By Janet B. Villa
Our Mothering Heights writer Janet B. Villa takes us to an underwater adventure in the gardens of the Tubbataha Reefs, a coral paradise in southern Philippines. Tubbataha is a UNESCO world heritage site and the Philippines’ first marine park. This is a six-part series with Janet exploring the grandeur of marine wild life as our daring, fearless scuba diver in the summer of 2012.
Like any other diver, I have the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park on my bucket list. On this sunny April afternoon, I am about to tick this item off my list.
Tubbataha means, in the Samal dialect, “long exposed reef at low tide,” embracing 33,200 hectares of coral colony and manifold marine life within the Coral Triangle shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—enjoying the highest fish biomass in the country and the highest marine species diversity in the world. So unparalleled and universally valuable is its biodiversity that Tubbataha was declared the Philippines’ first national marine park in 1988. Five years later, the Tubbataha Reefs was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserving this marine frontier and its rich species for future generations. In April 2012, it ranked eighth among the world’s best dive sites listed by the CNN travel news website, CNNGo.com.
From Manila I fly out to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, where I join a live-aboard dive safari. Traveling by boat is the only way to reach the Tubbataha Reefs, which lies on the volcanic depths of the Sulu Sea, about 182 kilometers (98 nautical miles) southeast of Puerto Princesa, reachable only in the warm summer months, March to early June. Our boat takes about 12 hours on calm seas to reach Tubbataha.
Before we leave, volunteers from the Tubbataha Management Office, Glenda and Arlene, board our boat to help us understand how we divers are pivotal in protecting more than 573 species of fish, 373 species of corals, 11 species of sharks, 71 species of algae, 44 species of birds, 12 species of dolphins and whales, 2 species of nesting marine turtles, and a host of still unaccounted-for marine species that grace Tubbataha.
For this privilege, we secure an entry permit and pay a fee of about three thousand pesos (roughly 60 US dollars)—paltry, if you ask me, for the gift of Tubbataha. The permit is like a contract: If we, the boat operator or the crew violate any of the park rules under Republic Act 10067, establishing the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, we shall be and should be subject to fines, penalties and prosecution.
Glenda and Arlene give us presents—a pretty pop-up pamphlet and a custom wristband, which I prefer to call an I-can-boast-I-dived-Tubbataha wristband. Glenda and Arlene are charming, funny and detailed. “Any questions?” they ask. So knowledgeable are they that one of the Russians shouts out, “Who killed John F. Kennedy?” Arlene, the legal officer, smiles, “That’s history.”
We are a motley crew of divers: three Americans, three Danish nationals, 4 French, 12 Russians. I was the lone Filipino. This is a different world, and I haven’t even left port yet.
Before dinner, Paul Evans, the boat manager, briefs us on the dives. Many of the dives are wall dives, beginning with gentle slopes and shallows shimmering with colorful life before plunging into the deep blue, which hosts sharks, turtles, rays and other pelagics. Visibility is anywhere from 35 to 45 meters. The water is warm, about 29 degrees Celsius (85 degrees Fahrenheit). The sea in the summer is typically calm. Still, as in any dive, we need to be careful: there are strong currents and some swell that can turn on us and change direction without warning. This is, after all, the deep sea. Being only Open Water 1–certified, I’m a little anxious, but Paul is reassuring.
We sail in the night. The dark prevents us from seeing the countless dolphins and whales that usually escort travelers to Tubbataha, but we are heartened by the natural beauty that awaits us in the early morning.
Day 2: Wall Street
We wake up to clear skies and waters with varying shades of blue. There is no land for miles and miles. The horizon—sometimes slate gray, sometimes washed-out white—is broken only by the dot of live-aboard boats or the white ranger station. This is the closest I’ve been to the middle of nowhere.
Tubbataha Reefs has two coral atolls partitioned by an eight-kilometer channel and enclosing a sandy lagoon. The oblong-shape North Atoll, 16 kilometers long and three kilometers wide, houses a ranger station on a sandbar and the Bird Islet, a rookery and a nesting spot for turtles. The triangular South Atoll, five kilometers long and three kilometers wide, houses the Lighthouse Islet, also a habitat for birds and turtles.
Northwest of Tubbataha, about 23 kilometers (12 nautical miles) away, is Jessie Beazley, a rich coral reef with infamous currents that suddenly surge or reverse, bringing strikingly large schools of fish. Southwest of Tubbataha, about 90 kilometers (50 nautical miles) away, is Basterra Reef, whose fiercer currents ensure a dive paradise, considered by many to be the best site in the Sulu Sea.
I am thankful that Paul decides to leave Beazley and Basterra alone and focus on the 15 or so sites in Tubbataha instead. Camilla and Maria, the two ladies from Denmark, had just finished their Open Water 1 certification in Boracay and decide to take it easy: they begin by snorkeling near Amos Rock with crew diver, Odie. They return, brimming with tales of swimming with a manta ray and a large turtle. Such is Tubbataha: in its isolation thrive creatures that meet us, unafraid, in the crystal shallows.
The rest of us are divided into four teams. I dive with the yellow team, with Paul as our guide; Lasse, an advanced diver; and dive instructors Robert, Cary, and Mike. They call me princess. “I’m the eye-roller,” I tell them. “Every group needs an eye-roller. You see me, you go, ‘Oh, there’s Janet.’ And you roll your eyes.” They laugh. We are already buddies, in and out of the sea.
We take the chase boat to Wall Street in the North Atoll. The mood and the temperature are warm. We wear either a 1mm shorty or a rash guard and beach shorts. One by one we hit the sea.
Wall Street gives us a gentle drift for diving. The incline bursts with color in the dappled sunlight with damselfish, angelfish, butterfly fish and fusiliers in electric hues, as well as a host of huge bumphead parrot fish jabbing at the rocks (Robert would later help me distinguish a bumphead parrot fish from a wrasse).
We take a leisurely pass over stony corals before reaching the deep blue plunge. The wall is painted with coral; later, I would know their names: gorgonians, sea fans, tree corals, cabbage coral, sea plumes, leather corals, wire coral, brain coral. They nourish reef fishes, big and small, darting in and out of the crevices. The only thing that draws our eyes off them is the drama of the open sea. There they are: sharks, allowed to mature in near-inaccessibility. White-tips and black-tips swim with tuna, two Napoleon wrasse, jacks and trevally. I keep an eye out for the whale shark that some have seen around here, but it is a no-show.
When we surface, Mike, who owns a dive resort in Dumaguete, smiles, “It’s just like home, only bigger. And with sharks.” Sharks are a common sight in Tubbataha. For many, it’s a bad dive if you don’t see at least ten.
On our surface intervals, we rock with the boat. It never stops moving. The boat cannot set anchor, cannot moor on protected reefs. We find ourselves swaying with it, balancing with each swell. (To be continued)