Halfway between Palawan and Mindanao, Tubbataha is as close to the middle of nowhere as you get in the Philippines. There is no cell-phone service here, no internet connection. No decompression chamber.
There is though the best diving in the country, accessed by liveaboard from Puerto Princesa. Typically you depart as the sun sets, heading out into the Sulu Sea, with the engines only shuddering to a stop just after dawn 10 hours later.
Then it is suddenly quiet. Very, very quiet. Outside the porthole windows, the sea stretches level and featureless to the horizon, where a weak sun turns a bank of clouds pewter. The only sign you have arrived are two tiny nubs of black rock edging out of the sea.
North Atoll and its smaller neighbour South Atoll sit 180km out from Palawan. Surprisingly the only atolls in the Philippines, they are officially protected as the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and listed as a World Heritage Site. Happily they are far enough from land to discourage most local fishermen and a ranger station at the southern end of the North Atoll dissuades the rest. The only other habitation is a small lighthouse on the southern tip of the South Atoll.
The marine environment is as healthy as you’ll find in the Philippines, with an emphasis on pelagic species. Turtles and whitetips are seen on most dives, along with a healthy population of Napoleon wrasse, and there are frequent encounters with dogtooth tuna, large grouper and both giant and chevron species of barracuda.
Profile: Easy, sloping plateau dive
Depth: 15-17m, plateau at 20-26m
Right at the northeast corner of South Atoll, this outcrop of rock is shallow enough to be visible at low tide.
Two titan triggerfish have set up home near the start point of the dive. Watch out: if they’re breeding, they defend their territory relentlessly and can take a chunk out of your fins – or worse.
Whitetips regularly hang out here and you may see some sleeping on the sea bed while others cruise by in tandem with bluefin trevally. The trevallies like to sit close to the sharks’ pectoral fin where they can quickly snap up any scraps of fish that go flying as the shark chomps its prey.
Profile: Current-washed dive on a deep shelf, plateau in shallows
Depth: 25-35m, plateau at 10-15m
This site on the southeastern edge of the South Atoll gets its name from the jagged remains of a small ship but this is too shallow to dive and all the attractions are instead natural.
The main venues to check out are The Cut and The Crack. The Cut is a large cleft in the reef, around 20m across and 30m deep, that is often washed with heavy currents. The Crack is narrower, a crevasse not quite wide enough to take a man, formed by a section of reef that has collapsed from the wall, as if someone took a cleaver to the coral.
When the current is running, grey reef sharks move into The Cut and chase the many schooling fish feeding there. There has even been a recent sighting of a tiger shark which scared off the other sharks, and had a divemaster backing his group up against the reef for safety.
There is little to no current, but the site is still very rich in big fish. Bluefin trevallies cruise the reef edge, whitetip sharks circle coral bommies and small schools of chevron barracuda sometimes flit in from the blue.
Check in the sand on the other side of The Cut too, where a sharp black antenna sometimes betrays sleeping marble rays, their black, blotchy bodies piled over each other like carpets in a shop.
Profile: Start in the deep blue for hammerheads, then finish on shallow reef
Depth: As deep as you can handle
Hammerheads sometimes school in the deep blue here. To get you way out into the open water, your divemaster may take you out as far as he can from the reef without losing sight of it, then allow you to head further out without losing sight of him. That should get you something like 40m off the wall.
Without reference points, it is very disorientating and a little spooky, suspended in the middle of the ocean, the bottom deep below you, the surface out of sight above. The water is full of plankton and small jellyfish which drift around like a snow flurry and make it hard to tell which way is up.
With luck you’ll see hammerheads out in the void before returning to finish the dive on the wall. Here angelfish and morays and large numbers of red-tooth triggerfish lurk around the pink and purple gorgonian sea fans. Dogtooth tuna, great barracuda, red snapper, peacock grouper and whitetip sharks scout the wall’s environs for small prey.
A small ship, the Malayan Wreck, lies back at the start of the dive, home to lionfish, sergeant majors and sweetlips.
Profile: Sheer wall
Depth: Made for multi-level diving
For some, their favourite dive here: a sheer, deep wall dotted with large barrel sponges and ledges. Several very big gorgonians attest to a current that races through at times.
Large blacksaddle coral grouper, with their distinctive black bars and yellow tail, and the lovable Napolean wrasse are just two of the big fish that make this place special. It’s steep and deep enough that you can’t see the seabed below so there could be all manner of surprises – lucky divers have even seen a whale shark.
Profile: Plateau leading to sloping shelf
Depth: Plateau at 15m with shelf at 25m
One of the most fertile dive sites, with the wide plateau yielding plenty of territory to explore and most of it shallow enough to make an excellent night dive too.
Hawksbill and green turtles come by to munch on corals here while rainbow runners, trevally and chevron barracuda patrol the plateau. The stars of the site though are the whitetips that hang around at the edge, where it heads downslope.
Night dives turn up such critters as fimbriated moray eels, and blackspotted and giant star pufferfish.
Profile: Gradual slope leading to a wall
Depth: Slope down to 35m, wall deeper again
This site, just north of Shark Airport, is dubbed the Washing Machine because the currents are very unpredictable on this exposed northeastern edge of Tubbataha, and can switch direction during a dive.
The current normally draws in grey reef sharks. Without it, there is a wealth of reef fish instead – scrawled filefish, six-banded angelfish and triggerfish of various varieties – good for macro shots. The water on the leading edge of the reef is clearer than elsewhere, too.