This is the sixteenth in a series which introduces and describes the various dive services and sites for worldwide liveaboard dive safaris. This one focuses on Tubbataha Reef liveaboards in the Philippines.
In addition to this series on liveaboards, the best worldwide dive resort locations and services are reviewed in their own series. To check them out, or others in this series, click on Liveaboards / Resorts on the menu at top and choose a a title from the list.
My Tubbataha Diving Adventure
In the summer of 1999 I was lucky enough to make a trip to Tubbataha to dive there for the first time. I was working in the dive shop at the Shangri-la Hotel on Mactan Island in Cebu and had commissioned a speedboat to be made for the shop over in Puerto Princessa on Palawan. After investigating the shipping options for getting the boat to Cebu, it was decided to take a sailboat over there and tow it back. That meant I could get in some adventure diving along the way. The sailboat was a 39 footer owned and captained by Ernie Long from Whitetip Divers scuba equipment store in Cebu. His assistant, my dive shop buddy, Tony Weston, and I filled out the 4 man crew. The boat was not very spacious, but we managed to put about a dozen full tanks in the cockpit to carry us through any diving we might do.
It was slow going at 5 knots or less. The second day we arrived at Little Apo Island off Dumaguete and did a nice dive there. We didn’t linger for a second dive and pushed ahead across the Sulu Sea keeping in mind we were on a mission. A couple days later we came upon the eastern tip of the north atoll of Tubbataha Reef. We didn’t have any real prior knowledge of the reef or even know exactly where we were, but in retrospect it appears when we jumped in the water for our first dive we were somewhere between Shark Airport and Washing Machine. There was a very stiff current taking us northeast across and eventually off the reef.
We descended to around 20 meters and cruised with the drift. Whitetips were everywhere swimming in all directions surrounding us. Big schools of jacks and barracuda came and went as they fed. Twelve eagle rays used the drift to swim with us at about the same speed, also feeding by dropping to the bottom rooting in the sand and rubble for a few feet like a snowplow and then ascending a few meters to chew. For me this was the most miraculous dive I have ever done.
For our second dive we moved west along the south side of the north atoll about halfway down for another beautiful dive on the very rich wall, this time without much current. It was another great dive with more sharks and schooling fish and an opportunity to look in the the nooks and crannies for smaller critters. Shortly after getting back on board, the Philippine Coast Guard/Navy approached us in a small speedboat and took us to what is labeled the Ranger Station on the map below. They evidently needed to see a permit which we did not have and weren’t aware was necessary. They confiscated the boats documents and took us to the station. At that time the station was a two room shack mounted on a foundation of four concrete piles. The floor was at about a 25 degree angle which made grabbing tables or bracing against the wall necessary to make your way around the rooms. The senior officer seemed to be in reasonable control of his faculties in spite of being obviously drunk. Some of the others of the 6 or 7 played little bullying and teasing games with us and appeared to be even more intoxicated, actually what I would call sloppy drunk. They were all armed and flashed their guns around from time to time. It was concerning as I have seen men in the Philippines in similar positions of power and drunk fire their guns and even hit people. Fortunately the leader seemed to keep them under some level of control. After a few hours with them, they put us back on our boat and about 24 hours later they gave back the boats documents and let us go.
There is a second half to this story that was equally eventful. I’ll leave that for another day. The main point of this narrative was to introduce you to the very exciting diving on Tubbataha Reef. I should also point out that the people in charge of policing the reef these days are much more reasonable and conscientious than that crew we ran into.
Tubbataha Reef Diving
Labeled one of the 7 wonders of nature in the world, the Tubbataha reef is situated in the Sulu Sea about 150 km (94 miles) from the capital of Palawan, Puerto Princessa. The Philippines has created the 97,030 hectare Tubbataha Reefs National Park, designated a Marine Protection Area. This means no legal fishing, rules for anchoring and other environmental protection measures are in place. The park is made up of the north and south atolls and Jessie Beazley reef to the north.
Due to sea conditions, authorized diving there runs for about four months from March to June. The only way for most to see it is on a liveaboard. Very few vessels operate there and annually there are only a few hundred divers. Due to such a limited season and number of slots for divers, it is advised to book your place early.
