The faces of recovery

By Tyler Stiem

Though the story of Typhoon Haiyan (and the October earthquake) is beginning to cycle out of the news, the relief and recovery effort is still very much under way. Many villages in Bantayan, Panay, and Danajon Bank continue to face acute shortages of food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Our team in the field continues to be amazed by the resilience and optimism of these communities. Below are portraits of hope photographed by Steve de Neef.

If you can spare a few dollars, please consider donating to ZSL's relief and recovery fund. Your support is still needed and appreciated!

 A local Madridejos women and her baby stand in front of her destroyed house after Typhoon Yolanda passed over the island.

A local Madridejos women and her baby stand in front of her destroyed house after Typhoon Yolanda passed over the island.

 Kids posing and playing in Madridejos, an area hit very hard by Typhoon Yolanda.

Kids posing and playing in Madridejos, an area hit very hard by Typhoon Yolanda.

 A pair of boys fly kites amid the ruins of Madridejos.

A pair of boys fly kites amid the ruins of Madridejos.

 Smiles from a pair of boys.

Smiles from a pair of boys.

 ZSL and Project Seahorse relief operation in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island.

ZSL and Project Seahorse relief operation in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island.

 A woman posing in from of her house that was destroyed by Tyhpoon Yolanda.

A woman posing in from of her house that was destroyed by Tyhpoon Yolanda.

 Mother and child at one of the relief centres

Mother and child at one of the relief centres

More photos from the relief efforts

By Regina Bestbier

Our relief efforts continue in the devastated communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank where no other external help is available. To date we've reached eleven communities, delivering emergency packs and other assistance to 1,600 households.  This past week we delivered rice, canned fish and drinking water to four communities in Panay (ZSL mangrove conservation project sites) that lost 75% - 100% of their homes.

Here are some images taken during a two-day relief operation to Bantayan and Hilantagaan Island in Cebu.  All photos taken by Steve de Neef.

 

 Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats. Photo by Steve de Neef

  People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath. Photo by Steve de Neef

  People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island. Photo by Steve de Neef

  Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Steve de Neef

  People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours. Photo by Steve de Neef

  Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Hope.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Hope. Photo by Steve de Neef

Update from Danajon Bank

By Tyler Stiem

As mentioned previously on this blog, one of the areas that has been mostly overlooked in the post-Haiyan relief effort is Danajon Bank in northern Bohol Province, Philippines. Last month the area was badly damaged by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that destroyed over 2,000 houses and left many thousands of people homeless. 

Since then, this rare and threatened double-barrier reef and many of coastal and island communities that depend on it for food and livelihoods have been further affected by aftershocks as high as 5.1 on the Richter scale (over 3,000 so far) — as well as by the typhoon itself. 

This week, ZSL and Project Seahorse delivered emergency aid to 1,250 households in seven different towns and villages in the area. These are communities near and dear to our hearts, communities we have collaborated with on conservation programs for many years. 

Our local staff report that people are doing as well as can be expected. Thanks to the hard work of local People’s Organizations and other community-based groups, the emergency packs consisting of food, clean water, hygiene products, and essential medicines are quickly reaching the neediest people. 

Here are a few images from this latest two-day operation:

 Food and other emergency supplies arrive by outrigger boats and by truck to remote Danajon Bank communities.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Food and other emergency supplies arrive by outrigger boats and by truck to remote Danajon Bank communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 Volunteers unload the supplies. 

Volunteers unload the supplies. 

 People wait patiently to receive emergency relief packs containing clean water, food, hygiene products, and essential medicine.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

People wait patiently to receive emergency relief packs containing clean water, food, hygiene products, and essential medicine. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 Registering for emergency relief assistance.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Registering for emergency relief assistance. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 A woman opens one of the packs for her young child.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman opens one of the packs for her young child. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 Smiling faces.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Smiling faces. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 Members of a local Peoples' Organization (PO) pose for a team photo. PO's are an essential part of relief operations, often drawing their volunteers from the affected communities.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Members of a local Peoples' Organization (PO) pose for a team photo. PO's are an essential part of relief operations, often drawing their volunteers from the affected communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 The ZSL/Project Seahorse pause for a photo during a long day of relief work.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The ZSL/Project Seahorse pause for a photo during a long day of relief work. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Community portraits, post-Haiyan

