Balingoan: Underwater Paradise

By Angel C. Juarez
A Post written in Health & Home, August 2016 issue

In my continuous chase for offbeat dive sites in the country, I got a chance to explore the underwater treasures in Balingoan, Misamis Oriental. Heading to Barangay Mantangale with my perennial dive buddy Ate Claudia from Cagayan de Oro City one day I was enthralled with the unspoiled beauty under the waters of this laid back municipality.  Indeed, the place is one of the most underrated dive spots in the country.  While most tourists frequent Balingoan only as a jump-off point to Camiguin Island, for some like us, it is already a destination.  It is a small piece of underwater paradise that will definitely keep us coming back again and again.

Finding Balingoan

port2
Mantangale and Sipaka as seen from Balingoan Port

Balingoan is two hours north of Cagayan de Oro City, unknown to many, the waters around this small town that stretch toward Camiguin bustle with vivid underwater life.  Without a doubt, Balingoan is one of my favorite place in the Philippines for scuba diving for two reasons: its rich marine life and the absence of tourist traffic that  popular dive sites get.  This means Balingoan is generally unspoiled and unexploited!

Sipaka Point

One of Balingoan’s known diving spots is Sipaka Point.  Its sloping white and sandy bed is an ideal site for students and divers of all levels.  It is a perfect site for macro photography as well.  Ten meters down Sipaka Point is beautiful reef adorned with colorful corals and crinoids, and home to small tropical fishes and marine creatures.  Fishes like anthias, wrasses, angelfish, pufferfish, anemonefish, lionfish, groupers, and eels abound in the reef.  So do lobsters, cuttlefish, glass and harlequin shrimps, and different species of nudibranches.

Talisayan Shoal

Not far from Sipaka Point is Talisayan Shoal, a ten minute boat ride from the coast of Mantangale and a known spot for the colorful mandarin fish.  It was already sunset when we descended down into the vast coral area of Talisayan Shoal. Armed with underwater torches, we maneuvered around the area on search for the rare mandarin fish.  We saw the usual tropical reef fishes and other macro species such as shrimps and crabs, but not the rare mandarin fish.  When my torch ran out of battery, we ascend for our safety stop.  Darkness had already enveloped the surroundings as we sailed back to the shores.  When I look into the water, I saw glowing bioluminous organisms as they were washed away by the boat.  Indeed, the sea is a vast mystery and humans will never completely understand the life beneath.

Banaug Shoal

Three years after our first dive affair with Balingoan. We returned to its depths to experience and explore more of its treasures.  It was Banaug Shoal this time.  It wasn’t my first time to dive here but I was excited as it were my first.  We left for Banaug Shoal by speed boat.  This shoal is the house reef of Mantangale Alibuag Dive Resort (MADRI), which for me is one of the best house reefs I have ever dived into.  The diversity of marine life in this dense space is unbelievable and the explosion of underwater colors never ceases to amaze me.  Snappers, butterflyfish, moorish idols, boxfish, trumpet fish, leaf fish, trigger fish and a lot more species graced our dives as well as sea slugs and other macro species.  They all made the small reef, carpeted with soft and hard corals, their home.

Lapinig Island

After our surface interval, we sailed from Mantangale to Lapinig Island, the islet in front of Balingoan Port.  It looks dull and boring on the surface, but what’s underwater is a different story.  It’s an action- packed world down there!  Not minding the mild current, we gradually descend on a sandy slope hoping to see manta rays.  There are reported sightings of manta rays in the site although not regular.  It wasn’t our lucky day though, as no manta ray showed up.  But the usual reef and macro species such as striped fish, trumpet fish, nudis, bristle worms, and others that I don’t know by name, made the dive an awesome one.  Soft and hard corals, sea fans, feather stars and sponges also added color to the scenery.  Sadly, some trashes scattered around the place due to its proximity to the port and residential area.  We ended up fishing out trashes, turning our dive into a clean-up drive!

Looking forward to coming Back

My Balingoan dives are truly memorable and I look forward to more underwater explorations and discoveries in the town.  The sea is a deep stash of treasures and surprises that I won’t get tired of exploring.  I can’t wait for another rendezvous with underwater creatures of Balingoan in the years to come.

Disclosures:
Angel C. Juarez of http://www.lakwatsero.com has been my dive buddy few years back. I met him nine years ago during a Coron trip, four months later he became a certified diver. We have a lot of common favorite dive destinations and Mantangale is just one of them. Our last dive in the area was just this February 2017.

Heights and Depths!

mt afternoon clouds
Heights and depths are both nature’s display of its wondrous splendor!

Adventures for the intrepid can be as varied as far one can go, many travelers have become so audacious and ambitious as if motivated in conquering one goal after another.

After years of diving and continually aiming for off beaten sites, I realized there are still a lot of places around the country that needs to be explored.  I have learned so much from my travels and in many ways have gained new insights especially destinations that are closest to nature.  The rural scenery is almost and always a plethora of learning and new understanding of our culture, the environment and wide issues of protection and preservation.

