MANU SAN FELIX
THE SMILE FROM THE SEA

Carlos Risco September 2018 SPECIAL FEATURES Read in PDF format N20/2018
MANU SAN FELIX This marine biologist and National Geographic underwater photographer has become one of the voices of the international campaign to preserve Posidonia. His amiable and inclusive discourse holds the seed of change for a promising new rebirth.

 

 

 

Manu San Félix was born 54 years ago in Madrid, although his family was originally from a village in Vizcaya and he has, of his own right, become an adoptive son of Formentera. A biologist by training, Manu came across photography when he inherited some camera equipment from one of his uncles. San Félix abandoned his doctoral thesis when he fell in love with the seabeds of Formentera and decided to set up a diving school there called vellamarí. He has won some of the most important underwater photography awards in the world and, hand-in-hand with National  Geographic, has helped show people all over the world the beauty of the oceans. Positive, inclusive and open to dialog, San Félix bases his discourse on education, sustainability and the future. 
 
 
 
It was a photo camera that changed the way you looked at and approached nature...
Completely. Other people do biology by putting sensors on animals, I do it by using a camera. And this has allowed me to observe nature and notice and become aware of the things that are going on around me. All this thanks to a little square that you look through and that helps you fix your attention on things.
 
 
 
 
Let’s talk about the underwater eye, it’s a different way of observing things...
 
 
 
 
Yes, things are totally different underwater. My passion is the underwater world. It has many idiosyncrasies. The first is that you can only be in it for a very short time. Even someone like me, a water freak who has been diving for 38 years and is certified, having done thousands of dives all over the world. Despite these numbers, which might sound impressive, if we turn that around and check how much time I’ve actually spent in the water, you’ll realize that I’ve barely had time to learn anything. In an intense day of diving, I might do three or four dives, each for a maximum of one hour. So, ultimately, you spend very little time in the water. What’s special about the underwater world is that you see very little, and, even if you devote yourself to it very intensely, you’re going to get very little out of it. And there are diving sites, like the place I went to yesterday, where I’ve been doing the same dive for 26 years and I’m still fascinated. Every time I go, I discover new things and learn something new. And I resurface with new things to share, record and do...
 
 
 
 
When you came to Formentera, did you come to go diving?
 
I homed in here to set up a diving center. When I finished my studies, it was impossible to find work as a biologist. I was working on my doctoral thesis about vellmarí, the Mediterranean monk seal - which is where we got the name for the dive center - and I never finished the thesis. My thesis director sent me here so that I could combine my three passions: images, biology and scuba diving. Within 24 hours after I arrived, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. A few months later, I was opening this diving school.
 
Why a diving school?
 
Vellmarí made it possible for me to live by the ocean and gave me the tools to be underwater. I started with two partners, although I’ve been on my own for 20 years. From the outside, you can see how it’s evolved. It’s not your average diving center, we have another side that has to do with educating and informing people about the sea around us. We work on a lot of projects for the government of the Balearic Islands. And I never thought that what ended up happening might happen, that National Geographic would call me.
 
How did National Geographic enter the picture?
 
I met a biologist from Gerona, Enric Sala, who has been living in the United States for twenty-something years. He had been a professor in California, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and he went on to work for National Geographic on Pristine Seas, which is the most important project at National Geographic to date as far as results and budget... He saw something in me and called me. I had won the two most important awards in the world for underwater photography: Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the World Underwater Festival. One day, I got an email from him explaining that he was starting this project and that he had thought of me. In February 2009, I went on my first expedition to the most remote archipelago in the Seychelles. And I’ve been on 27 missions thus far.
 
 
What exactly is the project about?
 
The idea is to create a great marine reserve every time we travel some- where. For instance, we’ll go to Gabon and stay for a month, there’s a part that has to do with science and another that has to do with the media. I’m the director of underwater images. In the end, we produce a document with scientific arguments and the part that has to do with the media, that has to seduce people, is the bait that is attractive to the eyes. And with that, National Geographic is moving at the top level of management and getting actions done. Over the past few years, we’ve managed to protect more than five million square kilometers of ocean. And that means protecting over 80% of the planet’s oceans. If it weren’t for Pristine Seas, 80% less of the oceans would be protected. That’s outrageous. We’ll be done next year
 
 
During this time, you’ve shed light on the problem of the Posidonia prairies and have become one of the voices reminding people of their importance and warning of the dangers of their degradation. 
 
 
When I did my first dive in the Posidonia prairies, I fell in love and I was amazed. I realized that nobody knew what was down there. I do this because I like it; it’s my passion. I take photos, write books, give talks... I don’t have a plan to defend Posidonia. I’ve never sought confrontation and I have tons of photographs. When I publish everything I have, the minister’s chair will start shaking.
 
What is Posidonia and why is it important?
 
Posidonia is a highly gifted plant. Because it has the capacity to change and redesign the marine and costal ecosystems. And there are very few species in nature that have that capacity, that’s why they’re called engineer species. Without Posidonia, the water and the coasts of the Balearic Islands would not be the way they are. It releases oxygen, because it’s a purifier, it builds up reefs that rise a few meters above the seabed and serve as dykes, walls that protect the coast from the surf. This generates a huge amount of sand from animal skeletons,   conch shells, bryozoans, urchins, that live in the Posidonia and end up turning into sand, which you’ll recognize in the sand on the shore. These reefs absorb huge quantities of CO2. If we were to lose the Posidonia, huge quantities of greenhouse gases would be released into the atmosphere. Posidonia purifies the water as it breaks the waves, the hydrodynamics... This makes the water more transparent. Moreover, it is a jungle that serves as a habitat for many species.
 
