Thrills of Tubbataha Trails (Part II)

Ananas sea cucumber

For when God possesses the dreamer, He will mold the dream and it will be right…   Verdell Davis

Like a Bootcamp

During the four-day expedition with maximum of four dives in a day, life become like a series of order – time to wake up and eat, specific time for dives, surface intervals and personal time for rest. Time management is still necessary, you don’t want everybody waiting for you when the chase boat is ready leaving.  Weather is unpredictable, in a matter of minutes the waters become choppy.  The departure of the three speed boats from HCA is in sequence as scheduled.

For safety, all divers in each chase boat shall descend and ascend together – so when we got into the waters on a roll-back entry, with our masks ready and regulators on, DM Wally always said, “On my count – one, two, three!” Splash! And I heard that in all my thirteen dives. 😛  Other buzzwords we had are as pleasing like, “Food is ready!” from the kitchen staff and a sumptuous buffet is before us. Or when the divers got back from the waters, you could almost hear everybody asking, “What did you see?” and what followed are passionate descriptions of the sightings.

While Venusians have explored diving and many have excelled, the Martians still dominated it. It’s not for the faint-hearted as they say.  So it wasn’t strange that there were only six (Memey & Pia from Manila; Natisha from Canada; Ma’am Nana, Doc Candy and me from Mindanao) of us out of 25 diver guests.  I was thrilled with the thought of being one of these special and adventurous people.

Diving is never a place for an “ooops”, definitely no errors allowed so following basic rules is purely no-nonsense.  Any untoward incident may lead to end the trip, without doubt a total disaster for all of us!

Eat, Dive, Sleep, Pray & Love

We eat at least five times a day, there was such abundance of food complete with dessert – like what about ice cream in the middle of the sea?  🙂 I still have to limit my food intake though. And the dives were such like a buffet – it was my first time to have four descents in a day, really wet!  And sleep is almost instant after long day of dives, no such sleeping late like when back home. Rest is all about sleep during the cruise.

I believe there’s one thing common to all of us in the boat – pray – everyone was praying for a good weather every day.  Because the weather in the area can be so unpredictable, the rains and the waves may come any time.  Nobody would want the cruise to be aborted due to bad weather. And we were privileged to have three priests right in our group – Fr. John, Fr. Aldrin and Monsignor Nene – so we didn’t miss the Sunday mass which was being officiated by Fr. John.  It was such a deep and solemn celebration.  Somehow, with three diving priests with us, there was such an assurance of daily prayers for all our safety.

The excitement of getting into the waters and breathing deep down or discovering the unknown are just coating of this incessant aquatic adventures.  It’s more about passion of the marine world, the life beyond the depths – just pure love for these creatures, wondering and watching in awe all these wondrous forms of life.  I know I’ll never grow tired of my dive quests, the God of the sea never seems to exhaust incredible sights in his kingdom.  And as a water person, I promised myself I’ll go on diving until I grow old when my gnarled fingers could still hold and operate gadgets or my wobbly legs could still kick for my fins.

We had the opportunity to sit down in dinner with one of our co-diver guest during the cruise – one of the three “father & son” team. He chattered about all the incredible sightings we had in the reefs full of passion and have felt same sentiment with him and as if to close his little speech, he declared he loves diving. Angel and I watching him, without batting an eyelash almost in unison declared solemnly, “We too!”

One Great Dream

Two brave souls dared for this great Tubbataha dream, I know now nothing is ever extreme with one’s aspirations.  All I needed was an ardent spirit, determined heart and one good friend who shared same deep passion for the great marine world.  It was another living proof that God is ever faithful to His promises!

We waited enough for this mission, our ultimate trip away to a paradise not everyone has the opportunity to savor its grandeur.  A world away, apart from the maze of crowded cityscape to a place of tranquility.  A place where there are no structures but water everywhere, aquatic nature in all its purity.

Tubbataha – where a brave and passionate diver’s dreams come true!

Thrills of Tubbataha Trails (Part I)

Tubbataha waterworld…

When your heart is in your dream, nothing is ever too extreme…

I have written enough about the planning, waiting and seizing our great Tubbataha dream and needless to say that along come with it were the unending thrills and joy as the countdown started.  Now, it took me awhile to finally scribble what’s inside me – really how ironic that while my heart and mind was filled with treasured sweet memories from the trip, I don’t want to scribble anything about it – not yet.  And just like what Angel said in his SMS after our trip, the memories of our great dives keeps playing in my mind.

