Tubbataha Reef Liveaboard on the MV Borneo Explorer

Tubbataha Reef is the Philippines’ diving jewel in the crown, two remote, submerged atolls that are only accessible for a few months each year. If you like wall diving, you’ll love Tubbataha.

[This article originally appeared in Issue 101 of Asian Diver magazine].

Speeding along in the midst of a strong drift current, I look up from the reef wall that falls hundreds of metres below to realise there’s a pack of sharks right ahead of me. There’s five of them skulking on one of the wall’s flatter sandy sections, and I’m currently on a collision course with them. They’re all whitetip reef sharks, some up to a metre and half in length, but hopefully more intimidated by my fast moving black clad bulk that I am by them. I raise my camera to see if I can get a shot of the sharks as I hurtle towards them, but as I get to within a couple of metres propelled by the current, the five sharks suddenly scatter, a quick flick of their sinuous tails sending them in opposite directions. As they lazily regroup behind me, I’m busy checking my depth on my dive computer and grinning into my regulator. I may not have got a photo but scaring a pack of sharks won’t be fading from my memory for a long time. Welcome to Tubbataha, home of spectacular reef walls and adrenaline drift diving.

Located 160km south east of the island of Palawan in the Philippines, Tubbahata Reef consists of two remote, uninhabited coral atolls that are part of a Marine Park first established in 1988. Given its unique diversity of life both above and below water, Tubbataha was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the only solely marine site to receive such an accolade in all of South East Asia. The result of such protection is a profusion of marine life which divers get to glimpse as they drift by the walls, riding the current through this unique place.

Tubbataha is protected not just by international recognition and local laws, but also by the weather. It’s only possible to go diving in Tubbataha on a liveaboard between March and June, because conditions are too rough during the rest of the year. Situated in the heart of the Sulu Sea between Palawan, Negros and Malaysian Borneo, Tubbataha is wide open to weather and ocean current systems from every direction.

As such, Tubbahata’s currents are unpredictable and you simply have to go with them, often reversing direction during a dive to go with the new flow and making every dive an adventure in itself. Sometimes, as when we dived at the Malaya Wreck site, a fragment of a boat left in the shallows above a beautiful wall, we had to give up immediately on the idea of seeing the wreck itself as soon as we got in the water, as the current was pushing us insistently the other way and was not to be argued with. This means divers must remain alert and watch their guide as well as their depth and air at all times.

It’s precisely this exposure that makes Tubbataha great for diving, because the currents bring in the big pelagics while the reef walls provide shelter for a myriad of smaller critters. If you are not fond of wall or drift diving, then Tubbataha is probably not for you, because wall drift diving pretty much covers the topography of every dive.

If, on the other hand, you want to experience the true vastness of the ocean, Tubbataha is hard to beat. Everything about diving at the atolls is epic in scale, from the remoteness of its location, with no other land and barely another boat to be seen throughout the course of a 4 day liveaboard, to the truly vast reef walls that await below the water. The lighthouse on the South Island is the only feature to break up the expanse of sea and sky. Dropping in from a chase boat, it’s hard to adequately describe just how huge Tubbataha’s reef walls are – given the visibility is usually 50 metres downwards and around 20 into the blue, they fill your entire field of vision, like an inverted mountain. Even a group of 8 divers is dwarfed by the size of this underwater landscape. There are few other places I’ve dived that gives you such a dramatic sense of the true scale of Nature. It’s really quite humbling.

On several of Tubbataha’s sites, like Bird Islet for example, the wall drops down to around 40 metres and then has a lip that juts out about 10 metres or so before continuing its descent into the depths. (On the others, like Delsan, it’s simply vertical). This wall lip is a favourite patrolling ground for sharks – on numerous dives we saw big sharks, at least 2 metres in length, cruising back and forth along this perimeter, as if they were guardians for what lay beneath. They looked like silvertip sharks, but their depth and demeanour meant we didn’t go and find out first hand. Indeed, given the clarity of the water even at 30 metres, it was important to keep a watchful eye on our depth – the clear viz and similarity of the wall all the way down can combine to be a little disorientating.

It’s not just big sharks that can be seen at the lip of the wall. Manta rays are frequently spotted at the Bird Islet site, which is widely regarded as Tubbataha’s best dive site. Our divemasters looked genuinely disappointed when we didn’t get to see any during our trip, but that’s simply the luck of the ocean. We did see something almost as good at the sheer wall of Delsan, a beautiful eagle ray at least a metre wide, speeding like a dart at 50 metres but clearly visible and then suddenly racing vertically up the wall itself after executing a split second 90 degree turn. It moved so fast I was barely able to keep my eyes on it, and within seconds of seeing it, it had disappeared once again. Talking to another boat group when we got back to shore who’d been at Tubbataha at the same time, I was told they’d see three manta rays and a whale shark over the course of their trip. Some people get all the luck…

However, even without the headline attractions, it would take a very jaded diver to be disappointed by Tubbataha. As we criss-crossed back and forth between the north and south island to avoid the occasional squall of bad weather, we discovered plenty of other activity out in the blue, like the several massive dogtooth tuna we spotted in the depths at Delsan. There was also the unforgettable sight of a big school of barracuda balled together catching the light a few metres below the surface while being circled by reef sharks at Malaya Wreck. My favourite was an impressively large shoal of jacks schooling by the wall, moving in synchronicity to present a liquid silver circle in perpetual motion, pouring off the top of the reef and down the wall vertically. Thanks to the visibility, we could clearly see the entire school moving as one over what must have been a 20 square metre area, all the while hanging in the blue witness the whole event.

