We spent the past week on the Stella Maris Liveaboard, plying the remote Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Seas. Belonging to the Philippines, this 130,028 ha atoll was designated a UNESCO site in 1993, and can only be reached by liveaboards 3 months of the year (mid-March through May) owing to rough seas at other times.
Despite trying to tamper our expectations, we went with high hopes of seeing tons of pelagics. Whale sharks, hammerheads, manta rays – these were all supposed to be par for the course. In the end, we did not check any of these boxes off, due in part to light currents, and in part to strong winds and huge swells that restricted us to diving the same site 8x over the last three days (there was a 5.5 magnitude earthquake in the northern Philippines).
Nonetheless, the diving was top notch, and one of our favorites so far. The corals were mostly in pristine conditions, and there was always a ton of different fishes, rays, turtles, and sharks to feast our eyes on. Everyone’s favorite dive was, hands down, the Deslan Wreck, where, when we descended to a gap between a wall of corals, we could take a respite from the current and gawk at the dozens of circling reef sharks. This was pretty much the only site on our trip where we enjoyed a current that swept us along the coral wall, past schools of juvenile barracudas and trevally, resting turtles, yet more sharks, and tons of other reef fish.
We had good company too. Cristalle and her friend Alan from Hong Kong organized the trip for a total of 7 of us, and we were joined by a Chinese group from largely from Shanghai and a couple from Hai Nan. Our group of 7 dove with the couple from Hai Nan, and we past many happy hours in between diving and snacking and sleeping laughing together and practicing our Mandarin. That helped make the hours just fly by, especially on the unbearably long ride back from the reef to Puerto Princessa, through rough seas of up to 21 feet that sent whatever that wasn’t bolted to the floor tumbling across the boat.
Good times, happy memories.