Elusive Cowrie!

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Those are shells, cowrie shells!

We were coyly floating among the reef  near some crevice with soft corals, watching unmindful before us when suddenly our DM pointed something attached to the coral.  He poke carefully with his pointer and slowly it changes to white, and I was wondering what it was! It was our first encounter with such critter.

When we surface while still on the waters, I reminded the DM about it and told us it’s a cowrie shell. The black is part of the mollusk which slowly hides when disturb showing its white shell.  Such a wonder!

The shells of the egg cowries reach 12 cm in length. In the adult the mantle covers the entire shell and is black with raised yellow tubercles and white spots. The juvenile resembles a toxic species of nudibranch. Unusually the mantle is kept out most of the time, even during daylight. The egg cowries are only seen out at night, usually on soft corals. There is evidence that they are territorial and that they return to the same hiding place just before sunrise.

The egg cowrie feed on soft corals, and are often seen feeding on leather corals.

Diving in Mantigue Island!

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Away, deep down in this blue world…

After few weeks from our Mt. Hibok-Hibok climb I was back in Camiguin for a work trip, so the weekend was an opportune time for some break after that nerve-wracking week.  We agreed to rediscover and dive once more the islet off Camiguin coast, so Angel caught up with me in Mahinog very early on a Saturday.

Our cruise to Mantigue was challenged, the insurmountable waves tossed our small boat vehemently and I was thinking if we could just let the storm pass, but we are far from the shore already. The sun was brightly shining though, but I started to worry when the engine had trouble and stopped when we were still half way, what if? 😦  It was agonizing, the waves were fierce enough to sink us! Obviously, we made it to the shores of the island.

Black Forest

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Can you find the coral crabs?

We maneuvered a bit to the north side to take cover from the raging waves and so our DM decided to have our first descent at the Black Forest.  Another challenge was kiting up since our boat was too small to do it, the last and most practical was to do it on waters. It’s been long since I last did it, I hesitated at first but I remembered Mario (my mentor) saying it is the easiest way. So I went down first alone, I missed Mario at that moment because he always make sure someone will hold the gears for me.  My buddy was just watching me from the boat. 😦

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A star in the depths!

We went down to a sandy slope decorated with soft corals, it was surprising that the viz was reasonably good considering the waves we encountered, the sea as always is incredibly unpredictable.  So, we swam over variety of soft corals, hydroids, whips, crinoids with those fish juveniles wiggling over.  The turtles graced us, this time not just one but there were six!  Always, watching them gracefully swimming warms my heart. So with Angel, it is always his favorite specie but now he can calmly watch it swimming by without getting too excited, before he always ends up chasing the poor turtle! 🙂  We found also giant clams, coral crabs, sea cucumber, striped eel fish and a moray eel. We had a safety stop in the grassy sandy shallows and after 63 minutes ended in a shore ascent, swimming up to the white beach.

Marine Sanctuary

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This moray was too shy!

Our surface interval was spent for our late breakfast at Dive Special camp, and later to make most of our time, took a walk around the islet circumference discovering its other side.  The sun was brightly shining without any trace of a storm!  The waters was calm already, so we finally went in our second dive for the sanctuary which we originally aimed for those giant jacks!  We took a short boat ride until the side of the site with those floaters and geared up again in the waters. We descend right in the sanctuary, watching closely taking our time as we swam slowly but this time the viz gone dim and cloudy.  The variety of fishes have again surprised me, it was filled to the brim I must say.  There was a herd of giant batfish, school of midnight snappers, and most of all – the school of jackfish! They have grown in number and obviously in size, now real giants after four years we last saw them!  Again, we had a dose of turtles, five in all including a big one who swam from my back coyly as if wanting me to follow her, I watched it in awe.  There were banners, angelfish, chromis, damsels, triggers, fusiliers and those electric blue anthias darting, so colorful.  There was a scorpionfish too, banded pipefish and variety of giant clams.  As we move around, we encountered again the school of jacks, hovering as if not moving at all.  So peaceful and relaxing, how magnificent to just watch them!  It was a grand display of nature’s splendor.  We had a shore ascent again after having our safety stop in the grassy slope, the afternoon tide fiercely carrying us to the white sandy shore.  We had a total dive time of 57 minutes with our deepest at 20.4 meters.

