That morning in Tubbataha

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan
Tubbataha Reef celebrated its 25th anniversary as a Marine Protected Area last August 11

FLOURISHING. Despite destruction from ships that ran aground it and illegal fishing, Tubbataha Reef is doing well. Photos by JML Tan

(Editor’s note: In celebration of Tubbataha Reef’s 25th anniversary as a Marine Protected Area last August 11, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines CEO Jose Lorenzo Tan writes about how the marine park remains a treasure worth cherishing.)

TUBBATAHA REEF, Philippines – I remember that morning, as if it were yesterday. We woke up to the sound of slaps and splashes on the surface of a slick summer sea.  In less than 15 minutes, we were underwater, swimming with mantas, above the endless drop offs of Tubbataha Reef, in the Central Sulu Sea. At the time, I described it as a submarine Serengeti.

That happened more than 30 years ago.

Last month, a string of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) trips visited Tubbataha as part of our multi-year pledge to the province of Palawan to help make sure that this special place remains special.

And yes, the mantas were still there.  As were turtles, sharks, rays, mollusks, dolphins and fish – large fish, schooling and swirling around us, in the hundreds. Nesting, hunting, feeding throughout this 100,000-hectare park, that has few comparisons anywhere in the world.

The ultimate marine park

People have said that this marine park stands head and shoulders above most because it boasts “a full range of biodiversity.” For me, Tubbataha has always defined the meaning of that phrase. Not just little reef fish, coral species, or miniature life forms, but also everything you expect to find in a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At Tubbataha, you expect to encounter megafauna. And, you will. Every dive. Every day. It remains the standard against which all marine parks are judged. 

Tubbataha Reef’s exceptional fauna are not confined to the sea. The thousands of seabirds that breed, nest and feed off this giant larder of life give this park an enthralling dimension that have thrilled the most seasoned of birdwatchers.

I remember strolling along the Lighthouse Islet’s beach in 1978. Terns rose in the air, as we walked past, furiously fighting us off their turf. There were so many of them nesting there, that a nest with an egg occupied every square foot of space. Small sharks cruised the knee-deep shallows, waiting for a meal. It was as if we had stepped into the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. 

Submarine Serengeti

After more than 3 decades since I first slipped into Tubbataha’s warm embrace, it is gratifying to see how well she is today.

It has not been easy. There have been many challenges from illegal fishing boats and shell gatherers, from El Nino and Crown-of-Thorns outbreaks, from a seaweed farm, from several ships that ran aground and from financial challenges that the people of Palawan have somehow managed to overcome, time and time again. This gives us hope to press on doggedly, and we will.

Last month, at the Delsan wreck, I espied a very large aggregation of white and yellow parrotfish, descending. Flanking them were packs of white-tip reef sharks accompanied by several pairs of giant trevally.  

This was a hunting expedition and I was hypnotized by the dynamic tension that filled the water. The scene reminded me of lions and hyenas nipping at the heels of wildebeest as they thundered across the green savannah.  This is what living reefs are all about–a robust, thriving synergy that dramatically spirals beyond taxonomy and track lines. It is the world as it should be.

This is the image that will constantly fill my thoughts and reassure me that, truly, my submarine Serengeti is alive. –