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The underwater Eden that is the Verde Island Passage

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By SOL VANZI

dive

One of the most famous diving sites in the world is right here, close to Metro Manila. Yet very few Filipinos are aware of this major tourist attraction.

Verde Island Passage, a 10-mile-wide strait that separates the islands of Luzon and Mindoro, is so rich in marine life it is internationally acknowledged as the “Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity.” The Passage provides food, livelihood, and other benefits to over two million people.

Verde Island Passage connects the South China Sea with Tayabas Bay and the Sibuyan Sea, and is the main shipping route between the Port of Manila and the Visayas and Mindanao in the south. Also navigating the waters are many ferries to and from the provinces of Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, and Romblon.

Various conservation groups have been pushing for its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because the 1.14 million hectare passage, extremely rich in marine biodiversity, is the richest area in the entire Coral Triangle.

GO WITH THE FLOW A scenic view of corals deep down Verde Island Passage (Photo by Candice Ramos)

GO WITH THE FLOW A scenic view of corals deep down Verde Island Passage (Photo by Candice Ramos)

Marine paradise
A team of marine conservationists declared in 2006 that the Philippines is the Center of Marine Biodiversity in the world and Verde Island Passage as the “Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity.”

Many threatened species, which include sea turtles like hawksbills, olive ridleys, and green turtles, as well as humphead wrasses, giant groupers, and giant clams are present in the Verde Island Passage. There is, however, no enforcement of ordinances and over-fishing is common.

Humphead wrasses are especially threatened and divers often go years without spotting a single one. But it has been observed that the rare red fin wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubripinnis) thrives in Verde Island.

The area has more than 300 species of corals, which is considered one of the largest concentrations of corals in the country, or possibly, the whole world. The

Verde Island Passage has become a haven for researchers from nongovernment institutions and foreign marine experts fascinated by the island’s underwater wonderland, which teems with submerged reef formations, and rock canyons that host around 60 percent of the world’s shorefish species.

Threats
Sustained marine diversity is threatened by commercial vessels and other ferries regularly using the passage, many of which discharge various pollutants into the waters. During storms, large vehicles are seen anchoring to the corals in the area causing damage.

The conservation message has to be put across to major commercial shipping lines and the crews need to be educated on the diversity of the Verde Passage and the dire need for its protection. Other major issues that affect the sustainability of the Verde Passage include heavy use of agrochemicals (pesticides and chemical fertilizer) in the adjacent farming areas, and the discharge of urban waste and gray water in Puerto Galera and other urban areas into the numerous bays around the passage.

There is a complete moratorium of all types of fishing in the Batangas Bays and around Mindoro but destructive fishing practices continue in other parts of the strait that should soon be brought under control.

The surge in tourism aggravates this problem.

Diving
Verde Island, located right in the center of the strait, is one of the best diving places in the Philippines due to its pristine waters and spectacular underwater view. Divers reach it via Batangas or Puerto Galera, booking through outfits that offer all levels of expeditions, from one-day to 10-day excursions with full board and amenities.

Diving surged when the wreckage of a Spanish galleon that sunk in 1620 was found in the southern part of this passage. Most of the ancient cargo was salvaged in the late 1970s and again in the early 1980s. Nothing now remains of the wreck except for a few shards of porcelain and some larger pieces of terracotta jars. The keel was removed to Puerto Galera for conservation, but the remaining timbers were simply left to rot in front of Sabang Beach.

Living aquatic flora and fauna now remain as the biggest underwater attractions of the area.

Awareness level
Though the Verde Island Passage is recognized worldwide for its marine diversity, there are no sign boards or any other public educational material available to tourists and the locals, most of whom are not aware of the diversity and the need for protection of this strait. Fortunately, organizations such as boat owners/operators, hoteliers, diver association, restaurant and bar associations, etc. regularly engage in beach and marine cleaning, especially around Oriental Mindoro.

Groups like Conservation International work with the government to curb coastal degradation and help local fisheries adapt to events such as coral bleaching. They work with locals to improve fishing practices through providing knowledge and training, support in implementing seasonal fishing closures, and designating marine protected areas to allow fish populations to recover and sustain for generations to come.

