Earlier this year, Scuba Diver AUSTRALASIA‘s editor Alice Grainger decided to go diving in the Philippines, and of all the nation’s most iconic dive sites and destinations, she chose to hop on a liveaboard to explore the waters of Tubbataha Reef – a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site situated right smack in the middle of the Sulu Sea. So, just how did it go? Gear up and dive into Alice’s amazing story to find out.

Perhaps the dive gods had taken pity on me, a dive addict who had been out of the water for too long, starved of scuba-sustenance. Because somehow the stars aligned for one of the most perfect dive trips possible. And I am supremely grateful that they did.

Managing your expectations

As the boat pulled out of Puerto Princesa for the 14-hour journey to the park, we were treated to a sunset so good it was almost indecent. Looking at the vermillion skies, I couldn’t help but think, “Red sky at night, divers delight?” But I checked myself (almost), remembering that inflated expectations lead to disappointments, and headed below deck for the welcome briefings.

The boat was unlike any other I have been on. A veritable floating hotel, the Discovery Palawan is a refurbished three-mast ship that putters along with confidence like a stately grandmother. She is so big and well organised that even with a full contingent of 32 passengers and 16 crew, every little dive group had the impression that we essentially had the boat to ourselves.

Despite my enthusiastic and overblown expectations, it started very well indeed. Extensive briefings on the rules of diving the park included light-hearted but clearly resolute insistence on best diving practices with strict penalties for touching or disturbing marine life in any way, shape, or form. The ever-vigilant environmentalist in me was thoroughly appeased and able to stand down and take a much-needed holiday, secure in the knowledge she wouldn’t be required to voice any concerns while these guides were on the case.

It turned out I had also joined a boat full of the most interesting characters: from marine biologists to hyperbaric doctors (the latent and paranoid DCS patient in me also kicked off her flip flops and joined the eco warrior at the bar), underwater photographers, and even the park’s Protected Area Superintendent (aka heroine) herself, Angelique Songco.


Angelique Songco and her dedicated team [© Aaron Wong]

In the run-up to the trip whale sharks had been mentioned – a lot. Friends on Facebook who had done the park in the preceding weeks had been posting pictures full of the spotted behemoths. Could this be the trip? In more than 2,000 dives over almost 20 years I had never seen one. (I’m not the luckiest diver on the planet by a long shot and shudder to think how many might have swum over me while I had my head buried in the coral looking for critters.) Whale sharks were my unicorns. I had chosen not to visit the “guaranteed” sites, wanting my first encounter to be unexpected, organic. What can I say? I’m an idealist.

Not long to wait

The first day dawns mirror calm. This was to be a recurring theme over the next week. (When day four is cool and overcast with teeny, tiny wavelets dimpling the surface, we are quite horrified.) We descend into water whose visibility would have been incredible if it hadn’t been for the huge numbers of fish milling about – a veritable layer cake of species; schooling jacks, endless waterfalls of snappers and fusiliers, all the butterflyfish, everywhere, bannerfish in big schools, baby blacktips in the shallows. We all surface wondering if we might have peaked too soon. But then dive two happens.


The first, but not only, whale shark of the trip [© Bo Mancao]

On every dive we drop in to more than 40-metre visibility. On every dive, reefs are buzzing and fluttering with life. Everything is here, and in huge numbers.

You know it’s going to be special when you drop straight in on three big, bully-boy whitetips with a gang of giant trevallies harrying the reef dwellers looking for a dainty mid-morning morsel. And then, only five minutes in, there he is: Wide, white mouth heralding his approach, lazily snaking out of the blue, comes a whale shark, my whale shark, an impossibly cute and friendly whale shark. He is young, only about four metres long. He glides through our streams of bubbles, stopping to let us admire him silhouetted against the sun, and then comes back around, making a little loop to give us a second look, giving me a personal greeting – a little wave with his flipper as he swims past!

What your diving dreams are made of

An impossible stretch of luck, daily, we are blessed with the doldrums – not a breath of wind. It is as if we have passed through some kind of portal, a vortex on the other side of which lies your diving dreams. All is unreal.

On every dive we drop in to more than 40-metre visibility. On every dive, reefs are buzzing and fluttering with life. Everything is here, and in huge numbers. Enormous schools of barracuda and jack become commonplace. The corals are clearly on steroids, fields of staghorn, tables stacked on top of each other, parading up the reef, sponges the size of Jacuzzis and fans that extend outwards and upwards as if growth limits were biological rules that do not apply here. Looking into the blue below for all of 20 seconds, I see three big whitetips, followed by a pair of grey reefs, a green turtle swimming lazily by and then a massive torpedo of a tuna cruising past. By day two I am already spoilt for life.

