The first time I encountered Dr. Alcala was through a paper I read in 1996 while working on my undergraduate degree in the University of the Philippines (UP). You have to realize that Dr. Alcala was born in Negros Occidental before World War II, so he knew what Philippine reefs looked like before the war. And he grew up in impoverished conditions, then found the opportunity to study at Stanford in the 60s. Imagine that. In the 60s and 50s, for someone to do that coming from humble beginnings was almost unheard of—and he was a superstar for it. His work on marine protected areas (MPAs) started in 1973 and he was the only Filipino scientist doing this sort of thing back then. 50 years ago, he was already talking to the people of Southern Cebu and was responsible for broaching the idea of creating the first MPA in the country at Sumilon Island.
By the early 2000’s when I started working with him, he had already achieved so much. He was a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee about ten years prior, and held positions as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary from 1992 to 1995 and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chairman from 1995 to 1999. He was always so busy, I was lucky to even see him and have a chat with him when he was in Dumaguete. But his aura was there. My relationship with him was like that of a grandfather’s—I didn’t see him often, but when he was there we would try to get as much time with him. Some colleagues often remarked that he can be difficult, but you see, when he’s onto something he cannot be stopped until he finds an answer. He’s a classic scientist, trained to observe and those sharp observations lead to amazing discoveries.
A colleague who was a premier physical oceanographer (a scientist who studies physical processes and conditions within the open ocean) once visited Dr. Alcala at the UP Marine Science Institute. Their conversations wandered to different things, and Dr. Alcala asked out of curiosity, “Are you studying the sardines in the Bohol Sea? Because that fishery in Zamboanga del Norte has been productive for so many decades and it doesn't seem to be crashing. If that place is so productive, then there must be an upwelling.''
An upwelling means a sort of occurring physical process that makes the ocean productive and more nutritious for fish. It could be the wind blowing the surface water away, water then rises moving nutrients from the bottom that could be what feeds the sardines. Dr. Alcala was only making guesses at the time, but that simple question from a random conversation launched a new program on sardine biology and fisheries funded by the national government. It didn't take long for the oceanographer to find out that Dr. Alcala was exactly right.
Whenever Dr. Alcala is asking questions, it would really [get him going]. He has this curiosity and childlike wonder. And because his background and training in biology is rock solid, his insights were far reaching.
His death is only sinking in now for me. I may be one of the closest to him professionally, but I can't say I know him well. Now that he's gone, so many stories are pouring in—stories of how supportive he was of the people around him.
Dr. Alcala is a giant in this field, and perhaps many of us somehow got the impression that he would be immortal. It felt as if he was as big as Jupiter and we were all mere rocks going around him. And because he was so huge, we didn’t really know what was on the other side. Turns out, there were so many other small rocks, people around him just like me that I didn't know about until now. It made a big difference to people to have been given a chance to read his work or listen to him, and for him to put in a good word for somebody to further their career or to get scholarship opportunities. He was always trying to help and develop people. I’m just one of the many who have felt his impact.
He cares about nature, and naturally, he cares about the people who depend on nature. So it was a natural extension for him to be a scientist who is relevant to the people. I've never heard him say he was proud of being considered the father of [marine] conservation in the Philippines. But he was always quick to give credit, he was grateful for the people who made an impact in his own career. He established the MPA in Apo Island, but he tells me it was all because of the help of the social scientists who explained what was going on to the communities they worked with. His expertise was in biology, so he sought the help of people who knew how to deal with people. He didn’t want to hog the credit.
If you had seen him around Dumaguete, the only thing that would probably signal his importance was his white hair. At our office, he would often just be wearing shorts, sandals na may medyas. He didn't really care about appearances. I could just walk to his house, his dogs would bark at me, and he comes out. Sometimes we would have lunch. He was a giant and yet he was so humble. There are so many anecdotes that have come out: of expeditions that were really just him and a small team, where they would just have bigas and asin on a bangka. For all the things that he's achieved, maybe he was still the same boy from Cauayan. At the end of the day, he was just a human being who was really curious and really wanted to help others.