A national treasure gets its due

Posted on 10 February 2017

The Philippines’ Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is featured in a new photo book by long-time divers, with profits from book sales supporting the conservation of the World Heritage reefs.
When Teresa “Tet” Lara first dove in Tubbataha 20 years ago, she couldn’t believe how fantastic the experience was, despite the fact that their liveaboard boat actually broke down and had to be towed back to the Palawan mainland. Together with her friend and constant dive buddy, cinematographer Marissa Floirendo, Lara has been diving the reefs almost every year since then, accumulating a considerable number of photographs over the years.

“We decided to come up with a book on Tubbataha because it was long overdue,” says Floirendo, who published the book through the Antonio O. Floirendo Foundation. Tales from Tubbataha, written by marine biologist Allan White and Yasmin Arquiza and published in 1994, had long been the one and only book on Tubbataha, and was mainly an expository report on the premiere Philippine dive site and spawning area. “We wanted to do a photo book with contributions from academicians, and we also wanted to acknowledge the people behind the scenes responsible for helping make the park what it is today.”

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) is 97,030 hectares of marine protected area in the Sulu Sea, southern Philippines, home to the ocean’s most charismatic and beautiful marine species. It was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, the only such purely marine site in Southeast Asia, in 1993. In 2006, WWF-Philippines came out with a detailed case study on the area, Tubbataha: A Marine Protected Area That Works. WWF-Philippines had been instrumental in helping establish the reefs as a protected area in 1988.

Full-color photographs

The hardcover book, Tubbataha: A National Treasure, was launched last November, and features 268 pages and over 200 full-color photographs by Lara. The book was designed by Felix Mago Miguel and includes text by Filipino writer and avid diver Alya B. Honasan, who also gathered and edited the seven essays contributed by Filipino scientists and conservation workers involved in the conservation of Tubbataha. These include coral experts and marine biologists Dr. Al Licuanan and Dr. Perry Aliño, conservation worker and wildlife authority Dr. Teri Aquino, fisheries specialist Dr. Hazel Arceo, and ornithologist Arne Jensen. Journalist and conservation worker Yasmin Arquiza, author of Tales from Tubbataha, contributed a piece, along with TRNP’s Protected Area Superintendent Angelique Songco, who also served as the book’s editorial consultant. National Geographic photographer David Doubilet wrote the Foreword.

“Diving in Tubbataha never fails to amaze me,” recounts Lara of the experience of taking the photographs. “It is different every dive; every season always has its highlights. The reef is very colorful and vibrant, the variety of schooling and patrolling fish enough to compose a good photograph. The animals that live in Tubbataha are wild and shy, though, so to visit, you must have a lot of patience—or luck—for them to come close, and capture the beauty. Whether it’s wide-angle or a macro set-up camera, Tubbataha has a lot to offer.”

Floirendo felt the urgency to document the place to underscore its value, especially for younger generations and people who do not fully realize its significance beyond being a dive tourism destination. “Tubbataha is a complicated reef system and bird rookery that sits at the center of the Sulu Sea. It is the great nursery, which distributes coral and fish larvae to the neighboring reef.”

Spending a fair amount of time diving in Tubbataha, Floirendo and Lara have seen how fragile the ecosystem can be, having seen many sites destroyed, and then recover from destructive fishing through the years. “Showing the current state of the reef can serve as a benchmark for other reefs in the area. We also needed to prove that research and scientific data contribute to proper management, which in turn helps keep the park protected for present and future generations. Hopefully, this will make people realize how important it is to save and protect Tubbataha.” Profits from the book’s sale will also support the conservation of the reefs.

“Many people do not have a chance to visit Tubbataha,” noted TRNP’s moving force and superintendent Songco in a press statement. “Marissa and Tet bring Tubbataha to them through this book. It shows how lucky we are as a nation to have been given this treasure, and how great is our responsibility to the world to care for it for the rest of humankind.”

Check out the Facebook page of Tubbataha: A National Treasure, or email tubbatahanationaltreasure@gmail.com.
Tubbataha: A National Treasure
© Tet Lara from the book "Tubbataha: A National Treasure"
Hawksbill Turtle, Shark Airport, North Atoll
© Tet Lara from the book "Tubbataha: A National Treasure"
Reef Manta with diver, Washing Machine, North Atoll
© Tet Lara from the book "Tubbataha: A National Treasure"
Golden Damselfish on Coral, Jessie Beazley Reef
© Tet Lara from the book "Tubbataha: A National Treasure"