Coral Triangle: Marine world, as nature made it

Bibi Nurshuhada Ramli New Straits Times 14 Jan 14;

A renowned underwater explorer tells Bibi Nurshuhada Ramli about man and animals co-existing
With its six million square kilometres encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands, the Coral Triangle is considered the global epicentre of marine biodiversity.

Revealing more about its unrivalled beauty and biological significance in The Coral Triangle is Animal Planet’s three-part documentary airing from today.

The Coral Triangle lies deep in the volcanic Indo-Pacific region, where two great oceans merge, and is bordered in the north by the Philippines, the west by Indonesia and Malaysia and the east by the Solomon Islands.

The series explores previously uncharted depths of the ocean, discovers species new to science, meets the people whose livelihoods are dependent on the region, and finds out why it holds a vital key to the future of the world’s oceans and human sustainability.

The show was captured with beautiful blue-chip cinematography, featuring some of the world’s foremost experts on the region, including renowned underwater explorer, Valerie Taylor, who first visited it in 1973.

“I realised that it was an exceptional place. It’s the centre of all marine life in the tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean,” she says. “I felt that it should be protected, and its integrity should be maintained. It’s a gift from Nature and we should take care of it.

“The story we’re trying to tell is that man and creatures in the sea can live and survive together. People just have to understand how to do it.”

Taylor, 78, is passionate about marine life. As marine conservationists, she and her late husband Ron were also known shark experts and filmmakers, having provided the iconic shark footage for Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws and others.

Unfortunately, Ron lost his battle to myeloid leukaemia in September 2012, while the documentary was still in production.

Taylor tells more about her experience filming and her hopes for the Coral Triangle in the interview below:

What were the challenges in filming the documentary?
The challenges were really for the deep divers because what they did was very dangerous. I was working in shallow waters with the above-water and underwater cameramen and we didn’t go much deeper than 20-30m.

It wasn’t really a challenge until, unfortunately, an Indonesian fishermen used cyanide to kill fish in the area where we worked.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt from this experience?

Humans think they know everything. They don’t. We know so little about the marine world. In the evenings, when we discussed what we’d seen and looked for some sort of reference, frequently we could not.

After 50 years, I still have a long way to go in learning about marine animals and my problem is I’m not going to live long enough. (laughs)

What problems do ocean life forms face?

My biggest worry is the over-harvesting. For instance, some fish don’t reproduce until they are 10 or 11 years old, and yet they’re being harvested before they can reproduce.

Fishermen do not understand what goes on underwater. They don’t ever go underwater and look at the damage their nets, bombs and cyanide do. These methods of fishing should be a crime.

What’s your message on marine conservation?

Don’t throw plastic bags and contaminated rubbish into the ocean. Once upon a time, people who lived in the islands used coconuts or natural fibre — stuff that is degradable. A plastic bag can last hundreds of years.

We are already overpopulating the planet. It will only get worse if we pollute what’s left of the land and sea. We need these areas to replenish the air and even the water we drink.

What advice can you give aspiring underwater photographers?

You have to understand fish and how to find unusual creatures. It’s not difficult to be an underwater cameraman today, but it is difficult to be good enough to sell your images because there are many underwater cameramen now.

Still, it pushes you on to try and find more and more unusual, difficult, hard-to-find animals. It’s all an adventure.

What is it about sharks that you find so interesting?

My husband and I used to spear fish and we learnt about sharks. We discovered that we could sell 16mm film of sharks doing all sorts of things.

Every weekend we’d go looking for sharks. We became known as the people to go to if you wanted shark footage. More opportunities came and it all had to do with filming sharks.

My interest in sharks was first to make a good living and secondly, because I grew to like them. They’re not the mean, nasty vicious terrors of the sea. Once you get to know them, you can handle them and they’re just like other big fish.

Is there a memorable experience involving sharks?

My favourite shark is the great white. Once I gave it a fish on a spoon which it took. Then I climbed down on a little swim platform and held my hand under the water with the fish. And then the shark came up, I lifted it out of the water and it took the fish from my hand. I guess that was probably the nicest shark I have ever met, because at any time it could’ve pulled me off the swim platform, but it didn’t.

What conservation measures are being adopted to further preserve our marine biodiversity?

One conservation initiative that really works is creating marine parks that are no-take zones. All marine animals need a secure place to love, live and breed.

I sincerely hope Malaysia does better (in keeping its marine life protected). You are in a unique position to protect many species of fish that are found nowhere else in the world. It’s got to be a marine sanctuary zone — not a marine park.

It’s important for future generations to be able to access these protected areas and see the marine world, not as man has made it, but as nature has made it.

The Coral Triangle airs every Tuesday at 9pm on Animal Planet (Astro Channel 555). Repeats air every Wednesday at 4pm and Sunday at 6pm.