Deep dive with oceanographer Deo Onda: 'Mga taong dagat tayo'

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Deo Onda, the Filipino scientist who participated in the dive into third deepest spot on Earth talks about the promises of deep sea exploration and why microbial oceanography matters to the Philippine community. Screenshot from CALADAN OCEANIC/YOUTUBE

"When I accepted this, I never thought this would be history-making and that it would gain traction from the Filipino people,” says oceanographer Deo Florence Onda over a call, referring to the invite to descend into Emden Deep with Caladan Oceanic — the private company who has shattered records with their deep sea explorations.

The surreal life of the microbial oceanographer — from studying epiphytic microalgae interactions (which, in part, control available resources for their host seaweed) and how microplastics and pollution affect marine microbial communities to advocacies like defending the sovereignty of the West Philippine Sea and even driving frontliners to work during the pandemic — are themselves the product of serendipity: A missed application into medical school led him to enroll in the Marine Science Institute, where he fell in love with fieldwork and research, a chance encounter enabled him to enroll in a Ph.D. and become an expedition scientist in the Arctic, an email out of nowhere from an expedition he’d been following digitally enabled him to take the kind of dive scientists only dream of: the record-setting descent into the third deepest spot on Earth, Emden Deep.

Now a decade since his graduation from the institute, Deo has found his way back as an assistant professor, the deputy director of research at the U.P. Marine Science Institute (MSI), and the head of his own laboratory: the Microbial Oceanography Laboratory.

Deo Onda and explorer Victor Vescovo inside the full-ocean-depth rated submersible, Limiting Factor as part of Caladan Oceanic's 2021 "Ring of Fire Pt II" Expeditions. Screencap from CALADAN OCEANIC/YOUTUBE

Onda spoke to CNN Philippines Life about the promises of deep sea exploration, what has changed about marine research since the pandemic, and why microbial oceanography matters to the Philippine community.

How did you start out with your career as a microbial oceanographer?

The goal was really to go to med school. I never thought to be an oceanographer. But early on, andoon na yung marine science. I grew up in Palawan. The nurturing [environment] and being out by the sea prepared me to go where I am now. After a year [in MSI], I gave up the thought of the med school even if there were possibilities and opportunities. But my parents were very supportive.

When I was in MSI, I was introduced to Dr. Arturo Lluisma — he’s a molecular biologist — and I fell in love with genetics. My thesis adviser at the time was Dr. Rhodora Azanza, and I got involved in a program that allowed me to combine the best of both worlds: the microbiology with Dr. Azanza and then genetics and molecular methods with Dr. Lluisma.

Through international conferences, I met my eventual thesis adviser: Dr. Connie Lovejoy. Nagkaroon siya ng opening sa Quebec, sa Canada. Hindi ko pa alam yung field ng microbial oceanography at the time, actually. Ang alam ko lang marine microbiology. Parang crossroads yun at the time — do I go to Germany or Canada? Pero when I went to Canada, ang tinanong lang niya sa akin: “Gusto mo bang mag-Arctic?” Eh my dream in life before was to see the aurora borealis. So I closed the deal and went to Canada. (Laughs)

I got to go to the Arctic a couple of times — andoon yung field work, yung molecular methods, yung microbiology, but now I’m looking at it on this larger scale, which is the ocean. It was in Canada that I found out about the emerging field of microbial oceanography — looking at how microbial communities vary and are affected by the physical environment, which is the ocean, and how the biology is affected by functions and processes within the ocean.

Onda spoke to CNN Philippines Life about the promises of deep sea exploration, what has changed about marine research since the pandemic, and why microbial oceanography matters to the Philippine community.

What made you return to the Philippines?

In 2017, I went home for a few months for a vacation. The plan was to continue to a postdoc in Germany for three to five years. I was debating whether or not to accept the invitation [from MSI], at least for a presentation because they’ve been asking me to present for over a year. But it was too early. I still needed to train myself and get more experience since my field is still in its infancy so alam kong mahihirapan ako.

