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Philippines vs Indonesia

Two incredibly diverse archipelagos are sprawled across the equator in the heart of the Coral Triangle - the Philippines and Indonesia. How do you choose between them?



It’s a dilemma! In 1998, having spent three months in both Indonesia and then the Philippines working with a marine conservation company, I fell in love with both countries. I have since returned on several occasions and am still going back, and I will probably keep returning, as with a staggering 24,615 islands between them, it would probably take more than my lifetime to explore them all. So apologies if I have left out anybody’s favourite dive spot, but I still have a fair few left to visit.

In reality, not all the islands will be worth exploring, as both regions have had their fair share of pollution, dynamite- and cyanide fishing, and shark finning. But there are some protected areas and marine parks where you will find some incredibly beautiful coral reefs, a vast variety of sponges and plenty of fascinating creatures. There are also a few magical spots where you can still see schooling fish and some pretty awesome big stuff. Both countries are blessed with incredible natural resources and are considered pretty high up on the list of areas that boast the richest biodiversity in the world, so you’ll see more variety of fish and coral than you would in most other destinations.

But with so many thousands of islands between them, how do you possibly choose where to go? Indonesia by itself is so vast that it is normally treated as a series of individual destinations. In fact, choosing where to go in just one of the archipelagos is pretty tough, so I’ve drawn up a list of themes and contrasted the two. Can the comparatively tiny Philippines pip the mighty Indonesia?


PIERS AND JETTIES

Diving under man-made structures is often a rewarding experience, as the structures themselves provide a protected environment for an assortment of creatures, from fans and sponges to bizarre benthic critters and juvenile fish

 

Philippines: Padre Burgos Jetty

Some piers are very attractive in their own right, like our own wonderful home-grown Victorian pier in Swanage, for example. The pier in Southern Leyte, also called the Padre Burgos jetty, is sadly no belle from the surface – just an ugly, grey concrete structure; however, beneath the water is quite another story.

Due to the pier being concrete, there is very little light penetration – even day dives can seem a bit like night dives, so arm yourself with a torch. You won’t be disappointed as there is plenty to light up and the critters are there in huge numbers. Pairs of seahorses dance across the brightly coloured sponges on the pier legs, shrimpfish parade across the sand, cleaner shrimp stand to attention waiting for their next customer, and dwarf lionfish, nudibranchs and hermit crabs scurry across the bottom.

How to dive here

Book into a resort in Padre Burgos in Southern Leyte, or make life easy and book onto a Visayan Islands liveaboard. Prices start at €1,200 for five nights excluding flights on Philippine Siren with Worldwide Dive and Sail (www.worldwidediveandsail.com).

Indonesia: Derawan Jetty

Derawan Jetty is a slightly more familiar structure, with its long legs casting shadows and light filtering through the gaps in the wooden walkway. Beautiful fan corals attach themselves to the structure, and wonderful little creatures can be found hiding inside them. There is a resident school of snappers, but most importantly it is a macro photographer’s heaven. The 200m jetty is home to squid, baby cuttlefish, worms, scorpionfish and a multitude of crabs and squishy things that don’t always appear in the ID books.

How to dive here

Derawan is a 50-minute boat transfer from Berau, itself a short flight from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. Silk Air flies into Balikpapan daily from Singapore. Prices at Derawan Dive Resort (www.divederawan.com) start at US$970 for five nights including diving, meals and boat transfers from Berau (excludes flights).

DIVE’s choice

Both jetties are outstanding habitats for a myriad of critters, but for me, the Padre Burgos jetty is slightly preferable due to the ease of reaching it on a liveaboard.

  • PHILIPPINES 8/10
  • INDONESIA 7/10

 


CLASSIC REEFS

Muck diving isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there are very few divers who can turn their nose up at a beautiful reef wall. The rich assortment of corals and colours on a healthy reef is what tropical diving is all about and originally tempted most of us into the water.

