In the center of the Sulu Sea, 90 miles south of Palawan Island, lies Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park known for its extraordinary biodiversity, excellent examples of unspoiled reefs, and breathtaking drop-offs into the open ocean. As one of the Philippines’ oldest ecosystems, the site protects an area of almost 100,000 hectares of high quality marine habitats, extensive reef flats as well as two vast atolls; North and South Atoll, and a high coral bottom called Jessie Beazley.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a marine protected area and world-renowned scuba diving site. As a home to more than 1,200 marine species, the Park is an important asset for global conservation. 181 of the species found there are threatened to some degree, from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. Tubbataha is also a breeding and rookery ground for many species of migratory and resident seabirds, including the Critically Endangered Christmas Island frigatebird. The remote and undisturbed character of the park and the continued presence of large marine fauna such as tiger sharks, cetaceans and turtles, and big schools of pelagic fishes such as barracuda and trevallies add to the aesthetic qualities of the property.
The word “Tubbataha” is a Samal term that means “long reef exposed at low tide.” The reef comprising Tubbataha formed thousands of years ago as fringing reefs peeled off from the many volcanic islands along the Cagayan Ridge. Over the passing millennia, the volcanoes became extinct and the islands submerged into the depths of the ocean. What remains are the corals, which continue to grow upwards that appear today like giant coral rings surrounding its respective lagoon. Because of the great distance from the mainland and the often-difficult climate, Tubbataha remained isolated until the early 1980s, when local fishers equipped with motorboats, began exploitation, fishing with bombs and without rules. Fortunately, recognizing its great biodiversity value, the government of the Philippines first protected the area through legislation in 1988. Since then, the excellent management and strict rules has only been strengthened. Protective regulations with an absolute ban on fishing have allowed the conservation and made Tubbataha one of the best preserved marine areas on the planet leading to international recognition including its Platinum Blue Park award. It is even recognized in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993.
The atolls that make up Tubbataha Reefs are all completely uninhabited except for a small ranger station situated on North Atoll. Created in 2000, this ranger station played a decisive role in strengthening surveillance and protection of the area, they 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. With nowhere to stay on the atolls themselves and with the nearest port around 10 hours away, these spectacular dive sites can only be reached via liveaboard. The dive season at Tubbataha lasts just 3 months, from mid-March to mid-June. This dry season means conditions are usually optimal with clear skies, clear seas and over 30 meters of visibility. From September to December typhoon season at Tubbataha makes it difficult for vessels to travel and creates unreliable diving conditions. Such a restricted dive season means demand is high for the limited number of liveaboards, but also means this unique haven and its marine life is protected from the negative impacts of tourism and overcrowding. Most liveaboard depart from Puerto Princesa, the capital City of Palawan Island. Cruise itinerary generally modify the route according to the weather, currents, and diving conditions as safety on board is the foremost concern. Common duration for liveaboard diving trip in Tubbataha is between 6 and 7 nights. Some of the best liveaboards operating in Tubbataha are Atlantis Azores, Seadoors Liveaboard, Infiniti Liveaboard, and Philippine Aggressor.
Best diving spots in Tubbataha Reefs
Located in the north-eastern part of the North Atoll, the dive site was known as it portrays busy shark “air” traffic. Occasionally, the sharks will be found resting along the reef, side by side, as if they were airplanes parked together. Their tails would be sticking up like lined-up airplanes’ tails in an airport.
It is a neighboring dive site of Shark Airport. As its name suggest, this fast-paced dive throws divers in all directions and calls for some experience. Reef hooks are highly recommended as divers may find themselves holding on to dead sections on the reef during the dive. In doing so, they must take care to look out for heavily camouflaged stonefish or scorpionfish and sea urchins wedged in between the cracks and not damage the reefs in the process. The strong currents however give divers potential to spot schools of trevallies, tunas and pelagic like whalesharks and hammerhead sharks.
Located on the south-western side of the North Atoll, some say that the wreck had sunk either in the late ’70s or early ’80s. The wreck used to peek out of the water decades ago, but most of it now is underwater. The wreckage has been a home for many coral and fish species. Around the area are resident sea turtles, sweet lips, and a huge school of jacks. To encounter the elusive hammerhead sharks, it is best to schedule a dive early in the morning. There is also a good chance to spot a school of bumphead parrotfish feeding on the coral heads.
Located at the northeast corner of Tubbataha is a long, gently sloping drop off where divers are likely to encounter eye-catching and playful species of fish called Sweetlips. Within this area is also a concentration of cleaner wrasse fishes which bring in families of manta rays.
Located on the southeast end features a deep crack in the coral that extends out like an elbow from the wall, known as “The Cut,” Delsan Wreck gets its name from a 70m long oil tanker that sunk in 1988. The shipwreck is still intact, and a huge portion of it still sticks out of the water. However, the shipwreck is too shallow for scuba divers to visit. Here, divers will have the chance to meet 23 known shark and ray species, some of which are whale sharks, tiger sharks, white tip, silvertip, blacktip, hammerhead, nurse sharks, manta rays, devil rays, and eagle rays.
Jesse Beazley Reef If the current permits, Jesse Beazley Reef could be part of the itinerary. It is a relatively smaller coral structure to both the North and South Atolls, but the coral garden it bears is spectacular. One of the highlights of Jessie Beazley are the distinct types of sharks that can be seen while diving, from white tip reef sharks to black tips, whalesharks, hammerheads and bull sharks. Manta rays also cruise along the edge of this stunning reef.