Giant Clams, Giant Statement – Camiguin Island, Philippines, Asia

Ecotourism is an exotic word in the Philippines, and it is a slow conversion for someone to give up a livelihood of spearing fish and instead take tourists to look at the very same fish and to let them slip away into the coral.

It is even more difficult to convince people to stop eating giant clams and using their giant shells as baptismal fonts.

giant clam

Tridacna gigas has been harvested almost to extinction in the Philippines, and at an easy-to-miss tourist attraction on Camiguin Island, just offshore from Mindanao, a small group of women are doing what they can to re-establish this formidable bivalve in their local waters—not for food or church ornamentation, but for the sheer value of its importance to the ecosystem.

The women of the giant clam nursery project—a small, local effort with a tiny bit of government funding and a handful of pesos from tourists—are extremely religious and protecting the clams is their charity. A sign at the entrance to their small facility prohibits "immoral activity" and spells out such activities in a list that includes drug and alcohol use as well as hand-holding. There is only one changing room and my husband and I are expected to take turns while we put on our swimsuits.

The giant clam’s superlatives promote its comic book reputation as a man-eater. It can live for hundreds of years and grow to almost two meters across. When we get a close-up look of one in a tank, I am impressed by both its fleshy mantle glowing in violets and yellows as well as its razor-sharp scalloped smile. The resident three-legged dog is a testament to the clam’s superpowers.

We are guided through the small shallow sanctuary by a woman in a floor length skirt and long-sleeved blouse. It isn’t a stretch to think of her as a specter as we follow her eerie flowing robes through the water. She points silently at the nursery clams, just a few years old and already fist-sized. We are sometimes less than a foot above the baby limb-crushers, hyperventilating into our snorkels as we fight a strong current that makes the shimmering colors of the clams even more surreal.

When we emerge from the water there are men with long black guns standing on the shore. Our guide—dripping wet and looking like a shipwreck victim—thanks us for coming. While I shake her hand my eyes shift between her dedicated gaze and the men with guns. When it’s clear that she isn’t going to explain, I ask her directly what’s going on. "They are here to keep the fishermen out," she says. These are the only protected waters on the island, which subsequently hold the best fishing around.

I wince at the thought of these local men shooting another local over how best to use the island’s resources. I mean, I am all for protecting an integral part of the local ecosystem, but at the cost of human life? Just as quickly as I was swept up into the magic of the giant clam, I change my tune. It’s just a clam, right? A slimy muscle between two dull shells.

The giant clam sanctuary seems to represent very well the ocean in its entirety. The ethical questions brought up here are big ones. Ones whose answers I won’t be able to wrap my head around for awhile…if ever. The men with the guns smile and wave at me. They are typical friendly islanders with a cushy job patrolling the beach. I don’t believe they would shoot anyone or at least I don’t want to believe they would.

The giant clam makes a giant meal on an island where there isn’t always enough to eat. I honestly don’t know what Jesus would do if he visited this mission on Camiguin Island. Would he thank the sisters for their charity and pat the men with guns on their backs? Or would he bring the local children with their empty bellies and tell them to feast on the delicious flesh of this mythical beast, plucked freshly from the generous sea? I don’t believe in Jesus and I’ve lost my appetite. When I close my eyes, the fiery colors of the clam come back vividly. I am astonished at their beauty and slightly afraid.

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