Meeting the unexpected in the Philippines


Drifting on the current along a drop-off at Apo Island in the Philippines and I was reminded once again how dreamlike diving can be. Real and unreal.

In the moment, yet a dimension away from the panorama rolling past: endless table coral, giant barrel sponges, teeming fish, up and over a knoll. Body warm water enhances the other-world sensation.

Nothing beats diving in the tropics.

Our host Roni Ben-Aharon fills us in on the Philippines

The Philippines’ marine sanctuaries are high impact attractions, and reported to be policed rigorously. It’s no wonder over a million divers head here every year.

Our trip exposes just a glimpse of what’s on offer.

This time we won’t get to explore the fabled destinations such as Tubbataha Reef or Bohol. Besides they require a liveaboard experience.

Nonetheless, our visit to Puerto Galera on Mindoro, and later to Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, fit the bill admirably for our nine day exploratory diving foray.

And to come is the strangely memorable shark diving experience at Oslob on Cebu Island.

When we land, from Manila a two and half hour drive along the highway takes us to Batangas where a 45 minute journey by sea begins, on a Bangka boat to Puerto Galera. The Bangka boats are the famous outrigged sea trucks and buses of the Philippines and, we soon learn, they make excellent, stable dive boats.

Our dive group showing off our Philippines Air t-shirts LtoR: Gilbert Peterson, Stephanie Haden (Auckland University UW Club), Darrell Bird (Dive the Coromandel), Ian Sherwood (Mt. Maunganui UW Club), Brent McFadden (GoDive Marlborough), Rob Macready (Travel&Co), Laura Hutchings (Travel&Co), James Neilson (Dive Doctor), Paula & David Drane (Dive Wellington).

Puerto Galera is a meeting with the unexpected. The port’s history goes back to the Spaniards – fleets of Spanish and Mexican galleons used to weather storms here. Now the Sabang beach front is a busy place with footpaths for streets and just the one road over the hills.

Spread along the waterfront are at least 30 or more dive shops and resorts – it just has to be great diving – most catering to Koreans and Chinese who come here by the Bangka boatload every day in season.

Whale shark at Oslob Photo: Ian Sherwood

But we’re here in the offseason, and the rains stay away. It proves a propitious time. Not only are the streets not crowded as they will be again before long, but the resort itself, Atlantis Puerto Galera, with its faux Spanish architecture climbing up the hillside, we have mostly to ourselves. This means the exclusive attention from the waiting staff and chefs. Right away they know our names, all 10 of us, as if expecting just us, a feat I am quick to appreciate! The same applies when we move later to the Atlantis Resort in Davin near Dumaguete where culinary excellence and comfortable accommodation are customary every day.

The ubiquitous Bangka boats make a stable dive platform Photo: Gilbert Peterson

Our dive schedule out of Puerto Galera is as full as anyone could hope. Arrive late morning, go diving twice in the afternoon and again in the evening. Repeat the next day am and pm then head to Verde Island the following day.

At Verde Island we dive the Pinnacles, a rocky structure a few hundred metres off shore. The Pinnacles are good for at least two dives including once around the whole thing, with a catered picnic lunch in between on the island.

Puerto Galera’s 30 or so dive operations crowd the Sabang beach Photo: Gilbert Peterson

Giant trevally, big Sweetlips and Long Nose Emperor fish command the scene where the current runs the strongest; a large tuna swims warily past heading the other way. Along with the throngs of tropical fish we spot morays and turtles, coral fans and an octopus I watch change colour in an instant.

There’s spadefish, trumpetfish, a Peacock Mantis shrimp that our guide coaxes out of its hole, and many others so numerous I lose track of their names. Stephanie decides her favourite is the frogfish possibly because it looks simply impossible.

Take your marks Photo: Gilbert Peterson

Then there’s the small critters; many types, and wonderfully coloured nudibranchs and shrimps, and the tiniest of pigmy seahorses which my guide pointed out or I certainly would never have seen it. The guide also points to what appears to be a larger seahorse on a piece of coral. He taps at it gently.

It doesn’t move. I stare. It seems wonderfully disguised as a piece of coral. I edge closer. Sure enough, it is a piece of coral.

