The Tubbataha Reefs lie around two atolls in the center of the Sulu Sea and are famous for the many large pelagic (open ocean) marine animals attracted to them—such as sharks, manta rays, turtles, and barracuda. The steeply shelving reefs here are also rich in smaller life, including many species of crustaceans, colorful nudibranchs (sea slugs), and more than 350 species of stony and soft coral.
In the early 1990s, the Tubbataha Reefs were rated by scuba divers among the top ten dive sites in the world. However, during the 1980s they suffered considerable damage from destructive fishing practices and the establishment of a seaweed farm. In 1988, the Philippines government intervened, declaring the area a National Marine Park, and since 1993 it has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the condition of the Tubbataha reefs has much improved, due to the enforcement of measures such as a prohibition on fishing and a ban on boats anchoring on the reefs (visiting craft must use mooring buoys). Live coral cover in most sites in 2004 showed significant increases after a coral bleaching episode in 1998.