Photo by Paul Cowell
Marine environments all over the world are being negatively affected by human actions. Corals are bleaching at alarming rates, shark and other fish populations are reaching dangerously low and unsustainable levels, and vast areas of our oceans resemble a landfill from all the plastics and other debris floating around.
Here on Mactan Island we have felt the effects of these environmental issues but Scotty’s, in cooperation with the Shangri-La Resort, is working to restore our Shangri-La Marine Sanctuary (SMS) to its former pristine glory.
Photo by Paul Cowell
Spearheading this initiative is the Shangri-La resident marine biologist Irene Grace Tan. Irene will have been working at the Shangri-La one year this March. Since she started at the Shangri-La Irene has begun implementing new projects whose effects can already be seen. It seems like every time I dive there, which is almost every day, the number and variety of fish and other marine creatures seems to grow and it is Irene’s intention to keep that trend going.
One of Irene’s first projects was to improve the corals in SMS. “We cannot avoid guests stepping on the corals,” Irene said, “so we take them from the shallows and transplant them to the deeper areas.” She explained that once taken from the shallows the damaged corals are placed on an elevated platform for two to three months. On this PVC platform the corals are allowed to heal themselves before being transported and planted onto the reef or, on another of her projects, a fish house.
Photo by Paul Cowell
These fish houses are another means of attracting new marine life, including squids and octopus, to the sanctuary. Irene was “try[ing] to find something more natural than ships or other objects,” and decided on the limestone and cement structures that will one day blend in seamlessly with the rest of the reef structure. The fish houses simulate rock piles and give the marine creatures plenty of hiding spots they love to call home.
Photo by Paul Cowell
While these two projects are ongoing, there are a few others that our marine biologist plans to implement in the near future.
The first will be to rehabilitate the sea grass beds present in SMS. Right now Irene estimates that they cover about 10 percent of the sanctuary but she wants to bump that number up at least another 10 percent. “[Sea grass] is a big producer for the marine environment,” Irene said, “It provides food and shelter for clams, fish, sponges and sea horses.”
She explained that there are two ways she plans to increase the sea grass numbers. One is to replant sea grasses that wash up on shore and the second is to save sea grasses from other locations that will most likely be destroyed by humans and transplant them in SMS.
Another future project is tied directly into the sea grass project. Irene plans to reintroduce sea horses into SMS once the sea grass numbers, a sea horse’s natural environment, increase.
“Sea horses are really amazing creatures, so many people are fascinated by them,” Irene said, “but it’s very easy to capture them.” This is one of reasons sea horse populations have declined globally she explained. They are favorites for both aquarists and, like such things as rhino and elephant horn and shark fin, a favorite ingredient in Chinese “medicine.” And the sea horse’s docile nature makes them easy prey for collectors. The other reason for the decline in their population, like so many other marine creatures, is that their natural environment continues to be destroyed by human irresponsibility. She hopes to begin this project within the year.
As she hopes all these project will help SMS continue to grow and flourish, Irene says that the first step is to educate the guests, especially the kids, and even those employed by Shangri La. Irene will personally take adult guests out for a snorkel safari and the kids out for a tour of the sanctuary.
Irene said, “we have to make people aware that each action of an individual can affect a marine environment… it’s our job to take care of it, we need to share the responsibility.”
I’ve missed ocean diving. For the last 8 months, besides the very rare trip to the Florida Keys or Atlantic Coast, I had been relegated to diving fresh water springs in the heart of horse country Florida. Most any diving is good diving but there is nothing like exploring a sunken wreck or diving on a reef that’s teeming with life and color.
I got lucky too, getting the chance to come work here in the Philippines. When it comes to marine variety it doesn’t get much better than the Philippines! And here in Cebu we are located right smack dab in the heart of the Coral Triangle. For those who are unfamiliar with this geographic location, the Coral Triangle is home to the highest concentration of marine life diversity in the world. Earlier today I was diving with two students at the Shangri-La Marine Sanctuary (SMS) and in just two square meters I saw a Stone Fish, a couple of Lion Fish, a Snowflake Moray Eel, and a type of Nudibranch called Anna’s Chromodoris. While in the Florida springs I would see a catfish (a rather large catfish I’ll give it that), a soft-shelled turtle, and lots of rocks. And that would be every dive.
Needless to say, I have missed ocean diving very much.
