Philippines: Islands & Currents
The Philippines is the most accessible, exciting and affordable land-based diving destination in the Coral Triangle. Words and photographs by Douglas David Seifert
The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,641 jigsaw puzzle piece-shaped islands scattered across 300,000 sq km of tropical ocean between South Asia and Australia, bordered to the west by Borneo, and by Indonesia to the south. It forms the geographic crown of the Coral Triangle, the epicentre of global marine biodiversity.
The Philippines’ seascape is profoundly influenced by the seasonal monsoon and by the consistent and strong water flow and currents from surrounding deep ocean basins. To the west is the South China Sea, to the east the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and to the south the Celebes Sea (or Sulawesi Sea). And, encompassed by its own major islands of Palawan, Mindoro, Panay, Negros and Mindanao, is the Sulu Sea, a semi-enclosed deep basin, with a surface area of 790 sq km and a maximum depth of 5,600m.
The mountainous islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao collectively form a barricade to the westward currents flowing from the Philippine Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. A mass of water driven across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean abruptly hits this barrier and ‘piles up’ on average by 15cm to a maximum of 28cm. This standing body of water is continuous and constant and would rise yet higher were it not in the nature of water to seek its own level, in this instance by seeking multiple detours around and through the archipelago.
The Philippine Sea/Pacific Ocean’s southern corridor is the Mindanao Current, hugging the coast as it traverses southeast and flows into the Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea; to the north, the route taken is via the Luzon Strait between Luzon and Taiwan, where the waters of the Philippine Sea join with the South China Sea.
In addition to the northern and southern bypasses, high volumes of water make their way in between the smaller islands via relatively shallow water depth and relatively narrow passages known as straits, particularly the San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar and the Siargao Strait between Leyte and Mindanao. These straits flow into the internal Sibuyan Sea and Bohol Sea before joining the Sulu Sea or passing into the South China Sea via the Mindoro Strait, Tablas Strait or the Verde Island Passage.
This immense profusion of water is in ceaseless motion and is funnelled within the maze of passages, waterways and straits between these relatively closely bunched islands that make up the Philippines. The mix of waterflow, upwellings and downwellings and the narrow channels between islands, makes for strong tidal and current flows that bathe the area with a bounty of plankton and nutrients essential for a vibrant marine ecosystem, as well as transporting larvae throughout the archipelago. In the Coral Triangle larval fish, invertebrates and corals settle up to 80km from their origin – this crucial dispersal is one of the key factors in the area’s impressive biodiversity.
Of all the locations of the Philippines, the 900,000 sq km Verde Island Passage is arguably the richest, most biodiverse region and hosts a diverse number of distinct scuba diving destinations drawing visitors from within the Philippines and from around the world.
On the northern shore of the Verde Island Passage is the 13km Calumpang Peninsula, better known under the general name Anilao, geographically consisting of the villages of Anilao, Balingit and Mabini. Anilao is only 2.5 hours drive from Manila and has seen tremendous development over the past 40 years, with dozens of operators and resorts to choose from. The dive sites range from sea mounts and pinnacles, to current-washed coral reefs, to shipwrecks, coral gardens, and soft-sediment, sea grass and sponge, coralline algae and coral-patch muck sites.
Travelling south across the Verde Island Passage, you reach the island of Mindoro and Puerto Galera, which is arguably the ‘divingest’ town in the Philippines. Dozens upon dozens of dive shops and resorts, hostels, and bars and restaurants catering to the scuba diving, bucket-lister and back-packing clientele crowd the waterfront of Sabang Beach. It is noisy, it is chaotic and it is non-stop because, despite its drawbacks, the diving is popular, the vibe is good, the beer is cold and the price is right for the budget-conscious traveller.
As in Anilao, every day of the year, hundreds of divers descend into the adjacent waters to be shown tolerant, even blasé hawksbill and green sea turtles, varieties of hard and soft corals, strange-looking fish such as frogfish, seahorses, ghost pipefish, exotic muck creatures such as mantis shrimp, octopus, cuttlefish, and the ubiquitous nudibranch. Indeed, the Verde Island Passage may have the greatest concentration of nudibranchs species and nudibranch numbers of the entire Coral Triangle, and hence, the world. Dr Terry Gosliner of the California Academy of Science, has identified a staggering 800 species in the Verde Island Passage over the past 20 years, half of them new to science.
