December 18, 2010 · Posted in: General

Beyond fishing for a story

by Ed Lingao

woozy after a 12-hour boat ride – photo by Justine Letargo

IT WAS a little amusing at first, watching jaws of Palawenos drop whenever we told them we were sailing off to Tubbataha. After all, everyone in Manila had been green with envy that we were going to visit the fabled reefs. Perhaps even the locals were envious too?

But as more jaws hit the floor, it began to get disconcerting. Everyone we spoke to in Palawan had basically the same reaction. “Are you serious?!” asked one official of the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) in Puerto Princesa. “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into?” That warning sounded particularly dire, considering that the TMO was supposed to know everything there was to know about Tubbataha. If they were alarmed, well, perhaps so should we.

Finally, a merciful soul spelled it all out for us. It was two months past the end of the dive season, and well into the storm season. No one really goes out to Tubbataha at this time of the year, unless you’re a fish, or looking for a mate, in which case you’re probably a turtle. Tubbataha was a full 10 hours east of Palawan through the vast, turbulent Sulu Sea — and only if you rode a very fast and steady boat. And it had been raining the past few days. Really hard.

At this point, I remembered why I prefer climbing mountains.

But hey, as journalists, ours is not to question the whys and the whatnots; ours is to find out the hows, and more importantly, the how to get back.

The task was simple enough: write a monograph about 12 protected areas (PAs) in the Philippines, and the lessons learned from the experiences of civil society, environmental groups, local and national government units, and the many volunteers in protecting and maintaining these natural wonders. For a change, we were writing about good news and best practices to emulate, from the forest rangers in the mountains of Bukidnon to the divers and park rangers in the seas off Palawan.

The Tubbataha Reefs and Natural Park was of course one of them. Write a piece about Tubbataha, and shoot some video as well, the boss thundered. A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” I suppose the good author meant that good writing meant taking risks, and going beyond your comfort zone; he never intended it to mean holding on to a sinking ship while gasping for air.

So it was with a great sense of foreboding that we joined a group of park rangers in a tricycle from the TMO office to the Puerto Princesa wharf. The park rangers were sailing off to Tubbataha to relieve other park rangers who had been on station for the last two months. It was night time, the best time to sail, they said, because at least we could try to sleep off much of the 10- to 12- hour journey. It was also raining.

At the wharf, we were introduced to “Divina,” a small fishing boat with large outriggers to get her through the rough seas. This was our ride to Tubbataha. Not to worry, the park rangers giggled, “Divina” had taken care of them before. Besides, it was going to be a safe trip. You could detect a white lie by the way a person tries to hide his smile while he speaks.

“Divina” is a wooden 30-footer, designed more for fishing than for carrying passengers. As such, the only real structure was a small cabin for the captain – and a porcelain toilet bowl perched gloriously like a throne over the starboard outrigger to make you feel quite at home, except that here you could smile at the sharks or count the seagulls wheeling overhead while you do your thing.

on board Divina

We left in good weather, but the assault came just before midnight. The rains and the winds were so heavy that the captain had to shut the wooden doors to his cabin. In the dark, it was difficult to see how large the waves were, but you could feel each one as they smashed onto the bow, throwing saltwater spray in all directions. There is nothing more frightening for a landlubber than the eerie sounds of a wooden boat during a savage pounding: groaning, creaking, shuddering, as if the boat would pop its nails at any moment. It makes you wish Francis Scott Fitzgerald was on board as well, so you could make him understand the folly of relating writing to drowning, right before you throw him overboard.

The park rangers, by now used to voyages like this, provided an insulting counterpoint to the sounds of the sea by snoring heavily.

It was quite a long night, to say the least, most of our senses drummed out of our heads by the pounding of the rain and the seas. Daybreak came with a hint of hope, with clouds scudding overhead as the sun peeked off the bow. The park rangers awoke to check if we were still breathing, after which they checked if we were still lucid. Really, one out of two isn’t so bad.

Soon, the tiny speck in the middle of the Sulu Sea grew into a tiny shelter in the middle of the Sulu Sea. This was Ranger Station Tubbataha, home to the composite team of park rangers from the TMO, the Philippine Navy, the Coast Guard, and the municipality of Cagayancillo.

park rangers bring down their two-month supply

This was to be the home of the park rangers for the next two months…or more, if they were unlucky. On this tiny spit of sand that disappears during high tide, is perched a small concrete and styrofoam structure that looks somewhat like a cake roll. For most parts of the next two months, this is the only dry place for any of the rangers, who would be surrounded by nothing but an endless supply of sun and seawater. Every shift that rotates here brings with it a two-month supply of food and fuel. The only things that connect them to the outside world are a small satellite phone, a somewhat erratic long-range radio, and a satellite television service.

From this tiny foothold in the middle of the sea, park rangers patrol roughly 10,000 hectares of coral reef and protect some 600 species of fish in a no-take zone that literally means no visitor is allowed to take anything from the area except fresh air and the breathtaking sights. The reefs have been dubbed one of the natural wonders of the world with its immense and fascinating biodiversity. That people travel 180 kilometers from the nearest land just to protect this blip on a map speaks not only of the importance of the park as the primary source of fish and coral larvae for the greater Sulu Sea, a fish baby factory, so to speak. It also highlights the immense determination of nongovernmental organizations, local and national government officials, civil society groups, and volunteers to keep the park pristine and protected. It is difficult, almost impossible work, being done simply because it had to be done, no matter what.

Then it struck us. For all the misery we had to go through for the last twelve hours, we were not staying long on this isolated shelter. For the laughing and giggling park rangers, it was just the start of what has become a regular ordeal, away from family and the comforts of home. With that thought, that 12-hour trip didn’t seem so bad anymore.

At least until they told us, five hours later, that it was time to get back on “Divina” for the long ride home.

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