Scuba Diving Tubbataha
Since divers discovered Tubbataha in the late 1970s, it has become recognized as one of the most remarkable coral reefs on our planet.
In the Sulu Sea, Philippines – at the geographic centre of world marine biodiversity – lies an underwater nature reserve that is considered both a mecca for scuba divers and model for coral reef conservation.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,030-hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Palawan, the westernmost Philippine province. It is located 150km southeast of Puerto Princesa City, at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global centre of marine biodiversity.
Tubbataha is composed of two huge coral atolls – the north atoll and the south atoll – and the Jessie Beazley Reef, a smaller coral structure about 20 kilometres north of the atolls.
The reefs of Tubbataha and Jessie Beazley are considered part of Cagayancillo, a remote island municipality roughly 130 kilometers to the northeast, inhabited mainly by fisherfolk.
The park contains roughly 10,000 hectares of coral reef, lying at the heart of the Coral Triangle – the global centre of marine biodiversity. Scientists have been visiting these reefs since the 1980s, and their research has shown that Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is home to no less than:
- 600 species of fish
- 360 species of corals (about half of all coral species in the world)
- 11 species of sharks
- 13 species of dolphins & whales
- 100 species of birds
- And also nesting Hawksbill & Green sea turtles.
In 1993, Tubbataha was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It was recognised as one of the Philippines’ oldest ecosystems, containing excellent examples of pristine reefs and a high diversity of marine life. It is also an important habitat for internationally threatened and endangered marine species.
Tubbataha is a strictly ‘no-take’ zone and is the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the Philippines.
Marine Park Rangers; The ranger station perched on the southernmost tip of Tubbataha’s North Atoll is home to a combined team of 10-12 men from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, Municipality of Cagayancillo and the TMO. Stationed for two months at a time, 130 kilometres from the nearest inhabited islands, their job is to protect the park from illegal activities including fishing and collection of other marine life such as top shells (Trochus niloticus).
Their work includes:
- Regular patrols around the park
- Conducting scientific research and monitoring
- Briefing visitors during the dive season
- Surface and underwater cleanups
- Reporting and responding to unusual incidents, like crown-of-thorns starfish infestations.
DIVE SEASON: Tubbataha’s dive season is just three months long, running from mid-March until mid- June. At this time of year diving conditions are usually optimum – clear skies, calm seas and visibility between 30 and 45 meters.
WATER TEMPERATURE: Around 79F – 86F
VISIBILITY: Can be up to 130 ft.
DIVE ACCESS: Because of its isolated location, Tubbataha can only be visited on a liveaboard boat. Divers can experience the reefs’ dramatic underwater terrain, awe-inspiring biodiversity and encounter large marine animals such as sharks, turtles and manta rays.
HOW TO GET THERE: From Manila, there is one of the regular flights to Puerto Princesa. Dive operators usually transport their guests from the airport to the pier. It takes around 10 hours to get to the Park from Puerto Princesa. Most dive boats leave after dinner and arrive in Tubbataha early the next morning. Some slower vessels leave the wharf earlier in order to arrive at Tubbataha by first light.
PERMIT AND FEE: Individuals or companies conducting commercial dive operations in Tubbataha must secure a Permit to Operate from the Tubbataha Management Office at least two months before first entry to the Park. Private boats and other non-commercial trips must have Entry Permits before their scheduled trips. Visitor Entry Fees is P 3,000.00/ per person.
As a visiting diver you play a key role in Tubbataha’s future, as your conservation fees provide the funds we need to protect the park from illegal exploitation.
HIGHLIGHT DIVE SITES:
Delsan Wreck – South Atoll. Laying in of water, this wreckage attracts schools of snappers & sweetlips, as well as eagle rays and plenty of sharks. White tips, black tips and grey reef sharks can all be seen feeding here. Turtles are common visitors and there are plenty of molluscs and crustaceans to entertain macro lovers around the wreckage and along the wall. During our trips we often dive here twice as the marine life is simply fantastic.
Black Rock – South Atoll – There is so much to explore at this dive site that we will often spend the whole day diving here. Schools of surgeon fish, rainbow runners and sweetlips are a common sight, White tip and nurse sharks are found resting under huge table corals and scribbled filefish, box fish and leaf fish add to the colour and spectacle of the stunning reefs; a great site for spotting spiny lobster too!
Lighthouse – South Atoll. The shallow sloping reef with sea grass beds is the place to observe the numerous turtles as they feed on the grasses and soft corals. Also common here are spotted and ribbon tail stingrays, the reef is swarmed with butterfly, angel and banner fish – all happily feeding away. A gentle dive after the previous exhilarations.
Washing Machine – North Atoll. The reef slopes to 12m then drops into the abyss, not for the feint hearted, Washing machine is known for its strong and sometimes unpredictable currents, however with them come the sharks and manta rays. Grey reef and white tips are amongst the common sightings and the occasional hammerhead is know to cruise by and the mantas make diving in currents look easy and graceful! Expect also to see large Napoleon wrasse, pickhandle barracuda, jacks and dogtooth tuna.
Seafan Alley – North Atoll. As the site name suggests this reef wall is dotted with large gorgonian sea fans- take a closer look for pygmy seahorses and long nose hawkfish – though you won’t find them in the same fan as the hungry hawkfish eat the seahorses! This site is also popular with red-toothed triggerfish and sweetlips, barracuda and tunas can be seen in the blue water where we also keep a look out for silver tip sharks.
Shark Airport – North Atoll. A rich slope of corals on sand to between 45 ft and 65 ft leads to a wall with overhangs, caves and crevices down to deeper than sports divers can dive. This is a great site for a dusk dive, when there is lots of action as the fish are feeding, though the current can be a nuisance to photographers. Just about every possible Pacific reef fish is in evidence, including trumpet fish, cornet fish, anthias, damselfish, anemones with clownfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, boxfish, peacock groupers, Titan, Clown, Orange-striped and redtooth triggerfish, pufferfish, parrotfish, hawkfish, bird wrasse and female napoleon wrasse. Guitar sharks, sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, feather duster worms, garden eels, segmented worms and nudibranchs are on the sand, and crinoids are everywhere.
The wall is wonderfully rich in gorgonian sea fans and soft corals, both of which are very large below 100ft. Large fish patrol the wall, especially jacks, revalues, tuna, rainbow runners, barracuda, blacktip reef and whitetip reef sharks, snappers and various fusiliers, cardinalfish and emperors. Manta rays and turtles are common near the surface.
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