Diving Tubbataha Reef, A First Timer No More! – By Rhiannon


I’ll be the first to say that diving Tubbataha reef was the last thing I saw myself doing this June. Apart from being convinced that I didn’t have the time away from work, I’d never really been sailing and I hadn’t been diving in 5 years (due to the minor issue of being allergic to saltwater!). So safe to say, when Aidan suggested we join the Delos crew sailing to Tubbataha and then to Borneo, my immediate decision was “no”.

But, like most adventures do, the question kept nagging in my head.

An offer like sailing with some of your newest, best friends for ten days in a pristine and remote dive spot doesn’t come around every day. So, at the last minute  I went ahead and booked myself a ticket to Puerto Princesa to join Brian and Karin.

I’d like to say the journey was smooth sailing from that point on, but… well it wasn’t!

First of all, Aidan and I managed to miss our flight (I’ll chalk it up to early morning dysfunction) by simple arriving at the gate too late (has this ever happened to anyone else or is this really just Aidan and I who can be that forgetful?!). We had to speed over to a different terminal to catch the next and earliest possible flight to make sure we arrived in time to check out of the Philippines for Karin and Brian’s visa expiration.

Anyway, three hours later, and after many encounters with the hilariously incompetent Cebu Pacific staff, we were finally on our way! By the time we arrived at the airport Brian, Karin, Liam and Gaby had gone ahead to immigration to start the process of checking us out of the country (much like airport immigration, but much friendlier and more casual in my opinion!).

We made our way to the Puerto Princessa yacht club and climbed on board the Delos.

As we were taking Maggie, the dinghy, out toward Delos I felt all of the chaos and rushing around of the day fade away in the picture-perfect view of the sun, setting around Delos’ white sails. We were on our way, and there was nothing more to do than grab a welcome drink and sail away.

Brian got the engine started once we were on board. We wanted to arrive in Tubbataha by the next morning and we were already running late.

It was an experience, leaving a country by boat, watching the towns drift by. It really made me wonder how it must have been, travelling by boat when it was the only option. How exciting and new it feels to see land and slowly move closer toward it, not knowing anything about the place you are heading toward.

We had a quick passage dinner and then the wind picked up and I had to take a motion-sickness pill. I had meant to help keep watch at night but I went downstairs to my little cabin “to rest for a while” and woke up once or twice only briefly, to feel waves smashing against the side of the boat, and then suddenly woke up to the calm of Tubbataha.

Not a very exciting review of the passage I know, but on this trip I seemed to have gotten the very unhelpful knack of completely passing out whenever the seas got rough! I guess I was lucky though, because from what I heard the next morning, it was one of the roughest passages Brian and Karin had made!

Anyhow, thanks to Karin and Brian, we made it safely to Tubbataha and I woke up to the smell of fresh coffee and Brian getting bacon, eggs and pancakes ready. Apparently they have this ritual breakfast after every successful passage. I’ll never forget the feeling of popping my head up from below deck to look around and see nothing but expansive ocean all around. Everything was so incredibly blue, with a salty breeze powering around us. When I looked at the water below, I could see glimpses of the fish under the boat. Pretty incredible, even for someone who is allergic to salt water!

Brian wanted to get diving straight away, so I slapped on my wetsuit and slathered on my newfound remedy for saltwater skin allergy: coconut oil. We took Maggie to scout around the dive spots. I ended up snorkeling on a shallow reef and seeing my first turtle(!) whilst the rest of the group did a short dive. Since it had been 5 years since my last dive, Brian was nice enough to take me on a shallow, reminder dive through the basics again, and by the next round, I went down with the rest of them.

My first “real” dive was incredible… It’s hard to put together now what I saw on which dive as we went on about three dives a day, but I do remember the feeling of first coming to the edge of the reef, and looking down a massive wall that went as deep as I could see. We slowly descended it and I was taken aback by how large the fish were! I had been on shallow dives before, but Tubbataha has been protected since the 1980’s, so fish that I was used to seeing on reefs were suddenly at least ten times bigger. Visibility was perfect, and we definitely dove deeper than I had ever gone before. I remember feeling a little loopy halfway down (only being reminded later of what NARC was!) but that made the whole experience that much more thrilling

Over the course of the next three days we managed to dive at three different dive locations  in Tubbataha but my favorite spot was Shark Airport.

Despite feeling very hesitant about diving in such a deep, shark-y spot, I ended up loving being able to see how sharks move underwater. They were all reef sharks and none of them looked interested in any of us divers so I never felt nervous. It sounds a bit cliché, but it really was a thrill to be around such majestic creates… The way they move so slowly yet powerfully through their surroundings has a way of resetting your own awareness of time, and how you move, and everything underwater seems to slow you down to an easier, more present pace.

So, safe to say my fear and discomfort around diving has moved aside now since I have been so spoiled by the Tubbataha reefs! I wonder now how I’ll ever be able to go to other dive spots seeing as my first “real” open water dive was in such an amazing place! I’ve been very spoiled living on the Delos!

