The Most Important Event of the Sea in Asia Pacific - Celebrate the Sea Festival 2011

It must start with the individual; it will change the habits of the community. Technology alone does not have all the answers but human desire to change can put technology to better use.

Celebrations are happy occasions and Manado was an apt choice for the 10th edition of Celebrate the Sea where people were always courteous, cheerful and full of surprises! Held at Sintesa Peninsular Hotel, from 23 Sep to 25 Sep 2011, it was Manado’s first Celebrate the Sea Festival.

People started streaming in to celebrate in different ways. Some came for the underwater shoot-out to capture award winning pictures; children came from as far as India, Hong Kong, the Philippines, to share their artistic thoughts of the sea; resorts and dive operators set up shop to showcase what they had to offer  intrepid visitors. 

International luminaries of the sea arrived with their research and experience to share at conservation forums and presentations. It was all abuzz with the backroom crew who prepared the event with an endless list of tasks. The orange lanyard soon became a ubiquitous sight hanging from the necks of the young and old milling in the lobbies, counters, corridors and halls. The common ‘thread and vein’ soon became apparent as everyone gathered at the 11th floor on the evening of the 23rd of Sep for Ocean Geographic’s ‘Meet and Greet’ party.

There were a few ‘surprises’ : the air conditioning chose a fine time to demand attention, the AV system worked great  except at show time; a nearby rock concert echoed through the air in competition for sound at the same time. Yet somehow the common ‘thread and vein’ remained, intact and strong. It was as if the sea was calling out from the shores to believe that hearts go farther than technology ever can - some heard,   some were not so sure, yet others did not. For the sea forces none, but gently whispers to those who have ears for her and at Celebrate the Sea 2011, thankfully, that was nearly everyone.

The morning of the 24th of Sep began with the Ocean Theatre that was set up to feature the best videos of the sea and her life, along with a hall of award winning pictures and artwork. Tucked away on the second floor, the Tulip room started filling with people eager to learn from Mark Erdmann, about the Extreme Biodiversity in eastern Indonesia and the search for its epicentre. A tall man with a bright and generous smile, who mongered no fears but spoke of the human destruction of sea life through bomb and cyanide fishing where nature’s resilience continues to endure our ruthless punishment, quietly restoring and saving us. We learnt about Conservation International’s efforts to work with nature in this region and its positive results. Hope beckons; will we respond and make this world a better one for our children and the coming generations?

The first forum of the festival heard views from Angelique Batuna, an indigenous dive resort operator, Prof Chou Loke Ming, from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biology Sciences,  renowned for his work in the region, and Mathieu Meur, a Frenchman, who was born in the Mauritius, dived all over the world and now lives in Singapore. The audience learnt about the reclamation projects in the region, including Manado and the rippling effects of its ecological consequence; it appeared rather patently that the decision making process in most countries leaned on the economic and ego factors more than ecological considerations. During the Q&A, education of the young featured poignantly as the way to go. The media’s interest in issues is limited to its consequent economic value rather the ecological ones and therefore cognizance of this reality needs a creative response from the ecology protagonists. Just before lunch, Prof Chou and Mark Erdmann sat on the forum’s panel and presented their views on the ocean acidification. With the two scientific minds who conveyed their findings in the language of mortals, glints of hope shimmered again. The diving industry alone has so much potential together with the diving enthusiasts to reduce the carbon footprint significantly. Mindfulness of this reality may well release the juices of creativity and inventions to fulfil a growing necessity.

After lunch, a hot topic attracted many to the forum at the Tulip room: ‘Big Animals in Captivity’ with Michael Aw, Michelle Hall, Steve Jones, Mark Erdmann and OG’s editor, Evonne Ong, on the panel. Views differed from the ‘conditional’ circumstances to justify captivity, to the outright outlawing of captivity. The ‘root’ of contentions appeared to be the ‘economic’ factor where substantial funds for the capture may help alleviate the management of marine protected areas and poverty conditions of the people. The freeing of Keiko the orca from the movie ‘Free Willy’ cost over 10 million dollars is neither about saving nor protecting a specie but the mere release of one animal, a mere publicity exercise for a few conservationist and agencies. We all know that to protect an animal, it should start with protecting their habitat. Yet when juxtaposed against the principle of captivity be it human or animals, all present were left with their conscience debating if two wrongs would make a right. Even if you weren’t there to share your thoughts, your position will affect some beautiful animal somewhere, so long as ‘justifiable’ reasons for their capture exist.

