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This paradise called Tubbataha


The Dutch Ambassador to Manila journeys to a World Heritage site, which is more than just a diving site

TUBBATAHA, Philippines—Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, one of the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Philippines and the only pure marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia, lies smack in the middle of the crystal clear waters of the Sulu Sea.

Dutch Ambassador Brinks
on a bird islet in Tubbataha
(Photo by Melvyn Calderon - SPARK Images)

Most of us know it as a unique paradise for divers. But it has more to offer: it contains two small islets situated on the rim of atolls. The South Islet measures less than 3000 sq. m., not more than half the size of a soccer field, and the North Islet measures some 10.000 sq. m., both of which represent one of the last intact habitats in the Philippines for seabird breeding colonies.

Summer is the only time in the year when outsiders are allowed on the vulnerable islets, and I seized with both hands the rare opportunity offered by Lori Tan, president of the World Wildlife Fund-Philippines (WWF), and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), to visit the islets and participate in the annual bird count, together with enthusiastic rangers of the Park.

From Puerto Princesa, we sailed on the evening of May 11 on board the sturdy M.Y. Navorca owned by WWF-Philippines, with the trip lasting some ten hours. We arrived by daybreak at the modest Rangers Station built on concrete pylons in the middle of the Park, to which all authorized vessels visiting the Tubbataha Reefs have to report. We were introduced to a group of 12 cheerful rangers who were seconded on a three-month rotation by the National Police, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the Cagayancillo LGU and the Tubataha Management Office itself.

To keep in touch with the outside world, the Rangers Station has modern radio communication facilities, radar and a TV-satellite dish with which—fortunately for the rangers—Manny Pacquiao’s triumph over Shane Mosley could be followed while we were there. They even tend a small “garden” from which they get some vegetables and herbs. During most of the year sufficient amounts of drinking water is cleverly collected in tanks by channeling rainwater falling on the dome of the station.

The rangers make sure that visitors to the Park observe rules, such as anchoring at designated mooring buoys. But they also visit at least once a week the North and South Islets to check on their habitats and their natural resources, whether under or above sea level.

Sticking no more than two meters above sea level, the islets form the only known breeding area in the world of the Philippine Black Noddy, a dark elegant type of seabird of which not more than 7000 remain in the world. This beautiful seabird used to breed on Cavili Island until 25 years ago.

Laborious count

Each year around the second week of May, when the Sulu Sea is relatively calm, rangers of the TMO based in Puerto Princesa and the WWF conduct a laborious count of all the seabirds on the two islets, including their nests and eggs. Imagine trying to count some 30,000 birds (there are 5-6 different breeding species) while they are flying around, moving on branches or in bushes, or sitting on ground nests—all the time producing a cacophony of noise.

Why go through all the trouble of counting seabirds?

Seabirds are considered good biological indicators of the well-being of our seas. Because of disturbances in the past, such as the collection of eggs (not only turtle eggs!) or the intrusion by man of fragile breeding habitats, seabird populations all over the world have shown significant declines.

Particularly on islands where humans have introduced dogs, cats or inadvertently rats, ground-breeding seabirds are at times almost wiped out, as what happened a long time ago on Ascension Island where the numbers of birds fell from more than 15 million to less than 500,000 and which is now happening on some of the fragile Galapagos Islands, equally a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The reduction in size of the islets as a result of erosion or other factors may also contribute to the fall in their numbers. A century ago, the Tubbataha North Islet measured some 60,000 sq. m.; nowadays it measures only 10,000 sq. m.

To draw up conservation management strategies that would maintain and increase populations of seabirds, it is vital to regularly obtain reliable science-based data on the numbers of breeding seabirds for each species, the numbers of nests, the numbers of eggs or chicks in each nest, mortality rates and the number of remaining trees, on which two of the six seabird species breed. The size of each of the two Tubbataha Islets is also measured annually using GPS.

