After an unexpected postponement three years ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally ticked off one of my dream dive destinations this summer! Last March 17 to 23, I joined the season’s first trip of M/Y Narayana liveaboard to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, the crown jewel of scuba diving in Philippines. Consisting of reef-fringed atolls in the heart of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha is an isolated dive destination that may only be safely visited by more than a dozen liveaboard boats that embark on week-long dive safaris during the dry months of March to June.
Featuring approximately 10,000 hectares of coral reefs, Tubbataha takes its name from the Sama-Bajau phrase, which means “long reef exposed at low tide”. Despite its remoteness and the hefty cost of liveaboard diving, scuba divers from all over world flock here, drawn by the pristine coral reefs teeming with an incredible variety of marine life, particularly sharks, rays, turtles and massive schools of pelagic fish. Scientists visiting this marine park since the 1980s have documented no less than 700 species of fish, 360 species of coral (that’s about half of all the species in the world!), 11 species of sharks and rays, 13 species of whales and dolphins, and 100 species of birds.
Tubbataha liveaboards are so in demand that most of the boats are fully booked a year in advance (For booking inquiries on M/Y Narayana, please send me an email at email@example.com). It’s no wonder that this 97,030-hectare marine protected area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 as “a unique example of an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species.” Located within the Coral Triangle, the world’s center of marine biodiversity, it is the only purely marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia. Recently, the protected area was listed among 19 of the world’s best diving destinations by Travel+Leisure. My dive trip to Tubbataha completed my visits to all six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines.
M/Y Narayana Liveaboard
I went diving for a week at Tubbataha Reefs aboard the M/Y Narayana, a Puerto Princesa-based liveaboard. The boat has eight air-conditioned cabins – six on the medium deck and two on the upper deck – with either a bunk bed or double beds that can accommodate two persons per room. In total, the 26-meter vessel can accommodate up to 14 guests on every trip. It is relatively smaller than other Tubbataha liveaboard boats but its modest size offers an advantage over other vessels by having a better guide-to-guest ratio. During the dives, guests are divided to two groups, with each dive guide leading only up to seven guest divers on every dive.
The dive equipment area is at the stern of the boat, where we board the chase boat that shuttles us back and forth from the dive sites next to the atolls. The upper deck features the dining area and kitchen, manned by friendly, hotel-trained chef Edwin who prepares hearty and great-tasting meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the best things about Narayana is the excellent food served throughout the entire trip!
Tubbataha Reefs is comprised of North Atoll, South Atoll and Jessie Beazley Reef. After a rough overnight 12-hour journey from Puerto Princesa, we arrived at the northwest portion of the marine park in Jessie Beazley Reef, however, the rough seas forced our liveaboard to cancel our first-day dives in the area and travel for three more hours to the southern end of South Atoll, where the waters were protected from the northeast amihan winds, which hasn’t died down yet in time for the season. As a result, we only had three dives instead of four on our first day.
A new lighthouse, completed in 2020 and built on a sandbar with retaining walls to prevent erosion, marks the South Atoll. There’s barely any dry land in Tubbataha, only a few sandbars crowded with seabirds like boobies and terns. On our first day, we dove at Staghorn Point, Triggerfish City and Southwest Wall. Nearly all the dive sites in Tubbataha are steep coral walls. The first half of the dives typically involved descending to 20 to 30 meters, looking for large pelagic animals far below or out in the open blue. Then, we would slowly ascent towards to the top side to enjoy the shallow reefs before doing our safety stops and climbing back onto the chase boat. While the surface was choppy, our dives and all the succeeding ones – which often have strong currents – were surprisingly calm.
What consistently sets Tubbataha from other dive sites in the country is the abundance of reef sharks, which were present on every single dive! As a matter of fact, Tubbataha has the highest densities of whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks in the world. On our very first dive of the trip at Staghorn Point, we encountered grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) and whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) patrolling the coral wall, on top of critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). I was also amazed by all the reef fish, which were way bigger than the ones I’ve encountered elsewhere. Because of the pristine environment and absence of fishing, everything seem super-sized in Tubbataha, including all sorts of groupers, sweetlips, and batfish, just to name a few. As its name suggests, Staghorn Point featured extensive colonies of staghorn coral (Acropora sp.), the largest I’ve ever seen.
