Inside an Expedition

The 2012 Location: Tubbataha Natural Park

This year’s expedition was conducted at TUBBATAHA REEF NATURAL PARK, a marine protected area located in the Sulu Sea 92 nautical miles south east of the provincial centre of Puerto Princesa City, Philippines.

Tubbataha is a priority conservation area in the Philippines and one of only two World Heritage Sites in the country. Protecting an area of over 98,000 hectares of stunning marine habitats it features three atolls South Reef, North Reef, Jessie Beazley and a large area of deep sea.

The coral reef ecosystem here supports over 350 species of coral (almost 90% of all coral species in the Philippines) and more than 500 species of fish.


The purpose of this expedition was determine the coral reef condition within the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park and surrounding reefs to compare data collected from previous expeditions to determine the effectiveness of the Marine Protected Area.


expedition-team-photoThis year saw 18 marine enthusiasts from around the world including a team of water babies from Unico converging on dry land in Puerto Princesa for the meet, greet and training workshop.

A great feature of any expedition is that the participants within one day can learn basic methods for monitoring coral reefs. We learn how to identify and document different substrate types and coral forms , marine life and collect scientific data for tracking the condition of the reef.

Once the training was complete, the new batch of marine biologists under the guidance of Dr Alan White and his team set sail for Tubbataha Reefs on board the charismatic Hans Christian Anderson for a 6 day expedition into the Sulu Sea.

It is here that nature becomes the laboratory…


The data is collected via a comprehensive monitoring program using two different techniques, transects with scuba diving and visual snorkelling surveys. Each day consists of a scuba and snorkel survey in the morning and an additional scuba survey in the afternoon.

Every dive is preceded by a dive briefing which provides some background of the site, features to look for, safety precautions, dive location and plan.

1. Scuba Surveys

Divers descend down to sections of the reef and lay a 50m transect at around 7 metres depth. Working from each side of the transect divers record substrate cover using specially marked slate boards at every 25 centimetres and meet in the middle. Once laid, the transect equates to 200 value data points. CCEF dive masters follow behind documenting marine fish life along the transect line.

Substrate is classified into one of a set of categories — Branching Coral, Massive Coral, Foliose Coral, Encrusting Coral, Soft Coral, Dead Coral, Dead Coral with Algae, Sand, Silt, Rock & Block, Sponge, Other Animals (e.g. Clams), Turf Algae, Fleshy Algae, Sea Grass.

Once you have entered the 200 data points for the substrate, you then go back along the line looking for invertebrates i.e sea urchins, sea stars, slugs, a metre on either side of the tape, this equates to surveying 100 square metres.

But there’s more…. CCEF staff have a far harder task as they move along the tape identifying and counting fish. As we all know fish tend to move around a lot. One fish, two fish, three fish…

The survey usually takes just over 30 minutes to complete. You then wind up the tape and use the rest of your tankful of air to explore the stunning marine waters, where you can meet some of the local residents. Out to greet us were anemone fish, massive schools of big-eye trevally, manta rays, whale sharks, white-tip reef sharks and much more.

2 .Snorkel Surveys

A different slate is used for this part of the monitoring. The aim here is to snorkel where the depth is about 2.5 metres, and stop every 50 metres. The last 5 or 10 metres you do with your eyes closed so that results aren’t biased and you don’t stop only on a healthy section of coral.

Distance is estimated counting around 50 kicks, a great workout. When you get to the spot you open your eyes, and mentally mark out a square metre on the sea floor and record what the percentage substrate cover make up of that square is, using the same classifications as for the scuba survey.

The intention is to get a random sample of the substrate for the reef. With 18 people recording at 18 locations gives CCEF and their scientific teams a broad sample to analyse. At the same time as you are doing this, there is one extra task: counting butterfly fish. The other side of the slate has lines for the different species of butterfly fish, and you count the numbers you see of each species. There are about 40 listed on the board, but normally you only see about 20 different types. Why butterfly fish? They’re a signal of coral reef health and high coral cover.

Data Entry

After a tough day of diving and snorkelling in some of the most stunning marine environments of the planet, you transfer the information from slates into the e-data-base with your buddy.

At the culmination of the trip the data is analysed by Dr Alan White and his team to establish to determine the health of the area and to support the current management of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and the effectiveness of protection from illegal fishing and improper tourism activities in the area.

View the Summary Field Report for this expedition