Nung nagbabakasyon ako sa Palawan, yung bahay namin nasa harap ng dagat at naglalakad ako tuwing umaga. One day, I saw a couple of children playing by the shore. Medyo melodramatic, pero totoo kasi ito. Naglalakad ako at nagbabatuhan sila ng seaweed. Tapos nabato ako. Sabi nung mga bata: “Sorry” at sabi ko na “Okay lang.”

Tapos sinabi niya: “Kuya, ano kaya ito?” Hawak niya yung seaweed [Sargassum] at pinakita niya sa akin. Syempre, biologist ako. So nag-explain ako ng todo and then, the conversation went on: from one question, naging dalawa. Nag-expand yung topic namin: from seaweed to corals to fisheries and kung ano-ano.

Siguro we were talking for an hour and tuwang-tuwa ako. Then towards the end, sabi niya: “Bakit ang dami mong alam? Ano bang trabaho mo? Ano ka ba?” Syempre may konting kilig at the time kasi kakatapos lang ng Ph.D. ko. Sinabi ko para akong doktor pero mas nagpakadalubhasa ako para sa dagat. Before we ended the conversation, sinabi niya sa akin: “Alam mo kuya, may bago akong pangalan para sa iyo: Doktor ka ng dagat.”

"One thing that we really need to acknowledge is that some research, especially siguro with field research, is essential work."

The following day, nandoon ako sa palengke at may mga matatandang sumusunod sa akin. Sabi nila: “Kuya, ikaw ba yung kausap nung anak ko kahapon? Yung kalaro nila sa dagat?” So tinanong ko kung may problema ba at sabi lang nila: “Hindi! Pag-uwi kasi sa bahay, kung anu-ano yung kinukwento. Sabi niya nalaman daw niya dahil sa iyo.”

“Alam mo, yung anak ko, gusto na ring maging doktor ng dagat. Mahirap ba iyon?” So kwinento ko naman sa kanya na may mga scholarships naman: mula high school hanggang maging doktor; in-explain ko na mayroon namang pupuntahan.

That conversation hit me hard after. If I can inspire one person or one child to pursue something na mahirap intindihin for their age, I think that’s enough reason to stay. It changed my perspective: baka mas kailangan ako sa Pilipinas.

Sa ibang bansa, a biologist or a scientist, Filipino or not, you’re just one of the many. If I stayed in Germany, I would probably be one of hundreds of microbial oceanographers. Pero sa Pilipinas, at least at that time, by degree — walang microbial oceanographer. Doon ako napaisip: “Saan ba ako mas kailangan?”

What prompted you to explore the depths of the Emden Deep? What was the preparation process like, especially considering the pandemic?

Caladan Oceanic has been doing expeditions since 2013 or 2015. I first followed their story around 2019, about the Five Deeps expedition: five deepest trenches in five different continents. Victor Vescovo is an accomplished explorer in terms of summiting the seven summits of the world. What he then did was he wanted to explore the deepest oceans. He worked with Triton Submarines in the US to develop a submersible that could repeatedly go to the depths of the ocean. If you look into the deep sea expeditions, most of the submersibles before he entered the scene were used only once and never nang nagamit ulit.

In 2020, around March, I received an email from Eyos Expedition inviting me to the Emden Deep. So it wasn’t an active decision on my part. I just randomly received that email inviting me to collaborate and go with them to the Emden Deep. But because of the pandemic, the initial plan (which was August) was moved to November.

In November, we were trying to get a marine scientific research permit from the Philippine government. But after bureaucracy, administrative delays, hindi nagawa yung MOA [Memorandum of Agreement]... by November 2020, na-cancel na siya. They decided na hindi na siya kayang habulin because the entire expedition should’ve been done by 2020 and funding was ending. It was a missed opportunity, pero okay lang.

Then they emailed me again in January this year. Pero hindi na kayang gawin yung science. So this was classified as non-marine scientific research. They just wanted to dive, visit the Emden Deep, set the record, and they wanted me to be the Filipino. Akala ko yung invitation nila was to just go to the trench on the surface to observe. It was just around February or March, nung paalis na ako, when I realized na I was going to be in the submersible and I was going 10,000 meters down.

