Guest Post by Bob Whorton
This first Seafari was the culmination of 18-months of hard work by the Philippines department of tourism Product Development; Headed by Director Elizabeth Nelle, and her dedicated team of staff, backed by the Secretary of State for Tourism Mr Alberto Lim. Following the insight and fortitude of Mr Joel Uichico. It was a logistical nightmare that couldn’t have reached fruition without the full cooperation and commitment of local governments, generous sponsorships and the complete belief in an end result… An event designed to successfully promote nationally and internationally, underwater macro photography in the Philippines.
Four areas chosen for scrutiny were Anilao (Batangas), Davao (Mindanao), Coron (Palawan) and Panglao (Bohol). Each area was headed by an individual guest speaker: Bob Yin, Alex Wu, Dave Allen & yours truly, with further input from National Geographicfilm maker Rick Morris on Anilao. Another twenty international photographers joined the Frey, under the wings of top Filipino photographers/videographers Gutsy Tuason, Adrien Uichico, Bunnee & Mike Santos, Tet Lara and Marissa Floriendo.
25th April: Leading an International Team of leading macro photographers my responsibility was to assess and collate information video and photographs from ‘Coron’ (a unique area of the Philippines): in order to formulate an audio visual presentation for the events closing ceremony, in the Ayala Museum in Manila, on May 4th, 2011. Joining me in Coron were Guam’s Tim Rock, Virgin Islander film maker Paul Cater Deaton, Riccardo & Marcello (The Super Macro Brothers) from Italy, Shem Tarko from England, and Philippines own Macro Champion Adrien Uichico. We had less than one week in which to do it…
Coron is just a short 45 minute Airphil Express flight from Manila by twin engine turbo prop aircraft. During which you really get a clear insight into the amazing coastal scenery that seems to follow every irregular shape you can imagine. Adding to that, the equally amazing asymmetric green-topped islands and islets; jutting vertically from the blue water below. Coron/Basuanga is located in the Calamian group at the northern tip of the long, thin Island of Palawan, which stretches all the way to Malaysian Saba in the south.
The area has a long established diving history centred on a priceless collection of WWII wrecks dotted around the coastline of Basuanga. It has never before been regarded or considered as an area for macro photographers in particular. Coron has also been a favourite holiday destination for Filipino’s for many years due to its fabulous limestone scenery, rugged and picturesque islands and islets, with hot springs and brackish lakes – An area of outstanding natural beauty. The rest of the world however, remains mostly oblivious to the existence of this incredible area of the Philippines…
Our brief then: To check it out, and give our verdict as macro photographers on the macro marketing potential.
Traveling to a new area of the world not renowned for its macro photography, armed with only a macro brief raised quite a bit of anxiety in me… What if the place didn’t cut it as a macro hot spot and what about the presentation? No pressure then!
One calming thought though; the Philippines had never disappointed me regarding macro life, even in Malapascua (only famous for its periodic Thresher Shark sightings), had turned up some wicked macro critters… so, I remained quite optimistic, although the initial findings seemed challenging to say the least.
Most of the areas underwater around Coron’s rugged coastline are coralline construction – built up over the centuries by countless tiny life forms to produce the Reefs we see today… I must say, apart from bombing degradation just below the surface in many areas: The reefs are breathtaking and beautiful, and very varied in topography.
As a macro photographer this coralline situation alters your state of mind from that of the target rich muck sites where everything stands out to a certain degree, shots easily gained from lying on your elbows. Seasonal temperature changes directly affecting critter migration and behaviour in these rather exposed areas of sand, not having the same degree of protection that a lush coral reef or leeward wall affords the smaller life.
This can often mean looking harder, looking longer and gaining every shot from the “Hover” but very gratifying. One thing for certain – It’s always there!
Diving these particular sites brought back memories of similar sites around Asia, but one thing became strikingly evident – The lack of, or invisibility of predatory fish such as the common Scorpion fish and related species. Grouper species too were absent, in all but the smaller species, and none of the smaller fish species around either. Nothing like what we have come to expect as a normal reef ‘Food Chain’.
