“Another one,” I thought to myself as a three-legged sea turtle swam lopsidedly past. Its birdlike eyes warily scanned a sunlit expanse of coral garden on Tubbataha’s South Island atoll in the Philippines. The crippled green slowed cautiously as it approached the edge of the reef wall plunging cliff-like into the indigo depths below. This turtle could consider itself lucky—it only lost a leg. For many others the first glimpse of the striped torpedo of a tiger shark barreling out of the deep would have been the last thing they ever saw.
I saw my first Tubbataha tiger yesterday. In the dim light of early morning as the sun edged above the Sulu Sea horizon we spotted a dorsal fin knifing through the mirror-flat water in a scene straight out of “Jaws”. Under the cover of a moonless night only a few hours before, the shark had easily ambushed unsuspecting victims; but in the gathering daylight it sensed its own vulnerability. As we drew closer in the small outboard dingy from WWF reef survey ship Minerva, the tiger vanished into the safety of deep water with a few powerful sweeps of its tail.
But now it’s another moonless night and my legs are dangling helplessly beneath me into the inky black sea where I know the sharks are prowling again. I’m hastily checking my scuba equipment so I can dive beneath the waves with my dive buddies, a visiting Danish photographer couple who are also documenting the amazing biodiversity of Tubbataha Reef on this survey expedition.
Enveloped in a storm of silvery bubbles as we submerge, we let the air out of our dive vests and swim to the bottom of the reef shelf. I’m more comfortable down among the corals and not bobbing helplessly on the surface for a passing tiger to swipe at. My flashlight casts an eerie greenish glow around me as I look for night animals to photograph. Just to be safe, I point the flashlight towards the dropoff. The beam casts a feeble light, but enough to illuminate a four-foot reef shark ghosting by, its eyes gleam unblinkingly back at me. Bad idea.
Nervous, I swim a little closer to my dive buddies, who are hovering over a large coral formation, taking photos. Without realizing I’ve strayed too close, one of them gives an unexpected kick and knocks my air regulator out of my mouth. Bubbles surround me and I can hear the air gushing from my tank, but they are oblivious to my sudden danger.
I fumble to grab the hose and put the regulator back in my mouth and start breathing again, but with the camera strapped to one wrist and the flashlight on the other it’s hard to find it without getting everything tangled. A lung-burning minute passes before I get a hold of the regulator and everything’s ok. I decide I’d better stick to exploring the reef during the day and let the sharks have it to themselves at night.