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We had a dose of turtles!

Ending our two dives, we silently cruise back to the dive shop jetty in Mahinog with the waters perfectly calm. Have you been to Camiguin? If you can squeeze few hours, cruise to Mantigue and wander around, you don’t need to dive to relish its unspoiled charm. Its richness is in its simplicity and serenity!

Pertinacity in Pandan!

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We promised ourselves to be back in Antique, carefully planning the dates during summer to explore Maningning Island, our Austrian DM pledged  to arrange a dive trip for us. Apparently, our penchant for off-beat sites got us again finding his offer irresistible!  Thinking of unfamiliar destination tickled my curiosity.

Mid-Summer Dream

DM Niki gave us lot of reminders and important to do’s, one of which is to arrive Pandan as early as 5:00am, the sail to the island have to be at 5:30am. The weather can be unpredictable so the return cruise needs to be early too.  It was raining that night but we dragged ourselves from bed at 3:00am to make it to the diveshop driving from Kalibo.  We made it though on the dot, it was drizzling when we arrived.

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After a heavy rain, the skies were bit downcast and the waters calmed.  We sailed on a sunrise!

It rained but my worries fade out when we finally left the shores for the island, we sailed on a sunrise! Maningning is a barangay of Culasi but sailing from Libertad would only take two hours compared to five hours from its main town.  In my mind, I was fancying the unspoiled underwater, pristine beach and the old lighthouse in the island Angel was aiming to visit!  We fetch Mr. Romy of LGU Pandan as our escort who confirmed the cruise to the island, local folks have this innate sense for nature – you know, when to go & not to go.   The waters was smooth enough as we cruised but halfway where we can see the island already,  the boat turned back and our DM explained it would be risky to proceed and diving wont be possible even if we got there, worst was we could be marooned in Maningning and nobody knows when it would be safe to sail again! 😦

Detour in Libertad

DM Niki suggested having our dives in Libertad instead, there was no choice at the moment and he assured us that like other coastal towns it has equally diverse marine life.  Thankfully, the waters was smooth near the coast.   So, our first descent was at Pucio Point, we were still on the boat when   a large herd of fish had a commotion few meters from us. I took it as a sign of a good dive opportunity.

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Such diversity!

Our companions were a bunch – DM Niki (Austrian), John (Australian), Mr. Romy (LGU Pandan) – all of them are old-timers in Antique coasts, so we were confident enough of our guides! We back-rolled, incredibly the waters was warm and no current and there was only silence and stillness deep down.  It felt so good to back in the depths – after 12 long weeks! We roamed in the sandy slope, decorated with variety of soft and hard corals. All tropical fishes hovering peacefully over the reefs.  There were jacks, groupers, triggers, damsels, sergeants, banners, angels and anthias.  There was a lone banded sea snake wiggling and as if sniffing the corals and sands – I think it was hungry and looking for food. Funny was, Angel almost bumped with the sea snake!  He was startled when the krait came near his face!   These reptiles are generally not aggressive and therefore don’t necessarily pose danger to divers.  We ended up after Mr. Romy rolled up the abandoned nylon fishing lines until near our anchor about more than five meters.

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Mr. Romy rolled up an abandoned fishing line!

We sailed a bit for our next descent in Union, which DM Niki described as filled with boulders and overhangs.  After an hour of surface interval we geared up for our mid-morning plunge, thankfully the sun shone up.  I found crown of sea thorns, with the waters starting to warm up in summer, the specie multiplies faster. It was sitting pretty

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Crown of sea thorns sitting pretty and comfortably on a coral…

on top of a coral crown, later I learned that LGU Pandan have conducted a massive harvesting of the starfish. The LGUs gave compensation to motivate locals in helping to control its multiplication, their imbalance population is a threat to the ecosystem.

