Romancing the reefs with trouble in paradise


REEFS ON THE ROCKS A diver observes a sleeping shark on a ledge at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Made up of two atolls, Tubbataha’s vertiginous walls are home to 12 species of sharks. Overfished because of the sharks’ valuable fins, Tubbataha offers one of the last guaranteed shark dives in the world. Although protected year-round by armed rangers who are stationed in two-month shifts, the reefs were defenseless against the rude intrusion of a US minesweeper three days ago when it ran aground in the Unesco-named World Heritage Site. YVETTE LEE/CONTRIBUTOR

You never forget your first shark.

It was 1989, and I was a relatively new scuba diver on my first weeklong dive trip to Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea. It was a perfectly clear summer’s day, and I had barely righted myself after nervously back-rolling into the ocean from the rubber dinghy that ferried divers from the big boat to the dive site, when I saw it—a beautiful 6-foot white tip reef shark with beady eyes, undulating gills and the most graceful movements I had ever seen in an animal.

Soon, that one white tip was joined by another, and another, all speed and smooth, clean lines, darting about some 3 feet below my fins.

An initial fear of getting eaten alive was soon replaced by intense fascination. My very first dive in the mecca of Philippine scuba diving, and six sharks in blue water made up my welcoming committee. I have loved sharks—and Tubbataha—ever since.

For scuba divers on a pilgrimage, and for whom communing with sea creatures big and small is a religious experience, Tubbataha is the Vatican, home of the big guns, where God lives in all His glory. And what glory it is—some 100 square kilometers of coral reefs separated into two atolls by a 7-kilometer channel. It’s so remote, Puerto Princesa is 150 km and an overnight boat trip away; you leave the port at dusk, and wake up in the middle of glorious blue nothingness. A tiny islet, Bird Island, on the North Atoll, is itself an important rookery for migratory birds.

The real gems, however, are beneath the waves. The Sulu Sea shares its waters with Indonesia and Malaysia, and is part of an ecologically and economically important marine region, the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea.

Zooming out even further, these waters, a veritable fish nursery and meeting point for some of the area’s richest currents, also flow within the Coral Triangle, a 6-million-square-kilometer hotbed of biodiversity encompassing the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. That’s why they’re all here, from whale sharks and hammerheads to mantas, turtles, schooling jacks and barracuda, not to mention schools of brilliant tropical fish and lovely nudibranchs (they look like sea slugs in psychedelic colors) to overload your senses.

Small wonder, then, that divers from all over book a bed on the expensive boat trips a year in advance, and unless they’re extremely unlucky, they say it’s worth every dollar. Even the name is exotic, meaning “a long reef exposed at low tide” in the Samal language, and brings a promise of unforgettable encounters.

On that first trip, I buddied up with an Australian girl, Karin, who confessed she “almost peed in my pants” when we ripped in strong current through a dive site called Shark Airport, so named because the critters park on the ground and sleep like refueling 747s; when we rudely entered their space, almost a dozen gray reef and white tip sharks woke up and didn’t look too pleased.

Several years later, on my fourth visit, I met a trio of rich, rowdy dentists from Florida who came for some action, and boy, did they get it; one was swiped by a titan triggerfish the size of a suitcase, and good-naturedly showed off the small wound to prove it.

Diver’s paradise

Indeed, if you’re a diver, Tubbataha is paradise. It’s endless skies and water, exquisite sunsets between dives of a lifetime, in water so clear you have to watch your depth carefully, lest you forget you’re 120 feet down. Its isolation also means plenty of time to remember that, in the greater scheme of things, you’re just a guest in Mother Nature’s gorgeous playground. It’s a playground you come to revere and love.

Two years ago, no longer just a tourist, I joined wildlife photographers Jürgen and Stella Freund on the Tubbataha leg of their Coral Triangle photographic expedition for the Worldwide Fund for Nature International, and we documented Tubbataha’s beauty and talked to her protectors. We stayed for a couple of nights in a 12-by-15-meter dome-roofed box on stilts on the edge of Tubbataha’s North Atoll, the marine park ranger outpost.

On Dec. 11, 1993, Tubbataha had been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “For Filipinos, it is a great source of pride that the only purely marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia is found in this country,” then Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park manager (now called protected area superintendent) Angelique Songco told me in an interview during that visit.

Dedicated team of guardians

The hardworking Angelique took pride in her “boys,” the park rangers, a dedicated composite team from the Philippine Navy, the Coast Guard, Angelique’s own Tubbataha Management Office and the municipality of Cagayancillo, which has political jurisdiction over the reefs. The rangers are the guardians of Tubbataha, and it is their constant patrolling that has largely kept destructive illegal fishing under control.

