By Janet B. Villa
The last of six parts of the writer’s awesome adventure in the Tubbataha reefs in the southern Philippines, a UNESCO-declared world heritage site.
Day 4, The Ranger Station
After the dive we head to the ranger station, to visit the unsung heroes who help preserve Tubbataha’s ecosystem for our children and all who come after. The sun starts to fall into the sea, a gentle backdrop for the station, which stands on stilts on a massive sandbar.
Inside, the space is limited: only 12 by 15 meters to house five to eight rangers at a time. All year round, in three-month tours of duty, they protect the reefs from poachers, police the divers, and check on the habitats in the islets. They live simply, collecting rainwater to supplement their fresh water supplies, using seawater for cleaning, and tending a small garden of vegetables and herbs.
We shake their hands, joke with them, and buy shirts emblazoned with a manta ray. We wish we could do more. The mission they have chosen is not easy. After four or five months of good but unpredictable weather that ushe\rs in visitors and supplies, they endure the habagat and the loneliness it entails. The wet season covers the sandbar, sometimes flooding the station. For the rest of the year, the sea and the birds are their only companions. A generator allows the rangers to enjoy a few precious hours of power each day so they could use their radio communications facilities, radar and a TV–satellite dish.
Outside we linger on blindingly white sand. The sky and sea unite in blue harmony. Then slowly, the sky disengages from the sea. It turns orange and pink, deepens into purple, then blazes into vermillion. Somewhere, just underneath the still waters are stingrays and turtles that also call this station home.
I hum a hymn. Cary recognizes the tune and says, “My mother used to sing that.” And we sing together, “Thence sings my soul, my savior God to Thee. How great Thou art, how great Thou art.”
This is sacred ground, wherever one finds beauty and the mark of the Creator. Tubbataha is, borrowing the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
Day 5, Manta ray cleaning station
There’s a cleaning station in the North Atoll just 14 meters below. If we remain still and quiet, the mantas will come and stay for cleaning. But this morning there are too many of us divers from different live-aboard groups. The reefs are rife with human invasion. Some start hogging and hugging the corals. I fear we would scare off the mantas.
Then the mantas arrive, in spite of. One glides in, looming large. It lives up to its name—manta in Latin American Spanish means large blanket. The throng of divers explodes: banging their tanks, gurgling with bubbles, finning towards the ray. I despair at their disrespect. But the manta ray—so graceful!—is also gracious. It heads to the station with its entourage of cleaner fish. (Groupies, I call them.) Then the ray abruptly halts and rears up at an impudent diver’s vigorous stream of bubbles. It returns to the depths.
Another big ray comes in with a smaller ray swimming obediently close. They fly, weaving this way and that. Their massive underbellies are the first that I see—white against the black gloss of their skin. They open their mouths, a signal for the cleaners to eat the parasites from their skin. The cleaners dart into the rays’ gills, sometimes into the ray’s mouths. The bigger manta leaves, but the other—a playful little fellow—stays behind for the paparazzi intrusion.
The fourth ray—the biggest—is the boldest. It glides towards us. As it reaches Mike, it unfurls its left lobe (the rolled-up fin in front of its mouth) and swings it up and down as if waving hello with its arm. Mike catches all this in his video, which we would later watch again and again, delighted at what we’d like to assume was a greeting. This is the arrogance of the landlubber—we pretend that the manta’s way of warding us off is actually a form of welcome.
There are other sights—coral displays, a flurry of fish, big pelagics, two or more white-tip sharks—but how could we pay them mind? For many of us who have rarely seen a manta, the fish and coral activity are overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by the mantas’ underwater ballet.
Later, we dive the cleaning station again, and chance upon another manta ray gliding up to the surface. Suddenly it vanishes.
It did what mantas do: it leapt high out of the water.
Day 6, Going Home
On the way back to Puerto Princesa, we linger over breakfast. We hang on to the last bit of us before we return to reality.
We exchange photos and videos—these are our version of carving into the woodwork that “We Wuz Here.” Someday, when work would get in the way or when deadlines would loom deadlier, perhaps we could look back to Tubbataha, where beauty confronted us, recharged us and changed us.
Towards noon, when the gangplank hits the dock at Puerto Princesa, we give each other the last set of hugs, backslaps and kisses. Mike extends an invitation to his dive resort in Dumaguete. Later some of us would connect by email or by Facebook. Perhaps we would never see each other again. But we always will have Tubbataha. It is the magic that connects us all. (Photo by Lasse Danielsen)