By GREGG YAN
I remember that morning clearly—dive buddy Maia and I were among the first to back-roll into Tubbataha’s coral-coated walls, descending 10 meters to await the rest of our team. From the blue shot in a green sea turtle—a big male, evidenced by its long, fat tail. It seemed to be in a hurry. I was getting my GoPro ready when my entire field of vision transformed into a shark. Tiger. Maybe five meters away. Things slowed down and my first reaction was, “Why doesn’t this whale shark have spots? Oh.”
That day, I realized that diving with sea turtles or gazing at bow riding dolphins may be cool—but going fin-to-fin with a shark? Sheer, primal panic and wonder. In equal amounts. Every time.
Shark encounters are fairly rare in the Philippines, despite the country being a top dive destination and a major bastion of life in the Coral Triangle. Here scientists recorded 95 of the world’s 465 shark species, ranging from gentle giants like whale sharks to tiny bamboo catsharks collected for the marine aquarium trade. A rare 17-foot great white shark even washed ashore in the Northeastern Philippines in January this year, probably the first time the species was locally photographed.
Loved by few and feared by many, global shark populations have taken a nosedive due to hunting, coastal degradation, and a huge reduction in the stocks of prey fish like sardines and mackerel.
“To ensure the future of our oceans, we must protect all levels of the ecosystem—from primary producers to top predators. Top predators like sharks can only exist if the food chain below is thriving, but they also play a key role in maintaining the balance and biodiversity of an ecosystem. When we protect top predators, we’re also taking steps to protect the entire ecosystem,” explains Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute (LAMAVE) executive director Sally Snow.
Still, there are a few notable marine sanctuaries where divers and sharks can meet. The once-sleepy town of Donsol in Southern Luzon hosts hundreds of the spotted giants. Skin divers can interact with as many as 10 different sharks in three hours. In stark contrast is the highly controversial town of Oslob in Southern Cebu, where juvenile whale sharks are corralled and regularly fed with shrimp, altering their natural behavior but “ensuring good selfies” for tourists.
Malapascua in Northern Cebu is famed for its pelagic thresher sharks, which resemble graceful wraiths gliding in and out of the blue. Thresher sharks have specially-shaped, scythe-like tails used to stun prey like squid or sardines. They regularly stop by a 24-meter deep dive site called Monad Shoal to let cleaner wrasses pick their bodies clean of parasites.
The Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan is the country’s most famous dive site, perhaps its best-managed and most productive shallow-water reef. Tubbataha is known for Shark Airport, where whitetip and grey reef sharks “take off and land” like ponderous, swaying airbuses. Lucky divers might also see a curious hammerhead or two approaching the wall.
The Philippines also has mesophotic or deep-sea coral reefs like Benham Bank, the topmost portion of a largely unexplored, yet-unprotected 24-million-hectare undersea plateau at the northeast corner of the country called Philippine Rise. In 2016, scientists dropped some Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVs) and scored live video of an adult tigershark having lunch at about 150 feet.
Catching and killing sharks inside Philippine protected areas is illegal, affording sharks some protection. Only 14 species like the great white, basking, whale, oceanic whitetip, silky, plus all species of thresher, saw, and hammerhead sharks, however, are nationally-protected. The remaining 81 species are still caught for meat, medicine, plus the pet and curio trades (dried shark jaws are still sold as smelly, grisly souvenirs—please avoid them).
With a little luck, shark conservationists in the country might soon have jaws. The Shark, Ray and Chimaera Conservation Act aims to protect not just the country’s 95 shark species, but all local species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras.
“The proposed act will strengthen the enforcement of laws for currently protected species while covering all remaining sharks, rays, and chimaeras. We rank fourth globally in shark diversity with 200 shark, ray, and chimaera species, but only 14 shark and seven ray species are nationally protected. Sharks are ecologically and culturally valuable but remain vulnerable to a wide range of threats like direct fisheries, bycatch, especially from the tuna industry, marine debris, habitat destruction, weak law enforcement, and unregulated shark tourism,” explains Save Shark Network’s Vince Cinches.
“Readers can help by not buying shark products like fins, souvenirs, and meat. By not patronizing establishments that serve these, trade will be reduced. Most important, you can tell our lawmakers that we want this law passed by signing the Shark, Ray, and Chimaera Conservation Act online.”
Save Sharks Network is comprised of environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace Philippines, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, Save Philippine Seas, and other shark-loving groups. Through your vote, we can conserve the integrity of marine ecosystems. The best part? We all get to swim with far more than 14 species of sharks when we dive in the Philippines.
Voted by APACD Business Insider as the Asia-Pacific Region’s top advocacy communicator in 2016, environmentalist and diver Gregg Yan is behind Best Alternatives, a movement to convince consumers and investors to switch to more sustainable alternatives to wildlife products, like using mushrooms to replace shark fins in Chinese restaurants.