Tubbataha Reef is one of the Philippine’s most beautiful natural treasures. It’s a highly picturesque area that boasts of astoundingly wonderful marine resources and it proudly displays a rich biodiversity not ordinarily found anywhere in the world.
It lies at the geographic center of Sulu sea, approximately 150 kilometers southeast of the famed island of Puerto Princesa, Palawan. This rich underwater nature reserve and marine park cover a total area 97,030 hectares or 375 square miles. It’s situated within the Coral Triangle, putting emphasis and global focus for the protection of coral biological diversity. It’s an underwater paradise for scuba divers, a well guarded and a model coral reef conservation area.
The name Tubbataha was given by the known nomads of the Philippine southern seas, the Sama – Bajau people. It was coined out of two words “tubba” and “taha”, which when joined together would mean “a long reef exposed at low tide”. The Sama- Bajau were the first recorded people who came to know about the reef and benefited from it, but eventually being a part of the Cagayancillo group of islands, the Cagayanons were the frequent visitors of the area. Tubbataha Reef was a fishing haven for them, calling it “Gusong” and they accessed it using their traditional native boats called “bangka”.
For many years, Tubbataha reef remains pristine, untouched and unexplored. With its strategic location in the middle of the Sulu Sea, its isolation stands as its top guard and protection against entry and exploitation. With no source of fresh and potable water, it’s inhabitable for the human race. Being surrounded by the vast seas, having an unguided tour would be unsafe as it’s commonly visited by strong winds and tropical storms brought by the northwest and southeast monsoon.
However, during the 1980s, people start coming in and mostly are fishermen who came to know of its abundant marine life. The use of more modern motorized boats has gained them faster access and mobility. Records show, some foreign fishermen like the Chinese and Taiwanese intruded it, arriving on bigger and more sophisticated fishing vessels, wishing to have their share of Tubbatah Reef’s resources. Fish stocks were on a decline because of over fishing. With destructive fishing techniques using dynamites and cyanide, it posed a threat not just on fishes, but the hundreds of marine and coral species which consider the whole area of Tubbataha Reef as home.
The government, in response to the strong clamor by environmentalists, and with the needed consultation with the Provincial Government of Palawan, then made the necessary step to fully protect the Tubbataha Reef. Her Excellency, then President Corazon Aquino in 1988 declared it as a protected marine area and a National Marine Park under Proclamation no. 306. This covered the two atolls of Tubbataha Reef with a total area of 332 square kilometers or 82,000 acres. Year 2006, saw it enlarged, and under Proclamation no. 1126, the National Marine Park included the Jessie Beazley Reef. The boundaries now covered 970.30 square kilometers or 239,770 acres and is now considered a natural park. There’s a round the clock guarding by armed rangers to fully protect one of the Philippine’s pride and astonishing natural wonder.
How it came about?
Tubbataha Reef is a product brought by the eruption of underwater volcanoes of the Cagayan Ridge. It stands on Charles Darwin’s theory that islands come into existence because of the underwater volcanic movements and eruptions. Thus, the Tubbataha Reef is a real atoll structure that started to form thousands of years ago and that these are fringing reefs around a series of volcanic islands. For a number of millennia, the volcanoes stay dormant and the islands eventually subsided, making the coral formations as the only visible ones on the surface of the water. The much needed sunlight helps it grow and what were once fringing reefs are now larger rings and structures of corals that we see today.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park covers an extensive area of 239, 770 acres and positioned ideally in the middle of the Sulu Sea. It includes the North Atoll, the South Reef and Jessie Beazly Reefs. It houses a great diversity of marine life and resources. Over a thousand species inhabit the reef and many are considered as endangered like the almost extinct hawksbill sea turtles. A large number of animal species live here and it includes lionfish, clownfish, manta rays and sharks. Coral walls that are stunning has made it a very popular dive site for those who marvel at its underwater beauty. These walls count a number of colonies of fish as its inhabitants. To name just a few: parrotfish, barracudas, hammerhead sharks, Napoleon wrasse, parrot fish and smaller size Moorish idols live in these sanctuaries. Sightings of the rare whale sharks and tiger sharks have also been reported. Studies confirm the existence of:
380 plus coral species
50 coral genera
600 plus species from about 60 plus families of fish
13 species of whales & dolphins
103 species of birds
11 species of sharks
This makes it one of the world’s biggest sanctuary for the most amount of marine life or if not, comparable or greater than the famous Australian Great Barrier Reef.
