Diving the Coral Triangle
Our Bangka was moored over Kimud Shoal and we were about to take our giant stride entry into the Visayan Sea. Our divemaster spoke one last reminder: “the visibility is not great today, so keep your head on a swivel. They might appear from any direction, at any time.”
Alrighty, then. Splash!
Our group of four descended about 15 meters, and hovered just above the bottom, adjusting our buoyancy. I checked my dive computer and looked up – directly into the mouth of an approaching shark! He materialized out of the gloom, swimming towards me at a steady pace, veering off to the left at the last second, keeping one large, black eye on my position (or so it seemed!). His trademark long tail gracefully waved farewell as he disappeared back into the distance.
Thresher sharks are an amazing member of the shark family, reaching a body length of 3 to 4 meters with the long caudal fin almost doubling their total length. These sharks use their whiplike tails to herd baitfish into a ball and then swim through the school, sweeping their tails back and forth to stun their prey, making it easier to gobble them up.
Several decades ago, fisherman from Malapascua Island noticed thresher sharks jumping high out of the water in an area SE of the island.
Divers investigating the surrounding waters discovered a shoal, like an underwater island at a depth varying from 15 to 45 meters, rising up steeply from the 200 meter bottom around the shoal. Thresher sharks had found a large population of wrasse fish around Monad, and would rise up from the deeper water in the mornings to let the small wrasse clean parasites from their gills, mouths and skin. When the rising sun became too strong they descended back to the depths.
Thus, this “cleaning station” for thresher sharks put Malapascua Island on the map for divers looking to view this shy marine creature. Dive boats left the island at 5am to make the 45-minute trip and get under the water near sunrise, before the bright daylight drove the animals back down.
Luckily for me, several months ago tiger sharks began appearing over Monad Shoal, and displaced the smaller threshers, who moved farther east to another cleaning station at Kimut Shoal. For some reason they linger here later in the day, so starting time is pushed back to 6 am. Still must set an alarm!
We saw many, many sharks, with 3 or 4 visible at the same time. They were all about the same size, and all just swimming casually about as the wrasse did their hygienic duties. Back on the boat, we were lucky enough to see two sharks leap 3 meters into the air! Pretty amazing…but didn’t have my camera ready. ☹
On this trip I met some cool folks that run a dive shops in Jakarta. They were using twin-tank sidemount rigs – a form of tech diving that mounts the tank(s) on your side rather than back, giving more vertical clearance. In this case, 2 tanks allowed more bottom time at these shallow depths, without long decompression stops. Shoutout to Rismauly, Henoch & Henny! Hope to see you later this year.
The Philippines is a paradise for divers, as this archipelago of 7,640 islands is surrounded by the warm tropical Pacific Ocean and is a crucial part of the Coral Triangle. Philippine waters have extremely diverse marine life and the world's greatest diversity of shore-fish species. The country has over 3,200 fish species (121 endemic). So many islands – so little time!
I did the first dives of the year at Panagsama Beach, near Moalboal, on the SW coast of the large island of Cebu. Shore dives are popular here as in many of the islands, with nice coral and fish very close to shore. Panagsama Beach is famous for the huge balls and schools of sardines that hang around just offshore most of the year.
I decided to get my Advanced Open Water certification, so we shopped around, stopping in 5 or 6 dive shops before settling on Cebu Fun Divers. (there were literally dive shops, or at least a sign, on every block). CBF had great reviews and a very professional looking operation, with their own dive center, dive boats, training/swimming pool, bar, restaurant & rooms.
Oscar was my instructor and divemaster who made everything easy and straight forward. Several hours of online instruction & quizzes, and 3 dives: deep dive, fish ID and navigation. The latter was the only one I found difficult – timing my kicks to go a set distance whilst following my wrist compass, turn 90°, again go the set distance, etc., to complete a square search pattern. Tough – but doable. Yay! Done!
Overall, the diving here was just ok to me. Visibility was not great, and fish and coral were nothing special. Maybe I’m just getting jaded? One cool thing was that Oscar loaned me a dive camera for 2 dives, which has inspired me to get one. But the extra bulk is going to complicate our traveling as my 2 packs are already full. Guess my clothes will have to go….!
After Moalboal we took a quick trip to the Camotes Islands, a small group just east of Cebu City. Unfortunately, the rainy season started early there, and I only got in 1 dive between storms and high winds. Again, nothing special. Maybe next time.
Next, we met Skylar in the little town of El Nido, on the northern end of Palawan island, at the western edge of the country. Many tiny islands dot the waters around the coast here, with breathtaking views of turquoise waters lapping against white, sandy beaches – graceful palm trees swaying overhead.
Sky and I did 3 dives with Submariner Diving Center and really saw some beautiful coral and animals. Two big cuttlefish! A first for both of us. A sea snake that came a little too close caused some apprehension – they are very poisonous – but not aggressive and seldom bite. We also encountered some large, colorful clams, crocodile fish, several pretty nudibranchs, turtles & clownfish. Hello Nemo!
Five hours on a ferry took us north to Coron on Busuanga Island, known for wreck diving on Japanese vessels sunk during WWII. Sky was recovering from some jellyfish stings, so I did one day of diving myself, exploring the wrecks on 3 dives. It was eerie swimming through the length of a large ship and seeing huge portions of the hull ripped open, exposing machinery, boilers and piping.
Skylar flew back to Miami, having to get back to school, and we traveled by plane, bus and car to Dauin, at the SE end of large Negros Island. Little Apo Island was only 45 minutes offshore, and my 3-dive day trip with Bongo Divers was fantastic! Their Bangka was the largest and most comfortable outrigger I have been on, with plenty of room for a dozen divers and crew, head, small cabin & galley. I saw some of the healthiest coral, many turtles, mandarin fish, sea snakes, cuttlefish and more.
The following day I did an awesome night dive from the shore in Dauin, again with Tito from Bongo. Never going deeper than 21 meters, we saw hermit crabs, coconut octopus, moray eel with a cleaner shrimp, scorpion fish, stargazer, whitetip shark, and many more I don’t remember. This is a great location for diving or snorkeling!
After a jeepney ride up to Dumaguete the next day, we caught the ferry over to Siquijor Island and the lovely Cocoplum Resort. Sadly the monsoon season had kicked up, bringing rain, high winds and seas, so I only got 1 dive in on the lee side of the island. Light rain, low vis – ok but not not great.
Another ferry trip north brought us to little Panglao Island on the SW end of Bohol. Haka Divers hosted a nice 3-tank day trip to Balicasag Island & Panglao reef. Great visibility with large schools of jacks, big grouper and snapper, ghost shrimp and nudibranchs. Tide was out by the time we returned, “walking the plank” and then through the shallows to shore. A good day!
And that brings us around to Malapascua Island, at the beginning of this narrative.
The Philippines is this diver's version of paradise. Crystal clear, warm water, beautiful coral and abundant fish and animals. You could literally dive someplace new every day. I definitely plan to come back and visit many more - Diving the Coral Triangle!
Next up – I will write more about the traveling, food, people and food in the Philippines, which we thoroughly enjoyed.