Screenshot from the video captured by Kevin Rice and Gracian Dela Rosa.

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, renowned for its rich marine biodiversity and stunning coral reefs in Palawan province, recently played host to an unexpected visitor that has both excited and concerned the park’s management.

Tubbataha Park Superintendent Angelique Songco said that on June 11, Kevin Rice and his dive leader, Gracian Dela Rosa, who were on a voyage aboard the M/Y Atlantis, captured an extraordinary discovery in their underwater camera in the marine park’s Wall Street, North Atoll — a sea cow, more locally known as a dugong.

She pointed out that the sighting in Tubbataha is a thrilling milestone, marking the first-ever encounter. However, she also expressed concern because the marine park is not a habitat for dugongs due to the absence of seagrass meadows, which provide their food.

The brief footage captured the typically calm marine mammal swimming at an unexpectedly rapid pace, suggesting a sense of alarm or unease, as if it had encountered a shark or some other threat.

Video by Gracian Dela Rosa and Kevin Rice

“It was the first-ever, and we haven’t seen it again. The first-ever since time immemorial because it is not a place for dugongs — Tubbataha is not their habitat because we have very few seagrass there, which is necessary for their survival. But perhaps due to changing times, maybe it was carried by the current. It’s unfortunate; we can’t do anything for it,” Songco said in an interview on Tuesday, June 27.

Songco said there had never been a record of a dugong in Tubbataha. Their team leader, Dr. Teri Aquino, meticulously searched through her reference books and entertained the possibility that it could be a finless porpoise, last sighted in the Philippines 30 years ago.

The absence of a dorsal fin is a distinctive characteristic of the finless porpoise, making it the only dolphin species without this feature. This similarity led them to initially mistake the dugong, which also lacks a dorsal fin, for the finless porpoise.

Dugongs are known to flourish in warm, shallow coastal waters, predominantly relying on seagrass as their primary food source, she explained. The area lacks significant expanses of seagrass beds due to the constant shifting of sand caused by monsoonal shifts.

While seagrass is found in higher concentrations around the Tubbataha ranger station and the islets of the North and South Atoll, its overall distribution remains sparse throughout the marine park.

The likely reason for its presence in the marine park on that day, she believes, is due to the effects of climate change.

“I would say that its presence is likely due to the climate, intense storms, or frequent storms. There may be a connection because in Cagayancillo, which encompasses Tubbataha, they also spotted a dugong for the first time,” she stated.

Tubbataha, which is also a World Heritage Site, is encompassed by the municipal territory of Cagayancillo.

When presented with the video, Rice immediately concluded that it was a dugong, according to Songco. However, she herself had doubts due to the fact that a dugong had never been sighted in Tubbataha before.

She would later discover that it was indeed a dugong, as it was observed alongside its typical companions, the striped golden jack fish. These fish opportunistically feed on the food exposed by the dugong’s grazing behavior.

“It is possible that the dugong was swept by currents and waves during the turbulent seas of April and May. The reason for its presence and its subsequent disappearance remains unknown,” she said.