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In the Philippines, the Tubbataha Natural Park is accessible only three months of the year. It is an underwater jewel, with exuberant coral and abundant underwater life.
Tubbataha, the paradise of sharks
In May 2018, I finally discovered a site I had been dreaming about for a long time. Tubbataha! This exceptional diving spot is located in the Philippines, in the Sulu Sea, far from all inhabited land.
It is a marine nature park nearly 100,000 hectares, the first in the Philippines. It was created in 1988 and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1993. Isolated in the middle of a sea regularly swept by typhoons, forbidden to fishing boats, the Tubbataha reefs are today magnificently preserved and teem with life.
The profusion of sharks patrolling along the drop offs particularly impressed and amazed me. It reminded me of Sipadan, another marine sanctuary located in Malaysia, near Borneo.
I attack directly with a little videowhich I edited from the footage I shot there. It's only 1'30, but it gives a good idea of the underwater atmosphere in Tubbataha:
At the beginning, we can't believe it, seeing sharks everywhere. Then, after a few dives, you get used to it, and you end up finding it totally normal... The presence in number of these sharks is really comforting, it shows in a very visible way that the conservation efforts of the park, financed for more than half by diving tourism, have a real impact.
The protected area encompasses two vast atolls and a high coral bottom called Jessie Beazley. According to the official website, scientists have identified more than 360 species of corals (nearly half of the known species in the world), more than 600 fish, 11 sharks, 13 cetaceans and about a hundred species of birds... The northern atoll is also a nesting place for birds and sea turtles.
Nobody lives in TubbatahaThe men were stationed, except for a dozen Filipino rangers, near a sandbar in the North Atoll, in barracks on stilts, which were supposed to resist typhoons. The men are relieved after two months. This is the only place in the park where visitors are allowed to set foot on land.
Created in 2000, this Ranger Station played a decisive role in strengthening surveillance and protection of the area. The sharks owe them a lot... The rangers report illegal intrusions by fishing boats, prevent poaching, detect possible pollution, control the diving cruise ships, accompany scientific missions, inform tourists and even sell them souvenirs!
Diving cruise from Puerto Princesa (Palawan)
For bubble tourists like me, the only way to discover the underwater world of Tubbataha is in a diving cruise. But because of the weather which can make navigation very difficult in the Sulu Sea, the site is only accessible in the dry season, three months a year, from mid-March to mid-June.
The boats, specially designed for a clientele of divers, leave from Puerto Princesaon the island of Palawan, about 180km away. The cruises are usually organized for 6D/7N: the crossing lasts about ten hours and thus takes one day or one night to go and return, which leaves five days on the spot. On this type of cruise, the program is simple: "Dive, eat, sleep and repeat." Diving, eating, sleeping and starting over ...
The usual rhythm is 3 to 4 dives per day. We are in the water from 7 am. But it is not difficult at all to get up early, when it is to go to see sharks!
I embarked on this new underwater adventure thanks to my friend Carol, who was living in the Philippines at the time, where she ran a diving center in Panglao-Bohol. She was the one who organized this "organic and photo" thematic dive-cruise. When she told me that she was bringing on board the marine biologist Steven Weinberg, to give short lectures to the group in the evening, after the dives, I could not resist the temptation... 😜
Less than a dozen cruise ships are licensed to take tourists diving in Tubbataha during the famous three-month weather window. Carol's choice was the Discovery Adventure, a large and very comfortable ship, which can accommodate about twenty divers.
I don't have a point of comparison, I don't know the other boats operating in the area, but I found ours very good. Adorable and competent crew, well-oiled organization, copious and tasty meals, cabins maybe a little impersonal but very spacious, hot shower with good pressure... Just a little problem with the air conditioning at the beginning in some cabins, but we were provided with fans while waiting for it to be fixed. And then this detail, essential for me: in the large air-conditioned common room, there is for underwater photographers large tables with power strips available, to disassemble the boxes and recharge the batteries.
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRANSFERS: Opt for an international flight that lands directly in Cebu rather than Manila can be worth it, before taking the domestic flight to Puerto Princesa (Palawan). With a single terminal, the airport of Cebu is indeed much smaller than that of Manila It is much faster for immigration formalities, baggage claim and transfers. We save a lot of hassle on arrival or on return, including the traffic jams of Manila at certain times, whether it is to change terminal or to make a night of transit. There is a hotel just in front of the airport of Cebu, the WaterfrontIf you have to spend a night there (just the street to cross).
The wonders of Tubbataha
Underwater, it is the wonder... 😲 We discover coral flats as far as the eye can see, spectacular drop offs where giant gorgonians and huge barrel sponges hang on.
According to the currents, in addition to sharks and the usual coral fauna in these latitudes, it is not uncommon to meet schools of jacks and barracudas, turtles and napoleons, big humpback parrots...
From the very first day, we have been incredibly lucky: our prize draw meeting a whale sharknear the drop off of Jessie Beazley Reef... I told it in the previous post This was Steven Weinberg's first whale shark in 60 years of diving!
But in Tubbataha, the current almost systematically drift divesThis is a challenge for underwater photographers... For the preservation of the site, it is strictly forbidden to touch anything. For the underwater photographers, it is quite a challenge... For the preservation of the site, it is strictly forbidden to touch anything, it is not even allowed to put a finger in the sand to stabilize yourself.
It is therefore essential to perfectly control buoyancywithout even thinking about it. It is not really a destination that I would advise to beginners. For your own safety, it is better to have a minimum of experience, because some currents sometimes turn into "washing machines" and when you are caught in them, it is not a pleasure (some of us had the unpleasant experience).
A minimum of 50 dives + Level 2 or Advanced Open Water is recommended by most diving liveaboards in Tubbataha. For my part, I think that as for Komodo, a more solid experience of about 100 dives is preferableand that it is also a good thing to have already experienced the current under water.
As the trip progressed, all the crews of the boat managed to see at least one whale shark and an manta ray. These two huge fishes are the stars of the park, that we hope to see every time we go in the water. The luckiest among us, who managed to cross the road of a big beast several times, are of course happy to taunt the others back on the boat, with pictures or videos.
But what is perhaps most striking is that the coral coverThe splendor of the coral over such a vast area is absolutely fascinating.
As always, the pictures are worth a thousand words ... I let you discover below a selection of photos brought back from this extraordinary diving cruise, in tribute to the beauty of Tubbataha.