Philippines Island Hopping – Diving with a Smile

by Steve Auty


Saturday 21st April 2012.  Thirteen New Horizons divers gathered at Manchester Airport for the long trek via Singapore to the island of Cebu in the Philippines.  Two intrepid pathfinders, Ian Brooks and Steve Watson, had already made the journey the day before with Steve going to visit his father who lives in Cebu and Ian overnighting at the Park Lane Hotel in Cebu City where the rest of us would join him the following day.  Unfortunately, Steve’s dive gear didn’t arrive with him, and spent 24 hours seeing the sights at Changi Airport before being loaded onto the same aeroplane to Cebu as the rest of us.  Cue one very relieved Mr. Watson at Cebu Airport.

The transfer from the airport to our overnight accommodation was in two minibuses – only one of the drivers correctly knew which hotel we were staying at.  Fortunately, the incorrect hotel was only a few minutes from the genuine one, and we were all soon checked in and enjoying San Miguel beers (Filipino brewery, not Spanish, commonly referred to as “SMB”s) in the tropical heat, by the rooftop pool.

Next morning after a good night’s sleep, once again we boarded minibuses for the three hour drive to the northern tip of Cebu where we were to make the short crossing to Malapascua Island, the first diving destination of the trip.  This was our first true taste of Filipino driving techniques and etiquette, and soon had some of the group whimpering and peering through their fingers as the drivers regularly performed the “blind-bend overtake” manoeuvre.  It seemed to work however, and we arrived safely at Ocean Vida Beach and Dive Resort on Malapascua in the early afternoon.  Dive gear was soon unpacked and after a check dive to ensure all was well, we were prepared for the following day when we would start our diving adventures proper with Sea Explorers – motto, “Dive with a Smile”.

The main diving attraction of Malapascua is the Thresher Shark, so each morning for the next three days we were up at 4:30 a.m. and in the water just over an hour later to see these magnificent creatures.  As well as having a distinctively long tail, which can be as long again as its body, threshers also have large eyes which are very sensitive to light, and consequently live in deep water during the day, moving into shallower water to feed at night. 

However, around dawn, they venture to Monad Shoal, which is a cleaning station.  Each morning, we would drop over the top of the reef, descend to about 25 metres, then wedge ourselves in somewhere and wait.  This gave rise to a variety of techniques – lying prone on a sand/coral area, standing upright, or even sitting down to wait.  Dom Newton was particularly adept at the latter two options, and appeared even more relaxed than usual underwater – the only way you could tell he wasn’t asleep was when you saw him changing his camera settings!  The early start was worthwhile and soon forgotten when you caught your first glimpse of one of these beautiful sharks.  After about 25 to 30 minutes, we had to leave them and ascend to the reef top where there was plenty more to see.

The Philippines is a dream destination for photographers, especially for macro stuff.  Everywhere we dived there were colourful nudibranchs varying in size from a few millimetres to a few centimetres, all kinds of tiny shrimp (squat shrimp, 
peacock-tail anemone shrimp, banded boxer shrimp), larger colourful mantis shrimp, cowries, porcelain crabs, hairy “orang-utan” crabs – you name it and it’s probably there.  The things most of us wanted to see though were frogfish (anglerfish), pygmy sea-horses and the mandarin fish “mating dance” – and we weren’t disappointed.  At several locations, the dive guides went straight to frogfish varying in size from tiny white ones with red edges on the pectoral fins (look like painted toe-nails!), to dobbing great black ones which at first glance, even given their size, look like a piece of coral or an anemone.  The same was true of pygmy sea-horses.  The guides must know on which particular gorgonian fan they can find the pygmys, because again, they would take us straight to them even though they are only millimetres long and so well disguised that it is still difficult to see them even when they are being pointed out! But the highlight for a lot of us was to make a twilight/night dive to see the mandarin fish mating.  The best encounter was at Malapascua, where we spent half-an-hour watching these tiny, colourful fish rising up in pairs about half a metre out of the coral rubble, dancing around one another, then spawning before darting back into the safety of the coral head.  Many of those with cameras caught only the empty water where, a fraction of a second beforehand, there had been two of these enchanting little beauties!

