A hundred miles off the coast of Palawan, in the middle of the Sulu Sea, marine park ranger Segundo Conales sits in a kubo, drinking 3-in-1 coffee.
“In October, we caught a big fishing vessel. It had travelled here from Iloilo,” he tells me in Ilonggo, a language as soothing as his smile, which reaches up to his eyes and makes his whole face glow. For the past 23 years Seg has kept watch over a sprawling underwater world known as Tubbataha. A life spent in the blues of sea and sky has left him with a disposition as golden and smooth as his skin.
“We saw them right when they were about to throw the dynamite in. So we stopped them, took pictures and evidence, including their illegal catch, and brought them back to the station.”
Home to 360 or nearly half of the coral species in the world, 600 species of fish, 23 sharks and rays, 13 dolphins and whales, 100 kinds of birds, and last but not least hawksbill and green sea turtles, Tubbataha is the Philippines’ only true coral atoll, which is a coral reef that forms around the sunken mouth of an extinct volcano. It’s also one of the oldest and biggest marine sanctuary in the Philippines.
White and domed, the ranger station sits on stilts over a sliver of white sand, surrounded by shallow aquamarine water. Everywhere you look, turtles are floating lazily, grazing on seagrass. Green turtles, Seg says—the juveniles like to hang around here, gaining strength for the long, lonely journey ahead of them.
Protecting nearly 375 square miles of ocean is no ordinary undertaking. For years, the ranger station was just a tent, and then a kubo, on a raised platform; but thanks to local and international support, in 2000 it was upgraded to the concrete and Styrofoam bunker still being used today. Manned all year round by rangers, the station is equipped with a radar, satellite internet, and an Automatic Identification System that allows the rangers to keep track of all the boats in the park, which appear as blinking dots on the computer screen. At night, the rangers use the same computer they use to video call their loved ones on Facebook messenger.
Supplies of water, food, and gas only arrive every two months, with the incoming rotation of rangers. Instant beverages and canned food make sense in an outpost suspended over water a hundred miles away from land, but they also grow a garden in old plastic containers, watered by rain collected in more plastic containers. The garden provides them with all the ingredients they need to make tinola; instead of chicken, they pick up a hook and line, and catch fish. The ones who take care of the reef are allowed to take from it.
Having pioneered a community-based approach to marine conservation back in the 1970s, the Philippines now has over 1500 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering nearly a tenth of our seascapes. While there are success stories like the community-based conservation of Apo Island, Negros, or the official recognition of the ancestral waters of the Tagbanwa in Palawan, only a third of all MPAs are estimated to be effectively managed. With a glaring lack of political will and resources, regulation falls upon the Bantay Dagat, community volunteers who are often subsistence fisherfolk themselves—despite the fact that our collective future as an archipelago is inseparable from these very waters, they are outnumbered frontliners in a lonely cause.
The hardest part of the job is having to apprehend fisherfolk. Environmental problems are often a problem of poverty, and illegal fishing is no exception. There are a lot of people in this country, all of them need to eat, almost all of them are poor and know how to fish the way a city dweller knows how to order food on Grab.
Tubbataha stands in stark contrast to this systemic failure: an uncommon success of the commons. Instead of the typical double-outrigger bangka, its rangers go out on their weekly patrols in speedboats. The marine park is held up as a model, a part of the ocean to be proud of, not just in the Philippines, but around the world. And yet most Filipinos will never get to experience the wonders of this remote, underwater mountain.
In truth, the success of its conservation effort has largely to do with the story that Tubbataha Reef has spun for the people who have been privileged enough to explore its waters, and have fallen in love enough to want to take care of it.
“The chance to protect something so beautiful, how can you pass that up?” Angelique Songco has been the superintendent of the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park since 2001, and even over Zoom her voice is warm and vibrant. “My son was actually three years old when I became the manager, so Tubbataha is my last child, kumbaga bunso siya,” she continues. “I was 40 years old, so, yeah, that was 21 years ago.” It’s as if she doesn’t quite believe it herself. A handsome, mestiza woman with a penetrating gaze and a disarming laugh, Angelique is also known as Mama Ranger.
With a college degree in literature, Angelique didn’t know the first thing about how to run a marine park. Not that it affected her decision, because she’s been saying yes to Tubbataha ever since she first dived in its waters, and decided to spend the next ten years of her life working as a dive guide on her husband Norman’s boat. “Tubbataha was bursting with life, and it made me feel the same way just looking at it. It made me want to take care of it.”
The first thing Angelique did was to give herself homework. She talked to as many people as she could, to learn the how and why of every choice that they had made, getting the guidance she needed from the manager of one of the world’s oldest marine parks, the Netherlands Antilles, a Caribbean island territory. “What I learned,” she sums up with a deep, self-deprecating chuckle, “is that I don’t know enough.”
When one considers that it took a million years for floating coral polyps to build an atoll, one can look upon this chapter of false starts with understanding. For humans and nature alike, it takes much longer to build something than to destroy it.