By Tyler Stiem

In between updates on the relief effort underway in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, we'll be posting portraits of the amazing, resilient communities in these areas. Today we bring you a few scenes from Bantayan Island in central Philippines. As always, if you'd like to help out, visit our JustGiving page

 A father and his four sons sit outside their storm-damaged house. Bantayan Town.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A father and his four sons sit outside their storm-damaged house. Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 A pair of boys transport rebuilding materials by bike through their village.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A pair of boys transport rebuilding materials by bike through their village. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 A sign of hope if there ever was one: A pair of boys fly homemade kits over what's left of their village.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A sign of hope if there ever was one: A pair of boys fly homemade kits over what's left of their village. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 A woman sits in front of the ruins of a house in Bantayan Town.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman sits in front of the ruins of a house in Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

 The long rebuilding process begins.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The long rebuilding process begins. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The relief and recovery effort so far

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Over the past few days, ZSL and Project Seahorse staff have begun delivering emergency aid to communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, three areas where no other external help is available. Because of our strong ties with the local communities — about 40 towns and villages in all, with a total population of 60,000 people —  our team is able to provide aid and logistical support quickly and effectively. 

Yesterday we delivered rice and canned fish to a community in Panay that has lost 75% of its houses. Today we are sending off the first set of 2,000 relief packs to coastal communities in Danajon Bank. All aid is delivered by our local team, of whom about half are social workers. We co-ordinate with local government and work through community organizations wherever possible (many of which we have collaborated with on our marine conservation work).

The situation remains difficult. Most of the storm debris have not yet been cleared, and in Danajon Bank and across Bohol province there have been 3,000 aftershocks (some as high as 5.1 magnitude) since last month’s earthquake. There is much work to be done. 

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and the longer-term recovery process. 

y Dr. Amanda Vincent

Over the past few days, ZSL and Project Seahorse staff have begun delivering emergency aid to communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, three areas where no other external help is available. Because of our strong ties with the local communities — about 40 towns and villages in all, with a total population of 60,000 people —  our team is able to provide aid and logistical support quickly and effectively. 

Yesterday we delivered rice and canned fish to a community in Panay that has lost 75% of its houses. Today we are sending off the first set of 2,000 relief packs to coastal communities in Danajon Bank. All aid is delivered by our local team, of whom about half are social workers. We co-ordinate with local government and work through community organizations wherever possible (many of which we have collaborated with on our marine conservation work).

The situation remains difficult. Most of the storm debris have not yet been cleared, and in Danajon Bank and across Bohol province there have been 3,000 aftershocks (some as high as 5.1 magnitude) since last month’s earthquake. There is much work to be done. 

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and the longer-term recovery process. 

 Field staff hand out relief packs to villagers. The packs contain food, clean water, soap, and essential medicines. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Field staff hand out relief packs to villagers. The packs contain food, clean water, soap, and essential medicines. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 Registration for post-storm disaster relief assistance. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Registration for post-storm disaster relief assistance. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 Staff prepare the emergency relief packs. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Staff prepare the emergency relief packs. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 A barangay captain (village head) helps with the relief effort. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

A barangay captain (village head) helps with the relief effort. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 Signs of hope: Amid all of the destruction, life goes on. Boys play pickup basketball outside a village. Panay, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Signs of hope: Amid all of the destruction, life goes on. Boys play pickup basketball outside a village. Panay, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

First photos from Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank

By Tyler Stiem

Thanks to the intrepid work of our field team, we can finally bring you images from Bantayan and Panay, two of the areas badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan, along with some photos of the earthquake damage to Danajon Bank. As mentioned in our previous post, several thousand homes have been destroyed in the coastal villages along Danajon Bank, and at least 75% of homes in Panay are gone. An update on the relief effort will follow later today. In the meantime, please share this post widely!

