Romancing the reefs with trouble in paradise
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.
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.