Monthly Archives: April 2017

Malapascua-Part Two

Gato Island is one of my favorites when I visit Malapascua. It’s about 45 minutes by boat from Evolution. It’s a day trip. After the first dive, lunch is served. After lunch there is a second dive, then return to the dive shop. It’s a protected breeding area for the sea krait (sea snake) and I’ve seen them on a regular basis. It’s a great spot for nudibranchs, ornate ghost pipefish, and frogfish, as well as white tip reef sharks. One dive will normally include the “Tunnel” where you enter on the northeast side of the island and exit on the west side. I’ve often seen sharks in the tunnel on the west side. This is “technically” a cavern dive. You’re diving in an overhead environment, but you never completely lose light from one opening or the other. It’s relatively safe as the chance of a silt-out is nil and you can’t get lost. It is quite dark in the middle so a light is a necessity!

Our guide for this dive was Gino. When I returned to diving in 2014 after a break of almost 4 years (I was working in the middle east for a big chunk of that), I made a trip to Malapascua Island and stayed a week. Gino was my guide for almost every dive that week and took very good care of me. It was Gino who spotted a warty frogfish on a night dive that was maybe an inch and a half big. On another night dive he pointed out a tiny juvenile bobtail squid smaller than my fingernail! He is an amazing spotter!

As with Monad, everyone starts gearing up as we approach so that as soon as we arrive, we can jump in. It was just Gino, myself, and one other diver. My dive started at 10:50 AM. We started through the tunnel and right near the entrance I spotted an anemonecrab. Crabs are quite common in the tunnel. Not unexpectedly, as we exited the tunnel, there was a white tip reef shark, actively moving about.

A white tip reef shark swims around near the exit to the tunnel at Gato Island.

There are a number of swim-through’s we passed through as we made our way around. I photographed a cowrie with it’s mantle partially extruded, then a banded boxer coral shrimp under an overhang. Then we came upon three cuttlefish. We stopped and observed them for a few minutes. I took a few photos and then switched to video. Perhaps it was two males and a female? As I was videoing, one cuttlefish appeared to violently go after the other one. I reflexively tightened my grip on my housing and my thumb stopped the video! The one cuttlefish decided to depart the area and the attacking one came back. We looked at each other and shrugged, that was interesting.. then continued with our dive.

Cuttlefish at Gato Island.

It was a very nice dive. Gino spotted an ornate ghost pipefish near a crinoid, I found a couple of nudibranchs, and a pufferfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, more nudibranchs. I would end up photographing 8 different species of nudibranchs at Gato! This first dive at Gato ended up being 58 minutes with a maximum depth of 64 feet and a water temperature of 77F. Very nice dive!

Scorpionfish at Gato Island.

For lunch we had chicken with a nice curry sauce, vegetables and rice. There were bananas for dessert. Lunch out of the way we waited until we’d had an hour surface interval, then started gearing up for the second dive. We started our 2nd dive at 1:07 PM. The second dive was more of the first. More nudibranchs, pipefish, lionfish, an octopus, hermit crab, a seahorse, and a nice frogfish. Another white tip reef shark, this one sleeping. Dive time was 50 minutes with a maximum depth of 72 feet. Water temperature was again 77F.

As we were getting back to the boat, my buddy who we were diving with told me he was sorry he’d dropped the light I’d loaned him just before the dive. He was very apologetic and said he’d buy me a new light. I told him not to worry about it as these things happen. Gino said he’d go back and look for it. We were both saying there was no way he would find it. By the time Gino’s head popped up we were already back on the boat and had our gear off. I was standing at the bow as Gino swam back. As he approached the boat, I said, “didn’t find it did you?”. His response was to hold up the light! The ability of Filipino dive guides continues to amaze me even after all these years!

Once everyone was back on-board we got underway back to Malapascua Island. We were back before 3:30. I had brought all my chargers with me that morning and left them in the office at Evolution. As soon as we were back, I gave everything a quick rinse and then dried it off and started pulling batteries. I wanted to allow them to charge as long as possible before heading out for the night dive later. I had a bit less than 2 hours so I was hoping for the best!

I ended up at the bar in The Craic House having a mango shake and working on photos since I had also brought my laptop and left it in the office. I did a bit of writing and killed time waiting for the next dive to start. After an hour I started checking my batteries. At 5:15 we had the brief and by 5:30 we were on our way to Pipefish Bay. It’s very close so we started gearing up almost immediately once we were on the boat. There were 4 people diving plus the dive guide.

My dive started at 5:48 PM. Alex was the dive guide again. It wasn’t quite full dark yet, but it was close enough. I think I enjoy this time for the same reason I enjoy Monad Shoal in the morning. At twilight, you get that mixture of day and night. We see activities associated with both. My first photo was a nudibranch, Chromodoris magnifica. There were pipefish everywhere, making “Pipefish Bay” an apt name. Lionfish were still out and about. The usual assortment of crabs were in abundance including hermit crabs and anemone crabs. I spotted a twinspot lionfish, a fish I rarely see during the day. That was followed by a pair of ornate ghost pipefish. There were rabbitfish, and banded boxer coral shrimp of which I saw several throughout the dive. All in all a very nice dive. I ended up with a 60 minute dive with a maximum depth of 46 feet and water temperatures at 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Crab photographed on a dive at Pipefish Bay.

By 7:15 we were all back at Evolution. I rinsed my camera gear, wiped it down and removed my camera. Then closed it back up. I ordered dinner and had a beer and reviewed photos while waiting for it. Once I’d finished dinner, I headed for my room at Sharks Tale. It had been a long day and I was getting up early again the next morning to go dive with the thresher sharks again. Once I reached my room, I put everything on charge, grabbed a shower and went to sleep.

