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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Treasure Find 28 -- Expedition to the World of Tubbataha


When I went to the picturesque Batanes, I thought nothing can equal that experience anymore.  But our Bayanihan Republic has a lot more to offer.  The Philippines is a paradise country and each corner of the archipelago offers something unique.  And that is why we also need to be extra careful and responsible about taking care of our environment as majority of our country's attractions are gifts of nature. 

I've been a wildlife enthusiast since I was a child.   And that fascination led me to becoming more concerned about the environment.  As most of the problems encountered by the wildlife is largely because of the loss of their homes.  That same interest also made me dream of being part of National Geographic or Discovery Channel or Animal Planet and capture nature's spectacular moments myself.  But destiny led me to a new direction.  And that new direction led me to having a more pro-active work for the environment, it led me to helping out WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Philippines.

Photo by Sophia Dedace of WWF Philippines

WWF Philippines manages various conservation programs in the Philippines.  One of its most important project sites is the conservation of the Tubbataha Reef which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 8th best dive spot spot in the world according to CNN.

The Tubbataha Reefs lie in the middle of the Sulu Sea, approximately 160-kilometer southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, the most western province in the Philippines.  The Philippines is at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the center of the world's marine biodiversity.

The Coral Triangle is the world epicenter of marine life abundance and diversity.  Spanning from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji to Northern Australia, this extraordinary expanse of ocean covers some 5.7 million square kilometers.  If Amazon is for rain forest, Coral Triangle is for the coral reef.

And this is what WWF Philippines want every Filipino to know, the importance of the Tubbataha Reefs and the need for its conservation.  That's why WWF Philippines organized an expedition to the Tubbataha Reefs.  The expedition team is composed of WWF Philippines (Mayj, Sophie and Marie), WWF Puerto Princesa (Ms.Vel), Tubbataha Management Office (Ms. Angelique), Dive Master Romel, M/Y Navorca crew, ABS-CBN's Patrol ng Pilipino (Atom Araullo, Neil and Dong), GMA's I-Witness (Kara David, Sunshine and Gibson) and myself.

(from Right to Left, para maiba naman hehe): Atom Araullo of ABS-CBN's Patrol ng Pilipino, Kara David of GMA's I-Witness and Ferdie Bondoy of foydi's Treasure Hunt and Tatak Digitista... naks leveling!  hahaha :D

Day 01
We were at the airport at 6 am to ride a plane going to Puerto Princesa, Palawan.  Via Cebu Pacific Air, we landed in Puerto Princesa at around 8 in the morning.  We stayed in Palawan's capital at daytime to rent dive gears, buy things needed for the navigation and conduct briefing about rules inside the boat and at the Tubbataha Marine Natural Park.  M/Y Navorca, WWF Philippines research vessel, will be our home for 3 1/2 days in Sulu Sea.  M/Y Navorca was donated to WWF Philippines and was transformed into research vessel to aid scientists in their conservation work not just in Tubbataha but in Apo Reef as well.  The ship may look plain and simple but it's complete and fully geared for its mission.

Travel time from Puerto Princesa to Tubbataha is about 10 to 12 hours so we really ought  to gear up for all the things we need.  Roughly at 8 pm, the entire expedition team boarded M/Y Navorca and  headed to Tubbataha.  The first two hours were good, we still had mobile phone connection and Internet signal and the water is largely calm.  But after a couple of hours, the wave became too shaky and most of use got dizzy.  We moved around (though it was really difficult to move, it is as if you got tipsy from a round of drinks lol) and looked for more comfortable spots were we can rest and manage our dizziness.  Kara and I even found a spot at the back of the boat where the air is much cooler and the shake is a little tolerable.  Then eventually, we learned to dance with the waves, went back to our cabin and were able to  get some sleep.

Day 02
By morning of our second day, we finally found ourselves at the middle of Sulu Sea, right at the heart of Tubbataha!   We were welcomed with Filipinos' favorite breakfast dish and an on-site orientation to guide us as we explore the sites.  As soon as the diving and snorkling teams geared up, we transferred to smaller boats and went to the actual sites.  First in the itinerary was Wall Street.  I'll be honest with you folks.  At first, I tried to swim but I felt the current is quite strong for me (and my goggles were not working well) so I went back to the boat.

