Tubbataha has made a name for itself as a wild, colourful and creature-rich dive destination, a fine example of marine protection in action â but it wasnât always that way, says HENLEY SPIERS
ONE YEAR LATER and now engaged, Jade and I are back in the Philippines. Fathers-in-law have a stereotypically daunting image, but luckily mine is dive-obsessed.
Luckier still, he has resolved to take us on a family outing to Tubbataha reef, renowned as the greatest underwater treasure in the Philippines. We will be travelling aboard the Solitude 1, a new liveaboard in the region that has operated mostly in Palau until now.
To get there we take a quick flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, capital city of Palawan. Palawan is the most isolated of the Philippines’ major islands. Besides being the access point for Tubbataha reef, it is famous for the up-and-coming beach community of El Nido, and a wondrous underground river system.
We arrive a night early and check into Hibiscus Garden Inn, where the owner Thierry has been anointed “the French Robinson Crusoe”. As an adventurous twenty-something, Thierry purchased a remote island in the Philippines and spent the next 20 years living there in blissful isolation.
He regales us with his life story over pastis, and invites us to join him for a meat feast at the nearby Captain Ribs restaurant.
Listening to him, I’m reminded of Jack Kerouac’s line: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk…”
THE NEXT DAY we pack our hangovers and are transferred to the boat. Bo Mancao, a charismatic Cebuano, is our host and dive-guide for the week and ever-helpful.
The Tubbataha dive season is only three months long, from March to June, and we’re on one of the last charters of the year.
Jade and I make our nest in the excellent camera-room and watch in awe as acclaimed photographer William Tan meticulously prepares his rig next to us.
Solitude 1 is a rebuilt 52m steel-hulled merchant ship, and one of the more upmarket liveaboard options in the region. The facilities are impressive, and there is one staff-member per guest.
Spanish cruise directors Alfonso and Diego bring a wealth of experience and a subtle sense of humour to the experience. Announcements for meals and dive-briefings are made over the intercom with an accompanying soundtrack. I’m still getting used to not waking up to the Gladiator theme every day!
We sail overnight to reach the faraway reefs and wake to find flat, turquoise seas and beautiful sunshine. We are the first group of divers, and board the skiff for a quick ride to the dive-site, where Bo jumps in for a current check. We’re hoping for the fast currents and thermoclines that bring pelagic fish.
As I drop beneath the surface I’m giddy with excitement. It feels as if we have so much time and exploration ahead of us.
With the tide flowing, we drop quickly to 10m and come across a school of jack swimming upstream. The school remains tight, and a thousand eyes follow us as we come in closer for photos.
Within seconds they have passed, and pursuing them into the current is futile. We drop over the ledge and enter a new landscape along the face of the wall.
We halt our descent at 30m. Here, man-sized seafans sprout from the dark rock and we can see whitetip reef sharks resting on the sand far below. The visibility is spectacular.
Our attention is now split between the action on the wall and the infinite blue to the other side. For now, my camera and I are gawking at the corals, seafans and sponges. Each click of the shutter increases my sense of wonder as the strobes momentarily bring to light the beautiful natural colours of this reef.
The rock is punctuated with caverns and overhangs where, with childish curiosity, we discover a rotund, pregnant map pufferfish.
Meanwhile, the dive-guide has his eyes trained on the blue, and our ears are primed for the distinctive metallic sound.
We hear a clang, and the group rushes out into the open sea. There we make out the silhouette of schooling barracuda.
Like cattle-ranchers, we make a broad loop around and try to force them back towards the wall. I can hear exciting grunting into regulators as I frame the photo and hold down the shutter.
We head back into the reef before the current takes us out too far. An elegant grey reef shark is there to greet us momentarily while performing its daily rounds. Not wanting to leave this underwater paradise, we extend the dive by heading to the reef-top, where rays of sunlight penetrate the shallow waters and showcase a reef so healthy that David Attenborough should be narrating it.
There are mountains of staghorn and table corals with no signs of the bleaching that has blighted other areas in the Asia-Pacific region.
A couple of green turtles lie lazily on the hard coral and allow us to approach closely without budging. Sadly, our time is up and we begrudgingly exit the water.
