Reimagining our human connection with the ocean


The ocean’s waters, which sustain, nourish and connect us, cover 71 percent of our planet.  They regulate the earth’s temperature and drive the weather, deliver the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and much of our food. In short, we need the ocean for life itself.

Marine science has confirmed the incredible vulnerability of our relationship with the sea. Our fragile ocean, which produces half of the new life on earth every day, is overfished, polluted and suffering from the consequences of climate change: ocean acidification, oxygen loss and coral bleaching. Coral reefs, unquestionably the planet’s most diverse ecosystems, could disappear within our lifetime.

The remote archipelago of Palawan in the Philippines, home to an ancient seafaring culture, is representative of this urgent global challenge. The Palawan Seas Project consists of photographs which depict our changing relationship with the ocean, captured in a place where an intimate connection to the marine world has been passed down through generations. The project describes people’s everyday relationship with the sea, sheds light on the problems that they are facing and informs viewers about the crucial roles of marine conservation and protected areas.

Human fossils discovered in the Tabon Cave Complex suggest that Palaweños descend from the first islanders to settle in Southeast Asia. A Neolithic burial jar found nearby depicts two people paddling into the afterlife on a small boat. For centuries, Palawan was a place almost forgotten by time and people were entirely dependent on the islands’ abundant reefs and thick forests for their needs. An intimacy with nature developed that defined every aspect of their lives from the practical to the spiritual.

Palawan’s relative isolation ended 70 years ago, when a boom in Philippine fisheries suddenly brought the area to the attention of the fishing industry. Located within the Coral Triangle, Palawan harbors around 50 percent of the world’s coral species and its reefs are among the most biodiverse on our planet. It was a rich, virtually untouched source and the islands’ population soon swelled with migrant fisherfolk. By the 1970s almost two thirds of the country’s fish catch originated in Palawan. 

In 1991, in response to the mounting threats of fishing, agriculture,mineral extraction and offshore natural gas exploration, Palawan was designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. A year afterwards, the government adopted a ground-breaking Special Environmental Plan that is implemented until now by The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development.

Today many Palaweños still live according to the winds, tides, and lunar cycles. Their marine environment is no longer pristine; a study published in 2017 discovered only 40 percent of coral reefs in good or excellent condition. Over-fishing, cyanide, dynamite, and pollution have left their mark nevertheless there are signs for hope. Successful conservation efforts including no-take zones and coral rehabilitation projects are gradually returning vast areas, which were once devastated by illegal fishing, to their primeval state.

Palawan Seas depicts and celebrates our ancient human bond with the ocean. Photography can help us to understand our role in restoring the fragile underwater environment. These images of Palawan are a means of communication which can empower marine conservation.

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