Life, camera, action …

Tony Karacsonyi | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 1
A swag of spotfin lionfish at Diver’s Heaven, Balicasag Island.
Tony Karacsonyi travels to the Visayas in the Philippines and discovers a spectacularly diverse range of marine life.

“The sardines arrived last February,” announced Quint Gomez of the Aquaholics Divers at Club Serena, as he stepped aboard the S/Y Philippine Siren as our local dive guide. Feverishly, Quint told us of millions of sardines that had gathered at the Philippines’ Pescador Island, in the Tañon Strait. The sardines, in turn, attracted thresher sharks, which, we were told, use their long whip-like tails to stun the tiny fish.

Quint’s excitement about the sardines was infectious. “In August the feeding thresher sharks were joined by hundreds of spinner dolphins,” he continued, “which also ripped into the tiny fish at Pescador.”

Our adventure started at the Cebu Yacht Club on Mactan Island, in an Irish pub named Magellan’s Landing, where we met a diverse bunch of characters from all over the globe. Our vessel for the 10-day voyage, the Philippine Siren, was a 40m sailing yacht sporting seven ‘Phinisi gaff-rigged’ sails. Handcrafted from ironwood and teak, it is probably one of the most beautiful liveaboard dive vessels in the Philippines.

Marco Santos, of Worldwide Dive and Sail, expanded on Quint’s story. “Last week at Pescador Island, we had thresher sharks, whale sharks, white-tip reef sharks – all on the same dive,” he said. “I was guiding a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, who were a tad scared of sharks. Well, we went down to the safety stop at 5m and I heard them howling underwater. They saw a whale shark glide past – then a thresher shark buzzed them. That was one heck of an introductory dive!”

Perhaps the young divers should not have been so surprised. The Visayas, in the central Philippines, are part of the Coral Triangle, a region that boasts the richest marine environment in the world. Defined by The Nature Conservancy as the ‘global epicentre of marine biodiversity’, the Coral Triangle supports 3000 species of reef fish and 600 species of coral.

This extraordinary biodiversity is caused by the region’s heady mix of water salinity, temperature, habitat area, speciation rates and water flow. The ‘Indonesian Throughflow’, an ocean current which carries the warmer Pacific water to the Indian Ocean through Indonesia, is another contributing factor.

The Coral Triangle covers six countries – the Philippines to the north, Sabah to the south, Papua New Guinea to the east, and Malaysia to the west. Sandwiched in between are Indonesia and East Timor.

Consisting of 7000 islands and covering some 300,000sqkm, there are three main areas in the Philippines. In the north, there is Luzon. In the south, Mindanao, and in between, like a sprinkling of gems, the Visayas – the focus of our 10-day diving trip.

THRESHER ATTACK

So it was with much excitement that we donned our scuba gear with Quint, Lee and Donato and leapt into Pescador’s big, blue marine-protected area. After descending its 50m sheer walls, we found small caves at 15m to 25m to hang out in, and to wait for the threshers to attack – and it wasn’t long before they did.

The sardines had formed into a huge school that hung like a great underwater curtain just off the island. Suddenly, a big thresher shark with a white patch on its face appeared on the ocean side of the sardine curtain. Without warning, the shark came flying through the sardines, whipping its long tail at them. It happened so quickly, in three seconds – literally ‘out of the blue’. Our adrenaline was bubbling! Only Lee Black, our Expedition Leader, managed two shots on his Nikon D300.

Threshers, a pelagic species living in tropical to cold temperate waters worldwide, grow to almost 7.5m. The heaviest shark recorded weighed over 340kg. Threshers are normally a shy shark, and they are not known to be aggressive or dangerous towards divers. They are also shy when they come to the so-called ‘cleaning stations’, like Modad Shoal at Malapascua, where tiny fish are known to pick at the parasites that gather on their pectoral fins and gills. They can still be unpredictable though, and are not too shy when it comes to the occasional close enounter.

PYGMIES GALORE

We next set sail for Cabilao Island, one of the smallest islands in the Visayan Sea, renowned as a ‘place where time stands still’ and a paradise for divers.

Arriving off the coast of Cabilao, we sampled ‘Paradise Wall’, where there are lovely sea fans at 25m. Throughout our dive, scorpion fish, boxer shrimp, snowflake moray eels, vertical-swimming shrimpfish, dainty anthias, dartfish and bigmouth mackerel kept us enthralled. The bigmouth mackerel swim around with their mouths wide open, catching plankton.

At the ‘Lighthouse’ on the north-west tip of Cabilao, a multitude of sea fans and vase sponges decorate the reef, and we watched clown anemone fish, snake eels, porcelain crabs, varicose wart slugs and a squadron of squid. A green turtle was attended by an entourage of remoras, while a school of chevron barracuda kept us under surveillance.

Three bargibanti pygmy seahorses on a pink sea fan were a treat for the photographers. Pygmy seahorses are so extraordinarily small (most measure no more than 2.4cm) and astonishingly well-camouflaged, that they are rarely seen. Cabilao Island, along with Balicasag Island and Moalboal, are known as the best places to see most species of pygmy seahorses.

