I have been silent about the devastation of this paradise called Tubbataha Reefs, I just can’t believe this is happening with all the modern navigational equipments a watercraft must have, much less a US navy ship! And what are they doing in the Sulu Seas?
I dove in Tubbataha Reefs almost two years ago – a dream I fulfilled, thirteen dives in underwater paradise not everyone had the opportunity to experience. I can’t believe such destruction. Needless to say, they can not put back again what was destroyed. How disheartening!
It’s hurting every minute to resist not to howl my loudest yelp about the sad circumstance that has hit Tubbataha Reef. As of this writing, the damage to the national marine park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and nominee for the New 7 Wonders of Nature — is at 1,000 square meters. That’s almost a fourth of an acre of Mother Nature’s work of art — all a hundred years in the making — gone to smithereens. All the king’s men and horses can never put those brittle reefs together again!
Nobody wants this thing to happen, yes, but everybody wants to know what’s the business of the USS Guardian out there in that part of the Sulu Sea and how could a state-of-the-art minesweeper gets to be so blind as to scrubbing fragile reefs! Whatever, all eyes now on the extrication. Man and machine. The longer this tonnage…
Coming to this paradise called Tubbataha was a real privilege and I couldn’t help wonder its significance not only in Philippine waters but also in the neighbouring regions being named as the only marine World Heritage Site in UNESCO list in Southeast Asia. I thought it would be suitable to mention what’s in this world of wonders.
This 97,030 hectare park is home to at least: over 600 species of fish;, 360 species of corals – 72% of coral genera in the world; 60 spcies algae; 7 species of se grasses; 12 species sharks; 13 species of dolphin and whales; nesting hawksbill and green sea turtles; 7 species of sea birds.
The park contains roughly 10,000 hectares of coral reefs and lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the center of marine biodiversity in the world; Its islets represents the last intact seabird habitats in the country. Jessie Beazley and Tubbataha Reefs are sources of coral and fish larvae seeding the Sulu Sea.
Tubbataha Seabirds are found in North & South Islets: Black Noddy, Brown Booby, Brown Noddies, Lesser Frigate bird, Masked Booby,and Red Footed Booby.
Seabirds have waterproof plumage and the ability to drink seawater. They inhabit remote areas and give birth to a few young. Migratory by nature, over a hundred species regularly visit Tubbataha but only eight types are recorded to breed locally.
They provide vital fertilizer for nutrient-poor sandbars, allowing the first waves of pioneer plants to survive. Fossilized bird droppings form Phosphorite, a type of rock used for agricultural fertilizers.
Since the last century, numbers have dropped from 20 million to 400,000. The threats were animal and human predators, marine pollution and land development.
Each year it seems another animal is recorded extinct – or at the brink of extinction. One in four mammals is in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth as well as one in eight birds. But half the human population is likely not even aware of the plummeting numbers, or that we’re losing some of the species right at home.
We hope that the citizens of this country would be aware about the treasures of this park and its significance. We pray that everyone will help to strengthen the protection of Tubbataha!
For when God possesses the dreamer, He will mold the dream and it will be right… Verdell Davis
Like a Bootcamp
During the four-day expedition with maximum of four dives in a day, life become like a series of order – time to wake up and eat, specific time for dives, surface intervals and personal time for rest. Time management is still necessary, you don’t want everybody waiting for you when the chase boat is ready leaving. Weather is unpredictable, in a matter of minutes the waters become choppy. The departure of the three speed boats from HCA is in sequence as scheduled.
For safety, all divers in each chase boat shall descend and ascend together – so when we got into the waters on a roll-back entry, with our masks ready and regulators on, DM Wally always said, “On my count – one, two, three!” Splash! And I heard that in all my thirteen dives. 😛 Other buzzwords we had are as pleasing like, “Food is ready!” from the kitchen staff and a sumptuous buffet is before us. Or when the divers got back from the waters, you could almost hear everybody asking, “What did you see?” and what followed are passionate descriptions of the sightings.
While Venusians have explored diving and many have excelled, the Martians still dominated it. It’s not for the faint-hearted as they say. So it wasn’t strange that there were only six (Memey & Pia from Manila; Natisha from Canada; Ma’am Nana, Doc Candy and me from Mindanao) of us out of 25 diver guests. I was thrilled with the thought of being one of these special and adventurous people.