 Fishing boats destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda). Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Fishing boats destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda). Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 A family stands outside the tent they've set up amid the rubble of their home. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

A family stands outside the tent they've set up amid the rubble of their home. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

 Kids rest on a knocked-down tree outside their village. Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Kids rest on a knocked-down tree outside their village. Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

 Fishing boats destroyed during the storm near Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Fishing boats destroyed during the storm near Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

 Ruined building, Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Ruined building, Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

 Village houses shaken off their foundations during last month's 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol Province. Buenavista, Danajon Bank, Philippines.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Village houses shaken off their foundations during last month's 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol Province. Buenavista, Danajon Bank, Philippines. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

 Houses knocked down by last month's earthquake.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Houses knocked down by last month's earthquake. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

 Over 2,000 homes in the Danajon Bank region of the Philippines have been damaged or destroyed by last month's earthquake and last week's typhoon. Pictured here is a makeshift encampment where displaced families are sheltering.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Over 2,000 homes in the Danajon Bank region of the Philippines have been damaged or destroyed by last month's earthquake and last week's typhoon. Pictured here is a makeshift encampment where displaced families are sheltering. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Update: Typhoon Haiyan and its Aftermath

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Dear friends,

As you know, it’s been an incredibly difficult few weeks for the Philippines. Following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake last month that caused considerable loss of lives and homes, the Visayas region was on Friday hit by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda), one the strongest tropical storms on record. 

The regions worst affected by these twin disasters include places very near and dear to our hearts: Danajon Bank in northern Bohol Province, Bantayan Island off the northern coast of Cebu Province, and Panay Island further west. These are places where Project Seahorse and the Zoological Society of London have collaborated with communities on marine conservation ventures for up to 19 years, places where we have many friends, places we love.

We are deeply anxious about “our” communities.  Early reports from our field staff indicate that over 2,000 households in Danajon Bank alone have been badly affected by the earthquake. We do not yet know the extent of the typhoon damage in Bantayan (where Yolanda made its third landfall), but reports from our team indicate that 80-90% of homes in two communities on Panay have been destroyed.  We cannot yet begin to deduce the situation for fisheries and marine resources/conservation.

The small coastal villages that we know best are the most overlooked in terms of national and international relief and recovery.  So we are stepping in and have begun providing emergency relief in the form of packs containing food, clean water, and basic medicines. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will send experts into these areas to evaluate the damage both to the communities and to the coastal ecosystems. This will be the first step towards in the recovery process as we help these communities to rebuild their livess and rehabilitate the ecosystems they depend on for survival.

We are hugely grateful to our marvelous Filipino team, who are doing everything they can to provide relief to the communities. Thankfully, our team members are all safe.  Some, however, are dealing with great personal anxieties about family members caught in disaster zones or damage to their own homes. We are very proud of their courage and selflessness.

As the relief effort unfolds, we will be posting regular updates in this space. We hope to have photos and first-hand accounts from our field staff in the coming days. In the meantime, you can find real-time updates from our team on Twitter at @ProjectSeahorse@ChaiApale@AmandaVincent1 and @HeatherKoldewey

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and help to kick-start the longer-term recovery process. 

Best regards,

Dr. Amanda Vincent & Dr. Heather Koldewey

Project Seahorse/Zoological Society of London

P.S. For full coverage of the storm and its aftermath, you may want to explore out CNN's curated twitter feed. To see Danajon Bank in all of its pre-storm glory, visit our Expedition: Danajon Bank blog.

The seahorses of Malaysia’s Sembilan archipelago

By Julia Lawson

 A pregnant male yellow seahorse ( H. kuda )

A pregnant male yellow seahorse (H. kuda)

Located roughly 10 km off the west coast of mainland Malaysia, Pulau Sembilan (or the Nine Islands) has managed to fly under the radar while the rest of the country expands and develops. The archipelago is composed of nine uninhabited and densely forested islands.

Earlier this year, I conducted an exploratory dive in Pulau Sembilan looking for seahorses, which I heard could be found in the coral reefs surrounding these islands. Threatened by coastal development, land reclamation, and fishing, these reefs comprise some of the last healthy coral populations off the west coast of Malaysia.

