Tubbataha Trip Report
Following a short flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the uniformed Atlantis representative was a welcome sight who was only too happy to carry my luggage to the near by air-conditioned mini bus which preceded to depart on a 10 minute journey down to the dock where the Atlantis Azores Liveaboard was waiting for us.
Upon boarding the sleek vessel, we quickly sorted out dive gear and got acquainted with the other guests on board. A brief, but thorough, welcome / safety presentation was given followed by some local delicacies and dinner - We were also warned that the crew on board would be attempting to over feed us for the week - Jury is out on that one!
P/Y ATLANTIS AZORES
The vessel herself has been recently refurbished and is a shining example of what a liveaboard should represent. Packed full of the features that divers require; The Atlantis Azores has two onboard compressors which can cater fully to all of your Nitrox needs, Two dive skiffs which allow easy access to the best sites around Tubbataha (Or any of the other itineraries) and also means that there is no surface swimming involved and the photography facilities leave nothing to be desired with a dedicated rinse tank and camera table along with on-hand camera tool kits and the added bonus of pressurised air lines around the table for blowing away excess water and particles - All of this coupled with the expert crew who will happily assist with any query, diving or otherwise, make the Atlantis Azores a place you won’t want to leave and more than that, the perfect dive vessel!
TUBBATAHA WORLD HERITAGE SITE
When the Philippines is mentioned in the diving industry you’ll commonly here names like Malapascua for the Thresher Sharks and Leyte for Whale Sharks whilst Bohol is known its macro life; But you’ll rarely hear Tubbataha mentioned.
The Tubbataha World Heritage site lies 93 miles out from Palawan in the middle of the Sulu sea, as such it is only diveable for three months of the year (Mid-May to Late-June)
It consists primarily of two atolls and a ranger station although there are a few other submerged reef systems and small islets included within the park - This may not sound like much but it covers 90’300 Hectares (374.6 sq/miles) and is the most successful marine natural park within the Phillipines.
The northern atoll is home to a dedicated Ranger Station which accommodates the Park Rangers who are in place year round to enforce the strict conservation laws in place.
The Ranger Station also serves as a base for any scientific research that may be going on, I was lucky enough to speak to a scientist who was studying the population of Sharks and Rays in the park - The Ranger Station is open to the public and is well worth the visit on a surface interval, they also sell a variety of t-shirts as souvenirs too.
The southern atoll of the Tubbataha reef system is denoted on the surface by a prominent Lighthouse and several eerie looking bleached trees, which on the whole looks rather desolate, fortunately the polar opposite of desolation exists under the perfect water surrounding the tiny islet!
Black Rock is a an area of interest located an the north-east tip of the southern atoll system in Tubbataha, the reef health here is exceptional with a wide range of biodiversity.
You can commonly find huge arrangements of both soft and hard coral in a haze of reef fish going about their daily business. Have a look underneath the overhangs on the larger formations and you can often see Many-Spoted Sweetlips, Sleeping Whitetip Reef Sharks and the occasional gathering of Cephalopods. As with the rest of Tubbataha you always stand a good chance of encountering passing pelagic specie, with frequent sightings of Dogtooth Tuna, Giant Travally and Gray Reef Sharks - A Tiger Shark even made a pass by, followed by a Whale Shark!
So it is certainly worth casting an eye out to the blue here.
As the name may suggest, Shark Airport is an area in Tubbataha which has increased chances to see pelagic species and is considered one of the best sites to dive in the park.
Shark Airport has two large reef wall formation which meet at a corner, strong currents can frequently flow along both walls and converge on the corner which results in a “washing machine” effect.
The plus side of this slight more advanced diving scenario is that strong currents and cold upwellings can bring in the large pelagic species including Tiger Sharks, large schools of Gray Reef Sharks, Manta Rays, Whalesharks along with impressive Barracuda tornadoes and gyrating bait balls of Jacks.
As if the breathtaking reefs and abundance of reef life wasn't enough for you then you can take out your magnifying glass and go on the macro hunt!
The macro life within Tubbataha takes a discerning eye to find and also requires a lot of discipline as you’ll have to try and not get distracted by everything else going on; but if you can manage it you will be well rewarded by a diverse range of Nudibranchs blending into the reef crest.
Inhabiting the sea fans, usually in the 20-30 meter range, the elusive Pygmy Seahorse can be spotted doing it very best impression of the sea fan - Please remember whilst they are a sought after photography subject, they are highly sensitive to light and excessive exposure to torches an strobe lights will damage and even kill them!
Keep looking through the plentiful reef and you’ll soon start to notice that there is more and more to see with Candy Crabs blending into the soft coral while crustaceans scuttle and jump across the reef and Blennies dart in an out of their coral houses - You’ll not be short of subjects here!
I’d just like to say a big “THANK YOU” to all the crew onboard the Atlantis Azores and all the staff involved in putting together the itinerary for making my time there thoroughly enjoyable!
Particularly Captain Jon and Dive Extraordinaire Ambo for taking care of me (and my camera!) for the week - Well done guys!
The biggest mention goes to Mr. Gordon Strahan who I had the absolute pleasure of being onboard and diving with - None of this would be possible without you!