By Alya B. Honasan
Angelique Songco manages the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Palawan with a lot of passion
It’s late one summer morning, the sun is illuminating the crystal-clear waters of the magnificent Sulu Sea—and it’s a fierce war zone in the 4,737-hectare lagoon of the North Atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Palawan, the Philippines.
Above the water, fins flutter and plump crown-of-thorns (COT) starfish are hurled into straw baskets floating on inflated rubber tire interiors. Under the water, with her mask, snorkel, and long metal hook with a wooden handle, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Manager Angelique Songco is leading the assault with six of her marine park rangers, collecting the coral-eating pests that have infested many parts of the park for the last 15 months. She surfaces for a breath, just long enough to yell, “Let’s finish off every one of them!” Then she’s gone, and the massacre continues.
By noon, after an hour and a half of intense work, the team has dumped over 1,200 COTs into a groaning dinghy, to be ferried to a nearby sandbar and buried. “It’s funny,” Songco says with a chuckle, although she’s only half joking. “I sometimes stay awake at night, thinking, my God! These pests are eating our coral! I can’t stand it!”
It’s the kind of passion that Songco has brought to her job ever since she became park manager and head of the Tubbataha Management Office when it was officially created in 2001. “Our job is to execute the policies of the Tubbataha Management Board,” she says of the multisectoral body, composed of 19 government and non-government agencies. Together, they oversee the protection of this 97,000-hectare Unesco World Heritage Site, the only purely marine site in Southeast Asia.
The region is also an important coral and fish larvae spawning ground for the Coral Triangle, one of the world’s critical centers for marine biodiversity that covers the waters of six countries, including the Philippines.
On any given day, this dynamo can be found answering e-mail in her Puerto Princesa office, visiting the marine park rangers who man the station perched on a sandbar 12 hours by boat from the mainland (and playing fussy den mother as well as boss lady when she’s there), filing cases against apprehended illegal fishermen, giving talks to students, coastal communities, and guests on departing live-aboard dive boats, chatting up potential donors, and hounding authorities on the phone for help.
When Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, herself a certified scuba-diver, visits the reefs, Songco is called to accompany her on a dive. All this, when the 48-year-old diving instructor is not playing wife to Norman Songco, a boat-builder and dive shop operator in Puerto Princesa, and mom to kids Giga, a marine biology student, and Nathan, a fifth-grader and school tennis champ.
It’s enough of a schedule to drive a lesser woman (or man) batty. Still, says Songco, who remembers “how beautiful it was then” when she began diving Tubbataha in 1982, “I look out on all this and think, we should be able to do more.”
Even after the worst day, however, all it takes is one dive to remind her why she’s there. On this trip, during a safety stop, the boss lady spotted a swirling ball of jacks, and slipped quietly underneath them, before they embraced her like a silver cloud. “One dive,” Songco says, “and everything is worth it.”