A Travellerspoint blog


Tubbataha nightmare

Dive live-aboard from hell

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We went on a liveaboard diveboat to Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies in the middle of the Sulu Sea, around 150km south-east of Puerto Princesa City - capital of the Province of Palawan - the usual jump-off point for visitors and dive boats going to Tubbataha. The reef is composed of two atolls, North and South Reefs. Each reef has a single small islet that protrudes from the water. The atolls are separated by a deep channel 8 kilometers wide.

We did the trip there with a company called Queen Anne divers. The name of the boat is Jinn Sulu. The guy who runs it was a Swiss guy named Urs. He picked us up from the hotel, and took us down to the boat. We loaded all the gear, and met the seven other divers who would be our boat mates for the next seven days, eight nights on board. There were a German couple, two German guys, and three Dutch guys – all great people. We already knew that the boat would be small, as we had seen the pictures on the website – so no surprise there. The living and sleeping conditions were very simple but fine, as this was to be expected. However, I was a bit disappointed with the space set aside for the dive gear and for setting up – there was simply not enough space for the number of divers onboard, and the setting up and taking apart of gear was a cramped and awkward affair. Anyway, we were there for the dive sites, not the boat, so we were ready to make the best of it.


We then set off for what we were told should be a 16 hour sail, which ended up taking more like 21 hours. Conditions were fairly quiet at set off, but became increasingly rough overnight. I was, of course, sea sick the whole way, as I always am. By lunch time on the 9th, we had made it to the site called Black Rock, which given the conditions, Urs judged to be the most protected mooring. Urs did a briefing, but it was basically just him saying: “Right, it’s a wall dive, you can swim either North or South.” That was it – no description of site, what we could expect to find, and no indication of anyone diving with us to guide the dive. I was quite pissed with that – I mean, sure we were all fairly experienced divers, and we don’t need a babysitter – but none of us have ever dived Tubbataha before, and I rather expected a dive guide to be included in the quite steep price we had paid for the trip. Apparently, this was not the case. Again, we tried to put a positive spin on things and stay optimistic, as we really wanted the trip to work out. We did two dives there on the 9th, and were planning to move again on the 10th to another site. However, as conditions had gotten even worse, and the wind was picking up, we had to stay at Black Rock another day, and so did another three dives here. The diving at Tubbataha is wall diving, with steep coral walls plummeting to dark blue depths. The coral at Black Rock was absolutely beautiful – stunning formations of hard and soft coral. There was also lots of fish life, and we saw some large tuna, schools of jacks, trevally and barracuda, as well as napoleon wrasse, trigger fish and many other kinds. We also spotted lots of turtles, and some white tip reef sharks and nurse sharks. Some of the group also saw black tips, and on one dive we spotted a pair of large marble sting rays.








As the dive skiff was rather small, and flat bottomed, we had to dive in two groups – the four Germans in one group, and I, Alan and the three Dutch guys in one group. On the third dive on the 10th, we did a lovely drift diving, which yielded some schools of large fish, and even a napoleon wrasse eating a lobster.



Towards the end we hung out in the current with a small white tip shark. By the time we surfaced, we had drifted to another mooring quite a distance from the boat. We held on to the anchor line of another dive boat moored there, and waited to be picked up. Four of us were at the back, but one Dutch guy was at the front. The waves were not huge, but large enough to bang us around a bit. We all got in the boat, which was rapidly taking in water. When we got round to the front line, it turned out the Dutch guy was caught on the rope with the line from his safety buoy, which had been wrapped thoroughly around his legs by the current. Another Dutch guy and Alan jumped back in, and eventually cut him loose. All back in the boat, with our equipment. But by this time, it was too much for the little skiff, which was taking in wave after wave. It all happened very quickly, and after about two minutes of getting into the boat, it flipped over and we were all thrown out in the water. Luckily I was holding on to my camera at the time, so that was safe. I then had to dive into the water a tiny bit to get at my bcd and cylinder. Alan, with his usual wherewithal, had yelled; “everyone get their gear” just before we went over – but I had reacted too slowly, and my gear was on the other end of the boat. Luckily, it was inflated, and I managed to pull it out from under the boat to use as a flotation device. We treaded water there for a bit, and the nearest dive boat quickly sent their boat out for us. We all got in, but it was the same type of boat, and soon we all had to jump back out. The boat man brought our gear to the dive boat and then two boats picked us up. I, and some of the other guys, lost our fins, because they sink, but other than that, we were all fine, and all the important stuff was saved. By the time they turned the boat over, they even found the weight belts still inside, as they had been tucked in the front.