The fish also seem exceptionally unconcerned by our presence, much like unworldly Antarctic penguins that wander over to explorers to investigate them. Normally- sheepish clown triggers let us get up close and personal as long as we are polite, the jacks seem very insistent on being filmed. Turtles raise their heads from their lunch to respectfully acknowledge our presence before they resume their grazing. It is all very civilised.


Blue-fin trevally hunting over the reef flats [© Dave Harasti]

It continues all week. We are here over a full moon and milky layers of water hint at sexy goings on. We find a school of spawning bumpheads making rises, faces mask-white in their “excitement”, spawning jacks thundering down from the surface, one lucky mama being tailed by two amorous males with desire-darkened faces. More whale sharks.

We have also stopped counting the reef sharks, and the guides have stopped pointing them out. They’re like stray cats – so common that they have become remarkably unremarkable. At one point, behind yet another cloud of bigeye jacks, fully-grown grey reef sharks are feeding on some unsuspecting tuna, who are in turn feeding on smaller prey (and if I had paid more attention to our guide Gabi’s hand signals, I might have seen it for myself!).

Real life power rangers

This place is kicking off. But this hasn’t always been the case; this is a reef reloaded, the life down here is now benefitting from some recent serious compliance to the laws governing this no-take marine reserve. And this is all thanks to the commitment of the rangers who guard it.

The ranger station sits like an outpost from that Paul Simon song. A sandbar lost in the middle of the world. The very definition of remote. Here, the long-term rangers are joined by men from the Navy and the coastguard who come for one-off assignments. It is a huge sacrifice they make for a cause they passionately believe in. They are away and cut off from friends and family, from all semblance of civilisation; there is no cell reception, definitely no Wi-Fi. Yet they are proud to do so, and Angelique tells me that in the last 14 years, only one ranger has ever moved on to another job.


The ranger station sits just a few metres above sea level [© Dave Harasti]

Given that they are on strict rations of one-and-half litres of water per person per day, no bread, no fresh veg, (definitely no cold beers), isolated from the rest of the world, at the mercy of the wind and waves on this fragile, low-lying strip of sand in the middle of nowhere, their dedication to protecting this place is almost superhuman. Yet, due to their extraordinary diligence, fishers now know that the Tubbataha Reefs National Park is protected, and that this protection is enforced.

To impress upon you just how healthy this ecosystem has become, I hand you over to Dr Dave Harasti, marine biologist and a fellow first-time-Tubbataha-tripper, who told us, “The angelfish factor is a simple test that I implement whenever I go diving; angelfish are an excellent indicator – the more angelfish species, the healthier the reef. My previous record for a location was eight species of angelfish on a dive. But on my first dive in Tubbataha, I got 11 different species. We have a winner!”

I’ll be back

But the future of this park depends on financing. Of the visitors’ fees that are collected, 100 percent of the money goes into the park. But this still only covers half the cost of running it.


Cleaning stations in the area are often visited by mantas and other megafauna [© Aaron Wong]

For once, there is no crisis of conscience in blowing open the story of one of the diving world’s most well-kept secrets: Due to some pretty extreme weather, you can only access Tubbataha for three months a year; for the remainder it is left in a state of Nature. And, so far, only 30 percent of the park is being used by dive tourism. This place can not only handle more tourists, it needs them to help generate the money that will keep it protected.

So, do yourself and marine conservation a favour – book yourself a trip to Tubbataha. You definitely won’t be disappointed, but you might not be able to dive anywhere else ever again.

Getting there: Fly into Manila and take a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa, where you will meet the boat. Double-check your luggage allowances as internal flights have a strict limit.

Best time to dive: The park is only open for three months a year, from mid-March to mid-June, when conditions are normally very good, and water is around 28–31°C , with cooler upwellings and thermoclines.

Dive with: Discovery Fleet

Currency: Philippine peso (PHP); USD 1 : 46 PHP

Time zone: UTC/GMT +9

Languages: English, Tagalog

For more information, visit Tubbataha Reef’s official website.

This article was first published in Scuba Diver AUSTRALASIA Issue 5/2015, No. 83.

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