The first few days of the trip were eye-opening for the sheer scope and diversity of the corals on display, but disappointing in terms of seahorse sightings. My research assistant, Yin Sing, and I found only four seahorses in the first three days. While it was exciting to observe these charismatic and mysterious animals in the wild for the first time, my heart sank as we looked for others. There were none, but this was not surprising as seahorses populations are notoriously patchy and low-density.

During our very last dive, I swam slowly back to the boat, determined to enjoy my final few minutes underwater in spite of our disappointing numbers. I noticed some beautiful branching coral in the shallows and swam over to examine it. That’s when I noticed two eyes staring up at me. A tiger-tail seahorse seemed to hold its breath, wishing for me to pass by it unnoticed. Nearly perfectly camouflaged against the yellow-tinged Acropora coral, I strained my eyes to look for others nearby. I was shocked to find more seahorses, woven amongst the branching coral. Running out of time, I conducted a quick count and confirmed five individuals in this small patch. Had they been there all along and we were just looking in the wrong places?

We returned to the Sembilan archipelago a few weeks later, determined to find out as much as we could about our newly discovered seahorse population. We were equipped with quadrats, transects, calipers and all the other scientific gear needed to survey a population of seahorses. On a hunch, I felt like there had to be more than just the five I found in that small patch. We had three full days to find out if this was true. My mind raced—what if there were only five? What if we can’t find them again? But before I knew it, I was back in the water at the Sembilan archipelago, eye to eye with a tiger-tail seahorse. 

Yun Sing and I worked methodically, focusing on patches of branching coral and then finding seahorses living inside. We would locate a seahorse, gently measure and photograph it, and return it to its home. We would also note whether it was pregnant or had a partner (as seahorses are monogamous). Lastly, we took note of the seahorse’s surroundings by photographing and measuring the branching coral that it lived in.

After three days of intensive diving we found 78 seahorses around the Sembilan archipelago, including two tiny juveniles that were only 2.5cm in length. We were ecstatic to find out that this population represented not only the biggest population found to date on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, but one of the biggest populations discovered thus far in South East Asia.

Despite the size and density of this population, we were surprised to learn that the Sembilan archipelago is offered no protection by the Malaysian government. With no restrictions on fishing, the Sembilan archipelago is open access and more alarmingly, it is open to those specifically harvesting seahorses for the aquarium trade. 

Project Seahorse has since then teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia, a local non-governmental organization in Malaysia, and our colleagues at the University of Malaya, to encourage government protection of this unique and important ecosystem. Protecting the seahorses of the Sembilan archipelago is an important step in maintaining seahorse populations in South East Asia.

Julia Lawson is an MSc student with Project Seahorse. 

A tribute to Choo Chee Kuang, academic and humanitarian

By Julia Lawson

Earlier this year, Project Seahorse colleague Choo Chee Kuang passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Choo was a scientist, conservationist, and humanitarian who produced important and novel research on seahorses and the seahorse trade in Malaysia. On behalf of the Project Seahorse team, MSc student Julia Lawson remembers our dear colleague, who will be deeply missed.

Choo Chee Kuang’s reputation preceded him. I knew his work long before I travelled halfway around the world to begin my own fieldwork in Southeast Asia. His pioneering research on seahorse populations in Malaysia introduced me to the country before I ever set foot in it. A map next to my desk depicted the sixteen sites that Choo surveyed along the west coast of the peninsula. Those sites acted as a guidebook, and came alive from Choo’s papers. As a young researcher, developing ideas for my project, he had published a number of pioneering studies that inspired me. I left for Malaysia in May 2013, eager to see how things have changed from Choo’s research twelve years earlier.

Upon arriving in Malaysia, I spent time with the volunteer research program Choo started in 2004 called Save Our Seahorses Malaysia. It was then I realized that he was so much more than an academic. SOS Malaysia leads the effort to understand and protect seahorse populations in Malaysia, with a focus on the Pulai River Estuary in the south peninsular region. The Pulai River Estuary consists of the largest riverine mangrove forest and most expansive seagrass area in the peninsula. It is home not only to seahorses, but also pipefish, estuarine crocodiles, and dugongs. 

