Thursday, January 24, 2013

Finding Nemo in Tubbataha

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

One of the characters that I thought of after the minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground in and destroyed parts of Tubbataha Reef on Jan. 17 was Nemo, the clownfish who is the object of a transocean search in the blockbuster Walt Disney animated film “Finding Nemo.”

My childlike, cinematic thoughts turned to the countless Nemos who lost their lives and their womb-like dwellings because of careless naval navigation, disregard of warnings, and other reasons that have not been disclosed or explained. A superpower’s minesweeper turned into a destroyer when it plowed into Tubbataha Reef. This amazing marine sanctuary, the Philippines’ pride that has tantalized the world, has been scarred.

I also thought of Captain Nemo, that character in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” that I read as a child. The clownfish Nemo must have gotten its name from this seafarer who captured children’s imagination, or borrowed Greek adventurer Odysseus’ pseudonym.

Yes, all these stories, ancient and new, had a way of opening little-known and unexplored worlds under and beyond the sea, and we grew up carrying with us the wonderment and wondering whether it could all be true. As it turned out, reality is even more wondrous than fiction, as Tubbataha—known to the world only starting in the 1970s—would prove.

Too bad I’m not a diver, but the few snorkeling experiences I’ve had around Apo Island in Negros Oriental and Coron in Palawan have given me a glimpse of what is down there. What joy to watch bright-colored fishes, turtles paddling by, corals in resplendent colors. And in Donsol, Sorsogon, to behold the giant creature of the deep, the butanding or whale shark, gliding before me.

Sedentary? You can watch documentaries on TV or the Internet. And if you can find them, the ones by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (she did the spellbinding Hitler docus) who, at 90, was the oldest scuba diver in the world.

The stricken minesweeper raises questions that have not been sufficiently answered. Why was it there when it was not supposed to be there? There were warnings, why did the crew not follow the reef rangers’ signals to stay away? I even thought, Oh, perhaps boyish curiosity got the better of the crew and they just wanted to take a look at the world-famous Tubbataha Reef and do a little diving?

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines said the USS Guardian might have damaged at least 10 meters of the reef. In 2005, the GreenPeace ship Rainbow Warrior also ran aground in Tubbataha Reef, damaging approximately 100 square meters, for which it paid a fine of about $7,000.

There are speculations that the USS Guardian’s straying that ended in destruction might have been a deliberate show of naval muscle in that area not far from the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which China is salivating over. Who knows? Sa kasamaang palad (Unfortunately)….

A little diplomatic handshaking, wine-sipping and some financial reparation might put this episode to rest, but marine conservationists and even political activists will not be easily mollified. Even ordinary citizens are aghast. It’s been a week now and the minesweeper is still sitting there, shifting positions and causing more damage.

An oil leak would be the worst nightmare but, thank God, it has been ruled out. But extricating that ship will not be a walk in the park and could inflict more damage to the reef, Tubbataha’s Nemos might tell you.

Now that Tubbataha is in the news once more, we might as well romance it again. Here are some facts culled from the Internet.

The Tubbataha National Marine Park is located in the Central Sulu Sea southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan. It is a marine sanctuary with a coral reef of enormous size. The park was established in 1988 with a given area of 332 square kilometers. In 2006, President Gloria Arroyo, through an executive order, increased the boundaries of the park by 200 percent. It is now 968.24 square kilometers in size and is guarded by armed rangers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in 1993, Tubbataha is under the protection of the Department of National Defense and under the technical supervision of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Tubbataha Reef is made up of two coral atolls divided by an 8-kilometer-wide channel. There are no permanent human inhabitants on the reefs, but fishermen who visit the area build temporary shelters on the islets. Tourists and divers visit Tubbataha around mid-March to mid-June. Visits are all vessel-based. The park is about 12 hours by boat from Puerto Princesa.

Tubbataha is considered the best dive site in the Philippines. The diving-dedicated ships that operate during the “Tubbataha season” are usually booked years in advance. It is said to be a favorite site of seasoned divers because of its coral walls where the shallow reef abruptly ends and descends to great depths. This sanctuary serves as home for a variety of sea creatures, among them, giant trevally (jacks), hammerhead sharks, barracudas, manta rays, palm-sized Moorish idols, napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, and moray eels. There have been reported sightings of whale sharks and tiger sharks in these parts. Tubbataha is also home to the endangered hawksbill sea turtles.


This diverse ecosystem boasts of 350 coral species and 500 fish species and rivals Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where Nemo was born.