It serves as a major and important habitat for many internationally endangered species. Aside from marine life, it also protects in its northern islet the few remaining colonies of the region’s seabirds. It’s the Philippines oldest ecosystem and plays a key role in the reproduction process and colonization by marine organisms in the entire Sulu Sea system. Tubbataha Reef is a nature’s laboratory that’s beneficial in the biological and ecological processes. It proudly displays an ongoing process of coral reef formation and supports a multitude of marine life that are dependent on the reef ecosystems. Global support and admiration have been seen and received when it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1993.
How to Get there?
During the late 1970’s, visitors and divers began to flock to the Tubbataha Reef National Park. Its reputation as a premier dive site and a beautiful marine park has been known to the world. The Park was a nominee to the Eight Wonders of the World and recently, it was given an 8th ranking in the world’s best dive sites by the prestigious CNN travel website.
The starting jump off point is the island of Puerto Princessa in Palawan. From there, boats are available for a 10- 12 hour sea travel going to Tubbataha. The key point is to reach Puerto Princesa first, here’s how:
If one’s coming from Manila or National Capital Region
Take a direct flight from the Manila Domestic Airport to Puerto Princesa. The Philippine Airlines (PAL) and some low budget airlines like Cebu Pacific, AirAsia Zest and Air Philippines offer daily flights. The cost ranges from US $90- $150.
By sea, take a ferry boat trip going to Puerto Princesa. The leading passenger ship and fast ferries that offer frequent trips are: WG&A Superferry, Negros Navigation, Cebu Ferries and SuperCat. It will take about 20- 24 hour ride. The cost ranges from US $40- $110.
If one’s coming from other parts of the country like Cebu/ Davao/ Bacolod/ Iloilo
Take a PAL or a Cebu Pacific flight at the main airports of these key cities. Cost varies according to distance and type of airplane accommodation. The cost ranges from $40- $80.
If one’s already in Palawan Island like El Nido
By air, take a short distance flight to Puerto Princesa. The SEAIR company offers such flight that lasts 40 minutes.
By land, take a regional bus going to Puerto Princesa. It will take 7 to 8 hours. The Eulen Joy and Sweety Transport bus companies ply the route.
The Live-aboard Thing
What’s a live-aboard?
A live-aboard is a service offered where guests can stay on board a sea vessel for one or more nights as opposed to a normal day boat operation. Glass fibered and steeled boats are usually utilized and maintained to withstand the rough seas and ensure safety of their passengers. It allows travel to more distant areas, particularly dive sites. It can carry up to 30 passengers depending on the vessel’s capacity and size.
With its isolation and remote location in the middle of the Sulu Sea, there’s no other way to reach and have a pleasure stay in the Tubbataha National Reef Park, but through a live-aboard. The Tubbataha Reef Natural Park is about a hundred nautical miles away from the nearest port, so access in only made through live-aboard vessels and voyages and is largely determined by weather conditions.
When can I have a live-aboard in Tubbataha Reef Natural Park?
The Tubbataha Park’s dive season starts in mid- March until mid- June. It’s just three months and it’s the time for the optimum diving conditions: calm waters, clear skies and water visibility that reaches to an amazing 45 meters below. Live-aboard promises a fulfilling diving experience, where one can see stunning walls, wonderful reef life and a close personal encounter with many marine species including sharks and manta rays. The most common setup takes six nights and five diving days. Opportunities for a live-aboard are only available during the diving season because the rest of the year will deter any entry to Tubbataha due to rough swells and strong winds.
There’s a range of dive companies that offer live-aboard trips to Tubbataha and they’re licensed and permitted to operate. It’s the responsibility of the visitor/ diver to make direct contact with these companies. It’s highly advised that they should negotiate only with those legitimate ones that have a Permit to Operate, as this shows confirmation that a dive operator has complied with all the Park entry procedures and thus, can legally operate a live-aboard vessel in Tubbataha Reef National Park.
How much is it?
Live-aboard packages or commercial dive tours usually cost somewhere between US $1,000 to over US $5,000 depending on the dive boats and the number of diving days. Dive tours last from 5 to 7 days or longer as long as it’s clearly stated in the entry permit. Private vessels and non- commercial trips are only allowed 7 days to stay in Tubbataha Park. Diving activities are the main offerings of live-aboard or dive operators. Non divers can go for snorkeling, while some dive operators offer diving courses; it can be a part of the package or will mean additional fees.