My alarm woke me at 4:15 AM on Saturday the 25th. My last dive day of the trip as I was headed back to Cebu City the next day. I got up, washed my face and got dressed. I set up my camera which basically consisted of inserting a fully charged battery into my camera, and then inserting the camera into the housing, and then closing it up.

When I was ready, I walked out my door and down the stairs, carefully because it was still dark outside! There are no streetlights in Malapascua (no streets really as there are no 4 wheeled vehicles that I’m aware of). Lot’s of paths cross and cris-cross the island. A flashlight isn’t a bad idea! Evolution is about a 5 minute walk from Sharks Tail. I was at the dive op about 10 minutes early for the 4:45 AM dive brief.

The process in the morning runs pretty much the same everyday. After the brief the process from the day before repeated. After boarding the boat and checking our boxes, the boat got underway for Monad. This morning our guide was Jo, another long time guide at Evolution. I remember doing a dive with him at Gato Island last year and we were followed by a group from another dive shop. Jo would spot something and I’d start taking photos. I’d look over my shoulder and the guide from the other shop was there looking to see what Jo had spotted 😀 I’d look over my shoulder as I finned away and he’d be showing his group what I’d just photographed. This happened a few times and we had a good laugh about it back on the boat! At 5:46 AM (a whole minute earlier than the day before) I was starting my first dive of the day.

This morning as the day before, visibility was about 30-40 feet. Unlike the day before, we were looking at sharks almost the entire dive! When we reached the first viewing station, we saw sharks almost immediately, what appeared to be 2. They circled in and out of sight for several minutes, then they were gone. We moved on to a second viewing spot. On our way there a shark crossed in front of us. After reaching the second viewing spot, again within a few minutes, we had a pair of sharks circling in front of us which we were able to observe for several minutes. Likely we saw at least 5 sharks. I say likely because reality is that while they were circling in front of us, they were circling in and out of view due to visibility. It’s often difficult to know exactly how “many” sharks you’ve seen because of that. Unfortunately, this morning I didn’t have a shark come close enough for a really sharp photo, but it was still awesome just to see them! I ended up with a 44 minute dive. My maximum depth was again 77 feet and water temperature was 80 degrees Fahrenheit… a degree warmer than the day before.

Divers observing a thresher shark at Monad Shoal.

My second dive of the day was at Bugtong Bato. As one of the dive sites around Malapascua Island itself, it only takes about 15 minutes to reach there from the resort. Bugtong Bato is a small pinnacle. The top of the pinnacle is at about 50 feet and covered in corals. It descends to a sandy bottom at around a 100 feet. I really enjoy this dive site. There is a large school of batfish that hang out there and plenty of macro opportunities. For this dive we had Gino again. It didn’t take long for him to spot a nudibranch for me and by the time the dive was over we would find six different species, including a couple I’d not seen before! Also spotted plenty of fish, including rainbow runner, snapper, cardinalfish. Gino spotted a nice snowflake moray eel (Echidna nebulosa). Not uncommon, but not as common as the white eyed moray that I see on a regular basis in the Philippines. All in all a nice dive that ended up being only 36 minutes as we spent a bit too much time near the bottom of the pinnacle. Maximum depth was 86 feet and water temperature was 78 F.

Snowflake Moray
Eel (Echidna nebulosa) at Bugtong Bato.

Butong Bato would be a good dive for nitrox although I don’t normally dive nitrox much these days. Not because I don’t see the advantages of it, but because I’m normally diving so much that it would just add up to less diving for me. I’m “retired” now and I have to watch my budget sometimes so I can continue to travel and dive. Having said that I do still occasionally dive nitrox, but usually only if I’m diving in a group of people are using it.

After we the dive we headed back to Evolution and I had a leisurely lunch at The Craic House. It’s probably one of the best restaurants on the island, which probably explains why I eat there so much!

The last dive of the day was at Deep Slope. The briefing was at 1:15 PM and we were underway shortly after. Deep Slope lies off the northeast tip of Malapascua Island. The plan was to follow the mooring line down, then make our way around a short wall and then up a sandy slope back to the top. We had Gino as our dive guide once again.

Right at the beginning of the dive we saw a dragonnet. I still haven’t figured out the exact species so if anyone would like to help I’d appreciate it! Again lot’s of life here around Malapascua Island. Next was a nudibranch, then a pair of banded pipefish. Grouper, lionfish, a toby, another nudibranch, and then a white eyed moray. A twin-spotted lionfish, then another white-eyed moray. Yet another nudibranch, a cuttlefish, then a pair of filefish. A fifth species of nudibranch, wrasse, cowfish, and a school of catfish fry. The dive ended up being 54 minutes with a maximum depth of 71 feet. Water temperature was again 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

That night I packed after dinner and went to bed early. The next morning I settled my bill at Sharks Tale, then went and did the same at Evolution. I decided that although I was going to take a break, that I would come back to Malapascua Island after attending ADEX in Singapore. I left my dive gear and my underwater photography gear at Evolution, rather than carry it. The next morning after breakfast, I headed to the ferry terminal at the port. I purchased my ticket for a 100 pesos. As it was low tide a small boat took us out to the ferry that was moored in deeper water. 20 pesos for the trip out. We were dropped off at the old pier in Maya. I was lucky to catch a ride with a fellow American who was hiring a taxi for the trip back. 1500 pesos, but we were in Cebu City in just 2 1/2 hours, half the time of the bus! I checked in too Kiwi Lodge. After cleaning up and resting for a bit, I grabbed a taxi to Ayala Mall and had a bite to eat. Then called it an early night.

The next morning I was up early for the free breakfast. The desk sent someone to wave down a taxi for me. I was on my way to the airport by 7:30 AM As expected, taxi fare in a white taxi ended up being significantly less than it was in the yellow taxi. Only a 184 pesos!

