, JANUARY 31, 2008  (STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - The pygmy seahorse is pinkish-red and its snout matches the treelike skeleton corals where it resides. Its body seemingly covered with acne, it appears like a creature from another planet — cute and trés weird-looking. It is so tiny and its camouflage so effective that the species was discovered only accidentally — after coral was collected and placed in an aquarium.

The pygmy seahorse in Philippine waters measures about 1 centimeter or just a little over that. That’s smaller than a Tylenol tablet (1.8 centimeters), the tip of a cotton bud (1.5 centimeters), the button on a pair of jeans (2.1 centimeters), the wick of a votive candle (1.5 centimeters), a key on a computer keyboard (1.7 centimeters) and the nail on my pinkie (1.5 centimeters).

In contrast, there is the whale shark or butanding. It can grow from 9 to 13 meters long (the length of a volleyball court), its mouth is 1.5 meters wide, (a petite Filipina), its skin is as thick as 10 centimeters (the heel of four-inch stilettos), and it has between 300 and 350 teeth (an adult human has 32; imagine if whale sharks experienced toothaches and you were the dentist who had to perform a root canal).

If you were to put seahorses head to tail, you would need 1,300 to approximate the length of a single, average adult whale shark.

These two marine species represent the diversity of the Philippine seas — from the tiniest to the largest and the 3,000 others in between. The Department of Tourism’s Frankfurt office, with Tourism Attaché Venus Tan heading the team, adapted the slogan “Dive Philippines: xxs à XXL” (from the smallest to the largest) in its Central European tourism campaign, particularly in dive shows such as the Salon International de la Plongeé Sous Marine at the Paris Expo Center two weeks ago.

Strangely, it is the pygmy seahorse that has been photographed to great effect and has divers hopping excitedly. When you think about it, this tiny creature is so easy to miss underwater. But then again, this is where divers are different from non-divers — they know that anything underwater is a fascinating, living, breathing thing, worthy to be photographed and to dive for.

Unlike other groups of tourists that hospitality players market to, there is no single profile of a scuba diver. A diver can be old or young, working a blue- or white-collar job, male or female, veteran or beginner, swimmer or non-swimmer. What they have in common is the passion to go where the best marine life is, help to preserve nature, and go down again and again into that world beneath the water’s surface.

German photographer David Hettich, who took the brilliant photos for the DOT campaign, has done 3,000 dives — and he’s only 26 years old. He was commissioned by the DOT Frankfurt office to photograph Philippine marine life last year and he went to the country nine times and did 800 dives in a span of seven months. The Italian managing director of Sampaguita Resort, Luigi Petrosillo, has done 2,000 dives, half of them in the Philippines. El Galleon Beach Resort director of sales and travel Tommy Soderstrom has done 3,700 dives in 20 years — in large part because when he was a kid he always watched Jacques Cousteau’s programs on nature. Abyss Scuba Divers-Phils. manager Laurent Aellen has done nearly 10,000 dives. Calypso Diving & Pinjalo Resort CEO Rene Buob has done 8,000 dives, one of which was with an 80-year-old man.

One by one, the dive logs tumble from their heads when I ask them — from the apologetic “only five dives; I’m a beginner” to 2,000 to 10,000 dives — each dive different from the next, some better than others.

David says his best dive was when he saw for the first time the pygmy seahorse. He had been diving since he was 13 years old in the Galapagos, Italy and Palau and had never seen one, then in the Philippines (he wasn’t yet commissioned by the DOT then) this tiny creature passed before his eyes. Tommy Soderstrom remembers a dive in 1991, when he was teaching a group of five Swedish girls and suddenly a big manta ray swam near them. “There was a lot of excitement because none of them had seen one before and that for me was one of the most memorable dives.”

Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano himself is a sometime diver and a full-time runner (since he was 13 and in December ran his personal best in a Cebu race on a 5.24 pace or min/km). Two years ago, he went on a dive with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Capitan Silyo, north of Cebu; he’s also gone diving in Bohol, Mactan, Camotes Islands with his brothers.

Why do they dive? “Because it’s like exploring a different world — you’re the alien down there,” says Durano. “You realize how small you are.”

All divers agree that the marine life in the Philippines is one of the best and most important in the world. “I like the variety,” says David. “Nowhere else do you have such easy access. Just a few meters from the dive center and into the water you already see such biodiversity and the visibility is very good.”

