The Jewel of the Coral Triangle

Posted on 08 June 2013

25 years after Tubbataha was awarded World Heritage Status by UNESCO, the site stands as a stunning example of how a marine protected area can handle illegal fishing, funding shortfalls and other challenges -- and inspire others.
Bursting through the vastness of the Sulu Sea, 160 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa in Palawan are the twin atolls of Tubbataha, spectacular worlds brimming with wealth both beneath and beyond the blue. Formed from the eruption of undersea volcanoes over 15 million years ago, Tubbataha for the Philippines is what the Serengeti is for Africa – an unmatched cradle of life. It is the undisputed jewel of the Coral Triangle.

A multi-awarded UNESCO World Heritage site which celebrates its 25th anniversary this 2013, the 97,030-hectare Natural Marine Park and no-take zone encompasses both atolls plus nearby Jessie Beazley reef.

It is a fish-lover’s dream, as over 600 types of fish – ranging from the fingernail-sized pygmy seahorse to the occasional truck-sized whale shark – patrol coral-coated slopes and dramatic drop-offs. Each dive reveals a treasure trove of finned jewels, distinguished by the way they swim. Adorned in gold and amber, butterflyfish strut like beauty queens. Sapphire damselfish dart about like little space ships. Ghostly silver batfish swim with creepiness, while grey reef sharks exude pure machismo.
The area also hosts 360 species of coral, 14 species of shark, 12 species of whale and dolphin, endangered green sea and hawksbill turtles plus over a hundred seabird species. All this biodiversity translates to unrivalled productivity,” explains WWF-Philippines Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager Marivel Dygico. “Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually yields up to 40 metric tonnes of seafood yearly, Tubbataha generates over 200. Though fishing within the park is not allowed, the larval dispersal effects continually seed the far reaches of the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.”

Above the blue yonder peek two tiny land masses spaced eight kilometers apart. North Atoll spans 12,435sq m and hosts over 200 trees, many shorn and pitted by ravenous red-footed boobies. The scrubby landscape rises no higher than two meters above the sea. South Atoll is much smaller, at 3140sq m. A meter-high concrete wall, cracked and pitted by the elements, forms a protective ring against erosion, while a solar-powered lighthouse erected in 1980 by the Philippine Coast Guard stands sentinel over all.

Recalls WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, “Over 30 years have passed since I first slipped into Tubbataha’s warm embrace. It gratifies me to see how well she is today. Tubbataha has faced many challenges – from illegal fishing boats and shell gatherers, from El Niño and Crown-of-Thorns Seastar (COTS) outbreaks, from a seaweed farm and several boats that ran aground, from financial challenges that the people of Palawan have somehow managed to overcome, time and time again. All this gives us hope to press on doggedly. And we will.”

Vermillion Sunset
© Gregg Yan
Tubbataha Surface
© Gregg Yan
The Jewel of the Coral Triangle
© Toppx2