Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. I apologize for the strange sentences and the funny mistakes that could be generated during the process. If you read French, the original and correct version can be found here
In the Philippines, the Tubbataha Natural Park is only accessible three months a 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 dreamed of for a long time. Tubbataha! This exceptional diving spot is located in Philippines, in the Sulu Sea, far from any inhabited land.
It's a marine nature park nearly 100,000 hectares, the first in the Philippines. It was established in 1988 and is UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Isolated in the middle of a sea regularly swept by typhoons, forbidden to fishing boats, the reefs of Tubbataha are today magnificently preserved and teeming with life.
The profusion of sharks patrolling the drop offs particularly impressed and amazed me. It reminded me Sipadan, another marine sanctuary located in Malaysia, near Borneo.
I attack directly by a short video, which I edited from the sequences I shot there. It is a summary of only 1'30, but it gives a good idea of the underwater atmosphere in Tubbataha:
At first, you can't get over seeing sharks everywhere. Then, after a few dives, you get used to it, and you end up finding it completely normal ... The presence in number of these sharks is really comforting, it shows very clearly that the conservation efforts of the park, funded for more half by diving tourism, have a real impact.
The protected area includes 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 (almost half of the species known in the world), more than 600 fish, 11 sharks, 13 cetaceans and a hundred bird species… The north atoll is also a nesting place for birds and sea turtles.
Nobody lives in Tubbataha, apart from a dozen Filipino rangers, near a sandbank in the North Atoll, in shacks on hard stilts, supposed to withstand typhoons. The men are relieved after two months. It is the only place in the park where visitors are allowed to set foot on the ground.
Created in 2000, this Ranger Station played a decisive role in strengthening surveillance and protection of the area. Sharks owe them a lot… Rangers report illegal intrusions by fishing boats, prevent poaching, spot possible pollution, control cruise-diving boats, accompany scientific missions, inform tourists and even sell souvenirs!
Diving cruise from Puerto Princesa (Palawan)
For bubbling tourists like me, the only way to discover the seabed of Tubbataha is on a diving cruise. But due to 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 fitted out for a clientele of divers, leave from Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, distant about 180km. Cruises are generally organized for 6 days a week: the crossing lasts ten hours and therefore takes a day or a 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. " Dive, eat, sleep and start again ...
The usual rhythm is 3 to 4 dives per day. We are in the water from 7 a.m. But it is not difficult at all to get up early, when it is to go see sharks! ! !
I embarked on this new underwater adventure thanks to my friend Carol, who lives in the Philippines. She and her husband Jérôme run the nifty little eco-responsible diving center Equation in Panglao-Bohol and decided to embark on the organization of thematic and organic diving cruises. When she told me she was bringing on board the marine biologist Steven Weinberg, to give short conferences to the group in the evening, after the dives, I did not resist the temptation… 😜
Less than a dozen cruise ships hold the permit to take tourists diving to Tubbataha during the famous three month weather window. Carol's choice fell on the Discovery Adventure, a large and very comfortable ship, which can accommodate around twenty divers.
I have no point of comparison, I do not know the other boats that operate in the area, but I found ours very well. Adorable and competent crew, well-oiled organization, hearty and tasty meals, cabins perhaps a little impersonal but very spacious, hot shower with good pressure… Just a little concern for air conditioning at first 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 multiple sockets available, to dismantle 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, Cebu airport is indeed much smaller than Manila airport : things go much faster for immigration formalities, baggage claim and transfers. This saves you a lot of hassle on arrival or on return, including that of the monster traffic jams of Manila at certain times, whether to change terminals or make a night of transit. There is a hotel right across from Cebu Airport, the Waterfront, if you have to spend a night there (just the street to cross).
The wonders of Tubbataha
Underwater is wonder… 😲 We discover coral reefs as far as the eye can see, spectacular drop offs where giant gorgonians and huge barrel sponges hang.
Along with the currents, in addition to sharks and the usual coral fauna in these latitudes, it is not uncommon to come across schools of trevallies and barracudas, turtles and napoleons, large humpback parrots ...
From the very first day, we have an incredible chance: our group meets a whale shark, near the drop off of Jessie Beazley Reef… I told it in the previous post : it was Steven Weinberg's first whale shark in sixty years of diving!
But in Tubbataha, the current almost systematically imposes drift dives, sometimes sporty, which does not facilitate things when we want to make images. For underwater photographers, this is quite a challenge ... For the preservation of the site, it is strictly forbidden to touch anything, it is not even allowed to pose even a finger in sand to stabilize.
It is therefore essential to perfectly control its buoyancy, without even thinking about it. It is not really a destination that I would recommend to novice divers. For your own safety, better have a minimum of experience, because certain currents sometimes turn to the "washing machine" and when we are caught in it, it is not a part of pleasure (some of us have done it the unpleasant experience).
A minimum of 50 dives + level 2 or Advanced Open Water is recommended by most dive cruise ships in Tubbataha. For my part, I think that as for Komodo, a more solid experience of around 100 dives is preferable, and that it's also a good thing to have already tried current underwater.
During the stay, all the flanks of the boat managed to see at least once a whale shark and an manta ray. These two huge fish are the stars of the park, which we very much hope to see every time we get into the water. The luckiest among us, who have managed to cross the path of a big beast several times, are of course happy to taunt others when they return to the boat, with photos or videos in support.
But what is perhaps most striking in the end is the coral cover, dense and unspoiled, unfolding without end under the palms ... The splendor of the coral over such a vast area is absolutely fascinating.
As always, the images 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.