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Dark Mountain, Part II: A Fathomless Frontier

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Inseparable from the coordinated effort to protect Tubbataha is the quest to understand it. To scientists from around the world, the faraway atoll presents a bottomless mystery, offering answers that lead only to more questions.‍

Photography by

Sally Snow, Tommy Schultz, Steve de Neef, and Alessandro Ponzo

Banner Photo by

Tommy Schultz

Courtesy of

LAMAVE

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3. 

On a map, Tubbataha Reefs looks like two funny-shaped donuts. It’s actually made up of two atolls, each with their own lagoon and islet. The reason behind its abundance lies not at the surface, but at the bottom of the Sulu Sea. 

Once every two weeks, the first and third quarter moons create a neap tide, which triggers an internal wave off of Tawi-Tawi Island. Visible via satellite and far more powerful than surface waves, internal waves travel across the border of the ocean's layers of cold and warm water. When it hits the shelf of Tubbataha Reefs, it goes vertical, carrying cold water along with nutrients from the detritus accumulated on the ocean floor. And so, a vital cycle in the ocean is completed: death nourishes the living.

One gets a feeling that Tubbataha needs absolutely nothing from us to be complete. Not in the sense of a church finished after decades of construction. Complete as in abundant, complex—an underwater world attuned to its own rhythms and requirements.

Whenever a new issue arises, the first thing Angelique does is call a meeting with the Friends of the Reefs, the name she’s given to an informal symposium of scientists and conservationists, Filipino and foreign, who come together at Angelique’s behest.

The Friends of the Reefs convened days after the USS Guardian, an American warship, inexplicably ran aground in Tubbataha in 2013. Together, they were able to map the total area of damage using coordinates and a GoPro, thanks to a program developed by Maricor Soriano, a young Filipina physicist. “We were not funded to do this. People just came together,” explains Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan. A slender, dignified man with the sardonic smile of an overbright child, Doc Al is the Philippines’ foremost “reef person” (as he calls those in his field). “This is what Angelique is very good at doing: she’s able to relate to all these different scientists.” 

“What can I say? I’m a people person,” Angelique offers with a lopsided grin. It’s this curiosity and candor, despite decades of experience, that has enabled her to grow Tubbataha’s support system beyond the country’s borders.

Now, Tubbataha is presenting yet another puzzle: slowly and steadily, the coral reef has been changing, and no one is entirely sure why. In 2021, Doc Al wrote about it for the Philippine Journal of Science and for my sake, he puts it in the simplest terms possible: “If turf algae is like the grass, hard corals are like the trees.” When the algae is unusually plentiful and tall, “your baby corals may have trouble finding space to settle on…so, as the old corals begin to die off, their replacements are not there.” With a break in the coral’s generational chain, sea sponges are able to move in and overgrow the hard coral.

So what triggered the algae outbreak? At first, the Friends of the Reef suspected that internal waves were overfertilizing the turf algae. The oceanographers in the group disagreed, arguing that it had more to do with the atoll’s twin lagoons. In their observations, the algae were increasing in the areas where the lagoons drain at low tide. Eventually, the group settled on a new hypothesis: Seabirds. 

Photo by Sally Snow

The Philippines belongs to the East Asian Australasian Flyway, a seabird migratory route starting in Siberia and Alaska and ending in New Zealand. As more nesting sites are destroyed by human development, Tubbataha’s islets have become the last important seabird colony in the Philippines. Now, both returning and new migrants are flocking to Tubbataha in the thousands. 

The effect? An excess of bird poop, which has killed off all the trees on Bird Islet—bad news for the birds who prefer to nest in them, like the Black Noddy, a subspecies that breeds only in Tubbataha. Which is why for the past couple years, Angelique and the rangers have been trying to design a weather-proof substitute to the birds’ liking. Now, it seems likely that the guano is affecting the underwater forests, too

In Tubbataha, it took thousands of years to get that balance of diversity. The way that particular reef responded to that particular storm, to that particular diver’s kick. If you destroy it, it wouldn’t be the same reef, even if you left it alone for 100 years.
Photo by Alessandro Ponzo

“At the end of the day, Angelique will ask us, ‘Well, what should we do?’ And we don’t always know what to tell her,” continues Doc Al. Before you can answer the question of how well a reef is doing, you need to establish, first, its benchmark and, second, a scale for assessing how bad is bad and how good is good. “And we don’t have those two things,” he says, because the research done so far is too little and too recent. Even numbers need context; a scale to relate to.

