Archive for May, 2010

Seven Dives at Sogod Bay

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

18 – 24 April 2010, The Philippines

From Moalboal we planned to travel to Padre Burgos, a destination that quickly caught my attention while planning our Philippines itinerary. I’d read that Padre Burgos had excellent diving but was still off the regular tourist circuit. Having thoroughly enjoyed Sugar Beach and Moalboal, and with high expectations for Padre Burgos and our other upcoming stops, we realized that the 21-day visas we were issued on arrival wouldn’t allow us enough time in the Philippines. Instead of traveling directly to Padre Burgos we detoured north to Cebu City to extend our visas. After spending the night in Cebu City we took a taxi to the immigration office, not quite sure what to expect. We’d read that anyone dressed casually would be refused service and that the process could take all day. Fortunately neither proved true; my backpacker business casual¹ looked ridiculous compared to the shorts and sandals worn by other travelers, and we were finished in about an hour. With our 59-day visas in hand, we darted off to the port to catch a fast ferry to Leyte, another large island in the Visayas.

Twelve hours of travel between the ferry, two buses, a jeepney, and a tricycle brought us about a kilometer outside Padre Burgos and to Sogod Bay SCUBA Resort. We had no advance reservation and debated among a couple of resorts² but in hindsight SBSR was a fortunate decision. The restaurant overlooks beautiful turquoise water, the rooms were immaculate, the food was tasty, and everyone we met there was friendly. The only other guest was a South African named Dante. A couple of expatriates occasionally visited SBSR and also accompanied us on many of the dives. To the great benefit of this post, they were prolific underwater photographers and were willing to share their photos.³

Left: riding in a jeepney. This is actually a really poor example, because the jeepney is clean, utilitarian, and uncrowded. In Manila and many other cities the jeepneys belch black smoke, are decorated like circus wagons, and are nearly always packed full of passengers. Right: SBSR, as viewed from the dive boat. The row boat was for moving between the shore and the dive boat.

We did seven incredible dives while at SBSR. Our first two dives were at Napantao, one of several Marine Protected Areas established with the help of the local branch of Coral Cay Conservation, an international organization focused on rain forest and coral reef conservation. Similar to Moalboal, the waters were filled with beautifully colored fish and corals, although swimming alongside a green sea turtle for several minutes was the highlight of our dives at Napantao. During subsequent dives we saw a spotted blue ray, several scorpionfish including countless lionfish, and a titan triggerfish that attacked Pedro the Divemaster when he ventured too close to her eggs.

Left: coral reef at Sogod Bay. Right: green sea turtle with Allison, Dante, and Jason in the background.

Left: blue spotted ray. Right: scorpionfish.

Left: a lionfish, one of many we saw during our dives. Right: titan triggerfish, similar to the one that bit Pedro.

Nudibranches, sometimes referred to as sea slugs, were a recurring topic of conversation among the divers at SBSR. They’ve identified over a hundred unique species in Sogod Bay, with an incredible variety of flamboyant shapes and brilliant colors. We saw several during each of our dives. In addition to the nudibranches, we learned to appreciate other less conspicuous reef creatures that we might have previously overlooked. Pedro’s sharp eyes spotted miniscule translucent shrimp, orangutan crabs, and purple seahorses that were nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding coral. He pointed to a yellow frogfish so well camouflaged that despite staring for several minutes I thought was a piece of coral.

Left: a nudibranch. Right: an appropriately named orangutan crab.

Left: seahorses, well camouflaged in the coral. Right: the frogfish that I couldn’t see.

We dived at Ghost Town, a site just recently discovered. On entering the water the site appeared barren and boring: the sandy bottom is interrupted by only an occasional plant or piece of wood or trash. There is no reef. We followed Pedro and soon came to understand the site’s appeal. We saw ornately decorated pipefish, large seahorses, and melibe nudibranches that feed by extending their oral hoods, similar to how a fisherman casts a net. Pedro coaxed several mimic octopuses out of their hiding places in the sand. Only discovered in 1998, this octopus avoids predators by impersonating other animals, mimicking their likeness and movements. We watched the octopus change its colors to match the sand as it moved across the ocean floor.

Left: ornate ghost pipefish. Right: mimic octopus.

Our best dives yet were in the Philippines, yet Moalboal and Sogod Bay provided only a sample of the underwater environments that the country has to offer. With 7107 islands (7106 at high tide) there are certainly many more great sites, and we hope to come back someday to explore them.

¹ Backpacker business casual = khaki-colored zip-off pants and a white long-sleeve shirt that would never otherwise be worn without the sleeves rolled up, as they’re several inches too short. Later in the day these same khaki-colored zip-off pants proved exceedingly entertaining for a group of locals; apparently in the Philippines it’s unusual to zip the legs off your pants in the middle of a bus station.

