Benham Rise through the eyes of a Filipino scientist

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“At night, the sea at Benham transforms. From calm blues, the sea becomes leathery black. You can see the Milky Way at night,” describes Jeffrey Maloles, a marine science researcher from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, when asked what the Benham Rise was like during his visits. Photo by KING KURL SEROJE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On Jan. 23, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that the Chinese were allowed to conduct their research on Benham Rise (now called Philippine Rise) because the Philippines would supposedly need the help of China in order to carry out their research.

The government statement caused an online furor, with various users saying that Filipinos have long been leading and conducting research in the area without China’s aid. In a Facebook post by Jay Batongbacal, a marine expert from the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, he says that Roque’s statement is “completely wrong, based on ignorance, a serious disservice to Filipino scientists in particular and the Filipino people in general, and an over-exaggeration of China's potential role in Philippine ocean sciences.”

Jeffrey Maloles, another researcher from the UP Marine Science Institute (MSI-UPD), along with other marine experts, has in fact been to Benham Rise twice: in 2014, where they used GoPro cameras to survey the Benham Bank (the shallowest part of the Benham Rise); and in 2016, where their team collaborated with the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy, among others, to examine the Benham Bank as well.

Both of these expeditions were funded by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD).

IMG_0011.JPG Jeffrey Maloles (pictured above), along with other marine experts, has been to Benham Rise twice (in 2014 and 2016) to examine the Benham Bank (the shallowest part of the Benham Rise). Photo by KING KURL SEROJE  

When asked about his opinion on Roque’s recent statement, Maloles says, “It is very disheartening, how he dismissed the interest and capability of the Philippine science community to do research; to strip away from Filipino researchers the ‘glory and opportunity’ to study the Benham Rise.”

He also adds that the government should fully understand the capabilities of Filipinos. “Outside the country, [Filipino scientists] win awards, they spearhead projects — they are celebrities in the global science community. Yet many researchers are leaving because of the lack of support and funding here. Yes, China is more ‘equipped,’ but Filipino oceanographers aren't less capable and not, in any way, less interested in studying our own seas.”

Despite the government’s statements, Maloles says that this only gives him and his team a stronger drive to make the scientific community in the Philippines more visible. CNN Philippines Life talked to Maloles to know more about what the Benham Rise was like during his visits, the challenges they had to face, and what he hopes to contribute to the study of marine science in the Philippines.

Why is the Benham Rise of great interest to researchers? What new insights did you find?

It's relatively an unexplored domain. And that's exciting! Experts speculate that the area may hold large amounts of natural gas deposits [which can be used as source of energy] and manganese nodules [which can be used for steelmaking], both of which can be added resources that the country can tap.

IMG_0006.JPG The researchers were aboard the MV Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Fisheries and Acquatic Resources ship. Maloles says that it is a capable ship, has the basics, and is air-conditioned. Photo by KING KURL SEROJE

Could you describe what the situation was like in the area?

When people ask me, "Uy! Kumusta ang Benham Rise nung pumunta kayo?" I always answer in jest, "Ayun. Walang gift shop. Sorry walang pasalubong. Puro tubig lang pala." Benham Rise is a haven for researchers and ocean lovers — 360 degree horizon. It has clear waters (light can penetrate up to 50 meters). Lucky for us, the sea was calm during both expeditions. The MV DA-BFAR [MV Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources] is also a capable ship. It has the basics. Not to mention, air-conditioned siya.

At night, the sea at Benham transforms. From calm blues, the sea becomes leathery black. You can see the Milky Way at night. As beautiful as it is, all of us get a little homesick after some time. Sabik na sabik na makakita ng lupa at magka-phone signal. You're cut off from the world when you're in Benham. We only get important news via colleagues messaging us through a satellite phone on board. For all we know, may apocalypse na pala na nangyayari sa lupa, tapos ang chill namin sa dagat.

"For a field that is underappreciated and doesn't pay much, we do this — without sounding cheesy — para sa bayan." — Jeffrey Maloles

I'm a researcher under the Physical Oceanography laboratory, so I spend all my time above the surface of the sea gathering physical parameter data (i.e. temperature, salinity, current flow and direction, etc.). So I cannot tell anything about the area underwater and the organisms there. But according to my peers, it's a completely different world down there. It has 100 percent coral cover, and teeming with fishes and sponges.

Benham-Rise-08_CNNPH.png The Benham Rise, Maloles says, is a relatively an unexplored domain. “Experts speculate that the area may hold large amounts of natural gas deposits [which can be used as source of energy] and manganese nodules [which can be used for steelmaking], both of which can be added resources that the country can tap,” he adds.

What were the challenges that you faced during the expedition? How did you navigate these challenges?

The MV DA-BFAR is a comfortable ship capable of basic oceanographic surveys. It does not boast state-of-the-art equipment pero it functions. Over time, some equipment start to malfunction. And while you're literally in the middle of nowhere, without phone signals, internet, or any form of communication (except for a handy satellite phone), you have to be creative in overcoming those challenges. Scientists and researchers in the Philippines would agree that resourcefulness and creativity are pseudo-required abilities if you really want to do research here.

I mean, during our 2016 cruise, an equipment, a water sampling apparatus, wasn't working and could not be fixed since the needed resources were not on board. It could've been easy for us to just dismiss and report na di gumagana ‘yung equipment so di kami makakuha ng ganitong data.

But we're researchers/scientists, we are grateful for every cent sa funding na nakukuha namin to do research. So instead of dismissing it as one less work to do, we worked our way around it. We manually did what the apparatus was supposed to do (which was twice the work) and collected data just so we can produce results. And we produced results. Can you imagine how much more we can do and produce if we actually have the resources for this?

IMG_0012.JPG “We do what we do, to raise awareness on the importance of our seas to food supplies, ecological stability, and physical climate in the country. We do what we do, to help the Philippine government in making policies that aim to better the lives of Filipino,” says Maloles of their role as marine researchers in the Philippines. Photo by KING KURL SEROJE

How relevant do you think would China's research findings be to the Philippines?

I honestly have no idea. Maybe, their data can be added reference for future studies and analysis.

What do you hope to contribute to the study of marine sciences in the country?

In a nutshell, marine science is a field that deals with both physical and biological aspects of the ocean. In the Philippines, a country fully surrounded by water, and dubbed as the center of the center of marine biodiversity, it is a relatively small field, with a population of only a few hundreds.

We do what we do, to raise awareness on the importance of our seas to food supplies, ecological stability, and physical climate in the country. We do what we do, to help the Philippine government in making policies that aim to better the lives of Filipino. For a field that is underappreciated and doesn't pay much, we do this — without sounding cheesy — para sa bayan.