Widely regarded as the best dive location in the Philippines, the remote, UNESCO Heritage listed Tubbataha Reef is worth the effort the visit. Tony Exall explains why.
School of Jacks, Tubbataha Reef, Philippines © Chris Mitchell
Tubbataha Reef Diving – Dive Happy Episode 35 Show Notes
Tubbataha Reef Resorts And Liveaboards Mentioned
- PhilippineDiveHolidays.com – Tony’s dive travel agency
- Discovery Fleet
- All Tubbataha Reef liveaboards – check availability and pricing
- Find flights to Puerto Princesa with Skyscanner
- Check hotel availability in Puerto Princesa on Booking.com
Dive Happy Tubbataha Reef Trip Reports
- Diving Tubbataha Reef: A Quick Guide – a concise rundown of what to expect at Tubbataha and the practicalities of getting there and planning your trip.
- Tubbataha Reef 2011 Trip Report
- Asian Diver article on Tubbataha Reef
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Tubbataha Reef Diving – Dive Happy Episode 35 Transcript
[0:00:35.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchel and on this episode, I’m joined by Tony Exall, An accomplished underwater videographer and founder of travel agency, PhilippineDiveHolidays.com.
[0:00:23.7] CM: Tony, Welcome back.
[0:00:25.7] TE: Good morning, how are you doing?
[0:00:27.1] CM: Doing very well mate, now, Tony, please tell me, where are we talking about today?
[0:00:33.6] TE: Now, I’m only saying this because you can’t pronounce Tubbataha correctly so it’s my job to introduce the destination.
[0:00:41.3] CM: Yes, it has, for our listeners – it’s been and ongoing joke that Tony randomly mocks me for my inability to say Tubbataha correct. Was that better?
[0:00:50.5] TE: It’s not bad.
[0:00:53.2] CM: Tony –
[0:00:54.4] TE: It’s one of my rules that I don’t allow anybody to go there unless they can pronounce it correctly.
[0:00:58.6] CM: Well, we did settle on just anglicizing and in our typical British way just calling it tubby. Apologies of course in advance to all of our dear Filipino listeners. Tony, Tubbataha is a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s widely considered the greatest dive area in the Philippines, why is that?
[0:01:21.4] TE: In a few words, isolation and big stuff. It’s right in the middle of the Subi sea, you can only go there by Liveaboard, very specific time of year which is like mid March to mid-June. Otherwise, the sea is just too big and it’s definitely unsafe to go out there. Big walls, great vis, big schools of fish, sharks – fantastic diving, really fantastic diving.
[0:01:47.2] CM: Yeah, that would pretty much be the perfect summary of it. We can finish now. I was thinking about the – when you say bigness, that was the word that I first wrote down when I was thinking about this because I don’t know how it is for you because you have dived elsewhere in the world but for me, it’s kind of unique in the sense of it’s one of the places where you really feel tiny in the vastness of the ocean because it feels like you’re diving essentially on an underwater mountain, would you agree?
[0:02:22.2] TE: Yes, absolutely. It’s so far away from everywhere else. There is no land that you can go on there other than the – there’s two atolls there, the north and the south atoll. On the south side of the north atoll is a ranger station which at low tide, there’s a little sand split that you can go on, in the middle of the north atoll, there’s Bird islet, just a little sandy island with a couple of palm trees and a few other shops on there which you’re not allowed to go on because theres a bird sanctuary and then on the south side, south atoll, there’s a lighthouse, again, that’s a sanctuary for birds so you’re not allowed to go on there.
You kind of, when you’re out there, there’s just sea everywhere, there’s no hiding places. Bad weather comes in, there’s going to be issues, there’s no safe harbors or such. You have to sort of run back to Puerto Princesa as quick as you can which takes eight to 12 hours to get back out there. To get back to safety. Yeah, I remember the very first time I dived out there, when you’ve dived in a bit of current, which you can get strong currents in Tubbataha on occasions.
Fortunately, most of the time they’re kind of the lateral movement rather than up and down-y where you get sucked down. IT’s very easy to manage. But the mind starts thinking, “If I get swept away with this current, am I going to end up in Malaysia or somewhere?”