Part of Caladan Oceanic’s advocacy is to invite a local from the country where the trench is located. I guess the more appropriate question would be: Why was I invited?

I don’t know. There was no explanation. I didn’t know the process of how they came up with a name. I tried asking this question because no one explained to me kung bakit ako. It was during the ascent after the dive. We talked about a lot of things, but then I asked: “Actually Victor, I’m still wondering: Why am I here? Why was I invited? Of all the people and of all the Filipino scientists who’ve done greater things compared to me, and I think a lot of other personalities, why did I receive that email?”

And sinabi lang niya: “That’s how it happens, Deo. One day, you’ll just receive an email.” There’s no clear process on how they do it. He said: “We went through a couple of names, Filipino names, and we decided to invite you. Think of it as an acknowledgement of what you’ve done — of your advocacies, of your achievements. The reason why you’re here is because you’re acknowledged and that you’ve done things that deserve to be acknowledged.”

The last time we spoke, we talked about how difficult it is to continue with marine science research given the lockdowns. How has the marine science research community adapted to these changes in fieldwork protocols? What more do you think we can do to support marine scientists?

I think in general, nakabalik na paunti-unti but then again, you have this lockdown so affected talaga kami. Marami talaga sa amin ang hindi pa nakapag-deliver kasi we are a field-based and lab-based institute. So hindi kami makakagawa ng kahit ano kung restricted kami.

One thing that we really need to acknowledge is that some research, especially siguro with field research, is essential work. There are certain scientific activities that we cannot abruptly stop kasi, halimbawa yung giant clams namin, kung hindi namin ‘yung binisita... anong mangyayari? Halimbawa, yung mga cultures namin sa lab, pag pinabayaan namin yun, years and years of hard work would actually just go to waste kasi mamatay ‘yung mga yun, and bread and butter siya nung iba naming activities. So I hope that some of the research activities will be recognized as essential work during this period.

Siguro, another support would be the admin part. Yun lang talaga. The administration, especially the U.P. administration, needs to come up with more innovative and drastic changes in how we run systems, especially accounting. Kasi kailangan na kailangan talaga.

What’s one thing as a marine microbial oceanographer that you wish more people knew about? Or a common misconception that you’d immediately like to dispel?

I think a common misconception is that lahat marunong lumangoy. (Laughs) Ako, laki ako sa dagat. I know how to swim. Pero not all marine scientists are actually good swimmers. That’s one thing.

I think we know how to enjoy ourselves. We get drunk when we want and yet we accomplish things the following day.

Marine science is not equal to marine biology. There are a lot of interesting fields in the marine sciences. You’ve got the physical oceanography, marine biotechnology, molecular ecology, transdisciplinary research, etc. So yun. There are lots of subspecialties in the marine sciences.

What are your hopes for the future marine scientists and future marine science researchers?

We are a country made up of 80-82% water and yet we only have a couple of oceanographers, and only a few marine scientists. I think it is high time to build more capacity and build more expertise in these fields. Primarily because there is no other way for development but to actually go to the blue oceans and that’s blue economy. I hope that as a maritime nation, as a Filipino, as an archipelagic country, we will be reminded that we are actually maritime people: mga taong dagat tayo.

However, I think, at some point, we lost that connection, that we are actually connected to the oceans. Sana we can remind ourselves of that. I think that by reminding ourselves that we are very much dependent on the oceans, we would also care more about it — we’d put more emphasis on policies for its preservation, conservation, and sustainable management.

The other thing is that, you don’t need to be a marine scientist to contribute to the protection and the development of the marine environment. We need more law experts on the seas. We need more engineers. We need more policymakers. We need more environmental managers. So there’s actually a lot of opportunities for Filipinos, especially the young Filipinos, to go on a career that is related to the oceans but not necessarily being a marine scientist and we need more trans- and interdisciplinary research.

It’s the Decade of Ocean Science from 2021-2030 and I hope in our own little way, we’ll be able to contribute to the protection and preservation of our marine environment and marine heritage. From the vastness of the West Philippine sea to the new wonders in the northeastern Philippines and even to the undiscovered regions in the Philippine trench.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.