More or less between Anilao and Dumaguete in the middle of the Verde Island Passage is Verde Island. Its reefs are relatively healthy, and Verde Island is blasted with strong currents, providing a dynamic environment for hard and soft corals and a challenging dive at one of the offshore current-swept pinnacles known as the Drop -Off. The pinnacles are clouded by the swirl of schooling anthias and the comings and goings of small reef fish, which in turn attract larger ambush predators, such as lionfish, crocodilefish and giant frogfish the size of footballs.
In both Anilao and Puerto Galera, as interesting and full of discovery as each dive may be, the dives at night are even more mind-blowing. From crevices within coral bommies and from the soft substrate mud, volcanic black sand, coral rubble or fine sand, creatures of all description emerge at night to go about their business under cover of darkness. Living gastropod shells, such as harp shells, olive shells, sundials and cone shells, are out on the prowl. Pleurobranchs, reclusive during the day, can be seen, as well as the largest dorid nudibranch, the Spanish dancer. Bobtail, bottletail and reef squid hunt in the inky blackness, their kindred octopus and cuttlefish brethren also going about their business. Stargazers hide just below the surface of the sand, their presence betrayed only by their eyes and the outline of a toothsome mouth. Crabs and shrimp of all sizes and variety are out on parade. The discoveries come fast, one after another, and what should have been an hour’s night dive may give way to two hours, so lost in discovery can a diver be that only a failing dive light or nearly empty air tank signals the need to end the dive. Both Anilao and Puerto Galera offer night diving that is world class.
The central Philippine islands of Negros and Cebu also offer magnificent and interesting muck dives, though the coral reefs are much degraded by overfishing, illegal fishing, destructive fishing practices such as blast fishing (aka dynamite fishing) and poison fishing. The reefs are far less attractive than those of the Verde Island Passage, with the exception of Apo Island. Apo Island is a marine protected area.
The village of Dauin is located down the coast from Dumaguete, on the island of Negros Oriental, and it offers the same calibre of rich muck-diving sites as Anilao and Puerto Galera – but with more refined accommodation and infrastructure and, more importantly, without the crowds and chaos. Dauin is mostly a shallow black-sand plateau, with shallow corals and seagrass fields giving way to gentle or extreme sand slopes leading into deep waters. There are some healthy patch reefs and a number of artificial reefs (some made of car tyres, others of concrete) that have their own invertebrate growth of soft corals and algae to provide suitable habitat for a plethora of creatures.
Frogfish Central: Each April at Dauin on the island of Negros the frogfish arrive… one one dive Douglas saw 13 different individuals ranging in size from a pea to a football
In April, Dauin becomes Frogfish Land. During a recent visit, at one dive site, 13 individual frogfish from at least six different species were encountered in one 70-minute dive in water less than 8m depth. Some were the size of a pea or a grain of rice, others the size of a fist. Colours ranged from striking pastels to drab autumnal colours, and black or white. Seahorses of different species and colourations are regularly seen, often in the same environment as the frogfish, as are ghost pipefish.
Rare encounters with big animals in the Philippines can be had, but only at a few known and far-flung locations. Monad Shoal, a guyot adjacent to Malapascua Island, off the island of Cebu, is world-renowned as the place to reliably encounter thresher sharks which attend certain cleaning stations in the pre-dawn and early morning hours.
Dimakya Island, near the island of Palawan, offers guaranteed green sea turtle encounters in the sandy shallow seagrass habitats and it is not uncommon to have regular sightings of the wary dugong (though getting close to one underwater is wholly up to the capricious mood of a dugong and truly feast or famine for the human participant).
Tubbataha Reef, an atoll in the Sulu Sea (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) guarantees beautiful coral reefs and offers reasonable opportunities to encounter manta rays, whale sharks and schooling jacks. It is one of the few dive destinations in the Philippines that requires a liveaboard dive boat; most other destination are blissfully landbased.