If you are able to make a booking, you’ll be treated to one of the most pristine untouched reefs in the world with spectacular sea life. There are 300 species of coral and over 600 species of fish. There is often significant current which bathes the reef in nutrients providing an excellent habitat for the local fauna as well as pelagic visitors. Available large sea life is a bucket list for divers including: 11 species of shark that includes whale, whitetip, grey reef, silky, tiger, nurse and guitar sharks (actually guitar sharks are a kind of skate), 13 species of whale and dolphin, green and the endangered hawksbill turtles, manta, eagle, giant reef, and several varieties of stingray, napoleon wrasse, bumphead parrotfish, barracuda, trevallies and giant schools of reef fish including surgeon fish and Moorish idols. The macro life is equally fascinating with nudibranchs, frogfish, shrimps, crabs and exceptionally rich and diverse soft and hard coral reef life.
Water temps from March to June run from 27-30 degrees C (80-86 degrees F). For me that is t-shirt or lycra suit worthy. Most divers will want 3mm of protection. Visibility can be as low as 5 m (16 ft) when there are a lot of nutrients in the water to a max of 35 m (114 ft). Photographers will be delighted.
Best Liveaboard Dive Boats – Tubbataha Reef
- MV Seadoors ($282/day)
- SY Philippine Siren ($382/day)
- PY Atlantis Azores ($437/night
- Solitude ($384/day)
- MV Discovery Adventure ($387/day)
- Infiniti ($332/day)
- MV Discovery Palawan ($285/day)
Best Budget – MV Seadoors ($282/day)
- Cruises Tubbataha, Sulu Sea, Malapascua, Visayas
- Tubbataha trips from March 15 to June 8
- Tubbataha itinerary: north atoll, Malayan wreck, black rock, trigger fish city, south atoll, Ko ok, Delsan wreck, shark airport, wall street, Jessie Beazley
- All cabins have ensuite bathrooms, windows
- Local and French cuisine
- Experienced English and French-speaking divemasters (max 4 divers per DM)
- Nitrox available for enriched air certified divers
- Rebreather facilities
- Underwater scooters available for Visayas trips
- Steel hulled boat
Staff Choice – SY Philippine Siren ($382/day)
- Cruises Tubbataha, Visayas, Malapascua, Donsol
- Tubbataha trips from March 17 to May 1
- Tubbataha itinerary: Delsan Wreck, Black Rock, Washing Machine, Donato’s Wall, Shark Airport, Amos Rock, Staghorn Point, Jessie Beazley Reefs, Malayan
- Cabins have ensuite bathrooms, TV, DVD & music players
- Asian and International cuisine
- Free local beers
- Massage, laundry service, sea kayaks
- Experienced English speaking divemasters (6 divers per guide)
- Free nitrox for enriched air certified divers
- Large boat
- 2 Automated life rafts, each accommodating 25 passengers
- 2 motorised dinghies
Most Popular – PY Atlantis Azores ($437/night)
- Visits Tubbataha, Bohol, Malapascua, Anilao, Apo Reef, Coron
- Tubbataha trips from April 6 to June 15
- Tubbataha itinerary: Seafan Alley, Washing Machine, Shark Airport, South Park, Gorgonian Channel, Amos Rock. Malayan Wreck, T Wreck, Black Rock, Lighthouse, South West Wall
- All cabins have ensuite bathrooms
- Filipino and International cuisine
- Nitrox available for enriched air certified divers
- Re-breather facilities
- Cameras: 3 tier table, charging station, rinse tanks
- Aluminium hull boat
- 3 Life rafts, each accommodating 12 passengers
|MV Seadoors||SY Philippine Siren||PY Atlantis Azores|
|Length||25 m||40 m||32 m|
dive computer $6/day
dive computer $75/trip
For other posts about Philippine diving, check these:
- Best Coron Wrecks & Apo Reef Liveaboards
- Best Liveaboard Scuba Diving Philippines (Malapascua and the Visayas)
- Best Scuba Diving Philippines Subic Bay Wrecks
- Best Diving Bohol Philippines – Panglao Island Resorts
- Best Scuba Diving Puerto Galera Philippines
- Best Scuba Diving Holidays Boracay Philippines
- Best Scuba Diving Philippines Sogod Bay
- Philippines Best Diving Mactan Island
- Best Philippines Diving Bacuit Bay El Nido
- Best Diving Philippines Anilao Batangas
- Best Diving Reviews Anda Bohol
- Best Scuba Diving Resorts Malapascua
Scuba Dive Insurance
A cushion for emergencies provides peace of mind when on vacation. I recommend this diving insurance as they have worldwide coverage and provide scuba divers a quality insurance and medical assistance service.
If you would like to book a liveaboard or want fuller information on all the available options, please click on the Dive the World banner just below at the bottom. Then go to Liveaboards / Philippines.
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