Diving the Philippines
Written by Michael Aw, Photography by Tommy Schultz
Tubbataha – The epicentre of the ocean’s richest genetic province, referred to as the ‘Amazon of the seas’, encompasses the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas. Fringed by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, it is home to over 550 species of corals (compared to only 60 in the entire Caribbean). The Sulu Sea’s Tubbataha Reef, with corals covering more than 81,000 acres, is referred to by some marine scientists as the ‘Apex of the Coral Triangle’.
Tubbataha is far-flung; all that appears on the surface are two islets and a series of coral shoals and innocuous sandbars frequented by sea birds. Beneath the sea, however, is where the magic unfolds. Submerged reefs that stretch some 16km rise from the abyssal depth to form the two atolls right in the heart of the Sulu Sea.
Situated within the Indo-Australasia Archipelago, the reef system is the most biologically diverse in the Philippines. And the season to explore its myriad treasures is limited by the monsoons to mid-March to mid-June, when waves are at their calmest, and visibility can be epic. And the only way to explore is to live aboard vessels normally offering four-day, five-night explorations, though you could happily spend a lifetime exploring here.
Tubbataha supports 300 species of hard coral, nearly 500 species of fish, and at least eight of marine mammals. Since the early 1980s sightings of black-tip sharks, white-tip sharks, manta rays, and eagle rays were common sightings by the few who came. Tridacna clams such as the crocus clam, giant clam, scaly clam, and horse’s hoof clam were easily found in the atoll lagoons.
Coral coverage resembles the terraced rice fields of Bali. Forty-six hard coral genera were recorded from a base line survey in 1983. The deeper stretches of the steep drop-off show large foliose or plate-like forms of Pachyseris corals, and reef edges proudly boast waves of Staghorn coral (Acropora) extending to reef slopes more than 20m deep.
Once massively threatened by dynamite and live fish traders, the Tubbataha atoll has been declared a World Heritage Site. In 1988 the former Philippine President Corazon Aquino declared the atolls the first National Marine Park of the Philippines, and the 33,200-hectare marine park has become a model atoll reef with an exceptionally high density of marine flora and fauna.
Over the years I have visited Tubbataha five times and on each sojourn predictably found yellow-fin tunas and big-eye jacks in uncountable numbers, swirling at frequent intervals like tornados across a blue desert. I have encountered a number of robust pelagic fishes patrolling deeper water: dog-toothed tuna and rainbow runners, schools of golden trevally, Spanish mackerel, and surgeonfish. While parrotfish gnawed on green algae, vast numbers of smaller ornamental reef fish fluttered in the currents obscuring the corals on the reef’s walls and plateaus.
The southeastern wall falls to 12m, then drops precipitously; here thrives the huge density of massive Gorgonian fans (Subergorgia mollis). With infinite visibility and a kaleidoscope of extraordinary seascapes, the singular beauty of the terrestrial rainforests is ordinary in comparison. A ranger station built on the atoll is manned by armed soldiers and equipped with radar to catch poachers. The reef flourishes under protection, and the live-aboard dive-boat fleet is thriving, though numbers and the season remain restricted. I once met with the former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo at the ‘Celebrate the Sea’ festival in Manila; she told me that she had her first open water dive in the Tubbataha. It is fortunate that the Philippines has several scuba diving presidents on side.
During my last visit I interviewed the park rangers and local dive operators. I am most impressed with the policies and standards set forth by the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board. This park authority was established in July 1999, and its rules are rigorously enforced by a team of rangers using a new radar system and very fast chase boats. They are a lean, mean, and armed team. This has effectively kept illegal fishers out. Such enforcement should be adopted at marine parks around the world, such as the Great Barrier Reef (also a World Heritage Site) where commercial and recreational fishing are still allowed in 95% of the reserve.
If government agencies and park authorities are serious about preserving the habitat, then all forms of fishing and collection should be prohibited. Such policies are rigidly enforced at Tubbataha.
The park authorities require divers to pay conservation fees (US$75) to support research and conservation. This user-pay system is vital to support the maintenance and long-term management of the park. Given the critical levels of over-exploitation of many coral reefs, marine reserves with effective policing and management are the only viable option available to maintain levels of spawning stock biomass for sustaining reef fisheries.
We are privileged that the Philippine government, non-government organisations, and individuals have invested in managing and protecting Tubbataha as a World Heritage Site, for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
Fly with Qatar Airways to Cebu and connect via domestic flights to Puerto Princesa. Explore the area by booking the luxurious seven-sailed, 40m S/Y Philippine Siren. A traditional gaff-rigged Phinisi, she is handcrafted from locally sourced ironwood and teak.
Designed by divers for divers, the dive deck is expansive, and there are many specialised features onboard for underwater photography and videography. worldwid ediveandsail.com
Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, 181km southeast of Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island, offers truly spectacular underwater exploration, and is only accessible by live-aboard vessels from mid-March to mid-June when waves are most calm, visibility is high, and the weather warm (32-36˚C) and dry.
Tubbataha reefs consist of vertical walls or near drop-offs with pinnacles rising out of great depths. The shallow reef tops are teeming with colourful reef fish, while stingrays, spiny lobsters, manta rays, turtles, leopard sharks, and guitar sharks can be found throughout the outer reefs.
The steep walls are covered in huge barrel sponges, Gorgonian sea fans, soft corals, hydroid, and black corals. In deeper water, shoals of angelfish, butterfly fish, pennant fish, rainbow runners, moorish idols, fusiliers, jacks, snappers, and sweetlips hang out in the blue overhang or coral colonies. Large trevally, tuna, and barracuda as well as requiem sharks patrol the deeper water. Giant manta rays and eagle rays fly overhead, and turtles and groupers, both large and small, are casual passers-by.
Recently I visited Tubbataha with the S/Y Philippine Siren owned and operated by Frank Van Der Linde and Mark Shandur.
After an absence of more than ten years my expectation was high. I was not disappointed. Schools of trevally, rays, and hawksbill and green sea turtles were encountered on almost every underwater sojourn. On a few occasions, I was privileged to swim with mantas and watch lone giant hammerheads cruise past in the inky depths…and for those in the know, yes, I am talking about those giant ones, the Sphyrna mokarran, which can reach 6m in length.
Of the 20 dive sites visited over the course of nine days, the reefs teemed with ornamental reef fishes, and blossomed with live coral.
For over a decade-and-a-half, I have been taking photographs in the Coral Triangle, the biological epicentre of our planet. Each time I put my head beneath the waves, the fabric, the forms, the plethora of reefs never fails to fascinate again and again.