The Waiting is Over

The headstrong in me pushed me enough to vanish from never ending work even without my approved leave on hand, the thrills had gotten me enough courage to simply digress.  The morning horizons when I left Cagayan de Oro promised a sunny day, and I was hoping such would be the condition in the next four days in the Sulu Sea.  Though I promised Sir Dodong Uy (our team leader) I would see them at CdeO airport, I haven’t talked to my companions until we reached Puerto Princesa.

But I caught up Fr. John Young, SJ at Mactan pre-departure and briefly chat with him until we separated for the boarding. Smiling I said to him, “I made it!” which he immediately corrected, “We made it!”  He told me last December when I first met him that it’s been three summers for his Tubbataha attempt.  Well, Angel and I only missed one attempt for the Dive Tubbataha 2010 plans.

Our team converged at Puerto Princesa airport – Sir Dodong & Ma’am Nana Uy, Fr. John Young, Monsignor Nene Caldoza, Fr. Aldrin Alaan, Sir Jan Surposa, Mark Allen Du – as we wait for Angel whose arrival was 20 minutes later from our Mactan flight.  We got back downtown after we checked-in at our yacht for a sumptuous lunch at Ka Lui Resto, at past 1pm everyone was starving.

We finally sailed at 7pm watching the beacon lights as we departed Puerto Princesa port with the stars above us, promising fine weather for our journey towards the vast waters of our dream paradise…

Gray Reef Shark

Great Waterworld

The next morning we were in Sulu Sea purely surrounded with blue waters – Tubbataha at last!  I belonged to the Red Group – Sir Dong & Ma’am Nana, Fr. John, Doc Candy, Sir Jan, Mark, and Angel – with DM Wally assigned to us.

Day 1.  Our first dive schedule was at 9am for a check-out, though most of the divers wanted it sooner as we arrived earlier.  Our first descent was at Malayan Wreck not so far away from where HCA moored, though we didn’t get near the wreck but went to a wall covered with gorgonians in variety of colors along with hard and soft corals. I was most fascinated with sharks – white tips and gray reef – just swimming coyly below us just like any other fish.  In a few minutes I was hyperventilating and catching my breath and I wondered, I signaled and DM Wally with Sir Dong was at the rescue.  My usual 6 lbs weight was too heavy and so in my succeeding dives I have 4 lbs weight which I found comfortable.  We had a dose of sharks in our second and third dive at Wall Street and Amos Rock respectively, plus variety of reef fishes.  Our fourth and last dive of the day was bit late already it was almost a night dive, we descend at Ranger Station with our torch.  There wasn’t much fish life, they could have taken refuge already in their abodes.  We uncovered some dwellers though on rocks and crevices – groupers, snappers and sweet lips. Sea cucumbers were abundant too. Such lovely sightings in our first day.

Sea Turtle among the colorful corals

Day 2.    Blessed again with good weather, we woke up earlier on our second day as first dive was at 6am.  We hope for more good sightings, the sharks have become very common already. Our first descent was at Shark Airport – and true to its name, white tips and gray reefs keep darting now and then! There were sharks again on our second site at Seafan Alley I watch in awe with the abundance of large and thick seafans in variety of colors on the wall. Aside from variety of reef fishes, we sighted turtles – one was feeding on corals and didn’t go away when we watched him and another one we met when we are about to ascend.  The day’s highlight was on our third dive, everybody was thrilled.  We were floating as we watch the scenery at the Shark Airport, I catch a glimpse of something black coming toward us, at first I didn’t recognize. I got a good view watching the devil ray swimming above us until it disappeared!  We went back to Seafan Alley on our last dive – we had sharks again, triggerfishes, more reef fishes plus school of jacks.  Two days of diving at North Atoll was just perfect.

Day 3.    We were up again early for the 6am dive, with the skies somewhat overcast. We had the greatest surprise on that Sunday morning at Delsan Wreck!  We didn’t go to the wreck but stayed on the sandy slope with a shallow wall beyond resembling like a bowl.  There was some current and swam a bit like waiting, barely 9 minutes after descending I was at 30 meters when there was some commotion. Lo and behold – the whale shark!  Everything went fast, everybody was moving fast – I went deeper at 33.8m to get a good view watching in awe underneath. The great whale shark with white tips, gray reefs, tunas and giant trevally swimming with him side by side, and as if giving as a chance to take another look – they circled once more in great display for all of us.  The sight was so enthralling! Before we ascend, there was a large school of jacks before as we went shallower.  Our next descent was at the Lighthouse which didn’t disappoint us, we went to the wall covered with seafans and variety of corals.  We had sharks again- black tips and gray reef, barracuda, blue fin trevally, big morays, jacks, parrots and sea turtle.  After our surface interval for our third dive, the waters become choppy so DM Wally advised to defer our dive until the waters will be manageable.  We made our last descent for the day past 4pm already, grateful we made it. Black Rock was another wall dive, decorated with seafans, sponges and corals in variety of colors.  We sighted triggers, chromis, cardinals, groupers, sweet lips, puffers, wrasses and lot more.  It doesn’t matter we only had three descents for the day, the whale shark sighting was more than enough to compensate for it.  It was a blessed Sunday indeed at South Atoll….