Philippines: Napantao

On the eastern side of Sogod Bay, this is one of the oldest marine reserves in the Philippines. Crystal-clear waters, glinting sun rays and beautiful coral bommies are my main memories of the site. In the shallows, some of the corals were just below the surface, making it a great place for split over-and-under shots, but the main wall starts at about 12m and drops down to 40m-plus. Fairly strong currents can be encountered here, but they bring in pelagic fish – and, in season, you could be lucky and see a whale shark.

How to dive here

There is a Coral Cay (www.coralcay.org) expedition base at Napantao if you fancy a stint surveying the reefs – expedition prices start at £750 for two weeks excluding flights. Otherwise, a Visayas liveaboard, such as Philippine Siren (see below), is the way to go.

Indonesia: Crystal Rock, Komodo

Not a typical wall dive, but each time I’ve dived this site, I’ve been swept away by the abundant fish life, outstanding colour – and current. Sweetlips take cover from the flow behind barrel sponges, while clouds of baitfish glisten as they dance as one, trying to avoid the tuna and mackerel that dart in from the blue. Vibrant soft corals cling to the rocks and are surrounded by anthias. Even the rocks are smothered with rich orange coral polyps right up to the surface. The action is such that I wished I had a video camera.

How to dive here 

Book on any decent Komodo liveaboard. Most depart from Bima on Sumbawa, just a short flight from Bali. Prices start at €2,400 for ten nights excluding flights on Indo Siren (www.worldwidediveandsail.com).

DIVE’s choice

The clarity of the water and light at Napantao was amazing, but I’ve rarely enjoyed a dive as much as Crystal Rock. The action and colour is worth the effort of fighting the current.

  • PHILIPPINES 7/10
  • INDONESIA 9/10 

 


 

VOLCANIC SAND

I have no idea why muck diving is so good in areas where there is black volcanic sand – it just is. A major bonus is that a dark background also makes it easier to spot the often well-disguised critters.

Philippines: Dauin Marine Sanctuary, Dauin

At first glance, this site may not look particularly exciting, but the mix of black volcanic sand and seagrass slopes create a perfect spot for macro photographers to hunt out a number of camouflaged critters. Seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish, harlequin ghost pipefish and even baby clown frogfish are just a few of the macro supermodels on display. Also, don’t forget to check around any rubbish that you may see on the bottom, as old bottles and cans make the perfect hideout for small octopus and other juveniles.

How to dive here

Fly from Manila to Dumaguete, where you can base yourself in Dauin or Dumaguete, or book onto a Visayas liveaboard such as Philippine Siren (see below).

Indonesia: Hot Rocks, Sangeang Island

Hot Rocks is an aptly named dive site on the northeast of Sangeang Island. You are actually diving an active volcano, and you’ll see bubbles rising up from the warm volcanic sand. In the shallows, there are some incredibly vibrant coral bommies with such glowing colours that you could almost be hallucinating. Look out for beautiful nudibranchs on the dark sea bed, and also check the black corals that often hide the delicate harlequin ghost pipefish.

How to dive here

Hot Rocks is on most Komodo liveaboard itineraries, so see page
86 for details.

DIVE’s choice

I love diving on volcanic sand, but usually only for macro photography – so the reason that I love Hot Rocks so much is that you can take amazing wide-angle shots, too.

  • PHILIPPINES 8/10
  • INDONESIA 9/10


THRESHER SHARKS

Sadly, there is a lack of shark species in both regions due to overfishing and the lucrative shark-finning industry. While you can often spot the occasional group of blacktips hiding under rocks and even whale sharks in season, surprisingly, both regions have a special spot for viewing the beautiful but elusive thresher shark.

Philippines: Malapascau

Very early-morning starts are the only way to guarantee a chance of seeing the impressive thresher sharks at Malapascau. Just a half-hour boat ride away is Monad Shoal, an underwater island with walls that plummet to beyond 200m. At dawn, the nocturnal threshers rise up from the depths to take advantage of the cleaning stations in the relative shallows at around 20m. Although ambient light is not particularly good this early in the day, the unmistakeable shape of the thresher shark appearing out of the gloom is incredibly exciting.

How to dive here

Fly to Cebu, then take a two-and-a-half-hour road transfer to the northern tip of the island, where you board a boat for a half-hour cruise to Malapascau. Thresher Shark Divers (www.malapascua-diving.com) can book accommodation with prices starting at US$25 for a basic room with fan, and can arrange transfers and individual diving packages.

