Dougie of the Dubai Dive Club started to investigate an expression of interest way back in early summer of 2008. His initial long list became gradually shorter, so that eventually a group of half a dozen or so of us rendons-noused on board the MV Oceanic Explorer that was moored at Batangas in the Philippines. Different people’s schedules meant that we arrived at Manila airport on various flights and made our way south via disparate means of transportation. My own, shared with Beloved Wife and Ahmed, was by taxi – driven by someone who’d apparently never been to Batangas before, and seemed to believe that the accelerator had only two positions.
We eventually lurched to a halt and boarded the tender that took us on board. Cabins aboard the Oceanic Explorer were basic, but each had an en-suite shower and head, and some ferociously effective air conditioning. Beloved Wife and I collapsed unconscious after a long and exhausting journey. We’d sat on board a variety of machinery for interminable hours.
The way the Expedition Fleet operates is to start the season with a ‘Transition Trip’ from Batangas to Tubbataha and then back to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The trip takes in diving on reefs at Apo and Quiminatin Islands before arriving at Tubbataha.
Over the next three months, the vessel would operate out of Puerto Princesa, and then at the end of the season, a second ‘Transition Trip’ would deposit the punters at Batangas before laying up for nine months. Nice work if you can get it. All major passages were undertaken at night. While we punters slept, the crew moved on to the next dive sites so there would be none of that “Are we nearly there yet?”
The MV Oceanic Explorer is an old converted Japanese squid-fishing vessel, dating from 1979. As such, all the ceilings and doorways are very low. We were warned about this to limited avail. Ideal headroom for hobbits, I suppose.
I know hobbits aren’t supposed to like water and boats and stuff, but that aside it was a bit of a hobbit holiday. Every morning we arose and had Breakfast before boarding the dive boats for a first dive. An hour later we were back on board for Second Breakfast. A couple of hours’ decompression later there was dive two followed by Elevenses. Then Lunch, an afternoon dive and a light Teatime Snack. A fourth dive preceded a night dive and Dinner. A rigidly-enforced rule was that consumption of any alcohol signified the end to that day’s diving. The food was on the whole excellent too, with plenty of it and a variety. Various special dietary requirements were adequately catered for, although a Muslim who didn’t eat fish might have had a problem.
The diving itself was also, on the whole, very good. The huge numbers of pelagics didn’t show up, but there were sharks, rays and turtles to observe and photograph, plus uncountable numbers of reef fish.
Pretty much all of the diving on Tubbataha reefs was wall diving. A shallow coral garden drops vertically into the black abyss, and divers float along the wall at various depths, looking into caves and overhangs.
It was warm too. Water temperatures were an almost constant 26°C so a suit was not required. After rather stupidly getting sunburned, I dived in a tee shirt. My sunburn, incidentally, turned a lovely shade of suntan brown before turning white and flaking off.
I struggled to get the hang of the external flashgun for my compact underwater camera. Exposures were seemingly at random. Almost everyone diving carried a camera of one flavour or another, ranging from pocket compacts to huge and unwieldy pieces of expensive Tupperware sporting external flash units.
We were promised ridiculous currents that would hurtle us along at four or more knots, but as it turned out, the currents were a lot gentler than this. On one dive where the current did indeed develop, we encountered a mooring rope. As it was the end of the dive Beloved Wife and I held on to this, flapping in the underwater breeze like two banners, while the rest of the group was blown to oblivion. Surfacing, we’d picked the wrong boat, and discovered ourselves aboard the MY Apo Explorer. We waited to be picked up and transferred back to our own vessel, and were relieved to note that our boat had a funnel rather than the smutty black stern exhausts that we were currently experiencing.
The fishing ban at Tubbataha is enforced by a small group of guys who operate a ranger station. They’re there with their colleagues for months at a stretch, drinking rainwater and eating whatever they can catch – up to three fish per day. Apart from the occasional tourist, there are no visitors. I can see this posting as an excellent way to go nuts. The rangers seem to be effective: there was much less evidence of coral damage owing to dynamite fishing than the ecological disasters we witnessed at Apo Reef.
Despite the best efforts of the crew, one of two things did go wrong. The nitrox compressor broke down after the first day, so we had no option but to breathe air. Whilst this isn’t a major problem, it does mean that after a series of dives, fatigue tends to creep in. I for one was too tired on four dives a day, and therefore disinclined to do any night diving.
The inexperience of the dive guides also showed. They were very experienced divers, but were new to Tubbataha. This will not be a problem for the punters over the rest of the season, and as Beloved Wife and I prefer to dive as a buddy pair rather than in a horde, it was of limited relevance anyway.
Nineteen dives later we arrived at Puerto Princesa, and I stood on dry land for the first time in a week. We transferred by minibus, accompanied by half the cast of The Muppet Show on the dashboard, to Puerto Princesa airport for the flight back to Manila. The domestic and international terminals are right next door to one another, but to get between them requires road transport around Manila’s congested road network. A shuttle bus did arrive, but it was already full.
Beloved Wife didn’t have to return to Dubai immediately. She and a couple of other lucky types with too much annual leave had a second week of diving booked at Puerto Galera. Fortunately, I spotted their bus and hitched a ride to the international terminal before they drove off towards Batangas, the ferry and a second week of submarine delights.