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In the Philippines, the Tubbataha Nature 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 dive spot is located at Philippines, in the Sulu Sea, far from all inhabited land.
It's a marine nature park nearly 100,000 hectares, the first in the Philippines. It was created in 1988 and is UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Isolated in the middle of a sea regularly swept by typhoons, forbidden to the fishing boats, the reefs of Tubbataha are today splendidly preserved and swarm of life.
The profusion of sharks patrolling along 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 little video, which I edited from the footage I shot there. It is a digest of only 1'30, but it gives a good idea the underwater atmosphere in Tubbataha:
At first, we do not come back to see sharks everywhere. Then, after a few dives we get used to it, and we end up finding it totally normal & #8230; The sheer 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 coral (it is almost half of the world's known species), more than 600 fish, 11 sharks, 13 cetaceans and a hundred of bird species & #8230; The North Atoll is also a nesting place for birds and sea turtles.
People only live 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. The sharks owe a lot to them ... The rangers report the illegal intrusions of fishing boats, prevent poaching, detect possible pollution, control the cruise-diving boats, accompany the scientific missions, inform the tourists and even sell them souvenirs!
Diving cruise from Puerto Princesa (Palawan)
For boaters like me, the only way to discover Tubbataha's underwater world is in a diving cruise. But because of the weather that can make navigation very difficult in the Sulu Sea, the site is only accessible in dry season, three months in the year, from mid-March to mid-June.
The boats, specially designed for a clientele of divers, leave from Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, about 180km away. The cruises are generally organized for 6J / 7N: the crossing lasts about ten hours and thus takes a day or a night on the way and the 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 a day. We are in the water from 7am. But it's not difficult at all to get up early, when it's to go see sharks! ! !
I embarked for this new underwater adventure thanks to my friend Carol, who lives in the Philippines. She holds with her husband Jérôme the nice little eco-friendly dive center Equation in Panglao-Bohol and decided to embark on the organization of thematic "bio and photo" dive cruises. When she told me she was coming on board the marine biologist Steven Weinberg, to give short lectures to the group in the evening, after the dives, I did not resist the temptation & #8230; & #x1f61c;
Less than a dozen cruise ships hold the permit to take tourists 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 about twenty divers.
I have no point of comparison, I do not know the other boats that operate on the area, but I found ours very well. Adorable and competent crew, well-oiled organization, hearty and tasty meals, cabins maybe a little impersonal but very spacious, hot shower at good pressure ... Just a little worry of air conditioning at the beginning in some cabins, but we were provided with some fans until it's repaired. And 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, Cebu airport is indeed much smaller than Manila: things are going much faster for immigration formalities, baggage collection and transfers. This saves a lot of hassle on arrival or return, including that of the traffic jams of Manila at certain times, whether to change the terminal or make a night of transit. There is a hotel right in front of Cebu Airport, the Waterfrontif you have to stay overnight (just the street to cross).
The wonders of Tubbataha
Underwater is the wonder... ???? We discover coral reefs as far as the eye can see, spectacular drop-offs where gigantic sea fans and huge barrel sponges cling.
At the whim of the currents, besides sharks and the usual coral fauna in these latitudes, it is not uncommon to see schools of trevallies and barracudas, turtles and napoleons, large humpback parrots ...
From the very first day, we have an incredible chance: our palanquée meets a whale shark, near the drop of Jessie Beazley Reef ... I told in the previous post: it was the first whale shark of Steven Weinberg, in sixty years of diving!
But in Tubbataha, the current almost systematically drift dives, sometimes sporty, which does not facilitate things when we want to make images. For underwater photographers, this is quite a challenge & #8230; For the preservation of the site, it is strictly forbidden to touch anything, it is not even allowed to put even a finger in the sand to stabilize.
It is therefore essential to perfectly control buoyancywithout even thinking about it. It's not really a destination I would recommend to novice divers. For your own safety, better have a minimum of experience, because some currents sometimes turn to the "washing machine" and when we are caught in it, it's not a part of fun (some of us have done 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 preferable, and that it is also a good thing to have already been in the current underwater.
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 fish are a bit like the stars of the park, we hope very strongly to see each time we go to the water. The luckiest of us, who have managed to cross several times the road of a big beast, are of course a pleasure to taunt others back on the boat, photos or videos in support.
But what is perhaps most striking in the end is the coral cover, dense and intact, unfolding endlessly under the palm leaves ... The splendor of coral on such a vast expanse 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.