Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Tubbataha Expedition - A last view of the North Atoll and a brief look at the South Atoll

I woke up to these views on our second morning at Tubbataha...

I saw this view from my cabin window

When I got on deck, I saw a flock of birds flying about near our ship - with the bird islet in the back ground...

Our itinerary for the day was a morning sortie at Bird Islet, our last, then reposition the ship to the South Atoll.  Along the way, we will pass by the Ranger Station.  So after breakfast, we all piled up in the bigger speedboat and set off for the Bird Islet.  The priority for the day was to find the Masked Booby.  One feature of the Bird Islet is that there is a depression on the ground in the middle of the islet (similar to a saucer). So from our speedboat (at 100 meters away), it is difficult for us to see the birds sitting in the middle of the island.  To help with that, two of our companions, Martin and Mark, decided to bring along two monobloc lounging chairs.  The idea is they will stand on these chairs while we are cruising around the islet.  That way, they may be able to see the middle of the islet.

As we were approaching Bird Islet, somebody, (I believe it was Rommel), suddenly shouted, Tiger Shark!  And we saw this big black fish, almost as long as our boat, glide by.  I brought up my camera but it was gone in a flash.  We resumed circling the island with two of our companions, Mark and Martin, standing on lounging chairs in an effort to find the Masked Booby.  Meanwhile, I continued shooting whatever I can point my camera to.

A pair of Brown Boobies sandwiching a Red-footed Booby

Greater Frigate Bird (fem) with what looks like a Great Crested Tern

Two Greater Frigate Birds and one Great Crested Tern

Two Greater Frigate Birds and two Great Crested Terns

Two Greater Frigate Birds (fem)

At one point the Tubbataha Rangers approached the Bird Islet - they were probably on routine patrol to make sure none set foot on the island and stayed at the prescribed distance.  We momentarily stopped so we could talk with them and ask if there was indeed a Masked Booby this year.  They said there was but could not really pinpoint where. So after they left, we continued our circling.

Tubbataha Rangers

Birds flying about...

At one point, somebody shouted Marble Ray and pointed to the water.  I snapped a burst of shots, all of them blurry. Sharing one that at least shows its general shape.

Marble Ray (a super docu shot, as we birders are fond of saying)

For whatever reason, the birds seemed more restless that morning.  

One portion of the sky was overcast but it did give a different feel to the BIF photos.  Sharing a couple of them.
Red-footed Booby with a rain cloud for a background

Great Crested Tern with a nimbus cloud for a background

A portion of the Bird Islet

Then somebody yelled again that the Tiger Shark was back.  This time it came even closer to our boat!  I was able to take a couple of decent docu shots.

At one point it passed between our speedboat and the smaller speedboat from Narayana which was following us.  
The dark shape in the water is the Tiger Shark which was probably about two-thirds the length of our speedboats.

A portion of the Bird Islet, I wonder how it feels to actually set foot on the island

Soon it was time for us to go but before we do that, one more last fly-by from a friendly Brown Booby.  These are actually my favorite shots from among the many BIF's (bird-in-flight) shots of this bird. 

Brown Booby

My last views of the bird islet....

My last views of the Bird Islet

Our ship, M/Y Narayana as seen from a distance...

M/Y Narayana

After we got back on board, we set sail for the Ranger Station, which was situated at the southern end of the North Atoll, about forty-five minutes away. 

The Ranger Station - home to Tubbataha Rangers who are stationed in this "house" for two straight months before they are rotated.  

It was high tide so much of the sand bar around the station was submerged in waist deep waters.  There is no cellphone signal.  I am not sure if there is internet.  They have a radio.  But the view all around was spectacular... and there were big Sea Turles swimming beside the ranger station!

There were a few birds on the small sandbar, mostly Great Crested Terns.

Great Crested Terns

Great Crested Terns

Great Crested Tern

Pacific Reef Egrets

After the Ranger Station visit, we set sail for the South Atoll, which was a couple of hours away.  Rommel told me that the Black Noddies were easier to photograph there so I was looking forward to that.  Alas, this is what we saw when we reached our mooring site - a spot near Delsan Wreck. 

The South Atoll with the lighthouse under construction

Since construction was in full swing, it was decided that it was not worth going to it anymore.  We did some snorkeling - it was awesome! - would have been nice if I had our Go Pro with me :-(.  

