Saturday, March 27, 2010
Tubbataha Reef, Palawan, my logged dives #949-962 - March 29-April 1, 2010
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I've wanted to go to Tubbataha Reef for such a long long time. The first time I came near the place I landed in Manila Airport with an 8 year old Dusty in tow, found a yellow pages, called some dive shops from the airport, discovered that no boats were going to Tubbataha that time of year (couldn't just look it up on the Internet back then) so Dusty and I ended up at the Ati Atlan carnival in Kalibo and I went diving in Boracay that trip instead.
Now it looks as though we've got our chance. Puerto Princesa is pleasant, cheap, easy to get around in with tuk tuks buzzing like hornets, the Philippines seems to never change, perennially southeast Asia even when the old classic haunts like Thailand are developing both tourism and infrastructure so the really laid back places are no longer the famous ones. Philippines remains crowded, noisy, teeming with traffic in the cities, but friendly and pleasant.
We're diving with Sakura Charters. They have pictures of their boat and some of the wildlife visible at Tubbataha here: http://www.sakuracharter.com/?page_id=5. We chose this boat because it had space (a premium on short notice!) and it was sailing at times convenient to our brief holidays. It happened to charge a lot less than the other boats that conduct liveaboards to Tubbataha reef. There were compromises in comfort accordingly but for what Bobbi and I like in a dive trip (the DIVING!), we found very compatible people and friendly crew, diving in small groups, able to avoid the crowds on the huge group charters. We got wet sleeping (trying to ;-) our first night and lost a few dives our first day because the boat was susceptible to adverse sea conditions, and we couldn't stay long at the south atoll for similar reasons, but on one of our dives last day we were cruising along a reef and found ourselves descended upon by dozens of divers from the cruise ships, some carrying big video cameras, and we felt like we were drifting through a star wars set, it was so odd to be surrounded by locusts trailing bubbles, as it were. I really liked the small scale diving we did, the humor and care of the crew, and the companionship with others who had chosen that boat for economic reasons, or whatever. The divers were all quite experienced, we learned a lot from one another, and the diving was excellent.
(14 logged dives numbers #949-962, 11 for Bobbi, she didn't do the night dives)
... starting with my logs from Wed March 31, we started with a cracker of a dive on the southern atoll. The boat moved in the night so we slept fitfully to dawn, then up for coffee and cereal before getting in the small boats just opposite the lighthouse shoal. We motored to the NE corner of the atoll to where there was a wreck and entered there, a site called Dinsan Wreck or thereabouts, descended to 30 meters, and came out on a swirl of white tip sharks, huge tuna and some bigger sharks, perhaps bull sharks, and even a large marble ray, icing on the cake. The place had the look and feel of Blue Corner in Palau, teeming with big animals. We held on to rocks into the current and watched the circus, perhaps two dozen animals in evidence cruising just off the reef. Then our guide Johan signalled we should move, so we rose to 25 meters and stopped just under a silvery cloud of barracuda. We watched those and then moved off along the reef. Chunky white tips cruised by frequently, but not with the same intensity and frequency as at the start of the dive. At the end we found a turtle, a bonus, but nothing exciting for Bobbi and I (we see them all the time at Dibba Rock ;-). Still what a dive!
We returned to the boat for breakfast on board. The tuna omelettes were good, and then we chilled out over 3 in 1 coffee for the the 10 o'clock dive. By now the weather was grey and overcast, the wind had come up, and the waves were choppy. Florin the novice joined us for the Southwest Wall and had trouble getting down so Bobbi and I and Suzanne and Fumi descended to depth without our guide, who drifted ahead of us in a strong surface current taking good care of Florin until we lost sight of their legs. So I led the dive, 25 meters, and we saw a couple of sharks including one who had parked his snout in an alcove but left his tail and half his body sticking out, but that was all of note until we found Johan hanging on to Florin in the current waiting for us so he could show us a small bull ray (small, that is, for a bull ray) that he was hovering over, waiting to show us. We let the current carry us until we got out over coral rubble and there picked up some back wash so we found we had to reverse direction. Johan surfaced with Florin at that point so I had us fin up current into the lagoon, hard going for a minute or two, but we escaped the current there, and we ended the dive in the shallows. Apart from the sharks, not that interesting a dive (hey, just sharks, are we getting jaded or what?!!), and disorienting at first without a guide.
