The reef was healthy. In fact, exquisitely healthy. Hard and soft corals crowded each other for space while clouds of Anthias in rainbow colors of orange, red, purple and lime-green fluttered a few feet above. Near the top of the dropoff, we had just encountered a dense school of Trevally, swirling in a veritable tornado of fish, and now we were once again drifting at the precipice of the wall below. Our eyes turned to the deep and we began to descend. Whip corals, Gorgonia and massive barrel sponges festooned the wall and at depth the Anthias were replaced with swarms of Pyramid Butterflyfish and Redtooth Triggerfish, all fluttering peacefully in the open water until something big swam by, causing a mass rush to the safe confines of the reef wall.
Article and photography by Eco-Photo Explorers Michael Salvarezza and Christopher P. Weaver
This was Tubbataha…and something big was often swimming by!
As we drifted deeper our attention was suddenly fixed on a set of white dots just barely visible in the gloom of the deep. We squinted and strained until, gradually, a massive form emerged from the edge of visibility and appeared in all its glory: a whale shark! No, two! No, hang on…is that a third?
Tubbataha is a collection of three coral atolls that barely reach the surface in a stretch of water in the Sulu Sea, the geographic center of world marine biodiversity. Lying some 93 miles (150km) southeast of Puerto Princesa, in the province of Palawan in the Philippines, Tubbataha Reefs National Park is a 375 square mile (97,030 hectare) Marine Protected Area reachable only by liveaboard dive vessel and only for certain times of the year. Together, the North Atoll, South Atoll and Jessie Beazley Reef that make up Tubbataha are a World Heritage Site and a mecca for SCUBA Divers.
Our journey to Tubbataha was aboard the comfortable Discovery Adventure liveaboard, and we were joined by a number of guests of Marco Vincent Dive Resort which had chartered the vessel for this end of season transition expedition. The itinerary would first take us to Tubbataha before a visit to a little-known dive site in Cayuan, a stop at Apo Reef and a return to port in Puerto Galera.
The sighting of three Whale Sharks cruising the wall at a dive site known as Staghorn Point on the South Atoll occurred on our first day of diving in Tubbataha. Subsequent dives were equally electric, so much so that we almost became inured to the beautiful reefs and dynamic marine ecosystems that lay before our eyes on each dive. But not quite…
Our expedition began in the South Atoll, with dive sites like Staghorn Point where we saw the Whale Sharks and schools of Trevally and Striped Barracuda. We also did several dives at a site known as Delsan Wreck. The wreck itself is not part of the dive as it sits in water too shallow for a safe approach. Rather, this site is a sheer wall that drops off from a lush reef teeming with colorful indo-pacific reef fish. On one dive, a group of rather indifferent Bumphead Parrotfish cruised by, pre-occupied with their search for food and unconcerned about the group of divers in their midst.
Schools of Moorish Idols flitted over the reef at Black Rock in the northern part of the South Atoll. We also found a variety of Anemones with resident Anemonefish nervously cavorting in the anemone tentacles.
Strong currents are always a possibility at Tubbataha. Most of our dives were drifts with varying degrees of speed. The dive guides are well schooled in the vagaries of the water movement here and we almost never faced a dive into the current nor were we ever confronted with a current too strong for our safety. Still, currents can change in moments, they can be confusingly inconsistent from one depth to another, and down currents are an ever-present danger especially when diving near to the wall. Proper experience will provide greater comfort and proficiency with an SMB is a must.
On the North Atoll, we dove sites like South Park, Shark Airport, Seafan Alley and the ominously named Washing Machine. We frequently came across Whitetip Reef Sharks resting in the coral plains, but in the blue water off the walls, we encountered Silvertip Sharks and Silky Sharks on several of the dives.
One of our objectives was to dive with Manta Rays here. We didn’t see any but another group on the boat did when they hit the water at the Malayan Wreck. We were skeptical at first, but their video evidence proved us wrong!
Tubbataha is known for its very healthy reefs and big animal action. It is best photographed using wide angle equipment, but divers who thirst for macro experiences can delight in the intricate reef systems which hold so much small life to be photographed. Just be aware that as you focus on the small stuff, big animals will undoubtedly be swimming by!
The name “Tubbataha” comes from the Samal language meaning “long reef exposed at low tide”. Positioned in the middle of the Sulu Sea and very far from inhabitable land, the isolation of this reef system was, for many years, its best protection. There are only a few very tiny islets poking ever so slightly above the waves, and there is no protection from typhoons associated with the northeast monsoon between November and March and the southwest monsoon between July and October. Still, increasing numbers of Filipino fisherman using motorized boats in the 1980s began to threaten the health of the reefs. Dynamite and cyanide fishing began in earnest as the abundance of fish here became well known.
Thankfully, in 1988 President Corazon Aquino declared Tubbataha a National Marine Park, the first of its kind in the Philippines. A model for conservation and protection was implemented and has gradually been improved over the years. This model, which includes restricted access, ample time for no visitation, aggressive enforcement of regulations and very strict requirements of all visitors, including divers, is one that has shown success and should be emulated the world over.
Divers are among the most frequent visitors and their actions are very carefully monitored. Indeed, dive guides can be heavily fined or even prohibited from working in the park if the divers they escort do as much as touch the coral or harass any of the marine life. For divers, this is a very strict “no touch” environment and good buoyancy skills are essential.
Our journey included a visit to the ranger station on the North Atoll, where we briefly glimpsed what life is like for the dedicated individuals working here to protect Tubbataha. Here, a team of between 10-12 men from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, Municipality of Cagayancillo and the Tubbataha Management Office are stationed here in a shelter for 2 months at a time with the task of protecting the park from illegal activities. Equipped with radar, motor boats and other equipment, they regularly patrol the park and confront unauthorized visitors.
It is a vitally important role.
While we were there, we met with Angelique Songco, referred to affectionately by those she works with as “Mama Ranger”. She has been Tubbataha’s Park Manager since 2001 and she works tirelessly to protect this very special place. We thanked her, and the rangers, for the work they are doing and for the hardships they endure on behalf of the reef. The work has paid off…Tubbataha has some of the healthiest reefs in the world.
The Discovery Adventure left Tubbataha in the early evening as the sun set behind a flat horizon on a sultry afternoon. We were bound for a rare dive at Cayuan, 15 hours away, where we would be among the first 200 people to ever dive this pinnacle in the Sulu Sea, and for a visit to Apo Reef before ending our journey with some fascinating muck dives in Puerto Galera.
But the sensational reefs of Tubbbataha had gotten into our blood.
As seabirds called, we bid adieu to the reefs and all the myriad creatures making this their home. This expedition was the final one of the season. In the coming weeks, the waters will turn rough and storms may rake over Tubbataha with unrelenting fury. But for us, the knowledge that this area of ocean will now remain undisturbed for 9 months makes us smile. It is a chance for Tubbataha to breath, to regenerate, to exist as the reefs of the world once did: healthy, in balance and teeming with life.
The only way to dive Tubbataha is via liveaboard, and most depart from the port city of Puerta Princesa on the island of Palawan. Philippines Air Express flies domestic routes from Manila Airport.
Diving and Accommodation
Mike and Chris dove with the Discovery Adventure Liveaboard, on a chartered expedition by Marco Vincent Dive Resort. This was a 14-day custom itinerary that cost $4800 per person and was all inclusive, including domestic airfare from Manila. Contact Marco Vincent Dive Resort for more information: http://www.marcovincent.com
When to go
The dive season at Tubbataha runs from March through June only.