While this area is exceptionally biodiverse, it sits in an area of political importance, making protection difficult. The Pulai River Estuary occupies a narrow strip of water between Singapore and Malaysia, right in the middle of a busy shipping lane. Singapore continues to expand through development and land-reclamation, and Malaysia seeks to keep pace. In 2006, Malaysia proclaimed a huge region in south Malaysia as the Iskandar Development Region. This region is aimed at complimenting Singapore as the central economic hub in peninsular Malaysia. 

Driving down to the SOS Malaysia headquarters in Gelang Patah, we passed through much of Iskandar Malaysia. High-rises sprang from freshly cleared ground; luxury condominiums sat empty in the middle of nowhere. Ready for occupancy, and ready for expansion, Iskandar Malaysia seems to perfectly capture Malaysia’s status as an emerging economy.

 Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor.  Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor. Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Choo fought tirelessly to protect the Pulai River Estuary from the negative effects of development that come from projects like Iskandar. To save the estuary’s seahorses, Choo realized that he needed the support of the local indigenous people, the Orang Seletar. He recognized that as south Malaysia continued to develop, traditional livelihoods like small-scale fishing would be lost. Today, ocean-side communities in south Malaysia are faced with encroachment from shipping ports and hazardous petrochemical plants. Choo educated Orang Seletar children about their marine environment and over time he became a spokesperson for these communities. Under the guidance of Choo, Save Our Seahorses Malaysia was also a key organizer in peaceful protests by the Orang Seletar community to highlight environmental concerns about petrochemical projects in the region. 

Choo was an academic who was fascinated by seahorse biology and trade in Malaysia, yet he was also a humanitarian who cared deeply about the communities and people in the areas that he studied. Today, south Malaysia continues to develop, but the impact of Choo’s work continues to be felt. The Orang Seletar community still maintains a community centre, which Choo helped develop, and Save Our Seahorses Malaysia continues to monitor the seahorse population in the Pulai River Estuary. Through SOS Malaysia’s ongoing work to bring small-scale fishing communities and scientists together, Choo’s important work will live on for many years to come.

I count myself among those inspired by Choo, and he remains an advisor and a mentor to me, even though he is no longer with us. Using Choo’s papers as the backbone of my research, I revisited the ports he surveyed 12 years ago, and recorded trends and changes in seahorse trade and biology since his founding work. Project Seahorse and our colleagues at the University of Malaya will continue research on seahorses in Malaysia, and on-the-ground conservation continues with Save Our Seahorses’ dedicated volunteers and Orang Seletar fishing communities.

"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.

Seahorses, of all things: Further thoughts on the West African seahorse trade

By Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor

A fishing port, somewhere in Senegal or Gambia on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. It’s a hot, humid and buggy day, the pirogues are coming in, and it’s organized chaos all around. We’re weaving through porters and sorters, watching out for donkey carts full of fish zipping by. Between rivulets of human sewage and fish offal flowing into the ocean, women sit and gut the days’ catch. I skirt a pile of half-day-old finned shark trunks, a bucket of multi-sized octopus and cuttlefish, catch a glimpse of old cleaned-out sea turtle shells and a large devil ray, and take in the seemingly endless flow of pelagic and tropical fishes arriving bucket by bucket. In the background sits a fly-covered hill of murex shells, and a small army of men and women adding to it after breaking each snail out with small iron bars. Scenes like this — of people catching whatever they can to make a meagre living — play out daily all over the world…

…and I’m here to ask about seahorses.

Now, as a quick personal back-story, growing up around fisheries I still remember hearing about this or that (usually foreign) conservationist and their quest to save something, usually shutting down a fishery in the process. So the irony was not lost on me as I moved down the beach with my bottled water (oh, how the tables turn) and, through my translator, Boiro, asked fishers about their catch. Did they see any seahorses, how many, etc.? Usually, the initial look of suspicion was replaced with one of honest surprise (and perhaps some derision) upon accepting that yes, this ‘Toubab’ is a student, and he actually just wants to know about seahorses. Seahorses, of all things! 

Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), which means they can be legally caught in a country, but require a permit to export. Exports from West Africa to Asia (as traditional Chinese medicine) have been increasing quickly, but exactly where they’re being fished and how they compare with declared exports is unclear. My job is to continue research begun last year and estimate how many seahorses are being caught by fishers here, how they are being traded within the country, how they are getting out, and how the authorities are dealing with it, if at all. 

Three week’s research (so far) into the trade in Senegal and Gambia, here’s the lowdown. First of all, seahorses are not high on anyone’s radar. Fishers catch some by accident here and there; some traders might collect them and re-sell, and eventually larger handfuls of seahorses are accumulated on their way to Dakar. When asked how big a part of his business they are, the owner of a seafood processing plant and the largest single (legal) exporter of seahorses in Senegal laughed and said “0%”. After touring his plant, I believe him. In fact, many government officials and scientists, and even some fishers, were unaware of the seahorses trade in Senegal and Gambia. 

This is a classic example of the scaling-up phenomenon in fisheries. Even if individual fishers only occasionally catch a few seahorses, the sheer number of pirogues and industrial trawlers on the water means that an estimated 1.8 tonnes of seahorses (almost 300,000 individuals) are landed per year, just over six times the legally-exported amount. The rest of the seahorses are taken to Asia illegally, either by boat crews returning home or by clandestine exporters. This gap between perception and reality speaks to the much larger issue of global bycatch, which affects seahorses and many other marine species. 

What does this mean, specifically, for seahorses in West Africa? Well, we’re still working on that Our estimated seahorse landings represent less than one-thousandth of a percent of total Senegalese fishery landings. What we do know is that awareness is the necessary first step toward a sustainable seahorse trade in the region. After compiling results from our research, we brought together and shared them with key representatives from almost every stakeholder group you would want present, including CITES authorities, government officials, fish exporters, non-governmental organzations, academics, and policymakers. They now know what seahorses look like, how the males carry eggs and how to tell them apart from females, where and how they are caught, how they are being legally and illegally exported, and why this is something they should care about (trade sanctions if nothing else). More importantly, participants themselves were quick to spearhead discussion on the next steps to tackle this issue (and related ones such as shark-finning and customs practices), and have already started to move the wheels. On the biology/ecology side, we tripled the amount of seahorses previously sampled in this region and will now attempt to find more of them in the wild (tricky, but stay tuned). This will help provide much-needed local data for scientists and managers.

Developing countries face many serious economic and societal problems, such as poverty, which would seem to transcend by far even the most legitimate conservation concerns. Ultimately, these issues belong on a continuum, and need to be addressed together, with effective, holistic policies — sustainable fisheries being a step in the right direction. My field work in West Africa has made me realize, that if we only focus on and wait to solve the large-scale issues, we might eventually find that all the smaller conservation battles were lost in the meantime. So when you are tasked with even a seemingly-inconsequential aspect of conservation in a country with other pressing needs, remember that every single improvement counts. 

And remember to carry bottled water! 

Project Seahorse's trade research in West Africa is generously supported by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Photos: Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse

Searching for Seahorses

By Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh

  Hippocampus kuda , also known as the common seahorse, observed on a coral reef off the Andamn coast of Thailand by Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh.  Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Hippocampus kuda, also known as the common seahorse, observed on a coral reef off the Andamn coast of Thailand by Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh. Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh is a postdoctoral research associate based at John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago. Her work is part of a joint Shedd-Project Seahorse partnership. This blog originally appeared on National Geographic Newswatch.

The wind blew steadily, whipping up whitecaps in the distance as our little long-tail boat made its way out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand. My co-worker, Lindsay, already wore her dive gear, and our research assistants, Tum and Arm, hunkered down at the back with stoic expressions. We were about to get soaked.

 Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh and field assistant Top aboard a long-tail boat out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand.  Photo: Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh and field assistant Top aboard a long-tail boat out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand. Photo: Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Our boatman skillfully negotiated his way through the roiling waves as we left the bay, but we couldn’t escape the constant spray and waves that broke over the bow of the boat. Wiping saltwater from my eyes for the umpteenth time, I thought: I hope we see a seahorse today.

As part of my postdoctoral research position at the Shedd Aquarium, in collaboration with Project Seahorse, I’m searching this vast part of Southeast Asia for tiny seahorses (genus Hippocampus). My goals: to find out where seahorses live and what marine environments they prefer, how many species exist, whether seahorse populations here are under threat, and promote their conservation.

Species at Risk

Why are seahorses species of concern? According to the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), seahorses are heavily traded on the global market, with millions of animals exported globally every year. Dried seahorses for traditional medicine comprise the bulk of the trade, but animals are also sold for curios and live in the aquarium trade. Bottom trawling is the biggest contributor of seahorses in trade: the incidental harvest of seahorses, or bycatch, accounts for up to 95% of dried seahorses. Given what we know about seahorse biology—they have low rates of reproduction and tend to mate for life—wild seahorse populations can easily be overexploited. Seahorses also live in important marine habitats that are among the most heavily impacted by human activities, such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and estuaries.

The Science of Seahorses

Seahorses are too unique to be consigned to extinction. Unlike most other fishes, seahorses lack the aerodynamic body shape for gliding through water. Instead, their prehensile tails grasp structures on the sea bottom for support. In a wild departure from the majority of the animal kingdom, the male seahorses are the ones who get pregnant, protecting and nourishing embryos in a special brood pouch on their abdomens. Pairs of many species are monogamous, with couples greeting each other daily in a courtship dance, sometimes while changing colors, to reinforce the pair-bond.

Despite their magical characteristics, we really don’t know that much about seahorses. They tend to be rare, well-camouflaged, and patchily distributed, making them difficult to find and study. We know the biological traits of seahorses that make them vulnerable to overfishing, but we need to build upon existing knowledge to improve their conservation. Hence, my current efforts.

I’m in Thailand because according to CITES trade reports, Thailand exports the highest number of seahorses in the world annually (~5 million individuals per year from 2004-2008). Here, I’m working with the CITES authorities in the Department of Fisheries and researchers from Kasetsart University (Bangkok) to find out where seahorses live along the coast of Thailand, how many seahorses are out there, and if different species have habitat preferences.  These data will help the Thai government to assess the seahorse trade in Thailand, and ensure its sustainability.

  Measuring the trunk length of a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse.  Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Measuring the trunk length of a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse. Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

As we swam along the second 50 meter transect at our survey site, a patch reef off Koh Khai Nai (Khai Nai Island), I spotted a flash of yellow under an overhang—a seahorse! It was a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse, the first I had seen in days of surveys. We quickly took some body measurements with a caliper to minimize stress to the animal (a good-sized seahorse too, with a height of 14cm), and placed her gently back in the crevice. We found five seahorses on this patch reef, giving an approximate density of 1 individual per 1,000 square meters – definitely uncommon. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of effort, usually a few days of intense searching, to find seahorses in a large survey site. We’re getting used to seeing several “empty” transects, or search areas with no seahorses, as we progress, but that makes each seahorse we find more valuable to our database. Despite the wind and the waves, our trip to Koh Khai Nai in search of seahorses was time well spent, indeed.

Picturing the people of Danajon Bank, part three...

By Tyler Stiem

 Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

 Prized possession.

Prized possession.

 A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

 A boy and his family's catch.

A boy and his family's catch.

 Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Underwater investment banks

By Dr. Nick Hill

 A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

As the island village of Guindacpan slides into view, we see raised bamboo platforms tumbling out from shore. Squatting and seated cross-legged atop these platforms are men and women, young and old. They sort huge piles of straggly red and green “weeds” to dry in the sun. This is seaweed – currently one of the most important economic resources for people on Danajon Bank.

We’re immediately surrounded by children who’ve spotted Claudio’s and Mike’s cameras. They’re incredibly excited by the prospect of getting their photo taken and strike instinctive poses. If we were here to document only the people of Danajon Bank, our job would certainly be very easy! Too bad the fish don’t pose so easily.

