Lighthouse on the abandoned atoll in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbatha.

Dawn and the lighthouse in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbatha Reef.

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.
Whale shark in Tubbatha - mottled with parasites.

Whale shark in Tubbatha – mottled with parasites. Photo: Dave Rudie

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.
turtle spied in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef

Turtle surfaces for a few moments.

Turtle in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

Photo: Dave Rudie

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?
Owner of the Palau Sport, David Choy, brings the boat to Sula for a few months each year.

Owner of the Palau Sport, David Choy, brings the boat to Sula for a few months each year.

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.
Walking from the chaser boat to the Ranger Station

Walking from the chaser boat to the Ranger Station

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.
A clutch of giant sponges on the sea wall.

A clutch of giant sponges on the sea wall. Photo: Dave Rudie

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.
Nemo look alikes in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef
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.
Manta Ray in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

Manta Ray. Photo: Dave Rudie

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.
Sea Cucumber feeding

Sea Cucumber feeding

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.
Prepping gear on the Palau kSport dive boat

Prepping gear on the dive boat

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!

striped fish in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

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.
Two divers, Dave Rudie, Elaine Masters in the waters of Tubbatha Reef

Photographer, dive and travel buddy, Dave Rudie and author, Elaine


Map of dive sites inside the dive lounge at Tubbatha Reef

Map of dive sites and features

Sharing is caring and here’s a pin to make that easier! Thanks.

UNESCO World Heritage Site pin

  –weekend wanderlust April 2016