Dive Sites in Tubbataha Reef
1. The North Atoll-
The largest of Tubbataha Park’s three coral structures that has an oblong shape size. It measures 16 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide and enclose a sandy lagoon that’s 24 meters deep. Its reef flat is quite shallow and can be seen in some areas during extreme low tide. Walls that are steep and usually perpendicular characterize its reef. It’s a pristine coral reef area with an extensive lagoon with coral and seagrass beds and two coral islands. The North Atoll is considered the most diverse coral reef system of the country and plays a crucial role in the continuous growth of fishery in the region.
A dive site with a steep wall with many swim throughs, overhangs and crevices. Its reef top is stunning with lots of hard coral heads and sandy areas. One can encounter several sharks, Remora fish, garden eels and giant reef rays.
It’s a highly restricted, tiny islet that’s 12,435 square meters in size and the only bird sanctuary in the region. It hosts over 250 trees and a home to a wide variety of exotic birds. For the record, it’s a home to brown booby, sooty tern, black nod, white egret, Christmas Island frigate bird, plover, red- footed booby, brown noddy, brown booby, crested terns, whimbrel and lesser and greater frigate bird. It has a plaza located at the center of the island that measures 3, 690 square meters and is occupied by different species of ground- breeding birds. Perhaps, Tubbataha reefs most famous islet with the Tubbataha North Islet being referred to as the bird Islet.
An outstanding dive site, where visibility reaches to a depth of 20 to 37 meters. Maximum depth reaches to 40 meters and currents are generally mild, but can be strong enough to give one a fierce diving experience. Its close proximity to the Seafan Alley dive site counts large gorgonian sea fans, soft corals, black corals and barrel sponges.
The average depth is 30 meters and going down to a maximum of 37 meters. It has a sandy slope with many coral heads and where one is led to a wall with crevices, caves and overhangs. The usual residents of this dive site are obvious, its reef wall is dotted with big gorgonian sea fans. It’s not just that, as pygmy horses and long nose hawkfish are sometimes sighted. The other popular ones are barracudas, tunas, red- toothed triggerfish and sweetlips. One must be careful in its blue waters as sometimes silver tip sharks make its rounds.
A dive site not suitable for the feint hearted as it’s notorious for its unpredictable and strong currents. One will feel like being inside a real washing machine and the deadly thing is, sharks and manta rays go with it. Diving may look easy on it with mantas gracefully making their way, but there’s more than what meets the eye. It has reef slopes to 12 meters, then a sudden drop towards the abyss. An area where grey reef & white tips, pickhandle barracuda, jacks, dogtooth tuna and Napoleon wrasse are common sightings.
One of the most popular place for night diving because of its shallowness. Shark Airport is Tubbataha’s most fertile dive site and made up of 15 meter wide plateaus dropping off at 25 meters. Some green turtles and rare hawksbill can be sighted in its shallow waters searching for corals to eat, while numerous moray eels, giant star pufferfish and whitetip sharks are regular visitors.
Located in the southeast corner of the North islet is the South Park, a gentle slope with many mixtures of corals standing tall at 40 feet and then a sudden drop into a deep wall. It lies close to the more famous Amos Rock and has a large reef top that has its usual dwellers of sea cucumbers, giant clams, leopard fish, Bohadschia sea cucumbers and octopus.
A home to many of the marine life in Tubbataha Park. Whip corals and huge gorgonian fans covered its wall and with moderate current that carries a variety of large fishes. Sharks are so plenty and mostly are grey and white tip reef sharks. Large groupers, Napoleons, snappers, mackerels are all seen going with the current; a wild ride to enjoy.
It’s suitable for night dives and its waters is simply awesome at night. Nudibranchs, Atagema intecta, lobsters, large crabs and twinspot lionfish are what one would likely meet when one hits its waters when the sun is down.
One of Tubbataha Parks most famous coral reef wall dives. A stunning wall dive experience that plunges deep into the heart of Sulu Sea. Its reef slopes are between 30 to 60 feet and visibility reaches down to 37 meters. The usual inhabitants of the place include the blacksaddle coral grouper, guitar sharks and the Napoleon Wrasse. A whale shark is sometimes seen roaming around.