At Cambaquiz, near Cabilao Island, we marvelled at a pegasus sea moth – a sand-dwelling fish that looks like a chicken carcass. We also saw mushroom coral pipefish and banded pipefish, which sport a fire-red, flag-like tail. There were robust ghost pipefish, which look like a strip of seaweed, as well as frogfish, cuttlefish and anemones.

OCTOPUS’S GARDEN

At ‘Diver’s Heaven’ off Balicasag Island, there are spectacular coral heads covered in crinoids, soft corals and anthias at 20m to 30m. ‘Black Forest’, also a popular dive site, produced schooling rainbow runners, which look like kingfish, plus green turtles, moray eels and a big white frogfish in a white vase sponge.

At ‘Cathedral Wall’ on the southwest side of Balicasag Island, wesawa blue-spotted, ribbon-tail eel, frogfish and more cuttlefish.

Our parting dive at Balicasag Island was a night dive at ‘Diver’s Heaven Top’, where we snapped photos of octopuses, crabs and shrimp. The trick with night diving, we learned, is to wait at least an hour after sunset, so that the night-time critters emerge from their hidey-holes.

In the sand at Sumilon East, we discovered an inimicus devilfish which fanned its yellow butterfly-like pectoral fins. One of our guides, JoJo, got chased by a big triggerfish. Sumilon South produced yellow frogfish. All the while, Mount Kanlaon, the most active volcano in the Philippines, towered in the distance.

MOALBOAL MANIA

We drew closer to Moalboal, a peninsula that extends in the south-western tip of Cebu Island, where whale sharks often pass along the coral walls. There are many dive and beach resorts here, most of which have created marine life sanctuaries that protect some areas from fishing.

At Moalboal, two new guides – Rolly and Joker – joined us from Club Serena. At the Serena dive site, the coral came alive at dusk with mandarin fish. The trick is to settle on the reef as the sun sets and watch the male mandarin fish chase the females. Then, as a pair rise into the water column to release their eggs and sperm, there is a brief time when you can take a shot, without disturbing them. It is a magical moment, enhanced by the vivid green and orange patterns of these fish. Serena also had several warty frogfish, the babies of which have lovely red and white markings, as well as pygmy cuttlefish.

Donatoeco Almansa – ‘Donato’ for short – and fellow guide dive guide, JoJo, pointed out a tribe of tiny slipper lobsters. The Club Serena house reef is a great night dive for ornate ghost pipefish, blue-ringed octopus, decorator crabs, spider crabs, basket stars and warty frogfish, both green and red varieties.

Heading south, we reached Badian Point on Cebu Island, where we photographed yellow clown frogfish, striped catfish, mantis shrimp and baby harlequin sweetlip, which swim and look a bit similar to anemone fish.

CRABBY ORANGUTANS

The Bohol Beach Club was in view at Panglao Island. At Arco Point on the eastern coast, there is an underwater arch at 6m to 25m, which is covered in artistic splashes of yellow sponges, sea fans and soft corals, among which glide magenta dottyback and banded sea krait or sea snake. There were orangutan crabs, orange and hairy, like their namesake. We relished a night dive at Alona Beach, surfacing to the sound of music and the sight of fire breathers and party-goers on shore.

Muck diving is where divers look for critters on a sandy or muddy seafloor. The waters off the small province of Dauin, near Apo Island, are a black sand ‘muck diving’ paradise, where photographers are guaranteed to see ornate ghost pipefish, flamboyant cuttlefish, hairy frogfish, mimic octopus, flying gurnard and seahorses. Pantalan, near Moalboal, is another hotspot for sought-after critters like cockatoo waspfish, inimicus devilfish, mimic octopus and blue-ringed octopus.

For anyone who, like me, marvels at the colour and diversity of the life in our oceans, the Visayas represent an opportunity to see just about the full spectrum, from marauding thresher sharks to fragile and beautiful pygmy seahorses. Don a mask, slip on the wetsuit and slip overboard for your own taste of this spectacular dive destination.

TRIP ESSENTIALS

COST

10-day Visayas trips are priced at approximately €2400.

WHEN TO GO

Best time to dive the Visayas is mainly from June to November. The best time in general for all of the Philippines is from December to April because of the calm conditions, but good diving can be had all year round.

VISAS AND EXCHANGE RATE

Check with the Philippines Consulate

or Tourism Office. $1 AUS = $43.85 PHP (Philippines Pesos)

WHAT TO BRING

Scuba equipment is provided free of charge, with the exception of underwater torches and dive computers, which can be rented for €5 a day. Wetsuits are 3mm shorties, so guests should bring their own 5mm wetsuit if they feel the cold. Water temperatures are, on average, 26-29 degrees Celsius.

SAFETY

At the time of publication, the Australian Government has advised travellers to use a ‘high degree of caution’ when travelling to the Philippines. Additionally, tourists are ‘strongly advised’ not to visit Mindanao. Visit the Australian Government’s smartraveller website for updated information: www.smartraveller.gov.au.


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