“Some things will take decades before their effects manifest. And we don't know whether those things can be controlled…or we're already locked into certain trajectories because of decisions or the lack of decisions in the past,” he explains. Making premature claims to certainty can lead to unintentional harm. Doc Al brings up yet another possibility: “Maybe we're underestimating the ability of the reef to take care of itself, and we shouldn't worry about it or mess with the birds.”

The best way forward is the slow and careful work that TMO and the Friends of the Reef are doing: adding piece by piece to the intricate puzzle of this ancient reef. “We answer one question, and we come up with several others. And that's the Scientific Method, it’s the process of elimination.”  

The only thing Doc Al is unequivocal about is the need for better systems for monitoring. “We’re learning to become more specific,” continues Doc Al. “Very few [monitoring programs] bother to find out whether we are seeing the same corals, or a different kind.” Like an artist learning to paint with subtler shades, his team is adding more units of categorization to better recognize not just the vastness of the coral, but its richness: that is, how diverse the coral community is, which plays a big part in its resilience. But it’ll take time. “It takes us about three weeks just to process one year's worth of monitoring data from Tubbataha. And we have seven years of data there.”

Top: Photo by Alessandro Ponzo
Bottom: Photo by Steve de Neef

The case of the problematic algae exemplifies the way in which a reef is not so different from a community: Tubbataha is more or less the sum of its relationships. Too much of one species is almost always at the detriment of another. It also reminds us that, although the climate crisis is certainly our handiwork, greater forces remain at work in the world.

Despite Tubbataha’s impressive, transnational network of stewardship, so many threats are beyond Angelique’s control: from the plastic debris that swirls in from faraway places, to devastating typhoons like Odette, which ripped through the Visayas and Mindanao in 2021. There’s always something new to worry about, because the threats are endless and evolving, requiring constant vigilance. “Environmental anxiety,” she calls the feeling that’s been plaguing her. Now, every time she dives, she can’t help but see algae and sponges everywhere. Some days, she wonders whether she would’ve been better off opening a beauty parlor, instead.

But the most important thing Angelique has learned is patience. “Ang nature talaga, hindi mo siya pwedeng madaliin. Wala kang pwedeng gawin kundi maghintay sa kanya. Just give it space. Of course, removing pressures such as illegal fishing is an important means of helping the reefs stay resilient.”

4.

As Seg steers the patrolboat to the deepest waters surrounding Tubbataha, Alessandro Ponzo, or Ale for short, reads the coordinates for the next drop-off. Ale is the co-founder of Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), a non-profit organisation devoted to the study of marine megafauna in the Philippines. Tubbataha is finally open again after being closed for more than two years because of COVID19, and LAMAVE is running the first research expedition of the season aboard the M/Y Navorca. The plan is to send deep-sea cameras, on loan from National Geographic Society Exploration Technology lab, to the bottom of the Sulu Sea.

Most of the deepest parts of the ocean lie beyond the economic boundaries of the world’s nations. The UN refers to these places as ‘The Area,' establishing the International Seabed Authority to manage these mineral resources, which they consider to be a “Common Heritage of Humankind.” In practice, the deep sea is treated more like a no-man’s land: Nobody’s responsibility but everyone’s opportunity. It reminds me of the language around the so-called New World, which was declared tierra nullius by the Papal Bulls of Discovery—a territory without a master, despite the millions of Native Americans already living there. Just like the frontier, the deep sea is a rich prize for whoever claims and exploits it first.

If an oil rig or exploratory drill was set up in the Sulu Sea, a spill would reach Tubbataha in a matter of days. Faster than the Philippine government would likely be able to respond to a distress call.