The two students I had with me today are brother and sister Mats and Evy, on vacation from the Netherlands or Holland, one of the two.* Either way, they were Dutch, I do know that. They are both very good kids, Mats is on the national golf team and Evy is on the national tennis team. I had a sense I would be watching them winning Grand Slams and Major Tournaments in the near future and I’ll be able to say, “I taught them how to scuba dive!” Perhaps they’ll even be in the Olympics for their sports, I’ll just have to look in both the Netherlands and Holland delegations to try and spot them.*
Though I have missed ocean diving immensely, there is one thing that I miss about working at a local dive shop. Here when my students are finished with their course they fly back to their respective countries. I can only hope that they come back one day and perhaps take a specialty class or come out for a dive or two with me. But unfortunately more time than not they never will. While at a local dive shop they usually live close by so I was able to continue teaching them and diving with them. Basically it is always sad to have to say goodbye to a guest after getting the opportunity to share their vacation with them, in this case diving, something I love so much. On the other hand, I greatly enjoy getting to meet people from all over the world, so it’s a bit of a catch-22 I suppose. But on the whole I’m very happy to be here and looking forward to meeting my next guests.
I was sleeping on a black sand beach in Hawaii while I hunted for my first job in the diving industry. I had flown out to the Big Island from the Florida Keys the day after I completed my training and had about $200 in my pocket, a small tent, and the determination to find work as a dive instructor. During one of my daily 20 mile hitchhiking commutes into Kona from Ho’okena beach I decided to stop into a small bookstore along the way. While wandering around the stacks and stacks of books I happened upon one that instantly caught my eye.
The book was called Shadow Divers and it seemed to have it all: exploration, adventure, mystery, history, and of course Scuba diving. It’s the story of a group of wreck divers that are tipped off to a possible wreck off the coast of New Jersey in some particularly dangerous diving conditions. After getting to the site and descending down they discover that the wreck is of a previously unknown World War II German U-Boat. After multiple dives to the wreck, there are no markings on the outside or clues found on the inside that can be used to identify this ill-fated submarine. The men attempt to track the history of the U-Boat on land and at 73 meters [240 feet] under the Atlantic Ocean at the submarine’s final resting place.
I instantly became fascinated by the type of diving they were doing. While recreational dive limits are 30 m or 100 feet extended range technical diving allows divers to go deeper for longer periods of time. Another area of technical dive training teaches how to enter, or penetrate, wrecks. It’s also a much more equipment intensive and physically and mentally challenging form of diving than recreational diving. So when I was offered the job here at Scotty’s and learned I could train in SSI’s Extended Range [XR] diving specialty, I jumped at the opportunity.
The course included me, Scotty’s diving manager Peter, married couple Philip and Silke, and our XR trainer Ray. The couple are both doctors from London. Philip works with the disabled, mostly veterans, and Silke is a pediatrician. They are a very nice and friendly couple who love diving and beer. Originally they planned to just come to the Shangri La and do some recreational diving but when Ray responded to one of their emails, Philip saw Ray’s XR Instructor certification and, in Silke’s words, his eyes lit up. Philip is a dive master and Silke a rescue diver so they both came into the training with a good amount of experience under their dive belts. This is a necessity when one begins to think about taking a technical dive training course.
Extended Range dive course is challenging and not something recommended for those without that experience and confidence in the water. The equipment is heavy, the dives are long and complicated, it’s physically demanding, and there’s a lot of new material to learn. You have to rely on your skills, your training and your problem solving abilities in order to have a successful XR dive. Even something as simple as deploying a surface marker buoy on a reel gets more complicated when you have to worry about run times, switching bottles, and maintaining your buoyancy and trim all at the same time.
But don’t let all that scare you off. Extended Range diving is completely worth it to anyone who has the desire and experience. There’s really nothing else like it.
Our first dive as certified XR divers was to the Liloan Wreck. The wreck sits on its side at about 50 meters with the top at about 35 meters. On the day that we went we were blessed with some fantastic visibility for the site. I had heard that on average it might be around five meters but luckily we had around 15 meters of visability for our dive. The wreck is about 30 meters long so we could see about half way down the ship from either end.
We came down the ascent/descent line and, unlike recreational diving where it is recommended that you descend fins first, we laid out flat on our stomachs with our knees bent and arms out, trying to give our best sky diving impersonation. From this position, watching the wreck as it slowly begins to emerge and take shape as we descended upon it was truly an incredible sight. Would be brilliant if white soft corals cover the wreck but at that depth everything has this dull green tint, it really is another world down there. We made our way around the wreck, reaching 45 meters in depth before coming up along the propellers to the side [top] of the ship. From there you can see into the ship’s interior but we never actually penetrated the wreck. After our 23 minutes were up we made our long, slow ascent back to the surface.
Philip, Silke and Ray made another dive this morning to Marigondon Caves. When they came back they told me they were able to see just how much of a difference being XR trained made. There was another dive operation at the site and as they got to the opening of the cave, the other non-XR divers peaked into the cave and had to come right back up since the opening sits at around 35 meters. Philip, Silke, and Ray, on the other hand, were able to actually enter the cave and explore around before they had to make their accent to the surface. I think that story perfectly sums up what being XR trained adds compared with recreational diving.
As a side note, I want to add that Silke really did have four cylinders on, two on her back and two stage bottles on her side. You’re welcome Silke, enjoy those well deserved beers, and it was a real pleasure diving with both you and Philip this past week!