So we returned to the boat for more good food, chicken in coconut curry this time, tasty, and then the boat moved into the whitecaps for us to dive a site called Black Rock. It took us half an hour to motor over there. When we got there seas were rough enough for Florin to opt out of the dive, leaving just the four in our team with Johan. We descended close on the heels of the other group and found great vis and surprisingly mild current. We descended between 20 and 26 meters and finned along a wall with beautiful coral. Others in the group were ahead of Bobbi and Suzanne and Fumi and I and I thought all nooks and crannies would have been peered into so imagine my pleasant surprise to look behind a rock hiding a ledge and find a 3-4 meter shark lying there. There was some dispute if it was a nurse shark or a leopard one. I got a good look at him and thought the latter, though I found on returning to Pto. Princesa that he was indeed a nurse shark, looking exactly like the one in the picture here: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/nurse-shark/ (long scimitar tail and two dorsal fins close together, a rounded head with catfish like processes either side of his oval mouth, and no spots). After taking all that in, I got out of the way so others could get in and take pictures and Bobbi and I started moving slowly along the reef. Just then someone got in too close with a camera and the shark bolted and passed right beneath Bobbi and I and took the first sand slope up to the top of the reef, a significant animal in comparison with so many much smaller species. I sped up and watched him head up the sand and turn right at the top of the reef and disappear.
This dive turned out to be almost as good as the first. Bobbi and I carried on ahead of the others now aiming for a shark leading us along the reef at 20 meters. We came into an underwater headland and it seemed there was another shark there. We raised up to 15 meters to follow it up to the top of the reef and passed a sand spot full of garden eels. There were a lot of sharks here resting in the flat sandy spaces. We came on a dozen or so, seeing several at a time lift off the sand valleys to join others circling among the hilly terrain. We found a turtle here, some barracuda, tuna, and treveli, plus the common reef fish. Superb dive, pleasant, not stressful, sharks everywhere. We complained to Johan though, no Mantas yet this trip.
This was our 2nd full day diving. We had left on Sunday, March 28 (I forgot about Webheads that day, but we were on the boat at sea by then). Our passage to Tubbataha from Pto Princesa was miserable to say the least. We had high waves oncoming, lots of people got seasick and missed dinner (more shrimps for Bobbi and I, delicious!). One of the guests fell on a slick ladder, bumped her head in three places, and the pain and blood combined with seasickness made us consider concussion and evacuation, but she soon recovered her balance and opted to carry on. No one on board felt like drinking anything alcoholic, which would have compounded the vertigo, and the only recourse seemed to be to find a flat space and ride it. We had been allocated the forward compartment, and the only access to ventilation there was via the hatch that opened at deck level. Waves washing up on deck made sleeping there untenable, unless we closed ourselves in, which became stifling quickly, and opening the hatch, even a crack, caused water by the bucket to be poured down on us as we tried to sleep. When our bedding became soaked, we went in search of any kind of space. One of the guests, Steve, had abandoned his bunk in the dorm to lie out in the open air topside, so Bobbi and I grabbed that one, lying with our heads at either end squeezed into this tiny space. But amazingly, we both slept like zombies, awakened only by alarms that kept going off to a power supply beneath the ladder leading to the dorm below decks. Each time that happened, I had to go find a crew member to switch it off, and then I'd fall into exhausted sleep again, and some time later, more alarms.
We were supposed to arrive at Tubbataha in time for a 6 a.m. dive the first morning, but the rough seas and mishaps caused us to take 22 hours for the journey to the Northern Atoll, not the 12-14 anticipated, so we didn't get to dive Monday March 29 until 4:00. We dived from our shelter just off the Ranger station. I don't recall that it was a particularly great dive, though I'm sure we saw sharks - we saw them every dive at Tubbataha.