This was obviously not a great thing, but it could have been a lot worse, and everything turned out alright. However, I was very miffed with Urs, as it sounded like he was trying to blame us for what happened, which I found quite insulting. If anything he should obviously know better than to load that many divers into the boat in these fairly rough conditions – I believe that’s his job, not ours, to know. Anyway, accidents happen, no point in playing a blame game. After this, I got a bad case of swimmer’s ear on top of it all – and I had to sit out the dives for a day and a half. However, I was not too upset about it, as we were still stuck at Black Rock, and the wind was picking up, causing the visibility to be very low. One of the Dutch guys on the boat was getting quite concerned with the weather, as he was seeing signs that it was getting worse. He asked Urs about the weather forecast – something he did not volunteer any information about during the whole trip. In fact, all information had to be dragged out of him. His response this time was that there were no weather forecasts about Tubbataha, and besides, no one knows what the weather will do. What? We were stunned...

On the 13th, we decided to try for a change of site, and we headed to the north part of the north reef section, the only other part of the reef with some shelter – shelter being an exaggeration at Tubbataha, as it simpy means the reef is breaking the waves a bit, there is no wind protection of any kind. We did one dive there, but Urs was once again irresponsible, and just told us there was no current – which turned out to be false.




Alan and I managed to make our way back to the boat against the current, but one group got dragged off a bit, and as it was getting dark, it took a while before anyone spotted them – as it was, a fellow diver was the one to see them – Urs did not have any procedure for keeping a look out for divers.

The next day, the 14th, Urs told us in the morning that he had received word that the weather was going to get worse, and so we had to go back. This was received with mixed feelings by us –mostly I think we were all relieved to go back and finish this very unsuccessful trip – but we were also worried, as the boat was quite small – the smallest boat diving Tubbataha I think, and we were unsure exactly how seaworthy it would be in really rough conditions. Urs assured us that it was safe, although it would be an uncomfortable ride – but clearly, our faith in him was rather dim. We then headed off for what would become a 30 hour marathon nightmare of a sail. The boat being slow at best, took absolutely ages to sail in these conditions. The waves got bigger and bigger – 12-15 meters at the worst times. It started raining violently, I mean, really coming down.

And then, the thunder joined in, with lightning striking near the boat several times. At around 2am the moon set and the night was completely black – this was the worst part of the whole trip, as now we could not even see the waves as they were coming at us. All night and most of the next day, we rode up and down in these huge swells – everyone was scared, including us. Some of the guys decided to wear wetsuits and bcd’s as a safety measure, but to be honest, if the boat had gone down I don’t think we would have had much chance. With the waves as huge as they were, and the distance to any land, we would have been in serious trouble. As it were, the boat was tough, and Urs stayed at the wheel the whole 30 hours, steering us safely up and down the waves. We stayed in our tiny cabin the whole way, and had to wedge ourselves in with arms and legs against the walls and ceiling to avoid being thrown around too much. Still, we ended up with bruises on all parts of our bodies from being knocked about. In the end, a on the afternoon of the 15th, we did see land, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

We later heard from other people who had been out at Tubbataha that one boat had lost an engine and that the passengers there had been evacuated to another, larger boat and taken back. One of the Dutch guys had been asking Urs for three days for him to ask another boat to take him on board, and on the very last day, we were all asking to be transferred for safety. Urs just stated that the boat was fully booked – but we learned back in town that he had never radioed them and asked, or they would have taken us onboard. This made us even angrier, as it was as if he was risking our safety just to save face or something. But, we all met up for dinner in Puerto Princesa, and had some beers, and the consensus was to focus on being lucky to be back in one piece and to be safe. We heard that the Superferry, the large ferries that travel between most Philippine islands, had been stopped and evacuated by helicopter, and that a typhoon had passed to the north of Palawan, which was what caused the bad weather. All in all a very humbling experience, and it has certainly taught us to be more critical of any live aboard boat, and especially when going to somewhere as remote and exposed as Tubbataha.

After this ordeal, we headed for Singapore again, via Manila.

