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Our megacities of beautiful creatures

EVEN IF we set foot on every square inch of our 7,107 islands, we will manage to visit only one-third of our territory. Two-thirds of Philippine territory are the waters that surround our islands.

Our volcanoes, mangoes, hospitality and adobo deserve bragging rights, but the real beauty of our country that is unequalled in the world lies beneath the surface of our waters. And the only way to see the full glory of this underwater beauty is to engage in scuba diving.

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I started diving 20 years ago, and it began when I joined a group of divers off Apo island near Dumaguete City. As I snorkeled on the surface, the divers flipped backward from the boat and then sank to the bottom of the sea where they stayed for an hour. The waters were so clear I could see the divers gliding through a marvelous underwater garden of soft corals and anemones in a riot of vibrant colors, while fish of all shapes and hues swarmed around them. I was green with envy. I resolved then to become a diver myself.

Diving is the closest you can get to experiencing an alien world. You navigate an environment with no air and you breathe through an apparatus like astronauts do. You glide in surroundings with no gravity, so you move in slow motion like astronauts do. You visit a “world” populated with creatures far stranger than the weirdest characters in science fiction movies.

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There is no better place to see the variety of strange marine creatures than in Philippine waters. Our country is within the “Coral Triangle,” which is recognized as the place on earth where the biggest variety of marine species can be found.

The Coral Triangle, known as the “Amazon of the seas,” encompasses the waters of six countries including Indonesia and Malaysia, but it is the waters near a small Philippine island—Verde island in Batangas—that are considered the world’s “center of the center” of marine biodiversity. The richness of our marine life is unmatched by any other country. As late as 2015, American scientists discovered 100 brand-new marine species in that area.

How rich is the variety of marine species in the Philippines? Our waters are home to 3,212 fish species, 5,000 species of clams, snails and mollusks, 488 species of corals, 981 species of algae, and five of the world’s seven sea turtle species. In Panglao, Bohol, alone, 1,200 species of crabs and shrimps were observed in 2004.

While most recreational dives are made at depths of less than 100 feet for precautionary reasons, scientists are eager to explore depths between 150 and 500 feet in our waters, called the “twilight zone,” and where they predict to discover 10 new species every hour of dive time. “More humans have visited the moon than have dived to the twilight zone,” says American marine scientist Bart Shepherd.

Even at depths of a mere 50-70 feet, there is so much to see. Anilao in Batangas and Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro have many world-class dive sites with thriving megacities of marine life. Their coral and anemone gardens have glowing neon colors that can shame even the most elaborate Dutch flower garden. You see thousands of jackfish (talakitok) doing marvelous tornado shows, a big octopus that mimics the color of its surroundings, sea horses, giant clams, turtles, eels, and an animal-like coral that hides or brings out its long-stem flowers upon sensing an approaching or departing predator. You bring a piece of bread underwater and hundreds of swirling fish bite it out of your hand. A fellow diver describes one site as “fish with water” because of the overwhelming number of fish.

The wall dives in Bohol are extraordinary experiences. Imagine an underwater wall as tall as a 50-story building. From the top of the wall, you descend the length of seven stories down, and by drifting with the current, you see wonderful marine life thriving on a cross-section of the wall unfolding before your eyes like a movie reel. When you realize that you are 43 stories up from the bottom, a sensation similar to flying tricks your imagination.

In Coron, Palawan, 11 Japanese ships sunk by US fighter planes during World War II are favorite wreck dives. As you descend into the greenish waters, the silhouette of the ships gradually appear like ghost ships. With an underwater flashlight, you then swim inside some of the ships and encounter thriving marine life.

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The crown jewel of dive sites in the Philippines is the Tubbataha Marine Reserve in the Sulu Sea. Tubbataha fulfills every diver’s dream of seeing sharks. The sharks in Philippine waters do not attack humans; they scamper away when they see divers, and for good reason: Tens of thousands of them fall victim to shark’s fin poachers every year worldwide. Many big marine species are in Tubbataha, but the most awesome I have seen are manta rays, each bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle and which look like flying spaceships.

Night diving is an out-of-this-world experience. When you turn off your underwater flashlight and swoosh your hands across the water, thousands of plankton magically become visible like fireflies and their flickering lights, transforming the dark surroundings into a star-studded night sky.

The most visually impressive science fiction movie ever in terms of depicting fictional plants and animals is “Avatar.” Yet it is nothing compared to our planet’s oceans and seas that have thriving megacities. And the most impressive of these megacities of beautiful creatures are in Philippine waters!

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