provide. Who could blame us? The seas kept yielding treasure, no matter how large the nets we threw into them. So we kept throwing bigger nets, nets the size of football fields, and remained remorseless in our hunger for fish catch.

By now, the situation has become dire. Ask a conservationist, and you’ll be met with doomsday figures: 90 percent of the world’s fisheries have been overfished, while climate change is causing rising sea levels, killing off coral reefs, and putting all sorts of pressure on marine ecosystems. Fishing, pollution, mining, oil drilling, shipping—even tourism—are all threats to marine conservation.

Today, the dangers are more evident; back in the 1970s, even scientists were barely aware of them. Unsustainable fishing practices were already beginning to be a problem, but it was largely one that was out of sight, out of mind.

Perhaps that’s indicative of the relationship the people here have with the water—reverent and flippant at the same time; boldly curious, but fearful of what isn’t understood.

Marine Protected Areas are areas where fishing and other human activities are restricted (or prohibited entirely) for the sake of conservation. In the 1970s, this concept was new and relatively untested, and it wasn't the easiest thing to sell—especially to those who depend on fishing to live. Try telling a fisherman to forego fishing from some of the richest waters around—not for a week or a month; not even for a year, but to have faith that, in perhaps five years or so, the fish catch just might recover enough from an unseen problem to benefit everyone for generations to come.

This was what Dr. Alcala was up against. But, as a scientist, diver, and son of a fisherman, he had a very personal stake in preserving the waters around Tañon Strait. He campaigned successfully to make Sumilon Island the Philippines’ first MPA in 1974. Far from the busy tourist hotspot that it is now, Sumilon at the time only had one inhabitant: the bantay assigned to make sure no boats would violate the MPA.

For ten years, all fishing was halted in a designated area on one side of the island, a 750-meter area that included a reef about 100 meters long. It’s a relatively tiny area; nevertheless, it was able to show how MPAs could work. In the ten-years enforcement of the MPA, the corals recovered, and so did fish populations. Most importantly, the fish catch outside the sanctuary were at record-breaking levels—one report suggested that the annual average per square kilometer was the highest ever reported in the world. MPAs worked. And now the fishermen could see it.

Scientists tirelessly work to discover new things about life underwater at Silliman University's  Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences.

There is a photo of Dr. Alcala taped to a wall in the Silliman University marine lab, where Dr. Rene Abesamis works. Half the age of his predecessor, he’s now around the age Dr. Alcala must have been around the time he started to establish the first MPAs.

The photo is a reminder that Dr. Alcala—whose hair is now a snowy white, his chest sporting the tell-tale railroad tracks of open heart surgery—cut a dashing figure as a young man. Here he is in the photo, smiling into the sunlight, dressed in a wetsuit on a boat on the sea. He must have known, even then, that he was playing a long game when it came to science, especially when it came to MPAs. Things unfold slowly, over the course of many years, often unseen. Dr. Abesamis’ work is, in many ways, the culmination of that faith.

While MPAs are designated as a “no-take” reserve, they also help fisheries in two ways; first by spilling over adult fish populations to surrounding areas. Dr. Alcala’s work was built on the hypothesis that the healthy ecosystems would benefit surrounding fisheries, and the data at Sumilon proved this.

Second, and perhaps more significantly (and up until recently, nearly impossible to prove), MPAs also provided larval export. Simply put, when fish in an MPA spawn, their larvae is dispersed, helping to stock fishing grounds in surrounding places—just how far depends on a number of variables, as well as how neighboring communities and LGUs protect the MPA network. Though monitoring proved that the fish catch had improved around Sumilon, Dr. Abesamis’ paper showed that the fish babies produced inside MPAs also found their way to other, farther fishing grounds.

It’s no wonder that so many people fall in love with the ocean; it’s made for awe.

“After I showed Dr. Alcala my paper, he came downstairs to my office. He was quite emotional,” says Dr. Abesamis. “He said: ‘This is validation of more than forty years of our hard work. I just have one request: would you mind putting my name at the end, next to Garry [Russ]’s so that he and I can grandfather this paper?”

