Dawn lights up the Sulu Sea, revealing a ship rocking on rolling waves. Coaxed to life by the warmth, the crew begins to stir. First to wake are the engines, whose deep growls massage the ship with powerful vibrations. Steam belches from the starboard or right side as the kitchen promises fresh breakfast. Orders are given and uniformed crewmen draw in the moored yawl or chase boat with rehearsed, expert precision.
For the crew of WWF-Philippines’ premier research vessel, another workday is clocked in – 100 kilometres from the nearest island or Bundy clock.
While many of the M/Y Navorca’s sea tales have been recounted, the trials of her crew have remained largely untold. So what’s life like for the crew behind WWF’s sole floating office in the Philippines? Landlubbers, let’s find out.
Sailing the Sulu Sea
Taking off from her predecessor M/Bca (motorized banca) Minerva, M/Y (motorized yacht) Navorca provides transportation services for WWF conservation initiatives in the Sulu Sea, particularly in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and nearby island municipality of Cagayancillo.
Painted panda black-and-white, it’s sturdy wood-and-fiberglass hull spans 80 feet and displaces 70 gross tonnes. Up to 12 passengers can be accommodated in bunk-beds, with two weeks’ worth of fuel, water and food onboard.
The vessel was acquired in 2008 and through a partnership with the Grieg Shipping Group, Grieg Foundation and WWF-Norway – was recently refitted with state-of-the-art navigation and communications equipment.
Led by WWF-Philippines Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager Marivel Dygico, seven souls keep the ship afloat – Dondon Cayanan, Herlito Dagaraga, Arnel Escobin, Jun Gayoma, Jun Magbanua, Jeruel Magalona and Captain Ronald de Roa. The team has been dubbed ‘The Oceans 7’.
Aye ‘aye, Cap’n!
“Ever seen waves as large as houses?” asks M/Y Navorca Captain Ronald ‘Kap’ de Roa – a slight man with a quiet demeanor and alert eyes that constantly scan the horizon. “Sailors call the giant waves gulong because ships have to roll with them just to stay afloat. Off Antique’s coast in 2008, we had to navigate through gulong waves for days. Definitely not for the faint-hearted!”
‘Kap’ as everyone calls him, started his WWF career in 1999 as a rating or crewman of WWF-Philippines’ first research vessel, the M/Bca Minerva. He rose to captain it in 2003 and helmed the new M/Y Navorca in 2010.
Now 38 years young and a proud father of three, Kap holds a Major Patron License – meaning he can captain any ship up to 500 gross tonnes. His secret to successful navigation?
“Always be alert. A captain has to constantly monitor everything – from the position of the ship to the direction of the current. When bad weather hits – and it always does in the Sulu Sea – you have to work doubly-hard to ensure the safety of everyone onboard.”
“Fortunately, this ship comes complete with navigational aids,” beams Kap as he shows off the ship’s GPS unit, depth sounder, long distance single-side-band (SSB) radio, short distance very-high-frequency (VHF) radio, radar screen, nautical compass and other tools of the maritime trade. I’m impressed. Jack Sparrow’s magic compass would be put to shame.
Master Chef Tubbataha
From pan-seared tuna kebabs to chocolate ice-cream (yep, you read right) served on freshly-chopped coconut shells, the magical hands of Jeruel ‘Weng’ Magalona conjures them all.
At 27, Weng serves as the ship’s resident chef and is seldom seen on-deck – working tirelessly to whip up restaurant-worthy entrées for the M/Y Navorca’s guests. Weng was a cook for various Palawan restaurants and pension-houses before joining the crew. His house specialty?
“Tuna kebabs,” he whispers excitedly. “I choose only the choicest Yellowfin tuna cuts and pan-sear the cubes with white onions, roasted peppers and my secret version of lemon-butter sauce. It’s always a hit.” Having wolfed down five sticks during his four-minute interview, I couldn’t agree more.
All Hands on Deck
Four crewmen – all veteran hands – keep the ship tip-top. The tasks of Dondon Cayanan, Arnel Escobin, Jun Gayoma and Jun Magbanua range from operating the chase boat for divers to conducting instant field-expedient repairs in all weather conditions.
“A ship at sea must be self-sufficient – so everyone should learn and offer varied skills,” explains shirtless Arnel while plastering a cracked pipe-fitting with freshly-kneaded marine epoxy. “Today you’re a painter, tomorrow a dive master – it’s really dynamic.”
Herlito ‘Lito’ Dagaraga not only looks like Morgan Freeman – he literally keeps the boat running. At 63, the 4th-class Marine Engineer is the ship’s oldest hand and its engine master – always working below decks to cajole the boat’s three engines to optimal levels.
The crew rotates tasks. Jun Gayoma for example, serves as the finishing carpenter, able to repair the woodwork. Jun Magbanua serves as a navigator, having helmed the M/Bca Minerva before Kap’s time.
The friendliest perhaps – is Dondon, a veteran diver who often acts as both guide and chase boat tender on dive trips. Dondon is unique for having served aboard the M/Y Navorca’s three-man crew (which included two owners) long before it was acquired by WWF.
“With gulong waves, squalls and unpredictable currents, sailing the Sulu Sea can be rough –but we’re prepared for anything. After all, there’s nothing more important than our guests’ comfort and safety.”
On cue, Jun Magbanua expounds on the ship’s save-our-lives-at-sea (SOLAS) gear. “We have an inflatable raft for 20 people, smoke signal flares, first aid kits, axes, fire extinguishers ...”
“Without the efforts of our crewmen, WWF wouldn’t be able to help conserve Tubbataha,” reveals WWF Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager Marivel Dygico. “They are truly our behind-the-scenes heroes.”
Right smack in the Sulu Sea lie the twin atolls of Tubbataha – one of the country’s Great Reefs. Here, fish biomass breaches 200-tonnes per square kilometer. This is five times greater than the productivity of a typical healthy reef, enough to seed eastern Palawan and the adjoining Visayan sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.
Before it was declared a National Marine Park in 1988, Tubbataha’s residents have long suffered from exploitation, with generations of fishermen gathering not just fish, but turtles and bird eggs as well. Together with the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), WWF and the crew of the M/Y Navorca stand steady on the parapets of conservation.
“Consider that less than 5% of Philippine coral reefs are in excellent condition and that 40 million Filipinos rely on the sea for food or livelihood,” asks Dygico. “Can we really afford to lose what remains to poachers? Not on our watch.”
Night falls on the Sulu Sea after a hard day’s work. With all guests fed and bedded down, with all lines secured and situation reports dispatched, the crew finally finds time to unwind. Some gather on the ship’s port or left side to exchange sea tales, while Arnel and two others play puzzle games on a laptop near the head or bath area.
Halting at the ship’s bow or nose, I gaze out the darkness, noticing a faint veil of stars dappling the Sulu Sea’s undulating expanse of waves.
“The sun, moon and the never-ending stretches of ocean offer a unique kind of freedom on the high seas,” says a smiling Kap, holding two steaming mugs of coffee. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”