Eleven days in the Philippines

All I can say is how lucky are we. I had an email from some friends we have met through travel in the past with this wonderful invitation to join them for an eleven day Philippines Dive Famil. Ray and Penny from Pack Ya Bags Travel were getting a group together to experience the diving in the Philippines.  We were being sponsored by the Philippine Airlines, On ground Suppliers, Philippine ‘Tourism Board’ and Pack Ya Bags Travel. 

With very short notice Ray was trying to fill the trip, he had had little response from Travel Agents who he had invited.  I phoned around to as many as possible and put the word out about the trip.  In the end Chris Nipper and partner Monique Mearns, Roy Vale and a friend Charlene James from California, joined the group. Also Summer Abrahamson from the Flight Centre in Thames also joined us.  Charlene did a refresher course and Summer and Monique did a full PADI course and they were both fully qualified in the end to join us on the last diving days we did, including their first open sea dive, which was diving with the whale shark.

The flight to Manila was through Cairns with Philippine Airlines.  We had a short stop over in Cairns and another stop over in Manila before we flew to Tagbilaran on the Island of Bohol.  There was a very interesting trip through the towns to the port where we had a boat trip to Cabilao.  The Island of Bohol is under repair with major works being carried out on their roads, most being replaced with thick cement.  All of our transport was very upmarket and the boats with the bamboo outriggers comfortable and dry. 

The Pura Vida Cabilao Resort was a magic place, our accommodation was wonderful.  Some of us on the beach front, one garden villa and Peter and I were very privileged to have a beautiful suite room on the cliff top with a magic view. 

We were offered a dive when we first arrived and Ray Aucott, Chris Nipper and I did this, the others rested after our marathon 24 hours travel.  We checkout the dive shop and geared up, good quality gear provided and headed out to Light House 2 with Santi as our dive master guide. She was wonderful pointing out so many things.  First time I have seen frog fish, these were bright yellow and so hard to find on bright yellow coral growth. Many colours of lion fish, huge sponges, lots of soft corals and a very deep drop off.  The diving was easy, lots of help from the crew on board.  Santi even took a magnifying glass down with her to point out the tiny pygmy sea horses.  The second dive turned into a night dive this one Peter and Roy Vale joined me.  Roy’s first dive in 10 years; good on him at 81, getting back into the water.  Water temp on all of our dives was between 28-30 C; sometimes the water was warmer than the air temp.  I had a total of 17 dives over the seven dive days we had.  That was almost 16 hours in the water, bit water logged in the end.  The next day we had three dives, we could do as many dives as we wanted, they were very accommodating.  We had an electric clam pointed out and swam through a cave complex in beautiful clear brilliant blue water. Everywhere covered in hard corals and some very pretty and colourful soft corals, and millions of brilliant coloured small fish and often seeing unusual shapes and colours of nudibranchs. 

Charlene had finished her refresher course and was able to join us on the 3rd dive today, and this dive was called gorgonian wall, and what a wall and huge drop off it was.  Most dives we saw turtles and sea snakes, the turtles were friendly and on one of my dives I scratched the algae off the back of the turtle and he just responded by rubbing his shell against me.  What an incredible encounter that was.

After three nights at Cabilao we packed our gear and left early by a very classy outrigger boat to travel to Balikasad Island and a turtle haven.  This area attracted many divers from all over, a beautiful island with white sandy beaches, and a very popular place.  There are huge black coral outcrops at 40m around this island.  We never dived to this depth to see it as the guides do many dives a day and don’t take the risk of going too deep. Most dives were around 20-28m, with 50 -75 minutes in the water.  We were rewarded with seeing around 20 turtles on each dive, garden eels, coral coated huge bommies, and red and black fluro nudibranchs. The last dive being a very easy slow drift dive, all boats raft up and use buoys instead anchor, when we pop up they are there to meet us.

Monique and Summer continued with the PADI theory at every spare moment and Airen their Instructor travelled with us so the girls could finish their course.

We left Balikasad Island in brilliant weather and travelled by sea, the three hour trip to Negros Island and a place called Dauin just south of Dumaguete.  This is another Pura Vida Resort, a stunning place with beautiful gardens. A variety of accommodation and Peter and I had a traditional bamboo villa with a thatched roof in the well laid out and cared for gardens.  Very comfy with tea, coffee, fridge en-suite etc. We were hosted to dinner by the Owner Chris under the stars on the beach.  We watched the huge red super moon rise out of the sea, 14% larger and 30% brighter than normal and not to be as close again to Earth until 2034.  What a place to be able to experience this once in a life time occasion.

Getting very used to this life style, I like it, weather around 30⁰C each day, being pampered - everyone had one or more massages and the diving is amazing.  The next day the 5th of our travels we headed out to Apo Island, around ½ hour boat trip from Dauin, the sea conditions calm. On the first dive we saw the whale shark, and the first time one had been spotted off this island. Consequently no one believed we had seen it, they thought the whole eight of us were pulling their leg.  Chris Nipper got the encounter on video, and what an encounter. I swam along side of the huge animal for around five minutes as it was cruising very slowly. We had three dives this day but nothing compared to that first encounter with the whale shark. 