L-R: Dr. Rene Abesamis, marine biologist; Tara Abrina, freediver and marine economist

But Sumilon had proven difficult to manage; without a supportive local community, the political will to sustain it was also inconsistent. After ten years of enforcing the no-take reserve, the MPA at Sumilon lost its protection, and was reopened to indiscriminate fishing in 1984. Within a year, they found that the fish and corals were severely depleted again. Still, thanks in part to Russ’ work, the changing fortunes of Sumilon provided hard-won and crucial information that could be used as lessons for other MPAs. It was a painful lesson, but the data it provided was invaluable.

After Sumilon, Dr. Alcala campaigned to establish an MPA at Apo Island, about 50km away. By the late 1970s, Apo’s fisheries were suffering from a host of unsustainable fishing methods that were ingrained in their everyday practice, such as the use of muro-ami, cyanide, dynamite, and small nets. In comparison, no one had ever heard of MPAs. Dr. Alcala showed fishers from Apo how the sanctuary at Sumilon had worked, and how much fish there were. Convinced, the community at Apo agreed to put up a small MPA.

What had Sumilon taught them? First, it was clear that the ideas underpinning MPAs were sound, and that a no-take MPA could have wide-ranging impact on the fish catch in the entire area. Second, protection needed to be continuous, as whatever gains were built up could also be lost in a matter of months. Now, the most challenging question was how continuous protection of an MPA could be achieved, given the realities and difficulties of maintaining them.

For that, Dr. Alcala had a very elegantly human solution: What had been missing from Sumilon was the involvement of the communities in maintaining the MPA. The fishermen recognized and enjoyed its benefits, but they had little to actually do or say about its management. At Apo, it was crucial to have the buy-in of the community; the residents had to be involved at every stage. There had to be education from the very beginning, to change mindsets about conservation. If they managed that, they would have the community’s commitment, which was perhaps the most crucial ingredient in creating resilient MPAs.

Dr. Alcala made sure that Apo was a community-supported initiative from the very beginning. In 1982, Apo’s fishermen helped select an area—measuring about 450m along the shore and 500m away from it—to designate as a no-take MPA. Since it was a very small area, less than 10% of the fishing grounds, it seemed doable, and fishermen and their families volunteered to share watch duties to ensure the sanctity of the site. By 1985, Greenpeace reports, all the families on the island supported the sanctuary, and lobbied the municipality to make the MPA legally binding.

The early beginnings of Dr. Alcala’s MPAs, and the close attention paid by scientists through the years, yielded decades’ worth of data. Russ had been able to do what Dr. Abesamis called “a phenomenal job” at monitoring the fish and corals at the two sites, scuba diving into the MPAs and manually counting the fish found there without fail for almost 30 years. This data enabled Dr. Alcala, Dr. Abesamis, and other scientists to build on the lessons of MPAs: It answered, for example, questions about how long it would take for fish populations to grow inside MPAs to be able to benefit the surrounding fisheries, or how fragile the gains were after protection is lost. It’s a data set still unmatched worldwide—it’s scientific gold.

And they’re not yet done: “We have decided to extend the surveys for another fifteen to twenty years, to make fifty-plus years of data,” says Abesamis. “Because it’s unlikely that Russ will still be diving in ten years’ time—he’s 65 now—I started piggybacking on his dives beginning in 2014 to ensure that our methods are in tune with each other. In short, we’ve been transitioning.” The long-term data has been important, he adds, in knowing how long it takes for fish populations to build up after an MPA has been established.

The decision to keep going is momentous, but Dr. Abesamis has taken the effort a definitive step further: He delivered proof that fish from MPAs can stock other fishing sites, near and far. Both Dr. Alcala and Russ wanted to prove this themselves, of course, but the technology to do so simply didn’t exist at the time. Now, Dr. Abesamis could take DNA samples from fish found off Apo and several other sites around the Negros Occidental coastline. He’d bring these samples to a lab in Saudi Arabia, where months of analysis showed that fish from the Apo MPA had genetic links to those across other sites—proving that an MPA’s benefits could be felt past its immediate surroundings.