TUBBATAHA IS LOCATED in open ocean and comprises two large atolls and the smaller Jessie Beazley reef (named after a captain who crashed into it). It offers 97,000 hectares of marine park – that’s almost 10 times the size of Paris. The only glimpses of land you’ll see all week are a few sandbars, a lighthouse and the ranger station.
Tubbataha is wrongly positioned on most nautical maps, so many ships have run aground there. Remains occasionally protrude from the surface.
Over the week, we dive most of the 17 official sites. Each follows a very similar profile of shallow reef-top lined by steep walls that fall off quickly into the abyss.
Because of the consistently abundant and healthy reefs, no one site stands out. It’s a case of try your luck and follow the path of marine-life encounters.
I believe Tubbataha may be the healthiest reef in the world right now. Komodo and Raja Ampat share similarly healthy corals, but Tubbataha has an edge when you consider the healthy reef-shark population. On every dive we see sharks, a massive endorsement for the protection afforded within the marine park.
There is also the possibility of seeing hammerhead, thresher, tiger and whale sharks but I’m afraid this is a low-percentage game that often ends in frustration. Tubbataha is a wild, natural place that offers no guarantees when it comes to marine encounters.
If I were to return, I would do so earlier in the season, when the water is cooler and slightly more appealing to big-game pelagics.
Even so, on each dive we were treated to sightings of sought-after species such as reef sharks, schooling barracuda and jack, giant trevally, tuna, bumphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, turtles and manta rays, so I can’t complain!
The marine inhabitants of Tubbataha see few divers, and are naturally cautious. It’s tricky getting close, and the best strategy is getting upcurrent from their trajectory, then drifting onto them. A sprint approach from behind will lead to a steady stream of fish-bum photos.
I recommend that photographers bring more than just a fish-eye lens.
A rectilinear wide-angle or mid-range lens would be a good idea for getting you closer to the shyer pelagic species.
I also wished I had brought my macro lens, as there are plentiful opportunities for fish portraits and behaviour shots.
Tubbataha’s health is not measured only in its corals and sharks but in the abundance and diversity of fish. From territorial damsels to crunching parrots, a tornado of them surrounds every dive.
TAKE THE TIME to cruise in the shallower waters among this thriving fish community. Slow down and you’ll get a glimpse into the everyday social behaviour of fish life: fighting, flirting, feeding and mating.
In fact, on one of our last dives we are treated to the rare spectacle of Napoleon wrasse mating in the shallows. Consumed by primal instincts, they allow us to approach far closer than usual, and we watch in wonder as their turbulent courtship ends in procreation.
All this pleasurable activity must be seen in the context of Tubbataha’s history. Awareness of the abundant reefs became widespread in the 1980s and, as the decade progressed with depleting coastal fish-stocks, so Tubbataha’s appeal to fishermen grew. Commercial fishing quickly made damaging inroads on the reef, bringing with it destructive practices such as dynamite- and cyanide-fishing.
A campaign led by divers and environmentalists to protect this wonder of the world was initiated. It was declared a national marine park in 1988 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Great on paper, but the responsibility for protecting Tubbataha shifted between a number of ineffective management teams after its declaration as a marine park, and destructive practices continued.
Marine rangers first appeared in the mid-’90s but these soldiers living under canvas in an isolated territory were poorly trained, equipped and motivated. They were ineffective and vulnerable to bribery.
Since 2001, when stewardship of the park fell to the Tubbataha Marine Office, remarkable progress has been made. Today’s marine rangers are both security guards and marine conservationists. Ten to 12 are on-site at all times, and their base is now a concrete structure equipped with electricity and radar.
Eighty per cent of marine-park funding goes towards policing, and it is by having a permanent task force of well-trained rangers that Tubbataha has been able to regenerate as a true marine protected area. At the end of our trip we visit the station and hang out with the rangers, who are welcoming and, unsurprisingly, very good at beach volleyball!
I see Tubbataha as one of the last outposts of the ocean as it should be, and an essential destination for ocean-lovers.
We may, as Leonardo Di Caprio and many others have said, stand at a tipping-point for ocean welfare, but I hope Tubbataha is not a relic of the past but a model for the future.
It shows that with government support and constant, well-organised surveillance, marine protected areas can work. Dive it and see for yourself!
Appeared in DIVER November 2016