The guides make all the up to date signals and have plenty of their own, I will have to brush up on these as at times they are hard to understand, maybe they are in Filipino..!!  There are plenty of dive sites around Apo Island with hundreds of species of fish and a huge variety of marine life. One dive in particular was full of bubbles rising out of the sand, bubbles for as far as you could see in all directions. Very much like bubbles around White Island in New Zealand. It is a volcanic island covering 74 hectares in land area, 7 kms off the south eastern tip of Negros Island and 30 kms south of the Negros Oriental capital of Dumaguete. The village has around 1000 residents. Tourism is their main income and most sell souvenirs, T-shirts etc. It would be a great place for a very quiet holiday with very friendly, happy residents and amazing snorkelling at your front door. The name ‘Apo’ was derived from a Filipino word for ‘grandchild’.

We had an excellent lunch at this beautiful small Coco Grove Resort, only has around 8 guests at a time.

The following day we had three dives around Negros Island and not far from our Resort.  Each dive is different with special high lights, this day we saw a variety of frog fish, a small orange one, one brown and white another all black. They don’t move when you get up close and eye ball them.  There was also a very large coral snake and this one was blue and black striped, going about its business and not worried about us.  A small dinghy wreck housed a number of lion fish one large black and white and one brilliant red.  There was also a beautiful coloured flying gurnard with its wings spread out over the sand.  We also found an abandoned fish trap that had many exotic fish trapped inside including an unusual bright yellow eel; we broke it apart to let the fish out. That is one complaint about the Philippines there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the water, a real shame for such a beautiful group of Islands. With a population on close on 103 million the people need to start to clean up and take care of their magic place in this World.

We sampled the sea urchins, much smaller and more colourful than our kina, but similar inside and flavour, very salty and strong, not to my liking.

Getting very used to the turtles in the water on each dive, some very large, most have their own remoras attached and are tagged, they live in the sanctuaries and are protected, and very used to divers.

After three nights at the Pura Vida Dauin Resort we said goodbye to the wonderful friendly group of people and headed to the Damaguete wharf to catch Mike’s private ferry to Siquijor Island, known as the ‘Enchanted Island’. We waited for Penny to arrive via Manila as she was joining us for the rest of the trip.  Mike Butler is the owner of the Coco Grove Resorts and the Coco Grande in Dumuagete.  He has lived in the Philippines for 40+ odd years, formally from Australia.  He has set up an amazing place, the staff love him and the gardens along the 1km beach front resort are just stunning. What great hosts Mike and his wife were, we all had the executive suites on the beach front, with our meals set up on the sand with entertainment and live music to listen to and watch the show.

From Coco Grove we headed out on another of Mike’s boats ‘Coco Adventure’ well set up for diving, to the town of Oslob on Cebu Island.  This was the first dive for Summer and Monique after finishing their course.  The Filipino guys feed the whale shark at Oslob and they draw tourists by the thousands from all over the World to dive and snorkel with them.  The whale sharkis a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known of all fish species, weighing up to 19,000kg and around 12m in length, although the ones we saw on this occasion were a little smaller. We had five around us and had to be very careful as they were so intent on getting a feed that they missed seeing us in the water.  Not a natural encounter but one way to bring income to the Island and people, and one way for many to see this magnificent fish that you would otherwise not see.  We had the most sumptuous lunch laid on for us; with a whole ham, every salad imaginable, chocolate log for desert, drinks etc. the girls on the boat did a wonderful job, just so much food.

Our second dive was not far off Cebu Island, a small island called Sumilon Island.  It was very beautiful to just snorkel this area, which I did for an hour before we geared up.  Then we drifted along a shear drop off with millions of brilliant coloured fish, sea turtles, snakes – the works..!!

The next day we headed back to Apo Island and had our last two dives, no whale shark this time but a gentle drift dive along the coral faced wall, and loving the last of our dives in the Philippines.

After so much diving we had some time off and toured around Siquijor Island, visiting the Cambugahay Waterfalls, the fish cleaning farm, old churches and a few other touristy spots.

We were ferried back to Dumagete on Negros Island and stayed at the Coco Grande Hotel for our last night. We had time to look around Dumagete, there was a carnival taking place with utter chaos with the traffic.  We visited some of the old churches and shops, a great coffee shop, a flash mall, a tropical rain forest with an interesting Forest Camp with waterfalls and water park.  Then onto a stone carving place, the likes that I have never seen before, such amazing talent. All done with tiny pieces of natural coloured stone, set in and then resined over, you could buy all kinds of things from key rings to wardrobes.

We had another flight back to Manila and our last dinner together as a group at the ‘La Fiesta’ in busy Manila. 

Thanks to Ray and Penny from "Pack ya Bags" for organising this wonderful trip and inviting us to share it with them.