Diving is never a place for an “ooops”, definitely no errors allowed so following basic rules is purely no-nonsense. Any untoward incident may lead to end the trip, without doubt a total disaster for all of us!
Eat, Dive, Sleep, Pray & Love
We eat at least five times a day, there was such abundance of food complete with dessert – like what about ice cream in the middle of the sea? 🙂 I still have to limit my food intake though. And the dives were such like a buffet – it was my first time to have four descents in a day, really wet! And sleep is almost instant after long day of dives, no such sleeping late like when back home. Rest is all about sleep during the cruise.
I believe there’s one thing common to all of us in the boat – pray – everyone was praying for a good weather every day. Because the weather in the area can be so unpredictable, the rains and the waves may come any time. Nobody would want the cruise to be aborted due to bad weather. And we were privileged to have three priests right in our group – Fr. John, Fr. Aldrin and Monsignor Nene – so we didn’t miss the Sunday mass which was being officiated by Fr. John. It was such a deep and solemn celebration. Somehow, with three diving priests with us, there was such an assurance of daily prayers for all our safety.
The excitement of getting into the waters and breathing deep down or discovering the unknown are just coating of this incessant aquatic adventures. It’s more about passion of the marine world, the life beyond the depths – just pure love for these creatures, wondering and watching in awe all these wondrous forms of life. I know I’ll never grow tired of my dive quests, the God of the sea never seems to exhaust incredible sights in his kingdom. And as a water person, I promised myself I’ll go on diving until I grow old when my gnarled fingers could still hold and operate gadgets or my wobbly legs could still kick for my fins.
We had the opportunity to sit down in dinner with one of our co-diver guest during the cruise – one of the three “father & son” team. He chattered about all the incredible sightings we had in the reefs full of passion and have felt same sentiment with him and as if to close his little speech, he declared he loves diving. Angel and I watching him, without batting an eyelash almost in unison declared solemnly, “We too!”
One Great Dream
Two brave souls dared for this great Tubbataha dream, I know now nothing is ever extreme with one’s aspirations. All I needed was an ardent spirit, determined heart and one good friend who shared same deep passion for the great marine world. It was another living proof that God is ever faithful to His promises!
We waited enough for this mission, our ultimate trip away to a paradise not everyone has the opportunity to savor its grandeur. A world away, apart from the maze of crowded cityscape to a place of tranquility. A place where there are no structures but water everywhere, aquatic nature in all its purity.
Tubbataha – where a brave and passionate diver’s dreams come true!
When your heart is in your dream, nothing is ever too extreme…
I have written enough about the planning, waiting and seizing our great Tubbataha dream and needless to say that along come with it were the unending thrills and joy as the countdown started. Now, it took me awhile to finally scribble what’s inside me – really how ironic that while my heart and mind was filled with treasured sweet memories from the trip, I don’t want to scribble anything about it – not yet. And just like what Angel said in his SMS after our trip, the memories of our great dives keeps playing in my mind.
The Waiting is Over
The headstrong in me pushed me enough to vanish from never ending work even without my approved leave on hand, the thrills had gotten me enough courage to simply digress. The morning horizons when I left Cagayan de Oro promised a sunny day, and I was hoping such would be the condition in the next four days in the Sulu Sea. Though I promised Sir Dodong Uy (our team leader) I would see them at CdeO airport, I haven’t talked to my companions until we reached Puerto Princesa.
But I caught up Fr. John Young, SJ at Mactan pre-departure and briefly chat with him until we separated for the boarding. Smiling I said to him, “I made it!” which he immediately corrected, “We made it!” He told me last December when I first met him that it’s been three summers for his Tubbataha attempt. Well, Angel and I only missed one attempt for the Dive Tubbataha 2010 plans.
Our team converged at Puerto Princesa airport – Sir Dodong & Ma’am Nana Uy, Fr. John Young, Monsignor Nene Caldoza, Fr. Aldrin Alaan, Sir Jan Surposa, Mark Allen Du – as we wait for Angel whose arrival was 20 minutes later from our Mactan flight. We got back downtown after we checked-in at our yacht for a sumptuous lunch at Ka Lui Resto, at past 1pm everyone was starving.