 
What is the status right now for this issue?
 
The main problem is the loss of water quality. We’ve been contaminating the waters off the shore of the Balearic Islands for decades. We’ve grown a lot on Ibiza and Formentera, but the water treatment facilities have not grown at all. It is impossible to correctly treat our sewage water, and we’re dumping water that is inadequately treated and often times not treated at all. And I’m saying this because I’m sick of seeing it, filming it and photographing it. I see it. And there’s a very easy solution to this, because we have the know-how and the technology, and we also have the money to have a model sewage treatment plant. The day we do this, our Mediterranean seabed, our deep seas, will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Another problem, which is residual, is the impact of anchors, of ships mooring, which is felt in places where a lot of ships come to moor. Wherever there is a beach bar and boats anchoring, a huge amount of Posidonia disappears and this is phenomenon is sometimes unfairly leveraged.
 
 
 
Posidonia also takes a long time to regenerate...
 
It grows very slowly. Whatever we pull up with the anchor, which uproots the plant and the reef below it, takes two to three centuries to recover.
 
 
Are we moving in the right direction?
 
We’re reacting. The nautical sector in Ibiza and Formentera are up to the task. We’re moving in the right direction, but we need to act fast. We don’t have much time, but we can recover it and turn Ibiza and Formentera back into what they were 40 or 50 years ago, which was a paradise. But, in order to do this, we need to change now. Stop finding excuses and looking for culprits. Our lives depend on this, because, ultimately, we make our livelihoods from the water, the beaches, the Posidonia, the grouper, from what nature has given us here. People don’t come here because we’re very handsome and charming.
 
 
 
What other problems do we have as far as the sea?
 
Fisheries management. We’ve been extracting too much for too many years. Sixty years ago, in Torrent de s’Alga, the fishermen went out to catch sharks and would catch up to 500 sharks in a single afternoon. One species of Balearic shark is nearly extinct. Spider crab used to be plague here. There were a lot of them. When I got here, the fisher- men told me that they’d catch hammer-head sharks, which are now extinct... We need to change. We’ve been fishing without limits for too long; this is harmful. And this isn’t an attack on fishermen. We need to do things better, because no one is putting fish back in here, all we do is take it out and we’ve lost a lot. Otherwise, in 20 years’ time, we won’t have any more tourism or fish in the sea.
 
 
 
What positives signs do you see? Is there room for hope?
 
This interview is in itself good news. We’re all in this together, and that’s phenomenal. The first step is to realize that we need to make this change and that we can do it without any sort of fight or drama. But we take something like this that is very simple and make it complicated, and we get caught up in arguments and discussions. I avoid all that. I’d rather direct my energy at searching for solutions, and, when I’m attacked, I don’t even bother to defend myself. 
 
 
 
Aside from Posidonia, you’ve also focused on the seahorse. Is it also under threat?
There are two species of seahorses in the Balearic Islands, both of which are under the maximum protection. Also, the Seahorse Trust estimates that seahorses all over the world will disappear within 25 years, because Chinese medicine alone consumes 150 million seahorses a year and hobby aquarists consume another million, also captured irregularly. In the Balearic Islands, seahorses are very seriously threatened, and the first step to prevent- ing their disappearance and recovering the seahorse population in raising them in captivity. If we had the capacity to produce 151 million seahorses to supply the numbers the market demands, we could guarantee their future.
 
 
 
 
 
You started a project to raise them in captivity. What happened?
 
It’s on standby because we were met with a certain hostility and I want to do this to make a positive contribution, not to create any sort of problem. If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. It’s a non-profit project, and I want to do only it if I feel it’s good for society. If what I perceive is rejection, I won’t do it.
 
 
 
In Ibiza and Formentera we’re seeing the inkling of a new sensibility towards nature, against the use of plastics, fossil fuels... Do you think these islands can serve as an example for others to follow? We have to set an example. And if we do this quickly and correctly, it’s a huge lure for tourists. If, in addition to having this treasure, we also convey the fact that we’re evolved enough to do a good job at managing it, we’ll become a model for people who come here. We need to recycle, we need to stop being lazy.
 
 
 
What are the islands like in your dreams?
 
The cars would be electric, clean. I imagine that a very high percentage of our energy supply would come from renewable sources. I think the recycling rate for waste would also be very high. There would be no plastic. Mercadona has announced as much, and the minute a couple of big brands do that, everything will change. I imagine boats mooring without using anchors. The sea has an enormous capacity to heal. It’s in our hands to correct these trends. Although, of course, I’m also very worried about the temperatures. I’ve been diving here for 26 years. The maximum temperature for my first year was 26o, and this year we’ve had temperatures of 29o at a depth of 10 meters for weeks. Climate change is here, and it might have a huge effect on our way of life and on the economy in the mid-term. And that worries me.
 
Tell us about your upcoming projects...
 
I’m producing a film for National Geographic called “2030: We Changed,” where I visit several key people and analyze problems and solutions with the aim of inspiring change. I’m also going to launch a book dedicated to Posidonia, and my aspiration is to make an educational program for children. I’m launching a utopia: if we took kids between the ages of 8 and 15 and educated them properly, a large part of the problems we have would be solved.

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