A school of Spotted Eagle Rays glides into the blue yonder, oblivious to the team of awestruck divers hovering a few meters above. Minutes later, a parade of Whitetip Reef Sharks on a hunting expedition emerges to prey on schooling Arabian Snappers. Against steep, towering reef walls laced with seafans, a lone Hawksbill Turtle preys on a Giant Barrel Sponge.
Unseen by the naked eye, millions of tuna larvae are carried by currents to Palawan and the Western Visayas – an ecological process that helps feed millions of Filipinos who rely on fish as a primary protein source.
This is the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park, the Philippines’ hotbed of marine life, where the underwater world is at its busiest, wildest and most dynamic. Regarded as the Crown Jewel of the Coral Triangle – the planet’s center for marine biodiversity – Tubbataha is a priority conservation site of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines).
In April 2014, WWF National Ambassadors Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez, plus Environmental Stewards Luis Manzano and Piolo Pascual took time off their busy schedules and dove into the heart of the organization’s conservation work in Tubbataha. The four lived onboard the M/Y Navorca, WWF-Philippines’ research vessel in the Sulu Sea.
“Tubbataha is a haven not only for scuba divers, but also for all the marine life thriving in the Philippines. This is where we see true marine biodiversity at its very best, which is unrivaled anywhere else in the world,” says Marc.
He and his fellow ambassadors and stewards are among the country’s long-time divers who consider Tubbataha one of the sites they should make a pilgrimage to. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the twin atolls of Tubbataha are home to 640 species of fish, more than half the world’s hard coral species, 14 species of sharks, 12 species of whales and dolphins, plus two species of marine turtles.
Situated in the Central Sulu Sea, Tubbataha’s remoteness is its greatest protection. The long journey to this underwater paradise begins in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan. After a 10-hour, 160-kilometer boat ride, divers and visitors wake up to a vast blue expanse dotted by only two islets that are among Asia’s last remaining seabird nesting sites.
It can be said that nature is a great equalizer. For beneath the waters of this isolated paradise, the ambassadors and stewards – considered the most popular and in-demand Filipino actors and television hosts – were mere visitors completely wrapped in the sense of wonder and adventure Tubbataha gifts her visitors with.
SAFEGUARDING OUR NATURAL TREASURE
Diving in Tubbataha can be likened to parting a curtain and discovering a mound of precious jewels. Rovilson, who counts his dives at Tubbataha’s North Atoll as his favorites, could not agree more.
“There were certain dive spots – due to the terrain and formation of the peaks, valleys and corals plus the insanely awesome visibility – that provided me with a spiritual experience. I felt like I was flying. A sense of warmth and calmness enveloped me. It was pure. Our wonderful Earth has provided me with such great pleasure many times over, but this was like no other,” says Rovilson.
Luis, a long-time diver who also dabbles in underwater macro-photography, excitedly captured rare underwater sightings, such as the abundance of sharks and his first encounter with Eagle Rays. He shares, “It was something surreal. I have been diving for quite some time but never have I experienced such beauty underwater.”
Piolo, who has been planning to visit Tubbataha for 10 years, has finally plunged into her warm embrace. But the wonders of Tubbataha are not just confined to the sea. Every sunrise and sunset is a real spectacle, where the sky plays host to a wonderful display of light and color. At night, thanks to the absence of light pollution from cityscapes, a canopy of stars blanket Tubbataha’s calm waves.
“Nothing compares to the beauty our nature has in store for us, if only we get to see it up close and be one with it. Tubbataha is a complete spiritual journey. Just by being on the boat, I realized the tentativeness of things around us and how fragile our Earth seems. Every morning until sundown, there’s just too much to see, too many things to appreciate and be thankful for. Yet these are simple things just waiting for any spectator to experience,” says Piolo.
Witnessing the beauty of Tubbataha only strengthens their shared commitment to safeguard its riches and marine productivity for generations to come. At a time of growing environmental fragility, Marc, Rovilson, Luis, and Piolo agree they need to highlight to their wide fan base the importance of the Tubbataha Reefs more than ever.
Considering that only 1% of the country’s coral reefs are in excellent condition, protecting Tubbataha ensures the food security of millions who depend on Philippine seas for daily sustenance and livelihood. Because it is illegal to fish in its waters, Tubbataha annually produces at least 200 tons of seafood per square kilometer. This is five times greater than the productivity of an ordinary healthy reef. The waters of Tubbataha are also the seeding and growth area of the fish stocks of Palawan and the Visayas. Without this protected area, fish would not have the opportunity to grow to maturity and repopulate other areas.
However, Tubbataha continues to be threatened by illegal fishing, poaching, pollution from nearby waters, ship grounding incidents, plus climate change impacts like coral bleaching and ocean acidification.
“As a WWF steward, the first thing I should do is bring awareness to people of its beauty and state, then educate them on how fragile these ecosystems we are. The Philippines is lucky to enjoy and have a place like Tubbataha,” adds Luis.
A SHARED COMMITMENT
What better way to end the five-day adventure than with a visit to the Tubbataha Ranger Station to meet and interact with marine park’s frontliners? Tubbataha’s rangers are a composite team of military men and civilians spending danger-fraught two-month shifts patrolling Tubbataha’s 97,030 hectares from poachers and illegal fishermen. These men risk life and limb to make sure that Tubbataha is resilient to natural and man-made threats.
Before sunset, WWF’s ambassadors and stewards played a friendly volleyball match against the rangers on a sandbar in front of the Ranger Station. It was a close fight between the teams, but the rangers proved to be tougher opponents. “We played the most isolated volleyball game after visiting the Tubbataha park rangers who sacrifice so much to keep our beloved park protected. This was truly unforgettable,” says Rovilson.
Amid the reefs’ splendor and the cracks of laughter was a calming assurance that everyone standing on that remote sandbar will work to ensure that this paradise remains pristine and that future generations can benefit from the bounty of its waters.
“Hopefully, us relaying our experiences in Tubbataha, and stressing why this protected area is so important for the country, will make people understand why they need to do their part to help protect this national treasure,” says Marc.
Marivel Dygico, WWF-Philippines’ Tubbataha Project Manager, is more than delighted to find new sentinels in the four men. “Experiencing this with our ambassadors and stewards is like having halo-halo with ice cream and leche flan toppings on a hot day. It is especially rewarding to connect Tubbataha with people whose main occupation is to connect with people-building relationships. Tubbataha is a celebrity by her own rights, but we need the likes of Marc, Rovilson, Luis, and Piolo to share with the world how possible it is to take care of Tubbataha,” says Dygico.
The M/Y Navorca sails back to Puerto Princesa with yet another splendid sunset as their backdrop. It is a bittersweet moment; nobody wants to go back home yet. Rocked by tall waves on the way to the Palawan mainland, the four plan their next moves to bolster conservation and fundraising efforts for the Tubbataha Reefs. Concludes Piolo, “The whole trip changed me as a person. I know anyone who will visit Tubbataha will have a deeper appreciation of life and be changed as well.”
Indeed, Tubbataha transforms everyone who has travelled far to explore its beauty, scale its reef walls, brave its currents, and be one with its denizens. Tubbataha – with the sheer abundance of life above and under its clear sapphire waters – is forever seared into the memory of those who have plumbed into the heart of conserving it.
(This article was originally published for WWF-Philippines in May 2014.)