The coral reefs in the Philippines are under threat, but all is not lost with the help of citizen scientists
“What is a coral? Is it a rock, a plant, or an animal?” This is a question that stumps a lot of people, even divers. Corals look like rocks, but they’re rooted to the ocean floor and appear to be alive, so maybe they’re plants… We’re told that scientifically, they’re animals, belonging to the same family as jellyfish and sea anemone. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and this is what the participants of Reef Check’s Reef Ranger training session learned one morning in Anilao.
What we think of as a piece of coral is actually made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps, invertebrates that feed by capturing food in the water with their little tentacles. Each polyp secretes a hard exoskeleton of limestone that attaches to rocks, forming the coral reefs. Inside their tissues live zooxanthellae, even tinier algae that photosynthesize using the coral’s metabolic waste, producing oxygen for the corals as well as the pigments that give them their vibrant hues. In short, a coral is all of the above, a unique biological structure that is part rock, part plant, and part animal.
Reef Check is a non-profit organization that aims to reverse the decline in coral reef health by working with scientists and training citizen scientists in coral reef monitoring. “We want to tap recreational divers with no scientific background and introduce them to what being an eco-diver is all about,” says Vanessa Vergara, the 27-year-old director of Reef Check’s Philippine chapter. Harnessing her generation’s high awareness about environmental issues and desire to make an impact, she reached out to divers of all types to join the one-day workshop—there were employees from the DENR, which has initiated reef protection programs for the International Year of the Reef; a young businessman who wanted to back up his ocean advocacies with science, as well as recreational divers and dive masters who watched Chasing Coral, a documentary on coral reefs, and wanted to be part of the change.
When they document what they see underwater, divers are helping map out the extent of coral bleaching as well as identify areas that have recovered. Any form of crowdsourced data from empowered individuals go a long way in assessing the state of our reefs. When there are multiple reports from one location, scientists from the relevant agencies will go out to confirm the findings, which will also help determine whether coastal management strategies have been successful or need modifying.
“We want to tap recreational divers with no scientific background and introduce them to what being an eco-diver is all about,” says Vanessa Vergara, director of Reef Check Philippines
Reef Check trainer, marine scientist, and freediving instructor Tara Abrina gave a quick lesson on the different kinds of corals and why reefs are important to the environment, to fish and invertebrates, and to humans, while Erina Molina from the Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch talked about the environmental stressors that cause bleaching. A rise in water temperature, excessive siltation, or chemicals from fertilizer runoff can all lead the coral to expel its zooxanthellae. Without the algae, the coral turns white, but it is not quite dead yet and still has a chance to recover given the right conditions. A Crown of Thorns infestation is also a common threat to reefs. The COT is a corallivorous starfish that occurs naturally, but too many of them can damage a reef faster than it can regenerate. Corals can also turn white from the black band disease, wherein bacteria kill the living tissue as it moves over the surface of the colonies, leaving behind their white skeleton. Plastic pollution, too, makes corals more susceptible to disease, by blocking the oxygen and light needed to survive.
After a round of icebreakers, the rangers-in-training were ready to hit the water. Tara, Erina, and Vanessa led the groups to two dive sites where they took note of the general conditions of the reefs. The first site, known as Koala, presented a good diversity of hard and soft coral, while the second site, located along the shoreline of a few resorts, had a dead reef littered with coral rubble. There was an open sewage pipe nearby, which turned the water murky. Combined with the runoff from the mountains and possibly years of illegal fishing methods, it’s no wonder the reef in this area looks like it’s been devastated by a bomb.
“Anilao is quite resilient and hasn’t been affected by mass bleaching events or Crown of Thorns,” Vanessa says. “What’s killing the corals are mostly man-made, like sewage and sedimentation. It’s the biggest problem in Anilao.” When she talks about reef resiliency, Vanessa recounts how Dr. Al Licuanan, the renowned coral reef scientist, first assessed the USS Guardian’s damage to the coral reefs when it ran aground in Tubbataha in 2013. First he said it would take 50 years to recover. The area was closed off to all activity. On the second year, he came back and revised the prediction to 20 years. On his third survey, it was lessened to five to ten years. By his fourth survey, Dr. Licuanan proclaimed that the reefs will have fully returned in two to three years. Left alone, nature is its own best healer.
After the dives, the participants plugged their information into the Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch app, which is available for Android phones or online. The app asks details of your observation, such as location, water temperature, and whether coral bleaching or other threats like anchor damage, fishing nets, or nearby powerplants were seen. You can also upload photos to support your findings. It’s that simple—now you have turned what would’ve been a normal, everyday dive into a dive with a purpose.
Of the 16 participants, around half decided to follow up with the full eco-diving program, an intensive course which takes from three to five days to complete. As certified Reef Check eco-divers, they plan to localize material and train residents of the coastal communities. Some want to start ‘em young by teaching kids how to identify the different characters on the reef as indicators of a thriving environment. As awareness
grows, so do the chances of protecting our coral reefs, and all the living creatures—including us—that depend on them.