We finally sailed at 7pm watching the beacon lights as we departed Puerto Princesa port with the stars above us, promising fine weather for our journey towards the vast waters of our dream paradise…
The next morning we were in Sulu Sea purely surrounded with blue waters – Tubbataha at last! I belonged to the Red Group – Sir Dong & Ma’am Nana, Fr. John, Doc Candy, Sir Jan, Mark, and Angel – with DM Wally assigned to us.
Day 1. Our first dive schedule was at 9am for a check-out, though most of the divers wanted it sooner as we arrived earlier. Our first descent was at Malayan Wreck not so far away from where HCA moored, though we didn’t get near the wreck but went to a wall covered with gorgonians in variety of colors along with hard and soft corals. I was most fascinated with sharks – white tips and gray reef – just swimming coyly below us just like any other fish. In a few minutes I was hyperventilating and catching my breath and I wondered, I signaled and DM Wally with Sir Dong was at the rescue. My usual 6 lbs weight was too heavy and so in my succeeding dives I have 4 lbs weight which I found comfortable. We had a dose of sharks in our second and third dive at Wall Street and Amos Rock respectively, plus variety of reef fishes. Our fourth and last dive of the day was bit late already it was almost a night dive, we descend at Ranger Station with our torch. There wasn’t much fish life, they could have taken refuge already in their abodes. We uncovered some dwellers though on rocks and crevices – groupers, snappers and sweet lips. Sea cucumbers were abundant too. Such lovely sightings in our first day.
Day 2. Blessed again with good weather, we woke up earlier on our second day as first dive was at 6am. We hope for more good sightings, the sharks have become very common already. Our first descent was at Shark Airport – and true to its name, white tips and gray reefs keep darting now and then! There were sharks again on our second site at Seafan Alley I watch in awe with the abundance of large and thick seafans in variety of colors on the wall. Aside from variety of reef fishes, we sighted turtles – one was feeding on corals and didn’t go away when we watched him and another one we met when we are about to ascend. The day’s highlight was on our third dive, everybody was thrilled. We were floating as we watch the scenery at the Shark Airport, I catch a glimpse of something black coming toward us, at first I didn’t recognize. I got a good view watching the devil ray swimming above us until it disappeared! We went back to Seafan Alley on our last dive – we had sharks again, triggerfishes, more reef fishes plus school of jacks. Two days of diving at North Atoll was just perfect.
Day 3. We were up again early for the 6am dive, with the skies somewhat overcast. We had the greatest surprise on that Sunday morning at Delsan Wreck! We didn’t go to the wreck but stayed on the sandy slope with a shallow wall beyond resembling like a bowl. There was some current and swam a bit like waiting, barely 9 minutes after descending I was at 30 meters when there was some commotion. Lo and behold – the whale shark! Everything went fast, everybody was moving fast – I went deeper at 33.8m to get a good view watching in awe underneath. The great whale shark with white tips, gray reefs, tunas and giant trevally swimming with him side by side, and as if giving as a chance to take another look – they circled once more in great display for all of us. The sight was so enthralling! Before we ascend, there was a large school of jacks before as we went shallower. Our next descent was at the Lighthouse which didn’t disappoint us, we went to the wall covered with seafans and variety of corals. We had sharks again- black tips and gray reef, barracuda, blue fin trevally, big morays, jacks, parrots and sea turtle. After our surface interval for our third dive, the waters become choppy so DM Wally advised to defer our dive until the waters will be manageable. We made our last descent for the day past 4pm already, grateful we made it. Black Rock was another wall dive, decorated with seafans, sponges and corals in variety of colors. We sighted triggers, chromis, cardinals, groupers, sweet lips, puffers, wrasses and lot more. It doesn’t matter we only had three descents for the day, the whale shark sighting was more than enough to compensate for it. It was a blessed Sunday indeed at South Atoll….
