Little treasure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am

The tiny sand spit on the Tubbataha Reefs feels like the middle of nowhere, with just a low, white domed dormitory that serves as an outpost for the nine rangers guarding the stunning reefs.

The rangers, a mixture of men from the Philippine navy, coast guard and local government, spend three months at a time on the base. But they don't rush to crack the case of beer we've brought them. They're out to canvass instead.

'Have you voted for Tubbataha yet?' asks Romnic Molina, a smiling twentysomething navy chap wearing a bright blue bandana and a grey Tubbataha T-shirt. 'I have - you should!'

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is home to the best diving in the Philippines and is the country's only marine park. Located in the Sulu Sea, halfway between Palawan and Mindanao, the reefs are a 10-hour boat trip from the nearest town, and pristine and protected in their isolation. There is no mobile phone service, no internet connection and, the diver in me notes, no decompression chamber.

But there is plenty of national pride, and it's at stake as locals campaign to have the reefs recognised as one of the 'seven wonders of the natural world' under a classification system set up by the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation.

Tubbataha's supporters are taking the poll as seriously as any presidential election. Signs promoting the campaign are dotted around Puerto Princesa, the jumping-off point for the reefs.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is also supporting the push. She's an avid diver and fond of taking a dip at Tubbataha. 'We need all Filipinos who are working here and abroad to vote,' she said in a recent radio interview.

The pressure seems to be paying off. Tubbataha is ranked fifth in a nomination process that runs until the end of the year - only for another seemingly endless round of voting to start. Mount Everest, the Amazon rainforest and the Grand Canyon lie in Tubbataha's wake.

But the bad news is that there can be only one nominee for each country, and Puerto Princesa's subterranean river park is topping the polls. Whether or not Tubbataha makes it (perhaps the newest wonder is the popularity of such privately run lists) there is something special about the reefs.

They're visited mainly by divers on live-aboard boats; 180km from Palawan, they're far enough away to discourage most fishermen, and the rangers are there to dissuade the rest. The rangers point to a large white banca outrigger next to the station, confiscated from a crew of 11 illegal fisherman caught with a cargo of Napoleon wrasse, a fish protected in much of the world but which is sadly still sold in Hong Kong.

The combination of remoteness and protection leaves the marine environment as healthy as you'll find in the Philippines. Consisting of two rings of reefs, Tubbataha's atolls are the only ones in the country. The extensive North Atoll and the smaller South Atoll are separated by an 8km channel.

The whole reef network is only 30km from tip to toe and just under 5km wide - a total of 33,200 hectares. The only buildings are the ranger station and a small lighthouse. Bird Islet sits on the northern edge of the reefs and is off-limits to all but 44 species of birds. On our 18-dive trip, each plunge into the aqua blue waters is a procession of marine life: turtles and white-tip sharks compete for space with big dogtooth tuna, large grouper and giant barracuda.

The dive sites have intimidating names such as Shark Airport, the Washing Machine and - especially terrifying right now - Wall Street. At least the divers are voluntarily taking a bath.

Our try-out dive is at Black Rock, an easygoing excursion along a plateau before a shallow dive on the edge of a shelf that heads off into the depths. Two titan triggerfish give us reason to be wary. They're less than a metre long but, if they're breeding, they'll defend their territory and can take a chunk out of your fins - or worse. It isn't mating season, so the aggressive fish just eye us up and down like little doormen in brightly coloured shirts.

A white-tip shark cruises a stretch of the reef, travelling in tandem with a bluefin trevally. The dive crew explain that trevally often hunt with white-tips, snapping up scraps as the shark chomps on its prey.

One of the great excitements of diving at Tubbataha is the sharks. At most Southeast Asian beach resorts, sharks are almost fished out. But Tubbataha offers regular sightings of reef sharks and the chance to see bigger beasts such as hammerheads. Our dive crew leader, Paul Collins, says he saw a tiger shark two weeks earlier, one of the few sharks that are a danger to divers and enough to scare even him.

But we don't spot a tiger, or the whale shark that a diver from another boat gloats about on the plane home. While checking out a lobster at Black Rock, however, we spy a sleek grey reef shark swimming into view from the deep blue off the reef. Its barrel-like body is like that of no other fish, and certainly catches your attention.

Tubbataha also offers the chance to check out turtles, with both green turtles and hawksbills nesting in the area. On a late-afternoon dive at Shark Airport, a green turtle keeps me company for five minutes, coming very close to check me out. It swims away and then returns, its large eyes looking right into mine. I'm flattered at first, but then I realise that something must be bothering it. The sun's starting to go down, and the flash on my camera might be dazzling it, so I turn it off and the turtle stops eyeballing me.

After our final dive, we take a last look at Bird Island and watch the sun set. It's a peaceful moment, so far from the cares of the land. A natural wonder. No vote necessary.

Getting there: Philippine Airlines ( flies from Hong Kong to Puerto Princesa, where there's a wide range of diving and live-aboard options available.