Out in the vastness of Sulu Sea, Tatler explores the surreal Tubbataha Reefs, the only purely marine UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia

Diving Tubbataha is like a vivid dream. You jump into the water, expecting to see the vibrant marine life underneath. But for those who have been there, describing this sanctuary as such is an understatement. To many, the 97,030-hectare Tubbataha Reefs Marine Park in Cagayancillo, Palawan is an underwater wonderland that is home to 360 species of corals and the highest volume of fish known in the country. It is no ordinary diver’s paradise.

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“It was so clear it looked like the fish were floating in the air. You couldn’t see the water,” says Angelique Songco, who first dove in Tubbataha in 1981. Today, she is the protected area superintendent of the Tubbataha Reefs. Bell Cruzet, a professional dive instructor who has been organising dive tours for decades describes it as “unbelievable”. Robert Suntay, a marine conservation educator and an underwater filmmaker, recalls what the Nat Geo Wild TV presenter Nigel Marven had to say after they shot together some footages of the Tubbataha for the network. “Nigel told us that his trip was one of the most spectacular dive adventures of his life. Not a small compliment from one who has experienced some of the finest diving on the planet,” Suntay enthuses. HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco was also impressed by its marine biodiversity when he explored the park in 2016.

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CORAL REEF, BARREL SPONGE, Tubbataha Archipelago, Sulu Sea, Philippines
Above A giant barrel sponge in Tubbataha Reefs National Park

These superlatives are not an exaggeration. Nestled in the heart of the mighty Sulu Sea, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park covers expansive marine habitats with two atolls, a reef and a large area of deep sea. Imagine whales, sharks (including the much-feared tiger shark), turtles, Napoleon wrasse, manta rays, barracudas, groupers— name it, chances are, Tubbataha has it. “It harbours a very high number of marine life compared with other areas of its size in the world,” Songco explains. It is a perfect example of a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-metre perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and coral islands. “You want to follow the wall to the bottom but there is no bottom,” she adds. The underwater photographer Tet Lara, whose works are showcased in the photo book titled Tubbataha: A National Treasure, says, “Tubbataha has the largest population of white-tip reef sharks. It is also a rookery for seabirds that breed in Bird Islet and depend on the marine life to feed its young.”

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Above Diving with the jacks at Delsan / Yvette Lee
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Diving boat at the blue water lagoon
Above An aerial view of the Tubbataha / Aleksei Permiakov from Getty Images
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Above Tubbataha is famous for its beautiful underwater wallscapes / Tet Lara

Besides being a mecca for divers, Tubbataha is also vital to the country’s food security. In Tubbataha: A National Treasure, Dr Hazel Arceo explains that its protected area can potentially yield around 3.6 million kilograms of fish per year. This means the Tubbataha alone can meet the annual per capita requirement of 110,000 Filipinos. “We invested funds in informing fishers that Tubbataha is off-limits to fishing because it serves as a nursery for fish; that it is important to our food security because it enriches surrounding fishing grounds,” Songco stresses.

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park was inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage list in 1993 for having met three criteria: exceptional natural beauty; significant ongoing ecological and biological processes; and significance as a natural habitat for on-site conservation of biological diversity. And how important is this recognition? Songco says, “To be valued by the whole world as irreplaceable and of outstanding universal value can bring greater awareness and appreciation, and with that, greater support.”

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Above Divers playing with a whaleshark / Tet Lara
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Above A profusion of marine life is visible on crystal-clear water / Tet Lara

The Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) also takes the management of the park seriously. “Law enforcement is a core activity, but so is communication and education. We place a high premium on the support of the private sector to protect the park. We invest in building the capacity of our staff and stakeholders to manage Tubbataha, and in inter-institutional collaboration,” Songco explains. To date, the park serves as a regional and global model of efficient management of a marine protected area. “It was named one of three best managed no-take marine protected areas in the world in 2017,” she continues. The underwater photojournalist Yvette C Lee adds, “People can only visit approximately three months out of the year. Thus, human impact is very low. Couple that with strict enforcement and information, education and communication campaigns by the TMO staff, visitors can expect to be in a pristine environment.”

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When visiting Tubbataha, expect an astounding journey ahead. As Songco puts it, “Diving in Tubbataha is like a visit to Africa. It is wild and unpredictable.” Lara agrees, sharing a guest’s memorable comment: “This place is like an underwater safari; it is so full of life that the reef pulsates. You never know what to expect!”.

For more info, visit tubbatahareefs.org. Help protect the Tubbataha Reefs by supporting the book, Tubbataha: A National Treasure. All proceeds go to the protection and welfare of the park and the rangers. Email at tubbatahanationaltreasure@gmail.com

This story was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Tatler Philippines. Download it on your digital device via Zinio, Magzter, or Pressreader.

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