Major Tom to dive control: possible target sighted!
Like astronauts surveying an alien world, we’re floating above a cool dreamscape of coral-coated rocks, following a flapping plastic transect line while occasionally checking our life-support systems.
Peering into a crevice, I look for telltale signs of my quarry. There! Quivering white antennae reveal two insectoid monsters with beady, stalked eyes and armored claws, ready to strike. I yawn and mark my Reef Check dive slate with two notches: banded coral shrimp, one pair. Beside me, Jeff is busy counting fish while Manny is assessing coral cover with a heavy metal V-bar. It’s a Monday morning and we’re in Tubbataha – just another day on the job as . . .
To gauge the health of the world’s coral reefs, global marine conservation organization Reef Check created the EcoDiver Programme, where volunteers can help scientists study reefs. Site-specific information is gathered using a standardized system. Data is then analyzed before being turned over to local reef protection agencies.
The EcoDiver training course runs for five days and teaches divers everything they need to survey coral reefs – from identifying fish and invertebrates to classifying various types of substrate. Transects, buoyancy, advanced finning techniques and hand signals are what people can gain. Various monitoring systems are used to measure the abundance of indicator critters like parrotfish, banded coral shrimp – even giant clams, with their colorful lips puckered and ready for a smack.
Divers pair up to carefully assess four 100-meter transect lines spaced five meters apart.
To see how reefs are faring year-on-year, sites survey from one to four times annually. “Candidates must both pass written and field tests then they will get an award of Reef Check EcoDiver status and their EcoDiver kits, which include dive slates, weights, notes and identification cards,” explains former Reef Check Philippines President Jeannie Tan.
I found out the hard way that EcoDivers must have perfect buoyancy because writing notes on a slate while looking for fish or invertebrates (sometimes while upside down) while buffeted by a strong current can be pretty tough. Good thing I’m with the veteran divers of the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), pros who surveyed the grounding scars wrought on Tubbataha by a Chinese and an American ship back in 2013.
The rangers are so tough that one of them ripped off his mask at 40 feet, found a piece of seaweed, scrubbed the inside of his lens, put his mask back on, then asked me to do the same. I grinned and pretended to be busy with my slate.
DIVE IN, GIVE BACK
Two hours later we’re back on our boat, a large liveaboard. Over steaming mugs of instant brew, we’re checking out videos of fish and invertebrates – including a feisty pair of Tomato Clownfish (Amphiprion frenatus) – while encoding data scribbled on our slates, still dripping with seawater.
Like holy tablets, the slates reveal good news.
“We’re recording more and more indicator species,” notes WWF’s Tubbataha Project Manager, Marivel Dygico. From 2004 to 2005, Tubbataha doubled its fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tonnes per square kilometer. This is due largely to good management and vigorous law enforcement. Protected by WWF and the Tubbataha Management Office and supported by top Philippine airline Cebu Pacific. Tubbataha can continue seeding the region with legions of fish – all the better to keep future Reef Check EcoDivers busy.
Though our morning dive is over, the fight is far from the end. Reef Check needs brave volunteers to dive in and give back – before pollution, and climate change transforms reefs into rubble. “Coral reefs can recover from climate change effects and human disturbance given enough time,” concludes Jeannie. “But we need extra fins to ‘check’ how they’re faring. That’s why we need YOU to protect our sunken playgrounds!”
Click on the logo below to start your journey as an EcoDiver today!
Images courtesy of Weng Alarcon / TMO and Gregg Yan.