Roughly 150 miles equidistant from the East Coast of Borneo and The Philippines,
in the middle of the Sulu Sea, lies the atolls that make up Tubbataha Reef Natural Park (TRNP). Designated part of The Philippines, this marine reserve consists of North and South Atolls and the adjacent Jessie Beazley Reef.
Part of the province of Cagayanon, the 10,000 hectares of coral reef lying at the heart of the coral triangle, the centre of global biodiversity, boast over 300 species of coral and 1000 species of animals, many considered endangered. Up to the 1970’s, during the summer months, fishermen would make the long trip out to Tubbataha in fleets of traditional wooden sailboats, or bangkas. By the mid 1980, modernized motor boats caused the reef to become over-exploited, and, in a response to divers and environmentalist pressure, in 1988, Tubbataha was designated a UNESCO natural heritage site. It is home to a rangers station, built on stilts above a sand spit.
Tubbataha’s remoteness means it is only accessible by liveaboard. The easiest and most popular way to get there is via Manila to Puerto Princessa on Palawan Island, which is then a ten to fifteen hour steam by liveaboard across open ocean. Alternatively, and the option I chose, is a two week trip from Cebu, taking in the wonderful islands of Balicasag, Silquijor, Apo, and Negros, then a thirty hour trip usually leaving around lunch time, after two morning dives, arriving early the next morning.
The season at Tubbataha runs from March to June only, when there are usually outstanding diving conditions, clear skies, flat seas and excellent visibility often above 90ft/30 m.
There are a number of liveaboards which venture out to Tubbataha, however, I was lucky enough to be onboard the most luxurious MV Philippine Siren. After some wonderful diving experience around the Philippine islands in the first week, it was time to head out on the long trip to Tubbataha. Balmy conditions, reasonably flat seas, and a chance to catch up on sunbathing was enjoyed by all, after a fairly rigorous four or five dives a day. Excitement about our previous dives, and about Tubbataha, kept us all talking late into the evening. None of us had been to Tubbataha before, including Hans, the cruise director. Only the dive guides had been, and they were full of stories of wonder, beautiful reefs, sharks galore, a huge abundance of fish life, and the most serene, peaceful and stunning scenery anywhere they had dived before. An hour after we finally went to bed, we were woken by being tossed unceremoniously out of our bunks by a sudden storm, which continued raging for most of the night.
Finally, after wedging myself into my bunk sideways, I managed to stay lying flat on my bed, long enough to get about two hours sleep. The next morning I awoke to the flattest and most beautiful seas I had ever seen. Considering the location, in the middle of the open ocean, this was incredible! Mooring at the North Atoll, our rib took us to one of the many incredible dive sites Tubbataha has to offer.
Washing Machine, we learnt, could be prone to unpredictable currents, but was off such magnificent beauty,
it was chosen as the first dive.We dropped down, after a backward roll from the RIB, onto the top of the wall surrounding the atoll and descended over the edge to around 75 ft/25 m. A slight current was flowing, visibility was down to 60 ft/20 m after the storm, beauty abounded in the most incredible, colorful, full of life reefs. We were met by an entourage of grey reef sharks, which seemed to be swirling around us for most of the dive. Two spotted eagle rays hung in the blue, a marble ray furrowed in the sand, with huge dogtooth tuna, giant trevally, and milk fish stalking their prey. Blacktip sharks were sleeping on the white sandy spits on top of the reef, huge napolean wrasse, turtles, and schooling fish made it seem like a barrel load of steroids had been dumped on the reef - everything seemed bigger and better than anywhere else! As we surfaced from our dive, the only word on everyones lips was “WOW!”.
Shark Airport followed, with, unusually for a dive named after sharks, lots of sharks! A huge school of jacks swarmed above the reef, whilst a large school of chevron barracuda circled round and round in the blue. Reef sharks swam with nonchalance, not bothered by our bubbles. A blue spotted fantail ray rested on the sand, whilst octopus and yellow margin moray eels hid in crevices.
Fan Alley was next, a beautiful wall dive with large sea fans of many varying colors, schools of giant barracuda and jacks, Again, the obligatory reef sharks escorting us around the reef. Here there was a strong current, and a thermocline at 54 ft/18 m which made the sea temperature drop by two degrees.Amos Rock, near the Rangers Station, seemed the healthiest reef I have seen in my travels. Thousands of fish, huge schools, large napoleans, hunting tunas, majestic angelfish, arrowhead soapfish, and over twenty juvenile grey reef sharks, made for an incredible dive. All this, topped off with a manta ray cruising along the edge of the wall!
A night dive at a previously unexplored site, which was named by our dive group as Donato’s grottos, after our dive guide, produced an abundance of life. Two massive sargon shrimps, five times larger than normal, were spotted by Hans, who was so excited by his find, he couldn’t stop talking about it all evening.
Early next morning, we set off for the South Atoll, to see how this would compare to the North.
We moored next to Delsan Wreck. The wreck protrudes from the shallows of the reef, but is at too shallow a depth to be dived on. We entered the water just off it bow, on the edge of the wall, and dropped down to 72ft/24 m. Pristine reefs surrounded us, with white sand cuts heading up over the edge of the wall, which were a haven for nurse sharks, hawksbill turtles and green turtles. Here, we experienced our first real changeable current. After diving in slight to moderate currents in the North Atoll, we were surprised by the sudden and varied changes in current direction on this dive. A thermocline at around 60ft/20 m saw many of the divers shivering after a three degree drop in temperature.
Later that afternoon, we tried the dive again, to experience no turtles, but huge schools of great barracuda, lots of reef sharks, many different moray eels, and oceanic triggerfish guarding their perfectly circular nests in the sand, chasing off surgeonfish and groupers with much aggression. A strong down current on the wall, had us fighting to stay within no-deco limits, and as soon as a slight let up occurred, we headed back to the top of the reef, to complete an extended safety stop, whilst examining nooks and crannies for more morays and octopus.The next day we headed to Black Rock dive site. Similar to previous dives, there were lots of sand gully’s in shallower water. Groups of oriental sweetlips at a cleaning station, allowed divers to get extremely close for at least ten minutes. Green turtles sleeping on the reef top, and a gentle current, gave the divers an impression of peace, calmness and beauty.
Another unexplored dive site, which we named Sweetlips Express, followed that afternoon. A completely pristine reef, with beautiful corals, and many, many harlequin and oriental sweetlips started the dive. Lots of black snapper, a rare giant snapper, hunting jacks, and schools of juveniles reef sharks followed, in a slight current. Three quarters of the way through the dive, we were suddenly picked up by a screaming current which catapulted us right around the atoll from one side to the other, passing under our liveaboard and spitting us out almost exactly the opposite point from where we started our dive! We felt like the astronauts of Apollo 13 when they were catapulted around the moon like a slingshot!
Black Rock, early the next morning, was decided by consensus to be a nice easy dive to start our day. How wrong were we! As a complete contrast to the previous days dive here, we encountered a crazily wild current, as soon as we got down onto the wall. We flew along the wall, at such a speed, for the first half of the dive, meeting both up, down and side currents. Then it spat us out and we spent a lazy ten minutes cruises the reef with virtually no current at all. As suddenly as the current had stopped, it started again, and flew us again across the reef. We inflated an SMB and let the current take us into the blue whilst we completed our safety stop.
Tubbataha, is, without question, a paradox. It is both one of the most peaceful, and also one of the most exciting, places I have ever dived. It’s beauty is astounding, and, if ever there was a place that is transcendentally spiritual, it is here.
By Lisa Collins