Scientists are wondering why more whale sharks are showing up in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, while dive tourists are enjoying the unexpected encounters.
I’m weightless, floating twenty meters below the surface of the glassy Sulu Sea.
To my right, the coral reef of Tubbataha’s North Atoll plunges into the briny depths like the wall of a midtown skyscraper. To my left, the cobalt blue of open water glows like a priceless gem. Drifting with the powerful undersea current, I’m flying — dodging red and purple sea fans jutting out from the coral wall like a marine Superman.
Without warning, this placid scene is upended as an enormous shape seizes my peripheral vision. I spin around to find myself face to face with a seven-meter whale shark, my heart skipping a beat as the huge animal arches its sleek body to narrowly avoid plowing into me. With a few casual sweeps of its sickle tail, the world’s largest fish fades to a constellation of white spots — and disappears.
In more than fifteen years of diving, I’ve seen many whale sharks, but never had one appear like this — literally out of the blue. Tubbataha might be one of the only places on earth where you can be photobombed by the world’s biggest fish.
It’s day one on M/Y Discovery Adventure, Discovery Fleet’s liveaboard dive boat specializing in unforgettable safaris to the Philippines’ premier dive destination, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park: more than 97,030 hectares of protected sanctuary for birds and marine life, consisting of two huge atolls and the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef, twenty kilometers north.
Records of Tubbataha exist from the 18th century, beginning with the notes from Spanish ship captain Antonio Faveau y Quesada, and maps from the time already mark “Toob Bataha” — a name that supposedly comes from the Samal words tuba and taha, which refer to “a long reef exposed at low tide”.
Since Tubbataha is located more than 150 kilometers from Puerto Princesa, almost in the center of the Sulu Sea, its isolation has protected it and made it a safe haven for endangered species. Since 1988, it’s been a no-take marine park, the first of its kind in the Philippines. Four years later, the United Nations named the park a Unesco World Heritage site, underscoring its global significance. And in 2009, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) Act was enacted to ensure its protection and proper management.
To divers, Tubbataha is an unspoiled paradise, one of the few places in the world where surprise encounters with all sorts of creatures can still happen. But, Angelique Songco reminds me, it’s not just a world-class diving spot. “Tubbataha is important because we know it contributes to food security in the Philippines — it’s not just a beautiful place to see,” she says. “Its ecological value is more weighty than its aesthetic value.”
Angelique should know. As manager of TRNP, they call her “Mama Ranger” around here — a nod to her life’s work of fighting to preserve Tubbataha. We’d been friends since 2005, when I was a US Peace Corps volunteer with Silliman University’s marine science institute — incidentally the same institution where scientists proved that the healthy fish populations in sanctuaries like Tubbataha spill over to other areas. “Tubbataha’s contribution to fisheries is important. We know that fish larvae from Tubbataha can help to repopulate reefs across the country,” acknowledges Angelique.
What this means is that it’s in the fishermen’s best interests to protect Tubbataha and to respect the rules inside the marine sanctuary. And that also benefits visitors like me who go to see one of the best dive spots in the world. Attracting thousands of divers a year (there have been almost 3,500 so far in 2019), dive tourism brings in the money — via park entrance and permit fees — that funds the conservation work in Tubbataha.
Live a board life
The diving season is relatively short, and it can get expensive. Since Tubbataha is more than ten hours by boat from Puerto Princesa, and because the islets within the park are reserved entirely for wildlife, the only way to experience the park is via a liveaboard boat. Tubbataha safaris run a minimum of five days, with almost one full day just for travel from the Palawan mainland. Fortunately, liveaboards like the Discovery Adventure make boat life in Tubbataha very comfortable indeed — we’re talking air-conditioned cabins, hot water, catered meals under the stars and an onboard masseuse.
Most visitors to Tubbataha are experienced scuba divers, and while on board Discovery, our days are organized around the dives scheduled for the day. Most land-based divers might do two dives in a day, spaced out between meals and relaxing on the beach. But out at sea on a liveaboard, the focus is always maximizing the time in water, and a typical day has us doing four dives.
The day starts at sunrise, with a light breakfast of toast or fruit before the 7.30am dive briefing. Our first briefing is given by Discovery’s senior divemaster, Dindo Paquibot, who goes by the nickname “Dindo Fish” — a moniker he seems to have earned because of his years of dive experience and the consequent ease underwater.