Another pretty awesome and must-do experience in Tubbataha was going to meet the Rangers. Aidan was so excited about this, we actually prepared a little gift bag to bring them before we left Manila. They live on a sandbank for 2 months, just 12-13 men, protecting Tubbataha, so it wasn’t hard to figure out what they would want! Brian told us that in Indonesia, sexy men’s magazines like FHM were a HUGE hit, so we got a bunch of those, a couple of bottles of Tanduay and a lot of Filipino snacks and candy, and went over to pay them a visit.

The rangers, and our care pack from Manila.  Because of the articles of course!

I wish we had actually gone earlier in the day, because they said if we had come in the morning or the day before, they could have gathered wood from a different island and brought it over for a bonfire which would have been pretty sweet!

We ended up playing a few friendly rounds of volleyball with them (where we were very obviously beaten! These guys have been practicing!) and having a couple of sunset drinks. These guys are exactly what I pictured Filipino rangers to be like. Slightly eccentric from 2 months isolated at sea, excited to have friends over, incredibly sweet and generous and very knowledgeable about what fish are where on the reefs. I highly recommend paying them a visit early on in your trip if you plan to head to Tubbataha.

The days had already started to blur together by the time we had to set sail for Borneo. We left at sundown again and made another night passage. We had a deliciously sloppy Bolognese dinner made by Liam and then watched a perfect first-time sailors’ movie: Captain Ron. The night passage was mostly pretty easy, but true to form, I fell asleep again and woke up at breakfast time – sorry Brian and Karin, I will learn eventually! We continued to sail into the next day. Aidan made friends with a bird that hopped on board for the rest of the trip, and most of the next two days were spent watching the horizon, sipping cold drinks and catching up on lots of reading.

Apart from a few hilarious encounters with some cargo ships who don’t seem to take kindly to sailors waving to then mooning their captain (who’d have thought?!) the sailing was calm.

Our passage was much faster than we had planned, so we spontaneously decided to anchor on an island off the coast of Borneo, because, well why not? After asking some nearby fishermen if the water was safe and crocodile-free, we swam to the shore and set up for sunset. A bonfire was made, beers were chilled, and chicken was barbecued.

Another safe passage. It’s a pretty incredible sense of accomplishment, realizing you made it to another country on your own energy and at your own pace, and it sounds funny, but when the sun starts to set and you’re on new land, you do sort of take it as a little reward that was made just for you.

We stayed on that island till late into the night, just enjoying the stillness of being on land and telling stories, the way you tend to do when you’re gathered around a bonfire. Whenever I looked behind us into the trees and dense jungle that covered the island, I could see fireflies in the bushes. It was surreal.

We climbed back onto the boat when the fire was dying down and bunked down to head to Kudat in the morning.

Trying to summarize ten days of sailing and then exploring parts of Borneo was difficult to sum up for this blogpost, but I thought it might be helpful to share what I learned as a first-time sailor and an almost-first-time diver on Tubbataha:

1.) Make yourself as useful as you can, even if you feel like you don’t know anything. Stay on deck and ask what needs to be done, which winch-y-things (technical term) need to be turned, when the sails are going up, etc. It was tempting to stay out of everyone’s way when things were getting hairy whilst sailing, but I felt I was a lot more useful when I was actively trying to help, and regularly asking what needed to be done.

2.) Have a few great passage recipes under your belt. Things like minced meat make for a number of quick dishes to put together. Liam cooked up a big batch of minced meat and we ate spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne and a few sloppy joes from that one cooking session!

3.) Night dives and deep dives: no matter how experienced of a diver you are, a new dive situation means going back to basics. I had to re-learn to keep very calm under water, stay close to Brian (my dive buddy), breathe slower than I was used to, and keep my arms close to me. Easy to forget in the excitement of seeing a shark, or a turtle, or getting NARC (Narc-ed?) underwater.

4.) Lose any need for privacy! Inevitably, living on a boat with 6 people means being ok with changing in close quarters, sharing bathrooms, sharing conversations, sharing books and journals, food, etc. It actually becomes one of the best parts of the trip, and a great way to bond with the crew, but for a first-time sailor, it takes a day or two of getting used to!

5.) Cut your showers short and watch your water consumption. It seems basic, but really, learn this fast! Sharing water with 6 other people means taking care of how much fresh water your use when you shower (if you choose to shower, let’s be honest!), and how much you use to brush your teeth, etc.

6.) Keep a journal! The days will blur together very quickly, and you will forget what happened when. If you want to have any semblance of time whilst at sea, keep a journal to remember where it was that you saw that trio of reef-sharks, and what day it was that you saw dolphins in front of the boat.

7.) Most of all, if the opportunity does come up to go on a sailing adventure, think of what you could gain instead of lose, and don’t brush aside the opportunity so hastily for “another, or better time”. What I learned most from this trip is that priorities really re-arrange themselves after even just a short time at sea, and I came back feeling a lot more grounded, and focused on things that had been misplaced in the past year or so, for things I actually didn’t care that much about. Being at sea has a way of wiping aside the falsities we hold so dearly, and it’s a pretty incredible opportunity. So say “yes” the next time an adventure comes knocking or whispering at your door.


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