Dive ‘n’ drive for one
by Janice Nigro
Ok, I am stealing some terminology for the second time during my swimabout which if you remember is the first term that I stole from someone much more clever than myself with words. The new one is “Dive ‘n’ Drive” which pertains to the fact that you can arrive on Cebu and drive to dive destinations with the help of ferry transport. Or should it be Drive ‘n’ dive? It is remarkably convenient to travel around the Philippines in this manner (and an opportunity to have an idea of how locals live). Even if you do not have a car, transfers are easily arranged to bring you to the ferry and your resort at the other end will arrange for you to be picked up. So diving and driving was what I did, but I never thought to call it a “dive ‘n’ drive”. I should have thought of it myself, but the phrase was already in practice; I just was not aware of it until I did it.
The dive ‘n’ drive is a relaxing way to dive the Philippines, and I would have to emphasize somewhat unique to this island nation. Ferries run in between the main islands daily, so you can travel to a completely different island for your next dives. It is perhaps a different version of the liveaboard experience, but one that you are entirely in control of. You are also not confined to the boat so that you are free to mingle with different people and eat the food that you want. On your travel days, you can be diving either before you leave one destination or upon arrival to the second because there is no plane. When I left Dauin for Panglao Beach, Bohol, I had the entire morning to dive because the ferry was leaving at 15:30. It was a bit of a rush because of the wet equipment, but in Dauin the sun was bright enough that within two hours of diving, my equipment was nearly dry. When I arrived at Panglao Beach, I got to say that my last day of diving was “this morning”.
Panglao Beach was definitely arriving to an island from an island. Panglao Beach is located on a small island that is connected to Bohol via a long bridge, the type of bridge that sits directly upon the water. “Divers” congregate here. I write it in quotation marks as many people arrive here to learn to dive. Panglao Beach is affordable, small resorts with a bit of nightlife, and the sea is calm for new divers. I have to say that I am afraid of what I will see if I return in five years because many larger resorts are currently being built.
The dive day at Seaquest Dive Center attached to Oasis Resort begins normally at 10AM. Pretty relaxed. But they can start this late because the local dive sites are right in front of the resorts only a few meters out from the shore. My first day of diving was with a guide named Jaguar (?). I suppose Jaguar sounds infinitely cooler than Grouper or any other name derived from a creature from under the sea, but it was not obvious to me how he got that name. I somehow had the luck of diving alone with him that first day.
Jaguar was pretty relaxed as was everything else on this first dive in Panglao Beach. We cruised over to Arco Point (about 10 minutes), and in many ways, I could have been back in Moalboal because it was sort of the same routine. Short boat ride to a dive site, backward roll into a hard coral garden, swim a bit to the drop off, and descend along a wall. Some of the animals he probably knew well, such as a giant white frogfish, that was hanging upside down between two sponges and facing the wall. A tough photo subject. But then he would find giant nudibranchs, quite a few Chamberlain’s nembrotha, and other small critters such as orangutan crabs. He was no less amazing on a similar dive in the afternoon, 2PM at Kalipayan (or Happiness in English), where he found a pair of black ghostpipefish that were only around 8 meters deep.
I was immediately mesmerized by the soft corals and different sponges that grew on the island wall. And in Bohol, I still found versions of anemones, especially in the shallows, that were new to me. I can not say how many times I am in less than 10 meters of water at the end of a dive thinking, “Why haven’t we been here the whole time?” I am never too proud to take another photo of an anemone and here many displayed mixes of vibrant colors that I had never seen before. I was transfixed by an anemone in a hole with a deep purple skirt and red tentacles with two resident tomato anemone fish. I could not get close enough because of the location for a photo, but the color was splendid. But I am sure Jaguar was wondering how I could spend that much time with something he probably saw every day.
He was also probably cold. I was surprised that the sea was more or less a consistent 26 to 27oC in the Visayas at this time of the year. It is a bit on the chilly side for an hour under water in a 3mm wetsuit, and Jaguar like many other Filipino dive guides, was not wearing a wetsuit. Alex explained that Filipinos just do not like to wear wetsuits so I noticed that when 60 minutes were up, we were getting out of the water.
