Island hopping


Island hopping

by Janice Nigro

By the time I got to Dauin via a personalized car ride (Alex and his mother Nora) and the ferry to Dumaguete from Cebu (which included a stop at a local barbecue), I realized that I had only touched a continent twice in three months.  It was during my trip to Tasmania when I transferred at the Sydney Airport.  And Australia, well some might think it is the biggest island of all.  All of my destinations were islands, and on some of the islands, my day destinations were even other islands.  I even landed on an island to the main island of Cebu when I first arrived in the Philippines because the airport is located on Mactan Island, connected by a bridge to Cebu.  I feel that I did not consciously think about it until I reached Dauin, but of course countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are in fact island nations-not single island nations, but thousands of islands nations.

If you say Dauin, people might say, do you mean Darwin?  It is hard for me to say the name without feeling like I have a speech impediment.  Dauin, Dauin, it is like saying Ed Wood when people thought you meant Edward Scissorhands.

Bo, my pedigreed-dive connection in Moalboal, recommended diving with another famous Filipino diver, Snoopy  (Snoopy, Bo, Jaguar, Bismark?-very creative, unforgettable names).  Snoopy is also the son of another famous Filipino diver but Snoopy is really well-known for his underwater photography.  Snoopy seemed like a perfect opportunity to improve my underwater photography skills, so Alex organized a Snoopy dive day for me out to Apo Island, which is about a 30 to 40 minute boat ride from the Dauin/Dumaguete area.  Yes, it was an island to the island dive day.

The adventure for the day started at the outset because it began with a ride in a jitney.  It is kind of a small version of a pickup where the wagon is covered, but more or less open (anything could fall out the back end) and highly insecure without seatbelts or even real seats.  With only one other diver in the back, there would not be much to hold us in if something were to happen.  No two jitneys are the same, as they seem to be a sort of Filipino canvas for art.  They are usually painted, crazily, brightly, and sometimes sport a message, like “Jesus loves you.”  It was the kind of thing that would definitely brighten your day if you were standing at a Norwegian bus stop, especially in winter.  “Oh, today I get to ride home in the one with the giant mermaid painted on it.”  As I understand it, no one really owns the jitney they drive.  The locals rent them and then try to make a slight profit after covering their costs to drive one.  Who paints them, and how one goes about choosing the jitney they drive for a month, I don’t know either.

It didn’t quite register still how small the group was (just us) until we arrived at Malatapay Wharf.  It is somewhat official here even though it is quite low key.  They register your name, citizenship, and your age (?).  John, our guide, then suggested that maybe I would like to purchase some water.  At that moment, I realized that I did not have anything with me to eat; all I had was 500 pesos (about 10USD) and a credit card, which I was pretty sure was not going to work for anything.  It was going to be a long day.

Then I scanned the boats at the wharf.  I strained my eyes searching for the type of boat I was accustomed to, but I saw nothing that would carry several divers and tanks. Instead, only small boats that I had thought were for local fisherman.  They were, but sometimes the local fisherman would take on a dive or snorkel tour for the day.  Today was that day for crew of a boat with the name G Loy painted on its side.  It was a typical one-man fisherman boat equipped with outriggers, and it had legal capacity for eight.  We were six people (and no Snoopy) but with nine tanks and three sets of scuba equipment.  Every kind of disaster movie on the water starts to run through your head.

Everything fit, but there was no tarp covering the boat, or maybe they just did not use it, so my big sun hat, sunscreen, and my wet suit were going to have to be sufficient to protect myself from the sun.  And I was grateful for the big fruit pancake and the extra croissant that I had eaten for breakfast.

We got into our wetsuits and stepped up onto the small banca, which already had the nine tanks loaded onto it.  We were on our way to Apo Island. There was one moment, half way to Apo, that I thought we would not make it to the island.  The motor made some suspicious sounds (or rather lack of sounds), and the captain disappeared inside the boat to make some adjustments.  I was thinking, ok, any way I look, I am not too far from land.  Or can I swim that far in my BCD?  Luckily, the engine started again and after 45 minutes we were at Apo Island.  It is a small island but there are places to overnight, but you have limited electricity and the water must be brought out by boat.

