Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park

An Adventure of a Lifetime
Last year I went to the Philippines with a small group of friends where we boarded the beautiful Philippine Siren and set off for Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the middle of the Sulu Sea.

Our adventure started in Puerto Princesa, Palawan Island. We were so excited as we boarded and the crew greeted us huge smiles of welcome! We were directed to the dining area where we gathered with a cold drink for a briefing. Shu and Ed (cruise director and assistant cruise director, not to mention dive guides extraordinaire) covered all aspects of life on board including diving and dining schedule, where things were on the Siren, and on-board safety. We met the crew and then hustled to the dive deck to put our dive gear together for the first time. For the rest of the trip the crew took care to keep our dive gear ready to go and our tanks filled with nitrox (included in the price).

The Philippine Siren

The Philippine Siren

 

The boat is beautiful, made of smooth polished wood intermixed with bright white paint and blue canvas. A highlight for me is when the crew puts the sails up! What a sight to see the boat with the sails full reflected on the smooth ocean. The cabins are large enough for me to do stretches on the floor and still have two comfy single beds. And thanks to Maureen they are amazingly clean with private heads and showers with lots of hot water! Maureen also gave incredible massages. We unpacked and settled into our cabins and our suitcases disappeared into the hold. Then a light meal was served to hold us over until dinner, while Captain Russell and first mate Paul began our journey across the Sulu Sea to Tubbataha.

Dinner is always a fun end to the day on the Siren with the chef Boy or sous-chef Joanry coming up from the hot kitchen, following the soup which I would often have seconds of, to announce the delicacies presented that evening. Try a veggie sauté with garlic, coconut prawns, beef in curry sauce, tofu fixed a number of different delicious ways and of course what meal would not be complete without Philippine steamed rice and a pepper sauce to top it all with; chop, chop, chop! Breakfast is just as well presented as dinner with egg and pancake stations (cooked your way), along with delicious traditional breakfast noodles, fruit and tons of bacon. Lunch brought another plethora of delicious food items to select from. Haha, we are famous on the Philippine Siren for having eaten more mangos and bacon than any other cruise that Shu and Ed had been on so far.

Chef Boy and Sous-chef Joanry

Chef Boy and Sous-chef Joanry

The meals are held in the back of the boat at a U-shaped table with benches on one side and a few chairs on the other. There is always cold water and juices, and hot water for tea or coffee available as well as sodas and beer (although no diving after a beer). Snacks are also available, chips or Oreo cookies (a fought over staple in our group), and hard candies to get the salt water taste of the ocean out of your mouth. Inside is the salon with soft couches to lounge on, a TV, and the charging station and camera tables. I’m not sure about other cruises but with our group having seven out of eight underwater photographers and several photographers among the other guests the camera tables often became a little crowded. We improvised though and took turns, used the coffee tables and even sat on the edge of the raised floor working on our cameras. The bar is also in the salon where Marefe made cocktails on request (not included in cost).

The next morning is our first dive day, so exciting! Our first dives were at Jessie Beazley Reef. I had come down with a head cold and had to sit out that day, but reports were of multiple sharks (white tip and grey reef) circling the reef coming so close to the divers that even wide angle lenses were not wide enough to capture the action. Trevally, jacks, puffers and so much more! Then off we went to the North and South Atolls of Tubbataha. Sharks, mantas, turtles and schooling fish were seen, and photographed. An occasional whale shark was seen. We saw bumphead parrotfish, turtles, snappers, unicorn fish and thousands of anthias in a rainbow of colors popping in and out of the staghorn coral. The dingy drivers, Danilo and Ronald, were very good at getting us in the best position to roll off and into the water handing down cameras when we were ready. And they did a good job finding and picking us up after the dives also!

Picking Up Divers

Picking Up Divers

The reefs in Tubbataha were beautiful, with mostly healthy hard and colorful soft corals and the visibility on most dives had to be at least 60-80 feet. We dove sites with huge fans, gorgonians that a person or two could hide behind. And so warm; warm water! As Northern California divers warm water is such a treat. After the first dive, adjustments were made to many of our exposure protection outfits. Heavier wetsuits came off and skins went on. Often there was strong current whisking us along the reef. Ducking behind a coral head allowed us to stop for a photo or video of the shark(s) or jacks, which somehow swim easily through the current. I have to admit, current dives aren’t my favorite and I sat out a couple of dives that were expected to have strong current. This is how I missed the whale shark and the hammerhead!