As soon as we went back to Navorca, we had a debriefing.  And I envied everyone who already saw the beauty of Tubbataha.  So after that, I promised myself to swim in all the sites.  I won't let this chance and learning opportunity pass.  I told myself, how can I find the treasure I am bound to find here and help educate the people if I won't take the challenge.

And so at our next dive / swim, I faced the challenge and swam the waters of Tubbataha!  Our next site was at the Malayan Wreck.  The water was still a bit strong but I managed to swim and witness the wonder in this part of Tubbataha.  These were the scenes I only see in movies, corals which thrived at the remnants of the sunken ship and marine creatures who nestled in this part of the sea.  And I felt victorious after that swim.

foydi's catch: brown booby resting / hunting for food at the middle of Tubbataha

foydi's catch: turtle breathing some air

After swimming the wreck, our next dive / swim was a site called Sharks' Airport.  Why is it named as such?  Your guess is as good as mine.  It's a sharks den!  We were however told that the sharks there, mostly white tip, black tip and nurse sharks, don't attack humans.  The sharks we should be extra cautious with are the tiger sharks!  So for the snorkeling team, we were given a rope to hold on to so that we will be able to swim together and look like a big fish.  In this way, the tiger shark won't go near us.  If swimming alone, the tiger shark may think you are a dead fish, and yes, he will attack and bite you!  :)  But with or without that tiger shark, my dive here was one great adventure!  I saw sharks everywhere, sleeping, swimming and one big one approaching me before I quickly went back to our boat.

With our three swims, we deserve to have a great snack!  And Navorca's chef didn't fail us with his Fried Banana Surprise!  It became the team's instant favorite!  But while we are enjoying the snack, we heard shouts from the rest of the team and crew.  And these shouts were: "Dolphins!"  And we were amazed as they swim with Navorca!  It's too many of them!  And they keep on jumping as if they're doing a show for us!

The presence of dolphins also indicate how healthy the water is.  It means Tubbataha is abundant with fish, which is dolphin's primary food.

After that, I got ready for our next mission. Tubbataha is a stretch of kilometers of water but there a few  islets which play a significant role in the place.  We were brought to the Tubbataha Rangers Station which is situated at the middle of the sea.  During low tide, the islet is visible and walkable but come high tide, the station's feet are a little submerged.  In fact, the rangers even shared that a nurse shark frequents their station.  But don't worry, nurse sharks don't attack humans :)  At the station, we learned how rangers protect Tubbataha and survive the isolation.  They showed us their tracking device which they use to patrol the waters of Tubbataha.  Guarding the marine park is really a big challenge among the rangers but this is a task they welcome and are committed to do.  Their assignment last for two months and then they are assigned in the main land for another couple of months.  But every after two months they come back to Tubbataha.  During down time, they read books and watch TV, good thing they have signal at the middle of the sea!

The Rangers Station at the heart of Tubbataha

foydi with Tubbataha rangers

We were fortunate enough to have witnessed the sunset at the Rangers Station.  While the station's dry land depends on the movement of water, there is a sand bar which is just across the place which remains above sea water 24/7.  So we decided to have barbecue dinner there.  The place was shared  by another set of guests who are marine biologists / conservation experts from American Samoa.  And yes, we enjoyed the dinner / chat with them.

The sandbar at Rangers' Station

Dry land at last! :D

At around 9 or 10 pm, we went back to our small boat to head to Navorca.  It was dark at the sea so I felt a little nervous with that ride.  Well, that's how my imagination works :D  I felt like we are navy seals who are up to a secret mission.  Anyway, as soon as we reached Navorca, we unpacked and had some fun word games.  And then we went to sleep.

Day 03
After a long time, finally I had a good night sleep.  I still don't want to get up and I want to enjoy the bed and the cool wind of Tubbataha but I realized, I need to witness that magnificent sunrise view.  So with no much further ado, I stood up, had my quick morning rituals, picked up my camera and headed to the deck.  And I finally saw the sunrise they are all raving about.  I was mesmerized.  From north to south, the Philippines is truly blessed with spectacular natural beauty.

