Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tubbataha Adventure Day3: South Atoll and Jessie Beazley Reef

It was our third day on board the M/Y Zameridus and we were greeted by a beautiful watercolor sunrise at Tubbataha's South Atoll.

The sky was painted with such beautiful colors that morning 💗

That's Doreen capturing the sunrise at the prow of the boat

Slowly, more of our companions joined us at the prow of the boat. We saw a silhouette of a ray skimming the surface of the water as it fed near our boat. It was exciting seeing a fin or two breach the water's surface from time to time.
   
Lu-Ann, Arne, and me with the lighthouse behind us

We had breakfast and headed out for some birding in South Atoll. As we were getting in the dinghy, the ray appeared quite close to the boat so we sped off to get a closer look. Rocco called out from the Zamerdius, "Maia! Put your GoPro in the water!!" So I grabbed firmly to my (cheap) selfie stick, plunged my Xiao Mi action cam in the water, and pointed it in the general direction of the ray all the time praying I would be able to get some footage of this ray! I had to wait until we got back to the Zamerdius to check if I did get any videos and I was so very lucky that I got an awesome video of a Manta Ray!!! Watch in HD! =)



When the ray swam away, we focused on getting closer to the lighthouse on South Atoll. Tubbataha Reefs' South Atoll has a lighthouse that was built in the 1980's. Currently, the islet is uninhabited and off-limits to humans but the lighthouse is still functioning.

Approaching the lighthouse

The crumbling lighthouse and seawall of  the South Atoll

South Atoll is a nesting place for Red-footed Boobies and Black Noddies, the subspecies of which is only found in the Sulu Sea. There are also small numbers of Brown Boobies and Great Crested Terns. As we approached, there were even some Frigatebirds perched atop the tall tree in front of us! Such prehistoric-looking birds!
  
One of the Frigatebirds on the leftmost perch with some
Brown Boobies and Red-footed Boobies

South Islet still has some trees but are slowly disappearing too
and cannot support the number of birds living on the islet

Red-footed Booby

Black Noddy sitting on its egg (and showing its strange tongue)

We went around the islet, taking in the close-up views of the birds. We were able to observe the Red-footed Boobies and Black Noddies sitting on their nests, most laced with bits of plastic. We even saw some birds come in carrying plastic in their beaks to use as nesting material...
 
Black Noddy on its nest with lots of plastic

Parent Red-footed Booby sits with its chick on its nest with plastic string

We circled around the islet a number of times, and I took the time to really take good looks are the birds I would most likely never see again this well (unless I am blessed enough to get to visit Tubbataha again in the future 🙏)

Handsome Black Noddy
It's really hard to describe how beautiful their coloration is.

Red-footed Booby showing its very red feet

Pair of Black Noddies looking beautiful without even trying

Frigatebird soaring above our small boat
  
We soon said goodbye to the the lighthouse and its birds and headed back to the Zamerdius. We made a quick stop at the Delsan wreck, which ran aground on the South Atoll in the 1970's. Some Brown Boobies and Pacific Reef Egrets were perched on the wreckage and flew off as we approached.
  
Birds on the wreckage
Gawin requested we go around the wreck one more time and as we circled, our boatmen spotted a pod of dolphins nearby! We sped closer to the dolphins and enjoyed another unexpected surprise!
We had some time to go snorkeling before we moved to our last stop, Jessie Beazley Reef. I was even more confident in the water and ventured further from the dinghy. I was rewarded with a sighting of Blacktip Reef Sharks, more turtles, and a big Grey Reef Shark! 😍

That's Ampy, one of the crew on the Zamerdius who led me to the
Grey Reef Shark!

We soon had to get out of the water, get back on the Zamerdius, and head to the Jessie Beazley Reef. Another bonus for me was being "kapitana" for a few minutes when the captains gave me the wheel of the Zamerdius on our way to the Reef.

Another bonus on this trip!

We soon approached the Jessie Beazley Reef which has a small islet made up of broken corals which gets submerged during high tide. It was added to the Park in 2006 which tripled the size of the Park. It was low tide when we got there exposing the islet which had a big number of Great Crested Terns.

Birding in the Jessie Beazley Reef

We just stayed for a few minutes and then started our journey back to Puerto Princesa. It had been an amazing 3 days in Tubbataha, with lots of unexpected sightings and experiences! Sharing the compilation of video clips from the trip below (watch in HD!) =)



Thank you again to Rommel of WILD Expeditions Palawan for organizing this amazing trip!
Thank you to Arne Jensen for being such a fantastic guide!
Thank you to everyone on the trip for the wonderful company!


Friday, May 5, 2017

Tubbataha Adventure Day2: Ranger Station

I woke up refreshed and excited on our second day at sea aboard the M/Y Zamerdius. We were still anchored in Shark Airport in Tubbataha's North Atoll, surrounded by the clear waters of the Sulu Sea. The itinerary the same for the morning: divers head out before breakfast, snorkeling beside the boat, breakfast, then head out to Bird Islet for birding.

I was more confident getting in the water this time and I spent a longer time snorkeling too! Gibo and I were awed by the sight of a HUGE school of fish passing by the boat!