People once walked on the backs of the butanding: A common expression in the Sulu Sea and the Visayas, born from the ocean as it used to be—the ocean that conservationists hope could be again, even as they lose sleep over what is already being lost.

“The Philippine government is offering leases on the deep-sea floor for exploration,” Ale explains. “Only oil and gas; some dredging. But China is going down to 3000 to 4000 meters in the West Philippine Sea. And I think some mining companies in Cagay are getting magnetite for computers from the bottom of the sea.” In other words, it’s already happening.

“And no one knows what we’d be losing. So our goal is to look at the biodiversity before it could be lost. How can we lose things without knowing first that they’re there, and what they are?” 

US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines the deep sea as beginning at 200 meters, the point at which light begins to dwindle. In 2016, BFAR, UP, and the non-profit OCEANA captured footage of the Benham Rise, the Philippines’ newest marine territory. At 150 meters deep, they documented a thriving mesophotic reef. On March 2021, Filipino microbial oceanographer Dr. Deo Florence L. Onda from UP-MSI joined American undersea explorer Victor Vescovo in a descent to the Emdem Deep, the third deepest point on Earth, touching down at 10,045 meters.

I ask Ale what they expect to find at the bottom of the Sulu Sea, and he replies: “We have no idea.” A theatrical shrug and a grin breaks through the urgent barrage of information. “That’s why we’re doing it.”

Owned and operated by WWF, and painted black and white in the universal symbol of conservation, the M/Y Navorca has been the vessel for every kind of research that’s been done in Tubbataha. A marine research expedition is like a science convention at sea. Even as the deep-sea camera deployment is going on, other kinds of questions are being pursued. Take Amina Kunting, for instance, a graduate student at UP’s Institute of Biology who wants to know if the megafauna swimming through Tubbataha can be detected with the same method she uses to test village canals for parasites: by gathering the bits of DNA they leave behind. 

Then there’s the documentary that Sally Snow, the communications director of LAMAVE and Ale’s life partner, is filming. Tentatively titled, The Sharks of the Sulu Sea, it’s about the people who help protect the sharks. Frenetic and freckled, Sally is obsessed with capturing one particular thing: the moment a person changes their mind. “I’ve seen the shift where individuals have been unsure or fearful [of whale sharks], and then they become curious, and then they jump over.”  

Photo by Sally Snow
Photo by Sally Snow

Although a WWF study shows that the Cagayanons’ quality of life has improved thanks to Tubbataha’s conservation fees, they’ve barely had the chance to share their part of the story. And those whose livelihoods have been affected by the establishment of a marine sanctuary don’t necessarily feel its benefits. One fisherman told Sally about a kind of conch shell they used to harvest ten years ago that fetched hundreds of thousands of pesos apiece. “But we’re not allowed to do it anymore. We’re always the ones who have to adjust.” Now, he’s concerned that they’ll ban fishing deep-sea sharks, as well—so important to the Cagayanons that it’s a part of their barangay logo. Rather than an outright ban, LAMAVE wants to help the LGU understand its deep-sea sharks better, whose population and behavior are still such a mystery, so that they themselves can decide which fishing policies are beneficial yet sustainable

No one knows what we’d be losing. So our goal is to look at the biodiversity before it could be lost. How can we lose things without knowing first that they’re there, and what they are?

Times have changed. The Tubbataha marine park was established using the conventional approach of banning all extractive activity from a sanctuary—and it worked. However this is no longer considered to be the best practice; studies have proven that, for the most part, Indigenous stewardship is more effective than government-managed parks. Indigenous People comprise only five percent of the human population, inhabit twenty percent of the planet’s land mass, and yet protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

Sally hopes her film can act as a bridge, so that the heroes of her film can better see themselves, and the power that they have. “The lolos and lolas I’ve met say they used to be able to walk on the backs of the butanding,” shares Sally. This is a common expression in the Sulu Sea and the Visayas, born from the ocean as it used to be: it speaks of the ocean that conservationists hope could be again, even as they lose sleep over all that we are already losing. Just the other week, LAMAVE had to process the dorsal fin of 3000 illegally caught sharks, apprehended by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. “I can’t imagine what 3000 sharks looks like in the water; I’ve only seen them in bags.”