Posted by monkyhands 19:10 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Manila to Puerto Princesa

Filipino cities

semi-overcast 30 °C
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After finishing at Stairway, we headed for Manila again. I had booked a room via email at Friendly’s Guesthouse, but it turned out that the booking had been overlooked or forgotten, and at first they claimed to have no rooms. In the end, it sorted itself out though, as other people checked out of the hotel. We had a bunch of practical things to sort out, so we ran back and forth in the city, in order to get it all done. Not as easy as it sounds, because Manila traffic always slows things down. Anyway, in the end we did get our visas renewed, picked up Alan’s dive computer, bought me a new BCD, and booked a flight to Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

Puerto Princesa is the capital of the province of Palawan, which is one of the more remote areas of the Philippines. The island lies off in the westernmost part of the country, sort of floating off by itself – heading for Borneo you could say. Perhaps due to this geographical position, the island is still remote, covered in jungle, and hard to traverse. It is off many travellers radar – although a growing number of tourists come here for the nature, the diving and the superb beaches. Puerto Princesa itself, as a city, is more relaxed than Manila, and feels more like a small town (well, it is a lot smaller I suppose – it has arpund 160.000 inhabitants, against Manila’s over 14 million). Most of the streets have no sidewalks, and are tree lined. Tricycles ply the streets up and down, all day long. The city has more small shops, rather than the large malls of Manila. Little barbers, roast chicken and lechon stalls line the streets. Not exactly pretty, but a lot more charming in my opinion.



We stayed at a hotel called Moanas, because they had a dive shop on the premises. Needed to do a couple of refresher dives, and test out my new BCD, before heading off for Tubbataha. We did two dives right here in Puerto Princesa bay, and unfortunately they were far from impressive. The first dive had a bit of a current – and the whole group got separated. The divemaster was unable to keep track of anyone, and on top of it all, there was hardly anything to see! Second dive was nicer, in a shallower spot, called Silica I think, with no current at all. The sea floor was covered in soft and hard coral in pretty good condition. However, it was covered in brown silt, and the visibility was very low, which took away from the experience.




Also, the reef would have to be lucky to last much longer, as the boat we were diving from dropped their anchor right into the reef, crushing coral as the boat pulled on the line. Not great style I must say!


On the 8th of May, we were picked up at Moana Hotel for a trip on a liveaboard to Tubbataha Reef.

Posted by monkyhands 16:36 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Stairway Foundation


sunny 31 °C
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From the 1st of April and a month onward, I stayed at the Stairway Foundation and did some volunteer work. Stairway is a learning and resource centre for children's rights located in the village of Aninuan, on the island of Mindoro. The foundation was started, and is still run by, Lars and Monica. They work for children’s rights and to prevent child abuse, through a number of channels:

• Capacity building through networks... development and distribution of materials for education and advocacy, workshops and staff trainings

• Prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse... workshops and trainings for teachers and caregivers, counselling and therapy for survivors

• Service oriented program... recovery and rehabilitation centre offering therapy and education for street children and children with serious health problems, such as tuberculosis

• Children's rights advocacy... international distribution of newsletters, presentations, performances and visits by student groups from the Philippines and abroad

I stayed with them at the centre in Aninuan, Oriental Mindoro. A great place, full of creative spirit and openmindedness.




One particular area of focus at the moment is the production of their third animated film on child abuse. Stairway Foundation has previously produced two very powerful animations that deal with the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation. The award winning Daughter, A Story of Incest and, A Good Boy, A Story of Paedophilia, have both helped to raise consciousness and to break the silence surrounding the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation.



The idea for the animations came from Stairways work with street children. Over a decade of working with marginalized children, they heard some of the most horrendous stories of child abuse, but amongst those stories none were about sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. They looked for a way to get children to talk openly about this sensitive issue without the shame, blame or guilt feelings imposed upon them by a society full of taboos and negative attitudes towards any sex related issue. Using animation, Stairway has found that this form of storytelling relates to children, and can be a powerful tool to address sensitive issues like child sexual abuse and exploitation. Non-threatening and non-intimidating, animation transcends the limits of language and cultural specificity to generate dialogue with young people. They can see their own lives reflected in the story, and they are encouraged to talk and to think about their unique challenges head-on.

