Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park covers 320 square kilometers. Its marvelous coral atolls are the only ones in the Philippines and were formed like all atolls, on the flanks of a sinking volcanic island.
The park consists of two main atolls – North Atoll and South Atoll – separated by an eight-kilometer channel. Both atolls have large inner lagoons and sandy areas, a few above sea level. The reefs end in steep, vertical walls washed by nutrient-rich open waters, offering some of the best scuba diving in the world
Up before dawn with the remnants of a hangover from an everning’s rum-drinking with a friend from the UK. We’re both novice divers for whom Tubbataha is a step up (down, actually). Will everyone else on the boat be a tiresome expert, full of stories of man-eating hammerheads and manta rays the size of cars? Will my rented BCD do the job or will it trap air and send me shooting ignominiously to the surface at the wrong times, everyone else scoffing through their masks below? No time to eat, so it’s coffee and a Danish at the Domestic Airport. The coffee is microwaved dishwater and the Danish is stale and dry. Bad mood. At eight we land in a torrential downpour at Puerto Princesa, where an officious immigration officer with a buzz haircut threatens to detain me for not having a passport. “There’s no need for me to carry a passport on a domestic flight,” I tell him. “Palawan isn’t a foreign country.” I present him with an expired credit card and he makes a show of carefully copying my name into a ledger while everyone else proceeds through arrivals unmolested. Very bad mood.
We take a van to the harbor and our first sight of home for the week, the M/Y Vasco. It’s squat and solid, a reliable looking tub built in the CCCP in 1974 as a spy ship. Our cabin has wooden bunks and smells of brine. Other divers begin to arrive, their kit fastidiously organized in scuba travel bags, every item labeled with printed name stickers, like the first day at school. My BCD is in a plastic Landmark bag. This is embarrassing.
We sail at four, so there’s time to shop, eat and take a nap. The Coast Guard arrives and collects our P4,500 park fee. Dinner, a couple of beers and bed by 8:30pm. During the night the swell increases and I slide around in bed, my stomach rolling with the waves.
By 5am we’re on deck watching a milky sunrise. The captain says we’ve been at Tubbataha since three, but in the dark navigation around the reefs is treacherous, so he’s been waiting for daylight to anchor. We sip sugary coffee and munch on sweet toast before being called together for a briefing. Five dives a day maximum, at 6:30am, 10:30am, 1:30pm, 4:30pm and 6:30pm. The 6:30pm is a night dive and optional. There’s water on board, but not much, so don’t spend too much time in the showers. “Personal hygiene is not a priority,” says the dive master. “Any questions?” We all stare back blankly. “Right then. Gear up.”
I’m not sure what I expected to see at Tubbataha, but what I do see surprises even me. Nothing. We are 110 kilometers from land in the middle of the Sulu Sea, southeast of Palawan and northeast of the Sulu Archipelago. There’s nothing but water and sky.
Our first dive is at Jessie Beazley, a small reef on the northern edge of Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park. We drift gently along a coral wall that plunges into venous blue below. Plenty of reef fish, but none of the big pelagics I expected. It’s an enjoyable warm-up. We return to the Vasco for breakfast and a nap. Dive two and disaster strikes. I can’t equalize my right ear and have to bob about feeling stupid at eight meters, watching everyone disappear below. When I surface I’m half deaf. Back on the Vasco, I munch half a packet of decongestants. I spend the afternoon snorkeling, swept 200 meters along the reef edge by a strong current that almost takes me out to sea. In a shallow area there’s a familiar shape on the sandy bottom. My first shark. I free dive to within a couple of meters and it slips quietly away.
We’ve pretty much bonded. What worries the average social cripple like myself about a liveaboard holiday is that you’ll end up spending a miserable week with merchant bankers, Opus Dei recruitment officers or Tessa Prieto-Valdes. It seems there are no such horrors in store. Ours is a mixed group of ordinary people who have nothing to sell or prove. The only momentary tension surrounds the choice of music. Some want something mellow, others fancy a little alt country. We agree to alternate and the alt country radicals go into a slight sulk while the mellow faction tortures us with Abba and the Police. After dinner, Bob Marley is unleashed. Weeks later, back in Manila, I still become deranged when I hear the opening chords of Jammin’.
The decongestants are doing the trick, but with an unfortunate side effect. When I surface from every dive, I spout yellow fizz from my nostrils, like a gargoyle on acid. The pelagics have shown up. Hovering at 18 meters, looking into the ink-blue pit below, I see whitetip sharks swimming one after the other along the reef wall, dozens of them in sinuous formation, patrolling for food.