Great whaleshark!
Great whaleshark!

Day 4.  On our last day, our boat went back to North Atoll for the scheduled dives. We had overcast skies again but everyone hoped we could complete the dives.  Our boat tender riding on the waves as we went to Malayan Wreck for our first descent, our group agreed to just stay at the wall and had an easy dive.  I just observed all the fish and creatures before me as I went through, although everyone’s hoping for another surprise. J There were yellow and black breams, damsels, surgeons, fusiliers, bluefin trevally, triggers, humphead wrasse, moray and of course sharks.  The white tip swimming coyly below me just like any ordinary fish.  The weather has been down cast and it started to drizzle already.  After more than two hours interval we geared for the next dive which was my last descent at the reefs, notifying our DM.  My noon flight the next day restricted me to let go of the last dive of the cruise.  There wasn’t rain anymore but the waves persisted.  We went back to Malayan Wreck determined to make most of my last descent as Fr John urged.  We went for the wall observing the fish life there, the visibility still good.  There were triggers, breams, trevally, snappers, fusiliers and variety of chromis.  After 40 minutes, I slowly ascend for my safety stop to a coral garden watching the reef fishes, then DM Wally signaled for a shark pointing ahead of me – there it was! On a spot of white sands about 6 meters from the surface, there lying flat on the sand a lone gray reef shark almost a meter in size.  Lying peacefully asleep on its habitat – what a wonderful sight! Perching behind the corals for few minutes, I watched it in awe J  Angel came over and went far by taking a photo – perhaps disturbed by the lights, it quickly swam away. L Though it was time to surface, we still linger in the coral garden until Angel pointed out the wreck just a little ahead of us – how can I be short-sighted! We quickly swam to the spot grateful that there wasn’t current, circled and went around. I was thrilled – I love wrecks! There was lot of dwellers down the wreck – giant groupers, trevally, sweet lips, wrasses, parrots and more – such an active fish life.  We managed to take some photos and explored a bit but heard signals to get back to chase boat for the ascent. It started to rain already and the waters getting more choppy.  Angel and I was the last as we raced back for the boat, which we can hardly see underwater.  We hold unto the boat as it quickly left the spot as the waves getting fiercer.  I hold on to Angel’s hand while we’re on the raging waters with the boat moving until he got on,  and the stairs was moved for me to climb up.   Sometimes you need to be tough to survive  certain conditions.  Anyway, the small wreck was a fine way to end my quest at the reefs, it was my longest dive during the cruise at 63 minutes.      We sped off riding on the waves to take refuge in the yacht.

Pair of many-spotted sweetlips

The great waterworld of Tubbataha is a piece of heaven on earth.  The exhilaration of being surrounded by colorful fish of great variety is simply hard to equal. It was a very moving experience. While you’ve probably seen photos and videos on diving, you won’t understand what it’s really like or how it really felt until you’ve experienced it yourself.

Tubbataha Waterworld

Tubbataha Reefs Dive Sites

Dive Summary
May 6-9, 2011

A list of our descents during our recent live aboard trip to the mysterious depths of the Sulu seas, a paradise called Tubbataha Reefs. It was a four-day of “eat, dive, sleep” bustle, obviously the mermaid in me was rejoicing fulfilling this great dream. It was such pure joy to be in the waters, watching breathtaking sights deep down, in silence.

Four wet days with thirteen dives in all, in one of stunning dive sites in Asia and one of World Heritage Site in the Philippines.  Thirteen amazing dives that marked a highlight in my pursuits as a diver.

