May 5, 2017—It was a dry and humid day in Infanta, Quezon. I wandered around the fish port, quietly observing the locals. I would occasionally glance on my phone, snap a shot, and try to post it on Facebook. But the entire town is practically a dead spot, making it extremely hard for us to communicate. How they lived without phone signal is still beyond me. But in a remote town like Infanta, signal is the least of their concerns. The people actually didn’t seem to care. Fisherfolk went to their normal routines, traders and vendors lined up the market, and it was business as usual.
Later in the day, media crewcabs started arriving at the port. Local officials started pouring in. And soon enough, cameras started rolling. A big expedition was set that day—a three-day journey to Benham Rise, and we were fortunate to be part of the delegation.
Benham Rise started being a political buzzword just a few months ago. Last March, there were sightings of Chinese ships in the area, and no less than the President said he gave them permission to be there.
For a country who has just scored a victory in the Hague over maritime rights, foreign vessels intruding our waters is uncomfortably ironic, a testament that we are still being bullied by bigger countries.
While tension over territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea has been in national discourse for years, Benham Rise is generally new water for us. Located on the eastern side of the Philippines facing the Pacific Ocean, Benham Rise is an underwater plateau spanning 25 million hectares, making it a potentially sustainable source of fish, oil, and minerals. Almost half of it is inside our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), giving us exclusive rights to fish and explore resources under the seabed.
In 2012, the United Nations declared that the other half outside our EEZ is still part of the country’s extended continental shelf (ECS).In this area, other countries may fish, but resources underneath the seabed like oil and minerals remain ours. It is not a contested territory, but several foreign vessels have been illegally fishing in the area. Countering that was the main rationale of our expedition—we had to establish Philippine presence there.
Sailing Unfamiliar Waters
At 2pm, we started boarding the MV DA-BFAR, a government-owned ship sailing in Philippine waters to conduct researches on marine life. We traveled for over 22 hours, with not one island in sight. The weather was very unpredictable. It’s scorching hot on the first hour, windy on the next, and there were also occasional downpours.
Together with us were Department of Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol and some officials from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
In an interview, Piñol bared his plans of building a permanent research facility in Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of Benham Rise. This, he says, will not only be an offshore research centre, but will also house an ice-making facility for cold storage of fish and seafood.
The Benham Rise is around 3 to 5 kilometers deep, so fishermen are having a hard time staying adrift for weeks without anything to anchor on. The facility, if plans push through, will enable fishermen to anchor and rest in between days of labor. Piñol eyes the completion of this project within three years.
The waves got stronger as we got farther from the shore. It made it hard for us to balance inside the ship. Some people got dizzy and seasick. Some were bored. But our spirits were unrelenting—we had to wave the Philippine flag in that territory.
That night, I decided to ditch my room and just slept on the top deck. I was literally between the sea and the stars, and it was the most blissful sleep I’ve had in recent years.
A Special Spot in the Pacific
A few hours before we arrived in Benham, we saw a rainbow, giving us a very colorful welcome. There were also plenty of flying fish, seagulls, and dolphins—seemingly playing with us as we sailed onwards.
The sea was inviting, but we were barred from jumping in because the current was strong and if we did, we might not get back to the ship alive.
There were no islands or any piece of land or rock in sight. For non-navigators like me, there was no way to tell if we are already there. But at 12 noon of the next day, May 6, the captain announced that we are already on Benham Bank.
The technical divers wasted no time in checking out what’s underwater. Experts believe that Benham has 100 percent coral cover. True enough, their shots of marine life were nothing less of stunning. However, they say Benham Rise cannot be a recreational diving site because the waters are so deep and ordinary divers might be in peril.
From afar, we saw a boat of Filipino fishermen. We waved to them and they waved back. They got close to our ship and showed us their prized catch, among them a 40-kilo yellowfin tuna estimated at P15,000.
One of the fishermen, Judy Esteras, jumped and swam to our ship. Hard labour obviously chiseled his dark skin and built.
In his brief interaction with the media, he said Taiwanese vessels used to fish in Benham Rise. “Noong Agosto po namin sila huling nakita dito,” he said, recalling those unfortunate times foreigners took what could have been theirs.
Esteras laments being helpless during those days, saying their small wooden boats have no match with the high-tech big ships of Taiwan.
“Pinuputol nga nila ‘yung buya namin. Siguro sinasadya nila kasi ‘pag dumaan sila, nakikita namin putol na ang buya,” he adds. “Pero gumaganti kami kapag kaya.”
Mang Judy, like many fishermen in Infanta, has been fishing in Benham Rise for the past 20 years. For them, Benham Rise isn’t just a political territory, but their main source of living. They travel for 36 hours one-way, and stay there until they have ten tonnes. On luckier days, they can meet their quota in a span of 5 to 8 days, but most of the time, they have to stay there for several weeks to a month, surviving storms and big waves. At the time we saw them, they were on their fourth day and they have already 20 tunas.
Fishing is a big business not just in Infanta but also in many coastal towns on the eastern shores of the country. Each voyage to the sea can actually earn a gross of as large as 300,000 to half a million pesos. But Mang Judy already considers himself blessed if he can bring home P5,000 to P10,000 to his family in a week, since a large chunk of the money they make go to boat fuel and ice.
With no doubt, the Benham Rise can boast of a rich marine biodiversity, making it a potent food source for the upcoming generations. And that is why Piñol and the Agriculture Department strongly object to oil exploration in the area, as these efforts will surely affect the underwater ecosystem, which will in turn, disturb food production.
“Mamili kayo, langis o pagkain?” Piñol asks with conviction.
To help the fishermen in getting a good catch, the government deployed a payao, an aggregating device that will attract fish on the surface of the sea. A part of a payao looks like a missile made of drum, and it’s designed to be floating on water. Before we let the payao go and float aimlessly, the ship’s crew attached a Philippine flag to it.
There may be no island there to permanently plant our flag, but I, together with other reporters and crew members, waved it with so much happiness and pride. And at that moment, it sank to me, that I am part of a team who claimed Benham Rise as our territory. It was one of the most sublime moments of my life.
[Entry 222, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Jervis Manahan is a News Reporter for PTV 4. He is a Contributor for SubSelfie.com and part of the original roster that founded the site. He was previously a News Writer for 24 Oras and Unang Balita and a News Researcher for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. Broadcast Communication 2012, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.