Tubbataha

A Philippines conservation success story


The walls of Tubbataha are rich with filter feeders — evidence of the nutrients
that wash these reefs with the tidal flow.
Accentuating the positive is the norm in dive and travel journalism, but my first adventure at Tubbataha made that difficult. I had heard about this mythic Philippines national marine park that was good for pristine coral, expansive wide-angle seascapes and pelagic life. With only one prior trip to the Philippines, mostly to shoot macro life and small reef fish, Tubbataha seemed the ideal locale and a perfect place to expand my destination portfolio.

During my week there five years ago, at the very beginning of the three-month dive season, the winds were howling. Located in the middle of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is about 93 miles southeast of Puerto Princesa City, a 12-hour trip for most liveaboards. Park authorities have designated a dive season during which the weather is most likely to be calm, mid-March to mid-June, to accommodate the open-ocean journey and minimal protection at the atolls there. Our early spring departure was anything but calm, with 6-foot swells during the crossing and many dive sites not accessible once on location. Those sites that we could dive suffered diminished visibility from the wave action that stirred up sediment in the shallows. It was only average for a place with such lofty expectations, so I left wondering what all the hype was about.


A lemon goby occupies a discarded beer bottle on Anilao’s seafloor.
I said as much to a friend, underwater photographer David Doubilet, when I saw him at the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) show later that year. He and Jennifer Hayes, a zoologist and marine biologist, were on assignment for National Geographic to photograph Tubbataha for an article that has since been published. Doubilet had encouraging advice:
"It may only be accessible for three months out of the year, but a visit to Tubbataha puts you in the heart of the Sulu Sea on an oceanic reef that is influenced by all the life circulating through the Philippines coral reef ecosystem. This is a world of deep drop-offs, forests of sea fans and massive schools of batfish cast like silver coins across a backdrop of black velvet. You don't dive so much as fly these reefs, hovering above them until you see a target of interest for intimate inspection. On a single dive you could see a whale shark, dogtooth tuna, marbled stingray and schools of jack so vast they resemble a silver river — and turtles, lots of turtles. It is not only that it is good by nature, it is good by man, for these reefs are very successfully protected and patrolled. Tubbataha is a unique place, recruiting life as it does and situated in the heart of the Coral Triangle."
Convinced to try again, I booked another liveaboard excursion to Tubbataha. This time I scheduled my trip more toward the middle of the cruising season. It worked, and this past May we had slick calm seas and stunning water clarity for the whole week. The entire dive experience was extraordinary.
Anilao

The Bobbitt worm is one of the weird and wonderful creatures common on
night dives in Anilao.
While this trip started as being all about Tubbataha, I realized that most liveaboard trips involve six days of diving, and I was looking to get more out of my trip. I began looking for a land-based add-on for a few days before we sailed and was inspired by an article Tanya Burnett wrote about Anilao for the Summer 2017 issue of Alert Diver. A destination with very strong photographic potential, Anilao is on Luzon, the same island as Manila's international airport. A three-hour bus ride south eliminated the need for the expense and hassle of another flight. The South China Sea meets the Sibuyan Sea in a confluent environment of varied reef types that Burnett described as "white sand muck, dark sand muck and even trashy muck. But there are also soft coral slopes, boulder hard coral reefs, stunning pinnacles swarming with life, and sheer walls and ridges."

I arranged for our group to do three days of diving in Anilao. We could acclimate to the 12-hour time difference, and any delayed bags would catch up with us at the land-based resort rather than delaying the liveaboard's departure. Expecting a short interlude as a buffer for travel complications and a precursor to the main destination, we were thrilled by a wonderful experience.

The diving in Anilao was so very good and so very different from what we saw in Tubbataha, it could be the basis of a Philippines dive trip. Eagle-eyed dive guides delivered critter after critter, shot after shot — including my first skeleton shrimp and my first Bobbit worm. A first anything is rare after 40 years of dive travel, and only three days left me imagining how productive a week here might be.


An octopus finds debris on the sandy bottom to build a protective dwelling.


Tubbataha
Just as Anilao was far more than I anticipated from this trip's opening act, Tubbataha exceeded my expectations as the headliner. Part of it was the gorgeous weather, but that was luck of the draw (though the odds were stacked in my favor). The more important part of the brilliance of this dive experience happened not that week but in 1988 with the establishment of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.


