By Janet Villa
The fourth of six parts, Janet Villa takes us to the stunning 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, our Mothering Heights writer pens how perfect the underwater world is, that it is an honored privilege for humans to be able to watch and marvel it. This issue gave the editor the goose bumps. Find out why.
Day 3: Lighthouse dive site, South Atoll
We dive near the lighthouse, which is circled by hundreds of birds. On our way to the site, some of them fly by us, chittering, squawking, and sometimes diving into the sea.
Visibility, usually reaching around 20 meters, is now slightly clouded by the runoff from the rains. We tumble into the wide, sloping reef flowing with sea grass, a favorite feeding ground of turtles. The turtles are more plentiful closer to the lighthouse. Sometimes a few hawksbill turtles—already an endangered species—head here.
A color prism of fish, hard and soft corals, and sponges greet us: emperor fish, surgeonfish, sweetlips, small groupers, tuna, angelfish, orange and pink anthias. I look at the seascape and think of how it looks like an aquarium—and I stop. How self-centered that thought was! Like many other divers, I act as if the marine life exists for my pleasure, as if they parade for my benefit. The truth is that I am the interloper. To be allowed into their home is a privilege. Any dominion over them, granted to us by the Creator God, hinges on respect and stewardship.
The shallows abruptly end, and we descend into the dark blue expanse. The coral walls are inhabited by mature fish and eels, as well as sharks. (The constant presence of sharks deserves special mention). There is a profusion of corals in a range of sizes: brain corals, branch coral stony corals, whip corals, sea fans and the flowery carnation corals that adorn the overhang.
A large school of big jackfish, just at 13 meters, circles the sunbeam, the light turning them into silver. Paul charges towards the fish, and after a moment I speed up after him and stop in the middle of the circling shoal. The jackfish, interrupted, spread out at our intrusion. But habit and self-preservation kick in: they settle back to their patterns, orbiting us and allowing us into their sanctuary. I breathe gently, not wanting my bubbles to disturb them. We remain motionless in their midst, honored by their trust.
Back on the boat, Odie, one of the ship’s dive masters, brings out his guitar and sings in the light of a sky that is washed clear by rains. In the distance, the rain still falls like a gray sheet. But not on us. The sun glows on our boat, circling us in its light.
Odie sings a long-ago song that celebrates the enchantment of this day: about how morning has broken like the first morning, how sunlight from heaven falls like dew. We sing with him:
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.
At dinner, Dmitri, a young man from Russia, celebrates his birthday. The crew hastily glues letters to the tarp, MacGyvering a birthday banner that reads “HAPPY BERTHDAY,” but nobody minds the misspelled greeting. All everybody wants is the “happy” part. Dmitri’s friend dons a Michael Jackson mask and another a hideous Halloween mask, and they harrumph in vodka voices, gifting Dmitri with yet another vodka bottle, which must have been a quality brand because he is grinning from ear to ear, hugging one friend, then the other.
Then Odie strums his guitar, and Joel and the crew take up pots and pans, banging them to the rhythm of Happy Birthday, a never-ending chorus of well wishes in different languages. The crew brings out chocolate cake and mousse, and Dmitri blows out two candles, one cake after another. We cheer, again and again, and the guests and crew go over to greet him, and he hugs each one. He treats everyone to free beer, overflowing that night, and to cake. The Great Divide among the divers is broken; the sea unites us all—that, and beer and cake.
After dinner we stay on the deck and watch the stars. Undiluted by city lights and undisturbed by pollution, it seems that all the 3,000 stars visible to the human eye had come out in the clear night. The magic of Tubbataha extends even to the sky.