Later in the afternoon, we took the speedboat and cruised around Delsan Wreck and got some good shots...       
Red-footed Boobies flying high...

... and low

Sunset at Delsan Wreck... its anchor sticking out like excalibur

Delsan Wreck in the foreground and the South Atoll Lighthouse in the background

One of my favorite shots of this trip.

Later that night, as we were cruising to Cavili Island, I sat in one of the lounging chairs at the back of the boat, sipping a cold beer while enjoying the cool night air and the sea breeze and silently gave a prayer of thanks to our Lord for enabling me to go on this trip, and of course to Lorna for allowing me to go, my boys Luis and Leon who were taking care of their Lola and our house, my mother's caregiver, and my staff at Darayonan.  
Enjoying a cold beer somewhere in the Sulu Sea

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Tubbataha Expedition - North Atoll


From as far back as I can remember, Tubbataha has been in my list of places to visit. However, since I am not a diver, there was no real urgency.  When I became a bird nut in 2012, it went to the top of the birding bucket list.  But prior to 2016, there were no organized birding tours to Tubbataha.  The only tours available were Live Aboard Dive Expeditions.  Because of this, only a few birders were able to visit the place.  When my friend Rommel Cruz organized the first Tubbataha birding tour in 2016, I was not in a position to go with the trip.  That the trip was a success only served to whet my appetite.  When bookings for the 2017 trip opened, I expressed interest but work and other obligations again got in the way.  Several months later when bookings for the 2018 trips opened, I signed up and made a deposit.  But the trip was cancelled due to some problems with the schedule of the ship. I transferred my booking to the 2019 trip.  But as the saying goes, all the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, or as Mr. Murphy says, if something can go wrong it will…

A few days before my departure, my mother started experiencing a feeling of being exhausted, often gasping for breath, so we went to her nephrologist on the eve of my departure and she was diagnosed with severe anemia (a common occurrence among hemodialysis patients).  The recommendation was for her to have blood transfusion and be confined overnight (damn you Mr. Murphy, see you in 2020 Tubbataha...). But when my mother mentioned to her doctor that I was leaving for a trip the next day, his exact words were, “that’s okay, this is just a transfusion” (Bless you Doc!). Still, I left having mixed feelings…

I took an early morning flight to Puerto Princessa and fortunately there were no delays. After breakfast at Itoy's and lunch at Balinsasayaw, we boarded M/Y Narayana at around 2pm.  There were fourteen people in our party, including Rommel. 

Before we got underway, Tubbataha management personnel came on board and gave us a short briefing on the rules governing the park.  

And we were off... next stop Tubbataha...  Some facts about our destination...

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,030-hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Palawan, the westernmost Philippine province. It is located 150km southeast of Puerto Princesa City, at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global centre of marine biodiversity.

Tubbataha is composed of two huge coral atolls – the north atoll and the south atoll – and the Jessie Beazley Reef, a smaller coral structure about 20 kilometres north of the atolls.

The reefs of Tubbataha and Jessie Beazley are considered part of Cagayancillo, a remote island municipality roughly 130 kilometers to the northeast, inhabited mainly by fisherfolk. 

The name “Tubbataha” comes from the Samal language meaning “long reef exposed at low tide”. Before Tubbataha became well known, the Samal – seafaring people of the southern Philippines – would visit the reefs intermittently, according to their nomadic lifestyle. However the people more tightly bound to Tubbataha are Cagayanons, inhabitants of the neighbouring islands of Cagayancillo. Traditionally, during the summer months when the sea was calm, they would sail in their native pangko, to visit the abundant fishing grounds of “Gusong”, their name for Tubbataha. (info from: www.tubbatahareef.org).

In order to protect the reef, our ship has to be tied to one of several mooring bouys.  Hence all live aboards bring along a speed boat or two to bring divers (and in our case, birders), around.

The two speedboats that we will use to get around in Tubbataha.  These will also be where we will be doing our birding at Bird Islet

Before long, we were treated to a beautiful sunset, the first of several that we got to experience during the trip.

After a hearty dinner and briefings from divemaster Abet Lagula and tour leader Rommel Cruz, it was time for bed.  