We move to the South Atoll, anchoring within site of Bird Island, which is so picturesque it’s a cliché. We have permission to dive her, but the island is a breeding ground for brown boobies and capped noddies, and setting foot on it will result in detention by the rangers and a fine of between P5,000 and P500,000, excluding the value of damages and required rehabilitation or restoration costs. The underwater environment is even more precious. Tubbataha is home to almost 500 species of fish and 400 species of coral, equal to or greater than every other reef in the world. Such is its importance as a breeding ground and consequent food source, that according to an apocryphal adage, if Tubbataha dies the Philippines will die with it. Clearly an exaggeration, but point taken.
South Atoll and the best diving so far. On the morning dives there are whitetips everywhere, jacks, barracuda and communities of spotted grouper. In the afternoon I fossick along at reasonably shallow depths and stumble across two beautiful hawksbill turtles mating. A few minutes later another turtle, so close that I settle myself in the water and simply stare at it, forgetting that I might be short on air. On the final dive of the day an incident occurs that comes to be the iconic moment of the whole trip. My dive buddy sees a turtle and goes in close for a photograph, only to be attacked by a triggerfish, which flies at him like a demon. I distinctly hear the clang of teeth against the camera case and see my buddy, panicked, shoot like a cork to the surface. I’m laughing so hard I almost drown. Back on the boat, the attackee says, “Second time he came at me, I whacked him on the nose.” He isn’t the first diver to be embarrassed by a triggerfish. They’re not big, but at spawning time they defend their nests with the ferocity of a rottweiler.
The Tubbataha rangers invite us to a barbeque on a sandbar. For months at a time they live out here in a small hut on stilts, patrolling the waters for illegal fishing boats. “Any sign of the Abu Sayyaf?” we ask them. “They come through once in a while,” says one of the rangers. “But don’t worry, we’ve got bigger guns.”
Disaster number two. I’m late for a dive and grab my camera without checking it. We do a backward roll from the tender and descend to the top of a shallow reef, at six meters, from where we drop over the edge into infinity. I try to take photographs, but nothing happens. Then the gut-churning horror of realization; the underwater case is flooding. I can’t kick the cat, so I take a few deep breaths and compose myself. There’s nothing I can do. It’s only money. For 24 hours my camera sits in the sun on the Vasco’s foredeck, but does not revive.
There are compensations. Toward the end of the dive I’m hovering above the abyss while my dive buddy adjusts his mask. Beneath me and to the front of something emerges slowly from the planktonic haze. It’s a marble ray, immense and elegant, drifting gently past like a planet. We’ve looked for manta rays and seen none, but this will do. It’s good enough for me. The ray is gone in seconds, but I stay where I am, overwhelmed by the placid immensity of what I’ve just seen and whatever else is beneath me. I’ve no idea of the depth, but I do know the Philippine Trench, to the east of Mindanao, plunges almost 11kms and is the habitat of brutolids, sea creatures with no eyes that have never been photographed.
The final day’s diving before we head back overnight to Puerto, but I’ve done enough and sit it out. Last night the wind increased and I was seasick, so I spend the morning in the cabin, which is humming with the vapor of wet towels and unwashed t-shirts. When the nausea hit I rushed for the door to our shared bathroom only to find it was locked, forcing me to puke in the trash can. Problem: the storm must have dislodged my glasses from the bedside table and they have also fallen into the trash can, where they now lay covered with upchuck.
People start to hose down their kit and pack. We usually eat dinner on the top deck, but the Vasco is rolling so this evening we eat from our laps in the lounge area, closer to the boat’s center of gravity. The food has been excellent, with bread baked on board, salads, fresh fruit with every meal, curry, sour sinigang soup and spaghetti bolognese. We open a bottle of cheap brandy, but are too tired to get drunk. People drift off to bed, some unrolling mattresses on the deck.
In my dreams I am floating in an ocean so monumental that I can’t find a way out. Giant rays waft past, ghostly and serene, but when I call them they don’t respond. It seems I am destined to float here for eternity, suspended in a hyperbaric limbo. When I wake we have already docked. The temporal sounds of dry land, of stevedores and tricycle engines, reimpose themselves, supplanting the deathless silence of the sea.
Arrange your Tubbataha trip through Adventure Bound, G/F GBI Building, 2282 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati City. Tel: +632/ 813 2067; email: email@example.com. Rates start at USD 1,250 per person including aircon accommodation on board, full board meals, no-decompression diving (five dives a day including night dive), use of tanks, weights, weight belt, boat and services of a divemaster. The M/Y Vasco is a fully equipped dive cruiser that can comfortably accommodate 16 people.
For more details about the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, call the Tubbataha Management Office at tel: +6348/ 434 5759. Visit their office at 41 Abad Santos St., Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. Email the park manager, Angelique Songco at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Inflight Traveller. June-July 2004. Updated December 2011