Unbiased Scuba Vacation Reviews

Tubbataha

Tubbatha is a remote reef that is only reached by live aboards during the calm months of winter/spring. Its remoteness makes it very pristine and beautiful. You will see large critters such as sharks, whale sharks and turtles up close. The reef is extremely healthy with large amounts of old growth coral

Tubbataha with the Expedition Fleet’s Stella Maris May 2014

Tubbataha Reef Aboard the Stella Maris/Expedition Fleet

May 2014

The Stella Maris/ Expedition Fleet is under new ownership and has undergone a major refit.  The past bad reviews of this live aboard should be disregarded and you should add this boat to your list of potential vessels for a scuba live aboard trip to Tubbataha! The Stella Maris is still under the Expedition Fleet name, which may or may not change.  Regardless, new owner, refreshed boat with the refit and it has decent prices and availability.  If you are thinking about diving Tubbataha (and you should!)  you should consider taking Expedition Fleet, the Stella Maris as it is a great value. The Stella Maris departs for Tubbataha from Puerto Princesa on the Island of Palawan.  Most travelers will find it more relaxing to spend at least one night in Puerto Princesa to avoid the chance of a flight delay or cancellation into Puerto Princesa.  It will also give you a chance to visit the underground river which is one of the major tourist attractions in the area.  Please note that the Stella Maris is scheduled to depart at 6 PM, but it actually departs closer to 8 PM and on our trip they did wait for delayed flights to arrive. We spent 2 nights at the Microtel resort in Palawan which allowed us to unwind and de-jet lag.  The Microtel was to our surprise, very nice.  It is the only hotel in Puerto Princesa that has a beach. _RAC1897 CIMG7601There are reviews of the microtel stating that they do not have a beach and they only have mangroves is only partially true.  At low tide the best goes out 100 meters.  At high tide there is only about 10 meters of beach. It is very unique beach and I would consider it a pretty beach…. The Microtel has a nice pool and considering it is a Microtel, they have decent sized rooms that are very clean. The Microtel is a bit out of town, so  your only real option is eating at the hotel restaurant.  We did not find the food at the restaurant to be that good. The hotel does have a shuttle bus that will take you to a local mall which has a about 6 restaurants to choose from.  The space on the shuttle is limited and it is recommended to make reservations CIMG7602 CIMG7661                       We did choose to do the underground river tour.  It is a bit over hyped, but it is a good way to kill a day in Palawan.  The van trip takes about 2 hours and this puts at the boat taxi location.  You will have to wait your turn to board the boat taxi.   This can take up to several hours.  The boat taxi area is hot and you should stay with your group as when the boat leaves, it is the only way to the underground river.  You are assigned to one specific taxi boat.  It is your trip to and from the Underground River area.           Once the taxi gets you to the Underground River area it is a short walk to the Underground River where you will wait for your canoe to give you the Tour.  You will see lots of monkeys.  They are very cute and you can get very close, but you are warned repeatedly by the tour guides to guard plastic bags.  These monkeys will snatch a plastic bag out of your hand in a 1/100 of a second. What ever is in that bag is gone forever.  Be warned.  Camera, phones, food etc will be stolen by the monkeys. CIMG7605     The Underground river is toured via a canoe and it is a cave with a river…..big surprise here.  Nothing spectacular, but it is worth seeing as you get to see the mountains of Palawan and another area.  The Monkeys are also quite entertaining as long as they don’t steal from you.

The Stella Maris and Expedition Fleet

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Stella Maris Tubbataha.

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Stella Maris Tubbataha.

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Stella Maris Tubbataha top deck

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Stella Maris Tubbataha.

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Room on Stella Maris Tubbataha.

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Bed on Stella Maris Tubbataha.

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bathroom on Stella Maris Tubbataha.

