Mishap Imperils Tubbataha Reef

Scuba diver poses behind giant sea fan. Tubbataha’s dramatic atolls are coated by all manner of marine life, including multihued hard and soft corals, sponges and sea fans. Though many are relatively fast-growing, some coral species take centuries to grow. (Photo by Toppx2)

PALAWAN–Bursting through the vastness of the Sulu Sea 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.

A multi-awarded UNESCO World Heritage site, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the 97,000-hectare Natural Marine Park encompasses two atolls plus nearby Jessie Beazley Reef. Tubbataha earned its moniker from visiting Samal tribesmen, who called it “long reef” after the exposed coral formations revealed by the daily vicissitudes of the tide.

The 1,300-ton Avenger-class minesweeper is still stuck on the coral reef, its wood-and-fiberglass hull breached and taking a pounding from ten-foot waves.

Life brims beneath both atolls, where over 600 species of fish, ranging from the fingernail-sized Bicolor Blenny (Ecsenius bicolor) to the ferocious Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), patrol coral-coated slopes and dramatic drop-offs adorned by enormous sea fans.

Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef yields up to 40 metric tons of seafood yearly, Tubbataha generates over 200. Spillover effects continually seed the far reaches of the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.  

Above the blue peek two land masses. Tubbataha North Islet or Bird Isle spans 12,435 square meters and hosts over 200 trees, many shorn and pitted by seabirds. The scrubby landscape rises no higher than two meters above the sea.

Black noddies (Anous minutus sub. worcestri) keep their eggs warm on Parola. Only 8,000-strong, they are considered a critically endangered species. It is hoped that the grounding incident will not affect breeding patterns. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Parola or South Islet is much smaller, at 3,140 square meters. A meter-high concrete wall, well weathered 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. About 120 trees dot the grassy landscape. East of the lighthouse lies the rusting hulk of the Del San, an old log carrier. 

Both atolls form rookeries or breeding sites for six species of seabirds, including the critically endangered Philippine subspecies of the black noddy (Anous minutus sub. worcestri), fewer than 8,000 of which survive.

Map of actual grounding site of USS Guardian at Tubbataha Reef (Photo courtesy of WWF-Philippines)


Last January 17, the USS Guardian, a 68-meter long U.S. Navy warship, entered Tubbataha without proper park clearance, and accidentally ploughed into the northwestern portion of Parola or South Islet. Though its 79-man detail has been evacuated, the 1,300-ton Avenger-class minesweeper is still stuck on the reef, its wood-and-fiberglass hull breached and taking a pounding from ten-foot waves brought in by the amihan–the bitter northeasterly winds from Siberia. 

A composite team from the U.S. Navy, Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard are now braving violent currents and swells to remove 15,000 gallons of fuel from the stricken ship. If successful, marine engineers will attempt to drain and refloat the craft using a crane vessel, a ship specializing in lifting heavy loads. 

The grounding of the USS Guardian is but the latest in a long line of scrapes between ships and reefs. On February 5, 2009, the USS Port Royal, a guided missile cruiser, ran aground less than a kilometer from the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii, destroying about 890 square meters of coral reef.

Bird Islet or North Islet is one of Tubbataha’s two atoll-islets. The larger of the two islands, it is home to over 20,000 breeding seabirds, most hunting by day and returning to the island at night to roost. It is also a nesting site for green sea turtles. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

After much media furor, the U.S. Navy promised to pay the State of Hawaii $8.5 million to settle claims over coral reef damage, plus another $6.5 million for reef restoration, including the reattachment of 5,400 coral colonies to expedite regrowth. The total assistance provided by the U.S. Navy amounted to $15 million, about P610 million. 

According to preliminary surveys, the area damaged by the USS Guardian spans at least 1,600 square meters, almost twice the area flattened by the USS Port Royal in Hawaii in 2009.

Tubbataha Reefs Park Superintendent Angelique Songco says that under Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, a fine of about $600 or P24,000 per square meter is mandatory, half for actual damage and half for rehabilitation efforts. Songco says the Philippines is not planning to ask the U.S. government more than $600,000 or P24 million, a miniscule amount compared with the $15 million or P600 million paid by the U.S. Navy for its 2009 grounding incident.

Parola or South Islet has heavier vegetation than its big brother. Up to 8,000 black noddies plus an assortment of other birds inhabit the island. It was here that the USS Guardian ran aground, reportedly due to faulty navigational equipment. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Clear parallelisms between the USS Guardian and the USS Port Royal can be made. In the case of the Port Royal, the U.S. Navy did the right thing by working cooperatively to fund the restoration and continued protection of the damaged reef.

Once the ship is extricated, it is hoped that the same respect accorded by the United States to the people of Hawaii be given to Filipinos. For even though corals and fish shall one day return to the stricken site, the scars inflicted by the USS Guardian will take years to heal. 

Author Gregg Yan  (Courtesy of Ruel Pine)

Author Gregg Yan (Courtesy of Ruel Pine)

Gregg Yan took up journalism from the Ateneo de Manila and has written loads of stories on the environment. Through the years, he has been chased by charging elephants, marauding tamaraw and a very large tiger shark. His goal is to convince people that going green makes lives much, much better. For more info, log on to greggyan.multiply.com or add him up on Facebook.