When is the best time to go to Tubbataha?

One of the many sea turtles that rest along the white sands of the reefs. This one was more accommodating and let me swim with it for a few minutes.

OK pardon me for this ultra-SEO’d title 🙂 But Tubbataha Reef is one of the diving highlights of the world and last April 14-20, I joined the second trip of the M/Y Hans Christian Andersen for 4 days of diving: In every dive you’re guaranteed sharks.

Tubbataha National Park is open from April to June. You can’t just “go there.” You need to take a live aboard boat and as far as I know you need to be a diver to go. Tubbataha is not an island. It is a coral atoll in the middle of the Sulu Sea composed of walls with great visibility with two sandbar islands which you cannot set foot on. The vis is so good, there was one point I went down to 138 ft thinking I was only at 80 ft. Great vis! Great diving!

The schedule is literally Eat, Dive, Sleep. Our group did a total of 15 dives. What we saw: schooling jacks and huge barracudas, manta ray, several eagle rays and marble rays, big tuna, turtles galore, more than 50 reef sharks (sharks guaranteed in every dive!) and lo and behold, a tiger shark. There were also sightings of hammerheads but our group did not see them.

One of our chase boats resting on the flat iron ocean surface.

Our dining area / cleaning area / where we load the chase boats.

Let’s do this!

Because of the odd weather patterns we were the first lucky group of the season on board the HCA. When we arrived on day 1, the waves were still a slightly strong but slowly got better come day 2 and finally, flat ironed calm. On the last day we were also able to make a trip to the Ranger Station that guards the reef. Since summer came late, I would honestly suggest booking your trip towards the end of April or maybe even early May regardless if you’re taking the HCA or Expedition Fleet. So yes, book on a later date and not early April. It’s a global warming thing methinks.

Underwater photos in this post were taken using a 18-55 kit lens on a standard Sea & Sea port with surprisingly good results despite having only one strobe. If you want to borrow these shots, I won’t mind as long as you give proper attribution. Thanks! Here’s the complete low res album.

Spawning barrel sponges jut out of the wall. This was a Nat Geo moment for me as when barrel sponges spawn, all others in the vicinity spawn as well.

At 40 ft under a small crevice, we found a lot of lobsters. All of the flora and fauna in Tubbataha are protected by law. No touching. No fishing.

A playful manta ray makes it way towards my lens. One of the tricks to shooting mantas is to pinpoint where they will end up when they make a turning gliding arc. I was lucky!

One of the many white tip reef sharks taking off from a dive site called Shark Airport.

A Napolen Wrasse whizzes by my lens. Happy I was able to take a photo.

In a group, I feel more comfortable going up close and personal with this school of barracudas. If they were solitary, it would mean they are hunting.

A peeping turtle probably annoyed that we disturbed him.

Tubbataha is known for its huge fan corals.

WOW talaga!

Pushing a school of jacks for 30 minutes was a bit tiring but we did it. These guys stayed with us for half the dive.

Jules and Jan chasing the manta for a quick photo op.

Where Tuna Sashimi comes from.

Another shark parked on the white sandy bottom.

Zoomed + Cropped + White Balanced: I shoot in RAW because I really have to do a lot of adjusting afterwards such as removing a little backscatter, and white balance adjustments. Other than that, all photos are as is.

Jules taking her time with the school of jacks.

My Tubbataha postcard shot with a very cooperative turtle.

PHP 40,000.00 for the M/Y Hans Christian Andersen (price varies)
PHP 3,000.00 for park fees

Ranger Station
On the last day we were able to take a short visit to the Ranger Station. These are the brave men who stay for 2 months at a time, protecting the oceans from poachers and illegal fishers. The sand bar is amazing. It’s just there right in the middle of the ocean. We came in at low tide.

At the station we gave a small donation of canned goods (MEAT!) and bought some t-shirt souvenirs.

What an amazing trip! Next stop, Palau!

I’m now back in Manila and definitely missing the ocean. It’s lovely out there. I think, for what it’s worth, being away from Twitter and Facebook — and the city — really helps put many things in perspective.