In Cebu as at other airport in the Philippines, I passed through security, including metal detector and baggage x-ray before going to the check-in counter. Since I had no bags to check, I’d checked in online and took a screenshot of my boarding pass and saved it on my phone. I went directly to the gate passing through security again before going to the area of the gates. My flight was at 10:35 AM and I reached Clark International Airport in Pampanga a little after noon.

My trip had started on March 9th, the day after my cardiologist agreed that I had recovered enough to dive again after my heart attack in November while transiting Singapore (read about it elsewhere in my blog). I started in Puerto Galera, then Subic Bay, followed by Moalboal, and finishing in Malapascua. 21 dives in two weeks.

Time for a break!

Next I’ll be writing about my weekend at ADEX (Asia Dive Expo) in Singapore. Then my return to Malapascua Island and weekend in Dumaguete competing in the annual “SEA (Small Exotic Animals) Philippines” photo contest.

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Malapascua-Part One

After a decent nights sleep, I woke up on Wednesday, March 22nd (yes my blog is over a month behind but I’m going to catch up I promise!), had breakfast, then had the desk call a taxi. The North Bus Station in Cebu City is about the same distance from Kiwi Lodge as the South Bus Station. A short ride to the bus station and then I was on a bus headed to Maya. 5 hours later we arrived at the pier in Maya.

At Maya the bus lets you out at the new pier. You’ll be asked to log in with the tourist association, then you will purchase a ticket. Price of a ticket on the ferry is a 100 pesos. When the boat was ready we were directed to the boat and someone took our tickets. Be prepared to wade through the water (usually not more than ankle deep) to a ramp to get up on the boat. About 35 minutes later we were walking off the boat at Bounty Beach.

I should add here that last year when I spent 4 weeks on Malapascua Island that I came and went 4 times. Only one of those times did the ferry go to Bounty Beach. When I was in Malapascua again a couple of weeks ago, we were also dropped off at Bounty Beach so perhaps this is something new. What was more normal last year was to go to the port and if it were low tide, a small boat would transport us for 20 pesos. Again, be prepared to get your feet wet.

I opted to stay at Purple Snapper which is under new management and ownership. I knew from having stayed there last year, that the rooms were much more inexpensive than anything I would find on the beach! When I arrived I discovered everything was in the process of being changed over, including the name which has been changed to Sharks Tail. Interestingly enough, I again ended up in the same room that I’d stayed at on my last visit when I stayed for 4 weeks last April. As I’ve said in other blog posts, I often will get the least expensive room. This usually turns out to be a fan room with no television in some places.

Unlike my last trip, the bar and kitchen were open this time, and there was water in the swimming pool! Last year the pool was empty! I met Greg, the new manager, and it sounds like they’re really going to do a lot with the place.

Although I was offered the opportunity to dive with Shark’s Tail, I opted to dive with Evolution. Nothing against Shark’s Tale, but I’ve been diving with Evolution since 2010 and don’t feel any need to go somewhere else. I’ve been very happy with their operation which I consider to be a very professional one.

I was in Malapascua again just over a week ago and have done over 80 dives with Evolution now. At present I’ve done over a 100 dives in Malapascua. I made my first dive there in October 2007. I’ve not gone every year, but I have made six trips now… there must be some reason I keep going back!

This trip I was only planning 3 dive days. I was exhausted after the long bus ride so I opted NOT to get up early for the shark dive. Instead there was trip going to Kalanggaman Island the next day and of course I signed up!

Kalanggaman Island technically is in Leyte so it’s a bit of boat ride to get there. It’s an all day trip. It leaves around 9 AM and takes an hour and a half to two hours to get there, depending on weather of course. There is an extra fee involved of course because of the long boat ride, 650 pesos, which also included lunch. There is also a Marine Fee charged by the Leyte government of 500 pesos, so yes you are paying an extra 575 pesos per dive (don’t forget lunch is included though). I always try to go to Kalanggaman every time I visit Malapascua though. The diving is just that amazing!

Kalanggaman Island is wall diving for the most part. You drop in over a sandy area, then swim over the wall and descend from there. Visibility is often well over 50 feet to as much as a 100 feet!

Wall diving at Kalanggaman Island.

After a good nights sleep and breakfast at The Craic House (Evolution Dive Resorts restaurant), we had our briefing at 8:45 AM. By 9 AM everyone was on the boat and we were underway.

I always try to sit in the middle of the boat. I’m one of those people who just cannot get a tan it seems. I can get very red though! It was a nice relaxing trip. The weather was absolutely beautiful! As we were approaching the island a pod of dolphins was spotted and the boat briefly followed them. Sometimes dolphins seem to want to play and will race along in front of the boat, with occasional leaps into the air, like they are just having fun with us! Today though they seemed to have other things on their agenda so we continued on to the island.

At 10:55 we were starting our first dive. Our guide was Mette Hallum who is a dive instructor from Denmark. I actually have a photo of her from a dive on Monad Shoal last year. Right at the beginning of the dive there was an eagle ray hanging out near the mooring line and I took several photos of Mette shooting video of an eagle ray with her GoPro.

I’m never disappointed when I dive Kalanggaman. Visibility was easily 50-60 feet. Right at the beginning of the dive Mette spotted a black frogfish. I never seem to get tired of photographing frogfish! There are loads of hard and soft corals at Kalanggaman Island and they are in good shape. You can see schools of jacks and rainbow runners. Lots of wrasse and damselfish. Scorpionfish, frogfish, nudibranchs, triggerfish, parrotfish, schools of anthia’s, hawkfish sitting on coral, just waiting to swoop somewhere, coleman shrimp, anemonefish, ghost shrimp, butterflyfish,… all the “usual suspects” as I’m prone to call them. Water temperature was 78 degrees Fahrenheit and my maximum depth ended up being 88 feet. The dive ended up being 44 minutes.