It’s mesmerizing to watching the villagers deftly sort the seaweed. The plants grown here unusual-looking, more like a branching gelatinous substance that easily snaps in your hand than the tough fronds that most of us are used to. But we’re more familiar with the species grown here than we may think. Once sun-dried, it’s sold to local traders who ship it to Cebu City, where in large factories it’s turned into a substance called ‘carrageenan.’

 Inspecting the harvest.

Inspecting the harvest.

But something tells us that won’t be a problem. With a price of around P10-50 per kg (depending on species), even the smallest frond is valuable. Everything is gathered up and sold. Seaweed is an important source of income for fishers who these days, thanks to overfishing, often struggle to catch enough fish for their families that day.

As we explore the seaweed farm, we notice loads of small to medium sized danggit and kitong hanging around near the seaweed farmers, grazing on whatever comes their way. These rabbitfishes (family Siganidae) are a locally very important foodfish that have been heavily exploited. But in these de facto marine protected areas the juveniles appear to be thriving.

 Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Carrageenan used an ingredient found in all sorts of products that we use daily: cosmetics, food and drinks (including some of the local Filipino beers we’re keen on), pharmaceuticals, shoe polish, and pet food, along with hundreds of other products. Seaweed farming began here on Danajon Bank back in the 1970s, and has been an important and growing livelihood ever since, thanks to global demand for carrageenan. For many years, Philippines was the world’s largest producer of seaweed, and Danajon Bank one of the most productive areas. Now, Indonesia takes the crown.

To understand how the seaweed grows and where it comes from, we travelled on to Taglibas, an area of reef used by the people of a neighbouring village of Hambungan (we visited Hambungan earlier in the week). It’s difficult at first to spot the seaweed farm from the water, but a cluster of boats and a stretch of styrofoam gives the location away. Men and women on two boats are working hard to pull in the seaweed, trying to shake off some of the epiphytes as they work. It’s clear they’re nearing the end of their day’s labour, so we plunge straight into the crystal clear water and get to work.

Instantly we’re hit by two things. First, the sheer quantity of the seaweed, which sways in rows of long straggly pillars. Second, the amount of fish life hiding in and around the seaweed. As a farmer in goggles and wooden fins handles the crop, fronds break off and fall to the coral reef below. If too much seaweed ends up on the reef, blocking the sun, the corals will suffer.

 Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

And it isn’t just rabbitfishes that are hiding away in here. As Claudio and Mike carefully navigate their way through the maize of fronds to position themselves for the best shots of the seaweed farmers at work, we see parrotfishes, batfish, cardinalfish and a host of small juvenile fish scatter and regroup under different fronds.

Seaweed farming can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s an important livelihood; on the other, careless farming can damage the reefs below, with issues such as trampling and shading threatening benthic habitat. However, our overwhelming impression is that it is better than many of the destructive practices in use on Danajon Bank – especially blast fishing. At least there is life here! What we need is to improve planning of seaweed farming to ensure environmental impacts are limited.

 A diver secures seaweed to a line.

A diver secures seaweed to a line.

The sheer quantity of seaweed on the two boats and the frenzied work of the seaweed farmers point towards the economic importance of seaweed. Fishing is like a cash machine in the sea – providing opportunities for instant cash returns. But with the high population densities and declining catches, it rarely provides enough income for a daily basis, and certainly no opportunities to build savings. Whereas seaweed farming functions more like an investment account.

The crop takes 40-50 days to grow, and growth is exponential. Assuming that there are no problems (e.g. typhoons, stealing), they aren’t plagued by a disease called ice-ice (baby), and they have the guts to leave it the full 40-50 days, returns on investment can be substantial. There are some very successful seaweed farmers here!

Not surprisingly, commercial companies have, on occasion, attempted set up operations on the reef. So far, none has been approved, and for good reason. The presence of large-scale operators would threaten the livelihoods of local people and likely result in even more overfishing. Increased protections for the whole of Danajon Bank will prevent this grim possibility, and give the people at least some security.