Swirling fish above the reef.

Swirling fish above the reef.

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is the only purely marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia. The park consists approximately of 10,000 hectares of coral reefs and is at the heart of the coral triangle, known for its marine diversity. The park contains a staggering 640 species of fish, 23 species of sharks and rays, 13 species of whales and dolphins, and green and hawksbill turtles! The park is only accessible by SCUBA divers on liveaboard dive boats from March to June due to the weather. This helps to keep the coral reefs healthy and the fish and marine life plentiful. We visited the park ranger station which is built on pillars over a sand bar in the ocean. The rangers serve and live at Tubbataha three months at a time and have made the station comfortable as possible with bunkbeds to sleep in, a kitchen, shady dining area overlooking the sand bar and even a garden! They do a fantastic job of protecting such a huge area, doing all they can keeping the park healthy.

The rangers at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park live in this ranger station on a sand bar.

The rangers at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park live in this ranger station on a sand bar.

And on to Dauin
After six amazing days diving Tubbataha we headed east across the Sulu Sea stopping to dive in Cagayancillo before heading to Dauin. I had been to Dauin before and knew we were going to be checking off our lists a lot of the macro creatures we loved so much; tiny frogfish (check), seahorses (check), robust ghost pipefish (check), scorpion fish (check), nudibranchs (check), schooling striped catfish, leaf fish, juvenile sweetlips AKA the fluttery fish, sea moths (check, check and check)! Even a flamboyant cuttlefish! The diving at Dauin is easy, none to a very slight current and the best creatures are usually in shallow although there are some that like to stay deep on the artificial reefs that have been installed along the coastline. We did a day trip to Apo Island, known for its healthy reef system and turtles. And we saw turtles! Plus big-eye trevally, GIANT puffers, large frogfish, more anthias, and banded sea snakes! Very creepy but so cool! The reef there is very healthy with some large table corals. I have a picture of one of my friends next to a large table coral looking very small. The next day we were back in Dauin for more macro madness and to get a new battery for the toilet flushing system which engineers Robert and Edgar thankfully took care of quickly.

For those of us that missed the whale shark we headed to Oslob to see whale sharks. I have never seen a whale shark in real life before and I was so thrilled when we saw maybe six or eight of them. Such huge animals! It was hard to tell how many as they were swimming around the fishermen who feed them. This is a controversial practice with many people feeling that feeding the whale sharks to attract them for tourists to see is not a natural process. I kind of agree with that but the sharks are free to come and go and I understand that most of them don’t stay there but continue on their way after a few days. So I went, saw and photographed but my favorite picture is of one of the whale sharks that the crew on the Siren pointed out to me as the dingy brought me back to the boat. I jumped in with my mask and fins and camera and was able to get a couple of pictures of the whale shark in the blue water without a fisherman, tourist or fellow SCUBA diver in the picture!

Whale Shark in the Blue Water

Whale Shark in the Blue Water

Next we travelled to Balicasag where there was yet more great diving including an awesome night dive where I found a huge black frogfish. It was awesome! There were also two kinds of Morey eels, waspfish, banded shrimp, crabs, pipe fish and so much more. Our last two dives of the trip were at Cabilao where we saw giant yellow frogfish (three by report), an almost black tomato anemone fish, more juvenile sweetlips (one of my favorites but hard to photograph), orangutan crabs, and the most beautiful colorful soft corals of the trip.

Black Giant Frogfish

Black Giant Frogfish

The Adventure Ends
Then came the sad day when our gear was rinsed for the final time, the cameras taken apart and our bags brought up to be packed so we could head home. That last night there was a special BBQ dinner with lots of great food, special drinks made by hostess Marefe, frivolity and photo and video sharing. We also posed with and without the crew for a couple of pictures. The next day we were all taken to the airport in Cebu to catch our flights back to Manila and the real world. I was so sad! At this point I have to say that the crew on the Philippine Siren is one of the best I have encountered in all of my liveaboard trips. They were all helpful, full of smiles and just great people. Thank you to Shu, Ed and Andrew for being such great dive guides, taking such good care of us (not always easy) and the entire Philippine Siren staff for making our trip a great one!

The Philippine Siren Crew

The Philippine Siren Crew

I hope to be back on a Siren Fleet liveaboard soon!

Photo Gallery

For more information on the Philippine Siren or Tubbataha use the following links:

Philippine Siren – Siren Fleet

Tubbataha Reefs Marine Park