Frogfish at Kalanggaman Island.

During the surface interval we pulled in too shore and had lunch. After lunch we were able to get off the boat and walk around the island. There are a few basic facilities there, but no water or food. You have to bring your own. I walked around the island a bit and snapped a few photos then back to the boat. The boat pulled out again and we headed to do our second dive.

Evolution’s dive boat, The Haldane, beached at Kalanggaman Island.

I started the second dive at 1:28 PM. We again were diving the wall, but a different area than the first dive. Pretty early in the dive Mette found an ornate ghost pipefish next to a crinoid which I took several shots of. The rest of the dive was much like the first one. Lot’s of fish, anthia’s, damselfish, more hawkfish, a couple of different white-eyed moray’s… just another awesome dive! Maximum depth on this dive was 66 feet. Water temperatures were a bit warmer at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, since we didn’t go quite as deep as the first dive. This dive was 56 minutes.

Freckled Hawkfish were everywhere while diving Kalanggaman Island.

After everyone was back on board, we got underway and headed back to Malapascua Island. We arrived at Evolution Dive Resort before 5 PM. I checked out the board for dives that were scheduled for the next day. I had planned a full day of diving for the next day, but trips to Gato Island require a minimum of four divers. I’d let it be known that I really wanted to dive Gato Island and it had been put on the board before we left that morning. I was happy to see there were enough divers. I signed up to do the early morning Thresher Shark dive at Monad Shoal and also the night dive at Pipefish Bay. After dinner at Craic House, I headed back to Sharks Tale for some rest. It was going to be a long day the next day!

The big draw that Malapascua Island has for most people is thresher sharks. It’s the only place in the world where recreational divers can see them on a reliable basis. Is it a 100%? No of course not and no reputable dive operation should promise that. We’re still dealing with a wild animal and conditions, especially current can affect sightings. Having said that, I’d estimate that over 80% of the dives I’ve made on Monad Shoal, I saw thresher sharks. Another way of looking at it would be in a one month period there might be a half dozen or so days when no sharks or sighted which means you’re much more likely than not to see sharks!

Monad Shoal is an underwater island that is actually larger than Malapascua. Scientists currently believe that thresher sharks migrate to the area of Monad Shoal to utilize the services of particular species of cleaner fish that are found there. It’s about a 40 minute boat ride depending on conditions. You have to get up early to see thresher sharks. Early morning is the only time when sightings are consistent. The species that is seen here is the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus).

Dive briefings at Evolution for the morning trip to Monad take place at 4:45 AM. The staff and boat crews are there much earlier making preparations and loading all the gear on the boat. Divers who have already been diving will grab their wetsuits. Wetsuits are always hung up separately from the gear to allow them to be at least somewhat dry from the previous days diving. It’s easier to let divers find their own wetsuit where it’s hung up. It would be difficult for the crew to know which is which since they’re hung up together, especially in the dark! Once the briefing is over everyone will be transported by small boat (it’s low tide in the morning) out to one of the large bangka boats for the trip to Monad.

I was up at 4:15 AM the next morning. I give myself enough time to wake up in the morning and get my camera gear set up. The walk to Evolution is only about 5 minutes, so not far at all. When I got there I grabbed my wetsuit and then sat and waited for the brief. The brief was given right on time at 4:45 AM. One of the rules is that if you don’t show up for the brief, then you will be charged for the dive. This is just to make sure that people don’t blow off the dive. The crew comes in early to load the boats so there is a lot of work to be done in preparation to go out. Having said that, as long as you show up, if you decide that you are not up to a dive that day, or want to call the dive for any reason, you can do so and there will be no charge.

As soon as the brief was finished, we headed to the beach where a small boat took us out to the Haldane, one of Evolutions dive bangka’s. It’s still dark outside at this point, but we can see a hint of light off to the east. Once on the boat, a boat brief is given for everyone who is on the boat for the first time. Everyone checks their boxes to double-check that there gear is all there. People are human, so things can get mis-placed, although in my experience, having dived with them for years, this is extremely rare. Always best to err on the side of caution. No one wants to get out to the dive site and not have all their equipment. The tanks are normally already set up and I double check mine. After all, I’m the one who is diving with it! After that I go and make myself a cup of coffee and sit in the back while the boat gets underway. By 5 AM we were on our way to Monad Shoal.

As we approach Monad Shoal everyone starts getting ready. People put on their wetsuits and booties, strap on dive computers, apply de-fog (or spit for all the old-school divers), and stage mask, fins, camera’s, etc… By now there is plenty of light as the sky brightens with the arrival of sunrise. Within minutes of arriving at Monad, the crew assists divers with their tanks, final checks are completed and divers start stepping into the water with a giant stride entry. I was in the first group. Our guide this morning was Alex, one of Evolution’s Filipino guides. I’ve been diving with Filipino guides for almost 10 years now and they have always impressed me with their skills. Evolution has some of the best guides I’ve had the pleasure of diving with over the years. I’ve often said that almost everything I learned about spotting, I learned from my Filipino guides!

I stepped in, was handed my camera by a crew member and then finned over to Alex while we waited for the rest of our group. Once we were all together, Alex got a final ok from everyone, then a thumbs down for descent. I dumped the air from my wing and my dive began at 5:47 AM.

The best word to describe Monad Shoal at this time of the morning is “twilight”. By now there is enough light in the sky that you can see quite well, but it is far from “bright”. The top of the shoal slopes and is at about 60 feet on the shallow side. The slope continues down to over 80 feet. Around the edge of the shoal it drops off into over 700 feet of water. Visibility runs 30-60 feet depending on time of year and conditions. Where we started our dive it was about 60 feet deep. When I started to drop, I could not initially see the bottom, but it came into view very quickly. There are permanent mooring lines attached at different places. If there is current then you can use the mooring line to descend. This morning current was almost non-existent.

