Monday, June 15, 2009

So many species in a fragile environment

Last Friday, June 12, the El Nido Foundation formally launched “Reef Fishes of El Nido”, a book resulting from the extensive study done by Dr. Gerry Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann. It is a r083esult of countless dives, each averaging over an hour, in 2007. We were lucky to have been invited. Dr. Erdmann was not able to make it, but Dr. Allen was. He signed books, including the one my daughter bought.

081 I first set foot in El Nido on January 23, 1989. In that year alone I tallied 594 dives within Bacquit Bay over 287 days, faithfully logging each dive in my log book, which I still keep. You see, I worked there as a divemaster and dive instructor for several years. The diving was great in those days.065

Once, two other divers and I saw a huge dorsal fin sticking out of the water near our boat about two kilometers off Popolcan Island. We donned our masks, fins and snorkels and jumped in the water, and there I saw my first whale shark. I saw my second whale shark while scuba diving at Kulasa Point, between Matinloc and Inambuyod Islands. Between January and April of each year, we would see manta rays almost on every dive. There were turtles, sharks, and  barracudas. There were also the seldom seen saddleback clownfishes, leafy sea dragons, and other smaller and rarer  creatures. Foot-long groupers and snappers were ordinary for any given dive.

098 Coral was good too, but not as colorful as the ones in Anilao, Batangas. Bacquit Bay does not have the strong currents of Anilao, and currents bring food to the coral, but enough nutrients were circulating so that the reefs in the bay were respectably varied. Even then, there were signs of blast fishing in some of the dive sites. And when diving activities waned in the mid-nineties, I’ve been told that blast fishing became more rampant, and the live fish trade flourished.

Then came the kicker: the 1998 El NiƱo, when ocean114 temperatures rose by several degrees. An estimated 16% of the world’s coral died, and the reefs of El Nido were not exempt. A great many number of corals turned luminous green and blue, then white, and finally sections upon sections of the reefs died.

When several areas in the bay were declared Marine Protected Areas, the marine life in those areas began to bounce back. In the Tres Marias site particularly, where Seacology funded the installation of ceramic reef modules, the results are astounding. Where imagethere was coral rubble a scant 3 years ago, there is now a thriving coral colony on each of the ceramic modules. Groupers, snappers, wrasses, and other reef fishes have returned in large numbers.

So far, Drs. Gerry Allen and Mark Erdmann have documented 813 species of fish in El Nido. Dr. Allen says that the next book will be written by someone from El Nido who will be a Marine Biology Scholar of the Gerry Allen Scholarship Program (managed by the El Nido Foundation). Dr. Allen set the scholarship up just for the people of El Nido, and it will be funded from the proceeds of the book.

Now that is one for the books.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Village Lights Up with Clean Energy

A secluded village in Northern Palawan Island is off-grid, that is, it is too remote to be served by the Palawan Electric Company (PALECO). 018 But Barangay Bagong Bayan in Roxas, Palawan has within its jurisdiction, over 825 hectares of rainforest –- its watershed. The abundant water from this feeds the beautiful Alibanua Falls, which has always been a source of pride for the villagers.

An attempt was made to harness the water for micro-hydro power, but specifications were faulty and the equipment brought there never worked.

My work as Seacology’s Field Representative for the Philippines  brought them to our attention. In exchange for preserving and protecting their watershed in perpetuity, Seacology agreed to finance the rehabilitation of the micro-hydro power generator. SIBAT, one of our NG030O partners, undertook the rehabilitation.

Early May 2009, I was told that the rehabilitation has been completed. So on May 29, 2009, Jove Benosa of SIBAT and I traveled to the site to see for ourselves the micro hydro power at work.

Our 8 am flight was delayed for 4 and half hours, and that in itself is a subject for another blog if I get the impetus for it. Suffice to say that we eventually touched down in Puerto Princesa at 1:30 pm. It’s the longest one hour flight I’ve ever taken.

The driver of the rented pick-up was waiting for us. Waiting for longer than anyone should, as we were supposed to have arrived 9 am. I should have brought a medal with me to pin on him.034

It was a 2 hour drive to Roxas town proper, and another 2 hours to Barangay Bagong Bayan. By the time we got there, it was nearly 5:30 pm. But all the inconveniences we have encountered thus far was dispelled by the happy faces that met us. So infectious was their disposition that I think we never quite stopped grinning the whole time we were there.

The first question I was asked was Nasaan si Ma’m Karen? (Where is Ma’m Karen?). They were referring to Seacology’s Senior Program Officer Karen Peterson who was with us when we came to visit last June 2008. A little disappointment was evident when I told them she couldn’t come this time, but not enough to dampen their spirits. After all, they’ve got electricity now!

Some village leaders hopped on our vehicle and rode with us a kilometer or so further until the road ended. We stopped a few hundred meters from the power station and had to trek the rest of the way, through muddy walkways, a shaky two-plank foot bridge, a river, and a steep path. We were shown how the micro-hydro station worked, as well as Alibanua Falls where plenty of water still flowed despite some  being diverted to the micro-hydro power generator.


Back at the Barangay Hall, the grateful villagers served young coconut, crab steamed in coconut milk, and red rice. After the meal, I walked around the village and saw several youngsters playing basketball even at dusk. That, to me, spelled the opening of new opportunities for the village.