By Henley Spiers, Underwater Photographer / Dive Instructor
The Coral Triangle is my favourite place on Earth. I’ve had the privilege of working there for three years as a dive instructor, and I return to it any opportunity I get. I love it there and yet have only seen a fraction of what it has to offer. The Coral Triangle is a massive area which encompasses the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It spans an area 2.2 million square miles big – that’s more than eight times the size of Texas. It is often called the ‘Amazon of the Seas’. This is because it’s the centre of marine biodiversity for planet Earth. Here are a couple of headline facts:
In sum, the Coral Triangle, even on paper, is a marine treasure of awesome proportions that is incomparable to anywhere else on Earth.
Those are the stats, but that’s not really what I’m here for. I’m not a scientist or a politician. I am a professional diver and underwater photographer who is head over heels in love with the ocean. Beyond the hard facts, the Coral Triangle is my favourite place because it is where I have seen more beauty than anywhere else on Earth.
It was off the coast of Bali that I first swam with majestic Manta Rays. It was off Malapascua Island that I would venture out before dawn every morning to find Thresher Sharks coming up for their daily cleansing ritual. It was in Komodo national park’s tremendous currents that I hid behind Batu Bulong rock and gazed upon a perfectly balanced reef. It was in the muck of Lembeh that I happily spent hours looking through sand and rubbish to find the elusive Mimic Octopus, Flamboyant Cuttlefish and Hairy Frogfish. This region is a wonder and if you haven’t yet dipped your head below the surface there, well, I highly recommend you do!
The Coral Triangle has been anointed as a Hope Spot by Mission Blue and is in desperate need of protection. What follows are some of the threats which are apparent to me as a frequent diver in this area. Although my account cannot be considered comprehensive, it aims to provide an ‘in-the-water’ view of the situation:
Big pelagic species are notable in their absence. For the most part, it is unusual to see a shark or any other big pelagics on a dive. Industrial fishing has taken a massive toll and it is very difficult to protect pelagic species due to their migrations over large swathes of the ocean. There is a huge market for tuna and shark fins in nearby China, Japan and Taiwan. Over 120 million people live in the Coral Triangle and rely on the reefs for food and income. The majority live in relative poverty and there is an understandable attraction to the quick, high value return from fishing pelagic species. The efficiency of fishing techniques and long maturation cycle for top marine predators means large pelagic species are being decimated.
Rubbish seems to be a perpetual dive buddy when diving many parts of the Coral Triangle. Reefs are peppered with a dispiriting array of plastic objects. It is no surprise to find out that the Philippines and Indonesia are amongst the five worst offenders for plastic pollution in the ocean. Rapid economic development in Southeast Asia has given a lot more people the means to purchase more plastic goods. Waste disposal education and infrastructure has not kept pace with this change. The perception amongst much of the population still seems to be that the sea will simply wash away all waste.
Above water, it is very difficult to effect change and enforce legislation in a region that spans multiple countries and thousands of islands. The Philippines alone comprises over 7,500 islands and 13 indigenous languages. Furthermore, I’m afraid to say that corruption is rife and my experience is that almost anything can be bought for the right sum. In these circumstances, long-term conservation is usually sacrificed for the sake of short term economic gain. It is hard to see how universal protective measures could be implemented across the Coral Triangle.
I have not spoken of the effects of ocean acidification and climate change. This is not to diminish their importance but simply an acknowledgement that these have been heavily documented elsewhere. Let me simply say that the Coral Triangle is arguably the area where we have the most to lose through changes to ocean temperature and acidity.
Despite these looming threats, I have witnessed pockets of hope in the Coral Triangle.
Malapascua is one such example. A tiny island in the Philippines, it has become the world centre for thresher shark sightings. In this region, 80% of all income is derived from tourist scuba divers. The local population recognises the benefit of marine conservation. Through the work of the Malapascua Marine Protection Fund, former fishermen have been converted into ‘Sea Guardians’ that provide daily protection for their most famous dive site: Monad Shoal. Since the surveillance started, illegal fishing has decreased dramatically and thresher shark sightings are better than ever. The news improved further in 2015 when Monad Shoal (and close-by Gato Island) were designated as the first shark and ray sanctuaries in the Philippines, with no fishing or catching permitted.
With 50% of the Coral Triangle being comprised of sand, the growth of the muck diving industry is an under-documented force for good. Muck diving takes place over sand and mud areas in the search for weird and wonderful fish and creatures. Amongst avid scuba divers, the Lembeh Straits in Indonesia has become the mecca for this type of adventure. Other muck diving centres have evolved in places such as Anilao in the Philippines and Mabul in Malaysia. The abundance of life in these areas is gob-smacking and a keen reminder that the Coral Triangle’s diversity is held in more than just the reefs. This wealth of marine life has received little attention so far from the scientific community beyond Maarten De Brauwer’s fascinating research. His work has shed light on a $100 million industry and we need to ‘remember the sand’ in our conservation efforts.
Tubbataha atoll in the Philippines is perhaps the healthiest reef in the world right now. The reef is vibrant and healthy from the shallow table corals all the way down to the massive sea fans. You see sharks on every dive going about their daily business as apex predators. All around are fish mating, fighting, flirting, feeding and simply existing in an orgy of marine life. This marine park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and is protected year round by a team of on-site rangers. The marine rangers patrol the reef and use radar to look out for any boats entering this strict no-take zone. Scuba-diving tourism is restricted to three months of the year and only under permit. The effect of these protective measures has been dramatic and visitors are greeted by a perfectly balanced reef ecology. Tubbataha has quickly bounced back from the destructive overfishing of the 1980s. In an ocean that has been ravaged over the last 50 years, Tubbataha is one of the last remaining places where you can find a pristine reef.
It is not too late to save the beauty and diversity of the Coral Triangle. These pockets of hope have shown me that we can still protect this ocean amazon. Getting buy-in from local governments is a critical first step, one which is best served by proving the financial benefits of conservation and tourism. From there, we must declare more protected marine areas in the Coral Triangle. Finally, the marine protected areas must be strictly enforced with round-the-clock surveillance by marine rangers.
I hope you have the opportunity to visit the Coral Triangle’s spectacular underwater beauty sometime soon. But in the meantime, check out Mission Blue’s ways to make a difference: mission-blue.org/act-now/