"What is a Danajon Bank?"

By Michael Ready

This week over on the Huffington Post, photographer Michael Ready reflects on Expedition: Danajon Bank. You can read the original post here.

In April, after four planes, a ferry, and two outriggers, I arrived at Handumon, a remote village and field station on Jandayan Island in the Philippines. As I lay down the first night under a mosquito net, wiped out and bit disoriented, I took in the nocturnal forest sounds. That's when I heard it: an impressive rendition of Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" amidst the din of tree crickets and the occasional bark of a tokay gecko.

Karaoke, or "videoke" as it is known in the Philippines, is a national pastime, even in isolated Handumon. At breakfast the next morning, Dr. Nick Hill, a scientist with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), assured me that at some point we would all participate in this tradition. I laughed, though my pulse gave a panicked throb as I am far more afraid of a solo singing performance than anything I could ever encounter underwater.

And that's why we, four underwater photographers from the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), were there -- to get in the water. iLCP had teamed up with Project Seahorse and sent us to document the Danajon Bank. Claudio Contreras-Koob, Thomas Peschak, Luciano Candisani, and I traveled from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and the US, respectively, to photograph this little known but extremely important place. 

When I first learned of plans for this iLCP expedition I asked what most anyone would ask -- What's a Danajon Bank? Though I've traveled throughout Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, the area was a complete unknown. For most of the world, and even within the Philippines, this unique biological treasure is unfamiliar -- but it shouldn't be.

Danajon Bank (Da-na-haun) lies in the central Visayas region of the Philippines. Spanning 97 miles along the islands of Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, and Southern Leyte, it is one of just six double barrier reefs in the world. Not only is Danajon Bank a rare geologic formation, it is considered one the richest areas of marine biodiversity anywhere, the place from which almost all Pacific marine life evolved.

As iLCP photographers, we were there to not only document the beauty and richness of Danajon Bank, but also the destruction of this biologically sensitive and threatened seascape. The resulting images would help Project Seahorse and other conservation partners inform and inspire the world to care about the ecology and culture of this region.

For two weeks, our daily schedules were packed: rise at 3 a.m., pack the boats, depart at 4 a.m., shoot topside at first light, shoot underwater until sundown, night dive, return to camp, eat dinner, download images, charge batteries, sleep for two or three hours, repeat. Someone once told me that if I wanted to sleep in, I should have been a writer.

Coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass biomes are vital habitats that are in global decline. Danajon Bank is no exception and is a perfect example of the fragility of these systems. Sadly, much of the reef system is a mere relic of Danajon's booming primordial past and in the water, I was immediately struck by the absence of fish. Compared to the colorful and lively reefs I am used to seeing in tropical southern seas, the Danajon reefs and lagoons are devoid of larger species. As a result, top predators like reef sharks have ceased to hunt these depleted grounds.

Overfishing and destructive fishing methods are to blame. Blast fishing, using explosives to instantly kill sea life, has long been practiced in this area. Although dangerous and illegal, it continues on a secretive yet devastating scale. This quick-catch method and indiscriminate bottom trawling have ravaged sea life, and nearly 200 species are threatened. Indeed, it was not difficult to find examples of dead or dying reefs - submerged like eerie, aquatic ghost towns. I felt like an archaeologist who has discovered the sad fascinating remains of a lost civilization.

Not surprisingly, human encroachment, population growth, pollution, and climate change pose additional pressures on this vast ecosystem and the people it supports. An estimated one million people depend on the Danajon's waters for their livelihoods and no one is more aware of the diminished fish stocks and paucity of large fish than these locals. Meager catches of just a handful of small fish -- an entire night's work -- were a common sight on the islands that we visited.

The issues here are complex, as are the answers. However, thanks to Project Seahorse and other groups, there is reason for hope. Remarkably, their work within the past decade has resulted in the establishment of 34 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) among Danajon Bank islands.

Our dives in these MPAs were a different experience entirely. Within the protected boundaries, biodiverse ecosystems are rebuilding. In some cases, the contrast was downright stunning as in the Bilangbilangan MPA where seemingly endless fields of hard corals cover the shallow sea floor. In deeper waters, enormous sea fans (gorgonians) and sponges rise into the current. Even endangered branch corals (Anacropora sp.) are making a comeback.

Though large fish remain uncommon, these vibrant reefs are home to many smaller species of fish and invertebrates. The expected denizens like anemonefish, parrotfish, angels, and wrasses, and surprise discoveries, like a juvenile blue-edged sole (Soleichthys heterorhinos) and a troop of messmate pipefish (Corythoichthys intestinalis), made photographing inside the MPAs a pleasure and hinted at the myriad of life forms that once sprung from this area.

Though all the data is not yet in, many local fishermen believe that the MPAs are having a positive effect on their catches. Whole villages have embraced the concept as some have taken it upon themselves to police the boundaries or man guard towers to track potential poachers.

The people of Danajon are gradually moving to more sustainable fishing methods and looking for alternatives, like seaweed farming. Other ecologically sound practices are being developed, including a collaborative project between ZSL and Interface, a carpet manufacturer, where fishers are paid for their used fishing nets. These nets are unfortunately very abundant and detrimental when left in the local biomes. Yet through this program, they are collected, cleaned, bundled and exported to be upcycled into carpet tiles. With efforts like these, and additional and expanded MPAs, perhaps large fish and sharks will one day return.