Indonesia: Maratua

Maratua certainly had a few surprise encounters in store. For instance, you can see up to 50 turtles on one dive at Turtle Traffic – more than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world, including Sipadan. You can also visit Kakaban, where you can spend a day floating around in a lake with harmless jellyfish, or hunt for seahorses and leaf-fish under the jetty. But the most famous resident is the thresher shark, which – incredibly – can be seen on the house reef.

How to dive here 

Fly into Berau from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan before taking a three-hour boat trip to Maratua. Silk Air flies into Balikpapan daily from Singapore. Prices at Maratua Paradise Resort (www.maratua.com) start from £755 for six nights’ full board, including transfers and diving but excluding flights.

DIVE’s choice

Both resorts have so much to offer, but Malapascau has to be my favourite – first, because I saw the most thresher sharks; second, because when the threshers went to bed, the mantas turned up; and third, because after the early-morning excitement, I could change my lens and head off in search of a harlequin shrimp or pygmy seahorse.

  • PHILIPPINES 9/10
  • INDONESIA 7/10 

 


MUST-VISIT RESORTS

Much of the remote and expedition diving over the years has been a bit rough and ready, but we do without creature comforts to see the creatures. However, we all crave a little TLC and luxury from time to time – so why not combine the two?

Philippines: Atlantis Beach Resort, Dumaguete

The city of Dumaguete is on the southern tip of the island of Negros in the heart of the Visayas, some 300 miles south of Manila. The Atlantis Dive Resort is situated on a beautiful long beach and is surrounded by tropical gardens that give it a very relaxed ambience. If you feel that you need to relax further, a trip to the spa is highly recommended.

It’s only a short ride to some of the most renowned dive sites in the Philippines, such as Apo Island, Balicasag and the Dauin Marine Sanctuary. However, many photographers visit here time and again for the house reef alone – it drops to 20m-plus and is teeming with critters. This is also an ideal base for non-diving partners, as there are plenty of markets and restaurants to visit in the city.

How to dive here

Fly to Manila, where you can connect with a daily flight to Dumaguete. Atlantis (www.atlantishotel.com) will then transfer you the short distance to the resort. Prices start at US$1,351 for seven nights’ full board, including diving but excluding flights.

Indonesia: Wakatobi

Years ago, the journey to Wakatobi was long and arduous. Nowadays, a private airstrip on a neighbouring island makes it far more accessible. This intimate eco-friendly resort is based on a remote island called Onemobaa off the southeast coast of Sulawesi. But ‘remote’ doesn’t mean ‘roughing it’ here: all the villas and beach bungalows are fully equipped with air conditioning and internet access.

You can dive on the world-famous house reef at any time of day or night, and there will always be a porter on hand to carry your equipment and help you into or out of the water. The house reef is home to a multitude of critters and is a voluntary no-take zone. Some photographers who don’t even bother to book onto the boat dives – it’s that good. It’s rare to see big schooling fish or pelagic species here, but the coral reefs are beautiful, the critters numerous and the ambience just wonderful.

How to dive here
Fly to Bali, where you usually need to overnight before joining the private charter to the island in the morning. Prices at Wakatobi (www.wakatobi.com) start at US$1,950 for five nights’ full board, including diving but excluding flights.

DIVE’s choice

Wakatobi has to win this category due partly to the private charter into such a remote area that makes it feel just that little bit more special.

  • PHILIPPINES 8/10
  • INDONESIA 9/10

So who is the winner?

I suspected that it would be a very close call, and Indonesia is just in the lead by one point. It’s true to say that this vast archipelago has the slight advantage of several thousand more islands than the Philippines. However, both countries have some incredible and diverse diving, and this article has hardly scratched the surface. Some may be asking how I could not include the biodiversity of Raja Ampat and the critters of Lembeh, or mention the wrecks of Coron Bay and the whale sharks around Palawan. Well, I guess they will have to wait until next time. As for me, I’m off to pack my bag for my next visit.

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