Diving in the Visayas

by Elizabeth

One of the main reasons that we decided to visit the Philippines was the diving.  The country is generally known for its great muck and wreck diving, but also has some nice reefs to explore.  While we were in the Visayas (the islands that make up the central Philippines), we had the opportunity to dive from two different locations, Bohol and Malapascua.

Sadly for the purposes of this blog, we still don’t have an underwater camera.  I enjoy diving without a camera, but it certainly does make it more difficult to record what we’ve seen and how dive sites differ.  I’ve pulled underwater photos from various sources and noted photo credits below.

Diving From Bankas

All of the diving that we did in the Philippines was from traditional boats known as “bankas.”  While these aren’t the worst boats that we’ve dove from, they certainly aren’t my favorite.  Probably only of interest to divers…

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The boats are relatively stable in calm water, but even small waves are felt.  They travel fairly slowly, especially when there are waves, so getting to dive sites further out is very time consuming.  Divers enter the boat from the water via a ladder that is dropped under one of the side pontoon areas.  In calm waters it is fairly easy to reenter the boat, but in rougher waters it can be quite difficult.  Most of the boats had ropes under the pontoon area that you could hold onto, but I felt pretty smacked around when there were waves present.

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The boats vary on their interior setup, with different amounts of seating, gear setup space, shade, and semi-dry tabletop space.  The photos above are from a couple of our larger boats, we also were on some that were much smaller and much more cramped.  Most of the boats do not have sufficient space or the necessary setup for everyone’s BCs and tanks to be set up upright, so assembled gear was often stored piled on the ground until the diver was ready to suit up.  It worked, but created a slower overall entry for the group and some confusion.

Diving Around Bohol — Balicasag Island

Most of the dive shops on Bohol are actually located on the neighboring island of Panglao.  This was an easy motorbike ride for us from Tagbilaran (there’s a bridge) and we limited our dive shop search to those along Alona Beach.  We had heard that the best local dive spot was at nearby Balicasag Island, so we further limited our search to shops that had a boat headed there the next day.  All of the dive shops pretty much offer the same pricing, so we shopped around to find a place that seemed well run and responsive.  We ended up booking a two-tank dive with Alona Divers.  I think that we paid about Php 3500 ($70) each (gear rental was included).

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View of the waters off Balicasag Island.

Our two dives ended up being a bit of a mixed bag.  I wasn’t particularly pleased with our dive master, who basically didn’t point out anything and passed by (without noticing?) some really cool stuff.  Like a large scorpion fish and a couple of turtles.  I mean, who misses the first two turtles of the dive and then decides to point out the third?  I also didn’t find the coral particularly impressive at the sites that we visited.  Much of it was covered in sand from the nearby sandy beaches and therefore wasn’t as full of life as other reefs we’ve dove.  We moved through the sandy areas too quickly to really search for macro.

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Sea turtle munching on the grass on the sandy bottom.  Photo credit: Alona Divers.

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Michael checking out a large school of fish.  Photo credit: Alona Divers.

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Not us.  The water was just warm enough for us to dive without wet suits (26ºC/79ºF), although I got a little chilly on the second dive.  Everyone else thought we were crazy.  Photo credit: Alona Divers.

That said, we saw a ton of turtles and some really large schools of fish.  We were also joined by an older German diver who pointed out some interesting macro finds.  The German did not speak much English, but we gathered that he spends several months a year in the area escaping the German winter.  He seemed somehow associated with the dive shop, but to what extent was unclear.  For our dives, he seemed to be acted as a unofficial secondary DM.  This solved the problem of diving companions’ higher air consumption because it allowed the group to split up so that we could maximize our bottom time. Honestly, I think that the dives might have been a huge disappointment without him.

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Fuzzy photo of the German guy on the left, along with one of the turtles that we spotted on our dive and an example of some of the corals.  Can you spot Michael?  Photo credit: Alona Divers.

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Ready to dive!  Photo credit: Alona Divers.

I’ve probably been spoiled by the awesome diving in Raja Ampat, but I thought that the Balicasag sites were good, but not great, diving spots.  Since we were told that Balicasag was the best local site, and diving is a budget buster for us, we decided to save our money and limited our diving off of Bohol to a single day.

Malapascua — Thresher Sharks and More!

When we spoke with divers about where we should go in the Philippines, they all told us to head to Malapascua.  Why?  Off the coast of the tiny island is an underwater shoal that is a popular cleaning station for thresher sharks.  We ended up doing five dives during our time in Malapascua, splitting our time between Thresher Cove Resort Dive shop (where we stayed the first couple nights) and Devocean Divers (in town).