We were with the “boys” as they manned the 24-hour radio, tagged turtles for scientific research, manually cleared the reefs of crown-of-thorns starfish that nibbled at hard coral, patrolled the reefs at night—and sang along on a videoke machine to while away the long hours of their two-month tour of duty.

It was these boys who woke up at 3 a.m. on Jan. 17 because of bright lights on the horizon. By their account, Angelique reported, the rangers checked the radar, and confirmed that there was indeed an unknown vessel on the South Atoll. They called by radio, and there was no response; when they proceeded to the area, they saw men on deck in what appeared to be battle positions, so they did not come any closer.

Bull in china shop

The ship was the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper that ran aground on the South Atoll of Tubbataha at 2 a.m. The rangers know Tubbataha like the back of their hand; the reefs are their babies, their treasure, their wards. But their calls were not answered, and it took a while before someone on board the ship even acknowledged them, and only then to tell them to talk to the US Embassy. The ship later blamed the incident on wind, waves, and what they called a “faulty navigational map.”

The proverbial bull in a china shop? Well, this was one big, arrogant bull, and it smashed into some of Mother Nature’s finest china because it thought it knew better.

“You know that feeling when you have a toothache, and it gets more painful the more you grind into the tooth? That’s how I feel now,” said a weary-sounding, sleepless Angelique on the phone when I asked how she was doing.

As of this writing, the ship remains on the reef, at the mercy of Tubbataha’s notoriously bad weather and huge swells at this time of year. Every time the ship moves, it could be potentially destroying more coral.

“Imagine, the most powerful nation in the world,” Angelique said with a half-hearted laugh, “and they’re helpless against nature.”

It had been initially reported that the Philippine government had fined the US Navy for unlawfully entering and damaging a World Heritage-listed coral reef, but Angelique says that hasn’t happened; she is, however, definitely waiting for restitution—as is the Filipino people, or at least anyone who gives a damn about Tubbataha.

The US Navy has allegedly made their own estimate of the damaged area—about 1,000 square meters—a figure still to be confirmed by Angelique, but the rangers estimate it’s more than that.

What price paradise

What they haven’t factored into the costs? The life-changing experience of diving these reefs. The years Angelique, the marine park rangers and the staff have spent fighting for Tubbataha and storming the offices of government officials and funding agencies. The birthdays, graduations and holidays the boys have missed with their families, as one skeptic allegedly asked a ranger, “habang nagbabantay lang ng tubig at isda (Just watching over water and fish).” “Hindi ito tubig lang (This is not just water),” the ranger retorted. “Kinabukasan natin ito (This is our future).” You can’t put a price on Philippine patrimony—not now, not ever.

On one memorable dive, hugging a steep drop-off at about 100 feet near the North Atoll, I once saw a dark silhouette moving far below me. Daring to plunge deeper, I stopped 5 feet above a whale shark the size of a bus, so huge that the fish that hung on to it looked like small sharks. It swam ever so leisurely, caressing the wall (underwater cliff or drop-off in diver’s jargon), pausing long enough for me to take in its mind-blowing magnificence before slowly disappearing into depths I will never fathom.

I hope it’s still there, somewhere.

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  • Dennis

    they are arogant as chinese

    • PurpleDaisy13

      Americans and Chinese have superior nations.  Filipinos have an inferior nation. 

      The chemistry between these two extremes tend to result in an inferior nation’s cries and complaints about a superior nation being a bully or arrogant Dennis. 

      That is, cries and complaints from an inferior nation of which superior nations simply ignore and brush off effortlessly.

  • Joe Kano

    More overwrought melodrama from another selective and self-righteous newly-minted environmental elitist who lacks rational perspective.

    • Loggnat

      They have all the right to feel bad. The same way I would feel bad if a ‘deng’ Chinese minesweeper ran aground in John Pennekamp Coral Reef state park and ignores any inquiries from the local park service. Even madder if they refuse to let anybody aboard when they are definitely where they are not supposed to be, accident or incompetence what not. Maybe the USS Guardian is something else and just masquerading as a minesweeper, that is why they seem to be hiding something. Or maybe the captain and officers of the USS Guardian were just undiplomatic or just arrogant and plain rude believing that it is not Philippines’ business even though their ship is in shallow ‘caca’ inside Philippine waters. That is not the civilized way to treat a country that has always been an ally if not always been a friend.

      • Joe Kano

        I feel bad too. I’m just keeping reality in perspective.

  • farmerpo

    If the warship’s action were intentional, would anybody protest or make any noise? I doubt it. It was an accident, and we should look at it that way. We keep pre-empting what the owner of the ship will do. For all you know, the owner of the vehicle will fix the damage beyond your wildest imagination.  