We’re in the water by 8am, with a typical dive planned for fifty minutes, ensuring we’re back to Discovery in time for the main breakfast at 9.30am. The second dive briefing begins at 11am, and again we’re back on board with just enough time to rinse off in the cabin before lunch and a midday nap. After that, we take in the panoramic views of the sea from Discovery’s airy upper deck before the third dive briefing at 2pm.
The chase boats depart Discovery with military precision, each dive group color-coded to one of four divemasters who each lead six to eight divers. Dindo keeps us on schedule, returning to Discovery by 3.30pm. With no meal before the day’s last dive, the final dive briefing begins just after 4pm, the afternoon sun already turning gold.
We’re back at Discovery just after 5pm, where we wash off the sea salt from our bodies for the last time that day, and head up to the ship’s upper deck to catch the Tubbataha sunset lightshow. We watch the colors of the sky fade from gold to magenta, finishing as an indigo canvas dotted with stars shining like diamonds in the night sky.
That’s where we are when we discuss the dives of the day, including the encounter with the whale shark. It’s a diverse group of dive buddies on board, arriving from as far away as South Korea, China and Thailand — and everyone is buzzing about the whale shark. Many have come to Tubbataha just for the chance to glimpse one of these gentle giants.
“The first time I dove Tubbataha in 1981, we saw a whale shark. But until recently it was not common to see them here,” recalls Mama Ranger.
Angelique is the foremost expert on all things Tubbataha, and throughout her decades of experience in the park, there have never been as many whale shark sightings as there are now. “Since 2015, we’ve had a big increase in liveaboard dive boats reporting whale sharks,” she confirms.
The search for answers led Angelique to Dr Alessandro Ponzo, executive director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE). “The first time I met Alessandro, I asked him how we could better manage and protect the whale sharks of Tubbataha,” she says.
As luck would have it, the LAMAVE team has an expedition to study the sharks of Tubbataha departing the day after Discovery returns to port. With Angelique’s help, LAMAVE offers me the last open bunk available on the Navorca, the only full-time marine biology research boat in the Philippines.
LAMAVE is the largest independent non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of large marine animals and the marine environment in the Philippines. It’s a tight-knit, hard-working team of ocean lovers who are studying and trying to protect animals such as whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks and rays across the archipelago. Founded in 2014, the organization has also collaborated with other NGOs such as WWF-Philippines and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO). I’ve joined their team once before to check out their whale shark project in Southern Leyte and am beyond excited for the opportunity to join the Tubbataha team this year. I feel like I’ve won the lottery — two weeks in Tubbataha on two different liveaboard boats.
The layouts of the two boats are quite different: while Discovery is designed for maximum comfort at sea for guests on vacation, Navorca lacks niceties such as hot water and air-conditioning, and is instead equipped with workspaces and storage for the scientists and their gear.
I share a cabin with five other team members — six bunks slung in an open-air room smaller than the cabin I had to myself on Discovery. Scientific instruments, charging cameras and survey equipment are overflowing from the compact cabinets which make up the wall between the two crew and researcher cabins on the boat. On a hot night when there’s no breeze, many team members opt to sleep outside on the upper deck in an effort to stay cool.
But what Navorca lacks in creature comforts, it more than makes up for in seafaring camaraderie — everyone from team LAMAVE lives for trips like this, the chance to push the boundaries of what we know about the natural world.
Led by Alessandro, the LAMAVE team is using acoustic and satellite tags to collect data on the shark population in Tubbataha, which records one of the highest density levels of reef sharks in the world. LAMAVE has also been employing photographic identification of whale sharks, an innovative technique that uses constellation mapping software to create unique digital IDs of more than 1,600 whale sharks in the Philippines — the second largest database of its kind in the world.
LAMAVE has chartered Navorca since 2015, returning every season to tag sharks, establishing a network of underwater acoustic receivers throughout the park which log every time an animal passes within approximately 500 meters of the device. I’m astonished to learn that the sensors run on Bluetooth. Alessandro downloads the past year’s data to his laptop as easily as if he were syncing a smartphone.