[0:03:44.6] CM: Yes.
[0:03:47.6] TE: If you’re off the wall and you can’t see the reef, you’re going to get lost. It’s kind of is quite a good idea to have an EPIRB, you know, one of those little electronic radio signal emitting devices. If you do get separated and you don’t know where you are and you can’t see the boat and they can’t see you is to activate one of those things. Probably one of the only places in the Philippines where I would say yeah, it’s a good idea to have one of them.
[0:04:11.6] CM: Right. You’ve mentioned wolves and I guess wolves are really the defining characteristic of Tubbataha because the visibility is usually. The visibility is usually so good that you can see straight down and it feels like it goes on forever.
[0:04:30.5] TE: Yeah. The Subi sea is very deep. I’m not entirely sure of the exact numbers but it’s thousands of meters deep around there and these two atolls that come out the deep water just about break the surface in places. It depends on the dive site, sometimes a little bit of a reef top but most of it is just like plunging straight down to – most of the walls go down to like 50, maybe 60 meters and then it becomes more of a sandy slope going down into the abyss.
Certainly places like shark airport which is on the east side of the north atoll, that’s quite striking there because you got this literally sheer wall that goes straight down to 50, 60 meters and then there’s kind of like a sandy ledge there. That’s how it’s got its name actually as the shark airport because there was so many white tips sitting on the bottom from the plan view, looking down, it looks like aircrafts or an airport.
Very often you get visibility, really good visibility there. It’s a photographer’s – certainly a wide angle photographer’s dream destination.
[0:05:36.5] CM: Yes, I have to agree. It’s funny because that’s actually where you and I met was on a liveaboard boat out there.
[0:05:42.5] TE: Yeah.
[0:05:44.0] CM: I was always tend to be hanging around in the top 20 meters because all the light pouring down is great for photography and you always with your video camera chasing off into Davy Jones’s locker as far as I could work out. What was it you were looking for down there?
[0:05:58.8] TE: Well, I can’t remember if it was on that trip – because we’ve been to Tubbataha with each other twice, now haven’t we? On the discovery Palawan and discovery adventure. Certainly, one of those trips, there’s a dive site that I just absolutely love there called Delsan Wreck. Which is on the east side of the south atoll. I think it might have been one of the trips that we were on together where Delsan Wreck it’s – again, it’s all wall but there’s some part of it, it’s kind of like a dog leg and if you get the current coming down from the north to the south, the current hits this dog leg that’s submerged and everything goes there.
You get this massive school of bigeye trevally there, even bigger school of chevron barracuda. Like literally thousands of fish. They come to that point and hang around and there will be gray reef sharks circling around. Remember talking about little gray reefs, we talk about fully grown, big females. White tips, other times I’ve seen hammer head there, guitar shark, eagle ray, whale shark, manta, big mantas and but there was this one time where Yvonne, my dive partner, we popped down, we got down to right about 50 meters or so and there was this enormous great big tuna hunting on the bigeye trevally and when you’ve got a large amount of fish that are tightly packed together and you’ve got something hunting on them, it’s incredible to be able to watch.
This tuna was literally bigger than me, you know, I’m just like five foot 10, five foot 11. It came shooting into these jacks and you could hear this noise, as the jacks were separated, it’s kind of like – as they moved out of the way really quickly. We’re watching this and all of a sudden, this tuna went shooting off down south and about a split second later, a three, four meter tiger shark went chasing after it.
[0:07:49.5] CM: Wow.
[0:07:50.0] TE: I know, it’s like this is good, I like this place, I really like this place. Unfortunately, down at 50 meters, you don’t have too long so you we couldn’t stick around for very long and see if it came back again but yeah, tigers are, I wouldn’t say commonplace there. I’ve only seen two or three out there in all the time I’ve been to Tubbataha and might be like 12 times or so.
You see them every now and then, not as much as I would like but they’re quite timid as well but most of the time, they see from the distance rather than close to the divers.
[0:08:21.3] CM: Yes, exactly. Yeah, you mentioned Delan Wreck there, there’s actually a couple of other sites around the reef the are named after wrecks like Malayan wreck and T wreck, it must be a bit of a graveyard.