The small towns of Oslob and Donsol now attract thousands of visitors for the sole purpose of a close encounter with a whale shark, albeit in a carnival-freak-show incarnation that defines the word spectacle. The Philippines offers a bit of everything for the visiting diver but it is definitely a patchwork of travel from location to location. There is no ‘one size fits all’ destination combining big animals, spectacular coral reefs, abundant fish species and numbers of individuals, and the bizarre muck-dwelling exotica of invertebrates and cryptic fish, as one might find in Raja Ampat, Indonesia or Milne Bay and Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.
In many ways, the Philippines is at a crossroads. By a 1997 law, all coastal municipalities have to allocate 15 per cent of their coastal waters as Marine Protected Areas. Where there were less than 100 MPAs in 1990, there are now more than 1,600 MPAs, all community based and locally managed.
On paper a great idea and a shining example which other nations should follow. But it is not quite enough. Most of these MPAs are too small to be effective for conservation of biodiversity and for fisheries management. Less than ten per cent of the MPAs are greater than one sq km in area. Further, a study in 2008 said that only three per cent of Philippine reef areas are effectively managed.
Scientists and fisheries biologists estimate that at least 30 per cent of the reef area needs to be fully protected as no-take zones to overcome the effects of intensive fishing efforts by artisanal fishers. This is problematic in the seventh most populated country in the world, with 107.7 million people to feed and with a considerable proportion of their protein requirements derived from the seas that surround them.
The impact of illegal, unregulated and unmonitored catches over time has, reduced the number of large- bodied and commercially important species (diversity) and reduced the number of fish species individually (density). The devastation of loss of diversity and density has been acknowledged to be a loss of two per cent of reef species’ richness per decade, since the baseline studies began 50 years ago. Researchers think there has been a ten per cent total loss over the past five decades. Loss of biodiversity and commercial extinction of fish species cannot continue without an impact on the world-class biodiversity for which the Philippines has become famous.
Scuba diving tourism has become an integral part of the solution to reef and species resilience. The dive travel industry creates jobs in all sectors tangential to the scuba diving activity itself, giving the opportunity for sustainable, environmentally-sensible, alternative livelihoods to local people rather than forcing them to fish down the food chain until the last animal is gone and the reefs are beyond salvation.
Tourism, particularly scuba diving tourism, is becoming more popular than ever. Once obscure Filipino villages and towns are now spoken of reverently in scuba diving circles. Photographers delight at the unique creatures, difficult to find in most other places. Muck diving is on par, or sets the bar comparative to, other critter hotspots in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon islands, but at a significantly reduced cost. Indeed, the Philippines is the most accessible, easiest to get around, most economical, land-based diving destination in the Coral Triangle, with an educated population that speaks English and has a work ethic that makes things happen in a timely manner.
It will be worth watching to see how the Philippines looks after its underwater treasures and it will certainly be worth returning again and again to the crown of the Coral Triangle.
Douglas would like to thank Gordon Stranahan and the staff of Atlantis Dive Resorts and Liveaboards (www.atlantishotel.com/resorts-and-liveaboard) for showing the wonders of Puerto Galera and Dumaguete (Dauin) and introducing him to Philippine culture, hospitality and cuisine. Thanks to Marty Snyderman for pointing out all the wonderful animals Douglas swam past in his excitement at seeing such underwater excess. In Anilao, Douglas worked with the fine team at Aiyanar Beach Dive Resort (http://aiyanar.com) and thanks to Marco Lacson Santos for his patience and assistance and to Ryan Canon and Kevin Palmer at Reef Photo Video for sponsorship (http://reefphoto.com/shop). Any understanding of the Philippines underwater world is taken to new levels by input from longtime dive buddy Gutsy Tuason. The dugong adventure was hosted by Dugong Dive Center (www.dugongdivecenter-ph.com) and thanks to Gunther Deichmann and Dirk Fahrenbach and to Carsten Warnke of Club Paradise (www.clubparadisepalawan.com), on Dimakya Island, Coron, Northern Palawan, for their support and cooperation. Thanks to Tong Abyss Dayday for guiding on daily pre-dawn excursions into the abyss looking for thresher sharks on Malapascua Island. Special thanks to Dr Mark Erdmann of Conservation International for invaluable sceintific input and perspectives.