After one night in Coron, a ramshackle town that’s mostly used as a jumping-off point for the surrounding islands, I caught a flight back to Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, to pick up my boat to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The Stella Maris Explorer proved a very different creature to the Balatik. A modern 36-meter aluminum cruiser, it came with 10 cabins, a plush galley complete with a giant flat-screen TV, decks strewn with sun loungers, and a Jacuzzi.
Tubbataha is a nine-hour voyage 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. That dot 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. This was the Tubbataha Ranger Station, where a crew drawn from the Philippines navy, coastguard, and staff from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) do two- to three-month shifts watching over the park.
The dive season at Tubbataha lasts for just three months between April and June, when the currents and weather are at their tamest. And it is all about the big stuff—sharks, turtles, tuna, barracuda, mantas, and recently whale sharks. There were only six of us on board as this was the Stella Maris’s penultimate trip of the year, so we had the luxury of four dive masters between us and four scheduled dives a day. We were in the water by 7 a.m., dropping in on three whitetip reef sharks and an eagle ray snoozing on a sandy ledge above a coral wall. The second dive in the same spot showed up very little for the first half hour, and I was fiddling with my GoPro when I glimpsed a huge form below us in the blue—a tiger shark, at least four meters 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, you can’t help but feel nervous when 500 kilos of muscle and teeth cruises past and fixes you with an inky black eye.
That afternoon, I spent a few hours with the rangers. Marooned on their tidal atoll, they have lots of time on their hands when not out on patrol. They tell me they go jogging on the sand spit, play occasional games of volleyball, and catch fish—based on a strict quota, of course. We discuss the intensifying territorial dispute in the Spratly Islands, just a few hundred kilometers to the west in the South China Sea. One ranger had been stationed there for six months and had seen firsthand 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.
It turned out that WWF researchers were in the park tagging turtles, and so the next day I spent the afternoon on their vessel chatting with Tubbataha’s site manager Angelique Songco as a succession of green turtles were 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. Nicolas Pilcher inserted a camera into its soft underbelly. “They must swim back to their mates with tales of alien abduction,” he laughed.
“Tiger sharks, whales sharks—they’re both new to the park these 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.”
It was Sod’s law that while Angelique and I were discussing whale sharks, my fellow divers briefly spotted one cruising along the wall. I’d long dreamed of swimming 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, Tubbataha delivered in spades. 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.
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 sums up my experience of Palawan.
Tao Philippines’ four-night cruises between El Nido and Coron on the Balatik cost about US$596 per person including all meals; to avoid the monsoons, sailings are between October and June only. Expedition Fleet Liveaboards, which operates the Stella Maris Explorer, has an even shorter season at Tubbataha, where from March through June it offers six-night dive trips from US$2,600, including meals and four dives a day.
This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Secrets of the Sulu Sea”)