In Depth | Visayas
Of Southeast Asia’s great diving destinations, the Philippines is the least understood, but possibly offers the best value for money. We sent Jane Morgan to the Visayan Islands in the heart of the archipelago, on a mission to identify the best reefs and critter dives in the area
Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle is home to the highest diversity of marine life on our planet, and the Republic of the Philippines is situated right at the top of it. This archipelago is the second-largest in the world (after Indonesia), comprising 7,107 islands. It’s a hotspot, not just for marine life, but also for the incredible range of birds, plants and mammals that can be found in its rainforests and along its coastline. It is a land where four seas collide, each bringing their share of nutrients.
Such is the country’s diverse culture, no less than 175 languages are spoken here, although Filipino and English are the ones used in government. English is widely (though not universally) spoken, partly as a result of the presence of strategic US naval bases in the period after the Second World War.
There is good diving all over the Philippines, although many coastal areas have been damaged by dynamite fishing. Probably the most rewarding area for divers is the region of islands at the heart of the archipelago – the Visayas – and that is the area this IN Depth guide will concentrate on.
The Visayan Islands all have their own dive centres and resorts, but to get a broad idea of what the diving has to offer across the region, I embarked on a journey on board Philippine Siren, a luxury liveaboard operated by Worldwide Dive and Sail. Our itinerary over the ten days was to include Cabilao, Balicasag, Panglao, Limasawa, Southern Leyte and Tinuibo Islands. SY Philippine Siren is the latest edition to Worldwide Dive and Sail’s fleet and, at 40m in length, can take 16 guests. It is very comfortable indeed.
You’ll find an interesting mix of steep coral walls, gentle sloping reefs and my personal favourite, muck diving, all over the Visayas. Around Balicasag and Cabilao, you can expect to see large schools of jacks and huge gorgonian fan corals. Our trip also took us past Sogod Bay, world famous for its whale shark aggregation from March to May. Unfortunately, we were a little early in the season for them, but it was worth the stop just to listen to the local whale shark spotter (who used to be a whale shark hunter) tell a dramatic story about how he found God while a whale shark was trying to kill him by dragging him down to the depths.
We’ll cover the highlights of the voyage in detail shortly, but in general terms, Southern Leyte and Limasawa turned out to be fantastic for interesting small critters, particularly under the pier in Southern Leyte. If you’re looking for beautiful reefs, then pretty much anywhere on this itinerary will keep you happy, especially if, like me, you’ve got a soft spot for brightly coloured anemones and cute anemonefish.
Here, then, are my highlights of the Visayan Islands. Remember – you can visit many of these sites by basing yourself on land, but only a liveaboard can do them all in ten days.
Great Visayan dives
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Cabilao Island: The Lighthouse
Cabilao Island lies on the west coast of the main island of Bohol, facing Cebu – the Lighthouse is on the northwest corner. The sea-grass slope here is a macro photographer’s paradise, where you can find a variety of critters such as leaf fish and ghost pipefish.
The steeper wall drops down to a plateau at 35m and is covered with invertebrates, including blue vase sponges and pink barrel sponges that were themselves covered with hundreds of spawning white sea cucumbers. Clinging to the wall were bubble corals complete with orangutan crabs, and there were at least five different colours of anemone inhabited by different types of anemonefish.
Balicasag Island: Black Coral Forest
Balicasag Island is located 40 miles southwest of Panglao Island, itself off the southwest tip of Bohol. The Black Coral Forest is a haunting dive, featuring a wall that drops gently down to 50m.
Surprisingly, the black coral grows at around 30m, much shallower than you would normally find it in the tropics. There was a current running when we dived this site, and we drifted past lots of large black coral bushes and fan corals smothered with crinoids. The reef top had a good covering of corals, and green turtles could be seen sleeping under the table corals.
Balicasag Island: Sanctuary
This site is a luxuriant reef wall that drops steeply down to 50m, and offers something for everyone. Schools of jacks hang out in the blue, and the reef wall has some great overhangs and cathedral-like caves. Turtles can be seen here and large fan and whip corals wave in the current. Plenty of small, colourful critters can also be seen on the reef wall, including beautiful painted frogfish and nudibranchs.
Southern Leyte: The pier
Also known as the Padre Burgos jetty, this dive is my favourite in the entire region. It’s only 7m deep, and to be honest, from the surface it’s an ugly cement structure sticking out into the bay. But underneath is the most amazing ecosystem with a vast variety of creatures living and thriving in it. It’s impossible to list them all here, but I have never seen quite so many seahorses, harlequin ghost pipefish, weird decorator crabs or all manner of slugs and shrimps. There were frogfish, razorfish, shrimpfish, pipefish, starfish... the list goes on and on. But you get the picture – it was particularly good for photographers, especially at night. I could have stayed all week, but diving in muck wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea... sigh!