The resulting paper, published in March 2017, is dryly titled “Reef-fish Larval Dispersal Patterns Validate No-Take Marine Reserve Network Connectivity that Links Human Communities”. The abstract to the scientific paper contains this sentence: “Critically, half (51%) of the inferred occurrences of larval dispersal linked reefs managed by separate, independent municipalities and constituent villages, emphasizing the need for nested collaborative management arrangement across management units to sustain NTMR networks.”

Wade through the scientific language, and the phrase “links human communities” shines: Essentially, Dr. Abesamis confirms that the fish in MPAs eventually helped populate fisheries in other municipalities and islands. But with community involvement being essential to an MPA’s successful enforcement, this also means that people needed to work together, too.


Mario Pascobello says his family had something to do with Apo Island’s name. Pascobellos have lived on Apo since before the island had a name, he says, and the story goes that one of his forebears was setting out on a boat to visit a grandchild on the island when a foreigner asked where he was going. “Apo,” Mario’s ancestor had said, pointing to the island where his grandson was. The foreigner mistook that for the island’s name, and the rest is history.

It’s hard to tell if Mario is joking, or if he really believes that his great-grandfather had a hand in naming Apo. But it is true that Mario has lived all his life on this island, and he’s experienced firsthand the deep changes that have happened over the decades. Where once everybody had little choice of livelihood but to be fishermen, today Mario owns a dive shop and a homestay. In fact, he was one of the first Apo locals to become a licensed divemaster.

Thanks in no small part to the conservation efforts around it, tiny Apo Island has become one of the most popular travel destinations in the Visayas, drawing thousands of visitors every year. The coral reefs grow large and lush over here, and with it the schools of fish and other marine life. It’s also one of the most well-known turtle sanctuaries in the country. For a while, this was mostly a recreational-divers’ paradise, with boatloads of divers coming to see the results of marine conservation. Over the past decade, non-divers have also discovered the island, coming in droves to see the healthy turtle population, snorkel in the shallows, or simply enjoy the white beaches.

Every diver can describe the moment they were struck by existential awe: It feels like flight, or a spacewalk, or a dream.

Apo Island, which is only 12 hectares total, is too small to be its own political entity, so it belongs under  the municipality of Dauin, a 20-minute boat ride across the strait. The island is so small that one could walk around it in just an hour. It’s impossible to get lost, as the single paved road that circles around the island takes you through the entire community there. There’s an elementary and a high school—surprising for an island with less than a thousand people. There are a number of resorts now (mostly homestays); and more dive shops than there are, say, bakeries on the entire island.

Livelihood here revolves mostly around two things: fishing and tourism. In that sense, the MPA has all but defined life on the island. This was once barely a rock with little going for it, but protecting the waters injected life into the place in more ways than one. Mario would be the first to tell you how locals were initially skeptical of the idea of a no-take MPA in their fishing grounds. Now a respected community figure on the island, he is a vocal proponent of marine conservation, having seen firsthand the prosperity it's brought to his hometown. As for the idea that the island’s healthy fish stocks also help support the fishing grounds in places like Zamboangita, Siaton, and Dauin, he says: “Pride. We feel pride.”

Mario is one of the people that Rene Juntereal regularly runs into on Apo. As the head of the dive program at Apo Island Beach Resort (and its sister resort Coco Grande in Siquijor), his work has also been shaped to some degree by the success of the MPAs on Apo, Sumilon, and other sites. “Tourism... it’s both good and bad,” Dr. Alcala would say, and nearly everyone shares this cautious opinion.

L-R, clockwise: The crew of GRID Expedition II includes GRID Executive Editor Francisco Guerrero, divemaster and economist Rene Juntereal; GRID photo editor Sonny Thakur; and filmmaker Carmen del Prado.

Having gone on hundreds of dives here through the years, Juntereal sees both sides of the equation. On the one hand, human presence—which has only grown as Apo Island’s popularity spreads—puts pressure on the environment, no matter how well-meaning the visitors are. Broken corals happen to the best divers, and even the smallest disturbances can build up. Then there are the invisible impacts that we’re only beginning to learn about: how, for example, the chemicals in sunscreen can leave trace amounts that poison corals and micro-organisms in the water, or how crowds of people can change the behavior of fish and their habitats.

