Towards the end of May 2017, I set out for Puerto Princesa, Palawan to join the crew of MY Sakura and Let’s Dive Palawan for their 11th Tubbataha trip of the 2017 season. It was my first time at Tubbataha Reef Natural Park. This is part 1 of a 3-part write-up.
On Our Way
I hardly slept the previous night, not because of anticipation – no. Our boat was on the move. We left the port of Puerto Princesa a couple of hours late, waiting for coast guard personnel to hop on to do their inspection.
A man on a seabike approached. I thought he was one of them, a guardian of the Philippine seas stripped of an adequate budget. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he was a Palaweno businessman. He said he was the first one to import the seabike into the country. We chatted a bit and promised to get in touch on Facebook.
Around four coast guard men moved around the boat; they then took Let aside for a talk. Let was the lady boss at Let’s Dive. Along with her partner Dino, they managed the dive shop and boat.
We were to go through bad weather, according to the coast guard. They had deliberately delayed sending us off to spare us from the brunt of the storm.
True enough, twenty minutes into the trip, the setting sun was replaced by storm clouds. Rain began to pour. Drops became pellets, soaking the outdoor lounge/dining area/alternative sleeping quarters (yes, I am referring to one small open area), where we hung out.
That night, we all slept on our assigned beds. This was indoors; and because of my claustrophobia, it wasn’t that comfortable. Past midnight, I ventured outside and found a few of the guests sleeping in the open area. The rains had stopped and you just needed to dry off a couple of cushions.
I joined them and tried to sleep. The moving boat amplified the chill of the ocean breeze. Still, it was better than a closed-off bed. This would be my choice sleeping area for the rest of the trip.
The First Morning
We woke up at 6AM. Our boat was approaching the North Atoll of Tubbataha Reef, where the day’s dive sites were located. It was time to prepare for our first dive.
We were at the Jessie Beazly dive site, right next to its namesake island. Seabirds hovered above us. There were shrieks in the water. Only one other dive boat was there; and a couple of divers were done with their morning dive. We heard talks of a whale shark. I eagerly snarfed down my cup noodles. (Breakfast was served after the day’s first dive – I was hungry.)
The dive guests were divided into two groups; Third and Kevin each had a team. My crew – Luke, Kar Wai, Gabriela and I – was dubbed “Team Foreigner.” Let joined us in a few dives.
“Bakit naman ako nasama dito?” (“Why was I added to this group?”) I teased Third. Ah, but of course he would choose his partner, Camille, to complete Peewee, Kim and Sheryl, a diving barkada from Manila. Anyway, the foreign guests were a fun bunch.
We were all set; our gear, loaded onto the Team Foreigner rubber boat, and our boatman Mon was at the helm. On cue, we rolled over and did a negative descent into the realms of Tubbataha Reef.
Getting to Know Tubbataha Reef Natural Park
In a recent National Geographic article, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Marine Programme head Fanny Douvere said: “A photo can never capture what you actually experience (at Tubbataha).” I agree.
Tubbataha Reef Natural Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one that’s a natural marine park. It is around 97,030 hectares of ocean where marine biodiversity is most abundant on earth. It is home to 396 recorded coral species, 479 fish species, 10 seagrass species, 9 whale and dolphin species, 79 algae species, 7 species of breeding seabirds, and 2 of 7 marine turtle species. The marine park is marked by two of the largest true coral atoll formations in the country, the North and South Atolls, and the vastness around it. Sand cays and lagoons dot the area, offering shelter to seabirds and the Reef Rangers.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. Sharks in abundance, endless reefs alive with corals, majestic drop-offs and exciting ocean blue…. Every dive – even if it were at the same site – offered something amazing.
For our first day’s dives, I was struck by living corals as far as the eye can see. I had never seen reefs and seabeds with so much life.
I’d never seen so many shoaling and schooling fish.
A tigershark (my first) swam 10 meters below us. A silvertip shark (she was huge) greeted us at the drop-off.
I remembered each one’s excitement as we got back onto our rubber boat. “Did you see the tigershark?!” “Did you see the hammerhead?!” “Did you see the whaleshark?!” Did you see?! We were kids again, seeing the world with amazed eyes.
I noticed how Let, who’d probably gone to Tubbataha a hundred times, got visually excited underwater and on the surface. She would open her palms and clasp them together, as if in gratitude. She tailed whalesharks and took her time gazing at schools of barracudas. With Kar Wai, they went deeper in hopes of spotting a hammerhead. On the boat, you sensed joy in her voice, as we reported on what had happened, what we saw.
If there’s a best way to capture the wonders of Tubbataha Reef, it would be through the awe it inspires from its guests. It is a privilege to visit the reef and I would always grateful.
Tubbataha Reefs: A Marine Protected Area That Works. WWF-Philippines. Quezon City, Philippines 2006
Email interview with Ms. Angelique Songco
How the Philippines’ Coral Heart Keeps Beating. Michael Greshko. National Geographics.