On a dive site in Batangas, Philippines, a diver drifts along the reef bottom, on the lookout for marine organisms. He stops to pick up a piece of rock, looks underneath, puts it back again, does the same to another rock. He finds a specimen worth inspecting, examines it briefly and deftly slides it inside a Ziploc bag, one of many he’s got on standby. Just a few meters away, his companion puts another collected specimen onto a plastic crate resting on the sea floor.
Such behavior would be outrageous for most divers; while underwater, recreational divers are exhorted to stick to a look-but-don’t-touch policy. However, this particular group of divers — composed of scientists — has a different mission: to explore the reefs and discover new species harboring there.
The scientists are part of the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, a research undertaking mounted by the California Academy of Sciences in cooperation with partners from the Philippine government, academic and research community. The Academy has a hundred-year history of conducting expeditions in the world’s most interesting places, and this is its largest expedition to date. Both marine and terrestrial areas are covered, and among the study areas is the Verde Island Passage, a priority marine biodiversity corridor of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape where Conservation International (CI) has been working for the past six years.
“The Philippines is one of the hottest of the hotspots for diverse and threatened life on Earth,” says Dr. Terrence Gosliner, expedition leader and dean of science and research collections at the California Academy of Sciences. “Despite this designation, however, the biodiversity here is still relatively unknown, and we expect to find dozens of new species as we survey the country’s reefs, rainforests and even the ocean floor. The species lists and distribution maps that we create during this expedition will help to inform future conservation decisions and ensure that this remarkable biodiversity is afforded the best possible chance of survival.”
Terry Gosliner has been coming to the Philippines almost every year for the past two decades, searching for nudibranchs — colorful sea slugs that abound in coral reefs. “Every time I come back here, I find new things.” This time, three weeks into the expedition, he has found around 40 species that he hasn’t encountered anywhere before, bringing the Philippine nudibranch total to around 800 species — more than anywhere else in the world.
“The richness of this place is seemingly endless; you would think that after almost 20 years of coming back every year, you would get to the end of that, but this place is remarkable in how rich it is, and that’s what keeps bringing us back here.”
Other members of the shallow water team are likewise uncovering new things in their respective biological taxa of interest. “It’s like a giant Easter egg hunt,” says Dr. Gosliner. “It’s tremendously exciting to get up every morning, put on your rubber suit, get in a boat in this beautiful place, jump over the side and see what that particular place has to offer and what surprises it has.”
It is after the dives, however, when the hard work of documenting and describing the species actually begins, a long process that will be continued back at the labs both in California and in the Philippines. And when the final tally is in, there is the still harder work of finding ways to protect these resources. For CI, the expedition’s discovery that the Verde Island Passage is one of the world’s richest marine environments is not so much as a revelation but a validation. This is why we have been working here for the past six years, collaborating with local governments and communities in expanding and effectively managing their marine protected areas.
It is one thing to learn how rich one’s marine backyard is; it is quite another to commit oneself to protecting it. Already, however, there are those who are committed. A group of divers, seeing the expedition team members poking about underwater and collecting specimens, indignantly went to the team’s resort base to demand an explanation. They were only mollified when the scientists explained the purpose of the activity and showed the appropriate documents and permits. Far from being offended, the scientists were only too happy to find that people are watching over those immense riches.
Corina Bernabe is the communications coordinator for CI-Philippines. Learn more about the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity expedition.