Photos by: Yvette C. Lee
Diving in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is like having front row seats to the greatest underwater show in the world. This year, travel website CNNGo.com named Tubbataha as one of the Top 50 Dive Sites in the World, landing comfortably in the Top 10. “Super-size your dive experience at Tubbataha where everything comes in giant form. The main advantage to diving at Tubbataha is that the water is exceptionally clean, so the marine life lives much longer, making it grow to silly proportions,” declared the write-up.
Worth diving for
Getting to Tubbataha is a little complicated. For starters, it is only accessible by ship. From Manila, one would have to take a one-hour-and-20-minute flight to Puerto Princesa, head to the pier, and hop on a live aboard dive vessel for another 12-hour trip. Secondly, the park is only open to divers between the months of March to June, when the waters are most calm. Spots fill up quickly, so it is best to book three to six months in advance. The trip also comes with a hefty price tag, ranging from ±US$1,300-1,600 per person inclusive of all dives and buffet meals. There is an additional ±US$75 entrance fee as well, which goes directly to conservation efforts.
Being there is another story. Since Tubbataha is in the middle of the Sulu Sea, it does not offer Internet connection and cellphone signal. I didn't know how a social media practitioner like myself, who spends most of her day in front of her laptop and Blackberry, would survive seven days with absolutely no connectivity. I was confident that I would connect to another world that didn’t have “worldwide” before it. The entire week, after all, promised a 360-degree view of just water.
I went onboard M/Y Hans Christian Andersen, a large steel ship that's been redone from its training vessel origins to a live aboard that can accommodate up to 46 passengers. We were about 28 scuba divers, with only three Filipinos (well, three-and-a-half, including our Irish-Filipina friend!), groups of Thais and Russians, a Danish couple, an Englishman, Italian, American, and Australian. 11-year-old Alex from Russia was the youngest one. Collectively, we looked like a group ready to pose for a United Colors of Benetton advertisement.
The ship had a common area called the Fairy Tale Saloon, an outdoor dining area where all buffet meals were served, and a bar. The edge of the ship has seats and lounge chairs, perfect for that Jack-and-Rose moment while watching the sunset (sans iceberg, of course).
In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Tubbataha as a World Heritage Site. All passengers were given a comprehensive safety and environmental briefing on the first night. “As guests, we consider you partners in marine conservation,” said one of the park’s officers.
The entire 97,030-hectare sanctuary is a strictly no-take zone, which means no one is allowed to take anything, dead or alive, for whatever purpose. “Don’t bring anything home. Do feel at home,” stated the welcome brochure. Divers aren’t allowed to wear gloves, so that we’re not tempted to touch anything. The park is also home to two sandbar islands, which we cannot set foot on. In fact, ships are mandated to stay at least 100 meters away from them! The only land we’re allowed on is the Ranger Station, where Tubbataha’s sea wardens stay.
Dive, eat, sleep
During our May 1-6, 2012 trip, the waters were extremely placid, like Mother Nature had ironed the seas before we arrived. The sight of the flat horizon made me doubt the tales of crazy currents and flourishing life underwater I had heard from fellow divers.
But Tubbataha delivered.
Our daily itinerary was every avid diver’s fantasy: literally dive-eat-sleep, rinse and repeat. The wake-up call would be at 5:30AM, giving all of us enough time to set up our gear for the 6:15AM dive. We were divided in groups, maximum of seven divers per group. Every group would get on a small boat and go to the dive site. Then followed breakfast, a second dive, lunch, a third dive, [insert whatever snack we could find], a fourth dive, and dinner. We did a total of 19 dives in five days, a big leap from my two to four dives a month.
A shark tale
Going back to M/Y Hans Christian Andersen after every dive was always like a competition of who saw what, how many, and how big. Two groups saw whale sharks in three different occasions. Our group saw manta rays bigger than our arms could measure. No one ever went back disappointed, as each dive site had its own gems and resident species. The visibility was so good that it was hard to estimate depth. In one dive, I thought I was just 20 feet below the surface, but upon checking my gauge, I was already at 90 feet!
All dives are done along coral "walls," which are reefs hundreds of feet tall. Sea fans 10 feet tall would be coming out of the walls. Beneath us would be a meadow of corals. There were schools, or rather universities, of fish in colors I didn't even know existed. I was most fond of the giant Sweetlips, which, as the name hints, had huge lips. "They're the Angelina Jolie fish," I said after one dive. I was later told that Angelina Jolie's character in the Pixar movie Shark Tale was actually a Sweetlips!
Almost every trip underwater introduced us to turtle species that are considered endangered. Some lingered with us, as if they were used to the lenses and flashes of cameras. Towards the tail end of our trip, we watched a turtle swim beside a school of barracudas above us in awe and wonder. They were against the light, thus forming shadows with their shapes. The rays of the setting sun surrounded them, making me think that the gods and goddesses of the Philippine seas must have been watching.
There were also thrilling (and admittedly, threatening) moments, like battling with the unpredictable current that would toss us from direction to another. Fernan, our group's dive master, and I also had a close encounter with a pair of barracudas five feet long. I thought they would move, but as they got closer, they didn't bother swimming in another direction. My heart started pounding, and I was reminded that we were in their home instead of the other way around.
My favorite part about diving in Tubbataha was seeing sharks in every dive. Before you start imagining Jaws-like man-eating machines, the Tubbataha sharks had absolutely no interest in interacting with humans. The featured but misunderstood creatures didn't even come near us. Fortunately, our group spotted a nurse shark sleeping on a reef, which we interpreted as a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. Sharks are biological indicators of a healthy ecosystem, showing the rest of the Philippines and the world that Tubbataha provided a safe place for our vulnerable marine life to survive and thrive.
At a glance
All 97, 030 hectares of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park are home and sanctuary to 360 species of coral, 90% of all coral species in the Philippines; 600 species of fish; 19 species of rays and sharks; 13 species of dolphins and whales; the endangered green sea turtle; and critically-endangered hawksbill turtle.
Hans Christian Andersen Cruise
Address: Unit 1209 Ermita Center Building
1350 Roxas Blvd, Ermita, Manila
Telephone number: +632-303-1921
Fax number: +632-310-7729
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Distance - Approximately 181 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa.
Travel time: Manila to Puerto Princesa by air: 1 hour and 20 minutes; Puerto Princesa Airport to Pier: 15-20 minutes
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