TEAM BLOG : Geoffrey Muldoon - Experiencing the magic of Tubbataha for my children



Posted on 09 June 2013  | 
Geoffrey Muldoon
© Geoffrey MuldoonEnlarge
By Geoffrey Muldoon, WWF Coral Triangle Strategy Leader

For many outsiders, a career in conservation is considered exotic and indeed, many of my colleagues are fortunate to spend a significant part of their career working in, or on, memorable and remarkable places.

I love working on seafood sustainability but the irony is that as a general rule, I’m a landlubber more likely to be hunkered down in an office or meeting room than immersed in the places we so ardently strive to protect.

But last week was different.

I spent three star-filled nights and two vibrant days exploring Tubbataha Reef, an offshore pair of reefs found at the very center of the Sulu Sea, 130 km away from the nearest land – a place to indulge my lifelong passion with ocean and the creatures that live within.

For the uninitiated, the World Heritage-listed Tubbataha is a “Jewel in the Crown” of the Philippines’ extensive coral reef ecosystems. It is a zoo without cages, and within its roughly 100 km2 of reef, you will find more than half the world’s coral species, marine mammals, sharks and rays, green and hawksbill turtles and of course fish – a smorgasbord of fish, almost 500 species to choose from, from angelfish and damsels to barracuda and fully mature humphead wrasses and everything in between.

Vicarious consumption

My consumption was predominantly vicarious. The idea of vicarious consumption was coined by Austrian economist Thorstein Veblen in the late 1800s, with the basic idea being that something can be experienced through the feelings or actions of another. I have two young sons aged six and eight, who love the ocean but could care less about Veblen. As growing boys, their consumptive needs are mostly food oriented and unless prompted, they’re fairly self-absorbed. Diving Tubbataha was not just an indulgence for me but an opportunity, and responsibility, to experience one of the most amazing marine environments and then share with them the wonder and magic of this special place—conservation 101 if you will.

The journey to Tubbataha began in Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital of Palawan, aboard the MV Navorca. The Navorca is WWF-Philippines’ research vessel and a regular visitor to the atolls at this time of the year.

To paraphrase, Marivel Dygico, Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager, “she’s a modest vessel,” but she’s home to a crew of seven and she exudes a warm and stress-free feel absent from many other vessels I’ve been on. As she steamed out of the harbour, we all gathered on the top deck under a full moon for a nightcap.

Although as a team we come together only once a year, the mood was relaxed and easy. As everyone swapped stories and reminisced, I was struck by how fortunate I was to have fallen in with this group of colleagues more than five years ago. After a few more beers and many more laughs, I retired below and despite the throbbing engines, drifted off into a deep, contented sleep expectant of what tomorrow would bring.

Tasting the richness of Tubbataha

As dawn broke over the Sulu Sea, we were still more than an hour from our destination. Time for a hearty breakfast and some contemplative moments before a familiar scene was played out–me searching frantically for my mask, fins, and weight belt while my well-organized colleagues watched bemusedly and waited for me to join them in the dive boat, generously supplied by the rangers of Tubbataha.

As we motored to our first dive site, Goog, our dive master, laid out the dive plan. Circumstances don’t afford me many opportunities to dive, so I was nervous. But when I heard Goog’s instructions that 30m was our maximum depth, I must admit to becoming a little more edgy. While I have always felt at home in the water, it had been a long while since I’d dived to these depths. But all that trepidation disappeared once I entered that underwater playground.

If I wasn’t hungry before, what lay before me made me ravenous, and I realized quickly, Tubbataha is not a place you consume–it’s a place you devour. Like most of our dives, we descended steep walls, which we followed at depths from 20-30 m gazing on imposing fan corals, vividly coloured reef fish, triggerfish, schooling damselfish and red snappers, while below us and out into the depths we spied sharks, large groupers and trevally, before gradually ascending onto the reef flats, which were no less exhilarating in terms of the diversity of marine life laid out before us.

Of course, there were tradeoffs. The extravagant underwater menagerie we took in each morning was tempered by afternoons and evenings of hard work and honest introspection. But it is the interactions with nature, not my colleagues that have been implanted in my imagination—it is these images that I will share with my children.

Spellbound

The one experience in particular that I treasure most comes not from the dives but from the one free dive I had on the site where the USS Guardian had run aground five months prior to our visit. And it was by no means the damage inflicted that captured my imagination (although running a hand along the surfaces of coral ground made marble-smooth by the hull of this 250ft long minesweeper was eerie). Instead, it was amazing personal experiences that held me spellbound to the point where I almost forgot the need to surface to breathe.

I will never forget swimming parallel along the reef edge at a depth of about 10m, gazing out into the turquoise water at a large green turtle, as it glided languidly alongside me, before veering away and eventually becoming just a silhouette in the blue waters.

Through my children’s eyes

When I tell my sons of my turtle experience, it will be as big and as old as “Crush” (from Finding Nemo). And with what I hope elicits that same Nemo-like amazement, I will tell them of swimming with grey reef sharks, of marveling at the agility of spinner dolphins as they showed off alongside the bow of the Navorca, and looking deep into the inquisitive eyes of a docile adult humphead wrasse.

Tubbataha is 25 years old this year. It is the most amazing place I’ve ever dived. Today, I am vicariously and selfishly willing my sons to experience it through my eyes but in 25 years from now, as Tubbataha celebrates 50 years of existence, I hope even more that my sons will get the chance to experience this place and others like it for themselves–and then I will hang on their every word, experiencing their underwater adventures…vicariously.
Geoffrey Muldoon
© Geoffrey Muldoon Enlarge
Geoffrey's sons Conor & Declan
© Geoffrey Muldoon Enlarge

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