[0:08:35.5] TE: Yeah, I think the sea charts, historical sea charts have had to do something to do with that as well as stupidity on the crews of the ships. Yeah, Delsan Wreck which is nothing really, there isn’t a wreck there that you can see. I think the only remnant left of the Delsan Wreck was the anchor that’s just north of this – a few hundred meters north of where I talk about where the dog leg. Great big anchor that sat on the roof top. The Malayan wreck is thank gosh, the insurance company that owned the boat.
That’s really, that’s a nice wreck actually because it’s very shallow, completely obliterated on the top but the engine block is still sat there, so if you get a good bit of visibility when the sun’s out, it’s so picturesque, it is just a wonderful dive to – you don’t need to go deeper than seven meters, it’s literally on the top of the reef and it’s great.
Probably the most famous wreck that’s not there now is, I think was proffered about three or four years ago, the American navy, for some reason was going through there into Tubbataha, completely misjudged the sea charts and they had a mine sweeper that ran aground on, I think it was the dive site called [inaudible 0:09:53] which I still never understood how it actually got there because it’s on the north side of the north atoll and maybe like a couple of miles from the south side of the north atoll to the north side of the south atoll.
They must have come in from a strange angle and crashed in on to the reef and grounded themselves and this is not a small boat, this is quite a big old boat and couldn’t get it off. They had to get a salvage company from Singapore to come over and literally chop up the boat and extract it and get rid of it. It cost the Americans millions and millions and millions to get rid of it.
[0:10:31.3] CM: Quite right too.
[0:10:33.6] TE: Absolutely. The captain didn’t stay in his position for very much longer.
[0:10:43.2] CM: Yes, I imagine that the rangers then must have been very unhappy as well because they’re based out there, there is a group of rangers there all year round, isn’t there?
[0:10:51.9] TE: Yeah, there is eight guys that stay out there for two months at a time, comprises of two from Tubbataha management office, two from Cagayan city which is municipality that has jurisdiction over Tubbataha, two from the coast guard and two from the navy. They kind of rotate around and so it’s not like out in one go, new eight in, it’s kind of a staggering a bit. Yeah, the ranger station is small and I have to kind of pleasure of staying there for a night actually back in I think it was 2012, 2013. I was on one liveaboard, doing some filming for UNESCO actually and I was meant to go on to Discovery Palawan actually, the current side.
I managed to spend a night in the ranger station and then the Discovery Palawan picked me up the following morning when they arrived in Tubbataha. That was an interesting experience on the ranger station with eight other guys with only one maybe two of them that could speak reasonable English and it was a lonely experience I have to say. Eight guys exploring in unison in a very small space. I didn’t get an awful lot of space that night I have to say.
[0:12:05.9] CM: Well, that’s what you have to do to get the shots mate.
[0:12:09.0] TE: Exactly.
[0:12:09.7] CM: Yeah, you already talked about the different wreck sites, is there any other particular dive sites that are your favorites around the reef?
[0:12:18.2] TE: Yeah, there’s a lot of different dive sites there but there’s four or five that are really stand out ones for me. Malayan wreck because you’ve got the wreck on the top and then you go down the wall, which isn’t the prettiest of walls there but for some reason, that’s probably your best chance to see hammerheads around that way.
They’ve got this massive school of bumphead parrotfish which – and these are big fish like these are like four, five feet long, some of these ones going around chomping on the reef top and they’re pretty oblivious to divers as well. You can get very close to them and then I got on the other side, that we’ve mentioned it already. Shark airport, just stunningly beautiful on the top and in recent years, it’s been quite a good place for manta cleaning stations.
Don’t often see big mantas or oceanic mantas in Tubbataha but you certainly see the reef ones. They’re not particularly big, maybe five, six foot across, something like that but a manta is a manta. When they’re just hanging on top of the cleaning station that allow you to get reasonably close it’s very cool. The reef top around there is beautiful, lots of corals and fans and sponges and all kinds of stuff, there’s a big school of bigeye trevally there, another school of barracuda.
