The sky and sea met in a wash of peach and gilded light. Our small live-aboard ship bobbed and on the ocean’s surface a series of strange lines, rippled and in parallel, appeared. Within moments they sank from sight. It was a puzzle until a flying fish emerged, barely jetting above the water. Within moments it disappeared, leaving that odd trail and then all was still again. If there wasn’t a witness I would have thought I was imagining things. Tubbatha Reef, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was like that – full of surprises.
Superlatives don’t do justice to all that’s above and below the surface of the UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea. Whale sharks slip past steep underwater ridges. Manta Rays lift up from the depths to cleaning stations They pause to drift as small fish dart and peck, removing tiny creatures attached to their skin. Rushing ribbons of Jacks, Napoleon Wrasse and Barracuda race up from the deep and disappear. My small dive collective came upon a nurse shark sleeping in a crevice, its tail squeezed into the narrow space, nose to an unseen wall. Other sharks floated past – black tip, reef and white. Curious, they rarely followed us, always gliding back to their wanderings.
From the deck I watched a turtle, or was it two, fins splayed into the air, the shell humping up and then down. A face lifted to the sunlight and I wondered, “Why?” We saw many resting below, some tearing into coral, searching for tasty sponges before they’d move up the water column to breathe. What was this one looking at on the surface? Was it curious about our boat’s motor vibrating into the fathoms? Was it a mating dance?
A Philippine National Marine Park, Tubbataha Reef sits deep inside the Sula Sea, more than ninety miles from port in Puerto Princesa. The shallow atoll islands could be mistaken for small sand bars. They are merely the tip of an intertwining reef system that the UNESCO World Heritage Association found rare enough to add to its recognized natural sites. It’s now protected from fishing by Philippine rangers as well. One afternoon we stopped to meet them, to buy souvenirs and tour their remote outpost.
An abandoned lighthouse sits on another part of the atoll. It still works but is home to sea birds who swirl through the flaking arches and the low scrub trees. Lighthouse or no, there have been many wrecks. Their names remained on several of our dive spots but most have fallen apart or storms have pushed them into the deep sea trenches.
The reef is the meeting place of deep, cold water and tropical warm currents that make it vibrate with life. Soft and hard corals proliferate. Huge fans reach out from walls. Mammoth, squatting, ridged sponges rise up in sizes a potter could only dream of. Fish peer from ledges of plate corals. They tempt divers near, turn on their sides and slip into slivers of space unscathed to surface once the coast is clear.
In the late afternoon things slow down. Knotted Chrinoids unfurl to capture the currents and walk, yes walk, towards new hunting grounds the night deepens. Eels abandon their solitude and slither along the sandy shoals. Octopus wander. Worms the length of yardsticks dig through the sand. Tiny drifters and jelly fish float.
Nothing is wasted in the sea. It’s all eat or be eaten. I’ve seen a clutch of fish tear into the carcass of one of their own. For my species it seems savage but there is an economy at work that will far outlast our survival on the surface. For now, I’m am overjoyed to float by, witnessing the wild things who ignore my passing.
Two experiences stand out from diving the Tubbatha World Heritage site. At one spot I saw a sea cucumber arched up like a crawling dinosaur. I thought they only hunted at night but this one was hungry. It slid up and over a branch of coral. There was no telling what drew the mouth open but I released my buoyant air to settle in close and watch. The maw startled me as a handful of black fingers emerged. At the end of each, flower shaped suckers wrapped around the plant. The cucumber kept moving, each finger pulling forward, sucking and releasing to reach again. It was hypnotic but the current was tugging and I needed to keep up with the group.
On the last dive of our last day I kept reminding myself to breathe slow and calmly. The night before, while going over shooting strategies, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Bob Yin, mentioned how our heartbeats thrump through the water and can alarm the fish. When a diver is excited, the fish know it and fear that they’re being hunted!
In a shallow coral bed I spotted a small school. They weren’t feeding but bobbing around a small coral pinnacle. Very slowly I ventured ever closer until I was in the midst of them. My breath slowed to a meditative rhythm as I floated into the bunch. They hardly seemed to notice. Silently I took pictures then added a small burst of oxygen to my BC vest to float up. So very strange and beautiful – The best of diving the Tubbatha World Heritage site is like that.