Meet the Boobies

A flock of birds at the
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
(Photo by Melvyn Calderon - SPARK Images)

After helping prepare our shelter at a far end of the North Islet, so as not to disturb the breeding seabirds, I was assigned together with another volunteer, the ever high-spirited Anton Carag, the task of systematically counting everything having to do with the Red-footed Booby.

The bad-smelling guano of this tree-breeding seabird is apparently responsible for the gradual destruction of the few remaining trees on which the other tree breeding seabird, the rare Filipino Black Noddy is equally dependent. While Anton and I gingerly entered the scrubs and dead trees, counting and recounting Boobies (sorry, not my choice of word), another team, consisting of two experienced rangers, double-checked our total counts for adult birds, fluffy chicks, eggs and nests.

I was really relieved to find out after a hard day’s work that our numbers were in line with those of the rangers!

I felt equally at ease by not having stepped on eggs of the ground-breeding seabirds scattered everywhere on the ground in large quantities. Some of these birds didn’t even seem to bother building anything resembling a nest. Other birds had very visible nests because of the colorful pieces of plastics washed on the shoreline and used as nesting materiel. I lost count of the number of toothbrushes and cigarette lighters used to build nests on the ground.

While the TMO teams, under the sharp eye of the impressively disciplined acting Park manager Doc Terry Aquino, were each carrying out their specific assignments, the well-known Philippine-based Danish ornithologist Arne Jensen assisted where he thought it was necessary or when asked. He has been involved with the annual Tubbataha bird survey for more than ten years.

At the end of the two-day survey the unofficial grand total of all birds on both islets (at least 25,000) seemed to satisfy both Arne Jensen and the TMO, since that appeared to broadly match the grand total of last year, which was a good year.

Obviously our spirits reached high levels, not least helped by the occasional Tanduay after work.

Sunsets and stars

Birds in flight at an islet in the
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
(Photo by Melvyn Calderon - SPARK Images)

We didn’t leave the Tubbataha Reef Park without enjoying the spectacular sunsets and impressive starlit nights, which you can only come across in the tropics. The short bursts of soaking, cold downpours or the scorching heat of the sun and white sands are a different story.

But turtles, in large numbers, passing by just a few meters from the shore line in shallow waters, or coming ashore to lay eggs, the occasional manta ray and the lonely Tiger Shark patrolling the shallow lagoon made up for any inconvenience.

An hour before we packed our gear to return to the mother ship Navorca, Arne Jensen pointed out to me a lonely Christmas Island Frigatebird, a critically endangered large seabird, which only breeds on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. The total world population of this bird is in the range of 2,000. This rare sighting was one of the many events that made my day. Unfortunately this seabird often gets hooked by trailing fishing lines and dies a horrible death.

Strike a balance

The enthusiasm of the park rangers and the devotion to their work knows no limits. I will remember Segundo Conales, Julius Parcon, Glenn Redondo, Mark Dagsa, Roy Magbanua, Dennis Favila and Noel Ballena, as well as WWF project manager Marivel Dygico and her staff. Each of the crewmembers of Navorca, not least the cook (!), demonstrated first-class qualities.

Lori Tan can be proud of his team. He has told me that he is contemplating organizing sustainable bird watching tours to the Tubbataha Reef Islets, thus broadening the base for park income.

While isolation of the breeding habitats of the seabirds seems to have been the best protection for the seabirds of the Natural Park over the past decade or more, the need to strike a delicate balance between protection and possible bird tourism in these fragile habitats is also abundantly clear to Lori.

As if our trip to the Reef was not enough, upon return to Puerto Princesa, a delightful and clean town efficiently run by my good friend and environment champion Mayor Ed Hagedorn, we were treated to dolphin-watching.

For a short time we got to see sizeable numbers of Spinner Dolphins, which by spinning in air or water not only did justice to their name, but also thrilled us all when they rode the bow wave of Navorca.

The people of the Philippines can be proud of the natural wealth they can offer. Keep up the good conservation job of the wonderful Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park!

(The author is the Dutch ambassador to Manila and is a member of the Wild Bird Club Philippines. Photographer Melvyn Calderon used a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and 5D Mark II in this shoot.)