Very colorful and in recent years, it’s also been a really good place to see whale sharks around there as well. Then moving on to the south atoll, the Delsan Wreck is just fantastic, Delsan wreck first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, got to be there, especially with a bit of current. I always try and coincide my trips when I go out there so there’s something to the effect of the full or the new moon, you want a bit of current there and that’s what brings the fish in to the reef. Just wow, you know? Gets the old heart pumping when you’re out in the blue and I can remember the time years ago, I was, saw this big school of chevron barracuda for the first time and literally, this is like 2,000 plus fish.
I was with some other people and there was this Japanese guy doing some filming for a TV company and he seemed to be wanting to film every single fish on the reef and it was just taking so long and I said to the dive guy, I saw a shadow out on the blue, I’m pretty certain I knew what it was so I’m going to go out there expecting them to follow me, they didn’t.
I just spent the next half an hour just floating around with these massive school of Chevron barracuda. Right in amongst them. I could have – if I had my macro lens on my camera, I would have been able to zoom in on the eye and allowed me to get so close which gradually became sort of shallower and shallower and every now and then they would bring me into the reef. There is quite a spooky feeling at times because we were so far out in the blue, I couldn’t see the reef anymore and it was good visibility. You know it is like 30 plus meters of visibility. The barracuda gradually took me to shallower every now and then they’ll bring me into the reef so I knew where I was and so I got up to about five meters, I was literally sucking gas out of my tank.
You know my time was up and then it was like they were looking after me because all of a sudden they just did the tornado thing, you know the big circle and then they descended down as I went up – just wow. I will never going to forget that dive for the rest of my life. It was just incredible and by the time I surfaced I was more than two kilometers away from where the rest were. So I was put in the naughty house for the rest of the day on that one.
[0:15:52.5] CM: Yes and quite right too. We don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior Tony.
[0:15:56.5] TE: No absolutely not. And hence the comment about an EPIRB.
[0:15:59.9] CM: Yes, well I mean just your point about the size of the schools of fish there, I mean I have to agree it’s certainly where I have seen the biggest schools of fish I mean the jacks that we saw on the last trip, I mean thousands of fish again doing the tornado and also they were there again and again and again. I don’t know if you remember but it was in the shallows. It was like in less than 10 meters. It was out to the limits and of course, we were super lucky at that time.
Which is why the last trip that we did was my favorite visit there because we just had almost perfect conditions that everything was drenched with sunlight. We were in this amazing coral gardens and then this cyclone of jacks coming through is just absolutely remarkable.
[0:16:45.7] TE: Yeah, there is a number of different schools of jacks. I mean I don’t know how many but most of the dive sites there as the main dive sites also have a big school of bigeye trevally. There’s fewer big schools of Chevron barracuda. You know I can think of this [inaudible 0:17:05] has got both barracuda and trevally, Delsan, Malayan wreck, the Shark Airport, around there. Yeah, if you are there for a week you are going to see some big schools.
[0:17:15.5] CM: Yeah, they’re kind of resident aren’t they? So you’d be very unlucky not to see them.
[0:17:20.3] TE: Yeah and then just finishing off in the different dive sites there around the place, possibly my favorite after Delsan wreck is Black Rock, which is not that far away from where Delsan wreck is on the northeast side. Well go around the northeast side of the south atoll, that for me is just beautiful. I don’t bother going down the wall but on the reef top is just unbelievable, full of color and there’s big schools of black and midnight snapper.
You get thousands and thousands and thousands of fusiliers coming in to be cleaned. There is harlequin sweet lips and Indian sweet lips hanging around there. It is just full of life, full of color, just absolutely beautiful and again, you know there’s times it’s been a really good place for manta cleaning stations as well.
[0:18:15.0] CM: Yeah, awesome. I think the other thing is great there is that there is still so much of the coral is in great condition and there are some really huge fans and very big sponges as well, the barrel sponges.
[0:18:27.7] TE: Yeah, massive aren’t they? Absolutely massive.
[0:18:30.3] CM: Yeah decades of growth.
