Journey to and in the Philippines by Morson

-A Diving Adventure-
By Christopher Morson

Christopher Morson recently visited the Philippines on a reconnaissance trip, with an eye toward retirement here. An avid diver, he took the opportunity to indulge his passion on board the M/Y Vasco through Cebu in the Visayas to Tubattaha Reef. He has kindly allowed us to share his impressions, both of the diving and of the Philippines…

A delayed flight meant missing the connection to Manila, so I arrived about seven hours late at Moalboal Blue Orchid Resort in Cebu. Not bad, very mellow resort owned by an English expat and former taikwondo (I think) world champion who now lives mostly in Japan.

We dived the Cathedral and the sardine run, millions of these fish in a concert of movement, and one beautiful wall full of soft corals. We went from there onto Malapascua Island where we saw the Thresher sharks (go to YouTube and search Thresher Sharks and Malapascua).

Chocolate was a great site where we saw sleeping sharks, the millipi (a huge nudibranch that disguises itself as a weed), Frogfish,mating crabs and sea horses amongst other beasts, great and small, of the sea.

Next was Kalignan, an idyllic island about 90 minutes from Malapascua,but it was beset by a lot of inexperienced divers which made the experience a little less than it could have been, but diving with Freddy,a Swiss expat dive-operator from the Red Sea, saved the day.

We continued on to Sea’s Springs in Anilao where Mike,the owner’s son, was a great divemaster.The place has profuse macro wildlife, and I will be back to explore this area more thoroughly.

Onboard ship, the M/Y Vasco…first night was a little boozy as they had an electrical issue and couldn’t pull anchor, which resulted in the ship’s crew providing copious amounts of alcohol in compensation. As divers we were obliged to help the captain with our consumption! There is now a new cocktail we have christened as the ‘Vasco’….gin ,ice and green tea…..very refreshing and surprisingly tasty.

We have a lovely group of people on board with a good level of competency underwater. Francois, an excellent 75 year old underwater videographer shared some of his experiences in Lembeh and Raja Ampat; Brooke from Tasmania; a couple from Montreal (he works with artists and the creative side of media marketing);Nico a young French guy who has dived 48 days in a row until yesterday; an American woman, Jocelyn,who works for TI in the Philippines; a Filipino doctor, ‘Pipit’, from southern Mindanao; Bob from San Diego who has dived in almost every condition imaginable and in some extremely remote places (he also is extremely knowledgeable on the fauna and flora); and Mike from Vancouver who is in the construction industry–a grey fox who is probably the least experienced of us, but fun and knowledgeable.

We dived Apo Reef for the first day, which reminded me a little of the northern Red Sea when I was there in the late 70’s and early 80’s. White tip sharks,turtles, a large tiger or bull shark which was difficult to identify as it was deeper and going away,profusions of nudibranchs and clouds of chromis. We saw tuna hunting in the blue and other species, too many to mention here.

I have to say that being out on this converted Russian spy trawler, with the sunsets, warm waters, good company and food, feeds the soul,exercises the body, and relaxes the heart and mind. I am content.

Francois and I are discussing how to use his video. He wants me to do the English commentaries and we are discussing how to market them in the US under the aegis of a 503c where we can use the proceeds to do something in sustainable maritime ecology. Hopefully there are ways to educate the dynamite fishermen and provide alternative ways to help them support their families. At least that is the direction we are headed.

Quimatin turns out to be quite memorable…..an interesting garden of macro creatures. It is a huge volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere. There were some extraordinary nudibranchs, a diversity of crabs, one of which nobody, at least on this boat, has ever seen before….a crab that had ‘buried’ its back in what may have been a white sponge….a very large and heavy disguise maybe thirty times the size of his body…..not a decorator crab, but something akin, but small like a porcelain crab.

So we are now underway to Tubattaha Reef, a seventeen hour steam overnight to this UNESCO protected reef.

What a place.

Visibility today was, in places 140+ feet. Walls,walls, walls…white soft coral forests, huge sea fans and sponges I have not seen the like of since the Red Sea in the 70’s! Turtles,oceanic white tips, a huge tiger shark,reflective white sand with coral formations, a rare dart fish,clouds of snapper, schools of sturgeon and jack, so much that the senses are overloaded in the mill pond conditions and warm water! The magnificence is hard to describe, and the over-used word ‘awesome’ does not seem to do it justice.

As I write the sun is setting and the sea has turned pink, reflecting the colors on the horizon in the water.