When I travel to developing areas I am reminded that for some, conservation may seem a luxury. I'm grateful for those groups working towards lofty conservation goals, while still providing sustainable livelihood options for the people who depend on the reef. I am also reminded of our shared humanity and the many ways in which we are connected. My new Danajon Bank friends made me feel right at home, so much so that I spent my last night happily partaking in their cherished videoke. I sang my heart out!

Photo of the week: Mighty mangroves

By Tyler Stiem

From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines.  Did you know?  Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village.  Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines. Did you know? Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village. Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP

Photo of the week: Lantern fisher

By Tyler Stiem

From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average.  Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average. Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP

Exhibition launch in Chicago

By Tyler Stiem

A trio of black-axil chromis ( Chromis atripectoralis ).  Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

A trio of black-axil chromis (Chromis atripectoralis). Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

It's been awhile since we've posted about Expedition: Danajon Bank, our photographic collaboration the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Since the expedition ended in late April, the team has been hard at work sifting through thousands of images, editing and curating them down to a select few for our conservation photo exhibition that will travel the world. 

First up, we're proud to say, is John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The exhibit opens to the public on Friday, August 9th and will be on display for 12 months. If you’re in the city, be sure to visit!

Stay tuned for more news and features, including some fantastic photo essays on blast fishing, seaweed farming, and more, as well as sneak peeks at future exhibits in Manila, Hong Kong, and London.

In the meantime, we’ll be posting amazing new photos from the expedition in this space.

Documenting the 'Cradle of Marine Biodiversity'

By Tyler Stiem

Photo courtesy Luciano Candisani/iLCP

Photo courtesy Luciano Candisani/iLCP

Over the next few weeks, the Expedition: Danajon Bank team will be blogging over at National Geographic Newswatch. Here’s the first post:

“Long term and meaningful conservation success really is only possible if NGOs and photographers work together – very often also working with scientists. If you can get those three sectors working together, you’re pretty much a non-stoppable force.”

— Thomas Peschak, Conservation Photographer and iLCP Fellow

The International League of Conservation Photographers has pulled together an unstoppable force to launch a conservation campaign on behalf of a rare and threatened double-barrier coral reef called Danajon Bank. Four iLCP photographers, including Thomas Peschak, will travel to the Philippines in April to visually document this 90-mile reef system. More than a year in the making, our two-week photo expedition is a collaboration between NGOs, photographers and scientists, all of whom are interested in conserving this unique marine ecosystem – one of only six double-barrier reefs in the world.

iLCP is teaming up with Project Seahorse to reveal for the first time the full beauty of Danajon Bank and the imminent threats it faces. Pictures will be taken by Peschak and another three of the world’s finest marine photographers: Luciano Candisani, Claudio Contreras, and Michael Ready. This international team hails from South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and the United States (respectively). Joining our photographers will be pre-eminent marine biologists Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey of Project Seahorse and the Zoological Society of London.

Read more over at National

Our crowdfunding campaign is live

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Photo:  Michael Ready /iLCP

Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP

In collaboration with iLCP, We’ve launched our very first IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign, in support of Expedition: Danajon Bank. Our goal? To raise US $30,000 in support of the project.

As part of the campaign, we’ll be producing postcards, limited edition original photo prints, posters, signed copies of the book, and much more.

Our backers will also receive behind-the-scenes updates from the expedition team, and an exclusive digital preview of the photos. For as little as $10 you can help to protect Danajon Bank.

The funds raised by our campaign will help to cover some of the costs associated with the expedition as well as the printing of the book and production of the exhibition prints.

We hope you’ll help our cause!


Dr. Amanda Vincent, Dr. Heather Koldewey, and the entire Expedition: Danajon Bank team


Introducing Expedition: Danajon Bank

By Tyler Stiem

Project Seahorse and the International League of Conservation Photographers are excited to announce Expedition: Danajon Bank, a photography project that explores a rare and threatened double-barrier coral reef in the Philippines. It’s a collaboration between some of the world’s top nature photographers and marine scientists. 

(Learn more about our expedition team here, or find out how you can get involved.) 

Little-known to the outside world, Danajon Bank is one of only six double-barrier reefs across the globe, and one of the most important marine ecosystems in the entire Pacific Ocean. Species found all over the region are thought to have first evolved along this 90-mile stretch of coastline. 

Unfortunately, Danajon Bank faces many threats, including overfishing and destructive fishing practices (such as blast fishing with explosives), as well as overdevelopment, pollution, and climate change. The reef is home to at least 200 threatened animals, such as the elusive Tiger-tail seahorse. 

Our project aims to capture Danajon Bank in all its fragile beauty and share the images with the world to raise awareness about the threats facing this important ecosystem.

Following a two-week expedition in spring 2013, we will produce a beautiful hardcover photo book and launch a series of large-scale photo exhibitions at aquariums in London, Chicago, Hong Kong, Manila, and beyond. 

The result will be a powerful photographic legacy that will help conservationists in the Philippines and around the world push for increased protections for the Danajon Bank.