It has an average depth of 65 feet and with a maximum of 60 meters, the Mayan Wreck is where the ruins of a Malayian ship wreck are sighted. It has a temperamental current that’s sometimes weak and atrociously strong most of the times and it carries with it a lot of fishes, notably dogtooth tuna and even an eagle ray. On its reef top, a number of moray eels, butterfly fishes, angelfishes and smaller creatures like starfish, flatworms and lobsters can be seen.
2. The South Atoll-
The South Atoll is a small reef measuring 1- 2 km wide and is triangular shaped. It’s where the Tubbataha lighthouse is located in its southern tip on an islet called South islet and has a coralline- sandy area that measures 800 square meters, which serves as a critical breeding place for marine turtles and numerous migratory birds.
Located in the northeast end of the South islet, it has an average depth of 60 feet going down to a maximum of 230 feet. It has an attractive wall covered with corals, gorgonian sea fans and barrel sponges. A different species of pelagic visitors make its way here, like batfish, peacock groupers, surgeonfish, orange-stripped triggerfish, yellow mask angel fish, manta rays, reef sharks, peacock groupers and giant turtles.
It has a usually calm current with some swell, but occasionally becomes strong. Visibility reaches to a depth of 35 to 40 meters. It shares and has almost the same wall as T- Wreck, with lots of barrel sponges, gorgonian sea fans and soft corals adorning it.
Black Rock is located at the northeast corner of the South Atoll. Its plateau slopes gently to a depth of 15 to 30 meters and with a steep wall that’s not covered much with corals. Napoleon wrasses and mantas are spotted on its waters. The best sighted creature here is the whitetip sharks that can be seen sleeping on its seabed or if not, searching the sea for prey in the company of a bluefin trevally.
Delsan Wreck average depth reaches to 11.6 meters down to a maximum of 30 meters. It’s named after the small ship that sank on South Atoll’s southeastern edge. This dive site is known for big fishes that can be clearly seen in its clear waters. Giant moray, barracuda and some sharks are its usual visitors. A great thing to see are the grey reef sharks waiting and hunting schools of fish in a 30 meter deep by 18 meter crevasse in one of its coral. Tiger sharks have been recently sighted, adding some tough charm to its water’s reputation.
Triggerfish City with its relatively calm waters and current, reaches to 100 feet deep and has clear visibility up to 80 feet. The water temperature remains steady at 87 degrees Fahrenheit. It houses a great number of interesting sea creatures like giant trevally, brown booby and the magic anemone coral, with its peculiar trait of disappearing quickly once disturbed, leaving pitiful shrimps behind.
Located in the south end of Tubbataha Reef’s south islet, The Staghorn Point has a far larger area consisting of shallow reef top. It has an average depth of 20 meters with a maximum of 60 meters or more. Such a deadly place for new divers, because of the sudden current change that shows no warning. Generally, it has normally calm current and has black tip and grey reef sharks as its common inhabitants.
South West Wall-
Visibility is excellent at 10 meters and remains clear even at a depth of 35 meters. South West wall is an outstanding dive site with an average depth of 100 meters and counts the Emperor angelfish, white tip reef sharks and the Brittle Star turtle as its daily visitors. One will find it fulfilling in seeing staghorn corals on a short slope at 15 meters, which is the start of the drop- off.
Provides a gentle dive after those challenging ones. Visibility is clear from 10 to 30 meters below and has a shallow sloping reef where one can see many turtles feeding on soft corals in its sea grass beds. The common marine species here include ribbon tail stingrays, angel and banner fishes. A lot of soft and hard corals and a number of anemone with anemone fishes.
3. The Jessie Beazley Reef
A magnificent dive site located about 20 km northwest of Northern Tubbataha. The Jessie Beazley Reef, Northern End is relatively small, but promises a satisfying and exhilarating dive both for beginners and experts. The diving depth starts from 8 meters up to 50 meters plus, with currents that are moderate and calm. One of the busiest parts of Tubbataha with fishing being allowed as it’s not as secured as the marine park. Its slopes are rich in corals and its reef has an overall shape of a mushroom because of an undercut drop- off. Sharks, Spanish mackerel and barracudas are some of its frequent visitors.
A spectacular marine life and clear water visibility are the trademarks of Jessie Beazley Reef- Southern End. It’s one of Tubbataha’s greatest dive spots and many’s favorite place for macro- underwater photography. A vast reef top with pretty whips and large table corals.
