Interestingly, most of the islands of the Philippines are arranged in a sinousoidal pattern. Breaking this harmonious pattern are the islands of Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago, in the southwestern part of the country. The body of water enclosed by Palawan, the Sulu Archipelago and Borneo is called the Sulu Sea. Beneath the deep and vast Sulu Sea is an oceanic ridge trending parallel to Palawan and the Sulu archipelago. From these ridges rise some of the world's greatest geologic formations of oceanic atolls and platform reefs. The reefs feature gradually sloping underwater terrain to spectacular vertical walls that drop to thousand meters deep. They offer outcrops of corals and splendid aggregations of large pelagics such as tunas, barracudas, jacks, sharks, mantas and turtles. Reef associated fishes such as snappers, butterflyfishes, damsels and angelfishes and garden eels never cross your path unnoticed due to their sheer number.
The climate in the Sulu Sea area is influenced by the monsoon seasons that prevail over the country. These are the southwest monsoon from June to October and northeast monsoon from December to June. Due to Sulu Sea's geographical location, the diving season is from March to early June. These months coincide with the summer season. Thus, the sea surface is calm, the temperature is comfortable at 28 to 30 C and water visibility of 30 m is not unusual. Strong tidal currents may occasionally be present, bringing with it schools of large pelagics.
Besides the spectacular underwater sceneries, Sulu Sea's atolls and sand cays also offer interesting sights and opportunities for bird photography since the islands are rookeries to hundreds of sea birds -- red-footed boobies, terns and frigates.
Jessie Beazly is a platform reef located at 144 km Southeast of Puerto Princesa City. On the central portion of the reef is a small sand cay that is visible from the surface only during low tide.
This reef has wide reef flats that slope down to the crest with depths between 10 to 15 m, depending on the tide level. From these depths, the reef forms a vertical wall or overhang that stretches down to thousand of meters deep. Generally, the reef slope is covered with stony corals. Along the wall, the coral formation start to form a thin veneer, and sponges and gorgonians become prominent.
Fish life is diverse. Schools of pelagics like dog-tooth tunas, mackerels, jacks, barracudas are often encountered along the slope and wall. Different species of reef sharks -- whitetip, blacktip, gray reef sharks, are common while occasional sightings of leopard shark and schooling hammerhead sharks have been reported.
Tubbataha is 192 km Southeast of Puerto Princesa City. Tubbataha is a muslim word that means "long stretch of foreshore." Probably the largest formation of coral atoll in the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha Reef has an approximate area of 33,200 hectares and is made up of the North and South Atolls that are separated by an 8-km wide channel. Bird Island, a renowned rookery of seabirds together with a small lagoon, forms part of the North Atoll. The other reef, known as the South Atoll has a lighthouse and a so called Black Rock as its most prominent features.
The two reefs support colonies of seabirds but below the water where the real beauty of Tubbataha lies can be found extreme diversity of marine flora and fauna. It has rich coral reefs where many of the 400 species of Philippine corals are found. Commonly encountered marine life are large fishes such as mantas, eagle rays, stingrays and several species of sharks. Schools of pelagic tunas, mackerels, jacks and others are often found coasting near or over deep reef flats. Hawksbill and green sea turtle are also frequently seen in the area.
Due to its unique characteristics, Tubbataha was declared as a national marine park in 1988 and is now protected by the government and a non-government organization.
Basterra offers blue water diving. With the top as huge as a football field, this platform reef features vertical walls that drop to thousands of meters deep.
Probably the best dive site discovered so far in the Sulu Sea, during the dive, divers have close encounters with a lot of medium to large sized (at least two meters long) reef sharks cruising along the 10 to 20 m contour of the reef slope. A sandy slope where several sharks are often observed resting is fondly called by divers as "shark airport." On almost all the sandy slopes around the reef, you will find large colonies of garden eel. At the south side of the reef large schools of resident barracudas, black snappers, yellowfin tunas and jacks are frequently encountered. If lucky enough the "great grandfather" of all mantas might be chanced upon on the northeastern section of the reef. According to divers who have seen it, the manta has a wing span of about 5 to 6 m. Besides its huge size, the other distinguishing mark is a piece of rope wrapped around its body.
The last leg of the Sulu Sea dive tour is another oceanic atoll island that has an approximate area of five hectares. Adjacent to this island is a barren sand cay, which over the years, may link-up with the main cay to form a larger area. Presently, vegetation covers the main cay that serves as nesting and roosting ground to several species of seabirds. Marine turtles nest on its sandy beaches.
Underwater, on the North to the north-eastern sections of the reef is a white sandy slope lined with beautiful corals. Swimming slowly will afford you a gratifying sight of the corals. If there is a slight current, hover and drift with the current and watch for the passing schools of coastal pelagics such as barracudas and jacks. Large aggregations of bannerfish have also been observed on this side of the reef. Swimming close to the bottom, under cracks and crevices, divers find spiny lobsters, juvenile turtles and large groupers and sweetlips.
On the south side of the reef is a steep slope where large fishes -- mantas, whitetip and blacktip reef shark and bull shark can be found. The slope levels off to a sandy bottom at 50 m. The reef is thickly covered with a diverse formation of live stony corals, structured to provide good shelter for lobsters and turtles. It is not uncommon during a dive to encounter numerous swimming or resting turtles.
On the northern slope is an ideal site for night diving and fish photography. Here, at a depth of 6 m lies the wreck of a fishing boat where divers can observe parrotfishes sleeping at night in a cocoon of mucous.
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