Written by Rachel Higgins
Once again 11 intrepid divers set out on an adventure, this time to sample the underwater delights of Southern Leyte & Tubbataha in the Philippines. Following an overnight stay in Cebu, where our group swelled to 20, and 48 hours of travelling by plane, ferry & minibus, we finally arrived, hot and tired but excited, at our home for the next week, the beautiful Sogod Bay. Our dive vessel for the next 5 days was a traditional Banka which transported us in style to the very beautiful and varied dive sites of Southern Leyte, whilst saying hi to some dolphins along the way.
Philippines – Panoan Island
Our first dive day was spent, as always, checking our kit and weights whilst enjoying the sights and marine life of the house reef ‘Max Climax’ which provided us with our first frogfish sighting and the sense that this was going to be a very special place. On day 2 we ventured across the bay to Panoan Island & the reefs of Santa Paz & Napantao. To say we were spoilt is an understatement, the cries on the surface at Santa Paz of ‘Wow that was stunning’ and ‘I could have stayed down there all day’ were (only just) overshadowed a couple of hours later at Napantao, which became the most revisited site the rest of the week. The health and abundance of the corals & sheer volume of fish life was mesmerising. Later that day a few of our group had their first experience of Muck Diving at Marayang. Though some still remained to be won over, we were lucky enough to encounter Flying Gurnards, Snake Eels, Frogfish, Leaf Fish, an Indian Walkman and the rare & elusive Wonderpus.
Philippines – Limasawa Island
The next day saw us heading south across Sogod Bay to Limasawa Island. The highlight (for at least me & Eileen) today was Adrian’s Cove, described to us during our briefing as the Jurassic Park of dive sites. An understatement to say we were stunned by the ancient beauty of this site. With healthy corals that felt millennia old, we surfaced feeling privileged, in awe and surprised that we were allowed to dive such an incredible place. The remainder of the week took us back to Napantao 3 more times, it seems we really couldn’t get enough of the fish soup being served up there. Little Lembeh proved a more popular muck site with the virgin muck divers of the group, offering up Seahorses, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Mimic Octopus & Frogfish.
We were a clumsy & careless bunch that first week…an expensive camera filter, a D4 computer, weight pouches & even a pair of shoes were misplaced temporarily. However, although the shoes turned up, they were a little worse for wear after the local dog population had had their play with them! (Full story available from Keith Chapman).
Next Stop – Tubbataha
After a week in beautiful Leyte we bid our farewell’s to Sogod Bay and began the journey to Puerto Princessa via Cebu to meet up with our boat M/Y Discovery Palawan and set sail to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Tubbataha & Jessie Beazley Reefs in the Sulu Sea.
Palawan, originally a 3 masted schooner built in 1972, is a large and very comfortable vessel with a well thought out dive operation over 2 levels and wonderful guides & crew. During the 12 hour steam out to sea we received a briefing from the conservation team of Tubbataha who explained the importance of this reef system which only heightened our excitement for the possible sightings that lay ahead of us. We were not disappointed!
Philippines – Sightings
Having been spoilt with the colourful reefs, species diversity & macro life of Southern Leyte, at first Tubbataha seemed a little underwhelming, but not for long, after all this place is about the big stuff too! Most dives delivered numerous White Tip Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks cruising along the wall, schooling Jacks, Barracuda and a healthy supply of Turtles. The chatter on the deck of Palawan after each dive was of the Hammerhead sighting or how many Bumphead Parrotfish? Did you see the Silky Shark and the Tiger Shark in the blue? Was that huge ray a Manta? Was it 12 or 20 Juvenile Black Tips?…….& WHALESHARK!!!!! Our group alone had 4 sightings with each getting longer and closer each time. Eventually our last dive day arrived and we had moved on to Jessie Beazley Reef, North of Tubbataha. Our first dive was along a wall which was a kaleidoscope of colour and with a keen eye and a slow pace numerous varieties of nudibranch could be spotted. But no big stuff…until the next and last dive of the trip.
Philippines – Memories
I don’t know how she did it but our dive guide TJ pulled it out the bag and made our final dive of the trip our most memorable. An adolescent male Whaleshark joined us a for 25 minutes (not 20) of the dive, swimming around us visiting each in turn. We couldn’t wipe the smiles of our faces and mine is still there now, it made the journey home much more bearable.
Our final night was spent on the only spit of land at Tubbataha, visiting the Ranger Station which protects the delicate eco system and enjoying a beer whilst watching the most majestic sunset I have ever seen.
Philippines – Tony ‘Sherlock’ Exall
The last week didn’t pass by uneventfully with regards to the disappearance of objects, the biggest being Don’s Scuba gear at Manilla airport which somehow found its way into an elderly Austrian chaps hands until he was tracked down by Tony ‘Sherlock’ Exall and the mystery unravelled.
The biggest thing I lost was a piece of my heart for this beautiful country. In return I have gained some wonderful memories, reacquainted with old friends, made some new ones and gained a love for the Philippines, I will be back!