The rectangular Sulu Sea is surrounded on three sides by the Philippine islands of Palawan, Mindanao, Panay and Negros, and at its southern boundary, the northern shore of Borneo. The 'jewel in the crown' of Philippine dive sites, Tubbataha Reef, sits in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the Coral Triangle and is only accessible via liveaboard for a few months each year. Its remoteness keeps the crowds away, but the behemoth whale sharks and intriguingly shaped guitarfish and hammerhead sharks reward those who take the overnight cruise from Puerto Princesa on Palawan. UNESCO declared the Tubbataha Reefs National Park a World Heritage Site in 1993 to help protect its 350 coral species and 500 fish species, and this protection, coupled with the remoteness and short diving season, means those who dive Tubbataha Reef are following in the fin-kicks of a select few others.
A liveaboard trip to dive Tubbataha Reef will take you to each of the three main areas - North Atoll, South Atoll and Jessie Beazley Reef. Each offer numerous pristine dive sites as well as the chance to see big pelagic fish and schools of colourful reef fish swimming through miles of unblemished corals.
Dive site names like Washing Machine and Shark Airport give a little clue to the type of diving on offer in Tubbataha's North Atoll. The sites at the northern end of the reef are a little deeper, so you won't be short on shark sightings. White-tipped reef sharks, black-tipped reef sharks and grey reef sharks are all known regulars but keep your eye out for the more elusive silky shark and guitarfish, the latter of which can be seen resting on the sea's sandy bottom. The southern end of Tubataha's North Atoll is a hotspot for large silvery hunters, such as giant trevally, tuna and barracuda. A glance out from the reef should also reveal the silhouette of a lone whale shark or manta ray heading in from the blue for a clean.
Many people head out to dive Tubbataha Reef in the hope of spying a hammerhead or two. But the place where you have the most chance is the South Atoll. If you're lucky, you may even get a tiger shark sighting to boot. But it's not all about the big boys; there's also some incredible macro life to be seen. The Deslan Wreck is known for its smaller critters, pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs. The 'wreck' itself is a little underwhelming if you are expecting a large sunken ship but it does have The Cut, a reef where grey reefs congregate and dog-toothed tuna, great barracuda and giant trevally hunt in packs.
Jessie Beazley Reef
The smaller of the three reef areas, Jessie Beazley Reef, is no less impressive than its larger neighbours. Yet, while the reef can experience strong currents in places, it just ensures that it receives plenty of nutrients to help the corals grow and provide food and shelter for the smaller reef fish, whose healthy populations lure in the bigger fish. There are good chances of hammerhead sharks here too, and the occasional tiger shark which may stop by to say hello to the lucky few.
The corals are large and impressive, spending most of the year with no divers disturbing them. Napoleon wrasses, clouds of anthias, Moorish idols and several species of butterfly and angelfish provide even more colour. Some of the sites on Jessie Beazley Reef are exposed to swiftly changing currents so keep an eye on your guide, but make sure the other is free to scan for eagle and manta rays. There have also been sightings of mako sharks and thresher sharks.
When To Dive Tubbataha Reef
Due to its remote location and the Sulu Sea's surface conditions, Tubbataha has a limited season that runs from March to June. Boats are not permitted into the park outside these dates, so you may need to book in advance to ensure a berth. Fortunately, Tubbataha's dive season coincides with the best time of year to dive with the threshers of Malapascua, the macro critters of Dauin and down to the wrecks of Coron. You can pair your week-long liveaboard adventure with a week of land-based diving in one of the Philippines' other top dive destinations.