Day 2 in Tubattaha:

This morning started with a sunrise, naturally (ahem!).
A great orange ball slowly emerged from beneath the mirrored sea, casting some kind of golden path that glistened and lead to nowhere. Sleepy heads emerged from below,slightly resentful but expectant of the impending dives,clutching tea and coffee mugs that helped us all introduce the day to our brains.

We boarded the tenders in still damp wetsuits, from last night’s night dive, and then dropped into gin clear water over the reef. I know it may be boring to read that once again we visited with turtles, sharks (grey reef and oceanic white tip),moray eels, clouds of jacks, an incredible profusion of chromis, of trigger fish busy building nests (they form a circular depression in the sand,clearing it by blowing water and then picking the small exposed pieces of dead coral and rock in their mouths, and placing them around the periphery),schools of fusiliers,nudibranchs and other macro life. The walls here have a plunging magnificence reaching in places to 100 metres before the next ledge, and after that so sheer,deep and straight that even with this wonderful water clarity there seems to be no bottom. Sea fans grow into the current and have spans that are larger than an American SUV, and we saw sponges the size of a Fiat 500.

This is challenging diving as, between the currents that will push you along and take you deeper than planned, there is also the problem of cumulative nitrogen uptake (from 4 + dives daily), and maintaining rigorous depth management and air consumption monitoring. Not for rookies, if one is to get the best experience from one’s surroundings.

Day 3:

Well this morning’s dive was a bit abortive…..it started out fairly calm but ended in the washing machine….the current was probably eight or nine knots and had vortexes in it…you could have gotten flushed! We saw very little except in passing (quickly and don’t blink!).

The second dive was definitely more interesting, and easier,some turtles but of greater interest were the two Thresher sharks we saw while at depth…perhaps 5-6 foot bodies and eight to ten feet with the tail.

Third dive today was pretty special; same place as this morning but without the current.Two encounters out in the blue with sharks, the first was impressive but the second was really quite extraordinary ……at the very least a dozen, schooling around a school of jacks,round and round and round but no attack we (I) saw. It is thought generally–and I agree–that they were Silky sharks, which are quite rare compared to white tip and grey reef sharks which are more solitary Pelagics. Afterwards, since we had been deep and most were at,or close, to obligatory deco stops, we spent time in the ‘octopus’ coral garden at 15 or 20 feet looking at young fish and beautiful corals of every different hue.

Day 4:

One abortive dive looking for hammerheads in the morning, but this afternoon’s dive made all the difference. I found another operculum on the way out to the reef drop off, then we saw schooling grey reef sharks up close who were hunting a school of Jacks. There was a great shoal of barracuda, a huge Merou (Malabar Grouper) maybe six feet. A large tuna cruising the reef edge passed me within two or three feet, and a large marble ray, but the highlight, of course, must be my first whale shark, about 20 or perhaps 22 or so feet in size would be my estimate,taking into account that things seem bigger underwater. On the reef I have seen Napoleon Wrasse (which is endangered) and bump head parrot fish amongst many others. What a magnificent beast….gentle,huge and deceptively fast.

Juan was in the right place at the right time photographically and we think he got some great shots.

One more dive to go on M/Y Vasco…can it get any better?This was a very special trip and one that I will not forget. I will return.

We are leaving for port, Puerto Princesa in Palawan, and the seas are rolling, so it will be an interesting night.

El Nido (Palawan):
After disembarking and an ‘exciting’ van ride from Puerto Princesa to here, I checked in my hotel.

The driver of a grossly overpacked van with children, chickens, baggage and the bag boy riding the roof was, to say the least, a little creative with the accelerator. The guy in front of me who spoke no English (unusual here in Philippines), simply made the sign of the cross,EVERY time, we started after dropping or picking passengers! Not guaranteed to give me hope for a long and enjoyable life.

Anyway safely here, and met a nice Finnish guy…we spent a few beers together. I have done three dives in surprisingly cold water, only one of which was really good, but I am told this is exactly the wrong time of the year for this spot. One dive was particularly interesting though, a devil,or Mobular Ray,a large area of cabbage coral, schools of jacks, some tuna, barracuda, clouds of xanthia , a smaller version of a kind of tuna(?)in schools and a profusion of copulating nudibranchs. Fish too…..seems that Spring brings the urge of love wherever you are….

Also have met a lovely Filipina who lives and works in Singapore and she has been wonderful about teaching me about the language and culture in the few days we have dived together.

I am getting increasingly comfortable here, liking the people, the weather, the joy in simple things that the people express, the food…and most of all the SMILES.

Off to Coron, Manila and Davao next…..

Ingat ka (take care) until my next missive!