I have been lucky enough to travel far and wide as part of my role at Ultimate Diving. My passion for some of the farthest flung places in the world drive my passion for scuba diving in the Philippines.
Diving in Tubbataha is without a doubt a bucket list trip. Only accessible during March to June due to the winds, the location is afforded nine months protection from all mankind every year leading to an outstanding marine environment. In addition, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognised for its diversity and unique and high density of marine species.
The location covers over 100,000 hectares and consists of two large atolls (North and South) and a smaller reef named “Jessie Beazley Reef”. There are also coral cays supporting a nesting turtle population. The atolls offer outstanding wall diving with beautiful soft corals only the best dive destinations cater to.
I travelled to this location with Atlantis abord the Azores, a luxury yacht with just 12 passengers on my trip. The journey was around 11 hours from the port in the Palawan province. When you arrive, you are met with a few atolls with just their tiny rocky heads poking out the water. As every diver knows the excitement begins to build as to what is down there to see?
There are over 600 species of fish to see ranging from the rare and small hawkfish to the epic whale shark. There are many pelagic animals to be seen and on 3 of the 21 dives I saw a cruising thresher shark, this is a rare encounter and seeing this huge long tailed shark out in the blue was an amazing experience.
There is a resident school of barracuda circling in a way I have not seen since my days of diving Sipadan in 2004, circling like a well-honed tornado they spun around and around mesmerising the group for quite a part of the dive. Camera owners were busy firing off their strobes to collect that all-important pictorial treasure!
I was broadly very impressed with the reef quality and density of coral. There were no dead patches and every part of the reef was housing some type of fish. Schools of small reef fish darted around continuously in the gentle current coming over the atoll towards me. White-tip reef sharks are a regular sighting as they cruised up and down the atoll between 20 and 30 metres depth enjoying the flow of current.
During one dive we went hunting for a Pygmy Seahore, I think this was more a show of knowledge that the guide knew where to find one on this huge atoll rather than it being something to see as we were surrounded by pelagic heaven and being shown something I would expect to be looking for in Lembeh! Nevertheless we embarked on our mission and the camera crew all lined up for their respectful Pygmy picture. This shows both the knowledge of the Atlantis team and their passion to show all the various species on offer.
To support reef protection the government has established a ranger station in the area and they live there in small groups and patrol the location. Only a small number of liveaboards are able to obtain licences to visit the area to ensure the reef is managed for the long term. I can truly agree with this as when I visited the marine environment was outstanding. The Atlantis Azores is a luxury yacht with a small number of divers ensuring the best dive experience.
I did 21 dives during my trip; every dive offered a different but equally interesting experience. The areas of the reef above 15 metres are a photographer’s paradise, the range of colours of soft corals reminds me of Fiji as that was one of my most amazing coral diving trips. The kaleidoscope of colour at Tubbatahah means this is not just for people wanting big stuff in the blue, it is a fully rounded diving location that offers the best of what the Philippines has to offer.
The diving experience suits those whom are comfortable with currents and diving up to 30 metres as often the best shark action is a little deeper in this location. However, as noted the shallow reefs are outstanding by themselves and well worth the trip just to dive on them. Water temperature when I visited was beautiful at 29 degrees so I opted for my shortie which made the whole experience much more enjoyable as the kitting up was so quick and easy. The weather was perfect for the trip, not a cloud in the sky and very warm day temperatures, being on the boat there was a gentle sea breeze just taking the edge off the humidity.
I would recommend this trip to anyone who has enjoyed the thilas of the Maldives and is looking for that bucket list trip to a very special place.