Poor leadership, planning, and series of errors led the US Navy Minesweeper USS Guardian to hit and damage 2,345.67 square meters of a protected Philippine reef on January 17, 2013. Reports have it that both the Guardian’s leadership and its crew neglected protocol, warning systems, and visual cues. They were also unable to reconcile the differences between navigation maps, causing the ship to run aground on the South Atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea. The tragedy has consequently angered not only the Filipino people, but also the international communities.
The Tubbataha Reef, declared by former Philippine President Corazon Aquino as a national marine park, is abundant in marine life. Positioned in the middle of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha is isolated and far from habitable land; thus, preserving its marine resources from exploitation.
In December 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized Tubbataha a World Heritage Site. It is now under the protective management of the Philippine Department of National Defense, with technical supervision from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Likewise, the Ramsar Convention acknowledged and listed the reef among the Wetlands of International Importance due to the presence of a wide range of marine life species as well as being an essential habitat for various animals.
Since its discovery by divers in the late 1970s, the Tubbataha Reef National Park has been listed among the remarkable must-visit diving destinations in the world. In fact, CNN Travel ranks it eighth of the top 50 dive sites in the world.
Tubbataha was also featured on the reverse side of the 2010 series of the One Thousand peso bill.
Reef destruction due to human error
The USS Guardian is actually not the first ship to hit the Tubbataha Reefs. It should be recalled that on October 31, 2005, the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, struck and destroyed around 100 square meters of the reef.
Greenpeace blamed the accident on the Philippine government for allegedly providing them with inaccurate chart. Nevertheless, the non-government environmental organization paid a fine of about $7,000 for the damage.
Likewise, on April 8, 2013, a Chinese fishing boat, F/V Min Long Yu, got stuck approximately 1.1 nautical miles to the east of the reef’s ranger station. The boat carried 12 crew members, believed to be engaged in illegal fishing.
Aside from ships running aground, marine resources in and around Tubbataha Reef are fast depleting due to destructive fishing, such as the use of dynamite and cyanide. Opportunism and carelessness of some visitors is another issue. Killing of marine turtles; illegal collection of turtle eggs, bird eggs, and shells, and; the irresponsible attitudes of tourists and businessmen towards the park still persist.
The future of Tubbataha Reef
Accidents do happen anytime anywhere no matter how we draw measures to prevent it. While government agencies and active non-government environmental groups implement rules and guidelines, the responsibility to protect our world heritage does not solely fall on them. As individual citizens of the world, we can tremendously help safeguard Tubbataha Reef, in particular, as well as all other coral reefs, in general.
The USS Guardian tragedy has somehow initially opened the eyes of an increasing number of people, albeit painfully, about the value of coral reefs to economy and the environment. It is important, then, that we sustain such awareness with active participation in the preservation of what is left of the reefs.
There are actually several ways to help protect our coral reefs. But since the Tubbataha Reef is a wonderful diving spot, I’d like to list down some pointers on how divers, snorkelers, and tourists can help preserve our coral reefs.
- Buoyancy control. Ensure that you are properly weighted, and observe buoyancy control to avoid damaging anything.
- Keep a safe distance from the corals and other marine life. Aside from getting a painful scratch from a coral, you might damage or kill fragile coral polyps.
- Refrain from touching any marine creature and do not wear gloves. Divers who wear gloves may tend to touch marine life.
- Do not block the path, or chase after any free-swimming animal.
- Restrain your urge to collect any item from the ocean or the beach. Note that even dead corals and shells can be home to other marine organisms.
- Do not disturb the sand. Sand and sediment can get on the living corals and might smother it.
- Dispose of your garbage properly and collect any litter you find in or out of the water.