For most of the dive there were no sharks… this happens sometimes. Nothing is exact when it comes to predicting when they will be there. Sometimes we see them briefly, sometimes we see them the whole dive, and occasionally the sea gods are against us and we don’t them. Still, for me there really isn’t any such thing as a “bad” dive. As I said before there is plenty of life there on the shoal. I spotted a free swimming moray early on in this particular dive. Something you rarely see in full daylight conditions. There are also the usual marine life that you would see, anemonefish, damselfish, batfish, jacks, cleaner wrasse, shrimps, crabs, etc… All the “usual suspects” that those of you who follow my blog have heard me refer to them as.

One of the “rules” agreed to by all the dive operations on Malapascua Island, is that divers will not take lights are strobes on the morning thresher shark dive. There is a concern that if that was allowed, that the sharks might be scared away, and of course no one wants that! So, although I do often see other marine life, I rarely photograph it during that dive. At that depth and under those lighting conditions everything tends to be very “blue”! Sometimes in post-processing I convert to black and white because of that, and sometimes I leave it blue. It kind of depends on how I’m feeling at the moment!

When there are no sharks, I sometimes entertain myself by photographing the other divers. I usually want a few shots of divers anyway. My background in photo-journalism drives home the point that divers are a part of the “story” here and they really are. Diving is so much better when we have someone to share the experience with! I sometimes also will take the time to look at the other life on the shoal. I spend most of though like everyone else… looking for sharks!

At Monad there are a number of observation stations that have been set up. There are concrete blocks that have been sunk there and line attached. This is to give the sharks room to approach on their own. Again, if there were no organization here, and with so many divers in the water, there could be a possibility that the sharks would go elsewhere. During the morning dive when there are so many divers there, groups are to confine themselves to areas behind the lines. If no sharks are appearing at one viewing station, then a leisurely move to another station is allowed. Just keep away from the edges and behind the area where the lines have been installed. This maximizes sighting opportunities for the majority of divers. The system must work… as I said earlier seeing sharks is easily 80%! It’s important to understand though, that sharks can approach from any direction, occasionally they even come from behind you!

This morning, as luck would have it, we just weren’t seeing sharks. It happens…. Towards the end of the dive we had returned back to the area of the mooring line and a little beyond it, when Alex spotted a thresher shark in the distance in front of us, coming towards us! The shark swam right by me and I was able to take a few still photos, then switch to video. The shark went by, circled back a couple of times, then was gone into the blue. Awesome!

Thresher shark at Monad Shoal.

Back on the boat everyone was all smiles! People were talking, the photographers were sharing their photos and video’s, and it’s just general happiness, especially from those who have traveled from half-way around the world and sometimes only have a brief few days. Does life get any better? I ended with a 43 minute dive with a maximum depth of 77 feet. Water temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

We headed back to Evolution. I gave my camera gear a quick rinse, then headed to the restaurant for breakfast. I ordered, then dried off my housing so I could remove the camera and download photos from the morning dive. By 7:35 my breakfast was in front of me. After breakfast, I relaxed until it was time for the briefing for Gato Island at 9:45 AM. By 10:00 AM we were back on the boat and headed to Gato.

To be continued…

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Moalboal

I was up early on Sunday morning, March 19th. Breakfast was included with my room. Simple, just an egg on toast with bacon and coffee. Then I settled up with the front desk and they got me a taxi.

One of the things I like about Kiwi Lodge is that it’s only a short taxi ride away no matter which bus terminal I’m going too. In roughly 10 minutes the taxi arrived at the south bus terminal. Less than 80 pesos in cab fare. Buses heading south are leaving throughout the day. Within a few minutes of arriving I was on a bus to Moalboal.

You can hire a taxi to take you to Moalboal for around 2000 pesos (about $40 bucks). It’s certainly faster and more comfortable, but a bus ticket is only a 107 pesos (just over $2 dollars)! A bus takes about 3 hours depending on traffic and number of stops it makes. Riding local transport is all part of the experience of traveling and seeing the world I think! The bus left around 9 AM and was in Moalboal a little after noon.

After getting off the bus, I hired a trike for 150 pesos the rest of the way to Panagsama Beach where the vast majority of the dive shops are. After checking in with Eve’s Kiosk I dropped my dive gear next door at Nelson’s Dive Shop before heading to my room.

I rented a fan room for my stay at 700 pesos a night (around $14 dollars). I don’t spend much time in the room anyway so why pay for air conditioning? The temperature at night is normally in the 70’s in March so a fan is plenty. It turned out to be the same room that I stayed in during my last trip to Moalboal in October 2015, so almost like coming home!

I set up my camera in the room, changed into a swim suit, and then headed back to the dive shop. I filled out the usual paperwork. Then got my equipment together and started getting ready to go out for the afternoon dive. Dives at Nelson’s are 900 pesos per dive if you have your own equipment. 1200 pesos per dive with rental equipment. Like everywhere else in the Philippines, tanks, weights, boat, and dive guide are included. Nelson’s website is: http://www.ibara.ne.jp/~bitoon/

I always seem to run into Japanese divers when I visit Nelson’s for some reason. He also gets the usual European crowd and the occasional American. As I dive different destinations around the Philippines, I still often find myself the only American in the group. We are definitely the minority! I’m hoping to change that with my blog and the book series I’m working on by helping introduce the Philippines to more Americans. I want to show that it can be quite cost effective to plan a dive trip to the Philippines.

Once the tanks were set up and ready they were taken to the boat. I pulled on my wetsuit, put on my booties, grabbed my mask, fins, and camera gear headed to the boat. You walk across the street and down a narrow alleyway to a small beach. The entire beach in this area is lined with resorts, but there is a convenient access to the water here. My first dive in Moalboal in 2007 was a night dive and we geared up and walked this same path to do a shore entry.