[0:18:32.4] TE: Yeah, absolutely. It is a bit of a double edge sword with the big barrel sponges because when they start spawning, it really messes up the visibility. So it is kind of cool to see it but then okay, all right stop now but I want nice clear water not all of this white milky stuff as the spores are going around in the place.
[0:18:57.1] CM: I was just thinking that obviously you and I have dived a bit but times that I have been out there, I think I have been out there four times now is that there’s a real mix of different abilities on the boat and the reason I bring that up is that we’ve obviously said a lot about it’s remote, it’s isolated. You have to vigilant but people shouldn’t be put off if they’re not that experienced as divers. I mean I think provided you feel confident and you follow the instructions of your dive guide then you’re going to be completely fine, would you agree?
[0:19:28.3] TE: Yes and no. With the Tubbataha management office, they haven’t got any minimum requirement for a diver to go out there. They just say if you got your open water license then you are able to go out there. Some of the boats will have more stringent – not stringent it is not the word but more control over that. So for example, Discovery was the boat that we have been on a couple of times. I think they have an open water license with minimum 50 dives.
Some other boats might require you to have advanced but in truth, you know, if you are going to a place like that, it is not a cheap place to go to. It’s not the easiest place to get to. I mean it is a big part of your investment to go, which you have to fly to [inaudible 0:20:16] and go out in the boat. You are going out for there for a whole week. So it is not like you could just pop over there for a couple of days and have a look around.
If you are going to go to such a good, dream, top drawer, dare I say bucket list destination, really you should be able to handle yourself sufficiently so you can enjoy it. I wouldn’t say to somebody if they’ve just passed the right from water to go out to Tubbataha you got to do it. No, get some experience first, get your buoyancy right, have some self-confidence about you and your equipment and diving in general and then go out there and then you’ll enjoy it.
But I have seen people out there that have not got very good control over themselves and they’re just messing it up for everybody else as well to be honest. Your guide is – you and I we’re a bit different because we’re very experienced divers so we can be left to our own delight but when you are in a group of people, normally depending on the boat that you go on, you know you will have maybe eight to 12 divers in your group with one dive guide.
Not that you really need a dive guide to point out a huge school of bigeye trevally, to tell the truth even a blind man looking the other way could see them but you know your dive guide is then going to be distracted by looking at somebody else which may not give you the best experience so yeah, I think it is not just for yourself but for the other people is being reasonably confident and experienced underwater.
[0:21:43.3] CM: That is very sound advice mate. I was just thinking as well, you just brought out there I mean it is a long way to go. It is an overnight journey there and back on the boat and then we’re going in and out of Puerto Princessa, on the way I can’t remember which way it happens but on the way there or on the way back, there is also Jessie Beazley Reef, which has become part of the entire marine park now I think.
[0:22:09.1] TE: Yeah. If you’ve got the north and south atolls in line with each other, going north to south, Jessie Beazley is kind of like 10 or 11:00 from there, which is kind of en route going back to Puerto Princesa. So a lot of the boats will do four dive days in Tubbahata on the north and south atolls and then on the last day, head back to Jessie Beazley, do a day diving on Jessie Beazley and then overnight get back to Puerto Princesa just to reduce that journey on the night over so they can make sure they get back early enough.
So if anybody has got like a 9 AM flight to Puerto Princesa to head off back to Manila or Cebu then they are back in time to be able to get to the airport in time and it is a great dive as well actually. I quite like Jessie Beazley, it has grown in me over the years. There is in Jessie Beazley is much, much smaller than either of the two, north and south atolls in Tubbahata proper and one part of it is being quite badly damaged by destructive fishing practices.
But there are some parts too which are really, really beautiful and there is a really good chance to see big stuff out there as well. In the last couple of years, digressing slightly talking about seeing some of the creatures you’ll see out there. Whale sharks for some reason over the last few years, there has been a lot more sightings, mostly adolescents but they just sometimes they’ll come on and stick with you pretty much the whole dive you know?
They just keep on searching you out, if it’s the bubbles or they like the interaction, probably the bubbles actually – they tend to stick around a lot more than they are used to.
