Dongsha lies at the northern end of the South China Sea, some 160km southeast of Hong Kong and 240km southwest of Taiwan. The halo-shaped atoll is a living coral metropolis that preserves the outline of a long-submerged ancient volcano. With the exception of sandy Dongsha Island/Islet (a 2+ square kilometer patch of dry land), the entire atoll lies just below South China Sea waves. Surrounded by open ocean for at least a hundred miles in all directions, Dongsha's coral spires have given nightmares to navigators for centuries. Early European maps of the South China Sea marked the Pratas with a simple circle of crosses to call attention to what happens to big ships that wander too close. Today, the abandoned hulks of several ships still cling to the shallow crest of the atoll.
Because atoll shallows are navigable to low-draft fishing boats, fishermen from China, attracted by the area's rich marine life, arrived to build temporary and then semi-permanent lean-tos on Dongsha Island. However, with no fresh water (except for rain) and little to eat, Dongsha has never presented conditions suited to long-term human settlement.
Although nominally part of China, a Japanese entrepreneur landed on the deserted atoll around 1907 to mine guano - stratified bird droppings rich in phosphate and nitrogen (think fertilizer and gunpowder). China didn't make much of a fuss about the intrusion (the Qing Dynasty was busy collapsing at the time), but negotiated a Japanese withdrawal in 1909. Dongsha Island returned to hosting itinerant fishermen until World War Two, when Japan stationed troops and built an airfield for Zero fighters.
After 1949, Dongsha was put under the control of the ROC Marines (陸戰隊), which promptly installed heavy artillery, barbed wire, concrete bunkers and everything else necessary to rebuff the PLA offensive bound to come. In the years of calm that ensued, however, thousands of Marines, bored stiff in a primitive paradise, improvised new and creative ways to expend the generous rounds of artillery and rifle shells supplied by headquarters. Dongsha's coral reef and marine ecology suffered greatly under more than four decades of military care.
Today, Dongsha is administered by Taiwan's Coast Guard (海巡署), which oversaw an overdue about-face change in policy toward the atoll. Those now stationed on the island by and large observe a ban on all resource harvesting (fishing, crabbing, souvenir hunting, etc.) and sup only on food and drink shipped in from Kaohsiung. I learned that even swimming is against the rules for those stationed there (at least strongly frowned upon). A main objective of the Coast Guard on this southern outpost of the ROC, beyond upholding Taiwan sovereignty in the area, is protecting the coral reefs from further destruction. This is pursued primarily by shooing away the fishing boats (mostly from China and Vietnam) that move in unfailingly after nightfall in hopes of working Dongsha reefs. The Coast Guard has a difficult, often thankless task that is made exponentially more difficult by Taiwan's extemporized international standing.
Rather than impounding trespassing vessels (which might upset the cordial status quo that accepts Taiwan as custodian of Chinese sovereignty on the Pratas), Taiwan's Coast Guard seems bound to a good neighbor policy in all dealings with fishermen and their boats - even when "caught in the act". While on Dongsha Island, we watched the Coast Guard return to sea a small boat of shellfish divers from Hainan Island (海南島, China) whose engine had conked off the reef. The Coast Guard repaired the engine and escorted the divers and their boat into open waters beyond the reef, where they surely rendezvous'd with a mother ship anchored just outside Taiwan's territorial waters.
Dongsha Island and its reef appear, finally, to have a chance to recover. White coral sand beaches are now clear (pretty much) of razor wire and the more obvious defensive fortifications have been cleared away or allowed to crumble. Illicit reef destruction by fishermen and rising / warming waters now pose the greatest threats. One of the Hainan shellfish divers related that nearby waters are much warmer than in years past and large swathes of coral have turned black. Shellfish catches apparently aren't what they used to be either.
I remain in awe of Dongsha's tropical beauty and isolated tranquility. We had free reign of the island while there, and I took full advantage of the week in paradise - walking the beaches, sitting patiently by sand crab hovels awaiting an appearance, taking pictures and enjoying sunsets. The Pratas seems in good hands with the Taiwan Coast Guard, which seems as eager as anybody to make sure the atoll has time and space to recover.
I hope that the National Park, when declared, continues to focus on conservation, with just enough tourism allowed to win for the reef broader appreciation and respect as a natural heritage site worthy of greater regional and international protection. The international community should also take advantage of Taiwan's willingness to protect and preserve Dongsha's isolation to the benefit of the entire Southeast Asia ecosystem.
Special thanks to those on the Pratas who helped turn a week-long stay into memories sure to last a lifetime.