“You need the local fishers to raise their voice, but that’s a really long process,” adds Ale. “Because people not only need to care, they need to be able to take the risk of raising their voice. So out of 1000, maybe only ten can actually afford to stand up and fight it. But that ten can make the difference. They’re worth fighting for.” 

Photo by Alessandro Ponzo

5.

Sometimes, following the Scientific Method feels like going in circles, forcing one to rethink previous conclusions. In 2017, Doc Al and his team declared Tubbataha to be a benchmark that other marine protected areas should aspire for, mainly because it was found to be resilient against the effects of ocean warming. It turns out, they were wrong—or at least, not completely correct. The truth is, as always, more complicated. 

Tubbataha may have the most expanse of coral cover, but the most kinds of coral can actually be found in a place far less exotic, only a couple hours north of Manila: Lian, Batangas, a holiday destination that had its heyday in the ’80s. Doc Al questions if Tubbataha is a realistic benchmark for reefs in the country because of its remoteness. Furthermore, the problem with making a monument out of Tubbataha is that it suggests the rest of the Philippine seas aren’t as important.

But our grasp of what resilience means is evolving, just like the reef itself. Today, we understand that the ocean thrives on connections. Ocean connectivity is what helps fish populations multiply, which happens when more kinds of habitats are effectively protected, so that the fish spawned in one can mature in another; breed yet somewhere else; range for food in another sanctuary; or migrate between various habitats depending on environmental conditions. Not only is an interconnected ocean more resilient to environmental stressors; it recovers faster too. The effect of each sanctuary is amplified by the success of others. 

A reef is not so different from a community: Tubbataha is more or less the sum of its relationships. Too much of one species is almost always at the detriment of another. It also reminds us that, although the climate crisis is certainly our handiwork, greater forces remain at work in the world.

Tubbataha’s story has been about interconnectedness, all along. Over the years, the reef and those who love it have become a community, bound by the rhythms of its tides and seasons, by a shared project of survival and abundance. As remote as the atoll may be, it isn’t cut off from the rest of the ocean. Furthermore, its charisma helps conservationists rally support for the collective future of our world’s oceans: just last August, the great ocean explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle named the reef one of her Hope Spots, or “special places that are critical to the ocean.”

And yet, we have made Tubbataha into a mecca out of grief as much as hope. The complex depth of feeling it inspires, the heroic dedication it has wrought, can barely be described as optimistic. The shape of it is submerged, oftentimes subconscious: a mythical atoll so much bigger than one can fathom. I suppose Sir David Attenborough tried to convey exactly this to city kids like me: wilderness, and what it does to you. Even as its fate has gotten tangled up with ours, one gets a feeling that Tubbataha needs absolutely nothing from us to be what it is: complete. Not in the sense of a church finished after decades of back-breaking construction. Complete as in abundant, complex—an underwater world attuned to its own rhythms and requirements. One that is always changing, and already being lost:

“In Tubbataha, it took 50-60,000 years, since the last ice age, to get that combination, that balance of diversity,” explains Ale. “The way that particular reef responded to that particular storm, to that particular diver’s kick there, to that particular parrot fish that feeds on that particular coral, right? If you destroy it, it wouldn’t be the same reef, even if you left it alone for 100 years.”

One morning aboard the Navorca, I woke up at sunrise and noticed circles appearing all across the glass-like surface of the ocean, like rain on a still pond: small at first, and then radiating outwards to intersect with each other in some inaudible rhythm. I peered over the boat and saw unicorn fish, hundreds of them, rising from the depths to touch their horns to the surface, before quickly descending again. Perhaps one of them had started it, and everyone else, thinking it a good idea, had followed suit. 

Photo by Alessandro Ponzo

This is Part 2 of a two-part essay series, read Part 1 here.

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