There are few places that are close to my heart, destinations that are perhaps distant and advance arrangements are necessary, yet the urge to keep coming back was hard to resist.  Much that I love the depths, I am always fascinated by heights.  So that, a combination of both in a trip, is a real indulgence, actually a luxury. Climbing a peak or searching the depths is a real show of grandeur in all scheme of things!

Coron – Climb Mt. Tapyas and dive in Coron Bay

One of my favorite dive destination is Coron due its collection of World War II wrecks, the underwater museum have tickled my curiosity and I have tons of write-up about the mysterious wrecks. I was always blown away every time we penetrated the old ships, these silent monsters abandoned in the depths. My visits to Coron though, is not complete without climbing Mt. Tapyas to catch glimpse of my beautiful sunset. I guess sunsets are more spectacular to watch from a mountain top.  I would linger just watching, killing my time looking the horizons getting a good view of the changing hues.  Until the golden sun would finally ebbed down and the white cross would light up.

Tawi-Tawi – Climb Bud Bongao and dive in Bongao waters

This southern most cluster of islands in the country is not a touristy one, in fact some if not most would think twice before coming to Tawi-tawi.  Coming here was one of my most memorable trip, the discoveries were too precious to ignore.  We visited here during Ramadan and by 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, the market was oozing with people and there was great array of food!  The locals were friendly and helpful, the town is naturally peaceful.

We climb Bud Bongao the day we arrived, we trek and were welcomed by the macaque monkeys with our banana offerings. Bud is the highest point of the province, the view was just unmistakably breath taking!  The three dives the next day was a great opportunity to explore the rich surrounding waters of the islands.  Well, the currents made it challenging! The heights and depths combination was just marvelous!

Southern Cebu – Trek Osmeña Peak, traverse to Kawasan Falls and dive in Moalboal

Well, this is actually a combination of three! The southern towns in Cebu have its own charms, so that in these three towns you have equally remarkable adventures.  Drive to Mantalungon in Dalaguete, trek to Osmeña Peak and be amazed with those peaks shaped like peanut kisses! Trek down the fourteen kilometers trail and traverse to Badian right in Kawasan Falls, rafting and taking a dip in its aquamarine waters is truly refreshing!  Stay in the next town of Moalboal and dive in its waters replete with diverse marine life. The awesome sardine’s run is too hard to resist, I came here again and again because of it.  Pescador Island is also a renowned site, the sightings here are too good to be true, mind blowing as they say!

Camiguin Island – Trek Mt. Hibokhibok, traverse to Ardent Hot Springs and dive in its waters

There a lot of reasons to be back here again and again, this island is also my favorite. It’s practically dense with nature wonders. Volcanoes, falls, hot and cold springs, islets, rich marine life and more!  Climb Mt. Hibok-Hibok, this active volcano is safe for trekking and it can be done in a day. The view in the peak is undoubtedly breath taking, but it was foggy when we reached the top. We were surrounded with white clouds, the trail was challenging at different levels.  It has a total of fourteen kilometers from Yumbing and traverse to Ardent, right in the hot spring pools!  A dip is undoubtedly a good relaxant after the arduous trek.

The island is perfect for diving – from marine sanctuaries, coastal reefs to sunken cemetery!  There’s a lot of choices and this island province is literally surrounded with dive sites in its coastal waters.  Mantigue Island is a must, so with sunken cemetery, Old Vulcan, white island and many more. All of the sites are practically filled with diverse marine life.

These are just few, I know there are a lot of destinations around the country with this ridge to reef combinations. New learning, precious discoveries and the realization that every place has its own share of wonders and the God of order have made everything in nature in accord with all scheme of things.

Heights and depths are both nature’s display of its wondrous splendor!

Glass Shrimp

P1060302 a
They are almost translucent, keen eyes are necessary to find them!

Also known as Crustaceans, Carid Shrimps, Commensal Shrimps,Bubble Anemone Shrimp, Philippine Shrimp and Anemone Shrimp.

This transparent critter can be found only on bubble coral, its glass-like body has purple antennae and purple line down body.  They feed on parasites, algae and plankton.
Often if a divers hand is near to a cleaner shrimps, they will hop on board and perform a manicure!

Carid shrimps occur worldwide in almost every habitat, from sea water to fresh water and can be found all over the reef.  They are generally respected by other creatures, often sharing  burrows and holes and working as housekeepers.  They will wave their antennae around to attract customers, they then proceed to clean outside and inside the creatures mouths, gills and more!

Indeed, one needs keen eyes to spot them!  🙂

Little Efforts, Big Changes!

diveagainstdebris-copy

Marine debris is not only unsightly, it’s dangerous to sea life, hazardous to human health, and costly to our economies. Marine animals become entangled in debris, and even mistake it for food – often with fatal results. Divers, swimmers and beach goers can be directly harmed by encounters with marine debris or its toxins. The environmental damage caused by plastic debris alone is estimated at US$13 billion a year.

Let our little efforts can make big changes in the underwater world!

Reinforcing our efforts in reducing the impacts of our consumerism habits, we can reflect each time we plan to do our grocery errand at the supermarket. Our choices, big and small in the goods we buy including its packaging will either aggravate or mitigate the ever worsening deluge of trash in the environment.

