Indecently healthy crown of thorns starfish
You see, I was a casualty of war – that is, the war Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Manager Angelique Songco and her troop of dedicated marine park rangers waged for a couple of days on theï¿½crown of thorns (COT) starfish (Acanthaster planci) infesting the reef! (see “Reef Mother” story).
I’ve gathered COT before, but they were no way near the size of these overfed mutants gorging on Tubbataha’s lush coral gardens. COTs are great outlets for aggression, the underwater equivalents of punching bags – except that they fight back.
I got stung on three fingers after I (foolishly) tried to keep up with Angelique and the rangers by impaling more than the prudent number of victims on a hooked metal rod; once they’re out of the water, it’s like trying to foist a shotput into the basket!
This, after Angelique had shown me how to gently insert your hook under the thing and puncture it without literally spilling any guts, much less severing a leg, as the evil things can regenerate. “That’s how you can tell a sensei from a disciple” she said with a laugh. “When the COT still looks perfect!” Well, this disciple has miles to go.
The swelling in my digits has subsided, but as Angelique warned, I was dreaming of malevolent, sneering COTs for days after. Best First Aid tip: dip the stings IMMEDIATELY in hot water – not warm, not tepid, but hot-enough-to-dunk-your-teabag-in water. Good luck.
In the middle of nowhere
Life on the ranger station, a 12-by-15 meter dome-roofed box on stilts on the edge of Tubbataha’s North Atoll, is not easy for a the average person. Diving season, during the Philippine summer months of about February to June (unless the increasingly unpredictable climate throws in some rain earlier – like this year, for instance), is more tolerable, with the reefs more accessible, and visitors and supplies coming in a pleasantly steady stream.
Come the habagat or southwest monsoon winds of the wet season, however, Tubbataha becomes a very lonely place for marine rangers on three-month tours of duty. “That’s why keeping their morale high is very important,” says Angelique.
The station runs on generator power (there are plans to shift to solar power soon) for just a few hours each day, and there’s no running water. Other than fresh water supplies brought in with each new shift, a cistern collects abundant rainwater for their needs, while seawater is used for general cleaning.