More often though, the majority of dives here are by boat. During high tide the water can get fairly deep pretty quickly, and I almost had to swim to get to the boat! After everyone was on the boat, we headed north to Tuble Point. I was starting my first dive of this visit to Moalboal at 3:10 PM.

I do enjoy wall dives, and Moalboal is wall diving. Tuble Point is a nice wall with depths down to a 100 feet possible. There are plenty of things to see in the cuts and crevices of the wall. Some of the highlights included nudibranchs, scorpionfish, nice schools of anthia’s and damselfish, anemonefish, a huge pufferfish, grouper, and one of the things Moalboal is known for, sea turtles. A really enjoyable dive! Total dive time was 52 minutes with a maximum depth of 68 feet. The water temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Divers checking out the wall along Moalboal’s Tuble Point.

It had been a long day and I opted to rest that evening. One of the nice things about Panagsama Beach is the many restaurants and eateries up and down the road along the beach. Plenty of places on the water with a nice view to have dinner. I made it an early night and went to bed early.

The next morning I was up early and ready for Pescador Island. Pescador Island is one of my favorite dives. It’s a drift dive and current can be quite strong. Normally you are dropped in on one end of the island and then the boat travels to the other and waits for you to drift down. We dropped in at 9:54 AM. It ended up being a 45 minute dive with a maximum depth of 88 feet. Water temperature was again 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s a great wall dive. Big schools of trevally, frogfish, snapper, grouper, anthia’s, lionfish… just a great dive! After the dive we headed back to the beach.

We asked if we could go ahead and do a second dive and were told “no problem”. One of the things that Moalboal is known for is the huge sardine schools. It’s a can’t miss when diving Moalboal. The sardine schools are normally seen around the House Reef, which is in the area where we get on and off the boat. We started our dive at 11:55 AM and had a 57 minute dive. Maximum depth was 60 feet and water temperature was still 79 degrees Fahrenheit, so pretty consistent water temperatures.

The sardine schools did not disappoint! Just huge clouds of fish, with trevally making run’s in and out at times. Very cool to see! I’d mentioned to the guide before the dive I really like photographing frogfish and he found one for me! The “usual suspects” were there as well…. angelfish, pufferfish, damselfish, anthia’s, triggerfish, threadfin hawkfish, a white-eyed moray eel with a cleaner wrasse, nudibranchs, and right at the end of the dive a sea turtle. A really great dive!

Frogfish photgraphed on the House Reef across from Nelson’s Dive Shop in Moalboal.

My plane ticket took me back to Clark on the 26th. I decided to hit Malapascua before returning so the next day I headed to Cebu City (if you’re going by bus from Moalboal to Maya where you catch the ferry to Malapascua Island, you probably want to break that up). A trike took me back to the main highway for 150 pesos (about $3 dollars). There I caught a Ceres Liner (115 pesos) to Cebu City. I called Kiwi Lodge en-route and reserved a room. The bus ride was just over 3 hours to the South Bus Terminal. From there I took a taxi (78 pesos) to Kiwi Lodge.

Next I’ll write about my time at Malapascua in March. Then my weekend at ADEX (Asia Dive Expo) in Singapore, then I’ll be almost to the present. As I publish this I’ve been back to Malapascua and I’m in Dumaguete now… still trying to catch up, but stay tuned!

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Diving Subic Bay-Part Two

I got up on Thursday morning, March 16th looking forward to the days diving. I’d requested the day before to go to Barges and San Quentin. They’re normally done together due to their proximity to one another.

I left my hotel and took a trike to Johan’s. It’s a fairly short ride. Less than 10 minutes. At Johan’s I had breakfast, then put my camera setup together. The staff at Johan’s set up my tank. I checked it over and they carried it to the boat. I put on my wetsuit. Grabbed my camera, mask, and fins and was on the boat a little after 10 AM.

The “Barges” aren’t actually barges, although they are similar in appearance. They’re actually sections of a floating dock, that were originally set up after Subic Bay was re-taken during WW II to conduct repair work. The floating dock eventually sank and is now a favorite dive site. The sections of the dock form a rough “T” and sit on a mainly sandy bottom. There is some separation of the sections. One side drops off from roughly 20 feet to around 60 feet. The other drops to over a 100 feet. My dive started at 11:08 AM and ended up being 55 minutes. Since I’ve dived this site several times I was allowed to buddy with another experienced diver and we did our own dive. It was his first time diving Barges so we ended up exploring the whole site. Maximum depth was 107 feet.

A dive on a sunken floating dock now known as the “Barges” near Grande Island, Subic Bay, Philippines.

One of the things I enjoy about diving Barges is that it seems like I often see something different. There are always schools of fish around, going in and out through seams that have opened up in the floating dock. Sweetlips, snapper, jacks, triggerfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish, nudibranchs, mantis shrimp, lionfish,… all the usual suspects! Visibility is normally better further out and this day was no exception with visibility being 40 feet plus.

Plenty of life around the Barges, a dive site in Subic Bay, Philippines.

After our surface interval we moved over to the mouth of the Subic Bay, not far from Grande Island for a dive on the San Quentin. The San Quentin is a Spanish-American War wreck that was scuttled and sank by the Spaniards in 1898 to block access by the invading American Navy. Considering that it’s almost a 120 years old now it’s actually in remarkable shape. Although the ship itself is largely deteriorated and scattered about, the boilers are virtually intact and heavily encrusted now. There are always plenty of fish around the wreck. It’s also a prime spot for nudibranchs I’ve found. It sit’s in just 50 feet of water.

Nudibranch (Phyllidiella pustulosa) photographed on the Spanish-American War wreck of the San Quentin.

My dive started at 1:35 PM and ended up being 65 minutes. Maximum depth was 50 feet. Water temperature was 81F. I came back to the boat with 50 bar/725 psi in my tank.