The Peculiar, The Unique and The Endangered Species
The tremendously rich flora and fauna of the Tubbataha National Reef Park has the most peculiar, unique and highly endangered species in the world. It’s a playground for creatures not ordinarily seen and at the same time plays an important role towards the preservation of life for those nearing extinction.
The Common Noddy is one of the rarest species of bird in the South Atoll of the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park and is a common inhabitant of the Australian waters. It’s popularly known as the Brown Noddy or Noddy Tern. Its white mark on the top of its head looks like a cap and is cut off by a black mark between its eye and bill. Its underwing is pale in color with some dark edges, with a long tail and a bill that’s stout and long. The Common Noddy is the brownest and the largest of the three noddy species.
The sooty tern is a seabird found in the tropical oceans that breeds on the islands in the equatorial zone. Fortunately, it has found its way in the North Atoll of Tubbataha Park. It has a large wingspan with dark black upperparts and underparts that’s shiningly white. Its bill and legs are black and comes in colonies producing distinctive incessant calls like a cacophony.
Christmas Island Frigate-
The Christmas Island Frigate Bird is another visitor of Tubbataha Reef’s North Atoll and is a critically endangered species. It’s associated with the Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and is a seabird of the frigate bird family. It’s slightly larger with brownish – black plumage, a deeply forked tail and long wings. The male has a unique egg shaped white patch on its belly and a bright red gular sac, while the female is slightly larger with a white belly and breast. They are tough birds that harrass other birds to supply them with food.
Another rare and endangered whale specie is the sperm whale. It’s the largest toothed whale and predator. Unlike most large whales that have smooth skin, its back skin is rough and wrinkly like that of a prune. What sets it apart from others is its unique and very large, blocked shape head that comprises one third of its body length. It’s the favorite sharks of most divers in Tubbataha because of its distinctive look.
Hawksbill Sea Turtle-
Perhaps, the most endangered turtle in the world is the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. The Atlantic and the Indo- Pacific areas have a share of this specie, but many are preserved and taken care of in the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park. It looks like an ordinary turtle, but upon closer scrutiny, it has sharp, curving beak and saw- like appearance of its shell lines that makes it stand out. Turtle hunting has made it extinct as it’s the primary source of tortoise shell used for decorations and ornamental purposes. It’s usually found in the lagoons and coral reefs of Tubbataha.
Reef Manta Rays-
A reef based species of manta rays have been confirmed to have been found in Tubbataha Park. This is not the ordinary species that roam the open seas, but a rare find belonging to the Manta alfredi species rather than the common Manta birostris. It’s the first recorded in the Philippines and was discovered only in 2012. The Reef Manta Ray is usually found in the waters of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and is fast approaching extinction with its slow reproduction process, wherein a female bears a single pup just once in three years. It’s one of the largest manta rays in the world with an average size of 11 feet long, but can grow to a mammoth size of 18 feet long.
Tips, Recommendations and Reminders
Book your diving roughly one year in advance. Tubbataha Reef is a highly in demand place, so being one of the early birds in making a booking assures you of a slot. You’ll also have the time to save for a diving trip that doesn’t get any cheaper and will cost a minimum of about US $2,000. Booking early also means the luxury of time in accumulating all the necessary certifications to allow you in making your dive in Tubbataha.
Follow the dive plans to the tee. Dive plans are easy to follow as most dives are done just along one wall. But with a clear visibility even up to a 100 feet, one may be tempted to explore out further and deeper. It can create a dangerous situation as the waters of Tubbataha is a haven for many sea predators like the deadly sharks. Stick out with the group, safety is a paramount concern.
Deal with a legitimate dive operator. Be sure that the dive operator you’ll be choosing for your live-aboard is permitted and licensed to make his way through the restricted Park. Some problems may arise, and it’s always better to be on the safe side and protected against scams and unwanted deals. Visit the official website of Tubbataha Park, or for easy access, visit this URL http://tubbatahareef.org/wp/dive_operators. The accredited dive operators in Tubbataha Reef Natural Park are listed complete with website address and contact numbers.
Lastly, one important reminder: respect the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park. Follow the rules and regulations, no fishing allowed and stealing of corals is a criminal act. Be grateful enough that you’re here; it’s a once in a lifetime experience to be up and personal with one of God’s marvelous creation. The Philippines, has been battling for a long time a list of foreign intruders who want to have a share of its natural resources. Don’t put your name under this shame list and be tagged as a nature stealer.