I have dived many sites in Thailand and the Philippines, some of them multiple times. But I was totally blown away with Tubbataha! The variety of species and number of fish and sharks was, by far, the highest I've ever seen. Each dive was fantastic with it's own surprises and challenges.
We came to see the mantas, hammerheads and whale sharks and we were very unlucky - none of them appeared on our liveaboard trip but all of them, and more, appeared in the trips after ours. Even without the "big boys", Tubbataha was fantastic!
I won't say any more about Tubbataha (other than it's a must see for any diver!) since its accolades and praises have been listed by many others, many times.
I would, however, like to discuss the liveaboards to Tubbataha. We went with M/Y Sakura for several reasons - they had good reviews, they are about the cheapest operator to Tubbataha (by far!), and they answered all my questions - not with some prefab generic email, but specific and honest answers to very specific quesitons. And their answers were pretty fast, certainly faster than any other operator. This spoke to the level of service that everyone had written about, particularly about Dino, the boat owner.
I can tell you (from seeing some of the operators boats near ours while at Tubbataha) that others have bigger, fancier boats. And their smaller boats for getting divers to and from the dive sites were generally faster than ours. I cannot discuss with any authority their level of service or dedication to the guest experience (not having travelled with them) but I can tell you this - even with those advantages, I would UNQUESTIONABLY go with M/Y Sakura again next time! We all shared the same waters and dive sites so is it worth it to pay 2-3 times the price for slightly faster feeder boats and probably fancier cabins? Not a chance! Primarily because our cabin was essentially used as a glorified store room (in the way we used it, or rather chose not to use it, not because it was particularly lacking anything). Very few of the guests actually slept in their cabins - why would you when the open deck offers fresh air, a gentle breeze and magnificent views of the night sky from one end of the Milky Way to the other, undisturbed by city lights to hide most of the stars?
So, since we didn't use our cabin much for anything beyond keeping our possessions dry and charging batteries for the camera, what DID we pay for? Obviously, there are the direct costs - fuel and food, and the time and work invested by the crew and dive masters. I believe that all the boats operating trips to Tubbataha have approximately the same costs in this area. But what really separates M/Y Sakura from the others is their extreme dedication to ensuring that you have the best time possible. Their ATTITUDE is what separates them from the others. They didn't just deliver what they promised - they never missed an opportunity to actively seek out ways to improve our experience with them. (I say experience with them, not just our trip with them because, for them, that starts before you even arrive in Puerto Princessa and ends long after your trip with them ends.) Dino went to great lengths and efforts to try help us get the extended trip to the Underground River long before we arrived, he and Let came to introduce themselves to us at our hotel long before we were due to sail with them. They met us several times and did everything humanly possible to help us, even with things totally unrelated to our cuise with them and which they were under no obligation whatsoever to spend their time on, and for which they got no benefit at all. It's just who they are - two of the most amazingly wonderful and generous people you will ever meet, who are utterly dedicated to helping others and giving of themselves so others will have life a little easier. They ran around treating each guest with the utmost concern and care, helping in all sorts of ways that I have never seen any other operator anywhere do.
And if you think that this is just a review to sing the praises of Dino and Let, let me assure you that the dive instructors and boat crew made every effort too. The insructors got to know us all personally, and helped each person with with diving skills. They changed the sites we dived in real time, based on the current conditions (I've been with others who insisted on diving the planned route, even when mantas were seen just a couple hundred meters away!), they helped in every way they could. The boat crew were always around, quietly in the background making sure that everything ran smoothly, and that we were all as comfortable as possible. If they saw someone about to walk on a hot deck, they ran to splash water on it just so we wouldn't burn our feet. Even if someone was untying the shades to let them roll down, or tying them up to stop them blowing at someone, they ran to do it for us, just to save us a few seconds of inconvenience that we wouldn't have minded or noticed.
There is one negative review out there about M/Y Sakura. Because I had planned my trip far enough in advance, I had the time to email them and ask for their specific complaints. I won't address each one individually but I can tell you that the reality totally disproved every word she wrote! I wasn't on her trip so I can't comment on some specific events she referred to but her general description of conditions on M/Y Sakura are definitely false! And I find it hard to believe the events she described as ever having occurred. Since hers is the ONLY bad review among so many great reviews of the boat and staff, you be the judge - even better - do a trip with them and judge for yourself. I guarantee that you won't only not be disappointed, you will be just as impressed as we all were with them! They are simply FANTASTIC operators.
The only problem with having such a wonderful experience is having to leave it and return to our regular lives afterwards! I know that everyone on our trip would be back on M/Y Sakura with their crew and staff in a heartbeat if we only could! The little personal touches that they added more than makes up for any level of luxury that the bigger boats may offer. What one cannot buy is caring and quality, two things the M/Y Sakura team excel at many times a day.
It's an experience my girlfriend and I will always cherish and already we're trying to figure out just how we can afford the time and money to get back there - back to Tubbataha for the incredible diving, back to M/Y Sakura for the wonderful time in and out the water, and back to Dino and Let who we see more as family than people we did business with.
My recommendation is obviously to travel with M/Y Sakura - you won't find better value for money anywhere - TUbbataha or elsewhere. My only request is to leave enough room for us too when we're lucky enough to get back there!
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