Catastrophic Liveaboard to Tubbataha
It already started one week before the departing date when the manager of the boat contacted me asking me to reschedule my flight back home (departing 6 hours after the estimated arrival time back to Puerto Princessa), as due to unusually bad weather conditions the boat would probably not make it back on time. They did not seem to have much understanding that a last minute rescheduling of a 20 hours flight would probably cost over 1000 USD and rather blamed me for not having booked a later flight.
The troubles continued when on the departing day we were supposed to leave at 6pm, but ended up leaving at 2am. The delay was due to a broken engine of the speedboat and the owner kept telling us the problem would be solved within half an hour. The engine had broken down the previous day, but apparently they had only tried to repair it at the last minute. We ended up with another speed boat that was not really suited for diving and could not carry more than 5 divers.
The next morning we were informed by our divemaster that due to the delay and bad weather conditions we would only reach Tubbataha at 8pm and lose a whole day of diving. This seemed a joke to all of us, as there was hardly any wind and the sea was flat, no sight of real “bad weather”. It turned out that we were travelling at an average speed of 4 knots the entire time, which according to the crew was the maximal speed possible (according to liveabord.com the max speed of the boat is 22 knots!). This was the real reason that our journey took 20 hours instead of the usual 10-12 hours and not the weather. Most other problems on the boat were only made transparent after being pushed or questioning several crew members.
On the journey we also discovered that our two “very experienced” guides had not dived for the last two years and that one of them had never been to Tubbataha. The other one had been there once in 2009 as a guest, so I would not qualify that as experienced and they did not really act as guide during the diving, discovering the sites with us. Their lack of local knowledge showed during the briefings and the planning of the diving. They also did not really have a concrete diving plan for the next few days and we passengers ended up drafting with them in order to have the slightest idea what to expect. Tubbataha has around 20 dive sites and covers a huge area, but again due to “bad weather” (not really existing) we ended up spending two of our 4 diving days more or less at the same place (Amos Rock), while the majority of other boats seemed to be in far more interesting spots. Apparently they could be there as their engine was powerful enough not having to stay moored during the night, while we had to stay in sheltered places. Therefore we completely missed out on all the famous dive sites like “Washing Machine”, “Shark Airport” and “Black Rock”. Only after several arguments between the passenger and the crew, on our 3rd day we traveled to the South Atoll, where we encountered slight current and some waves. For every other liveaboard I took this would not have been a problem, but with the weak engine and instability of the boat diving became a risky task. Therefore, as soon as the weather conditions were not perfect the boat seemed to have problems. Given that Tubbataha is in the open sea, 100 miles away from shore and you can’t expect perfect conditions the whole time, this boat is unsuited for this trip and is a liability for every passenger.
Although the crew was friendly and wanting to help, there was a lack of overall awareness of what a good liveaboard normally provides, including a real structure as already described. I was aware that booking a low budget trip I could not expect luxury, but I had not expected this. The boat features very basic facilities and the slightest waves rock the boat quite strongly, making the walking around unsafe. There are not many places to rest and the upper sundeck was often used by the crew to sleep, as apparently their cabin was even smaller than ours. The food was very basic and did not vary much. As a vegetarian I had informed the boat about my dietary requirements a month in advance and was therefore surprised when on our first dinner they served me a fish soup and had only meat for the main course. They seemed absolutely unprepared and unaware of my requirements. Although for the rest of the trip they provided me with vegetarian alternatives and tried to do their best, I hardly got anything else than rice and the same overcooked vegetables.
In order to make it back on time to Puerto Princessa and try to have as many dives as possible on the last day, the passengers drafted a diving plan allowing enough margin for unforeseen “bad weather” and the crew agreed to it. However, there was again “unforeseen” troubles with the boat and we departed towards our last stop “Jessie Beazly” with a delay of 40 min. Bad logistics between the boat and the dive sites made us lose additional time and we ended up with only two dives instead of 4. After the second dive we were rushed back to the boat where the captain announced that due to the “bad weather” we would have a journey back of at least 24 hours and that we had to leave immediately, in the end we reached Puerto Princessa after 15 hours. It is incomprehensible to me how a supposedly experienced captain can miscalculate so many times, but at least we made it back on time and I did not miss my flight!
Before we left we had a long discussion with the tour operator and owner, Dirk, who halfheartedly apologized and told us all the problems we had were due to unexpected events, which had never occurred in the past (not true according to several negative reviews). As of the promised 18 dives we ended up only with 14, it was agreed that we would receive a reimbursement of 20%. This reimbursement did not contain compensation for missed out spots/sightings due to the lack of local knowledge of the guides/crew. Two weeks after the trip I’m still waiting for Dirk to send me the money.
In Summary, I would recommend a trip to Tubbataha, but definitely not with this boat as from my point of view it is not suitable for the open sea at all!