There’s an island of garbage in the ocean approximately the size of Texas. Within this conglomerate monster are plastic bottles, car parts, dead turtles and multiple other dying, decaying marine life. It seems redundant to construct a metaphor for this mass, just think about the pure weight of it: a disparate floating manifestation of capitalism and its concomitant carelessness.
I recently spent two weeks staring into the bluest ocean I have ever had the pleasure of sitting in. The Philippines, landmass inhabitant of this bluest blue, sits serenely in South East Asia with its stray dogs, weather so warm that it melts the pages out of your books and its crabs that scuttle in and out of bins. It’s a beautiful, bustling place: the people infinitely friendly and infinitely pragmatic. Small business blooms everywhere from the tuk tuks travelling tourists from place to place to the wily women who literally launch themselves onto moving buses in order to sell their baskets of snacks to the hungry sitters. I flew into Cebu City and left its dusty grey hurriedly, journeying down to Panangsama with its dive schools and green turtles idly basking on coolly couched corals.
From Panangsama beach, it is possible to catch a bus in order to travel the two hours to Oslob. Oslob is where you can swim with whale sharks. It is also in Oslob that the conscientious traveller will encounter a dilemma: do I or do I not wish to support a trade whereby wild whale sharks are baited and netted so that I – unworthy tourist, one of countless many- can swim alongside them. We decided not. A quick note on the buses: there is an air con bus and a non-air con bus. In our time, we took both types of bus- on the air con bus we watched Batman versus Superman without the sound, facilitating our splendid game of choosing a character each and ad-libbing the conversations. (Naturally, I was Batman). On the non-air con, the seat was so small that I couldn’t quite fit both buttocks onto it despite concerted, continual effort and I was sat across the aisle from a chicken’s head poking out from a tightly wrapped white plastic bag. I leave you to decide which one you’d rather; I enjoyed both. I learnt some wistful life truths from those chicken eyes.
Malapascua provides an alternative: a thankfully un-netted thresher shark dive. The point at which you descend is known as a ‘Car Wash’- a spot frequented by larger marine mammals such as thresher sharks and manta rays for the abundance of smaller fish they’re sure to find there. Smaller fish who will, with only minimal hesitation, nibble the parasites off these sharks and mantas for a truly submarine clean. Not only is this something worth seeing, the local dive schools have invested money into building a wall to protect the natural sanctity of the ‘Car Wash’ to make sure it exists for the future world we all hope to inhabit with the thresher sharks and their clean-nibbling friends.
Another area in which it is possible to commit support to the local people is by buying food. Find the smaller places, not the larger restaurants and certainly do not eat at the resort restaurants. (Resortaurants). From my chats with employees, all but all of the larger restaurants are not Filipino-owned. Instead, money is sent back to the wealth-lords in America, in China, in Japan. Go out a bit further than the resort and find the abundance of local business. Buy a pineapple from the man carrying them around in a basket on his head, go see the women sat by the shore side. If they’re holding machetes it’s not because they’re going to hack at you, it’s so that they can hack- with crazy-specific expertise- into the fresh green coconut you’ve bought from them. Hydration, not decapitation. If you do find yourself in Pangansama, there’s a beaut of a place called Lindy’s. Lindy is the proprietess and proud nourisher of seemingly all the local kids, who hold onto her skirt’s hem with mouths perpetually open. It was as much as I could do to not join in with the hem-holding, her fried calamari was the best I’ve eaten. Coincidentally, Lindy’s calamari is fished by these lovely kids straight from the sea probably less than an hour before you sit to eat it for your lunch.
Afternoons spent snorkeling along the coral shelf, perhaps a 300m swim from the Panangsama shore, will bring you to the shoals of sardines. Seeing thousands of bright eyes aligned in quick-witted scaly unison will see you spending so much time slow-sweeping your be-flippered feet you’ll arrive back to land with the sun-glistening gluts of the gods. Maybe more impressive yet, are – yet again- the sea children who can swim into these shoals (flipper-less, snorkel-less) and reappear with a sardine in each quick little hand. Later on you’ll find them sat with their families on the eating these well-won treats straight from the barbeque on the beach. These barbecues are just past twilight. Twilight itself sees the Filipino Mums wade through the shallows to collect their sea children who are, almost invariably, sat in sea circles around the ocean zoos they carefully curate. These typically feature sea urchins, various starfish (including the Blue Linckia which is blue, bright blue!) and perhaps the odd pygmy seahorse. Sometimes, if you respectfully venture close enough, they’ll show you their captives in various broken bits of bottle or in an excited palm before gently releasing them back to the sea.
These are the people who will grow up and protect the oceans, the environment that has nourished and kept them. Not the big companies who simply want your tourist monies. Nothing could evidence this better than the disjuncture between Malapascua and Oslob: those who profiteer and those who protect.
Meanwhile, Australia plans to build a coal power station near the Great Barrier Reef. Environmentalists are understandably furious, unconvinced by Adani’s assertion that the mine is plenty far enough from the world-renowned corals to cause any impact. For the as yet unacquainted, coral is a living animal. It’s an accumulation of poly-structured single-cell creatures grouping together to form the variously shaped submarine beauties, which make the reef. From Lace Corals to Fire Corals, so named because they’ll pang out a nasty sting if touched, the variances are multifarious, ever fascinating and infinitely vulnerable. Groups to protect them form similarly to the corals themselves, some of the members even known to expel an expert sting if provoked.
Such instability renders the Great Barrier Reef liable for inclusion on Unesco’s, ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list. The reef needs to check off against a 151 strong list of factors before any mention of removal will be entertained. As yet, they’re not doing swimmingly. Unsurprising, perhaps, when the prospect of a 30 kilometre strong coalmine proposes to darken both the door and the atmosphere.
Matters aren’t made any brighter by John Veron’s fatalist envisionings of the future. One-time sole scientist in residence at AIMS (the Australian Institute of Marine Science), John sees nothing but despair for the future of Australia’s corals, of which he believes 60% to be already dead. It is possible that no one could be less optimistic for our future than John Veron, but it also possible that he’s not wrong (which is satisfying because it rhymes with his name). There’s a strange conflation when it comes to cares about the environment: it is actually the planet, or the human species we care about conserving, protecting, prolonging. The problem of the tourist trade ties into this perfectly, particularly so because it is so fully recreational. Most would not travel to the Great Barrier Reef in order to conserve it, just to see it. I cannot admit that I don’t count myself among these, but I will do my best to help my spiny-stinging lobbyists prevent the construction of a coalmine that promises to do far greater, and far-reaching damage to the planet and not just to the prestigious reef.
It’s a tricky paradox, the tourist trade. Most beauty is treasured for its seclusion and rarity. But there are billions of human eyes, each and every one of which want to see, stamp all over and Instagram this beauty. For me, the most beautiful of all is the ocean, preferably unpilfered by industrial fishing trawlers and trash-less. It has long been assumed that the sea harbors mysteries unbound: merfolk, giant squid, Rose’s diamond necklace. Less happily pondered, however, is the aforementioned wide island of landfill. Whether we’re to think of this island metaphorically or not, we’d all best hope that Trashy Ocean Texas has foundation enough for us to build our new cities on.
Words by Mimi Biggadike