My first marine expedition to the Philippines saw me floating in the middle of the stunning Sulu Sea at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
I was there as part of a Saving Philippine’s Reefs Expedition run by the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, a Philippine not-for-profit organisation. We stayed aboard Discovery Fleet, a charming wooden liveaboard that was recently upgraded with state-of-the-art equipment, with exquisite turquoise waters stretching as far as the eye could see surrounding us.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,000-hectare Marine Protected Area situated on a string of extinct underwater volcanoes about 150km from land, making it the Philippines’ only true atoll. It’s a protected underwater paradise that comprises the North Atoll, South Atoll, Jessie Beazley Reef and a large area of deep sea.
The park lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the geographic centre of marine biodiversity. Corals are the backbone to all life here – more than 360 species (over half of the world’s coral species) along with some 600 species of fish, 11 species of sharks, 13 species of dolphins and whales, nesting hawksbill and green sea turtles create a dynamic and rich marine environment that is simply spectacular.
The geography and diversity makes Tubbataha the perfect playground for explorers, naturalists, conservationists … and those looking for a unique, once-in-a-lifetime dive experience. Tubbataha is ranked among the world’s top-10 dive and snorkeling destinations and we soon found out why.
UNIQUE UNDER-WATER EXPERIENCE
Diving beneath the surface, you’re faced with an unparalleled riot of colour and energy. Vibrant coral reefs in all their forms thrive in the shallows, making it perfect for novice snorkellers to explore.
The reef creates a myriad of cracks and crevices for rock cod and anthias to shelter, and feeds schools of hungry parrotfish. Short bursts of sandy plains interrupt this colourful mosaic and it’s here you’ll find cryptically coloured devil’s scorpionfish.
The shallow reefs often slope down to coral ridges that are bustling with sea fans and sponges, attracting hawkfish, angelfish, mackerel, barracuda and snapper, before dropping down into the deep bluewater. If you’re lucky and keep your eyes peeled you may encounter comical-looking giant frogfish, eels, Triton triggerfish and patrolling sharks – perfect conditions for experienced and adventurous divers.
If marine megafauna is more your thing, jump aboard. These warm waters are teeming with massive schools of sweetlips, snapper and trevally. There are also plenty of sharks ranging from the gentle giants of the sea – whale sharks – to the more infamous tiger and hammerhead sharks.
SENSATIONAL DIVE SITES
Amos Rock is located at the southern end of North Atoll. A shallow area that gently descends onto a wall, Amos Rock is also called ‘Wall Street’ because of the high-energy characteristics of the erratic currents. The site has a diverse range of sea life, including large schools of sweetlips, snapper and whale sharks.
An isolated pinnacle reef 20km from North Atoll, Jessie Beazley Reef is a shallow reef that’s rich with branching corals, small boulders and giant clams that attract a variety of butterfly fish and invertebrates such as nudibranchs to the area.
Black Rock, at the northeast tip of South Atoll, is exposed to challenging currents. At certain times of the day you’ll spot turtles, Napoleon wrasse, trevally and different kinds of reef sharks. The wider reef crest showcases a wide variety of branching corals where octopuses, eels and various fish species can be found.
North Islet – also named Bird Islet – is a paradise above the water as well as below, especially for birdwatchers. The area attracts some 100 species of migratory birds and is one of the last safe breeding habitats in Southeast Asia, with the area’s remoteness allowing them to escape marine pollution, human encroachment and feral cats. Great crested terns, red-footed and brown boobies, noddies, and great crested and sooty terns are all common here. Among the chaos and squawking lives the endemic black noddy, with its Philippine sub-species only found in Tubbataha.
At the southernmost end of North Atoll you’ll find the ranger’s station that was built to patrol and protect the entire park. The surrounding large sandy areas are nurseries for young sharks and home to sea cucumbers, seastars, triggerfish, rays and turtles. The ranger’s station boasts some of the best office views in the world – a small reward for the dedicated rangers who spend three months at a time protecting this marine icon.
PRESERVING THE PARK
Visitors to the area play a key role in the conservation of Tubbataha, with entrance fees providing funds to protect the park. The expedition I was part of took this a step further: with the support of the Unico Conservation Foundation and our project partner in the Philippines, the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, and leading scientists and volunteers from around the world, we carried out a series of scuba and snorkel reef surveys.
We collected a range of information including the cover of living coral, the diversity of fish species and the number of indicator species, such as butterfly fish, that give scientists an insight into the overall health of the reef (the more butterfly fish, the healthier the marine ecosystem).
This data is used to determine the condition of reefs, to guide and improve management efforts and policies, and to indicate the effectiveness of protective measures against illegal fishing. Our efforts also contribute toward building a more sustainable Philippines and, globally, contribute toward the bigger picture of ocean health worldwide. Protecting environments like Tubbataha will help keep our oceans alive.
Tubbataha’s position in the Coral Triangle’s centre means it plays a vital role in the conservation of marine biodiversity. While the Coral Triangle covers just two per cent of the planet’s oceans, it is home to 40 per cent of the world’s reef fish species and 75 per cent of all known coral species. Studies show that reefs in this region are comparatively resilient to climate change.
Yearly expeditions are held in different locations around the Philippines and anyone with snorkelling or diving experience is welcome. Not a trained scientist? No worries – during the expeditions you’re given training, and a group of experts and dive masters are on hand all the time. It’s a great opportunity to dive some of the most spectacular reefs in the world while helping influence local and global marine conservation.
For more information about the Unico Conservation Foundation and how to support it, or about upcoming expeditions, go to: UnicoConservationFoundation.org.au.