And while everyone are focused capturing shots at the front side of the ship, I moved at the back side of Navorca and got this awesome shot.

foydi's catch: the magnificent sunrise of Tubbataha

After having breakfast, the team geared up and went to the bird islet.  The water we passed thru is so calm and the clouds' formation is like a crystal view.  And as we are sailing, one bird approached our boat.  It as if we are being surveyed if we are friendly visitors.  And then there were two, and then three, and then they're everywhere.  The islet is not just a sanctuary for these sea and migratory birds, they are indicator of how healthy life is at the bottom of Tubbataha.  The birds stay here because their food is here.  We went around the islet and was amazed with this nature's wonder.  I am blessed to have witnessed how life thrive in this part of the world.

Photo courtesy of WWF Philippines

The bird islet

Atom enjoys bird watching!

While we are mesmerized by what's on the island and sky, we were also amazed with what's moving under water.  Turtles are everywhere!  And contrary to old belief, they move fast in water, they really swim with speed!!!  In fact, I saw two turtles swam as fast as dolphins!

one of the turtles we saw at the waters surrounding the bird islet

After that fascinating bird watching, we went back to the Rangers' Station to get some more photos and buy souvenirs.  Proceeds from the souvenir items sold go to the Tubbataha Management Office which fund the Rangers' Station.

The Tubbataha Expedition Team with the Rangers

After that, we went back to Navorca to have lunch and then head to our first dive / swim of the day.  It was at Delsan.  This time, I had difficulty with my snorkeling gear as water goes in to my mask.  But that didn't prevent to continue with the journey.  I saw the vast and rich coral reef in this site, small and big fishes!  In fact, there was even a manta ray!  I saw mameng, tulingan, clown fish and a lot more marine species!

Shine Matutina of I-Witness following a manta ray! 

After that swim / dive, we went back to M/Y Navorca to re-energize and move to the last site, Staghorn at the South Atoll.  With clear and still water, we were challenged by our guides to explore.  And good thing I followed their advice.  For me, this is the best site among the places we've been through.  The marine kingdom here is colorful, diverse and fascinating.  Giant clams, colorful corals, schools of fishes, varied species living together... these are just some of the underwater magnificence I saw.  I kept on swimming and looking at this marine wonder to the point that I really was far from our boat!  And while the rest are following a giant turtle, I saw him swimming towards me!  He was looking at me when he was approaching my direction and swam under me which is about three feet away. He was so cute!  Oh, I wish I had a sophisticated underwater camera to capture that but I could ask for more with that experience.  With that, I'll call him Tubbi, and he will be foydi's turtle.  :)  And then I continued swimming this different world of Tubbataha until I saw another turtle who's sleeping at the bottom of the sea, which is surrounded by beautiful and colorful corals.  It was an amazing view!  I can't find the right words to describe the place but all I can say is the place is a different world, it's truly fascinating and captivating.    It's like swimming the kingdoms of mermaids and underwater worlds.  It was really good that it was our last swim / dive because it was the best!

My Tubbi!  :D  Photo courtesy of Sophia Dedace of WWF Philippines

The snorkeling team's victory shot!

After that, we went back to our mother ship, changed up, stayed for a while to bask on Tubbataha's beauty before we sail back to Puerto Princesa.  It was an amazing experience.  Since it's our last night, we made our dinner extra special and event called it our Captain's Night!  We had fun singing, dancing and laughing together.  But after that, we stayed at the ship's deck and did some star gazing.  Oh, Tubbataha has just a lot to offer, from sky, to sea, and to even pieces of land.

But while I share with you my fantastic journey to Tubbataha, you may ask why is it relevant to you if you don't plan to dive or swim there?  Oh well, Tubbataha may be enjoyed by divers and snorkelers but it has a far more important role not just in our environment, but in our food security and economy as well.  Tubbataha which spans more than 97,00 hectares, is home to 360 species which is approximately half of the coral species in the world.  And these corals provide home and nursery to 600 fish species, 14 species of sharks including tiger sharks, white tip sharks, and black tip sharks, 12 species of dolphins and whales, a nestling population of endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles, and over 100 species of birds, including rare migratory birds.  The Tubbataha Reefs’ twin atolls produce at least 200 tons of seafood per square kilometer. This is five times greater than the productivity of a healthy reef. Tubbataha is the seeding and growth area of the fish stocks of Palawan and the Visayas, generating enough marine resources to feed more than 40 million Filipinos yearly.

