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Discover the macro beasts of El Nido - Palawan

shutterstock 409722163 limestone cliffs palawan philippines el nidoThe stunning limestone cliffs near El Nido / Shutterstock

The world of macro is full of unique characters, amazing camouflage techniques and colours that take the breath away. And a new dive destination in Palawan in the Philippines is proving full of surprises

In the north-west of Palawan is the town of El Nido (The Nest), an up and coming spot for diving and tourism. Most tourists tend to travel through, either on the way or returning from Coron and diving the famous wrecks or visiting the beautiful beaches on ‘island hopping’ tours. Nearby Nacpan beach was this year voted one of the top 10 of the world’s beaches by Trip Advisor.

Sadly many don’t dive El Nido thinking there isn’t much to see… but they don’t know what they are missing. Bacuit Bay is massive marine protected area and lots of great dive sites. And the scenery is breathtaking – tall limestone cliff covered in greenery with the occasional monkey or sea eagle, and pristine beaches. The dive sites themselves can vary from wall dives to swim-throughs, beautiful soft and hard corals, rock formations to manoeuvre around and busy reefs to enjoy and explore.

shutterstock 174832871 el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesA traditional wooden boat on a small beach near El Nido / Shutterstock

One dive site that is normally only used for Open Water training by the local dive centres, is also home to some amazing little creatures that perhaps you would overlook if they were situated on a busy reef.

Paradise Beach, ten minutes boat ride from the town, is a shallow, sandy-bottomed area, which starts at 1m depth and slowly slopes down to around 28m.

The large sand patch stretches between two sections of reef and is perfect for practising basic scuba skills. But when you go just a little deeper, from around 8m and more, some gems can be found.

Straited frogfish fish el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesStraited frogfish with its distinctive patterns of blotches and stripes which radiate out from the eye / Simon J Richardson

Looking in between the chocolate chipped starfish you can find striated frogfish, a hairy looking critter with its irregularly-arranged dermal spindules. It walks over the sand with its adapted pelvic fins and is hard to spot with is patterns of stripes and blotches. It has an elongated dorsal spine, which it uses like a fishing rod with a lure to catch unsuspecting prey.

Thorny seahorses can be found wrapping their tails around sections of rope or hiding between algae.

Ornate Ghost pipefish fish el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesOrnate ghost pipefish - the amazing texture of this animal is perfectly matched to its chosen hiding place / Pauline Gast

There are ghost pipefish of many varieties including the ornate ghost pipefish often found lurking behind feather stars, their spikey bodies perfectly designed for camouflage. The juvenile ornate has an almost transparent body great for avoiding being eaten. When mature they move to the reef and take on their distinctive shape and colour, which is so effective a camouflage when hiding near feather stars. Be prepared to spend some time looking around lots of feather stars hoping to find one.

Robust ghost pipefish, which look like leaves dancing in the swell on the sand, are a treat to find. Normally seen in pairs, with the larger being the female. Look at the back of the female and you might see the eggs being held by a special brood pouch formed by the expanded pelvic fins.

While skimming the sand looking for these characters you might see some flashes of colour. Take care, but this will probably either be a flying gurnard spreading its beautifully decorated wings as a warning or a spiny devil scorpion fish doing the same. These sand-coloured masters of disguise are difficult to see, so keep a keen eye out, as they are poisonous.

shutterstock 268082672 mimic octopus cephalopod el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesMimic octopus / Shutterstock

Two tiny eyes with thorns on top, popping up and down on small sand hills is the shy and elusive mimic octopus. An amazing creature that can mimic other animals such as lionfish, banded sea snakes, flounders and others to appear less appetising for potential predators. They are highly poisonous and most of the time take on a sandy colour. Their distinctive black and white stripes appear when they are hunting, mating or trying to ‘mimic’ another animal.

Cuttlefish are also well-established habitants of this site, dwarf or juvenile cuttlefish try and blend in with the starfish, and larger species can be seen on the bordering reefs.

Flamboyant 01 cuttlefish fish el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesThe flamboyant cuttlefish makes its way along the sand using its specialised arms and tentacles / Pauline Gast

Deeper on the sandy area be aware of small rocks, sometimes they are not what they seem. They can erupt into an amazing display of pulsating yellows, oranges, blacks and greys - the flamboyant cuttlefish: a unique character in the underwater world, with a hypnotising colour display and an entertaining way of travelling around.

Unlike its bigger cousins, this tiny cuttlefish has a relatively small cuttlebone, so buoyancy and staying above the ground is much more difficult. It, therefore, tends to walk on specially adapted arms and tentacles - if a quick escape or attack is needed it can hover a few centimetres over the sand. It feeds using a special ‘feeding tentacle’, which it shoots out to grab crustaceans or small fish, and quickly pulls them back into the mouth.

This cuttlefish seems quite unaffected by company when feeding, so stay with them for a while if you find them walking around and enjoy the show!

Jacks school fish el nido limestone cliffs palawan philippinesJacks – Depending on the time of year, you can experience massive numbers in a single school / Pauline Gast

If you have had enough of grubbing around looking for macro beasties, Bacuit Bay has plenty of other great dive sites. North Rock with its pristine reefs in the shallows, batfish being cleaned on top of table corals and a chance to see big schools of jacks, and possibly eagle rays. South Miniloc with its beautiful cabbage coral garden, schools of yellow snapper, tuna and barracuda. Or you can wall dive at West Entalula; navigate around beautifully decorated rock formations at Paglugaban while looking for the bumphead parrotfish, or try and find the massive green turtles at either Helicopter Island or Nat Nat.

• Simon is a founder of FishEye Underwater Productions based in El Nido - to discover more click here 

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