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Just sooooo beautiful!!! I miss diving in the Philippines. So proud to be a Filipino:)
Thanks Buena, I have more Filipino appreciation coming up. Hope to return one day.
I loved your photos, especially the ones of the sea turtles. Sounds like you had an amazing experience! I still haven’t learned to scuba dive; I’ve only snorkeled. I am a little hesitant, but it is something I think I will eventually look into.
If you like snorkeling, imagine just hanging out on the bottom of a shallow bay full of coral and beautiful creatures. It will help you get over the trepidation. The PADI certification is a great program to teach you all you need to do and know. Practice and before long you’d comfy at 50 feet!
I’ve never dived but these photos sure are convincing! The shot of the turtle underwater is stunning! Your writing, too, is so vivid! Refreshing to know the reef is recognized and protected, especially as more travelers discover it. Probably a good thing the reef is so far from shore. It makes it something special for people who’ll truly appreciate and respect its life and beauty.
Thanks, Jackie. All those points should keep that area pristine. It takes a bit of doing getting there and then being able to dive. I feel so grateful that the trip came together.
How incredibly beautiful and clear. Your pictures are amazing. Sounds like the perfect place for diving. Would love dive in the Tubbatha Reef sometime. Thanks for the post.
Thanks, Rosemary. It’s not food but a lot of fun.
Wow! Amazing pictures! Reading this made me feel like I was there (almost). I think the sea cucumber feeding would’ve creeped me out – I get creeped out by sea cucumbers in general when they’re not doing in particular, let alone when they’re feeding! Also very good to know about the fish being able to sense your heartbeat – I’ve done over 50 dives now and no one has ever mentioned that to me before. It’s sad to see the whale shark mottled by parasites, though! Any idea if it can be cured?
I really hope this reef stays as pristine as it looks, despite the ever-increasing threat of coral bleaching brought about by global warming.
I know what you mean about getting creeped out by the cucumber. I ran into some critters ‘muck diving’ in Lembeh Straits, Indonesia that were alien seed, I swear! Now I keep my distance and work on getting the pictures. The mottled whale shark was a surprise. It was actually hundreds of little sucker, tadpole like creatures. The thought is it bumped into something or ran into a surge of them. The reef is very remote, about 90 miles from land, and protected, policed from fishing. The corals are doing well with the cold water up-welling. Bleaching is a problem but if we take a long look you can find evidence that they will come back. Just not in our lifetimes, perhaps.
OMG, Elaine, that was beautiful! Looks like you had so much fun & found a gorgeous dive site! I’m a scuba diver and was just in the Philippines few months ago. My husband and I went diving in El Nido & loved the marine life there. Your underwater photos look splendid too. May I ask what camera did you use? Thanks!
Thanks, Cat. We missed the El Nido area completely in order to do the live-aboard with a friend who’s been taking that ship for years. I’m glad to hear that the marine life was plentiful there. Not so in Honda Bay. I used an older, borrowed Olympus 350 with the PT-030 underwater housing for macro. My dive buddy has the big gear so the best pictures are his and a big investment. I think with the smaller camera and a Go Pro with an external strobe if you need it, you’d be covered relatively inexpensively.
WOW, what a beautiful part of the world to explore! Great post and videos, thanks for sharing.
Happy travels 🙂
Thank you, Lauren. It was a truly amazing adventure. So glad you enjoyed it.
I’ve always been too frightened to dive, and i’m not exactly sure what is going on, but it is slowly becoming more appealing. Especially after reading of this beautiful spot in the Philippines. So beautiful and peaceful.
A good dive master and the PADI training take the fear out of diving. It did for me. Thought I’d never be able to clear my ears and now that’s not a problem. Try a resort dive in a warm, tropical spot and you might find yourself with a new hobby.
What a wonderful experience! I have only snorkeled before, never had the courage to go diving. Your pictures are absolutely fabulous! I love the clown fish hiding into the reef. And the whale shark looks really scary.
I was an avid snorkeler forever before having the chance to try diving and got hooked immediately. Thanks for the kudos. I’m still figuring out how to manage the camera and gear underwater but having a camera-god dive buddy sweetheart is helping my learning curve. Try a resort dive if you get the chance. I never expected to become a diver and now it’s a passion.
