As a new addition to the Catlin Seaview Survey, I feel very lucky to have joined the team on the first deployment in the Coral Triangle at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines aboard the PY Atlantis Azores. The natural park is home to three atolls; we've concentrated on the North Atoll and South Atoll thus far. Both coral atolls revealed immediately to the team that the reputation of the area is deserved, the diversity and abundance of corals and marine life here is fantastic.
The reefs provide excellent examples of marine protected areas doing exactly what they are intended to do, protect and preserve the exceptional aesthetic beauty and importance of these environments. Diving in the park has yielded spectacular wall dives, as well as gentle sloping coral fields, interspersed with sand patches inhabited by metre long garden eels (Genus Heteroconger). There are healthy populations of reef sharks, turtles including the critically endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), various fishes including the uniquely colored clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicllum), and large fast moving tuna (Thunnus spp.) rocket by in the deep blue next to the reef walls. Giant barrel sponges (Xestospongia testudinaria) grow large enough to fit humans inside them and gorgonians (Order Gorgonaria) of unimaginable colors spread like fans across much of the reef.
In addition to these pristine, vibrant reefs, we had the opportunity to visit and take images of the USS Guardian ship grounding site, which struck the reef on January 13, 2013. We witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by the strike, which revealed broken, destroyed corals and the substrate scattered with leftover tools from the dismemberment of the vessel. Succession on the site revealed, as expected, recruitment of turf and calcifying algae, and additionally a surprising amount of corals and various other invertebrates. Notably, the reef appears to be well on the road to recovery. We are excited to analyze these images to really examine this process of how a healthy reef responds, and to share this information through the Catlin Global Reef Record, where all images and analysis will eventually be posted.
With the excellent management and monitoring program in place by the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), these corals have the opportunity to be resilient in the face of such potentially catastrophic disturbances, and possibly will be more resistant to large-scale threats such as warming ocean temperatures. The ability for the reef to bounce back after a disruption as detrimental as a ship strike illustrates the need for more closely supervised marine protected areas like the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park to help corals worldwide stay resilient in the face of emerging threats such as global climate change.