Day 4. On our last day, our boat went back to North Atoll for the scheduled dives. We had overcast skies again but everyone hoped we could complete the dives. Our boat tender riding on the waves as we went to Malayan Wreck for our first descent, our group agreed to just stay at the wall and had an easy dive. I just observed all the fish and creatures before me as I went through, although everyone’s hoping for another surprise. J There were yellow and black breams, damsels, surgeons, fusiliers, bluefin trevally, triggers, humphead wrasse, moray and of course sharks. The white tip swimming coyly below me just like any ordinary fish. The weather has been down cast and it started to drizzle already. After more than two hours interval we geared for the next dive which was my last descent at the reefs, notifying our DM. My noon flight the next day restricted me to let go of the last dive of the cruise. There wasn’t rain anymore but the waves persisted. We went back to Malayan Wreck determined to make most of my last descent as Fr John urged. We went for the wall observing the fish life there, the visibility still good. There were triggers, breams, trevally, snappers, fusiliers and variety of chromis. After 40 minutes, I slowly ascend for my safety stop to a coral garden watching the reef fishes, then DM Wally signaled for a shark pointing ahead of me – there it was! On a spot of white sands about 6 meters from the surface, there lying flat on the sand a lone gray reef shark almost a meter in size. Lying peacefully asleep on its habitat – what a wonderful sight! Perching behind the corals for few minutes, I watched it in awe J Angel came over and went far by taking a photo – perhaps disturbed by the lights, it quickly swam away. L Though it was time to surface, we still linger in the coral garden until Angel pointed out the wreck just a little ahead of us – how can I be short-sighted! We quickly swam to the spot grateful that there wasn’t current, circled and went around. I was thrilled – I love wrecks! There was lot of dwellers down the wreck – giant groupers, trevally, sweet lips, wrasses, parrots and more – such an active fish life. We managed to take some photos and explored a bit but heard signals to get back to chase boat for the ascent. It started to rain already and the waters getting more choppy. Angel and I was the last as we raced back for the boat, which we can hardly see underwater. We hold unto the boat as it quickly left the spot as the waves getting fiercer. I hold on to Angel’s hand while we’re on the raging waters with the boat moving until he got on, and the stairs was moved for me to climb up. Sometimes you need to be tough to survive certain conditions. Anyway, the small wreck was a fine way to end my quest at the reefs, it was my longest dive during the cruise at 63 minutes. We sped off riding on the waves to take refuge in the yacht.
The great waterworld of Tubbataha is a piece of heaven on earth. The exhilaration of being surrounded by colorful fish of great variety is simply hard to equal. It was a very moving experience. While you’ve probably seen photos and videos on diving, you won’t understand what it’s really like or how it really felt until you’ve experienced it yourself.
In less than seventy-two hours, I’ll be on a cruise to a dream paradise – aboard on a beautiful yacht surrounded with blue waters. With three priests – which includes Father President of FSUU (my alma mater), a bishop and a vicar – and a physician, it felt like I’m on pilgrimage to the holy land. They are all from Butuan, yes all four of them from my home town. So it felt like I’m home. More than that, I’m with my good friend and favorite dive buddy Angel to fulfill our dream to relish the splendor of the unequaled Tubbataha underwater paradise.
It would be my first time for a luxury cruise and without doubt I would love everything on this trip, I’ll be off again with one of my greatest love – diving! And as I told Angel, I don’t want to go without him as we dreamed this together like more than two years back. There’s no better than a friend who’ s too keen and passionate sharing a fervent wish and dream…
I’m driving myself for much work for the past days to compensate for the time I would be away, and I’m whining – why is it that there is much to do when I want to go away? On second thought I need it to get away from feeling spoiled from such opulence. Now, as I pour my thoughts here I pause for awhile with twinkling eyes…
Our one big dream to a paradise called Tubbataha, one grand trip and our cruise for a lifetime!
Measuring 99,600 hectares in size, the Tubbattaha Reef National Marine Park (TRNMP) is made up of 2 atolls rising in the middle of the Sulu Sea. A Study by Conservation International has confirmed what Scientists long theorized, that it is the nursery for fish and coral larvae that populates the Sulu-Sulawesi Triangle – an area that not only covers the most important and productive fishing grounds of the Philippines but extends as far south as Malaysia and Indonesia.
So important is this submerged structure in the balance of the underwater eco- system that UNESCO declared it a world heritage site as far back as 1993. In 1998, Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos, a keen diver himself, created Task Force Tubbataha and a station equipped with radar and manned by zealous rangers was established and now guards the park 24/7.
Several factors are responsible for the almost virgin conditions of this underwater jewel. The convergence of currents constantly brings in a barrage of the nutrients and clean water a healthy reef and its inhabitants demand. Being the largest and almost lone structure in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean guarantees a healthy influx of pelagic visitors looking for a meal and other services an underwater community provides.