On the second day, we dove twice at Delsan Wreck in the morning in the hopes of encountering whale sharks, however, we didn’t encounter any. Apparently, March is too early for whale shark season in Tubbataha, where they usually come to breed from April to May. The dive site is named after a small ship that sunk in the area, whose remains cannot be dived as it sits in the shallows. Later in the afternoon, we dove at Ko-ok 1 and Ko-ok 2, where we saw large Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), a large reef fish species highly threatened by illegal fishing. Like the Southwest Wall, we also encountered schools of bigeye trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus). My favorite encounter on this day, however, was observing a two-meter long tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus) resting under a boulder during our safety stop at Ko-ok 2. We were able to approach it and observe it closely, as it didn’t mind our presence unlike the skittish reef sharks.
As the sea conditions improved, we moved to the North Atoll on our third day of diving. We only returned to the north side of South Atoll on our fifth and last day to dive twice at Black Rock, where manta rays are sometimes spotted circling a cleaning station. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any mantas on our dives there, probably because the currents weren’t strong enough during the entire trip. Instead, a solitary scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) made a brief appearance in the deep blue, but the visibility was poor so this special encounter couldn’t be documented by our group. On the top reef, where we experienced some moderate current, we swam through the largest school of green bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) – the largest species of parrotfish – which numbered in the dozens! (A new dive destination in Palawan where divers can observe reef manta rays almost on a daily basis is Sibaltan, El Nido.)
Finally, on our third day in Tubbataha, the amihan winds calmed down and improved the sea conditions, allowing our boat to proceed to the North Atoll near the Ranger Station, where Tubbataha’s park rangers live all year round. At Amos Rock, I finally spotted a round ribbontail ray (Taeniurops meyeni), but it was far down below at around 50 meters. The second dive was at Ranger Station 1, which, unlike the other dive sites that featured drop-offs, started with a sandy slope. At the beginning of the dive, we came across garden eels poking out of the bright white sand. As with the other dive sites, the coral walls here are populated with the largest sea fans, black corals, and barrel sponges I’ve ever seen!
In the afternoon, we plunged into Malayan Wreck, where we circled a small, shallow shipwreck on the top reef before descending along the wall, where we were greeted an attractive school of bluestripe snapper (Lutjanus kasmira). The last dive of the day was at Wall Street, whose coral walls are populated with several blue spiny lobsters (Panulirus versicolor) hiding in nooks and crannies with their antenna poking out. The highlight of the top reef here are blue tang or palette surgeonfish (Paracanthurus hepatus), which I haven’t seen before in the wild. This is the same species as Dory from the Disney animated film Finding Nemo.
On the fourth day, we moved to the northeast side of the North Atoll to dive at Shark Airport and Washing Machine, next to Bird Islet, an important sanctuary for seabirds that’s off-limits to tourists. Shark Airport is one of the popular dive spots in the area, where whitetip reef sharks can be observed resting on sandy bottoms like airplanes on the tarmac. Indeed, there was an abundance of reef sharks here, but my favorite encounter was photographing a blue-spotted ribbontail stingray (Taeniura lymma) hiding beneath table coral. The timid animal was missing its barbed tail, most likely due to shark predation. In the afternoon, we returned to the southern part of North Atoll to explore South Park and Ranger Station 2, where we saw more whitetip reef sharks and hawksbill turtles.
At sundown, we visited the park rangers living at the Ranger Station, an outpost on stilts located on a sandbar. to buy souvenirs like t-shirts, sun hats and plushies of sharks, mantas and turtles handcrafted by Cagayancillo women. Profits from these souvenirs help fund the maintenance of the ranger station and the construction of a better one on the other side of the sandbar. Meeting the rangers and watching the sunset from the sandbar was one of my favorite experiences from the Tubbataha trip.
How to Get There
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park can only be visited by recreational scuba divers on liveaboard boats from March to June. The liveaboard boats typically depart from Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan, taking an overnight travel of 12 hours to reach the protected area. Dive safaris are a week long, with five days of diving (up to four dives per day, depending on the weather and sea conditions). Due to the seasonality and limited number of boats, it is advised to book your liveaboard at least a year in advance. Some slots may free up last minute due to booking cancellations, but don’t depend on it. Recreational divers at Tubbataha are required to have a minimum certification level of Advanced Open Water Diver or its equivalent, and have at least 50 logged dives.
Tubbataha dive safari on M/Y Narayana costs €2,500 (₱153,000) per person, inclusive of tanks, dive guide, accommodation and meals (except drinks). This rate does not include dive equipment rental, dive insurance, and the Tubbataha visitor entry fee of ₱5,000 per person. Get 20% off the published rate and avail a Tubbataha trip for only €2,000 (₱122,500) by mentioning the discount password EAZYTUBBATAHA when booking directly with M/Y Narayana.
For booking inquiries on M/Y Narayana, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.