By Janet Villa
The 5th of six parts of Janet Villa’s diving adventure in the Tubbataha Reefs, a coral paradise in southern Philippines. Tubbataha is a UNESCO world heritage site and the Philippines’ first marine park. Our Mothering Heights writer pens, “it is a grace to share in their world,” referring to the magnificence of marine life. When choosing between fear and awe of the deep, all of Janet’s league are one in asking as they emerge from the water’s surface, when is the next dive?
Day 4, Malayan Wreck dive site
We return to the southwest corner of the North Atoll and dive the Malayan wreck. A small shipwreck covered in barnacles and coral greets us at three meters. Decayed, twisted and abandoned, the wreck teems with life and fish action. Several reef fish splash it with colors, including pink snappers and big yellow sweetlips, the weak sunlight magnifying the black spots. Snorkeling nearer the surface are Maria and Odie, throwing their shadows on the wreck.
We head to the deeper side of the wreck and take photos. Robert signals to me to pose for him. I flash the V-sign with my fingers—how could I not? He expects it of Filipinos.
We drift over a bed of rock and coral, punctuated with stony whip and leather corals. Moorish idols swim in and out of the outcrop. A school of juvenile barracuda dots the blue horizon right before the drop-off, which reveals black-tip sharks patrolling the depths. Mike signals for me to dive deeper to swim with the sharks.
From behind a curtain of reef fishes and fusiliers, the coral reef wall explodes in color. A moray eel, swaying with the current, retreats into the crack. A lionfish carries its spines like a crown, big and stately. Lasse captures with his camera what looks like a frogfish melding with the outcrop. The nooks and crannies are dense with fish, particularly triggerfish. In this and in the other dives, I have learned to appreciate the varieties of the territorial and terrifying triggerfish: queen, clown, titan, orange striped.
When I look up to the surface, I see the sun filtering through the soft tree corals, the rocks dark. Fish populations blot out the light. The sea is hushed. Down here we have no language. We are accountable to each other as buddies, but each one is alone with his or her thoughts. This is teamwork in isolation.
On our way back to the wreck, I linger with a juvenile black-tip shark opening its gills and mouth for the cleaner fish—symbiosis in action. It shares with me a truth we live out every day but often fail to appreciate: we cannot live without each other.
I see a spiny lobster, about two feet from tip to tip; it looks like shrimp with spines. My teacher’s mind, of course, has to ask what the plural of shrimp is.
Day 4, T-wreck site
Northwest of South Atoll is the T-wreck site. I prefer its more sensational name: Shark Airport or Mapating Point. We sink to a sandy plateau and drift with the current to the coral cliffs, then fin down and glide along the coral lane leading to the sharks.
In Tubbataha I learn to be still. My anxieties make me paddle with my feet instead of drift-diving. When we get to a crevice in the rock, I am getting tired. “That’s it,’ I think. I am not going to fight the sea. We relax in the gentle current. I let go, unloosen my muscles and relax into the watery embrace.
An eagle ray swims a few meters below us, its spots clear despite the murky waters. Above us a large school of giant barracuda forms a dense, gray curtain, so near we can see its stripes. The school breaks into two at our approach, and Mike runs after one group to capture the swim on film.
Against this dramatic backdrop, we spot a dogtooth tuna so big that Paul and I turn to each other, mimicking the opening of a tin can. Then comes another tuna—several times bigger; it is gargantuan—and there is no need for gestures. Soft yellow corals like fields of wheat adorn some portions of the wall. We encounter bumphead parrotfish and wrasse, and then suddenly a school of silver jacks, so dense they look like a sardine run. Emboldened by my swim with yesterday’s shoal, I swam straight into them, dispersing them into two. Lasse follows suit and takes photos from underneath the shoal. I stay with the jacks, and they let me. It is a grace to share in their world.
The coral dive-through culminates in a sandy valley dotted by bright coral mini-worlds: the Shark Airport. Resting on the slope are at least five reef sharks and black-tips, being attended to by cleaner fish or quietly awaiting their turn. Just another day in the office for the cleaning crew.
Time on the boat is measured by when the next dive is. We rise from the waters and the next words out of us are, “What time is the next dive?”