By the time we arrived, many other similar boats were hooked up to mooring lines as we were, but most were with snorkelers.  We geared up, sat on the edge of the boat, and did a little twist as we slid off into the water.  Jumping off of the boat is never a problem.  It is when you jump off that you realize, I have to get back on again.  But these boats come equipped with a small hand-built wooden ladder to climb back onto the banca.

We descended into the hard coral gardens and an interesting geography of outcrops to swim around and over at Rock Point.  John was finding nudibranchs everywhere.  The Apo Island version of nudibranchs, many of which I had seen before, could really not be classified as macro any longer except if you focused on a single part of their bodies.  John had time to find these creatures while he made sure that the new Korean diver did not blast herself to the surface with an overzealous puff of air into her BCD.  They had to surface many minutes before me because of air, so I went about looking for underwater treasures while keeping my location restricted to just under the boat.  I found of course a unique anemone to keep me occupied until my 60 minutes were up.  A lot of anemones in this part of the Philippines, the Visayas, were occupied by the tomato anemonefish.  One is deeply maroon colored whereas the smaller partner is bright orange, and they are very shy and thus, difficult to photograph.

During the one-hour surface interval, we beached the boat and John got off to pay 300 pesos each to use the Apo Island marine reserve.  I was down to 200 pesos.  Our second dive was at the Chapel, which is more or less right in front of the resorts on the island.  It was an easy dive, and I spent a lot of time looking at the tunicates, which are sessile organisms that live as a group.  They are usually everywhere, but these you could easily watch “breathing” and admire the overall beautiful pattern they create as a group.

When we surfaced, we were casually told that there would be no third dive as there was the possibility of a minor typhoon.  Huh?  All the boats were heading back which I had no problem agreeing with.  Not exactly my plan to be on open water in a small boat with no food and very little water.  Who dreamed up this dive day?

I have to say that if I had known what the situation was before I arrived that morning for the dive, I never would have agreed to it.  Once I was at the boat, I decided to go for the adventure and thought that it would be alright anyway because Filipinos crossed to other islands probably for centuries in these boats, and ours had an engine.  Of course in retrospect, it was perfect, and I had experienced Apo Island in a way that I would certainly never forget.

It was a bit exhausting to dive this way though, so when I returned to the resort, I had to have Alex call and tell Snoopy’s to cancel the next day’s dives.  He did not have to do this because they cancelled due to the possibility of poor weather.  In fact, the weather was fine the next day, and I managed to do three dives at the El Dorado Resort with Dive Society, run by Germans, but guided mostly by Filipinos.  An interesting intersection of cultures…

So on Saturday morning I had my first dive right off the shore in Dauin, which is known for muck diving.  We dove a site called Car Wreck and indeed part of a car, has been sunk as an artificial reef there.  Here, there were breeding cardinal fish, and it was easy to spot the ones carrying eggs in their mouths.  It is an amazing behavior to witness because their mouths are stuffed full with the eggs, as if they have eaten too much banana and might throw up.  Occasionally they will “burp” and a couple eggs will drop out but otherwise, they swim around like this until the babies hatch.

The rest of the dive was a macro photographers dream.  All sorts of critters were living on ropes and the other odd bits of metal deposited there as artificial reef.  A number of ornate ghost pipefish were hanging in the water near a color matched crinoid, and we saw Donald Duck shrimp, some very small spiny tiger shrimp, and a pair of robust ghostpipefish.  At first glance, you would have thought it was an underwater desert, but there was a remarkable diversity of creatures to find if you knew where to look.

The dives at Dauin were in a way similar, sloping brown sand with tiny coral bommies.  Each day we went to three new sites along the coast and then spent an exhaustive hour moving from one micro-habitat to the next, exposing unique creatures.  On a repeat dive to Car Wreck, we spent about 15 minutes at a metal block that did not look like anything special until you looked closely.  Small creatures were moving everywhere-flabellinas, a small teddy bear crab, banded coral shrimp, and even a couple of ornate ghost pipefish.  At Atmosphere, we went deep to find a red hippocampus bargi banti, a pygmy seahorse.  The crinoids at many sites were full of shrimp and squat lobsters, and at Atlantis South a pair of common seahorses live.  I even saw a mushroom coral pipefish, which I have only seen once before.

What I did not expect was to find a field of anemones.  We were muck diving afterall.  Dauin South was a magical site for me because I was surrounded by anemones-green skirts, red skirts, white skirts, polka-dots, open or closed-and they were covered with small cleaner shrimp.  I could photograph anemone skirts alone for hours just because of the colors and textures.  Unfortunately we did not go back to this site.  If I had the chance again, I would take my own guide and just photograph anemones there for a few days.

One more surprising dive event would take place from Dauin.  Alex had mentioned that there was a site on the southern end of Cebu where divers and snorkelers could see whale sharks.  A whale shark is the biggest fish on the planet and one of the most coveted of all sea creatures for divers.  I have been in the water with one, but did not see it as it flashed itself for an instant to only part of my dive group on a trip in Indonesia.  Even though the site was on Cebu and we were currently on Negros, the best way to do it was to take a day boat from Dauin/Dumaguete and do a couple of other dives along the way.

Another diver had warned me ahead of time, that while I would certainly see a whale shark, it would not be with the same kind of excitement as with a spontaneous sighting.  I took the opportunity anyway, and in the end, I am not sure I would recommend it.  It felt a bit like a circus, and it might not actually be good for the whale sharks.  I was told that the Philippine government is trying to stop the feeding of the whale sharks at Oslob, but of course a lot of money is involved for the locals, so the governmental declaration has been disregarded.  In retrospect, I am sorry that I took part in this event because the feeding of the whale sharks by the fishermen interrupts their normal migration pattern.   If the fish feeding suddenly stopped, they could die.  The visibility was also rather poor at that time, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I would see anyway.

I have to admit, however, that to see this dark shadow slowly turn into a giant fish that I could recognize and then swam directly over me, was quite awesome.  Because of the nature of the whale shark experience, it was one time that I thought snorkelers were better off than divers.  The whale sharks were essentially feeding at the surface and therefore, as a snorkeler, you could be face to face with one.  However, in my opinion, Dive Society should discontinue to offer this dive.  It is rather like a shark feed, which I participated in one time and have never done again.

On the way back to Dauin (Negros), we dove two sites at yet another island, Simulon Island.  At Cottage Point, the current was ripping, and there was not much to do other than to relax and watch the reef go by.  It was the kind of dive site where everything is growing horizontal because of the current.  But my dive guide was Bam Bam (who really looked like Yul Brenner).  So in the middle of the ripping current, he signaled us over and pointed to a black frogfish that was somehow “glued” horizontally onto the reef.  Nearby he had found a stonefish, neatly tucked into a protected hole.  Where the current suddenly abated, was a small wall and the boat moored directly over us.

After several days at Dauin, I wasn’t sure if the draw was the fish or the people.  Bam Bam, Bismark, Don Don…  I spent time talking to the Filipino dive guides, which is easy to do in the Philippines since everyone speaks English there.  One was very funny, and he expressed desires to move on with his life, not because he did not like to dive or the business, but because he felt, you know, like he might begin to rust after a while.

Perhaps I had a fondness for him too because he told me what a sexy woman I was and that I must have been even more sexy when I was younger.  I never would have categorized myself as attractive as a younger woman and was sorry over the past year that I had not discovered Indonesian and Filipino men earlier in my life.

And the boys on the boat for some reason started to call me princess.  I don’t think I acted like one, and my hair was the dreadlock-braid hair.  Maybe it was a name for the opposite of what I was.  One of them made up a list of Filipino phrases that I might need to use, like good morning, good afternoon, I am Janice, I am beautiful.  Wooo, wait, what was the last one?  Charming these men certainly were with their beautiful dark skin and friendly demeanor.

My time was up though and the transfer to the ferry to Bohol was booked.  I really felt that I did not have enough time for Dauin because of the “distraction” of all of the other islands to dive.  Maybe these other islands are how the area has been built up because there are a number of other resorts nearby.  But Dauin itself deserved at least another three to four days just to focus on the dives along the shoreline there and to practice taking photographs.  And to interact with some of the local people at night when they brought their fish in.  I clearly had fallen for the place just as I had for Love’s.

Travel tip:  Take the ferries around the Visayas.  This mode of transportation is inexpensive and easy to do and allows you  the opportunity to explore several different main islands in one trip.

©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/


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