TUBBATAHA WORLD HERITAGE SITE AND CERS ZHONGDIAN CENTER

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I watched the reef go by as it rose vertically 20 meters above me and dropped 90 meters below me into the blackness. Suddenly, I realized I was completely alone in the blue. The strong current had pulled me around a corner in the wall. I could no longer see my dive buddy or the rest of the team, and for a second, a wave of panic swept over me. It was big, big ocean for a tiny person to be alone in, 30 meters below the surface of the sea.

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The currents at Tubbataha were strong and it was easy to get swept ahead of the group if they stopped to check out something along the wall. And there was plenty to stop for – a White-tipped Reef Shark or an enormous Marble Stingray resting on a ledge, a parade of young Grey Reef Sharks, a Green Turtle swimming along the top of the wall, a school of cobalt blue Yellow-tailed Trevally or Pyramidal Butterflyfish descending the wall head first.

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As the other divers came into view around the corner, I relaxed and again enjoyed the experience of drifting along the wall of Tubbataha. I was so glad to be out again in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. I had already spent a week aboard the HM Explorer 2, with Howman and CERS Philippines Project Manager Joceline Condesa in the lead, exploring remote islands that lie far east of Palawan – Cagayan Cillo and Cavili. We returned to port together, but after the CERS team had all left for Hong Kong, I made the long crossing again to visit Tubbataha Reefs National Park. This time I was aboard the M/Y Sakura, a live-aboard trimaran equipped for a dozen scuba divers. My mates included a gas well engineer from Australia, two IT engineers from Switzerland, a marketing executive from Shanghai, two Canadian interns studying environmental science, and three Canadian English teachers on vacation from their jobs at an international school in Abu Dabi. The only thing we all shared in common was an Advanced Open-Water scuba certification and a passion for the life of the coral reefs. We dove 15 dives together, most of them to 30 meters depth, several of them at dusk or at night, and all of them drifting along “the wall,” Tubbataha’s most important feature. Above the waves, there was little to see here; just a small sand spit with a few gnarled trees used by roosting boobies and frigate birds. Looking down, the dim outlines of the coral flats that fringe two huge lagoons could be seen.

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It was the wall that lay outside and below these atolls and its untrammeled reef life that had made Tubbataha a world famous destination for scuba divers. Dropping over 100 meters nearly vertically from the reef flats above, the wall supported an explosion of life with a diversity nearly unmatched anywhere else on earth1. Huge sea fans and enormous barrel sponges stretched out horizontally from its surface. Enormous schools of trevally, Pyramidal Butterflyfish, and Pink-tailed Triggerfish swam along with their bellies hugging the face of the wall and their dorsal fins pointing out vertically as if gravity was irrelevant. It was disorienting, as if the entire scene had been shifted by 90 degrees, and indeed, I almost shifted some of my pictures when I first saw them, thinking for a moment that I had taken them on the reef flats above.

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Despite an unseasonable low pressure weather system that had brought high winds, big waves and low visibility, it was still a fantastic experience. It was quite different from the snorkeling I had done on the surface with the CERS team at Cavili Island, about 100 kilometers to the northeast of Tubbataha. At Cavili, where CERS has begun working with the local community, the fringing reef surrounds a small island with about 600 inhabitants, who grow seaweed and fish for a living. The reef there was also colorful and diverse, but the species were different. Among the most common species were Spot-tailed, Vagabond and Red- finned Butterflyfish and Lined Bristletooth Surgeonfish. Because fishing is allowed at Cavili, there were few large fish, although I did see a colorful Coronation Garoupa and a Longfin Garoupa and, dimly in the distance, what looked like a Giant Garoupa.

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The reef at Cavili also showed the unmistakable signs of damage from anchors and anchor ropes, and perhaps from dynamite fishing in the past. Yet Cavili had one great advantage for visitors – a freshwater spring on the island that gushed sweet clear water. I could happily spend hours snorkeling on Cavili’s reef flats and free diving its drop-off, and I did when the CERS team went to the island to interview the villagers. It was a joy to float among the corals and fish without the heavy scuba equipment, and without safety issues heavy on my mind. As exciting as Tubbataha was, I came away with even more appreciation for the more relaxed and intimate charms of Cavili.

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Four days later, and I find myself in Zhong Dian on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, a place that could hardly be more different from 30 meters underwater in the Sulu Sea. As the plane landed this morning, I could see the snow still accumulated on the tops of the mountains surrounding the valley. The flight attendant announced that the temperature was 3 degrees C above freezing, a far cry from the 33 degrees that I left behind in Tubbataha.

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But these two places share some key things in common. Both are recognized as World Heritage Natural Sites, registered with the UNESCO commission because of their outstanding universal value for biodiversity and demonstration of evolutionary processes. And both are under threat by dangers generated far beyond their borders. The impacts of anthropogenic global climate change have already been felt at both sites, changing the timing of the seasons and spawning a series of record-breaking high temperatures. Just last week the headlines reported that record sea temperatures had caused devastating coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef for the second year in a row. The trip to Tubbataha and Cavili increased my commitment to help protect these sites and to fight the climate deniers and hucksters who are trying to protect fossilized industries by obscuring inconvenient truths with “alternative facts” and misguided faith. The reefs of the Sulu Sea and the mountain forests of Shangri-la are too precious to give up without a fight.