Still, there are advantages to tourism, and its contributions to a community may have more far-reaching effects than immediately apparent. For example, better economic opportunities mean less pressure on locals to engage in unsustainable fishing practices, as they recognize the value of keeping coral reefs intact. Tourism also means that an area gets more attention—and with it, more political will. For divers and other tourists, their experiences can also lead them to be environmentally conscious and conscientious. Awe is a powerful emotion, after all; it changes lives.


Her mother asked her not to become a marine biologist, and in the beginning, Tara Abrina didn’t really want to, either. But scuba diving (and freediving) had put her in the most intriguing environment she’d ever seen, and curiosity got the better of her. “I wanted to learn about this fish, and then I wanted to learn about that fish, and that one, and that one...”

She’s still not a marine biologist; out of respect for her mother’s wishes, she earned her bachelor’s degree in economics instead. But the saltwater, so to speak, was in her blood, and she offered her services as a volunteer diver and researcher for the Marine Science Institute (MSI) at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. “I told them, ‘I’m really good at learning!” she laughs.

When the time came to pursue advanced studies, she asked her mentor at MSI about how best she could help with marine conservation efforts—should she go into marine biology, after all? No, she was told, what they needed was for her to remain an economist. MSI had marine biologists; what they didn’t have was an economist who was interested in marine conservation in the way that she was, or who had her particular set of underwater skills. And so she embraced that role, bringing her background in economics to bear on her passion for the water. “What I do is to translate conservation into a language that everyone understands: money.”

At MSI, Tara works on a number of research projects that look into coral bleaching, for one thing; climate change and global warming on another. She’s also trying to quantify the economic benefits of coral reefs and the activities surrounding them on the communities on shore. It’s all part of the big picture, and her work does its part in trying to bring all the little bits of the puzzle together.

That’s the academic part of the program; Tara, in many ways, stands for the ideal of what underwater travelers can become. She’s working on her certification to become a freediving instructor, and has brought her training to benefit rangers and NGO personnel working in MPAs. Under a personal initiative called Kapit Sisid, she teaches freediving skills to people working in MPAs, to give them a safe and cost-effective alternative to scuba diving when monitoring their areas. In a funding landscape where every centavo counts, these tweaks can mean the difference between a successful MPA and an unenforced one.

According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, an estimate of 1.9 million Filipinos depend on fishing for livelihood.

Thanks to her research work in remote provinces, she’s also been in contact with fishing communities, learning about the practical and economic challenges of sustainable seafood. She’s launched a program for community-supported fishing called Katig Bisig, a social enterprise that encourages fishermen to engage in sustainable fishing practices.

An offshoot of community-supported farming programs, community-supported fishing works two ways: consumers in the city are encouraged to directly source their seafood, in the hopes that this will lead to closer relationships with the people who provide their seafood, helping them become more conscious of their own choices. Meanwhile, fishermen are also given a financial cushion that helps them become more resilient, which also protects them against economic pressures to engage in harmful fishing practices.

It’s a hard model to start up, especially since Katig Bisig is the first of its kind. If the experience of similar programs in agriculture are any indication, there’s going to be a learning curve for its organizers, the stakeholders, and the consumers. But it’s an idea whose time has come, and if done well, can really help change the seascape, one community at a time.

Awe is a powerful emotion, after all; it changes lives.

In all, Tara says, the work is about communication. It took decades for humans to push the oceans to the brink; the solutions won’t come overnight. It’s a complex problem, and it’ll require complex solutions. But it is entirely possible—one hopes. One has to hope.

If science has proven anything about marine protected areas, it’s that everything matters, and that everything underwater is interconnected in ways we don’t see. We can only take it as an article of faith that the individual work everyone brings to the collective effort—as scientists, conservationists, travelers—is crucial to saving the seas.

All that work is daunting. But for everyone, the work begins with awe.


This story was originally published in GRID Volume 03.

This story was originally published in

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