Musings on fish and commitment while floating in the Sulu Sea

William Bleisch, PhD
Palawan, The Philippines

Five-banded Seargent Major, Abudefduf vaigiensis. Back on the boat, I found myself spontaneously bursting into song, singing all the sea shanties I could remember at the top of my voice.

My father was a fisherman all of his life;
And he courted a mermaid one fine night;
And out of this union, there came three;
A porgy and a sea horse, and then there’s me!

We were on the island of Palawan, the southwestern frontier of the Philippines. For our first explorations, we had come to El Nido on the northern tip of the island, traveling by car instead of boat, a change plans at the last minute when it became clear that our new CERS research vessel, the HM Explorer 2, would take months to register. Without our own boat, we were constrained to join one of the tourist circuits. “Today you are doing tours A and C,” declared the tour guide, before he quickly rattled off the names of our destinations. He was obviously all too-familiar after many repeated trips. The beaches and near shore were crowded with visitors, mostly young Filipinos from the city, together with a few trendy young European and Asian tourists.

A pair of Twotone Tang, Zebrasoma scopas. But once I got in the water, I found that I was only occasionally dodging a dog-paddler in a life buoy or a bikini-clad swimmer on the surface. I eased my body and my mind into the smooth flow of breathing through a snorkel tube and began to enjoy the view. The cares and worries of the last few weeks seemed to wash away as I slowly moved my fins and the warm sea water began flowing over my body. I started to take in the view. The clear warm water was underlain by reefs of multi-coloured corals between towering cliffs of karst limestone. I was in my own world.

Blue and Gold Scissortail Fusilier, Caesio caerulaurea. And what a world it was! I had studied scuba and coral reef natural history every weekend during two years when I worked for the Sabah Wildlife Department in northern Borneo. I managed to find the time then for several dives on Sipadan Island, one of the world’s top diving sites. Since then, I had not had the time or the money to go back. My one dive in Hong Kong was a disappointment of cold murky water and few fish.

El Nido was my return to paradise. Snorkeling even in the shallows allowed close up looks into the lives of dozens of species of brightly coloured fish. I watched a pair of Clark’s Anemonefish dart in and out of the tentacles of their host. When I entered Secret Lagoon through a tunnel in the rock, a Regal Angelfish with startling colours hid below in shadows. Despite my best effort, I could not get a clear picture of its blue and yellow splendor. But a Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse serviced a patient Checkerboard Wrasse, picking off parasites in return for a free meal from the gleanings. Our guide showed me the location of a well-camouflaged Reef Stonefish lucking under an overhang in the coral, its dangerous venomous dorsal spines the only obvious part of its body.

Blue-striped Surgeonfish, Acanthurus lineatus. After those first glorious dives, it was hard to get me out of the water. I snorkeled in five more sites at El Nido during our one day visit, then grabbed every chance again during the new few days after our return to Peurto Princessa and Honda Bay on the east coast of Palawan. We took out our own CERS boat on its unofficial launch in the Bay. Although all stations had been informed that the HM Explorer 2 was NOT registered yet, there was an unofficial understanding that we could travel about in the near shore waters near its home base.

A pair of Spinecheek Anemonefish, Premnas biaculeatus.

At Honda Bay, there were many undeveloped reefs to explore and many more new species of fish to discover. Diving deeper and longer as my confidence returned, I saw more and more. I came across a Fringe-eyed Flathead, another master of camouflage, resting on top of a coral head at about 5 meters below. In the coral rubble, a Dendritic Jawfish had constructed a burrow by tossing out stones one by one. This brave little fish guarded the entrance to its tube, keeping a wary eye on me. I later learned that the male, not the female, broods the eggs, keeping them safe in his mouth without eating anything for days until they hatch. Nearby, a Reeftop Pipefish, patterned to match the rubble bottom, crept along in slow motion, its tube-like mouth revealing is close relationship to the well-known sea horse. Like the Jawfish, it is the male pipefish that broods the eggs, carrying them under his abdomen.

Moorish Idol, Zanclus cornutus.

An even odder family arrangement emerged from an anemone, which was host to what I thought were two more species of anemonefish. One sported the classic orange and white pattern of the cartoon Nemo, while the other was larger and dark. The two species seemed oddly congenial, sharing the same anemone in peace, but I thought little of it until I checked the field guide later. There I learned that “the female of the Spinecheek Anemonefish is usually 2 to 3 times the size of the male and less brilliant.” So the large drab fish was the female of the pair! Odder still, the book informed me that the small male can change sex to become a female, should the opportunity arise.

A venomous Reef Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa) lurks under an overhang.Cleaner fish, poison fish, camo fish, transgender fish! Not to mention the diversity of invertebrate life – the starfish, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, sea squirts, snails, clams, crabs, hermit crabs, jellyfish, anemones, and the multi-coloured corals themselves. There were Chocolate Chip Sea Stars and cobalt blue Linckia Sea and armless Cushion Stars, and the long thin body of a Banded Sea Cucumber writhing like a snake on the bottom. Banded Featherdusters yanked their rosettes into their holes when I approached, and the white animated tentacles of a Spaghetti Worm squirmed over a coral while its body hid in a crevice. Giant clams, their shells buried in the corals, poked out their rainbow coloured mantles.