[0:23:43.8] CM: Yeah that is interesting with the whale sharks because that is right I mean one showed up, I missed it. I don’t know what I was doing, probably got my head stuck on the reef or something, one showed up from that last trip and it seems to become a more common thing because before it was always quite hit or miss. So I don’t know why or what is going on.
[0:24:03.7] TE: Yeah, there is no explanation for it and also what’s really strange about it is that all of the sharks you see there have got some kind of parasites on them. They really look quite mucky and all across their front, all of their leading edges, they’ve got these black parasites that stick on them. I have never seen that anywhere else. No explanation for it. One of these days there’d be probably. I actually hope Sanco is not listening to this but one of these days we’re going to go there. I am going to take a soft nylon brush with me if I can get the a bit of a scrub and tidy them up.
[0:24:36.8] CM: You were just saying, you mentioned earlier like you’ve been out to the reef maybe 12 times or whatever and over the course of over 10 years now, right?
[0:24:46.2] TE: 2008 was the first time I went there.
[0:24:48.0] CM: Okay but do you have a general sense then the reef is essentially – I know these things are very hard to qualify but do you think it’s got better? It feels like the management and the protection and so on and so forth seems to have improved and improved and improved over the years.
[0:25:06.0] TE: Yes, definitely. When I first went out there I was less experienced. So I am not as observant and take onboard as much as what I am seeing as I do now but I definitely feel there is an improvement in fish life and the quality of the reef. In fairness, I know it’s probably not a good thing to talk about negative things but actually, the visibility now is not as good as what it was and I think that is just a worldwide problem.
When I talk to people that scoured across the Pacific for decades and decades and decades one of the things and I’ve had this conversation many times now with the different people that they have done their own boat things around the pacific, the one thing they say is water visibility is declining. It’s just the amount of pollution that surface in the ocean now and how man has screwed it up. So you still get a great visit there. You still get quite common to get 30 plus meters visibility.
But I have not been, sometimes I’ve been there where it has been at least 50. I mean it just you can see as far as you want and it is just wow. I have not experienced that in the last few years. It could just be I don’t know, the El Nino effect or something. I don’t know. Certainly when I have dived in other places across the Philippines as well as in other places across the world, it is not very often you get super clear water now, but also one thing I’ve noticed though of my time there on how things have changed is when I first went out there, white tips were absolutely everywhere.
All over the place, you know after the first couple of dives, you don’t even bother at reefs you know it is not worth it, not really. No, you can find any white tips. Now, there are less of those but there are significantly more gray reef sharks and I just got no explanation for it and I’ve got no scientific data to back up, you know it is just my observations. You still see a lot of white tips out there but not as many as they used to. There are certainly lots and lots of gray reefs.
[0:27:11.0] CM: Yeah. Well I mean I guess again from a very unscientific point of view. It is just great there is still so much stuff there. Particularly it was targeted by poachers and so forth, which is why there are rangers out there all the time. So there are obviously signs of win that battle a little bit.
[0:27:26.7] TE: Yeah.
[0:27:27.6] CM: Tony, thank you so much for talking to me about Tubbataha Reef. Oh and before we go, I think both us love to say a big thank you to Yvette Lee, the OG of Philippine diving and she was the one that’s been instrumental in getting both of us out there on several occasions.
[0:27:48.5] TE: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah Yvette is a very good friend of both of us so yeah, she’s one of the greats of Philippine diving really. She’s been around for a long time, knows everybody and stuff and a very warm and kind person so.
[0:28:02.4] CM: Yeah, she is a really lovely person and also I did do a podcast with her on the original Dive Happy thing about Tubbataha and so if anyone wants to listen to that as well as Tony’s musings then please, dig into the archive. Anyway, Tony thank you so much mate. It’s really great to chat to you as ever.
[0:28:23.3] TE: A pleasure, good stuff.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:28:26.7] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the shownotes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you and finally if you enjoyed the podcast, please tell other divers about it. Please rate the podcast on iTunes, it really helps boost the show’s visibility. If you’re not sure how to rate a podcast in iTunes, please go to divehappy.com/podcast for details on how to do that.
Thanks for listening, until next time, dive safe, dive happy.
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