Being almost a hundred nautical miles from the nearest port, access is only through Live-aboard vessels and voyages to the park are determined by the weather. A small window-from late March to early June when calm seas and clear skies are the best and only times for divers to visit. The strong winds and rough swells the rest of the year deters both authorized and un-authorized incursions into the park and permits the reef to settle back into its natural state of regeneration. *
December 2008. The idea came to invade the mysterious depths of Sulu seas, when Angel and I planned and pledged ourselves for Dive Tubbataha 2010. They said it’s the holy grail for divers in the country and you can never be an accomplished one unless you explored its depths. But more than proving to ourselves and counting sites visited, we wanted desperately to experience and catch sight of the glorious beauty of this elusive paradise – an epitome of the exquisiteness of creation!
Our plans were put in order: dive as often our schedules and pockets can allow, earn course necessary to increase our capacity, acquire necessary gears, learn lessons from every dive we had, and more. Enjoying every bit of the journey towards this dream. The banner of “Dive Tubbataha 2010” brandishing Angel’s travel log since early 2009.
But things didn’t turn out as planned and visiting the reefs last year was cancelled and deferred indefinitely. It didn’t dampen our spirits though and I always believed there is always a time for everything, a perfect time. And trusting that the Lord always knows what’s best, that waiting is part of his answers to prayers. And so we wait…
December 2010. Two years exactly when Angel and I both pledged ourselves to this promise like a covenant. The message came unexpectedly, without any hint through a priest. I was diving one quiet Sunday for my last dive of the year, just six days before Christmas. Fr. John Young, SJ whom I just met, simply asked if I want to join them in their Tubba trip – I was caught off guarded – surprises always come in unlikely situations. That was my greatest gift last Christmas, indeed real gifts don’t come on packages and bows!
I have to relay the news to Angel, as always I had the last word for our dive trips – he simply threw it back to me to decide. I waited for about two weeks to listen if we’d really go. It is expensive and it would mean some preparations to be put in order in just four months – it meant stretching budget in the next months when we have other scheduled trips already.
Now, just barely seven weeks before our cruise on first week of May I can’t help being excited for the journey, though I don’t want to spill any hint of excitement! 😛 I’m writing this note to set a milestone, the wait wasn’t really long and I thank the Lord for granting this favor and for always working out things for me in countless times – in His own terms.
A passion burning incessantly in my inner core. Dear Tubbataha, here we come!
Our Tubbataha 2010 is indefinitely postponed so my soul will wait silently for the right time, I know it will be worth the wait. Despite shelving my coveted dive trip for this year, I’m on again for more adventures for 2011 planning equally amazing and off beaten dive sites… I promised myself before venturing sites outside my dear country, I need to explore more and exhaust all the rich marine biodiversity in our waters.
Together with my favorite dive buddy Angel, we are more than bullish to explore these exciting sites:
Apo Reef – one of the most diverse marine life comparable to the Great Barrier Reef. My tickets for San Jose – Manila – San Jose is ready. Angel encouraged me to buy this as early as May , it was on sale!
Coron (again!) – for the mysterious wreck diving. I’ll never get enough of all the challenging WWII wrecks in its waters. Admittedly, I am smitten by the rich marine life and laid back environment in Calamianes.
Batanes – I never knew that there is diving in this northern most islands, so when Angel told me, I was thrilled! I slapped my forehead why I haven’t thought to search diving in the islands. I have been wanting to visit this town, but keep postponing. Now, it’s like hitting two birds with one stone – stunning landscape and mysterious unspoiled depths! Got our tickets already, it was on seat sale!
Manta Bowl – A new discovery, incidentally a dive master mentioned this site to us. Our diver’s itch is pestering us again!
Tawi-Tawi waters – one of the red flag areas in Mindanao, this is challenging! We planned to conquer the place this year, but failed. So, we will finally explore it next year as my birthday trip. We got tickets already!
Malapascua (again!) – we missed the treshers last summer, so we need to go there again! Hopefully, the sharks would cooperate this time. I love the laid back life of this northernmost Cebu island. 🙂
Others – there are other sites to explore more, those that are less expensive and accessible to get away with leaves at work. Like Panglao Island, Camiguin Island, Moalboal, Siquijor or even Mis Or waters.
There will be more discoveries next year aside from our surface adventures. And always, yes always, I’m grateful with my favorite dive buddy who’s ever resourceful and very encouraging in planning our trips. I’m looking forward for all these, but shhhhhhh – these are still secret. Ahhh, the mermaid in me is rejoicing!