Here’s hoping that we become all conscious consumers aware of the impact of our wastes everyday.  Let this be a challenge, a resolution for the year 2017!

NB. Photo courtesy of PADI My Ocean Community

Ghost Fish!

p1060345-2
To an ordinary eye, these  are just two dried leaves floating over the sand

Let me start my post for this year with amazing sea life, a special find in my last dive in 2016, a specie which never occurred  to me until we ascend and asked our DM what it was. It was just fortunate I took a snap descent enough for posting.

Have you encountered a ghost fish in any of your dives?

I think they got this name as they are sometimes suddenly found or seen in a particular place and they only stay a few days or weeks before they disappear mysterious like a ghost.
They are extremely seasonal and are mostly found only a few months of the year. Furthermore, in the current they move perfectly along with the moving arms of the feather star so that they are as good as invisible. A lot of reasons thus why they are so hard to find.

We swam up the sandy slope drifting with the current preparing for safety stop, when our DM pointed out these two brownish matter. Pausing for a moment watching intently and wondering what it was but suspecting it was something I should not ignore. Then hastily snapped two photos.

At once glance, it can never be suspected as fish. They barely moved but swayed and drifted with the afternoon current which was an intelligent camouflage as dried leaves. I suspect the big one is pregnant evidenced by its bulging mid-body probably the tummy.

The marine world is definitely filled with wonderful creatures, miraculously it appeared before us when barely ten months ago in our dives at the bay we never found any ghost pipe fish. There was much abundance you never know what you find in your next dive.  It was a perfect surprise for us!

Photography in Marine Environment

The marine world is in-arguably amazing and is filled of many wonderful specie, again and again a lot of us desired to take all the memories in photos.  It is understandable, you might not encounter this interesting animal next time and if you might, who knows when.  The present world is becoming photo obsessed and many including us divers are influenced with this social media trending.  However, we all have this important responsibility in preserving this beloved vast blue beyond. Photography under water if not judicious is undoubtedly a real threat to marine life.

Here are few do’s and dont’s while shooting that avant-garde photos in the blue beyond:

  1.  Do have good look around while resting on the bottom. Even its only sand, you might about to crush nudis or seahorse.
  2. Do capture behavior by knowing your subject, reading books and studying marine life.
  3. Do make sure your camera/housing is neutrally buoyant. There are plenty of float arms available in the market. This can help also if you accidentally drop your equipment.
  4. Do secure all dangling equipment, streamlining is the key as we have been taught from the start.
  5. Do use common sense when choosing subjects to shoot at night.
  6. Do place the welfare of plants and animals and the care of the environment over the need to get any shot
  7. Don’t even think of taking a camera underwater if you are a novice diver. Wait until you get the advance course and maybe 50+ dives! 🙂
  8. Don’t insist on taking pictures if the subject is inaccessible.
  9. Don’t add unnecessary stress to an animal who is already stressed. Be discerning in using flash, it can’t be denied that constant flash is taking toll on any subject.
  10. Don’t harass animals on night dives, avoid flashing directly your torch on them.
  11. Don’t feed the fish! This is very basic….
  12. Don’t force animals into behavior just to get a shot. Again, don’t touch any fish for that yawn effect. Such gesture is actually telling you to go away. So be sensitive!

In my diving novitiate years, I prefer having no camera at all because I can observe marine life better and I have other more important issues to attend to like the basics and protocols. Diving is simpler with less accessories. My first point-shoot camera came two years later when I felt I was ready for such task underwater. It’s true, nothing beats having photos of amazing finds underwater. But after it was flooded, I got my second point-shoot camera a year later with no rush, which I’m using until now. It was serving its purpose I guess, I got decent photos for my write-ups and I  am happy with it.  The point is, the welfare of the marine world is important than the fleeting desire to get photos. 🙂

The truth,  marine world would be perfectly thriving and safer without the photos!

NB.  Adapted from Asian Diver Mag, Colors of Asia Edition

Batfish

p1060204

 Platax teira is common in Philippines waters

This is one the species most typically associated with the description of ‘batfish’. Also belonging to the Ephippidae family, the Platax tiera (or longfin batfish) can be found across the Indo-Pacific region, often enjoying the surroundings of shipwrecks, floating seaweed, anchored boats and mooring ropes.  Juveniles don’t look much like their adult counterparts, but are masters of mimicry, pretending to be leaves or even flatworms to hide from predators. Platax tiera are omnivores, eating algae as well as invertebrates, plankton, corals and anemones. They are curious fish, often schooling with other species and approaching divers to present a fantastic photo opportunity.

Yes, we found this specie in Coron wrecks, they came near as if asking for food and followed us just like a pup. Our latest dive gave me an opportunity to interact again with this curious fish. As soon as we deflated our BCs, they were there swimming coyly as if waiting for us.  As we navigated around, another batfish followed us all the way through until we had our safety stop. It was our company silently watching us, so amusing!

The above photo was taken at Olango Island, Cebu