Underwater photography enthusiasts remained to learn from Mathieu Meur, an award winning photographer and author, tips for making better images. Technical glitches moved Steve Jones presentation to the next morning. That evening, was the eventful Governor’s Welcome Dinner, where his presence could not be confirmed till the eleventh hour.  It eventually started with pomp and grandeur that exemplified the local culture. A band called, ‘Gemas Satria’, using only bamboo wind instruments with a snare and bass drum in tow, welcomed our guests of Honour, Vice Governor, Pak Johari Kansil and from the Jakarta Office of Tourism and Culture, Pak Harry Untoro Drajat. Miss North Sulawesi, 2011, Keizha and her first-runner-up, Bridget graced the event in their traditional dress to translate the proceedings to the vernacular. The winning entries for the Children’s Art Competition filled the programme after it was officially opened by Pak Johari Kansil who hammered a gong ten times (even after the sponged hammer broke at the head after the fifth gong). Ending on a high note with cameras clicking away and flashes spotting the ambience, the spirited adjourned to the bar, whilst the tired retired for the night. Will there be more surprises?

Yes, Dustin MacDonald made it after all on Sunday morning and his Sea Pulse ran at the Ocean Theatre while Steve Jones made his presentation on Seascapes and Vistas in the Tulip Room. Unfortunately, when Climate Change and the impact on South East Asian marine biodiversity was to be presented, nothing worked. Prof Chou was infinitely patient, as was   the waiting audience. Garbage in the Ocean, a Forum panelled by the President of the Festival, the affable Emory Kristof, Prof Chou, Angelique Batuna and Howard Hill sparked much interest and ignited ideas. If technology can be patented internationally, could the production of materials be managed internationally as well? Waste will exist as long as the humans live and reproduce.  We know that even biodegradable waste can pollute the ocean. Garbage found two kilometres below sea-level is a telling story of the ‘use and throw’ culture of the modern world. Some human waste however, might be good for certain sea life as Prof Chou shared about the quality of mussel farming in the Straits of Johor.  So where do we go from here? If it starts with the individual, it will change the habits of the community. Technology alone does not have all the answers but human desire to change can put technology to better use.

The proceedings after lunch offered another surprise – none of the ‘technology’ in the Tulip room worked! Michael Aw’s presentation on the Evolution of an Underwater Photographer, Howard and Michelle Hall’s presentation on ‘Making Under the Sea’ in 3D 70mm IMAX and the President of the Festival’s presentation, ‘The Search for the Titanic’ continued in the Ocean Theatre. There will be surprises and there will be equitable solutions; they come together as we have so often experienced at this Festival. The indomitable spirit of human endeavour makes all the difference in the quality of the outcomes. Inspired and awed by magic of such superlative endeavour, the audience returned to their rooms to prepare for the evening’s Gala Dinner.

As the crew of Cassandra Dragon, Emily Chan, Sidney Seok and Jannica Jigmo stretched the limits of time, working tirelessly to organize the list of winners and their awards, the Ocean Theatre was converted for the evening’s proceedings. Simone Gerritson who started the only high school in Manado that educates teenagers in the aspects of the diving industry, organized her group of students who performed every night during the festival in a dance item titled ‘Trash Zombies’ and a rap item titled ‘Plastic is Toxic’,  to convey the growing garbage problem. This event was graced by the Director General of Tourism Marketing from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Jakarta, Dr. Sapta Nirwandar and the local Head Agency of Tourism and Culture, Dr. Peter K.B. Assa who willingly obliged themselves to be photographed with the awardees. As the Citation for the Hero of the Sea was read, the audience waited in rapt silence and stood up in ovation as Dr. Hanny Batuna’s name was announced. A well-deserved recognition for a modest and humble doctor who not only attended to the sick, but he was a quiet visionary who ignited the spark that has made Manado a premier dive destination internationally. Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant where guests were enteretained by a Minahasan dance group – graceful and elegant - truly reflecting the people who hosted the Celebrate the Sea Festival 2011.

As the festival drew to its end, the lobby was filled with happy and sad goodbyes as everyone returned to their homes and rooms. The more ‘spirited’ group adjourned to the bar and remained there way beyond closing, celebrating and singing with the talented Miguel Chanco who brought the electric baby grand Clavinova to life. No one stopped or rushed these diehards, but continued to serve with their effervescent smiles; just like the sea that tolerates human excesses patiently, lovingly.