Sulu Sea

  • 28 Oct - 03 Nov, 2017
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Panorama

The Sulu Sea is a small sea bordered by Palawan and Sabah to the west and the Visayas and Mindanao to the east. It is bounded by north-eastern Borneo on the southwest, the south-western islands of the Philippines, including Palawan, on the west and northwest, Busuanga and Mindoro on the north, Panay and Negros on the east, and Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago on the southeast. About 490 miles from north to south, and 375 miles east to west, with a surface area of 100,000 square miles, it fills a downfaulted block, in some places almost 18,400 feet deep, the edges of which are seen in the bordering islands. The depth of the sea brings cold, nutrient rich waters to the surface – meaning not only huge numbers of fish, but a huge diversity too.

The sea was long the stronghold of the Sulu Archipelago’s Moro pirates. Punitive campaigns, started by the Spanish in the mid-19th century and terminated by U.S. troops in 1906, broke the power of the Moros. The sea is now extensively used for interisland trade. Fishing is important and marine products include pearls, pearl shells, bêche-de-mer (trepang), shark fins, and turtle eggs.

In the centre of the Sulu Sea, a few atolls rise from unimaginable depths to within a few metres of the surface. These remote atolls, which can only be reached by liveaboard, are home to some truly world-class diving.

The most famous of the area's atolls are known as the Tubbataha Reefs. Tubbataha Reefs National Park has two atolls, which plunge down to 650 fathoms. The shallows of the southern atoll have beautiful coral gardens and a kaleidoscope of colourful reef-life, before dropping off at about 24m into the abyss.

The larger northern atoll is famous above water for its bird-life. Thousands of terns and boobies jostle for space on a tiny islet at the atoll's northern-most point. Underwater, Tubbataha's northern atoll is equally rich in life.

Amos Rock, at the southern tip, is a superb site. Shallow sandy areas are good for finding smaller species, while the wall has huge gorgonians and whip corals. If the current is running, numerous sharks, including grey reef sharks can sometimes be seen here, along with large groupers. Turtles are commonly encountered close-by at South Rock.