  • TheGUM

    Beautifully written!  Thank you.

  • K Fun

    The US withh always downplay this navigational booboo of theirs and will keep on stalling and ignoring knowing our main fault—-ISSUES WILL BE FORGOTTEN OVER TIME.  Give three months time and no one will be talking about this anymore. Ships is removed, apologies made, crew were safe and not even arrested and detained for trespassing. Damage to the reef forgotten.

    • Daniel Nielsen

      why is nobody arresting or stopping fish blasting that is going on everyday in the cebu area and palawan. who is paying for the damages no one. 70 percent of the reefs in the philippnes are destroyed mostly by blasting. why dont the american bashers get on a plane and fly south and stop this destruction. after the reefs in palawan where are they going next. i read on the internet the blasting has stopped. someone forgot to tell the fisherman and the people who make blasting caps by the thousands.onlt difference the ship was accident the blasting is on purpose. so put your money where your mouth is and stop it

  • DGuardian

    Maraming salamat sa napakagandang artikulo na ito. Tunay na labis na nakalulungkot at nakakapanghinayang ang nangyari sa Tubbataha Reefs. Nakaka -dalamhati ring lalo na mukhang may deliberate act and malicious intent ang Commander at crew ng USS Guardian sa pagpasok nito sa Marine Sanctuary. Imposibleng sa very sophisticated na mga gamit nila ay hindi nila alam ang depth ng lugar, Bukod pa sa napakalinaw ang tubig at kitang-kita ang mga corals sa ilalim. Kahit na sa gabi, bago pa sila mapunta sa malapit sa atoll, dahil sa may mga malalakas silang spotlight ay tiyak na kitang-kita nila ang paligid at mga corals sa ilalim ng tubig. Maaring araw pa sila nagpunta doon, nag-scuba diving hanggang abutin ng gabi. Huwag nilang sabihin na hindi nila alam kung nasaan ang Tubbataha Reefs at ang Coral Triangle. Isa ito sa pinag-aaralan ng mga miyembro ng US Navy lalo pa nga ng nagpapatakbo at crew ng isang minesweeper. Wala silang kinatatakutan at pinasok ang Marine Park para sa sarili nilang motibo at kasiyahan. Dapat ay patawan sila ng mabigat na parusa. Dapat ay ang Amerika ang gumastos sa pag-restore at pag-rehabilitate ng mga coral reefs. Dapat din na i-indemnify nila ang Pilipinas sa pamamagitan ng pagbibigay ng dalawampung well-equipped patrol boats para sa Philippine Coast Guards. Dapat snilang pagbayaran ang kasamaan ng Commander at crew ng USS Guardian.

  • Joe Kano

    Romanticizing the reefs with cliches in headlines

  • july13a

    the americans did not like the idea of relinquishing the base in the 90’s and they, the americans, have always thought that the Philippines is theirs. Pinalayas kasi silang parang mga baboy na kumakain ng mga kino cultivate mo na mga vegetable sa backyard garden mo. I saw the documentary nung pumutok ung Mt. Pinatubo and I saw in that hindi sila masaya nung lumayas.I guess lahat na itoy vengeance na sa nong tinapon na waste material sa dagat natin

    • riza888

      Over 15,000 Filipinos working inside the former US Naval Bases did NOT want the Americans to leave. They had decent jobs providing well for their families.

      It was the Philippine Senate who rejected the extension of their stay.

    • PurpleDaisy13

      re: “the americans, have always thought that the Philippines is theirs.”

      The Americans bought the Philippines for $20 million bucks from Spain in 1898 july13a.

      • july13a

        they bought it but it doesn mean they own it, it is just buying the negros before for slavery but they did not own their soul and spirit

      • PurpleDaisy13

        re: “they bought it but it doesn mean they own it”

        Glad to see that you recognize the purchase transaction conducted between Spain and America. 

        But would you or anyone in their right mind ever “buy” something so that you could not “own” it? No

        Are your logical abilities operational july13a?

        re: “but they did not own their soul and spirit”

        We’re not talking about owning the soul and spirit of Filipinos july13a.  Aren’t we talking about owning the Philippines, as in buying the physical territorial land for $20 million dollars? Yes

        You must be confused to think that America wanted to buy the Filipinos for $20 million bucks from Spain in 1898 july13a.

      • july13a

        My logical mind says that the killings of thousands of Filipinos with no logical reason at all and the ransacking of our natural resources is enough to pay them back. Hey, if they kill somebody in your family is 20 million dollars enough to pay it off?

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