Before Tubbataha became a protected site, fishing folks had a lot of illegal and overfishing because they want to win back the expenses they had in going to Tubbataha.  Its distance made it really costly for them.  And in 1980s there was an alarm with the decline of Tubbataha's spectacular coral reef so a small group of divers and environmentalists launched a campaign to save Tubbataha.  In 1988, the provincial government of Palawan endorsed the idea, and President Cory Aquino declared Tubbataha a National Marine Park.  In 1992, the site was ofiicially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Closing Tubbataha from fishing is not an easy task.  It was a bitter pill everyone has to take so that life in Tubbataha can flourish and continue to provide food to people. Many were opposed to it especially the people in Cagayancillo, which is the municipality that covers Tubbataha.  WWF Philippines Tubbataha Project Manager Marivel Dygico said that while the fishermen were prevented from harvesting in Tubbataha, TMO and WWF Philippines launched cooperative programs that could help provide alternative sources of living to the community.  Tubbataha Reefs Park Manger Angelique Songco mentioned that the local government of Cagayancillo also benefits from the proceeds derived from park fees and other funds raised by TMO.  Ms. Angelique said that if someone is caught, the penalty is really heavy but it has to be executed so everyone will respect the law.  "It's hard but someone has to do it," said Ms. Angelique.

Illegal fishing is not the only problem that face Tubbataha.  Plastic wastes have arrived in Tubbataha and it's dangerous for the the sea animals and birds.  They may think they are food and they could die with it.  In fact, some animals have been found dead because of these plastics.  Aside from that, climate change also affect the coral reefs and result into bleaching.  And this is really dangerous!  Without these coral reefs, fish would not have the opportunity to grow to maturity and repopulate other areas. A burgeoning Philippine population, escalating food prices, overfishing and unmonitored unsustainable fishing practices put tremendous pressure on the Tubbataha Reefs. With these threats, it is imperative that we protect the reefs today.

So how can we help?  First and foremost, don't throw plastics and other wastes into the sea.  Well, on the second thought, don't throw any waste anywhere at all.  Put them in proper containers.  Segregate them.  Recycle.  And for those who travel and fly frequently, there's another easy way to help.  WWF Philippines and Cebu Pacific Air run the Bright Skies for Every Juan programme.  By booking online at www.cebupacificair.com, the website generates a donation amount that corresponds to the distance of a traveler's flight and the estimates amount of carbon dioxide emitted.  It is inevitable to fly but you can fly responsibly through this programme.  Through the Bright Skies programme, airline passengers have the opportunity to minimize the ecological impacts of air travel and help protect not just the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan but the Apo Reef as well in Occidental Mindoro, the Great Reefs of the Philippines, which together generate enough food and livelihood for millions of Filipinos each year.

Day 04
We arrived in Puerto Princesa at around 7 am.  After breakfast, we had our quick farewell with crew, with the team and had some pictorials!  :D  And then we went just had a little city tour - WWF Palawan, TMO Headquarters, Crocodile Farm, Pasalubong Market, La Terrasse, KaLui and then to the airport! :)

From my "New World" battlecry in 2012, my "expedition" to Tubbataha is indeed a different and new world.  But while it's new to me, I've learned its value to our day to day lives.

Photo by Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan/WWF-Philippines

The World of Tubbataha... this is my 28th Treasure Find!

foydi's Treasure Hunt would like to thank the following for making this expedition possible: WWF Philippines, Tubbataha Management Office, Cebu Pacific Air, ABS-CBN's Patrol ng Pilipino Team led by Atom Araullo, GMA's I-Witness Team led by Kara David, M/Y Navorca Captain Ronald de Roa and his crew and dive / swim masters (Lito Dagaraga, Jun Magbanua, Jeruel Magalona, Arnel Escobin, Dondon Cayanan, and Jun Gayoma), Tubbataha Marine Park Rangers: Over-all POIC PO2 Rod Patricio PN, PO3 Mariano Villamor PN, PO3 William D. Jompella PN, SN1 Gerondio M. Caballero PCC, Noel Ballena LGU, Narciso Cayao LGU, Manny Bundal TMO and Segundo Conales TMO, Tricia Cusi and Campaigns & Grey.

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