As soon as you arrive at Panglao Beach, you are already thinking about the other islands that you will dive. So on my first evening, I was signing up two days ahead of time for a trip to Balicasag Island, which is one of the big draws to Bohol. When the day arrived, our dive guide was Belyong, a young man who I discovered had actually been born and raised on Balicasag. The island is not that big, so it is hard for me as a Westerner to imagine what life might be like on such a place let alone how does a woman give birth here. Apparently there are enough people living on that island, that children up to a certain age have schooling there but eventually go off to the main island of Bohol for continued education. You really start to wonder, how is it that I was born where I was in the Western world? You start to realize that as a human your chances are so much greater to be born somewhere else into the rustic conditions that still predominate in the world.
The day out to Balicasag is a long day, three dives and the cruise out to the island and back, and we did not have such a calm sea. The cruise is perhaps a little over an hour long, and we started early, 9AM. I was responsible for my lunch, which you can get from the resort. The sea was rough; getting in was easy enough whereas getting back onto the boat was a bit tricky. The waves were high and the outriggers were riding up the waves and then crashing down; potentially at any moment, it could be your head if you were not watching.
I know that a lot of divers want to see pelagic animals and large schools of fish that tend to be near these smaller islands located in the middle of the ocean. But for me, Balicasag was interesting (as was Pescador Island in Moalboal) because of its geography. We started at Ricco’s Wall. The visibility was not great here either so I did not have to make excuses for myself for focusing on the island wall rather than the big blue. I do not see how you could not focus on it, because the wall at different points around the island was full of interesting crevices and overhangs and unusual sponges that I had never seen before. Sometimes sponges almost look ghoulish, but it is truly fascinating how they grow. We tend to ignore them and forget that they are multicellular organisms just like the critters we search for that live among them. I love to photograph sponges alone because of their different textures, colors, and yes, sometimes even their expressions. One looked to me like a giant version of “The Scream” by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch.
At Diver’s Heaven, we did see turtles and in the shallows, a giant black frogfish gave us some lessons in how they swim in the current. The frogfish was so big that when he opened his mouth, I could see all the way in. My most intriguing find though was an anemone at Rudy’s Rock. It was a type I had not seen before and was unfortunately something I discovered only after my battery ran out on this third dive at Balicasag. The anemone was deep purple on its skirt but with tentacles that were thick like thumbs and flopped around like short rasta hair rather than long flowing locks like the magnificent anemones.
Belyong was signaling for the dive to end so we moved away from the wall and were hanging in the blue under the dive sausage at 5 meters. He was reaching for my hand during the safety stop, perhaps to anchor me. But connecting underwater through handholding was beginning to be a typical event for me. Two Indonesian dive guides had also reached for me. I could not determine if I should feel that I am disadvantaged underwater in a way that I can not see or complimented. I will choose complimented and that we somehow made a human connection.
For the most part, the dives were very calm, reminiscent of Moalboal. We did encounter a lot of current at BBC (Bohol Beach Club), but I had enough will to hang around until it was my turn to photograph a pygmy seahorse. One shot and I let go because it was a pretty futile effort to take a photo without knocking something else out. The pygmy seahorse however was shockingly still. Usually they turn away and flop around so it takes real patience and concentration to get a photo. Our roles this time were apparently reversed. In Bohol, I also went the deepest I have ever been, 34.7 meters, to see a pair of common seahorses. I hovered above the others while they took their photos. I was not really thinking about taking photos because of the amount of time that I had to do it until decompression, but I took a couple of shots and then calmly ascended to around 20 meters. You don’t really need to shoot every critter that you see.
My last dive of my swimabout was once again at the site called Kalipayan/Happiness. A surprise! A Pegasus sea moth was motoring around the sandy bottom like a wind-up toy, single though, without its partner. With that final dive, I had been diving in three separate areas of the Philippines and well, several more in Indonesia. What is remarkable to me is that each place has something different to offer than all of the other places. Even in the context of diving Raja Ampat and Komodo, there are still environments and creatures in Bohol (which was recently hit by an earthquake and a typhoon) that are outstanding and different. I have never seen deep purple-skirted anemones as I did in Bohol.
I was sitting on the bench just outside of the Seaquest shop in Panglao Beach. It is a spectacular view of the sea…and suddenly a coconut dropped next to me. It is hard to interpret what it means when a coconut lands about a meter in front of you for the second time in three months, and a woman dies on your ferry crossing in the middle of the ocean (which did happen). Increasing your odds for a coconut hitting you squarely on the head may be viewed as a positive, because you are on an island, or of course as a negative. As in I have been on islands too long. Or it is dangerous here (some of you are more worried about the sharks). One thing that was clear to me at this moment on Panglao Beach was to take advantage of opportunities to live in the present.
©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com
also published on Scubaverse: http://www.scubaverse.com/divendrive-philippines/