One morning, after a traditional Filipino breakfast of dried fish and tocino with fried rice and egg, I have a few minutes to interview Jessica Labaja, one of LAMAVE’s executive directors. “The whale sharks in Tubbataha are not resident, they’re passing through on their way to their feeding grounds in other parts of the Philippines. We think Tubbataha might be something like a navigational marker for sharks coming and going from the region,” she says. “But at this point we really don’t know for sure.”
Gonzalo “Gonzo” Araujo, also a LAMAVE executive director, chimes in: “We only know a little of what there is to know about whale sharks in general, as most studied populations globally are juvenile male dominated.”
We’re up at sunrise on Sunday, prepping our scuba tanks and underwater cameras for a busy day of diving and data collection. The golden Palawan sunrise blazes in the eastern sky as we plunge in, light refracting as if through a stained-glass window. We’ve discovered a shimmering shoal of big-eye trevally, sleek whitetip reef sharks traversing the coral drop-offs, disappearing like ghosts into the whirling underwater activity of sea life at one of the planet’s last pristine coral reefs.
The experience of floating weightless underwater while diving is completely relaxing — and the focus on controlled breathing with the tank puts me in a meditative state of mind. There’s just so much to see here, and the closer you look at the kaleidoscopic array of colors on the reef, the more hidden details are revealed: a tiny shrimp clinging to a fan coral, a scarlet grouper concealed beneath the dome of an enormous brain coral. I check my dive watch, and the readout indicates I’m at twenty meters — the weight of the atmosphere and water above compresses my lungs to less than half their size at the surface. Fish swimming by stare curiously at these awkward, two-legged creatures drifting past, perhaps wondering what kind of animal we are and why we’ve decided to visit their home encumbered by clanking tanks and surrounded by clouds of bubbles.
After about fifty minutes, Gonzo and I drift out into the blue water, preparing to surface. But, like a mirage coming into focus, the outline of a whale shark appears.
Even when you’re expecting to see one of these gentle giants, the shock of being in the water with something this big is impossible to get used to. Adrenaline kicks in as Gonzo and I try to keep pace with the shark, snapping a few frantic photos as it begins to outpace us.
Suddenly the nearly seven-meter whale shark changes direction, gliding past Gonzo and me. We’re close enough to see into its eyes. Within just a few minutes, the shark is gliding less than a meter from the surface, and we trade our dive tanks for simple snorkels. Our LAMAVE dive buddies join us as it circles for more than an hour — the most magical encounter of the entire two weeks in the park.
The whale shark even follows us as we fin back to the Navorca, sticking around long enough for Captain Ronald de Roa and his crew to take turns swimming with the shark. We don’t feed the animal, we’re not sure why the shark has decided to spend so much time with us. LAMAVE recommends maintaining a distance of at least five meters from large marine animals such as sharks, and we’re careful to give the whale shark enough room to swim by unimpeded as it passes. If you’re not paying attention to its behavior, it’s all too easy to bump into it — an offense that can result in suspension of dive privileges by order of the Tubbataha Management Office under the leadership of Mama Ranger.
As another dive boat joins us, we reluctantly leave our new friend and move the ship to the next mooring buoy. And later, debate during our brunch on board Navorca is lively — what exactly was the shark doing? “Maybe it was just curious — sometimes whale sharks mistake the bubbles from our tank for a bloom of plankton,” Gonzo suggests.
“I think it was looking for a free meal, maybe the shark thought we had some shrimp back at Navorca,” Jessica says.
Not convinced, I chime in with my own hypothesis. “I think he was itchy —he wanted us to help scratch off those patches of parasites around his mouth.” It’s reasonable — copepod parasites are a common sight on Tubbataha whale sharks, but nobody seems to know why. Everyone defends their theory, but in the end only data from the field can answer the question once and for all. This isn’t your everyday dive for sure. Just as it was on the Discovery, the divers on the Navorca — or all divers venturing to Tubbataha, I’d hazard to say — are a more dedicated and passionate tribe than those typically found at a scuba resort.
Getting to Tubbataha demands a certain level of commitment, and so the visitors it attracts seem to be in search of a deeper connection with the environment and the animals who live wild within it. I wonder if we’ll ever unlock the secrets hidden in this magical place, or if the answers we find will just open the door to new questions. But if the search for knowledge in Tubbataha is as inspiring and fun as the past two weeks have been, we’ll never get tired of looking.