FEELING AN IMMENSE measure of excitement and a little trepidation, I started my journey to one of the most beautiful and exposed atolls in the world.
Some 150 miles equidistant from Borneo’s east coast and the Philippines, in the middle of the Sulu Sea, lie the atolls that make up Tubbataha Reef Natural Park (TRNP). Designated part of the Philippines, this marine reserve consists of North and South Atolls and the adjacent Jessie Beazley Reef.
Part of the province of Cagayanon, this 10,000 hectares of coral reef lying at the heart of the Coral Triangle boasts more than 300 species of coral and 1000 species of animals, many of them considered endangered.
Up to the 1970s, during the summer months fishermen would make the long trip out to Tubbataha in fleets of traditional wooden bangkas. By the mid-’80s, modernised motorboats caused the reef to become over-exploited and, in response to diver and environmentalist pressure, Tubbataha was designated a UNESCO Natural Heritage Site in 1988.
A ranger station was built on stilts above a sand spit. Patrol boats are constantly on the look-out for illegal fishing-boats, and marine biologists stay there to study the coral and marine life.
Tubbataha’s remoteness makes it accessible only to divers by liveaboard. The easiest and most popular way to get there is via Manila to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island, and it’s then a 10-15-hour steam by liveaboard across open ocean.
Alternatively, and the option I chose, is to travel from Cebu. My trip had taken in the wonderful islands of Balicasag, Silquijor, Apo and Negros, and now it was to be followed by a 30-hour overnight powered sail.
A number of liveaboards venture out to Tubbataha, and I was lucky enough to be on the luxurious mv Philippine Siren.

BALMY CONDITIONS, reasonably flat seas, and a chance to catch up on sunbathing were enjoyed by all, after a fairly rigorous four or five dives a day. Excitement about our previous dives, and about Tubbataha, kept us all talking late into the evening.
None of us had been before, including Hans, the cruise director. But the dive-guides were full of stories of wonder: beautiful reefs, sharks galore, abundant fish and the most serene and spectacular scenery they had ever seen.
An hour after finally going to bed, we were tossed unceremoniously from our bunks by a sudden storm, which raged on for most of the night. Finally, after wedging myself into my bunk sideways, I managed to lie flat long enough to get about two hours’ sleep.
Next morning I woke to the flattest and most beautiful seas I had ever seen. Considering the location, in the middle of the open ocean, this was incredible!
The Tubbataha season runs from February to June and usually provides outstanding diving conditions, with clear skies, flat seas and excellent visibility – often above 30m.
Mooring at the North Atoll, our RIB took us to one of the many incredible dive-sites Tubbataha has to offer. Washing Machine, we learnt, could be prone to unpredictable currents, but was of such magnificent beauty that the guides had chosen it as the first dive.
We dropped onto the top of the wall surrounding the atoll and descended over the edge to around 25m.
A slight current was flowing and visibility was down to 20m after the storm, but beauty abounded in the most incredibly colourful and vibrant reef.
We were met by an entourage of grey reef sharks, which seemed to be swirling around us for most of the dive. Two spotted eagle rays hung in the blue. A marble ray furrowed in the sand, with huge dogtooth tuna, giant trevally and milkfish stalking their prey.
Blacktip sharks were sleeping on the white sandy spits on top of the reef, while huge Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrotfish, turtles and schooling fish made it seem like a barrel-load of steroids had been dumped onto it – everything seemed bigger and better than anywhere else!
As we surfaced from our dive, the only word on everyone’s lips was – wow!