Based on the success of the previous two animations, Stairway is currently in the middle of producing a third animation, this time concerning sex trafficking of children and child pornography. It stresses the fact that without the demand for children as sex objects, no child would be ensnared in this most cruel and dehumanizing form of slavery.


My role for the time I spent at Stairway, was to come up with a distribution strategy for this latest animation. Lars and Monica are hoping that this third film will be able to reach even more people than the previous two. I tried to do as much leg work as possible, so that when the film is ready, there will already be a strategy and contact databases ready for its distribution to run as smoothly as possible.

Apart from the animations, Stairway have also produced a theatre piece called Cracked Mirrors, on child sexual abuse. One evening we saw the performance on Stairway’s stage under the stars – and it was so powerful, truly amazing. The actors made you feel like you could see right into their hearts.


Stairway’s compound is located on a tree covered hill, with the various structures spread out. I stayed in my own little hut on a hill.

Just across the road from Stairway is Tamaraw Beach – a lovely stretch of sand. It is much quieter here than the busy Sabang Beach (which actually has no beach) as well as White Beach which is just around the bend from Tamaraw. I was able to relax on the beach after work, and to do some snorkelling just off the beach.



After dropping me off at Stairway, Alan went to a place called North Pandang Island to dive Apo reef, with Jay and Milena. On the way back from there, heading to Cebu, he stopped by Stairway to visit me. He told them he is a plumber, and ended up staying the rest of the time I was here, fixing lots of things for them. So in the end, he actually volunteered as well – really great.


The place that Lars and Monica have built here is really impressive, and not just the actual site here, which is great, but the organisation in general. As I learned more about what they do, I became more and more impressed with their work. Monica has written the scripts for the play Broken Mirrors, as well as for the animations – she is like the creative powerhouse here. And Lars runs most of the practical stuff – a true octopus, keeping all the different areas organised and structured. I learnt that they do outreach work in the prisons here, they have hired a psychologist who visits prisons and has counselling sessions with the kids who are in prison – which quite a lot of children are in the Philippines. In fact, the latest group of boys to come and stay here at the Stairway centre were all from prisons in Manila.

Visit Stairway or Stairway Danmark’s websites to learn more – they are always looking for help, donations, members and volunteers – and I can vouch for the fact that it is definitely a worthy cause for your help.

www.stairwayfoundation.org or www.stairwaydanmark.dk

We met lots of nice people while we were here – one guy, Randi, runs a restaurant on the beach. His dad has been diving here for over 20 years! He lent us some cylinders and we did a shore dive off Aninuan beach. It was not world class or anything, but there were quite a lot of cool little critters.




In the end, April ran out, and we got ready to leave Stairway. We are off to Manila for a few days, and then for a liveaboard in Tubbataha reef – stay tuned for that.

Posted by monkyhands 12:45 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Sabang Beach

Diving and sleazy sex tourism :(

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We went back to Manila for a brief stop, and waited out the Easter rush that would be taking place in all the diving spots. We stayed in a different hotel this time - Friendly’s Guest House - it was great, with wifi and a nice common area with TV and a kitchen. Once Easter was done, we headed for Batangas port and caught the ferry Sabang Beach, on the island of Mindoro, not far south of Manila.

Sabang Beach is not really a beach anymore - the hotels, dive shops, restaurants and girlie bars have built all the way to the water line and more.


The place is brash and busy, with divers, alcoholics or a combination of the two. The many girlie bars and massage parlours add a bit of a seedy feel to it all… All these old, nasty men with their little filipina 'girlfriends' - its just not pretty to watch! Yet, the diving here is easy, and while it is far from the best in the Philippines, it is decent enough to be worth a few days.
We found a cheap hotel on a hill side, and a dive shop willing to do the dives for 18 dollars. And then we spent some relaxing days here, just diving and hanging out. The dives we did at Verde Island were particularly good, with amazing visibility and more fish life. Even the sites closer to Sabang itself had lots of critters to satisfy the cameras, and we enjoyed these few days here.










By the 31st, we were drying out the gear and ready to move on.