Day 1   North Atoll

1. Malayan Wreck – wall dive
Max depth:        31.4m
Bottom Time:     0:50H
Air left:             70 bars

White tip sharks, gray reef sharks, giant trevally, napoleon wrasse,
School of barracuda, variety of sea breams, snappers, sweetlips
(banded, oriental, spotted), variety of groupers, variety of wrasse
large gorgonians (lavender, yellow, green)
sea cucumbers (leopardfish, ananas, etc)

2. Wall Street – wall dive
Max. Depth:        23.0m
Bottom Time:     0:50H
Air left:             80 bars

White tip & gray reef sharks, variety of tropical fish
Variety of colorful sea fans
Soft corals

3. Amos Rock –
Max. Depth:         19.9m
Bottom Time:       0:50m
Air left:               70 bars

Sharks (more than 10), giant moray eel
Sweet lips, groupers, trigger fish. Parrotfish, Pufferfish

4. Ranger Station – late afternoon
Max. Depth:          19.2m
Bottom Time:       0:45H
Air left:               90 bars

Groupers, sweet lips, snappers
Sea cucumbers

Note: Lesser fish life as it was dark already, could have taken refuge in their abodes

Day 2   North Atoll

5. Shark Airport
Max. Depth:       32.0m
Bottom Time:    0:46H
Air left:             100 bars

White tipsand gray reef sharks
Jacks, parrot fish, fusiliers
Thick gorgonians

6. Seafan Alley
Max. Depth:        23.4m
Bottom Time:     0:48H
Air Left:             70 bars

Snappers, triggers, wrasses, parrots
Surgeons, emperors, angels, pufferfish
Sea turtles (2)

7. Shark Airport
Max. Depth:        25.5m
Bottom Time:      0:49H
Air left:               100 bars

White tips, gray reef, silver tip Giant manta ray!

8. Seafan Alley
Max. Depth:         17.2m
Bottom Time:         0:51m
Air left:                70 bars

School of jacks, sharks, triggerfish
Sea cucumbers

Day 3   South Atoll

9. Delsan Wreck
Max. Depth:          33.8m
Bottom Time:       0:44H
Air left:                 80 bars

Whale shark! About 5 meters with white tips & gray reef sharks, giant tunas and trevally trooping with him
School of jacks, triggers, bluefin trevally Sea turtle

10. Lighthouse (Delsan)
Max. Depth:        20.4m
Bottom Time:      0:53H
Air left:              80 bars

Black tips, gray reef, barracuda,
Blue fin trevally, moray eel
Sea turtle
Sea fans, se cucumbers

11. Black Rockdeferred due to water conditions
Max. Depth:        18.6m
Bottom Time:       0:48H
Air left:               100 bars

Seafans, sponges, corals covered the wall
Triggers, cardinals, chromis, damsels
Puffers, sweetlips, wrasses, groupers

Day 4   North Atoll

12. Malayan Wreck – wall dive
Max. Depth:        23.6m
Bottom Time:      0:53H
Air left:              80 bars

White tips sharks (2) perched on sand sleeping Bluefin trevally with napoleon wrasse Moray eel with a remora
Breams, snappers, fusiliers, emperors

13. Malayan Wreckwall, then sandy slope to the wreck
Max. Depth:          24.9m
Bottom Time:        1:03H
Air left:                 90 bars

Gray reef shark (about 1m) perch on white sand, asleep
White tips sharks
Sea turtle
Triggers, sweet lips, groupers. Trevally, breams
Small ship wreck, 4m underwater when we had our tour around it

NB.    Map courtesy of  Expedition Fleet Cruises

A Cruise for a Lifetime

M/Y Hans Christian Andersen

In less than seventy-two hours, I’ll be on a cruise to a dream paradise – aboard on a beautiful yacht surrounded with blue waters.  With three priests – which includes Father President of FSUU (my alma mater), a bishop and a vicar – and a physician, it felt like I’m on pilgrimage to the holy land.  They are all from Butuan, yes all four of them from my home town. So it felt like I’m home.  More than that, I’m with my good friend and favorite dive buddy Angel to fulfill our dream to relish the splendor of the unequaled Tubbataha underwater paradise.

It would be my first time for a luxury cruise and without doubt I would love everything on this trip, I’ll be off again with one of my greatest love – diving!  And as I told Angel, I don’t want to go without him as we dreamed this together like more than two years back.  There’s no better than a friend who’ s too keen and passionate sharing a fervent wish and dream…

I’m driving myself for much work for the past days to compensate for the time I would be away, and I’m whining – why is it that there is much to do when I want to go away? On second thought I need it to get away from feeling spoiled from such opulence.  Now, as I pour my thoughts here I pause for awhile with twinkling eyes…

Our one big dream to a paradise called Tubbataha, one grand trip and our cruise for a lifetime!