Tubbataha Reef: Crown jewel of Philippine diving

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One of the world’s diving meccas can be found on our shores. Welcome to Tubbataha Reefs National Park, the crown jewel of Philippine diving.

Tubbataha Reef
Tubbataha Reef [via Philstar]

Sitting smack dab in the middle of the Sulu Sea, scientists believe that Tubbataha is the nursery for fish and coral spawn that populate the Sulu-Sulawesi Triangle — an area that not only covers the most important and productive fishing grounds of the Philippines but extends as far south as Malaysia and Indonesia. So important is this submerged structure in the balance of the underwater ecosystem that UNESCO declared Tubbataha a World Heritage Site as far back as 1993. In 1998, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos, a keen diver himself, created Task Force Tubbataha and a station equipped with radar and manned by zealous rangers was established.

Several factors are responsible for the almost virgin conditions of this underwater jewel. The convergence of currents constantly brings in a barrage of the nutrients and clean water a healthy reef and its inhabitants demand. Being the largest and almost lone structure in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean guarantees a healthy influx of pelagic visitors looking for a meal and other services an underwater community provides.

My discovery of Tubbataha last summer was courtesy of my good friend Yvette Lee, who is also a celebrated underwater photographer. We landed in the bustling city of Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan, on a hot summer day. The city is the jump-off point for the live-aboard ships that operate in Tubbataha during the summer months of March to early June.

Palawan is called the last frontier due to the still pristine state of its terrestrial and underwater resources. Rugged bluish silhouettes of a mountain range provided a mysterious background to the ship I was transferred to as it anchored in the channel that was just off the jetty. This ship, the second and newest addition to the Discovery Fleet, is called the Discovery Adventure.

As the day unfolded, the pier took on the busy atmosphere of a tropical port. I enjoyed watching people and cargo move in and out, with decibel levels rising and falling with the arrival and departure of other vessels.

Representatives came from the Tubbataha Management Office. They, along with our dive leaders, gave an orientation on the parks’ rules and regulations. We were also informed of the location of our jackets and what to do in case of a boat emergency.

Soon enough, it was our turn to leave and I contained my excitement as our ship pulled away from its moorings and headed out to the open sea for the overnight sail to what is considered the Apex of Philippine dive destinations, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.

In the middle of nowhere I woke up to flat seas and a pink sunrise and I enjoyed the early morning quiet, appreciating an almost uninterrupted 360-degree view of an empty ocean. There was an early continental breakfast and I enjoyed my hot beverage while others had toast, cereal and fruit.

Our first dive was at Staghorn Crest, which I knew to be what is called a “check-out” dive. We were told beforehand what we were expected to demonstrate to our dive masters: mask clearing, regulator recovery and buoyancy control.

We boarded chase boats that would bring us to the reef from the mother boat, and as these craft skimmed over the shallows, the sea turned from dark blue to cyan, and we could see the white sandy edge. Back-rolling into gin-clear waters, I was awed at the fields of staghorn coral that stretched out before me. So mesmerized was I looking at the reefscape and the fishes fleeting about, my dive leader had to tap me on the shoulder to indicate it was my turn. Business done, we drifted off the reef and into the walls that were accented by delicate purple sea fans. As we neared the end of the dive, we were once again on the reef-top, where we saw turtles munching on coral or just sitting quietly, gazing our way.

Back on the boat, famished with the hour-long immersion in what actually was warm seawater, I was ecstatic to see a hot breakfast buffet spread out. Our steward called out, “Ma’am, how would you like your eggs?” They even cooked our eggs to order. I had a fluffy omelet with everything on it and accompanied by Discovery Adventure’s own boat-baked bread.

We did the Southwest Wall for our second dive and it could have been called the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” with all the sea fans and soft corals in colors that would have given Picasso a run for his money.

But Tubbataha is known for the big stuff not normally seen in other Philippine dive spots, and in this, it did not disappoint.

Delsan Wreck is marked by the remains of a forgotten sunken ship. Only a bit of it can be seen at low tide and the dive-pros use it as an entry point to get to what they call the “crack.” It is a plateau that juts out from about 25 meters from an otherwise endless wall.

When there is a current, this plateau is awash with schools of jacks, barracudas and beefy grey reef sharks. The ground itself is covered by sea whips, barrel sponges and corals that bloom in the nutrient-rich waters.

Shark Airport is another site known for its bigger inhabitants.

The parade of pelagics began as we descended along an immense wall that stretched endlessly in front of us.

Turtles and white-tip sharks launched themselves off their crevices and ledges and we came across several large schools of jacks that whirl-pooled into the depths. Like a waterfall of molten silver, they cascaded endlessly over our wide-eyed expressions.

Curtains of chevron barracuda hung seemingly motionless off into the blue only to turn away simultaneously whenever we attempted to approach.

We gassed off among the shallow corals and found why the area is known as the shark airport. White-tip sharks lay on the sandy slopes like parked jets and as divers approached, they would take off, circle, and land once more!

Several other sites such as Black Rock and Kook gave us mantas and whale sharks. Whale sharks have been abundant the past few years according to the seasoned pros. I would like to think the information and education campaigned by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the other government agencies are finally bearing fruit.

Access to Tubbataha is only through live-aboard dive ships and although the park is open year round, the weather allows a small window — from late March to mid June — for divers to visit. The strong winds and rough swells the rest of the year deter both authorized and unauthorized incursions into the park and permits the reef to settle back into its natural state of regeneration.

To check out the waters of Tubbataha is to welcome changes in your life. Nature has its way of fortifying your spirit and cleansing your soul — especially when all you hear underwater is the hissing of your oxygen tank and the beating of your heart. In Tubbataha, an underwater celebration is held anywhere you look. After all, it is the crown jewel of Philippine diving.

(This article was previously published on RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit in The Philippine Star.)

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