Outriggers are used to add stability to local boats like this one, photographed
at sunset in Anilao.
For many years Tubbataha was protected only by its remoteness and prevailing weather patterns. The reefs were far from habitable land, and even though two islets are among the atolls, there is no fresh water for fishermen to establish base camps from which to work. The area is exposed to a northeast monsoon from November to March and a southwest monsoon between July and October, making the place quite inhospitable to the small sailboats that made up the fishing fleet years ago. By the 1980s Filipino fishermen had transitioned to motorized bangkas (outrigger canoes) for their fleet, and for the first time Tubbataha became a target of opportunity. Some fishermen used destructive fishing techniques, involving both cyanide and underwater dynamite explosions to stun fish and float them to the surface, to optimize exploitation, decimating the reef. Fortunately, traveling scuba divers were already visiting Tubbataha by then and knew how much was at stake. They raised the alarm, enlisting dedicated conservationists, the provincial government of Palawan and even Corazon Aquino, then president of the Philippines. Collectively, they managed to get this 375-square-mile region declared a national park and marine protected area (MPA).

Protection is meaningless without enforcement, and dedicated park rangers are now full-time residents in Tubbataha. A small ranger station on the southernmost tip of Tubbataha's North Atoll is home to 10 to 12 rangers from the Philippines Navy, Coast Guard and municipality of Cagayancillo. They are stationed there two months at a time to protect the park from harm to either the coral reefs below or the bird populations above as well as to conduct scientific research and monitor the ecosystems.
Diving Tubbataha
Tubbataha is a Samal word meaning "long reef exposed at low tide." With astounding coral cover and pristine reefs, the region consists of two massive coral atolls,

A school of chevron barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) swirls in the blue water
near the vertical drop-off at Malayan Wreck.
known simply as North Atoll and South Atoll, as well as an isolated coral structure to the northwest known as Jessie Beazley Reef. Most excursions begin at the nearest point from a Puerto Princesa departure: the southwest tip of North Atoll at a dive site known as the Malayan Wreck.

This was the checkout dive, allowing us to sort out weights and buoyancy. These initial dives on many cruises are marginal, so I didn't enter the water with high expectations. I immediately encountered a large school of bannerfish amid the crimson soft coral to my right and a school of bluelined snapper to my left. This was beginning to look promising — an impression reinforced by a school of chevron barracuda in midwater just off the reef and a hawksbill turtle seemingly unperturbed by my continual proximity. One of the highlights from my last trip here was a huge school of jacks, and I was hoping I'd be lucky enough to see some on this trip as well. Here they were, on the very first dive. Was it coincidence that my first dive this time equaled my most memorable dive from last time? It turned out not to be, as we encountered these massive silver schools on at least a half dozen different dive sites throughout the itinerary.


Regal angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus)
Farther along on our southward trip, the next day our dives were at Ko-ok, and the schools of jack were even more impressive there. Another hawksbill was exceedingly approachable, a situation I'd encounter a dozen more times before the trip was through. Marine conservation means the turtles here are protected from fishing, and the beaches where they lay their eggs are totally free from human interference. Other highlights at Ko-ok included portrait possibilities of two of the prettiest Coral Triangle reef dwellers: the clown triggerfish and the regal angelfish. Abundant marine life meant the real conflict was between shooting wide angle for the pristine reefs and schools of fish or macro for the fish portrait opportunities.

My other recurring memory from my Tubbataha trip five years earlier was of vast fields of staghorn coral. With coral bleaching and ocean acidification the new normal, I wanted to see if my recollection of veritable mountains of pristine staghorn could possibly still be true. At Black Rock South I was reassured that the ecological perils faced by many of the world's other tropical reefs were absent here. Both brown and blue-green chromis inhabit staghorn fields, and several species of anthias compete for the same sweet spots, near enough to the coral fingers for refuge but enjoying access to the nutrients flowing by.


Branching hard coral


While some ship wreckage is at Delsan Wreck, as with Malayan Wreck it is more significant for navigational purposes than as a feature of the dive. On this dive we experienced an exciting yellowfin tuna flyby; other highlights included a large school of bigeye trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus, now seemingly common in Tubbataha), a turtle and more staghorn.


Spotted sweetlips at a cleaning station
Toward the outside point of South Atoll, I got a surprise at Staghorn Point. Seeing it again, I was certain this was the site I remembered from before, and it was every bit as good. The staghorn wasn't present in patches so much as undulating hillsides. Staghorn Point was also great for the schools of sweetlips, often at cleaning stations and therefore more tolerant of being approached. The blue water held fascination as well: schools of barracuda, gigantic sea fans and soft coral punctuate the drop-off. While we had very little current that day, filter feeders can't grow to these proportions without significant flow of water along the reef face. A savvy dive operation will time dives for slack tide so we can appreciate the beauty of the reef without the aerobic aspect of a brisk, or even challenging, drift dive.