This is a poor photo of the wonderful sight we were treated to!

As I made my way up the boat, I heard Gibo call from the water "Maia! Look!" and look I did! I looked in the direction Gibo was facing and saw a small Blacktip Reef Shark swimming slowly just below us! How cool was that?! As the shark swam further away, I tore myself from the sea and went aboard the boat to have breakfast.

The divers arrived in very high spirits a few minutes after and we learned that they encountered a Whale Shark during their dive! How awesome it must have been! They excitedly shared their experience over breakfast and after, while we were slowly preparing to head out to Bird Islet, there were excited calls from the crew! Whale Shark just beside the boat!!!

Amazing sighting that morning!

I tugged at Arne's elbow towards the side of the boat as he was pouring some creamer into his cup of coffee just in time to see the Whale Shark slowly emerge from the deeper part of the water. It skimmed the water's surface just beside the boat and swam alongside it for a few seconds before circling and going under the boat. It made another appearance before it swam further away from us. THAT left us all exhilarated and in disbelief at our good luck! 

As our excitement subsided, we boarded the dinghy and made our way to Bird Islet. As we passed the sandbar, we spotted the Pacific Reef Egrets and Chinese Egrets together with the small flock of Great Crested Terns.

Dark phase Pacific Reef Egret and Chinese Egret

We approached the Islet and enjoyed the spectacle of birds flying around us and those on the islet. We spotted some Great Crested Terns with eggs on the sand!


Lots of bird activity!

Even point-and-shoot cameras and phone cameras produced awesome
photos from Bird Islet!

Dead center: Great Crested Tern with its egg!

We tried to spot the Masked Booby from the previous day, especially for Rocco and Monique, but sadly the bird did not show. Possibly it was out fishing or in a hidden spot in the Plaza. We had our fill of Bird Islet and bid it farewell. We found our way back to the Zamerdius and headed towards the Ranger Station, still on the North Atoll.

Ruddy Turnstone... they have been observed to break open other birds' eggs
that are on the sand! 😲

Brown Booby


After lunch on the boat, we made our way to the Ranger Station. It was low tide so we had to walk in shallow water to get to the station. It is the only place in Tubbataha where visitors are allowed ashore.

As we approached we spotted some Great Crested Terns
and a Little Tern on the sand
The Ranger Station and their volleyball court

Walking to the station

We logged in our names and met the park rangers. Of course we also went shopping! Too bad their shirts were too big for me, so I just bought pasalubongs: shirts, plushies, and a sticker for me! ;)

Goodies from the Ranger Station!

Completed in 2000, the Ranger Station, located at the southernmost tip of North Atoll, is home to the marine park rangers from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, the Municipality of Cagayancillo, and the Tubbataha Management Office. They stay months at a time stationed at the ranger station. The rangers conduct patrols to make sure that illegal fishing and harvesting of marine life is controlled and stopped. They also have regular cleanups to prevent trash and debris from piling up in the different areas of the park.

The Ranger Station

That's me and Lu-Ann with some of the Park rangers

Gibo and I have been chatting about playing volleyball on the ranger station when we spotted their net and court. We asked some of the Rangers and they gamely agreed to play! I tried my best... but I am most definitely NOT a sports person, as my friends discovered first-hand that day. 😝

Volleyball in Tubbataha!

I look like I actually hit the ball in this photo!
(I didn't!)
Photo by Rommel Cruz

Volleyball team group hug!!!
Photo by Rommel Cruz

We said our goodbyes to the Rangers, took some photos, and headed back to the Zamerdius. We would be re-positioning to the South Atoll next.

Group shot!!! Photo by Rommel Cruz

We made our way to the South Atoll and as we approached, I took the time to setup an "office" on the top deck and write my notes for the day.

My work space with the lighthouse in the horizon

The South Atoll has a lighthouse that was build in the 1980's. 

We anchored in the area as the sun was setting and Arne gave a lecture about the area as we scanned the islet for birds and there were a lot of Noddies and Red-footed Boobies flying back to the islet.

Learning about South Islet from Arne

Soon it was dark and we were being served dinner. Gina shared her delicious chai masala tea (and shared her recipe with me too!!) as an after dinner treat 😍 Relaxed and overflowing with happiness from another wonderful day, I climbed into my bunk bed and went to sleep, excited for what the following day had in store for us.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tubbataha Adventure Day1: North Atoll

I had a number of recurring thoughts during the almost five days I was in the Sulu Sea and one of them was: how on Earth do I begin to describe the wonders of Tubbataha???

Last year, I signed up with my friend Rommel of WILD Expeditions Palawan for their 5-day birdwatching-snorkelling-diving trip to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Sulu Sea. I had one year to save up and prepare for the trip and I was looking forward to it as the months flew by. And, oh did I experience so much more than what I dreamt of!



I met up with birdwatcher friends Lu-Ann, Gina, Hernan with Rocco and Monique at the airport and we arrived in Puerto Princesa mid-morning of Monday. We were picked up and brought to Ellei's Place to meet up with the rest of the group and have lunch. It was off to the port after that!