After four nights (three days diving) on Malapascua, during which time Steve Watson eventually grasped the concept of the BOGOF on cocktails at Happy Hour, it was time to move on to our second destination of Turtle Bay at Moalboal.  This entailed a marathon six-hour drive from the northern tip of Cebu to the southwest coast of the island, through some beautiful mountain scenery. Unfortunately, most of the road system on Cebu currently appears to be under reconstruction, so it was quite a slow, bumpy, tiring, hot journey.  We only had two nights at Turtle Bay (which is independent and not a Sea Explorers location), so the next day we did two wall dives around Pescadore Island during the day, and another twilight/night mandarin dive – not as good as at Malapascua though. 

The following morning we did one more local dive, then got ready for departure to our third destination of Pura Vida Dive Resort at Dauin on Negros Island.  The transfer was made on the Sea Explorers dive boat which had made the three-hour trip from Dauin to Moalboal to pick us up.  Filipino dive boats are all of a similar construction – a main hull which is quite slender, then two outriggers which are made from bamboo.  This makes the boats very stable, although having said that, the seas were really calm the whole time we were in the Philippines.  One interesting feature is the toilet facilities – usually a roof-less “shed” at the back of the boat, but the “shed” is only about four feet high.  Fine when a gentleman is using it, but not quite so obvious when the ladies are taking advantage!

We were to stay at Pura Vida for four nights (three days’ diving).  Again, this was different diving from the first two places – muck diving!  Three muck dives were made on the first day, where we encountered ghost pipefish, flying gurnard, devil scorpionfish, small cuttlefish, lots of different nudis and a banded sea snake at VERY close quarters!  The second days’ diving was at Apo Island Sanctuary, about an hour away by boat.  Apo Island is characterised by beautiful extensive hard and soft coral gardens – massive lettuce, staghorn and table corals and all the associated reef fish, including one particularly feisty Tomato Anemonefish which bit me twice (fair enough, I had been tormenting it)!  The third days’ diving was muck diving again.

Our last night at Pura Vida was the last time the whole group of fifteen would be together, so we had a group photograph taken that evening with everyone wearing sarongs – very colourful.  The next morning, Thursday 3rd May, we said goodbye to Adrienne, Gerhard and Ian who were returning directly home, a journey which was to take them over 34 hours.  The next group to leave (myself, Eileen, Mo, Rachel, Frank and Dom) still had two more dive destinations to come (plus two days in Singapore), and we left by boat for Cabilao Island off Bohol, only just managing to rescue Dom’s wetsuit from its hanger onshore as the boat was pulling away from the beach! The rest of the group (Brian, Don, Mike, Andrew, Steve W and Laurie) left for varying numbers of nights in Cebu before flying back to Singapore and Manchester.

The transfer from Pura Vida to Cabilao was a bit of an adventure, as we made two dives en-route at Balicasag Island, the half-way point.  The first was a nice relaxed dive where we encountered a huge shoal of trevally, which you could swim right into the middle of and be completely surrounded by fish – incredible experience.  The second was a really fast drift dive, very exhilarating.  Upon surfacing, we transferred to another boat, which took us the rest of the way to Cabilao, where we were to spend three nights (the first two of which were disturbed until the early hours by the local karaoke bar right next-door!) The two days diving from Cabilao were all sheer wall dives after swimming across sand slopes and coral gardens.  Again, plenty of macro stuff including pygmy seahorses, shrimps and nudibranchs.

Our final Philippines destination was Alona Beach Dive Resort on Panglao Island, Bohol.  Again we made two dives en-route from Cabilao, then had two days diving from Panglao, including Balicasag Island again where the very last dive of the trip was a repeat fast drift with the same huge shoal of trevally.  Dom celebrated his 50th birthday while we were at Alona Beach, a fact which he had kept quiet about until a couple of days before.  Needless to say, various surprises were arranged for him right through from breakfast to dinner – I think he enjoyed himself on the quiet. 

Wednesday 9th May, and the six of us transferred by ferry from Tagbilaran City on Bohol to Cebu City, then to Cebu airport and our flight to Singapore.  After two days of sight-seeing in Singapore, sampling cocktails on the roof at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel, and an excellent meal at Blue Ginger (recommended by Andrew Hawkesworth and the six of us too now), we finally arrived home, exhausted, in Manchester on Saturday 12th May after three weeks away. 

The Philippines offers great value for money, good food (Kinilaw highly recommended) and drink (SMB, Red Horse, any cocktail you like to name), but above all some amazing diving.  Sea Explorers’ motto, “Dive with a Smile”, is spot-on!

Steve Auty