Massive cloud of jacks
For the underwater photographer, the perception of any dive site is colored by the lens in use. It renders selective vision, and by the time we dived Southwest Wall at the far southern end of South Atoll I was a little deprived from the fish photography protocols I'd recently been enjoying in Anilao. It's not that you can't shoot small fish and macro in Tubbataha, it's that the wide-angle opportunities make it hard to look beyond the sweeping reef vistas. With some reluctance I packed away my 8-15mm zoom lens and mounted my 100mm macro lens for a couple of dives. Butterflyfish, squirrelfish, clown triggerfish, bannerfish, anthias, clownfish and regal angelfish were all revealed once I slowed down and began to really look. The backgrounds included abundant coral cover and colorful sponge and soft coral backgrounds. For my postprocessing bliss, the 120-foot visibility we enjoyed that day saved me from the odious task of backscatter removal.

As our cruise regrettably neared its end, we had an overnight steam from the southern point of South Atoll to the northeast edge of North Atoll and arrived for an early morning dive at Shark Airport, so named for the many whitetip reef sharks lying along the runways of sand that separate the coral ridges. The cleaning stations scattered about made for another amazing fish-photography destination, with normally reclusive fish easier to approach simply because they are reluctant to leave their spot in the queue before the parasite-removal ritual is completed.


Bluelined snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)


100 Percent Coral Cover
There were many very impressive coral reefs throughout our cruise range, but the captain saved the best for last: Jessie Beazley Reef, a separate coral complex located about 12 miles north of the atolls. We drifted in stunningly clear water along a wall dotted with massive soft corals. As we drifted into the shallows we floated over a hard coral garden of astonishing density. Some of the places we dive these days have less than 10 percent coral cover, and 20 percent is better than average for most parts of the world. While trying to find a place to put my finger down on a spot of anything not living to steady myself for a photo, I realized there was no such place here. Neutral buoyancy and careful fin placement were mandatory while swimming. Most of Jessie Beazley Reef was exceptional. One patch, an area roughly the size of two football fields, was one of the most inspiring vignettes of tropical coral reef I have seen this decade.


The whale shark is an icon of Tubbataha diving adventures; its appearance is never a certainty but always a treat.


Remember all that talk about the pelagic life of Tubbataha? The manta rays and whale sharks? The one manta I saw was deeper than I figured I should go, and the mythic whale shark had thus far eluded us. Precautions for our flight the next afternoon were on my mind during the last dive of the day. The divemaster pointed over the edge of the wall to something surely happening below. Of course it was a whale shark. I did the safe thing and let it continue on its way. This was the first time I let such an encounter elude me, but gratefully my dive buddy, Mark Mintz, was there to bring home the visual confirmation. We did indeed have a whale shark join us in Tubbataha!


These spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) frolick in the bow wake of the
dive tender at Jessie Beazley Reef.
Back on the boat, still in awe at the splendor of the reef, I was prepping my cameras when I heard the shout, "Dolphins to starboard." In the slick calm, a day with the horizon lost to a mirror sea, a playful school of spinner dolphins passed by. With the dive dinghy still at the ready, I grabbed my topside camera, and we set off in pursuit. Our hopes were rewarded when the dolphins broke off from wherever they were going and came to play in our bow wake, leaping, cavorting and diving right in front of me. It was so calm I could hold my camera within 4 inches of the surface while racing at 15 knots. I fired blindly at the dolphins with no fear of a rogue wave drowning my camera. We eventually called off the shoot when we began to get too far from the ship, giving up long before the dolphins would have.

Later, with the shoot done, in the dark and quiet of my cabin processing the files from Jessie Beazley Reef and the most incredible spinner dolphin encounter of my career, I happened to notice the date stamp on my digital images. It was May 8 in that part of the world. Beyond my recognition it had become my birthday, and I had received the best gift I could have asked for. I can't think of a better place to have spent it this year than immersed in the profound beauty of Tubbataha, Philippines.
How to Dive It
Dive Season: Mid-March to mid-June (three months)

Water Temperature: The water temperature typically ranges from 78°F to 85ºF. It was 82ºF when we visited in early May, and I was comfortable in a 3mm wetsuit and hooded vest.

Visibility:


The visibility here is usually excellent, ranging from 80 to 120 feet

Location: Tubbataha is in the Sulu Sea, in the center of the Coral Triangle between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Its two atolls, referred to simply as North and South Atolls, enclose a sandy lagoon and islets that are 4 nautical miles apart. On the southern tip is an islet with a lighthouse that's used as a rookery by birds and frequented by turtles. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Parks is home to no less than 573 species of fish, 373 species of coral, 12 species of dolphins and whales, 11 species of sharks and nestling hawksbill and green sea turtles.

Getting There: The point of departure is Puerto Princesa, a 90-minute flight from Manila. Access Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park by liveaboard dive boat via a 10- to 12-hour steam.
Explore More
See more of Tubbataha's impressive marine life and coral cover in Stephen Frink's bonus online photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2018