Indeed, there is an abundance of fish at Tubbataha thanks to its marine park status – the clown triggerfish is probably my favourite individual fish as its idiosyncratic markings always make me smile, and at one point I saw three of them gnawing the coral – a personal record. Other coral munching favourites include Tubbataha’s turtles, who surprised me on several dives by launching themselves into the blue from the reef only a few metres in front of me. Watching a turtle ascend to the surface is something I never get tired of. There is also a lot of young sharks on the reef too, which is heartening given the worldwide onslaught against the ocean’s shark population in general and Tubbataha’s own ongoing battle with illegal poachers. There are occasional signs of the aftermath of dynamite fishing as on the reef at Staghorn Point, but for the most part Tubbataha has genuinely spectacular coral wreathing its dive sites. Fans of huge fan corals will be well rewarded on virtually all dives, with a plethora of hard corals up in the shallows too that provide perfect territory for exploring at the end of a dive.

After four days of diving at Tubbataha, I felt like I had just got completely used to the rigours of drift diving its massive walls when it was sadly time to head for home. Exploring these vertical faces while drifting past them, sometimes at speed, provides a little more adrenaline than normal reef dives, but that just adds to the excitement of exploring Tubbataha’s unique underwater panorama. It’s one of those places that feels like a true adventure to visit thanks to its remoteness and the huge hidden world that lies underwater beneath a seemingly tiny atoll.


Thanks to all the staff on the M/Y Borneo Explorer (www.ExpeditionFleet.com) for their help

Bearings

Getting There
Liveaboards are the only way of accessing Tubbataha. Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan is the main departure point. Puerto Princessa is served mainly by domestic flights from Manila (1 hour flight) – Air Philippines (www.airphils.com) allows extra weight for scuba divers at no charge if you produce your Diver Certification Card at checkin. You can book Air Philippines flights via email and collect and pay for them on arrival at Manila domestic airport. See and for flight comparisons to find the cheapest fares.

Entry requirement
Most countries’ citizens are allowed to stay in the Philippines without a visa for 21 days after arrival. Check the official Philippines Government Visa FAQ for more info.

Currency
The Filipino Piso is the national currency. $US1 = 47 Philippine Pisos. US Dollars are also widely accepted and prices are often quoted in dollars, although you should always carry Pisos as well. Remember there is a $15 US airport departure tax for international flights, plus a terminal fee of P550. There are similar, smaller taxes charged for domestic flights too.

Electricity
220V. Twin flat blade and also twin round blade plug sockets.

Best time to dive
Tubbataha is only accessible by liveaboard from March to June each year.

Climate
The Tubbataha dive season from March to June coincides with the Filipino Summer. Temperatures can rise to 34 degrees in the tropical climate. Wear lots of sunscreen and a hat.

Language
Tagalog is the major Filipino language and English is widely spoken

Comments

  1. thanks for the report!

  2. After my first serious dive trip to the Philippines in April 2005, I finally realized what this country has to offer- world class diving at down to earth prices. And it’s all because of Tubbataha, off Palawan and Malapascua, Cebu which I was
    lucky enough to choose as my destinations in that very first trip.
    Your account of the diving in Tubbataha describes my own experience. It’s mainly for the big stuff so wide angle photographers are well rewarded. This is the place that I saw my first hammerhead and it was on the first dive, too. I also saw a manta gliding over the sand flat and it almost collided with a shark rising up from his rest stop. I soon realized the sand flats were the place to zoom over resting white tips because of the current and you are right- just about the time, you are ready to press the shutter release button the sharks would scatter helter skelter.
    If that’s not enough adrenaline rush, I don’t know what is.
    The balancing destination after Tubbataha would be Malapascua and it’s because the dives there are maily macro. If you ever want to video or photograph mating mandarin fish, this is the place followed by multiple seahorses in the same twilight/night dive. I finally saw my first thresher shark in June 2008. I enjoy Malapascua so much that I’m going back there for the 3rd time in October 2009.
    I would recommend this resort- Malapascua Exotic Dive Resort although there must others that are at least comparable (www.malapascua.net).
    If anybody would like to know my impressions/recommendations of other dive destination in the Philippines here’s my e-mail- cim72rolan@aol.com

    Happy diving.

  3. Thanks for the detailed comments Roland. I am not so fond of Malapascua myself though – for macro, I would head to Anilao or Dumaguete. I would be very interested in hearing about your other favourite dive spots in the Philippines – you can email me at chris@divehappy.com if you like

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