Later, diving in a sea grass bed, I followed several Sea Wasp Jellyfish at a respectful distance, fascinated as they throbbed to stay in the line of the current. This species is the most dangerous jellyfish in the world, and it causes fatalities almost every year. An entirely new class of neurotoxins was just discovered in its venom. This is the kind of stuff that makes a naturalist’s heart race.

Fringe-eyed Flathead, Cymbacephalus nematophthalmus.

Later, as we ate a lunch of freshly caught fish, it was Howman who shook me from my ecstasy and reminded me that all is not well in paradise. “How come the coral here is not colourful like in the other reefs?” he asked. I thought I knew the answer – coral bleaching - and it reminded me of the tragedy looming for all of those of us who love coral reefs and their life. Coral bleaching was first described in 1984. By ten years later, it was being seen regularly in Asia and throughout the tropics. Careful comparison of bleaching events with sea water temperatures revealed that bleaching was associated with water temperatures that were above the maximum experienced by the reef in a typical year. Global sea temperatures rose measurably over the last decades, and there is now no question that this is the result of humans digging up gigatons of fossil fuel each year and dumping the waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has made the bleaching events more common and more frequent.

Reeftop Pipefish, Corythoichthys haematopterus.

The mechanism of coral bleaching is now known, too. When the individual coral polyps become stressed, they may eject or digest the algae that live symbiotically inside their bodies. It is these algae, in many varieties, that give the corals their various colours. Bleaching also leaves the coral more vulnerable to other stressors, and repeated bleaching can lead to whole scale death of the coral organisms. With the death of the coral, the entire ecosystem that depends on the coral habitat changes dramatically. The multi-coloured fish disappear, and the numbers of animals and the diversity of species plummet.

Dendtric Jawfish, Opistognathus dendriticus. My last dives were bittersweet, not only because I knew that we would soon have to go, but also because I became more attentive and aware of the many threats to the reefs and the world of life that they support. Near one of the best reefs was a vast bone-yard of dead staghorn coral, seemingly empty of life. The evidence of overfishing was obvious. There were no big fish and very few groupers or parrotfish. Overturned coral heads and cracked branching coral showed the impact of past boat collisions and anchor dragging. The tops of coral heads were mostly dead where human feet had trodden. Much of the reef appeared to have been smothered by sediment washed off from agricultural development and road construction sites near the shore.

The highly venomous Sea Wasp Jellyfish, Chironex sp. As I swam, I thought about other threats to the reefs that were less obvious but somehow even more frightening. These were driven by actions taken by people who lived far away, and yet they could destroy even the most remote and best protected reefs. I was thinking, of course, about the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that has occurred since the start of the industrial revolution. This has not only increased global sea temperatures through the infamous greenhouse effect, but it is also causing the acidification of the oceans, as higher carbon dioxide leads to higher carbonic acid concentrations in the seas. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the acidity of the oceans’ surface waters has increased by approximately 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The full impacts on coral reefs is not yet known, but rising acidity has been shown to significantly affect the ability of reef-building animals to construct their calcium carbonate skeletons and can prevent the regeneration of damaged reefs.

These changes in the oceans are already occurring. They are some of the most obvious and frightening consequences of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. And, if nothing is done, it could get much, much worse. The fossil fuel-industry has publicly listed proven reserves on their books that are estimated to be more than two times greater than what can be safely burned. These corporations are banking on a future that might very well see the end of coral reef ecosystems as we know them.

Giant clam, Tridacna sp.Forget about glacial melting, super storms and regional drought. Now this is getting personal!

My repertoire of sea shanties turned towards the blues.
“I am a young sailor, my story is sad;
For once I was carefree, and a bold sailing lad.”

But, back in the water, the blues changed to anger, and then to resolve. It is high time to fight back.

It now seems inevitable that, sooner or later, the fossil fuel industry will be reigned in and that much of their “proven reserves” will become worthless “stranded assets.” (This explains the desperate lobbying by the industry to keep their outdated business plans in place for as long as possible. A recent HSBC report noted that the largest oil companies could loose 60% of their value if governments act to prevent global temperatures from rising more than the recommended 2 degrees C.)

Banded Feather Duster, Sabellastarte spectabilis. Change is inevitable, but can we push it forward in time to save the coral reefs?

As we got back to shore and back on the internet at the Ling Nam, our favourite Chinese diner in Peurto Princesa, I wrote a note to my financial advisor to ask him if he could offer me any options for divesting from fossil fuel related industries – for the health of my portfolio, and for my peace of mind. I also got back in touch with my son and promised him that I would bring him to Palawan soon and teach him to snorkel. I want him to feel the tranquility and peace of this underwater world and to see a healthy coral reef at least once in his life.

And I want him to feel that he can act to change his world, not just sing the blues.

Note: All images were taken with a Panasonic DMC-TS5 underwater camera without housing generously provided by Shun Hing Education & Charity Fund.