PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines — Visitors to this rural province are greeted at the airport by a towering image of the Tubbataha Reef teeming with sea life, a sign of the marine reserve’s status as one of the world’s premier scuba diving attractions.
But the grounding of a U.S. Navy minesweeper on the remote protected coral reef about 90 miles southeast of Puerto Princesa last month has not only angered many Filipinos but also has cast a shadow over the dive season here, which is set to open in mid-March and regularly attracts experienced — and affluent — divers from abroad.
A barge crane moved into position this week to begin cutting the USS Guardian into scrap for removal, a process that will cost nearly $25 million and take until at least early April, U.S. and Philippine authorities said. The two countries have yet to settle on a damage assessment for the reef, which was designated a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1993 for its pristine corals and extraordinary biodiversity.
“Since the grounding of the Guardian, I have seen a distinctive drop-off in inquiries” about dive excursions to Tubbataha, said Dino Pangione, boat manager for the Puerto Princesa-based dive company M/Y Sakura.
The reef is regularly rated among the best dives by scuba publications and news organizations. Pangione said those who come to Tubbataha are typically “hardcore” divers who are widely traveled, have completed hundreds of dives and are willing to pay thousands of dollars per trip.
Last year, 1,321 of the total 1,533 divers in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park — 86 percent — were foreigners, according to Maribel Buni, chief tourism operations officer for the Palawan Tourism Promotions and Development Office.
Dive operators fear any indication the reef is tainted by the Guardian’s grounding may encourage high-paying foreign divers to ditch Philippines travel plans and go elsewhere, such as to the Red Sea in Egypt, Palau or Thailand, according to Pangione.
The already-cloudy outlook for the March-through-June dive season is likely to be further complicated by weeks of underwater noise from the Guardian salvage operations, which could disturb reef wildlife such as lumbering whale sharks and skittish hammerhead sharks, he said.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the damage from the Guardian,” he said. “I think we’re going to lose significant clientele.”
Park manager Angelique Songco said the grounding has closed two of the park’s seven dive sites.
The Guardian plowed into the reef at 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 after a port visit in the Philippines, and the crew was evacuated without injury. But the United States determined the heavily damaged wooden-hulled ship could not be removed without further damage to the reef and would instead be decommissioned, cut into pieces and scrapped.
The Department of Defense says it has a $24.8 million contract with a Singapore salvage company that spent this week moving a crane into position along the remote reef site, which is still being pounded by seasonal high seas.
Salvage work was expected to begin Thursday, and the estimated completion date has been pushed back to early April, said Lt. j.g. Greanata Jude, a spokeswoman for the Philippine coast guard.
The U.S. and Philippines are working to assess the coral damage and come up with a compensation plan. The park has rejected Navy surveys of the reef, and Songco has claimed the Guardian may have damaged 43,000 square feet of Tubbataha coral.
With work just beginning and limited knowledge of the damage beneath the Guardian, it also remains uncertain how long the two park dive sites will remain closed, Songco said.
It will likely be years before those locations return to a vibrant, thriving reef, she said.
Despite the environmental damage and the dive site closures, the park is not likely to restrict the number of divers who can visit the Tubbataha – typically only half of the 3,000 permits available each year are requested.
Songco, who is a diver, said it is too early to know whether the grounding will repel or attract visitors to the reef. So far, there have been few cancellations among those who have already made deposits on dive trips during the upcoming season.
“Being a World Heritage Site, I think it is on a diver’s bucket list,” she said. “For dive tourism … it’s the best dive site in the Philippines.”