Special on Earth Day: Earth, the Water Planet
By Janet Villa
Editor’s Notes: The third of six parts, Janet Villa explores the beauty of the Tubbataha Reefs in southern Philippines. The Tubbataha is a UNESCO world heritage site and the Philippines’ first marine park. In this issue, we marvel at the jet-speeding marble stingray as well as the colorful and vast gardens of our water planet.
Dive 3: Delsan Wreck dive site
I wake up to the pounding of fists on Cary’s door. His cabin is right next to mine. “It’s 6AM, Cary!” Mike shouts. First
dive is in the South Atoll, near the Malayan Wreck. Too early for me. I go back to sleep. When I come up for breakfast at 8, Mike hollers, “Princess!” He cups a fist on each side of his head and raises them to form a stubby antenna. “Hammerheads!” I say.
He puts up his hands, raising all his fingers. “Ten?” I ask. “You saw ten hammerheads?” He nods, grinning. Lasse smiles. “Ten of them, swam by me.” They show me photos of the murky depths that revealed the predators.
By mid-morning the skies turn gray. Cary teases me, “Let’s not dive in the sun. Let’s not dive when the skies are clear and the sea is flat. No, let’s wait when the surface is battered by rain, the winds lash the waves into white tips, and the sky is gray.” Indeed. Why wait when we can amp the fear factor? I shall stick to Paul like Velcro.
East of the solar-powered lighthouse is the Delsan site, in whose depths lies a log-carrier. We traverse a wider expanse of sun-dappled shallows, intensifying the underwater display of juvenile barracuda, jackfish, angelfish, groupers, and trevally that look very disapproving. The black damselfish with white tails rise and fall in unison, echoing the waves on the surface. There are sheet corals like massive tables, and corals huddled like a family of mushrooms, decreasing in size like Matryoshka dolls. We reach the vertical drop and find a turtle swimming below us.
At 20 meters, we discover a nurse shark sheltered on a ledge. It is sleek and brown, plump like a dolphin, and waits patiently for the camera flash to finish. Paul creeps closer to it, perhaps to give us a perspective of how big and long the shark was. The nurse shark, feeling a bit spooked, swims off and hits its head on an outcrop.
We chance upon a marble ray as big as a dining table—with a diameter of over five feet—hiding and covered on a wide, sandy perch. Futile, really, because its body is clearly outlined underneath the grains. When we approach, its tail rises and quivers in warning, and we take caution in taking photos. Then it stirs, the sand falling from its body, and it speeds to the depths, the sand trailing after it like a column of smoke streaming from a jet plane.
I find myself pulled down to the deep, lured, until Paul asks me to rise. It is very easy to sink into the blue embrace.
Down here, where visibility stretches to several meters, a 40-meter depth looks pretty much the same as 10 meters. Down here, it is easier to remember that the earth—like our bodies—is mostly water, roughly 70%, much of which is in our oceans as saltwater. Ours is a water planet. As Greenpeace puts it, “Planet Earth is Planet Ocean.” In the water lies life.
On the chase boat back to the ship, we see seagulls flying by. “Oh, look!” Mike says, “A pair of boobies!” The sanctuary of Tubbataha extends to over 100 species of resident and migrant birds, which live and breed in the two islets. These islets, I am told, are two of the last remaining havens in the country for breeding seabirds.
On the boat I pore over the digital photos taken by the other divers. Tubbataha hosts all things weird and wonderful in its depths and on its shores. Who knows what weirder and more wonderful things are in its unexplored territories?
Let me borrow a few lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty to help capture Tubbataha’s—and our world’s—manifold majesty:
Glory be to God for dappled things —
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: