Style/Travel Diaries

My Tubbataha homecoming: More than just a pretty fish

As the Unesco World Heritage Site reopens for the first time in two years, I gained a new appreciation of the smaller denizens of the reefs

The author (leftmost, with Mama Ranger’s tweezers and net bag) beside Angelique Songco and the rest of the 'Tubbatitas' dive ‘barkada,’ posing in Tubbataha with a relatively balanced reef that has equal distribution of soft and hard corals, June 2022 (Photo by Yvette Lee)

THERE’s a lot happening around us at about 45 feet in Tubbataha—white-tip reef sharks swimming, a green turtle or two passing by, large schools of fish in every imaginable color—but the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) Protected Area Superintendent, Angelique Songco, is engrossed in something else.

Holding a pair of dental tweezers she filched from her son, about the length of standard chopsticks, she’s peering into hard corals and fishing out little snails, stuffing them into a net back to bring to the surface.

It’s absorbing work, I have to say. For context, divers make an effort to avoid decompression time, which is when you stay at a certain depth longer than you should, and your computer tells you that you must now take an extra minute or two at a 15-foot safety stop to exhale all the nitrogen you’ve taken in at depth. You would understand going into deco chasing a whale shark or a hammerhead, but that day, I was a minute shy of deco as Angelique got me fixated on hunting down 5-cm snails.

They’re not ordinary snails, mind you, she asserts. They’re called Drupella, a genus of sea snails, and they actually kill hard corals. In fact, on this trip, Angelique has christened herself the “Drupella Slayer.”

“We’ve known about them for a long time, but have never made any effort to collect them,” she recounts, unlike the way the Tubbataha Rangers and other divers zealously harvest that other coral-munching pest, crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), to protect the corals. “On one of our research trips, I was the buddy of a fish specialist, and while he counted the fish, I realized I could be spending my time underwater more productively by removing Drupella. They’re naturally occurring, but when there are other stressors, you want to lessen pressure on the corals, and I think removing them helps.” When she notices a stand of hard coral with whitish tips, Angelique goes in for the kill, harvesting as many as 16 in one small table coral about six inches in diameter—and the little buggers even try to escape, she exclaims indignantly.

Angelique harvests as many as 16 snails in one small table coral about six inches in diameter—and the little buggers even try to escape

Tubbataha’s Angelique Songco shows off the coral-eating ‘Drupella’ snails she gathered from hard corals. (Photo by Yvette Lee)

According to the website reefresilience.org, Drupella actually eat live coral tissue “by stripping the tissue from the coral skeleton and leaving white feeding scars that can quickly become covered by algae. Feeding scars can have detrimental effects on coral growth. Drupella prefer to feed on fast-growing species with complex, branching growth forms such as Acropora and Pocillopora, but will feed on most corals in the absence of their preferred species…Outbreaks of Drupella can cause significant mortality on coral reefs.” More: “It is unclear what causes outbreaks of Drupella, but human impacts such as terrestrial run-off, overfishing of Drupella predators, and increased reef damage…have been suggested as potential causes.”

The cute, chunky bumphead wrasse (note the overbite) (Photo by Danny Ocampo)

It was an interesting revelation that again underscored why it’s extra fun to dive Tubbataha with Angelique, a.k.a. Mama Ranger. Last March, Tubbataha reopened after two years, and upon our return in June, it was again like a precious homecoming. The water was still unbelievably clear, and although the whale sharks didn’t catch up, we were blessed with sharks galore—gray reefs and white tips—plus dozens of big, adorable bumphead wrasse.

(Note: In the early 2000s, we headed to Sipadan, Malaysia, where we would wake up at 5 a.m. to catch these funky coral-munching fish. We had not yet realized that Tubbataha’s local bumpheads are twice the size and number.)

A highlight of our homecoming: a close encounter with manta rays, with one of them actually farting out a little fish from its rear end

A manta ray drops by. (Photo by Yvette Lee)

A highlight of our homecoming: a close encounter with manta rays who came tantalizingly close, with one of them actually farting out a little fish from its rear end that didn’t know what happened.

Visitors to this Unesco World Heritage Site, one of the most spectacular underwater attractions in the Philippines and the region, are indeed spoiled for the bigger stuff. After all, it’s almost a 12-hour sail by boat from Puerto Princesa, far away from most immediate human pressure—although, as the dependable rangers will tell you, they had their share of apprehended illegal fishermen even at the height of pandemic lockdowns.

Still, as Angelique herself noted, we’ve had such high expectations, immediately asking each other, “What did you see?” and hoping for the big stuff—when actually, anything can be a sight to behold. Case in point: We are actually guilty of taking the beautiful tropical fish for granted, even if they do appear in greater numbers, larger sizes, and hang around longer in Tubbataha, unthreatened by human presence.

Reef quintet: Posing against a fan coral are a panda butterflyfish with a tiny damselfish near its tail, an orange sabre squirrelfish, and a harlequin sweetlips with a small bluestreak cleaner wrasse checking out its mouth (Photo by Yvette Lee)

Angelique has her own regular Facebook posts called “Mama Ranger Diaries,” where she updates Tubbataha followers. After our June trip, she posted a gorgeous photograph by Yvette Lee featuring five kinds of beautiful reef fish in a multi-family huddle. “One of my favorite things to do underwater is to watch fish and their antics when they think no one is looking,” Angelique wrote. “They do all sorts of silly things like chase after their tail, chase after other fish, sometimes many times bigger than them, or chase after divers. It is so nice to see these three being so chill and friendly with each other. They each wait their turn for the cleaner wrasse to attend to them. A tiny damselfish (Chromis viridis) tries to flirt with the panda butterflyfish (Chaetodon adiergastos), the saber squirrelfish (Sargocentron spiniferum) patiently waits its turn, while the harlequin sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) enjoys the ministrations of a bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus). And they stayed there for a while, too! How nice it would be if we could be more like these three.” (She’s referring just to the three bigger fish getting groomed.)

This observation becomes more significant in light of other things we learned on corals and reef life on this trip. On the boat with us then was marine biologist Avigdor Avelson from the University of Tel Aviv, who encouraged divers to play “citizen scientists.” Avelson posits that while soft corals certainly beautify the reef, too much of anything is bad; thus, worry a bit if the reefs are overrun with sponges, seaweed, or soft corals, because it’s the hard corals (Drupella’s diet, incidentally) that build up reefs.

Angelique talks about the turf algae that overruns some areas and actually compete with hard coral. “You want a reef to be predominantly hard coral, with less of other organisms that stop them from growing. In large numbers, these cover most of the bottom of the reef and limit the space in which hard corals can grow. Soft corals are pretty and should be there, but should not predominate. Those pretty fish have a function.”

Indeed, the pretty tropical fish you see all over the reefs actual feed on the turf algae that could inhibit hard coral growth. These lovely reef citizens are essential to the housekeeping that keeps the hard corals alive and the ecosystem balanced.

So if and when you ever get a chance to dive Tubbataha, get your fill of the charismatic sea creatures that leave you in awe—but do appreciate the beautiful fish, some as tiny as your thumb, keeping the magnificent reefs in shape. Big or small, Tubbataha truly does have it all.

About author

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She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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