We night dived afterward, me and Kala. Bobbi didn't want to go, which was good because the company didn't supply torches. I was surprised that a liveaboard diving company that provides unlimited diving including night diving (at $1200 per pax) didn't supply torches for 12 divers aboard, but that was the situation (and they mention this on their website, but I hadn't see that, and I had left my torch back home -- would have preferred to rent, assumed full supply of batteries that way) so I had to scrounge light each night, as did others who wanted to go. This led to bonding rituals between divers. Some had spare torches, some had batteries, so first night I got Xenia's spare, and the second night Susanne didn't want to go so she lent me her torch in return for replacing its batteries. The third night Johan the dive guide let me lead the group (he didn't really want to go) so he let me use his torch.
The first night, we found a red crab and a small spotted sting ray but not much else. The other group we had wandered off from got themselves surrounded by 4 sharks plus a 5th huge one and were talking about their dive days later. The second night was much better (for me). I was buddied with Josh, who'd borrowed a light from Fumi, but it didn't work, so he just tagged along in other's light beams in the full moonlight ;-). We found a couple of octopuses, always entertaining when they get out of their holes, and a black-banded sea snake that led us on a meandering journey through the coral rubble. The third night I remember finding a number of large crayfish out of their lairs, would have been an easy grab for someone with gloves.
Tuesday March 30 we did 5 dives (Bobbi did 4 but not the night dive). We started on Amos Rock. Second dive started on the Malayan Wreck with a shark on it and a blue spotted ray under some jetsam. The third dive we moved back past the ranger station to a place called Staghorn and worked our way back to where the boat was moored. I think the 4th we moved out to the corner to the right of the station. We could write about these dives as one. Lots of grey white-tip reef sharks, a turtle, some barracudas. Nothing special until we moved to the South Atoll over night and had the best diving of the trip.
Now we've just finished our 4th day of diving having sheltered back at the North Atoll. We started a way back from the corner to a place called shark airport, a wall with some possibility of cruising mantas, and then the airport where the sharks come in to land and can be seen parked on the runway, so to speak, specifically resting in alcoves and sandy ledges, and in the sandy spaces between the coral outcrops. We saw a few sharks our first dive but it was the second dive when we went further out the point that we saw the manta. Mantas are really beautiful animals. This was a small one, just 3 meters across (and with a crumpled tail, Dino asked later if that was the one we saw), but he flapped gracefully along the top of the reef, where we watched for almost a minute as he approached, let us swim near and alongside, and then disappeared at the edge of visibility continuing on his merry way. After that, we saw the usual sharks and several turtles at the end of the dive, shallow, to 26 meters only briefly, mostly at 13-20, and lasting the usual 45 minutes plus safety stop plus sightseeing an extended 3 minutes.
We were the only people on the boat to have seen a manta the whole trip, so having established that they were present, our last dive of the day and of the trip, we hoped to go to a cleaning station and wait. Chances of sightings were diminished because several other liveaboards were parked there, keeping divers in the water almost constantly, so we had been lucky indeed, having dropped in as most others were having lunch. For our last dive, Johan took us just a little ways down the wall and we went to token depth, only 20 meters or so, and had a look along the wall, found the usual white tips cruising or sleeping in lairs, and ended up at the cleaning station. Here we spent half an hour exploring the crannies, finding all kinds of life there. Bobbi uncovered a flounder with eyes both on the flat side of its body and chased it across the seabed to a rock under which was a small blue-spotted ray. There were several sharks resting here (until we disturbed them). But one under a ledge was well wedged in and not going anywhere. Incongruously there was a red moray resting alongside there, head jutting out from the shark's midsection. Susanne found an octopus but couldn't entice it from its hole. We were hoping for mantas but didn't see any more of them. Still the dive was anything but disappointing, and a great way to end the trip.