This dive was no exception. Plenty of fish. I photographed a batfish early on that was in the last stages of it’s juvenile phase. Still just a touch of orange along the edges. Damselfish were everywhere. I played hide and seek with a grouper that just didn’t want to pose for a photo! Nudibranchs of course. Anemonefish here and there. A couple of different hermit crabs posed for photos. A very nice dive. You see me write that a lot I suppose, but in reality I can truthfully say it almost always is. When I’m blowing bubbles I am definitely in my happy place!

A batfish in the last stages of the juvenile phase photographed on the Spanish-American War wreck of the San Quentin near the mouth of Subic Bay, Philippines.

We were back at Johan’s around 3:30. I rinsed my wetsuit, mask, and fins. Rinsed my camera setup and dried it off so I could remove the camera. Then showered and put on a dry pair of shorts and t-shirt for the ride back to the hotel. After a cold San Miguel Light. I grabbed a trike and headed back to T-Rose. Dinner at Sit-N-Bull again and an early night.

The next day was Friday. I decided to take a day off and just get ready to leave since I was flying the next day. I had breakfast at the WestPac Sailor Bar and Restaurant/VFW. It’s one of my favorite places for breakfast. I can get an American breakfast there, eggs to order, bacon, hash browns, toast, and coffee for around a 180 pesos (about $3.50). I went back to Johan’s, settled my bill, and picked up my equipment. I hung the wetsuit up at the hotel as it wasn’t completely dry. I spent some time working on photos and then ran some errands.

Saturday morning I slept in a bit. After my shower I finished packing then walked across the street to the VFW for a late breakfast. After I ate, I decided to take a trike to the bus terminal in Olongapo City rather than take a jeepney as I just didn’t want to wrestle with my bags. The going rate for a trike is 150 pesos and takes about 25 minutes or so.

I took Victory Liner from Olongapo City to Dau. The bus left at 2:20 PM and the ticket was a 140 pesos. We arrived at 3:35 PM, so only an hour and fifteen minutes away. From the bus terminal, I took a trike to SM-Clark Mall where I hung out for a while and had a late lunch/early dinner. From SM-Clark I had a van pick me up to take me to Clark International Airport on the old Clark US Air Force Base. The van was arranged through the same guy who I’d hired to take me home from the hospital after my second angioplasty and stent the end of January. It was my first time flying out of Clark and I would later figure out that 500 pesos was too much! The ride was about 15 minutes.

I showed my itinerary to the security guard and was allowed into the terminal. I checked in and got my boarding pass, then went through security inspection. I was flying Cebu Pacific and was about 2 1/2 hours early. I took a seat in the waiting area and made a call to Kiwi Lodge (my regular hotel) in Cebu City to see if they had a room (they did). My flight boarded on time and we took off at 9:18 PM. A little less than hour later we landed at Mactan-Cebu International Airport.

My previous flights in I’d been met at the airport, either with a private shuttle to wherever I was diving, or by my friend Charles who lived in Cebu City up until late last year. This was the first time I needed to take a taxi. I took a yellow airport taxi without giving it much thought, only making sure that they would use the meter. This later turned out to be a mistake as the yellow taxi’s are twice as much as the white ones (who will also use the meter). Taxi fare ended up being 423 pesos and the ride to the hotel, with no traffic, took about 30 minutes.

After checking it, I had a quick bite to eat, then called it a night…

Next Moalboal..

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Diving Subic Bay-Part One

I’ll start with a few more details about the trip from Puerto Galera to Olongapo City and Subic Bay. I took the FSL ferry from Sabang. 230 pesos plus 20 peso tourist fee. We pulled away from the pier at 11:45 AM and were at the Batangas Ferry Terminal by 1:05 PM. Half as much time as my trip over by small bangka boat. The big ferry’s can make much better time than the smaller boats. As usual when leaving the ferry, I was approached by multiple people offering to take me to Manila by private car or taxi. They can be persistent! Usually a firm refusal works. I’ve been known to offer 200 pesos (approximate bus fare) and that will also make them go away. I just don’t see the need to hire a car usually. The trip is relatively short to Manila and since the bus is on the expressway most of the way, I wouldn’t save a significant amount of time. I boarded a bus and we departed right after 1:30 PM arriving in Cubao by 4 PM.

The bus let me out on the opposite side of EDSA from where Victory Terminal is located. Since it’s a divided and very busy road and was going to require a good 10-15 minute walk to get to, I grabbed a taxi. I just didn’t feel like maneuvering through pedestrians pulling a big bag full of dive gear and my small hard case filled with camera gear! The cab had to take a bit of a detour due to road construction, but even with tip I only spent a 100 pesos. That was $2 bucks well-spent in my book!

At Victory I boarded a bus for Olongapo City. We were on our way a little after 5 PM. A little over 3 hours later I was in Olongapo. A short jeepney ride and I was checking into my hotel in Barangay Barretto 🙂 I’d messaged Jocelyn, the owner of T-Rose, while en-route and she’d confirmed that there would be a room for me when I got there.

During recent trips I’ve stayed either in T-Rose or Coffee Shop when coming here for short periods. T-Rose has a bar associated with it, but it closes early. It has a gate and the rooms surround a small courtyard with trees and plants. It has a bit of privacy and being off the main road is quieter. Only a 1000 pesos a night (around $20 bucks). It’s in a decent location also in the center of Barretto. Walking distance to restaurants, nightlife, and the beach. Coffee Shop is a restaurant frequented by many locals. It has a 3 floors of rooms and is also well located. Rooms here can be had for 1095 pesos a night (about $22 dollars a night). Coffee Shop is a bit nicer, but not quite as well located. Both places are clean and have hot water and wifi. For this stay I opted for T-Rose.