Just after Angelique’s first year on the job, her rangers caught five Chinese poaching vessels in one go. The scene: it’s the height of the monsoon, when the sea is at its roughest, and the park is closed to outsiders. Seg and the rest of the rangers have to arrest and formally charge 100 Chinese fishermen, one by one. They board the five boats, take down all their names and ages, and collect their illegal fishing gear as evidence. The risky operation is far from done: to make sure they don’t escape, they escort the boats back to Puerto Princesa, and go straight to the courthouse to file their one hundred cases. They have to wait up to three days to stand witness at the trial before they can finally return to Tubbataha. The actual implementation of the Philippines’ fisheries code is a convoluted, expensive process; it’s a bureaucratic miracle that any Filipino coastal town succeeds at filing a single case against the illegal fishers they manage to catch.
“That’s when I realized that prosecuting illegal fishers requires almost everyone’s help,” explains Angelique. “So many offices are involved, even the customs and quarantine people. Without the rangers, the people in my team, and our partners like the Navy and Coast Guard, I’d never be able to do anything.” The ocean had given her a lesson: “We’re not managing fish, we’re managing people.”
The reason Tubbataha became famous at all is because of the divers—specifically Angelique’s husband Norman, the first diver to explore the atoll. “When my wife says, ‘He discovered Tubbataha,’ I say no, no, don’t say that. It’s always been there,” Norman grumbles good-naturedly over the phone. “It was Deofilo who told me about it,” a young Palawenyo spearfisher that Norman had befriended when he was a young dive bum exploring the reefs around Puerto Princesa. Deofilo navigated not by GPS (it didn’t exist then), nor by compass; he watched the seabirds. “He said, ‘Those birds are going back to Tubbataha, we just have to follow them.’”
In 2007, the park experienced their worst outbreak of crown-of-thorns, a giant starfish that can devour an entire coral reef if left unchecked. Every day, Angelique and the rangers would remove thousands from all over the park. Even at night, the crown-of-thorns entered their nightmares.
Word quickly spread across Palawan about a new dive spot, with lush coral growing as far as the eye can see, and schools of sharks and jacks so vast, it took five minutes for them to pass you by. And as the dive boats multiplied every summer, when the waters were calm enough to navigate, so too did the fishing vessels from regions like the Visayas and as far as Hong Kong, and bringing with them illegal practices such as dynamite fishing and muro ami, a technique where divers, oftentimes children, pound rocks on the reef to scare fish into an encircling net.
“While we were diving we could hear the explosions,” remembers Norman. “In just four years, it changed a lot.” Nearly half of the coral cover was gone, and the schools of fish were so dramatically reduced, the divers could actually count them now. “So, among us divers and locals from Puerto Princesa, we decided to do something.”
Using their connections, the divers were able to rally the governor of Palawan Salvador Socrates to their cause, who brought it all the way to Malacañang. Less than a year later, in 1988, President Cory Aquino proclaimed Tubbataha Reef a national park. Five years later, in 1993, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It still took the government more than a decade to figure out just what a marine park was, and what it actually entailed. When one considers that it took a million years for floating coral polyps to colonise the top of an underwater mountain and build, at long last, an atoll, one can look upon this chapter of false starts and failures with a bit more understanding. For humans and nature alike, it takes much longer to build something than to destroy it.
As with many things on these islands, the problem was structural. Despite being more water than land, there is a general lack of capacity to effectively manage our marine and coastal resources—this complex undertaking is scattered across various government agencies and departments, although Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is technically under the jurisdiction of Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
So WWF-Philippines stepped in. In 2001, they established the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) in Puerto Princesa. They hired the team (hello, Seg; hello, Angelique), determined the park’s protocols, and even set up a sustainable tourism model that TMO would derive most of its operational costs from. “All these decades, we’ve been operating like an NGO,” says Angelique.
Importantly, WWF-Philippines learned from past mistakes, and made the crucial choice of designing Tubbataha’s management to be collaborative in its very structure. Over a series of workshops, they got the stakeholders of Tubbataha to express their concerns, and listen to each other. Finally, they came to an agreement to establish a ban on all fishing activities within the park boundaries.
The unique success of this interorganizational partnership finds its fullest expression in the ranger station: two of the rangers on duty are full-time employees of TMO, two are from the local government of Cagayancillo, and the rest are assigned from the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard. Twelve rangers from five different groups, four of them government, living at the ranger station in rotating two-month shifts, wearing uniforms in the official park ranger gray, working together to keep Tubbataha safe. And all of them answer directly to Mama Ranger.
The park got the support of the military when former president Fidel Ramos, a diver himself, got in the water, and because of this, Angelique was able to take a hardline approach to illegal fishers. “From 2007 to 2010, ang dami naming nahuhuli. Siguro mga almost 500 fishermen. And during those three years we were filing one case every eleven days. At bawat isa sa kanila, we sued, we sent to jail, and then nakita na nila seryoso kami sa Tubbataha, they stopped coming.”