SHARK AIRPORT FOLLOWED, with, unusually for a dive named after sharks, lots of sharks! A huge school of jack swarmed above the reef, while a big squad of chevron barracuda circled endlessly in the blue.
Reef sharks swam nonchalantly, unbothered by our bubbles. A blue-spotted fantail ray rested on the sand, while octopuses and yellow-margin moray eels hid in crevices.
Fan Alley was a beautiful wall-dive with large seafans in a variety of colours and schools of giant barracuda and jack. Again, the obligatory reef sharks escorted us around the reef. Here there was a strong current, and a thermocline at 18m that dropped the sea temperature 2°.
Amos Rock, near the ranger station, seemed the healthiest reef I have seen in my travels. Thousands of fish, huge schools, large Napoleons, hunting tuna, majestic angelfish, arrowhead soapfish and more than 20 juvenile grey reef sharks made for an incredible dive.
All this, topped off with a manta ray cruising along the edge of the wall!
A night dive at a previously unexplored site named by our group as Donato’s Grottos, after our dive-guide, produced an abundance of life.
Hans spotted two saron shrimp that were five times larger than normal. He was so excited by his find that he couldn’t stop talking about it all evening.
Early next morning we set off for the South Atoll to see how this would compare. We moored next to Delsan Wreck, which protrudes from the reef shallows but is too shallow to dive.
We entered the water just off its bow, on the edge of the wall, and descended to 24m. Pristine reefs surrounded us, with white sand cuts heading up over the edge of the wall that were a haven for nurse sharks, hawksbill and green turtles.
Here we experienced our first real changeable current. After diving in slight-to-moderate currents at the North Atoll, we were surprised by the sudden and varied changes in direction.
A thermocline at around 20m saw many of the divers shivering from a 3° temperature drop.
Later that afternoon we tried the dive again. There were no turtles but there were large schools of great barracuda, lots of reef sharks, many different moray eels, and oceanic triggerfish guarding their perfectly circular nests in the sand, aggressively chasing off surgeonfish and grouper.

A STRONG DOWNCURRENT on the wall had us fighting to stay within no-deco limits, and as soon as a slight let-up occurred we headed back to the top of the reef to complete an extended safety stop, while examining nooks and crannies for more morays and octopuses.
The next day we headed to Black Rock. As at previous dive-sites, there were lots of sand gullies in shallower water there.
Groups of oriental sweetlips at a cleaning station allowed divers to get extremely close for minutes at a time. Green turtles sleeping on the reef-top combined with a gentle current gave an impression of calmness and beauty.
Another unexplored site, which we named Sweetlips Express, followed that afternoon.
This pristine reef featured beautiful corals and many, many harlequin and oriental sweetlips. Lots of black snapper, a rare giant snapper, hunting jack and schools of juveniles reef sharks followed.
The current had been slight, but three-quarters of the way through the dive we were suddenly picked up by a screaming current that catapulted us right around the atoll from one side to the other, passing under our liveaboard and spitting us out at almost exactly the opposite point from which we had started our dive!
We felt like the astronauts of Apollo 13 when they were catapulted around the moon as if from a slingshot!
Black Rock, early the next morning, was decided by consensus to be a nice easy dive to start our day.
How wrong were we! In complete contrast to the previous day’s dive here, we encountered a crazily wild current as soon as we got onto the wall.
We flew along it for the first half of the dive, meeting both up-, down- and side-currents. Then it spat us out and we spent a lazy 10 minutes cruising the reef with virtually no current at all.
As suddenly as the current had stopped it restarted, again speeding us across the reef. We inflated an SMB and let the flow take us into the blue while we completed our safety stop.
Tubbataha is a paradox. It is both one of the most peaceful but also one of the most exciting places I have ever dived.
Its beauty is astounding, and, if ever there was a place that is transcendentally spiritual, it is here.


FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Flights to Cebu via Singapore with Singapore Airlines, or direct to Manila with Philippine Airlines, with onward internal flights to Puerto Princesa with Philippine Airlines, Air Asia or Cebu Pacific.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Siren Fleet offers six- or 13-night trips from Puerto Princesa or Cebu, www.sirenfleet.com
WHEN TO GO: Tubbataha can be dived only from February to June. Water temperatures range from between 26-29°.
A full 3-5mm wetsuit is recommended year round, more for protections than warmth.
PRICES: blue o two can arrange a six-night trip to Tubbataha from Puerto Princesa on Philippine Siren for £2099, including transfers, full board, diving (nitrox if required) and dive gear, www.blueotwo.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.morefunphilippines.co.uk