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Out in the Blue: Tubbataha Reefs, Sulu Sea

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The sting

Expedition writer Alya Honasan (middle) with the Freund FactoryExpedition writer Alya Honasan (middle) with the Freund Factory

It’s been over a week since I got back from the first leg of the WWF Coral Triangle Initiative Photographic Expedition of J�rgen and Stella Freund to Tubbataha in the Sulu Sea, but it took a while to type out the tale.

Indecently healthy crown of thorns starfishIndecently healthy crown of thorns starfish

You see, I was a casualty of war – that is, the war Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Manager Angelique Songco and her troop of dedicated marine park rangers waged for a couple of days on the�crown of thorns (COT) starfish (Acanthaster planci) infesting the reef! (see “Reef Mother” story).

I’ve gathered COT before, but they were no way near the size of these overfed mutants gorging on Tubbataha’s lush coral gardens. COTs are great outlets for aggression, the underwater equivalents of punching bags – except that they fight back.

I got stung on three fingers after I (foolishly) tried to keep up with Angelique and the rangers by impaling more than the prudent number of victims on a hooked metal rod; once they’re out of the water, it’s like trying to foist a shotput into the basket!

This, after Angelique had shown me how to gently insert your hook under the thing and puncture it without literally spilling any guts, much less severing a leg, as the evil things can regenerate. “That’s how you can tell a sensei from a disciple” she said with a laugh. “When the COT still looks perfect!” Well, this disciple has miles to go.

The swelling in my digits has subsided, but as Angelique warned, I was dreaming of malevolent, sneering COTs for days after. Best First Aid tip: dip the stings IMMEDIATELY in hot water – not warm, not tepid, but hot-enough-to-dunk-your-teabag-in water. Good luck.

In the middle of nowhere

Life on the ranger station, a 12-by-15 meter dome-roofed box on stilts on the edge of Tubbataha’s North Atoll, is not easy for a the average person. Diving season, during the Philippine summer months of about February to June (unless the increasingly unpredictable climate throws in some rain earlier – like this year, for instance), is more tolerable, with the reefs more accessible, and visitors and supplies coming in a pleasantly steady stream.

Come the habagat or southwest monsoon winds of the wet season, however, Tubbataha becomes a very lonely place for marine rangers on three-month tours of duty. “That’s why keeping their morale high is very important,” says Angelique.

The station runs on generator power (there are plans to shift to solar power soon) for just a few hours each day, and there’s no running water. Other than fresh water supplies brought in with each new shift, a cistern collects abundant rainwater for their needs, while seawater is used for general cleaning.

Ranger Secille with dinner.Ranger Secille with dinner.

Food is also brought in, but after supplies run low, the rangers are allowed to catch fish for their dinner, and they grow vegetables in small plots outside the station. Although the men share double-decker bunks, like in most barracks, there’s really no such thing as a quiet night, as I soon learned.

Karaoke Night!Karaoke Night!

The radio is on 24/7, as every boat that docks in the area has to advice the station, and there are regular night-time patrols to guard against illegal fishermen gathering endangered conch shells. Then, there’s the all-time favorite pastime of karaoke singing way into the night.

Trust me, it’s twice as loud amidst the silence of Tubbataha, with only the wind and the waves humming along, but hey: these guys are guarding my country’s underwater national treasure. They can sing all they want.

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