The Stella Maris has received some terrible reviews over the past couple of years.  This was with a previous owner and much has changed since then.  Lawrence is the new owner and you will most likely be dealing directly with him as you are making reservations, deposits and other payments.  Currently the company is keeping the Expedition Fleet name, but that may change.  His current company is Island Republic and this is who the payments are made to.  For me it was a bit uncomfortable making payments to Lawrence at Island Republic when making reservations for Expedition Fleet.  But this is legit and it may change.                       The boat is very large in deck space as compared to other liveaboards.  The length may be similar, but it has many decks which is good and bad.  The many decks allows you to spread out and this makes the boat free much bigger as it is easy to find a somewhat private spot, but it does require lots of walking up and down stairs to get to the various levels.  The most popular spots are the large covered deck above the bridge and the saloon.  There is also a small deck behind the two stern rooms above the dive deck and a large area on the bow with a hot tub (no one used this area and the hot tub did not have water in it, not sure if it was functioning or not), not that a hot tub is really needed in the heat of the Philippines. The Saloon area was a bit cramped during meals, but I find this to be true on most live a boards.  The food was buffet style and it was excellent! We stayed in Room B3 which is the largest and nicest of all of the rooms.  The bathroom in B3 was very spacious.  All rooms had their own AC unit (brand new). On our last day we toured the other rooms and by far B3 was the nicest.  Most of the other rooms are much smaller and the bathroom was a bit cramped.  All rooms had the lime green paint with metallic satin sheets.  All decorated very modern and each had a flat LCD TV with DVD player.                       There was a camera charging area on the lower deck.  It was not convenient unless you needed 4 plugs or more to charge your equipment.  Our room had 2 plugs which was more than enough for me to charge my strobes. The crew was very safety oriented and this proved to be true.  On the first nights crossing from Puerto Princesa to Tubbataha, they had problems with one of the transmissions and they made the decision to return to port.  They quickly notified us as to what was happening and what they were doing.  Very professional and they made the correct choice.  The following day they gave us the choice of diving locally or going to the Underground River.  About half chose the river and the other half dove.  Local diving was muck with some interesting critters…. during this time the faulty switch was repaired, the boat was inspected by the coast guard, it was tested and we departed for Tubbataha.  Once again, they made all of the right decisions and kept us informed.  Impressed by their professionalism during this time

Diving from the Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Whale Sharks Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Macro Life Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Macro Life Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Macro Life Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

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Macro Life Diving Tubbataha Reef with Stella Maris

All diving is from 2 tenders.  The group is split into 2 groups who are assigned to either the port or starboard tender.  All of the gear is loaded into the boat for you and you gear up at the site and back roll in.  Very easy as the tenders are quite spacious for 8-10 people.  Most of the dives are drift dives along a wall.  Scuba Diving from the Stella Maris is easy and relaxed.  Currents can be strong, but these are drift dives so there is no reason to stress out about the current.  Most of the dives were 80 foot max or less. The reefs in Tubbataha are some of the healthiest I have seen.  There are huge areas of acropora coral and other hard corals with thousands of small colorful anthias, wrasses and damelsfish.  Lots of life in the shallows.   Crossing over the wall was more typical wall diving with sponges, sea whips and the occasional whale shark swimming by a few feet way!           We had whale shark sightings on at least 3 dives.  The sharks seemed to ignore the fact there were divers in the water and they would swim right up  to you.         There was some soft coral, but not much.  The reef had lots of coral, but the colors were mostly browns and tans with occasional blue, and purple Acropora                 There were occasional large schools of barracudas jacks and other fishes                 The only negative I can say is the dive master spent most of his time looking for sharks and whale sharks (which are very hard to miss) and very little time pointing out the smaller life.  Tubbataha is not known as a macro site, but it does have some good macro subjects.  I wished the dive masters would have spent a little time looking for and pointing out the small critters!                         There are some good nudibranch, decorator crabs and other small critters too                             Overall the experience on the Stella Maris/Expedition Fleet trip to Tubbataha was excellent and I highly recommend it.