The first time he went on a dive in the Philippines was in 2003 with his parents and 10 other divers (his work was “discovered” by Tan two years ago during a dive show in Germany). His favorite dive sites for small creatures are Puerto Galera, Panglao and Balicasag; for the bigger ones he likes Tubbataha. “When you take pictures underwater you need to prepare yourself for a ‘slow’ dive — about 90 minutes — and be very quiet and still.”

Daks Gonzalez, DOT-Frankfurt administrative officer, says preparations for the Salon de la Plongee started in April last year. They hired David to help the Philippines get a more polished look, to “elevate the campaign materials” and appeal to the upper market and not just the backpackers.

Like any group that’s passionate about something, divers have their own world. Salon de la Plongeé certainly encapsulated their world. With over 40 countries represented, the Paris Expo space was divided between scuba diving material (manufacturers and brand names for diving equipment made up 32 percent) and tourism (travel agencies and tourism departments such as the DOT with its private sector partners making up 25 percent).

The diving niche is not as big as general leisure travel, but the private sector from the Philippines was very happy with the attendance at the expo. One, because the DOT — marking its first participation at the Salon de la Pongee — was very organized in getting the Dive Philippines show together.

The well-designed stand, situated near the main entrance, was large enough to accommodate nine companies representing dive resorts. Two, the delegation made a huge impact on the show with the Bayanihan National Folk Dance Company performing throughout the day. And last but not least, thanks to the nature of this show, they got quality crowds and inquiries — 90 percent of those that attend Salon are divers and 15 percent have yet to do their first dive. For 70 percent of the total visitors, this is the only dive show they go to.

Working on a budget of P12 million, the DOT felt that every peso was certainly worth it.

DOT Undersecretary Edu Jarque, the go-to man of the country’s tourism offices around the world, says, “Team Europe is shaping up so well. The Salon show is now the standard for such participation. The only regret we have is that some of the private sector people ran out of materials because the turnout and inquiries exceeded their expectations.”

“As you achieve bigger milestones, your standards go higher. It’s not really getting easier,” says Durano, who assumed his position in 2004. (It’s not getting any easier for his Cebu-based family either — the Secretary has two kids with wife Carmen — as the DOT gets busier and more aggressive in its campaigns to bring in more tourists.)

At the end of the day, says Jarque, it’s all about the individual diver that gets to know how great the Philippines is as a dive destination. “There’s a lot of camaraderie in the diving community. A happy diver will tell the world of the great dive spot he has discovered.”

While divers rely on word of mouth for great experiences, the French mass media has also played a big part in spreading the word. Coverage in French-language travel and diving magazines has helped introduce the country, while the TV show Kolanta, the French version of Survivor, beamed weekly scenes from Palawan to French households.

Kolanta, according to Durano, made such an impact on the awareness campaign that the production company signed up for another season of filming in the Philippines.

All these efforts in promoting Philippine dive spots have helped the environment in ways that no tourism dollar can match.

Soderstrom of El Galleon, who first visited Mactan Island in 1979, says that today, more than ever, marine life is abundant. “It’s better now; there are more fishes. You cannot tell a fisherman to stop fishing. What tourism has done is given fishermen who used to do dynamite fishing an alternative livelihood — now they’re making more money driving boats and taking tourists to sea than they did fishing. They don’t have time to fish anymore, they’re busy with the tourists.”

Soderstrom has been in the country for 30 years. “Diving made me stay,” he says. “Not a girl.”

Well, the girl got into the picture later.

The European market is the biggest dive market for the Philippines. He has a guest in his resort who has come back 18 times; most tourists spend between seven and 10 days. David, however, says that to get the most out of a dive trip and to be able to photograph great marine life, one must stay for three weeks and go island hopping.

The diving community is also one that looks after its own. Abyss Scuba Divers, for instance, pays for the schooling of its boatmen’s children until college. They have 25 people based in Cebu, including Swiss and Filipino dive masters.

The DOT is now starting to reap the fruits of its niche marketing campaigns. Durano says that next in line are “outdoor adventure,” shopping and…bird watching.

How…uhm…exciting. Did we suddenly hear the chirping of crickets?

Seems that bird watchers are not unlike divers — except their thrills are found on the other side of the water’s surface.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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