² The primary competitor, and our initial first choice, was Peter’s Dive Resort. Accommodation around Padre Burgos was significantly more expensive than most of the other places we stayed in the Philippines, but Peter’s offered a couple of rooms at a lower price point. We later learned that Peter was long gone, the resort was now Filipino owned, and that it now lacked such niceties as edible food, routine maintenance, and annual spraying for cockroaches. Of course much of this information is hearsay, or conjecture based on our experiences at other Filipino owned resorts and hotels. Your mileage may vary.

³ And we really are grateful. Both Clark and Olly provided copies of all of their photos, and without them this post would be pretty lame.

Sardines: More Impressive Outside the Can

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

14 – 17 April 2010, The Philippines

Leaving Sugar Beach behind, we spent the next eleven hours in transit.  In total, we rode on three different buses and one ferry  before finally arriving in Moalboal on the island of Cebu.  Looking back, it was a good thing we didn’t know it was going to take so long to reach our next destination.  If we had known what was in store for us, it would’ve been even harder to summon up the energy to leave behind the tranquility of Sugar Beach.

Although the journey was long and hot, we were entertained by some interesting characters along the way.  On one of the buses, we sat next to a man from Chicago who recently moved to the Philippines to become a vegetable farmer.  Not long after discussing the standard things that all foreigners do when meeting on the other side of the world, he proceeded to ask if the United States Government was still forcing all of its citizens to receive the “swine flu vaccine”.  This comment seemed somewhat random since we hadn’t even told him that I formerly worked in Public Health.  I emphatically told him that the government had never forced anyone to receive the vaccine but he was skeptical.  He then went on to say that H1N1 was fabricated by the pharmaceutical companies and that, to learn more, all we had to do was google “swine flu hoax”.  Not surprisingly, the conversation fizzled out rather quickly and we changed seats as soon as another one opened up.

We finally arrived in Moalboal around 9:00 pm and hired a tricycle driver to take us directly to Panagsama Beach, a scuba diving mecca where nearly every building is a hotel, dive shop or restaurant.  Tired from the 11 hour journey and anxious to eat dinner, we quickly found a decent room.  The room felt a bit cramped due to its small size, but the $11 price tag more than made up for this drawback.  Incidentally, two days later we were forced to re-examine our definition of cramped when a Filipino family of 8 moved into the nearly identical room next door.

Our task for the next morning was straightforward: choose a reputable dive shop and explore some of the underwater world that put Moalboal on the tourist map.  Since diving was one of the primary reasons we chose to visit the Philippines, we were both anxious to get in the water.  After comparing prices, we signed up for a dive with one of the many shops owned by a European expat.  Just a few hours later, we waded out to the dive boat, flippers and mask in tow.  In less than 15 minutes, we reached the dive site and proceeded to squeeze into our wetsuits.  Jumping into the water, we were immediately greeted by a sea snake that was about 4 feet long!  We watched the snake in amazement until it swam away and then followed the dive master, descending along a wall and stopping in a sandy bottom cavern about ten meters down.  It had been over a year since our last dive, so we spent the next ten minutes reviewing the basics.  Once he was  confident in our abilities, we set off to explore the reef. We saw countless small fish, huge sea fans, and the brilliantly colored soft corals for which the Philippines is most known. When we surfaced 40 minutes later, both Jason and I eagerly agreed this was likely the best diving we had ever done.

Excited to take advantage of the top notch diving, we spent four days exploring different dive sites in the area.  Not only was the diving exceptional but peak tourist season had recently ended so we almost always had the sites to ourselves.  This was a welcome change from many of our previous diving experiences.  As always, it is difficult to put into words the underwater life that we saw and, unfortunately, we were unable to take any pictures while diving in Moalboal. The most impressive sight from those four days would have been impossible to capture in a photo anyway.  In the waters around Pescador Island we swam with a massive school of sardines. They moved in unison, at times surrounding us, forming a constantly shifting cavern of fish. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands and filling our entire field of view, we were mesmerized as the sunlight flickered off their bodies. A diver could easily lose his sense of direction and drift off into the depths if he stared too long.

Other than diving, our time in Moalboal was spent reading and writing by the hotel pool.  Each day as we walked down the dirt road from our hotel to the dive shop, we were approached by tricycle drivers offering to take us to nearby beaches or waterfalls.  While we would typically be tempted by their convincing sales pitches, we were perfectly content to spend all of our time at Panagsama Beach.  After all, we had begun to realize just how time-consuming traveling in the Philippines is and we had little desire to subject ourselves to more time in a moving vehicle unless absolutely necessary.

Urgent Birthday Announcement

Monday, May 10th, 2010

A large piece of delicious chocolate cake, purchased for 68¢. would like to announce that today is field team member Jason’s birthday. Now 31, he recently resigned from his stable, well paying career with a bright future to spend a year in the lucrative travel blogging industry. It won’t be long now before the advertising revenue starts rolling in, and soon after will surely be purchased by a giant media corporation for millions of dollars.

On his return to the United States Jason plans to resume his engineering career, again pursuing a position in the medical device industry. His contingency plan is to move into his mother-in-law’s basement and do odd jobs around the house.