Posted by monkyhands 12:31 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Manila to Donsol

Whale fish whale fish!

rain 31 °C
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So, from KL, we flew with Air Asia to Manila in the Philippines. Another busy Asian city, yet with its own Filipino character. The gap between rich and poor here is enormous, and so apparent everywhere. Also, the presence and visibility of guns is different to elsewhere - there are security guards posted at everything from banks to Starbucks, and they all carry guns. Anything from hand guns to huge automatic weapons ( I know nothing of guns, but some of them look like something out of a gangster movie). Quite unnerving. And Manila lacks the otherwise ubiquitous food stalls that are so great about Asia - here you either eat in restaurants, and pay the price, or in American fast food chains, of which they have more kinds that I have seen anywhere else! (Burger King, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Sbarro. Shakey’s, Dunkin Donuts, Pop Eye’s, KFC, Krispy Kreme Donuts to name a few). Another, worse, eyesore here is the obvious sex tourism, with girlie bars on every corner, and old Western men with their young ‘girlfriends’ walking the streets or frequenting bars and restaurants. Horrible, nasty to even look at!
Apart from that, I like Manila - its got a kind of wild edge to it, a feeling that anything could happen, and does. I mean, where else could you imagine there being a bar called the Hobbit House, staffed exclusively by little people - from bartender and waitresses to doorman. And they somehow manage to do it with dignity. Great place. And also, most of the people here are just so nice, polite and helpful.

From Manila, we caught a hellish bus ride down to Donsol. 12 hours on a bus where the seats were so narrow you could barely sit in them, and there was no leg room at all. Donsol is nothing much in itself - a small Filipino village, that used to survive mainly on fishing. But it has one unique feature - from around November to May give or take a month or two, there is a huge gathering of whale sharks off the coast here. You can go out on a boat for the day, and spot them, and then jump in a snorkel with them. We did this last time we were in the Philippines, and we had to come back again. I have never heard of anything like this anywhere else in the world.

Our first day of snorkelling here did not quite live up to our expectations - it had rained for two days straight, and the visibility was so low that the spotters could not see through the water. Besides, it was still raining when we went out, which meant there was no sun to penetrate the surface and show the shadows of the massive creatures. In the end, after spending three hours just sitting on the boat, they did manage to find one, and we had a decent look at him before he decided to take off - but still, with the viz so low, it was hard to see him until you were literally right next to him. Milena was so disappointed she was grumbling the whole evening, and I have to say that I too was a bit down.
After the snorkelling, we went diving one day, in the manta bowl as they call it here. They say there’s a decent chance of seeing manta rays here, and even hammerheads and thresher sharks. We did not see an of these things - except for the threshers, of which we saw lots of heads, all in the fish market in Donsol - so they are obviously here, but for how much longer? Also, in the whale shark season, it is apparently common to spot one of these giant fish on your safety stop. However, we were not so lucky with the diving, we spent three dives merely sitting on the bottom, holding on in the current and seeing little at all. Only on the third dive of the day, and the last, did we get a quick look at a whale shark as we were descending. Not too bad for three dives I guess - whale sharks are quite a treat, no doubt about it - but still, we were not ecstatic with the rest of the dives, and decided to try our luck with the snorkelling rather than dive again the next day. In the meantime, it had cleared up a bit, and we were hoping that a couple of days without rain would mean a better chance of finding the whale sharks.

And we were right, as it turned out. The next two days, we went out on boats snorkelling with the whale sharks. And even though Easter meant that the Donsol whale shark office had cut the trips from the usual six hours to three hours (at the same price), we managed to get some amazing encounters with the beautiful whale sharks. We saw altogether maybe 12 sharks in two days (not a record by far, some people get that in one day), but the encounters were so great, we were blown away! It was better than when we were here three years ago - we got to swim with several of the sharks for many minutes at a time, they were swimming slowly right below the surface, feeding I guess. We could overtake them, swim next to their huge heads, look them in the eye, and even get a good look at their wide, almost smiling mouths. Aaah, amazing nature. The feeling of being next to one of these enormous fishes is so humbling and exhilarating at once. One of them even decided to stick his nose all the way out of the water, and then almost suck on the camera in Alan’s hands, making for a great movie! (Sadly, our guide on the swim decided to mess around, and push the mouth of the shark closed - you see his hand in the movie - not very nice of him!). All in all, Donsol was a great success, what an amazing place!

Unfortunately for this blog, we were way too close to the whale sharks, and the viz was way too shit, to take any pictures - they simply do not come out. Instead, we shot some videos, I have entered a little compilation of the best clips below - check it out!

Posted by monkyhands 20:32 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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