Wow, just wow! I love diving and seeing those beautiful underwater pictures got me all excited about exploring the underwater world again. I just got my PADI last year and have done only 16 dives but I plan on doing a lot more in the future as diving is pretty addictive… Amazing photos and great post!
Diving is addictive, Lotte! Keep going. I made every mistake you could over my first 20 dives but friends kept pushing me forward. Glad that now 300+ dives later it’s second nature (although being so technical, things still happen.)
Amazing dive destination! I have been trying to fit this into our trip to the Philippines next year. The pictures are fantastic! What camera do you and Dave use?
You’d love it. So remote and beautiful.Dave has a go-pro with external strobe and a huge rig with two strobes, fish eye lense and a top of the line Sony camera. I borrowed a smaller set up, a borrowed Olympus 350 with the PT-030 underwater housing.It works for close ups. Go Pro is good for wide angle too.
Thanks Elaine! We had a fuji with underwater housing and we had a rig with two strobes for it. But it experienced an untimely demise. It was an old camera but served us well. Now looking for options 🙂
I’ve flooded a camera and know even without that, how finicky traveling with gear can be, especially over days in the tropics. I hope you find another rig and share your pictures too.
I am kind of scared of diving but the pictures make me really wanna do it one day. Beautiful underwater world!
I was terrified about diving until I took a resort dive. Learned the basics in a day and had an escorted dip in the waters near Cozumel. The amount of wildlife, colors, beauty convinced me to spend the rest of that trip getting my certification. Never regretted it. I hope you have the same chance (warm water is key too.)
Nice experience! It’s always fun to get close to the animals and it feels free and calm even under water; and the Philippines is definitely the paradise for divers 🙂
So true about being paradise for divers, at least that was my experience in the Tubbatha Reef area. Some areas closer to the biggest tourist traffic are showing wear and fishing has wiped out larger animals. The Reef is protected and it keeps the Rangers busy.
Which camera were you using for your underwater shots? The photography is spectacular!
Thanks, Meg. I borrowed a old, Olympus 350 with the PT-030 underwater housing and internal flash. Not the best for anything but close ups. My best pictures on the post are from Dave Rudie and he’s a master of the capture (more wide angle too.)
Are you planning to dive elsewhere while you are in the Philippines? I would LOVE to go to tubbatha!! What a dream. Amazing photos!
Anna, we wanted to visit Anilao in the Cebu area but had other stories to follow. Makes a return trip all the more enticing. There’s so much to see in the Philippines.
What beautiful photos!
Big thumbs up to you for diving, its something i really want to do however being from Australia, we have giant sharks so I’m a little envious of people who dive!
However we did recently come back from the great barrier reef where we did some snorkelling. Im so jealous you saw sea turtles and little Nemos! We were trying to find them along the GBR but sadly didn’t see any in person.
I used to be terrified of sharks too. Now not so much. I know their behaviors and short of annoying one or running into a Great White (they like cold waters that I avoid) I respect them as the intelligent and gorgeous creatures they are – from a distance.
Wow! What a great place for scuba diving! No wonder you love to do it, Elaine. This place looks even better than the Great Barrier Reef. Your underwater pictures came out perfectly clear.
Thanks, Anda. I still hope to spend more time in OZ and explore the Barrier Reef. Can’t get enough of our underwater world.
Since getting certified a few years back, we often plan trips now to include dive sites. I’d LOVE to do a live-aboard on the tubbatha, it looks amazing!!!
So happy to hear that you’re divers too! Tubbatha Reef is worth saving up for. There are different levels of live-aboards, some more economical than others. Don’t skimp on AC!
Wow, I’m a certified diver and have seen a lot of reefs, but these photos are beyond amazing! Must get to Tubbatha Reef at some point!
You’d love it if you love diving. Not much else to do except hang out on deck, eat and enjoy the 360 degrees of solitude (wink.)
Wow! We love to dive. I would not have considered this, and now I will look into diving Tubbatha Reef. Thank you.
I hope you find a way over there. A live-aboard boat is the only way as it’s about 90 miles from land. Open for only a few months due to weather. It’s worth it.