This isolated, offshore reef area in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the central Philippines is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated World Heritage Site, it is renowned as one of the world's best examples of a pristine coral reef. This acclaimed dive site, with a spectacular 100-m perpendicular wall, expansive lagoon areas, and miles of fore reef enclosing two large coral atolls is the site for the first survey dives of our 2014 South East Asia Campaign.
Located 130 kilometres from the island province of Palawan, the three separate reef platforms contained within the TRNP play a vital role in the production, dispersal and colonization of coral reef and related organisms throughout the entire southern Philippine eco-region. The TRNP is a cradle for exceptionally high levels of marine biodiversity, it's home to an estimated 360 species of hard corals and 600 species of tropical demersal and benthic fish.
The 332 square-kilometre park was established in 1988, this was the first time the Philippines declared an exclusively marine area as a nationally supported protected park. This designation was in response to rapidly escalating fishing in the area, including destructive dynamite fishing and cyanide use. Over the 35 years the park has been operating, it has been successful in eliminating these practices and allowing the coral cover to rebuild, while also building an international reputation as a dive destination. The park was further expanded in 2006 to include the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef to the north, and has attracted the interest of many non-profit agencies, including major investment by the World Wildlife Fund.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park stands as one of the most effective examples of successful management in the region. This beautiful, important, protected, and ecologically functioning park is a fitting location to begin the Catlin Seaview Survey investigations in the Coral Triangle, with this first deployment serving as a benchmark for future comparison to the other sites we will survey in 2014.
Unfortunately, very few reefs in the Philippines, a country once blessed with an extraordinary endowment of marine wealth, are in the same healthy condition as Tubbataha. In fact, even the park itself, the crown jewel of the protected areas of the Philippines, is not immune from environmental threats. Current pressures in the area stem from climate change, Crown of thorns starfish (COTS) outbreaks, increased marine pollution and solid waste from dive operations, boat and ship groundings (including the US naval minesweeper Guardian in 2013), and illegal fishing with illicit mainland fishers targeting threatened species.
The mission of the Catlin Seaview Survey in 2014 will be to focus on measuring the effects of these factors on coral health, and we will be visiting a wide variety of both affected and unaffected sites, with the aim of better understanding how marine park managers and scientists can mitigate and repair this damage.
Our initial trip to Tubbataha, an area with a passionate and dedicated staff, will be a great place to commence survey work in 2014, it's an example of what can be done with committed management, and a real government commitment to conservation.