Ancient cannon at Puerto Galera Photo: Gilbert Peterson

Again my guide taps at it. And then I see it, a scorpionfish so disguised I had not noticed it at all.

We head back to Manila for the flight to Dumaguete. Here, similar to Puerto Galera, good diving is moments from the beach in front of the resort. But the difference at Atlantis Demaguete is this is not populated by the many divers from other resorts.

The equally ubiquitous motorbike ‘bus’ Photo: Gilbert Peterson

On Sunday we head out for a dive highlight, to Apo Island, a protected no take sanctuary (see panel) which, judging by a swarm of Bangka boats at anchor, is nevertheless a most popular dive site.

Right away, the lovely coral garden beneath shows why. Soft and hard corals extend to the beyond in lush, resplendent colour. This is what we expect when diving in the tropics on a coral reef. A turtle sits motionless on the sea floor.

Shrimp Photo: Ian Sherwood

Another, further over scratches itself on a coral ledge, trying to rid itself no doubt of a parasite itch, annoyed it seems with its own remora fish: ‘you can’t seem to get good help these days.’ A banded black and white sea crake winds along to disappear down a hole.

We could stay here long after the air supply allows.

Whale shark sucking in the krill at Oslob Photo: Ian Sherwood

The whale sharks of Oslob

Early on our last day we head to Oslob, a ferry ride in the resort’s Jeepney from Dumaguete. Again, we meet the unexpected.

For our snorkeling with the whale sharks we don light dive suits to thwart any stingers then drive a few minutes to the Oslob beach.

It’s early but already the place is jostling with hundreds of people queuing to board their assigned outrigger canoe. The canoes take 12 at a time, and a dozen of them are out on the water at any one time during the three or four hours of the daily shark feeding. In four years of the operation tens of thousands of people have been up close with these sharks like this.

Peacock Mantis shrimp Photo: Ian Sherwood

It’s changed the lives of the previously low earning fishermen who feed the sharks, and it’s changing the sharks.

Each canoe load is allotted 30 minutes as the sharks imbibe an easy meal, following the ‘krill’ or minced squid spooned over the side in front of them. We have to wear a lifejacket going out then swap those out for dive masks.

It’s an odd feeling being in the water no more than an arms’ length from such an enormous animal. They are totally indifferent to people; they just suck in huge volumes of water along with the krill/squid.

Frogfish Photo: Brent McFadden, Go Dive, Picton

Our photographers swim under and around trying to get the definitive shot of the fish, and each other with the fish. We are told we must not get closer than four metres to the animals but that proves impossible. The sharks are closer than that to the canoes and when not diving, we’re between them and the canoes… it was a strange experience… before it became a tourist attraction Oslob used to be a slaughter house.

Turtle Photo: Ian Sherwood

Some thousands of years ago humans domesticated cows and other animals – is this the same?

Are we now domesticating whale sharks? What do you think? Send me an email to:

We got around in the resort’s Jeepney Photo: Gilbert Peterson

Apo Island Marine Reserve

Apo Island is the focus of the oldest continuous marine reserve in the Philippines 7 km from Negros Island.

Established in 1994 over an area of 691.45 hectares. The rocky island itself is just 74 hectares but has a resident population of about 1000 people.

Morays Photo: Ian Sherwood

In 1982 marine scientist Dr Angel Alcala began a dialogue with the island’s fishermen to try and persuade them to protect the area. After three year’s they agreed. Now the reserve is organised and protected by the local community, and the model on which hundreds of other marine sanctuaries have been created.

Anemone Photo: Ian Sherwood

The Philippines are one of the world’s centres of marine biodiversity located as it is within the Coral Triangle. In all there are 31,782.0 square km2 in 375 MPAs of which 90% is in No-Take Reserves of less than one square kilometre.

The Apo Island reserve is home to over 650 fish species and 400 corals. Visitors pay to enter the reserve to snorkel or dive with the funds used for the sanctuary’s upkeep.

In 2008, Sport Diver Magazine listed Apo Island as one of the top 100 diving spots in the world.

Banded sea craik Photo: Ian Sherwood

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