Lonely Philippine marines guard outpost amid dispute with China
Nine hungry marines guarding the Philippines' loneliest outpost aboard a rusted second world war vessel had just one option after Chinese vessels blocked fresh supplies from reaching them: go fishing.
The troops were 200 kilometres from the nearest major Philippine island, holding on to a tiny reef in the South China Sea as part of a decades-long territorial row that in recent months has grown increasingly hostile.
"We knew about the dangers signing on to the job, but my worry was we were running out of supplies," Mike Pelotera, the leader of the Marine unit, said after his five-month mission ended this week and he returned to shore. "But we are marines and we adapt. We went fishing."
The Philippines has since 1999 stationed a tiny number of marines on a former US Navy boat that was deliberately grounded on a group of islets and reefs called Second Thomas Shoal. The 100-metre BRP Sierra Madre is now little more than a rusted hull and incapable of sailing. But it has thwarted Chinese efforts to occupy all of the area, which is believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas.
China had largely tolerated the Philippines' plucky effort to hold on to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys archipelago - known as the Nansha Islands in China - to the south, but last year began increasing pressure to end what it termed an "illegal occupation".
China had always allowed Philippine vessels to sail up to the reef and deliver new supplies to the marines, who generally do tours of duty lasting between three to six months. This changed last month when vessels marked "China Coast Guard" blocked two civilian resupply boats, forcing Pelotera and his men to cast their fishing lines into the sea.
The marines said they were relieved a few days later to see a tiny twin-propeller Philippine military plane fly low and drop sacks of food near the boat.
"We were happy when the plane dropped the supplies ... We were good for another few weeks," Pelotera said.
The Philippine military sent another civilian vessel last weekend with a fresh batch of marines to rotate with Pelotera's crew, plus many months' worth of food.
Vessels marked "China Coast Guard" again tried to form a blockade. After a stand-off lasting two hours, the smaller Philippine boat out-manoeuvred the Chinese ships and successfully completed its mission.