THE WILD WHALE SHARKS OF TUBBATAHA
There’s a reason that few people have heard of Tubbataha, one of the best dive destinations in the world. In my humble opininon of course. Besides its relative remoteness - out in the middle of the Sulu Sea off the coast of Palawan, the Philippines most westerly island - the dive season here lasts just three months, between April and June, when the currents and weather are at their tamest. Even then it can be pretty hairy at some sites. But if you can fit it in, you won’t be disappointed. Tubbataha is all about the big stuff – sharks, turtles, tuna, barracuda, mantas and in the last couple of years - much to my excitement - whale sharks.
The Tubbataha rangers spend months at a time here, alone save for dive visitors during the season between April & June. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
I headed to Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa in the south to pick up my boat to Tubbataha. The Stella Maris Explorer is a 120-foot aluminium cruiser with 10 cabins, a plush galley complete with giant flat screen TV, decks strewn with sun lounges and even a Jacuzzi. Tubbataha is nine hours from Palawan and we cruised through the night to get there. I woke early the next morning and went on deck where all was blue save for the setting moon, a distant storm cloud and a tiny dot on the horizon before me. This gradually resolved itself into the surreal image of a domed structure built on stilts in shallow, electric blue water beside a searing white spit of sand.
There are a lot of hours to kill.... Photo by Johnny Langenheim
This was the Tubbataha Ranger Station, where a crew drawn from the Philippines navy, coastguard and staff from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) do two to three month shifts watching over the Park.
The shallows around the ranger station present a surreal seascape, where water reflects sky, the two seeming to merge into each other. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
MV Stella Maris at sunset. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
There were only six of us on board, as this was the Stella Maris’ penultimate trip of the year, so we had the luxury of four dive masters between us and four scheduled dives a day. By seven am, we were in the water, dropping in on three white tip reef sharks and an eagle ray snoozing on a sandy ledge above a coral wall.
Up close and personal with a four metre shark. Just a tad nerve wracking.. Photo by Nicole Shilkofski
The second dive in the same spot showed up very little for the first half hour and I was fiddling with my Go Pro when I glimpsed a huge form below us in the blue – a tiger shark, at least four metres long. With nothing else to tap on my tank, I used the camera, which promptly fell off its mount and sank, luckily landing on an outcrop of rock. My dive master Shao (short for Shaolin, so named for his bald pate and Zen-like manner) went down to retrieve it and as he headed back up, the tiger shark followed him, passing within spitting distance of both of us before heading up over the reef above. It was a tense but exhilarating moment – tiger sharks are considered aggressive and though attacks are rare as hen’s teeth, you can’t help but feel nervous when 500 kilos of muscle and teeth cruises past and fixes you with an inky black eye.
A first glimpse of the surreal ranger station, beside its spit of tidal sand. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
That afternoon, I spent a few hours with the rangers who besides their regular patrols have lots of time on their hands, marooned on their tidal atoll. They go jogging on the sand spit, play occasional games of volleyball and catch fish – based on a strict quota and selected species. We discussed the intensifying territorial dispute in the Spratly Islands, just a few hundred kilometres to the west in the South China Sea. One ranger had been stationed there for six months and had seen first hand the massive land reclamation project China has been undertaking. “If they’re claiming the whole of the South China Sea, what’s to stop them invading Palawan?” he exclaimed with a wry smile.
A green turtle is held still while being tagged. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
It turned out that WWF were in the Park tagging turtles and the next day I spent the afternoon on their research vessel the Navorca chatting with Park Manager Angelique Songco, while a succession of green turtles was unceremoniously tagged and given a laparoscopy to check their reproductive health and history. This involved upending the unfortunate turtle and placing its head through a hole in a table, while turtle expert Dr Nicholas Pilcher inserted a camera into its soft underbelly. “They must swim back to their mates with tales of alien abduction,” laughed the Englishman, who runs a turtle charity in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.
Manta rays have long been a staple in Tubbataha.... Photo by Nicole Shilkofski
“Tiger sharks, whales sharks – they’re both new to the Park, we’ve only seen them in the last couple of seasons,” Angelique told me. “It’s good news - the presence of apex predators like sharks is a sure sign of healthy reefs.” While diving helps support the Park financially, its biggest service is stocking the entire Sulu Sea with fish, providing food security for millions.
Barracuda are also a common sight. Photo by Nicole Shilkofski
The dive site around the abandoned lighthouse proved to be whale shark central
It was sod’s law that while Angelique and I were discussing whale sharks, my fellow divers briefly spotted one cruising along the wall. It had long been a dream to swim with these placid giants and it looked like I might have missed my chance. But on the last day at Black Rock, a vertical wall thick with giant fans broken by a sandy slope descending to 60 metres, Tubbataha delivered and in spades.
The author finally gets to commune with a whale shark.. Photo by Nicole Shilkofski
Not just one, but two whale sharks emerged out of the blue, swimming past in formation. And then one of them turned and I found myself directly in her path…she swept past so close that I could see scars and barnacles among the beautiful constellation-like markings on her skin and I had to backpedal to avoid her enormous tail. This happened on each of the three dives that day, with the same female doing four or five sashays each time.
The ranger patrol boat at low tide. Photo by Johnny Langenheim
These days, it’s not hard to swim with whale sharks, thanks to feeding aggregations. But this felt special – a wild unsolicited encounter. Which in many ways summed up my experience of Tubbataha.