I woke up at dawn when I felt the ship's engine slow down and eventually die down.  I went on deck to have a look but was still dark though. We had reached Tubbataha!  And I could hear already birds!

Tubbataha Sunrise

My first glimpse of the Bird Islet at the North Atoll (photo taken from M/Y Narayana)

The Bird Islet, also taken from the deck of M/Y but using my 500mm telephoto lens. 

Due to tidal conditions, the speed boats could not bring us to Bird Islet until around 9am.  So the divers did a couple of dives in the morning before our birding trip. In the meantime, several marine denizens of Tubbataha entertained us starting with this Green Sea Turtle. 

Green Sea Turtle, Pawikan in Cuyonon.

Soon, it was time.... the trip took about fifteen minutes via speedboat.  I brought along my tripod but I decided that the best way was to stand up and shoot handheld -  which is what I did from the time we came to within shooting distance, to the time we left for the boat (for lunch), a period of about two and a half hours.  I was actually oblivious to what my companions were doing or saying, I just kept firing.  Here are some of the images that I was able to create that first morning.

Brown Noddy

Greater Frigate Bird, female

Greater Frigate Bird, male

Sooty Tern

Great Crested Tern

Great Crested Terns... many of them had chicks

Brown and Black Noddies in a small makeshift table in the hut that bird census takers used the week before.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby and Great Crested Tern

Brown Booby

Brown Noddy

Brown Boobies

Sooty Tern

Brown and Red-footed Boobies, Brown and Black Noddies 

Red-footed Boobies fighting for territory

Brown Boobies, Brown Noddy, Black Noddy

Brown Boobies

Red-footed Booby

The most sought after bird for the trip was the Masked Booby.  In recent years, the census showed only one (1) individual in the island. So a couple of my companions spent most of the morning peering through their binoculars in the hope of seeing it.  In fact, some have been to Tubbataha previously but are on this trip for the second time just so they can see the Masked Booby.  Unfortunately, even after almost three hours of searching, the bird was nowhere to be seen. 

We returned to Narayana for lunch and was told that we will probably head back at 3pm.  But due to the receding tide, it was decided that we will go back much earlier. One of the first things we saw during the afternoon sortie was a big Sea Turtle going up the beach at Bird Islet.  

Sea Turtle going up the beach and disturbing the birds

But when it reached higher ground, it turned around and went back to the water

Sea Turtle on the way back

We continued circling the island and looking for the Masked Booby. In the meantime, the other Tubbataha kept me and my camera occupied.

A pair of Brown Noddies doing synchronized flying

Brown Booby

Great Crested Tern with food in mouth

Great Crested Tern

The fast receding tide cut short our afternoon birding sortie.  Our boatman, fearing that the waters were already too shallow at our usual route, decided to take a longer way back.  We were essentially inside the lagoon and from the Bird Islet, our boatman took a southwesterly course with the intention of turning left and exiting the lagoon at some point.  After about twenty-five minutes we could already see the Ranger Station in the distance (!) and the ship was not responding by radio.  I remember asking him if he had enough fuel.  He said something that I was not able to catch (due to the noise of the engine), but it was not an answer that gave me confidence.  After a few more minutes, Rommel convinced him to turn left already (or port side in nautical terminology) and try to get out of the Lagoon.  He complied but asked us to move in front so that the propellers will sit higher in the water.  We slowly traversed the shallow waters of the lagoon "wall", all the while holding our breath that we do not hit a rock and damage our boat.  After about five nerve wracking minutes, we were clear!  But not without casualty as Rommel's (expensive?) shades fell in the water and got lost. To illustrate how far we had come, it took us almost thirty minutes cruising at a fast clip before we reached Narayana.  

As far as I can determine, our route back is shown by the purple line.  Our usual route is the green line (we were moored near the bouys).

In any case, we all breathed a big sigh of relief when we got back to our mother ship.  Did we rest?  Of course not!  Some went diving while four of us went snorkeling!  Later that afternoon, we were again treated to a spectacular sunset which we watched while on the roof deck of M/Y Narayana.  

Sunset taken at 6:03pm using my 18-35mm lens @18mm

Sunset taken at 6:11pm using my 200-500 lens @200mm

After dinner, we all sat around talking about the days activities and of course, drinking cerveza, to celebrate.  Salud!