Diving highlights
The thrills and challenges of diving in the Passage are captured in an online post by Marco Vincent Divers:

The Batangas-Verde Island Channel is a very special place. Of all the dive sites accessible from Puerto Galera, none is more special than the pinnacles located at the east end of Verde Island. There are two usual dive sites, known as the Right Side Wall, and the Left Side Wall. The amount of fish life to be seen is nearly 10 times the amounts seen at other sites in the Channel area. This is due to hot volcanic water that is venting from the area below the pinnacles.

The Right Side Wall is a steep wall dive, filled with the healthiest and most beautiful corals you can find. When they first enter the water, divers are immediately struck by the abundance of fish life. Immense schools of Blue Trigger fish stay just above and away from the reef. At certain times of the year sardines are so abundant, that divers refer to it as Sardine Rain. When you look up or away from the amazing corals, walls of these fish can be seen. There are many species of nudibranch to be found, as well as other types of macro life. At deeper depths, huge sea fans can be found. The currents on the right side tend to shift back and forth depending on tides. This area is considered the easier dive of the two.

The Left Side Wall is not as steep a drop off as the right. Currents on this side can be dangerously strong, and an area called the Washing Machine is known for a very strong down current. Divers may see their bubbles going down in this area and need to be prepared. At a depth of 30 meters, some extremely large Gorgon Sea Fans can be found. The largest of these is nearly five meters across, and three meters high. The Left Side divers will usually drift along toward the Washing Machine area. Divers are briefed to swim hard to the right at the end of the wall area, to get around the corner and out of the strong currents. Experienced guides will signal to divers as they approach this area and, once around the corner, divers find themselves in a large bowl that is protected from the strong currents. At this point, divers can relax and gaze with amazement at all the schools of large fish swimming in the strong currents—Large Trevally, Sea Bass, and Jacks can be found, as well as Tiniki. This bowl area is also known as the Nudibranch Wall. Varied species of all shapes and colors can be found here, and it is the macro photographer’s paradise.

Verde Island Drop-Off
At the surface two rocks reveal the peak of the submerged mountain below. This dramatic dive site has something to offer divers of all levels and experience.

Giant gorgonian fans grow out the weaving rock formations, interspersed with soft tree corals and basket sponges. Looking into the blue, shoals of surgeonfish, fusiliers, jacks of several species, tuna, and batfish appear and disappear like magic down the wall as divers approach. On the north side of the pinnacle the gradient of the slope is much more gradual but the site is still very deep.

Every imaginable kind of coral, hard and soft, grows densely all over the reef face. In some areas, if you look closely, you can see small bubbles rising up from the ocean floor. This is apparently due to volcanic activity at the site, a surreal and unique sight. This is an ideal site for technical and Trimix dives, and there is something to see at every depth to pass the time during long decompression stops.

The Pinnacle
This is a fantastic site, but timing is very important. The top of the pinnacle at 24m is quite small and easy to miss. From there is a steep drop off to very deep water.

Recreational divers can make their way down the side of the pinnacle to 49m/132m where you can swim out along the top of a flat part of the reef, which has large rock formation covered by soft corals of every size, giant gorgonian fans, whip corals and giant basket sponges. Current brings out the best of fish life, especially shoals of batfish and jacks.

Divers with technical and Trimix training can make their way down the north side of the pinnacle.

Blacktip reef sharks and thresher sharks are sometimes sighted here. Even at these depths there is plenty to see, including black corals and more giant gorgonians.

Washing Machine
Diving it during ebb tide is similar to jumping into a washing machine! A series of canyons have been formed perhaps by the water movement in the area over thousands of years.

The large rocky coral formations are very healthy, with basket sponges, sea fans and a profusion of siphon sponges. When there is no current you have plenty of time to explore the canyons, with an abundance of tubeworms, sea squirts and feather stars in every color, even many photo opportunities. A variety of wrasses, parrotfish and eels, along with black and white frogfish are commonly seen. When the current is “running,” the adverse conditions bring astounding densities of schooling fish and pelagics, such as tuna and trevallies, black and white tip reef sharks. Thousands of anthias blow past in the “wind of current,” along with clouds of other colorful reef fish.

The current usually starts slowly but gradually picks up until it starts churning, something like a washing machine. The unpredictable current may change direction many times and down-currents can be a problem.

It is essential to dive with an experienced guide, and it is not advisable for any other but for an experienced diver.

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