For long term accommodations, I’ve stayed at Bella Monte on Del Pilar Street and at Suzuki’s which is right on the beach. I’ve also stayed at accommodations that are managed by Two Can Bar which is on the main highway in Barrio Barretto. I spent a month at Suzuki’s while I was recovering from my angioplasty and stent placement that was done at Medical City-Clark the end of January.

Tuesday I hung out and visited with friends. I also bought a plane ticket to Cebu to leave on Saturday. I normally dive with Johan’s when I’m diving Subic. Johan has one of the oldest dive operations around Subic Bay. My friend Rick Kirkham from Frontier Scuba in Puerto Galera runs some of his advanced technical courses there, taking advantage of the many wrecks in Subic Bay, and utilizing Johan’s operation as a base. Fun dives with Johan’s are running a 1000 pesos a dive if you have your own equipment. This is pretty much the lowest rate around Subic. You can pay more though. I like Johan’s. I’ve been diving there off and on for almost a year and a half now. Nice people and a laid back atmosphere. It’s very relaxed. They normally do 2 dives a day which fits in perfectly with the way I dive now. You can find his website at http://www.johansdiveresort.com/ They have rooms available also and they’re right on the beach in Baloy.

I unpacked my gear and setup my tank. Then had breakfast there at Johan’s. One of the things I like about Johan’s is they often don’t go out until about 10 AM, depending on where they’re diving that day and who is there. The dive sites are a bit further out than they are in Puerto Galera. We’re usually back between 3 and 4 PM depending on where we dive, which is also good. A nice relaxed day of diving!

We did 2 wrecks that day. The first dive was El Capitan. El Capitan was acquired by the US Navy in early 1942 and commissioned USS Majaba in April. It was used to move cargo around the Pacific during WW II. She was struck by 2 torpedoes from a Japanese submarine at Guadalcanal in November 1942. The entire engine room and boilers were destroyed. The ship did not sink though and was towed to the mouth of the Tenaru River and beached. In January 1943 the ship was towed to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. The hull was repaired and the ship was used as a floating barracks and material stores vessel for the remainder of the war. After that it was towed to Subic Bay, Philippines in 1946 and officially struck from the Navy Ship List. It remained in Subic Bay awaiting return to it’s original owners, but ending up sinking during a storm. El Capitan is almost 300 feet long. She lies on her port side, on a sloping bottom. The stern is at just 13 feet with the bow at 73 feet.

A diver makes his way along the coral-encrusted hull of “El Capitan” which is laying on it’s side in Subic Bay, Philippines.

Visibility can be quiet variable. Subic Bay is protected on 3 sides and has a large island (Grande Island). This means that sediment that can be washed into the bay can take a while to filter out. Visibility during rainy season can be 10 feet! Although Subic Bay has recovered a lot, it’s not completely recovered the pristine status it enjoyed prior to the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1993. Ash and sediment is still being washed into the bay. Having said that I still enjoy the dives in Subic. The wrecks still attract plenty of fish life and are interesting to dive on due to their historical status. Visibility on this dive was around 30 feet.

El Capitan is lying on it’s port side at the bottom of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Johan’s uses small fast boats to move about the bay, with a canopy for shade, and GPS to help quickly pinpoint the dive sites. My dive on the El Capitan started at 11:06 AM. My maximum depth on this dive was 66 feet and I was back on the boat with 70 bar/1030 psi after a 52 minute dive. Water temperature was 80F.

Early in the dive I spotted a nice grouper peering out from the wreck… almost eating size! A blue-spotted ray swam away from where it’d been resting in the muck near the wreck. There were bannerfish, butterflyfish, grouper, and sweetlips swimming around the wreck, along with parrotfish feeding on the algae growing on the encrusting coral. The issue often, but not always of diving in Subic Bay, is the amount of silt and volcanic ash that was deposited into the bay and still gets stirred up. Muck diving has become more popular here as a result.

A grouper makes it home on El Capitan one of the many wrecks found in Subic Bay, Philippines.

After our surface interval we moved to the next dive which was on the LST (Landing Ship Tanks). These ships were designed and used during WW II to support amphibious operations by landing tanks and vehicles on the beach. At 328 feet it’s bigger than El Capitan. It’s sitting with a small list, but upright in 90-120 feet of water on the eastern side of Subic Bay. I enjoy this dive. There are plenty of fish throughout this wreck. I’ve never done a real penetration here, but there are compartments that can be accessed easily that I’ve stuck my head into to take a few photos. There are large schools of cardinalfish who make the wreck home and usually a few lionfish are about.

A photo shot looking into a compartment of an LST (Landing Ship Tanks) sunk in Subic Bay, Philippines.

My dive started at 1:12 PM. We explored mainly along the superstructure and the top of the wreck. My maximum depth on this dive was 77 feet. My dive time was 50 minutes and I was back on the boat with 50 bar/750 psi. Water temperature was again 80F.

A lionfish hunts along the side of the LST wreck in Subic Bay, Philippines.

After we were all back on the boat, we headed back to the dive center. We were back well before 3 PM. One thing they do at Johan’s is meet you as get back and take your drink order. All divers get a free drink at the end of the days diving. Sometimes I have hot tea and sometimes I have a San Miguel Light, depending on my mood!

After getting back to T-Rose, I showered and got a nap in. I had dinner that night at Sit-n-Bull Restaurant on Del Pilar Street in Barretto. This is one of my favorite restaurants and I have dinner there quite often when I’m in town. They have a wide variety of American, Mexican, Italian, and Filipino dishes. I’ve never had anything from their menu I didn’t like! Be prepared for huge portions though! A good place to go with an appetite.

After that back to the room, work on photos for bit and sleep… yes I know very boring!

In the next installment I’ll write about two of my favorite dives at Subic Bay… Barges and San Quentin… stay tuned!

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