Secret Surgeons of a Wounded Reef

This massive shoal of anthias and damselfish moves as one. A closer look reveals how each individual fish had an assigned space from which it hunts plankton. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Looks like a scene from “The Matrix,” I muse while fighting the notorious Tubbataha Reef current, which is trying its best to peel our fish-counting team off a coral-covered wall into open water, where hungry hammerheads lie waiting.

Around us, forming a dense cloud of colored confetti above jagged heads of staghorn coral, is a massive, pulsating shoal of anthias and damselfish. Easily 10,000-strong, the colored mass seemingly swims and feeds as one, a la the squid-like sentinel swarms in “The Matrix.” The fish are obviously having no trouble with the current. 

Having spent the last two hours counting fish, Tubbataha Marine Park Rangers Segundo “Seconds” Conales, Manny Bundal, Jeffrey David and I are now struggling 30 feet below the sunlit waters of Tubbataha South Atoll, trying to retrieve 100-meter transect lines used as guides to count not just fish, but also invertebrates, substrate types and reef damage as well. 

By the time the Chinese vessel was towed out 11 days later, 3,902 sq. meters of reef had been obliterated.

Though conducted annually, this year’s research expedition is way out of the ordinary for not one, but two large ships, ran aground the famed reef’s coral-coated atolls. Led by renowned coral scientist Dr. Al Licuanan, divers from the Tubbataha Management Office, Department of Science and Technology, World Wide Fund for Nature, University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute and De La Salle University have already witnessed firsthand the effects of ship groundings on one of Earth’s richest marine biodiversity bastions.

All week I’ve been haunted by images of crushed coral, pulverized to grit. I’ve been trying to envision how the scars can heal, but I’m totally stumped. Transformed into graveyards of broken coral and bare rock, the grounding sites hosted only surgeonfish–drab-hued reef residents, easily eclipsed by the reef’s shinier stars. 

We wait and fight on as the current gets stronger. 

Bursting forth from the emptiness of the Sulu Sea are the twin atolls of Tubbataha. Nowhere in the Philippines can divers and scientists alike encounter such incredible levels of marine life. (Photo by Lory Tan)

The Cradle Of Life

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. 

“Tubbataha earned its moniker from visiting Samal tribesmen, who called it ‘long reef’ after the exposed coral formations revealed daily by the tide,” explains WWF Tubbataha Project Manager Marivel Dygico. “It is accessible via a 12-hour live-aboard cruise from Puerto Princesa City, though strong waves confine recreational diving to the months of April, May and June.” 

It is a fish-lover’s wet dream, as over 600 types of fish–ranging from the fingernail-size pygmy seahorse to the occasional truck-size 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. Trailing sweetlips follow us with schoolboy curiosity. Ghostly silver batfish swim with creepiness, while grey reef sharks exude pure awesomeness.

Ever-present in Tubbataha, enormous shoals of convict surgeonfish (Acanthurus triostegus) scour reefs for algae, a sign of high nutrient levels. Contrary to popular belief, all healthy coral reefs are nutrient-poor. (Photo by Toppx2)

“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,” adds Dygico.

All this biodiversity translates to unrivalled productivity. Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef yields up to 40 metric tons 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 12,435 square meters 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 3,140 square meters. 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. 

Sadly, both atolls bear back-to-back bruises from ship groundings this year.  

A Tale Of Two Ships

On 17 January 2013, the USS Guardian, a 68-meter long U.S. Navy warship, entered Tubbataha without proper clearance and accidentally ploughed into the north-western portion of South Atoll. Though its 79-man detail was swiftly evacuated, it took 73 excruciating days and $45 million to slice and remove the 1,300-ton Avenger-class minesweeper from the reef. When the silt settled, Tubbataha South Atoll was 2,345-square-meters of reef poorer. 

Filipino coral scientist Dr. Al Licuanan from De La Salle University explains the day’s itinerary. Licuanan led the 14 divers who participated in the Tubbataha 2013 coral and fish assessment, an annual initiative spearheaded by the Tubbataha Management Office. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Just eight days after the American warship was extracted, another vessel followed suit. On April 8, 2013, Tubbataha Park Rangers discovered the F/V Min Long Yu, a 48-meter long Chinese poaching vessel, floundering a nautical mile east of the Ranger Station, part of Tubbataha North Atoll. Though smaller than the wood-and-fibreglass hulled USS Guardian, the Chinese vessel was steel-hulled. This, plus the fact that the craft kept bucking up, down and sideways, proved deadly to the reef. By the time the craft was towed out 11 days later, 3,902 square  meters of reef had been obliterated, with some massive 500-year old porites corals sheared cleanly in half. 

Our team spend days investigating both sites. Though the reef damage is shocking, worse is to come. Adding insult to injury, 2,870 endangered pangolin carcasses were found aboard the Chinese vessel’s holds. Though internationally protected, poachers still hunt the harmless mammals for their meat and scales to fuel the traditional East Asian medicine trade. Advocates the world over are up in arms to claim compensation for the groundings. 

Secret Surgeons

Back in South Atoll, drab squads of surgeonfish whiz by as Seconds secures the last transect. Suddenly, the striped fish start to, well, shimmer. Dumbfounded, I soon remember what Tubbataha Park Superintendent Angelique Songco told us before our dive. “When the tide shifts, hot water from the lagoon mixes with cold water from the depths. The effect makes the water glimmer.”

Leaving a trail of destruction, the FV Min Long Yu, 48-meter Chinese poaching vessel, obliterated 3,902 sq. meter of once-pristine reef in Tubbataha’s North Atoll. The main grounding scar shown here has been termed ‘The Highway of Death.’ If successfully colonized by algae, coral recruits will have a difficult time resettling. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Painted in a whole new light by this eerie phenomenon, I realize that these secretive surgeonfish are far more than drab reef denizens. Perpetually pecking and grazing, forever ignored because of their dull colors, these unassuming fish are the secret to Tubbataha’s recovery. After visiting the grounding site of the USS Guardian the day before, Dr. Licuanan explained his theory of reef regeneration. “The key to it all might be surgeonfish. Their constant grazing keeps algae from taking over the freshly exposed rock. It is because of them that coral larvae will be allowed to resettle on the grounding scars.”

Named for the scalpel-like extensions by their tails, these valuable reef denizens are–like real-life surgeons– experts at bringing things to life. 

The fish count done, we begin our ascent, leaving Tubbataha in the hopeful hands of these little doctors. And though lackluster in color, they to me shine brighter than any of the reef’s other jewels.


Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns. For more information, add him up on Facebook at