Dive live-aboard from hell
09.05.2008 - 17.05.2008 29 °C
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.