Posts Tagged ‘Favorites’

Swimming With Giants

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

22 April 2010, The Philippines

In addition to beaches and diving, another goal for our tour through the Philippines was to swim with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world’s largest living fish, sometimes exceeding ten meters in length. Their name may conjure up images of Captain Ahab or a 70s era Roy Schneider and their respective fearsome foes, but whale sharks eat mostly plankton and are not dangerous. They can be found in warm waters throughout the world, and in the Philippines many tourists travel to Donsol to see them. We planned to incorporate Donsol into our Philippines itinerary, but read that whale sharks are also occasionally seen at Padre Burgos. Donsol became a contingency plan; if we didn’t see whale sharks in Padre Burgos, we could still travel to Donsol where we were nearly guaranteed to see them. The downside of Donsol was that we were also guaranteed to see an armada of boats and hoards of other tourists.

We arrived at Sogod Bay Scuba Resort and quickly learned that we’d been misinformed about the whale shark situation. Whale sharks weren’t occasionally seen, rather they’d been seen during each one of SBSR’s 40 trips so far this season. We were eager to see them with our own eyes, but by the time we arrived the boat had already departed for the day.

Two days and several excellent dives later we traveled about ten kilometers to Limasawa Island, where the whale sharks had been making consistent appearances this season. As we approached the island the crew slowed the boat and began scanning the water. After only a few minutes they spotted a whale shark and we hurriedly readied our snorkeling gear as they maneuvered the boat closer. We jumped into the water and found ourselves floating only a couple of meters above the largest living creature I’ve ever seen. The whale shark was around five meters long with bluish-gray skin and hundreds of bright white spots. We swam with the shark for about ten minutes before it dived too deep to follow. After climbing aboard the boat we waited less than five minutes before spotting another shark and jumping back in the water. Over the next two and a half hours we had ten sightings, with about six or seven unique whale sharks.

Seeing the whale sharks was one of the most unique and exhilarating experiences either of us have ever had. We were also very fortunate with our location and timing. Our boat was alone in the water, and Allison and I were the only actual tourists aboard. We were joined by Pedro, the divemaster from SBSR, as well as Clark and Olly, the two expats who accompanied us on our dives and shared their underwater photos. With an earlier or later trip we might have been knocking elbows with other tourists and Clark and Olly probably wouldn’t have come along to snap photos. Swimming with the whale sharks will almost certainly be a highlight of our trip around the world.

Check out more whale shark photos in the Gallery.

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.