At 3PM, we boarded the M/Y Zamerdius, which would be our home at sea, and were given an introduction by the staff of the Tubbataha Management Office and by Arne Jensen as well.

That's the M/Y Zamerdius!

Going on-board the M/Y Zamerdius

Watching a video from the Tubbataha Management Office

Arne giving us our first lecture about
Tubbataha

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a World Heritage Site located in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the Municipality of Cagayancillo, Palawan. Covering 97,030 hectares, it is composed of the North Atoll, the South Atoll, and the Jessie Beazley Reef. Those areas we would be visiting throughout the week =)

We met Kymne, the dive master of the M/Y Zamerdius, and he gave us a tour of the yacht and gave us our rooming assignments. I was roomed with Elvira and Chase and we soon made ourselves at home in our cozy cabin.

The prow of the Zamerdius

The galley

The top deck where we would have our meals and also hang out

That's my bunk bed!

That's Chase and Elvira's beds opposite mine =)

After we got settled in our rooms, I took the time to read through some of the articles Arne brought as our mini "library" which included a journal article written by Dean Worcester who first visited Tubbataha in 1910!

We awoke the next day to find the M/Y Zamerdius already anchored in North Atoll. As I went up the deck, Brown Boobies flew overhead and perched on some exposed rocks! I started frantically taking photos not knowing I'd be getting much much better views in a few hours time!

Brown Boobies!

The divers were preparing for their first dive and we were told the rest of us could go snorkelling just around the boat. Did I mention I've never really went snorkelling before? Well, I haven't and I have this thing with fish and their proximity to my skin soooo.... 

The divers on their way for their dive

BUT! I was determined to experience Tubbataha in all its glory so I bravely covered up my skin as much as possible, donned my brothers full-face snorkeling mask, secured my Xiao Mi action cam, and tightened my life vest.

As I dangled my feet in the water for a few minutes, I virtually gave myself a push and then I was in the water! I saw my new friends Gibo, Chase, and Elvira happily swimming away and, as I held on to the life line connected to the boat, I allowed myself to enjoy my first taste of Tubbataha underwater. I didn't spend too much time in the water but I gave myself a pat on the back for actually getting IN!

Yay! I got in the water! AND enjoyed it! ;)

Lots of fish just beside the boat!

When the divers returned, we had breakfast and soon were on the dinghy speeding towards Bird Islet!



As we approached, we stopped by a sandbar which had lots of Great Crested Terns, a couple of black phase Pacific Reef Egrets, and Chinese Egrets! There were also smaller waders: Grey Plover and Grey-tailed Tattlers.

Chinese Egrets

Great Crested Terns and a Pacific Reef Egret

Grey Plover and Grey-tailed Tattler

It was already so amazing but I was about to be amazed some more as we approached Bird Islet! Hundreds of birds swarmed the air and dotted the islet!!!

Approaching Bird Islet
LOTS of birds is an understatement!

It was overwhelming seeing all these birds, mixed up in the air and on the island. I calmed myself down and slowly took in the birds. I got six lifers within minutes of being in Bird Islet!

Black Noddies by the water's edge

Red-footed Boobies (center) with the more numerous Brown Boobies

Red-footed Booby

Male and female Brown Boobies

Brown Booby just above our small boat!!!
  
The whole time I was listening to Arne as he spoke about the birds and the place. I tried to learn how to tell the Black and Brown Noddies apart and also to remember that the Black Noddies prefer to nest on the trees while the Brown Boobies prefer to stay in the central part of the islet, called the Plaza, and the Great Crested Terns preferred the sandy part of the islet. It was a sensory overload but I loved every minute of it!
Birding from the dinghy

We circled Bird Islet and Arne was concentrating on finding the Masked Booby that had been sighted during last year's bird census and also a few weeks earlier. It would be a mega lifer but, with all the lifers I've already seen, it would be a bonus: the cherry on top of the sprinkles on top of the whipped cream on top of the sundae 😍

Arne scanning and scanning

And then, Arne found it. 

Masked Booby, mega lifer of the trip!

The lone Masked Booby stuck its head out of the Plaza and allowed me a couple of documentary shots and a bit more time to observe it. Arne said it had bullied its way into a Brown Booby family, edged out the male, and was helping the female rear a chick in the Plaza.

We returned to the M/Y Zameridus after our mega sighting. We were given nice views of turtles as we made our way around the islet and back to the boat.
Brown Boobies would constantly fly above the dinghy!

Lots of turtles around us!

There was more snorkelling after lunch and we were brought to another location further from the boat. I saw my first shark (which didn't make me panic but I did swim away), my first rays, more turtles, and beautiful fish that afternoon!! 😍

Turtle!

A pair of stingrays under the sand

Snorkeling in the most wonderful place!!!

When we got back to the Zamerdius, I asked Kymne what area we snorkeled in and he said "Oh, Shark Airport." So yeah, I had my first legit snorkeling experience in a place called Shark Airport ;)

Our first day in Tubbataha was simply amazing! And, just like any epic adventure, it was going to get even better! 😁

Bird Islet

To be continued...