Only Siete Pecados had common Lion fish in any “Usual” number, and this was due to a large community of small fish sheltering within large black coral growths, plus an abundance of cardinal fish species around the coral heads. This may ultimately have something to do with the site falling within the protectorate of a 200m no fishing or collecting zone: Especially apparent were the large numbers and variety of Angel and Butterfly fish too. The hard corals on this site are truly spectacular, colourful and intact. This one example has to prove the point that protection even on a scale as small as this, really, really works: For the sake of diving tourism lobbying needs to occur in order for these protective zones to be extended to cover the majority of Coron’s coastal fringes. Whilst other areas of Philippines enjoy the protection of their reefs, sadly Coron seems to have been left behind to a large extent…
Coron (As much of Philippines) is in the enviable position of creating conservation methods and practices well before the hoards descend; thereby not becoming a victim of its own success as many other locations sadly have…
Alcatraz is a small limestone island sitting in the main channel. The topography and coral growths below the fringe are simply mind blowing. A large coral-covered promontory juts out into the cooler waters of the channel teaming with transient species such as Jacks and Snapper, with a welcome visit of a large Hawksbill Turtle. The macro life here was prolific too, with a dozen species of Nudibranch and flatworm, Ornate and Robust Ghost Pipefish and the largest Jawfish I’ve yet come across anywhere in Asia!
The group scoured the Japanese wrecks with great success revealing a plethora of macro life amid the rusting superstructures and neighbouring reefs. Our favourite haunts the concrete jetties; again revealed a multitude of critters amid the man-made architecture.
In all my years I have never met such a friendly, helpful group of people. What they lacked in macro experience was certainly made up for in enthusiasm. Whilst very experienced and capable divers and guides; they were more adept to guiding around the reefs and wrecks than pointing out reef residents. They however quickly adapted to our needs as macro photographers and began to think smaller and smaller according to the lenses we had fitted. Discussions of habitat and behaviour of certain critters led to more frequent ‘finds’ of the more interesting and colourful critters; literally by the dive, day or night. Diving sponsors Seaview Divers were golden, and ran a very efficient service revolving around our timings and requirements – Deep Gratitude folks.
During the 60+ individual dives around Coron and Basuanga, enough information and imagery was gained to assure the area (without any exaggeration) the status of great macro interest.
With only a small area covered further exploration in the areas recommended will undoubtedly reveal more amazing sites and maybe even more unique critters. However, until better protection of the sites and potential sites is formally in place every new site discovered could become of interest to those we would like to see outlawed in Philippines Seas… Collectors!
Job done it was back to Manila to prepare the images and seminar for the closing event… I was still anxious, but very happy with the results of the trip.
Seafari concluding conference at the Ayala Museum
I arrived at the Museum to find six others looking just as anxious as me, even Rick was unusually quiet! Final preps were loaded onto the Mac ready to hook up to the projector, time to sit back and reflect, catch up with friends and drink chilled coffee.
It was a great turn out, over 200 people and invited dignitaries including the Secretary of Tourism Alberto Lim and PD Director Nelle with Foreign Ambassadors and representatives. The event lasted for over six hours, and apart from a few technical glitches went really well. All of the speakers were well received and any anxieties were quickly forgotten. After all, a room filled with similar passions isn’t so bad, and my session actually overran by a good ten minutes – A new career in ‘Stand-up’ maybe!
The results and presentations of the First National Macro contest (MAD) winners followed on – The cream of entries from the four regions covered by the Seafari: Each winner receiving prizes, and a beautiful Seafari trophy. All of the finalist prints were on display around the museum for public viewing.
For me the biggest prize was meeting a room full of special people, and I think my FB friends list has doubled since that day.
It was an honour to be present on that most perfect of days, and it just shows what can be achieved for diving and photography when a country recognises it’s potential and pulls together to make it happen. An honour for me too, to be a part of a great team; representing the district of Coron.
“TEAM CORON ROCKS!”