General notes on diving in Malapascua:  Water temps were a couple degrees colder than Bohol, so we ended up wearing wet suits for the dives.  Prices were generally a bit more expensive than Bohol and less transparent.  Instead of a single fee, the shops tended to have a bunch of different fees for their trips (including a per dive gear rental fee).  It definitely made it tough to do price comparisons and made it important to get full price quotes before the dives (we were quoted a lower price for one of our dives than what they later tried to charge us, however when we pointed out the discrepancy they honored the quoted price).

Hammerhead & Thresher Shark Dives

It seemed like every dive shop on the island offered a 5:30am boat out to Monad Shoal in search of thresher sharks.  The early start is necessary because the sharks primarily visit the shoal in the early morning before the  light gets too bright.  We knew that there was no way we could reliably get to town for an early morning boat, so we looked into the hotel dive shop’s options.  When I heard that they offered an early morning boat to both Monad Shoal to see thresher sharks and to Kemud Shoal to see hammerheads I knew we had to give it a shot.

We started with Kemud Shoal in search of hammerheads.  Because it took over an hour to reach the site our boat left at the ungodly hour of 4:30am.  Our search consisted of swimming into the “blue,” which means that we spent most of the dive in what felt like the open ocean.  The water was a murky brown/green color in every direction that we looked.  It was hard to determine what the visibility was because there was literally nothing to see.  No corals, no fish, and no hammerheads 😦  Ultimately a boring dive (and somewhat short because it was fairly deep at about 25m/82ft), but it was still worth trying for a shot at seeing hammerheads.

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What we did not see.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next up was Monad Shoal.  Because it was our second dive of the day, we arrived after the other dive boats had left and had the site to ourselves.  The thresher sharks come to the area to be cleaned by smaller fish and will often make several laps around the cleaning station.  In order to ensure that the sharks aren’t disturbed, the dive shops have set up artificial rock lines that divers are supposed to kneel behind while they watch the cleanings.  After our bummer first dive, we were relieved when we spotted a shark shortly after descending.  We also saw a couple sharks circling the cleaning station.  It’s amazing how long their tails are!  Unfortunately, the cleaning stations are pretty deep (around 28m/92ft), so we couldn’t stay down for very long.  Still an awesome site though!!

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Divers kneeling at the thresher shark cleaning station.  Photo credit: Johnny Africa.

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Check out that tail!  Photo credit: Devocean Divers

Gato Island

Aside from the popular thresher shark dive, one of the most popular dive spots in Malapascua was Gato Island.  It’s a bit of a boat ride out to the site, so it ends up being an all-day trip for a two-tank dive (especially because shops don’t leave until 10am to accommodate the morning thresher shark dives).

The corals around Gato Island were in nice shape, but the main attraction was that the area is full of life.  We saw multiple cuttlefish, sea horses (normal size, not pygmy), lots of hermit crabs and puffer fish, nudibranchs, and a white tipped reef shark hiding under a rock.  The area is also a breeding ground for banded sea snakes and we saw several swimming around!

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Banded sea snake.  Yep, they’re poisonous.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Our second dive at Gato Island also included a nice swim through where sharks are often spotted, however we didn’t see any in the cave (Michael caught a glimpse of one as he exited).  The sights were definitely crowded, but I guess that’s to be expected since the dive shops all seemed to have similar schedules.

Local Reef

We capped off our time on Malapascua with a single-tank trip out to the local reef (Lonsol).  Our boat was full of divers taking their open water certification courses, so we ended up dropping the other divers in shallow waters before heading out to the reef are we’d be diving.  The site was a mix of sand and small coral/rock collections and wasn’t particularly exciting.  We spotted some blue & orange nuddibranches, a small shark, and a collection of other worms and small fish.  I was glad that we checked out what the local reef looks like, but I wouldn’t bother diving the area again.  I suspect that the area is still recovering from the practice of dynamite and cyanide fishing, and it really couldn’t compete with the diving at Gato Island.

Diving at Malapascua was probably worth it for the thresher sharks alone, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the diving at Gato Island.  We ran into a couple people that had spent two weeks diving from Malapascua, and while I probably wouldn’t have devoted that much time (or money) to the dive sites, I can understand the attraction.  Well worth the trip from Cebu!

[This blog post describes our experience diving off of Bohol and Malapascua, Philippines in February 2017.]

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