Southern Leyte: Napantaw
This is another spectacular dive site with beautiful walls sweeping down to 45m and more. We dived this site twice – the first time concentrating on the deeper swim-throughs and caves that were great fun to navigate. The reef walls were decorated with black corals, gorgonians and large colourful crinoids, while waves of colourful anthias encircled everything. Just as enjoyable was diving on the shallow reef top, where corals were thriving just beneath the surface.
Malapascua: Gato Island
I visited Gato as a day trip from Malapascua. It is a small, rocky island that has plenty of small caves and swim- throughs to explore. The dives are really colourful, as the rocks are smothered in beautiful soft corals. The highlights were plenty of white-tip sharks sleeping under the rocky outcrops, but you can also expect to see cuttlefish, sea snakes and a huge variety of nudibranchs.
It was 4.30am and pitch black as I picked my way along the sandy path towards the dive centre by the light of my spotter torch. It’s not usual to see me out and about quite so early, but this was for a very good reason – the chance of seeing the beautiful but elusive thresher shark.
The thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus) can grow up to 6m long, but that length includes its long, whip-like tail that is almost certainly used to stun fish and squid. The species is believed to be nocturnal and normally lives in deep water.
The dive site we were heading to, Monad Shoal near the island of Malapascua, is an underwater island lying between 18m and 26m with sides that plummet to more than 200m – perfect thresher territory!
The best chance to see these sharks is very early in the morning, when they come up into the shallower water to take advantage of the cleaning stations – that was why I was out of my bed at silly o’clock.
Dropping into the water soon woke me up, and only a short time after reaching the bottom, we were treated to some big shadowy shapes moving through the gloom towards us. As soon as they got close enough, we could see their large, round, black eyes checking us out.
As we were diving so early in the day, conditions were not particularly favourable for photography – the light was low and the use of strobes is banned in the marine park. Although I didn’t get any award-winning shots, I did have the pleasure of seeing four or five of these incredible creatures.
Later in the day, there may not be as much thresher action, but you can see manta and eagle rays. From January to April, you may even be treated to a hammerhead sighting. The consensus is that the best time to see the threshers is July to October, but they can be seen all year round. I advise avoiding major holidays and other busy times, as you will have a better chance when there are fewer divers in the water.
Malapascua is a small, unspoiled island off the north tip of Cebu. It is only about one and a half miles long and less than half a mile wide, so you can walk all the way around in two hours. I only had two days to spend there, but would have loved to stay longer. There was so much to see in such a short period of time, so when I arrived I rattled off a wish list to my helpful British hosts, Thresher Shark Divers, and ticked off pretty much everything in those two days. Naturally, those elusive thresher sharks were at the top of my list, but I also wanted to see white-tip sharks, Spanish dancers, seahorses, harlequin shrimps, mandarinfish, porcelain crabs and sea snakes, to name but a few.
The diversity of life around this little island is staggering. There is even a selection of wrecks at depths of between 5m and 54m.
Need to know
The Philippines is a year-round diving destination with a warm, humid climate and an average temperature of 32°C. Generally, the best time to go is from December through to April. The hottest months are April to June and the monsoon season is from July to September. Water temperatures are fairly stable and range between 25°C and 31°C year-round.
Jane Morgan travelled to Mactan-Cebu airport with Korean Airlines via Seoul. Many other airlines fly there, although you will need to change flights at one of the many regional hubs. If you want to go to Malapascua, Thresher Shark Divers can arrange for a taxi from either the airport or your hotel in Cebu City for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the north tip of Cebu, where you will board a boat for a 30-minute trip to the island.
Crusader Travel • 020 8744 0474 • www.crusadertravel.com
Dive Worldwide • 0845 130 6980 • www.diveworldwide.com
Regaldive • 01353 659 999 • www.regaldive.co.uk
Scuba Travel • 0800 072 8221 • www.scubatravel.com
Sea Explorers • +63 32 234 0248 • www.sea-explorers.com
Thresher Shark Divers • +63 32 437 0985 • www.malapascua-diving.com
Worldwide Dive & Sail • 020 8099 2230 • www.worldwidediveandsail.com
Thanks to the Philippines Department of Tourism (www.wowphilippines.co.uk), Worldwide Dive and Sail, the Plantation Bay Resort & Spa Cebu (www.plantationbay.com) and Thresher Shark Divers for their help and for hosting our reporter