It is natural for men to be frightened of the unknown yet it only takes a courageous dive to discover the unventured depths and appreciate all there is to see.
The Philippines, being an archipelagic country, is surrounded by large bodies of water - the West Philippine Sea on the north and west, the Pacific Ocean on the east and the Sulu Sea on the south. They divide our lands geographically but they bind us together through our shared maritime culture.
Antique, for instance, being a coastal province that extends throughout the western shore of Panay, has long been a witness to the bounty of the sea.
However, over the years, marine researchers have expressed concern on the rapid deterioration of coral reef systems and, in effect, the decline of marine resources.
These are attributable to rising sea temperatures and exploitative human activities such as blast- and over-fishing.
As a counter mechanism, the government has taken measures to regulate yields and ensure that underwater life is not threatened but nurtured and protected.
Environmentalist and House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda recognizes the vulnerabilities in the country’s marine biodiversity, thus, the pieces of legislation she authored in congress as well as the many initiatives her office has taken to raise awareness.
Recently, with the lady solon’s commitment to champion tourism development and environmental sustainability in her home province, a collective of government agencies and private organizations was tapped to devise an expedition to the depths of Antique’s waters.
The idea was to discover and document the province’s marine resources thereby exploring eco-tourism potential.
Although two fully-formed coral reefs in the municipality of Libertad had already been surveyed in the recent National Assessment of Coral Reef Environments project, a need to assess coral reefs in other municipalities was evident so to identify the general state of coral reef health in the entire province.
Private video production company StudioH2O that specializes in underwater videography formed a group comprising of marine researchers, scientists, and cinematographers.
All of whom mustered their courage and took on the challenge to explore the unchartered depths and take into account the marine biodiversity beneath.
The team was initially set to survey 13 fringing reef areas in the province but, inclement weather, rough sea conditions, logistical difficulties, and accessibility constraints limited them to document just five sites.
These are Nogas Island Fish Sanctuary (2 sites) in Anini-y, Igdalaguit Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Tobias Fornier, Patria MPA in Pandan, and San Roque MPA in Libertad.
Despite their long experience in the deep, the marine researchers expressed renewed admiration to the majesty of the sea.
Antique’s reefs boasted the abundance of its massive and bright corals as well as the wide variety and richness of reef fish species like the neon damselfish, striated surgeonfish, speckled damselfish, white spotted devil, red-cheeked fairy basslet, pearlscale angelfish, moon wrasse, and many more.
Social entrepreneur, diver, and research member Marie Angela Petines said that the seascape of Antique gives a taste of Tubbataha, given its close proximity to Sulu Sea which hosts the renowned reef system.
The marine researchers also noted that the reefs display a potential to house more corals due to the consistent presence of algal assemblage which indicates suitable locations for coral growth.
Apart from the five sites, the team also got the opportunity to conduct an exploratory dive at Sebaste shoal.
Schools of fishes including predatory ones welcomed the dive team on site, and just as their camera panned while capturing the vastness of the sea, something unexpected emerged from nowhere.
Slowly, it displayed its magnificent wings and gigantic figure before the stunned researchers and underwater cinematographers – an oceanic manta ray found itself off the coast of Antique, a rare occurrence that has never been documented before in the waters of the province.
This is a clear indication of Antique’s potential to become a premier diving location in the country.
Which is why, marine economist and free dive instructor Tara Alessandra Abrina said that Antiquenos on coastal communities must learn and appreciate the process of surveying, inventorying, monitoring, and protecting their seas by themselves.
She added that such activities are needed since stressors were found on the reefs which, if not taken into account and without appropriate action, could lead to unnecessary deterioration of marine life.
Their team had found traces of crown-of-thorns starfish that pests on the corals, pollution run-off from the shores, ghost fishing gears like discarded or lost fishing equipment, and even signs of dynamite fishing.
Nonetheless, the researchers have high hopes in the local government of Antique in preserving the existing unspoiled and
marine protected areas and saving degraded sites that are constantly threatened by excessive human activities.
Through collective management strategies and firm implementation of national laws and local ordinances, the team sees a good future for these reefs.
They also expressed the importance of getting the local communities highly involved in the awareness, empowerment, and conservation efforts if the province is really steering towards the full development of their marine eco-tourism sector.
The marine researchers hope that with the apparent tourism development, no fishing family or small-scale entrepreneur will be left behind.
The team also urges Antiqueños to discover themselves the less ventured