For Angelique and the rangers both, the hardest part of the job is having to apprehend Filipino fisherfolk. In the Philippines, environmental problems are often a problem of poverty, and illegal fishing is no exception. There are a lot of people in this country, all of them need to eat, almost all of them are poor and know how to fish the way a city dweller knows how to order food on Grab.
“No one’s looking after them. The wives, the mothers would come to our office crying—it’s always the women who try to fix their families. Naaawa na nga yung mga rangers, pati nga yung mga lalake umiiyak, ako pa?” To make matters worse, the Philippines government usually ends up releasing poachers that are foreign nationals.
The ocean had given Angelique a lesson: “We’re not managing fish, we’re managing people.”
Nevertheless, TMO’s zero-tolerance approach worked. The fish and shark populations returned, and the coral cover grew back, if not quite the same as before. Seg and Manny, another long-time ranger of TMO, would bring out the scientific fish book and ask Angelique, “Ma’am, what do you want for dinner?” An old inside joke, their way of boasting about the marine life they’d helped to replenish. In return Angelique and Marivel Dygico, the former project manager from WWF-Philippines, would joke about all the marine conservationists they were making out of Coast Guard and Navy personnel.
When she was younger, Angelique would regularly sleep at the ranger station, diving with the rangers during the day, eating the fish they’d catch for their meals, and drinking with them at night. She remembers when, in 2007, the park experienced their worst outbreak of crown-of-thorns, a giant starfish that can devour an entire coral reef if left unchecked. Every day, she and the rangers were removing over 7000 starfish from all over the park, to the point of giving her nightmares. When she told Manny, “Sabi niya, ‘Ako din, maam,’ We were dreaming na kinakain ng crown-of-thorns yung mga corals habang natutulog kami.”
Nearly every day, a tiger shark cruises by the ranger station. “She hunts the turtles, here,” Seg says, and proceeds to show videos he’s filmed of sharks prowling in the shallows; of a turtle with a chunk bitten out of it, undaunted, swimming on. Although seventy percent of the rangers’ work—and the park’s annual expenses—is enforcement, the rangers also participate in the research and conservation that takes place in Tubbataha; many activities, like the turtle and shark tagging, would be next to impossible without them. TMO regularly monitors and assesses the health of the reef, publishing an annual report that’s downloadable from their website.
Seg is actually from Cagayancillo; the tiny island chain has less than 7000 inhabitants, most of whom has no access to natural sources of freshwater. He grew up helping his parents farm seaweed, but left home on a scholarship from his local government to study fisheries at the West Philippine State University in Puerto Princesa. When WWF-Philippines was setting up the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, they posted job openings in his hometown. Professional opportunities were even fewer back then, and he jumped at the chance. “They got me because I already knew this area.” By “this area” he means the Sulu Sea.
In truth, the success of its conservation effort has largely to do with the story that Tubbataha has spun for the people who have been privileged enough to explore its waters, and have fallen in love enough to want to take care of it.
Long before any outsiders knew of its existence, Tubbataha was the historic fishing grounds of his people, the Cagayanons, along with other Sulu seafarers like the Tausugs from Jolo and the nomadic Sama. For centuries the only written record of Tubbataha was a couple entries in the travel logs of American colonial explorers, including Dean Worcester, who studied its vast seabird colonies.
In fact, Tubbataha’s name comes from how it was described by the Sama: The Reef Exposed at Low Tide. They’d travel to the reef on traditional wooden sailboats called pangko, a journey that could take as long as a month, using the atoll’s sandbars as their landmark, the way dive boats do today. When sea turtles weren’t yet endangered, the Cagayanons would travel to the place they called Gusong, their word for “reef,” to catch a turtle for their annual fiesta.
Every Monday, Angelique likes to start TMO’s weekly meeting with a prayer. The rangers like to send in their prayer requests via Facebook messenger. “It helps a lot. Minsan sabi nung aking admin officer, para lang tayong bahay. That’s my weakness. Pusong mamon kasi ako.”
In 2016, the rangers spotted a pair of masked booby, a seabird that hadn’t returned to Tubbataha for 21 years. “Nagtatalunan kami, nagyayapusan kami lahat doon sa island sa sobrang tuwa naming,” she remembers. Seg even cried, saying to Angelique, “Ma’am meron pala talagang halaga itong ginagawa natin.”
Tattooed across Seg’s forearm is the name of his wife, Evelyn. They have four kids together, and during his two months off, he goes to be with them in Puerto Princesa. The eldest is studying environmental science in Palawan State University. When asked if he’d want his son to join him in Tubbataha, Seg laughs. “Gani. I’m getting old. I need someone to take my place.” But before that can happen, he hopes that the new ranger station will finally be finished. Thanks to red tape, it’s been in phase one for the past three years. In the meantime, the rangers are left to worry that the existing 21-year-old station will collapse on them while they sleep.
This is Part 1 of a two-part essay series, read Part 2 here.