As I reached the surface, I could hardly believe my eyes. The black shadow of the vessel turned, revealing its distinct cigar-shaped profile. Seeing a submarine at sea with a scuba tank on your back is like pricking yourself on a needle lost in a very big haystack. But the South China Sea is not your average haystack, and nothing seems to be lost out in its vast expanse.
The South China Sea stretches from the coast of mainland China to the shores of Borneo, Vietnam, and Philippines. The southern part is a huge blue water world dotted with remote atolls and islands known as the Spratly Islands, named after whaler Richard Spratly who ‘discovered’ them in 1843. The Spratlys have many other names in the languages of nations that encircle the South China Sea, an expression of the long-standing strain between multiple claimants of the region. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam each claim a portion of the Spratly archipelago, and China claims all of it.
The region has also become a hotbed for modern naval activity, owing to critical commercial shipping through its waters, and the oil that underlies its seabed. The U.S. routinely navigates the South China Sea as a demonstration of its naval power, said to ensure right-of-passage, and which China openly views as a threat. And as a result, military base and outpost building continues at a feverish and ecologically destructive pace. Whole coral reef atolls have been dredged to form hard land for military complexes and aircraft runways.
As a global ecologist and conservation scientist, I have long been interested in the Spratlys as a biodiversity hotspot. With its purported 600 coral and 6000 fish species, I had wondered what this ecoregion looks like underwater, and more recently, what the frenzied building of military bases might mean for its sea…