The corals are massive in different varieties and tropical reef fishes obviously abound, again those juveniles wiggling peacefully. There were bivalves, sea cucumbers and nudis too.  The crevices obviously became shelters and dwellings of the fishes.  There were narrow alleys but avoided to get in deeper as it could disturb and possibly break accidentally the corals.  There were crinoids, whips and hydroids scattered along.

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A nudi!

Our lunch served as our surface interval before our final dives.  We enjoyed the food coupled with stories from our host, it was worthwhile to note that the local government of Pandan and Libertad have actively involved in the preservation and protection of marine environment.  Most of the barangays lies on the coast and fishing is largely the source of living in these communities.

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A giant clam added colors to the reefs!

So after a hearty lunch, good laugh and warm sun, we geared up again for our last descent at Taboc Sanctuary.  DM Niki briefed us that there’s a cavern and we need to bring our torch. We immersed in the warm afternoon waters to a slope, down to colorful reefs.  There were groupers, jacks, snappers and tropical fishes.  We found too giant clams, sea cucumber, nudi and cowrie shell – not just one, but three in all near each other, perhaps they were family!  We found also blue ribbon eels, two of them, dancing and willing in their burrow – it is seldom to find them in two’s. I’m still in awe, watching them with their mouth wide open, I wonder if it is speaking in a very silent way! 🙂 We roamed around until we got back in our anchor, spending our safety stop near the uprooted tree submerged in waters.   It’s worthy to note that in 2015, a giant grouper (lapu-lapu) was washed ashore near this sanctuary, sadly it was dying after being trapped in the shallow waters, fishermen brought it in the surface and have it butchered and sold to a businessman. So sad…

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I was imagining these are garden eels!

Planning Again

It was a faux pas but we still enjoyed our unplanned dives in Libertad! I guess, Angel is unrelenting because he promised DM Niki to return next summer aiming again for Maningning.  They agreed for the calendar date where the waters would be flat and summer is in full bloom.  Obviously the island is unspoiled, promising a rich underwater life.  Antique waters is below the radar in diving but undoubtedly have secrets yet to be unraveled, apparently coming back in the province is something to look forward!


Disclosures

Our refuge in Pandan was in Unterpertinger Place, a room & breakfast owned by an Austrian who speaks Deutsch. A comfortable & homey place recommended by our Austrian DM.  The place has a garden and orchard, a perfect rural setting. Our food was prepared direct from their home kitchen. 🙂

Heights and Depths!

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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!

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

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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 since 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.

Stunning Sarbay!

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The colorful Tinoto Reefs!

If you have dived in Sarangani Bay even just once, chances are you would plan to come back. And that exactly what happened last year, my first dives in 2016 was in Tinoto Reef and accordingly ended with the same spot at the close of the year.  It was not planned but things just fell respectively, as I was having an official trip in Davao, we seized the opportunity to be in Maasim for our last dives of the year.

So, after my work meeting in Davao I went straight to General Santos for a day break to loosen a bit before our dives. This trip was just perfect to calm me down from the brain wracking sessions in the past days.  My dive buddy caught me up early dawn next day, having few hours too to rest before we head for Maasim. We were expected at 830am in South Point Divers housed in Lemlunay Dive Resort.

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The concrete artificial reef mounds become shelters to many critters

It took us an hour by van to the dive resort and DM Arthur was already waiting for us, and it turned out to be an exclusive dive for us, there were no other divers for the day! The resort was just a perfect haven to relax, so homey and not crowded.  Our DM turned us over to Nolan who was our dive guide also in last February dives.

Tinoto West

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Such active fish life!

We went down from the steel staircase and geared up down before the waters, it was high tide and it’s more manageable kiting just before swimming down.  It was a shore dive and it felt good freshening up as we wade until we descend. And again, we joined our friends – anthias, angels wrasses, triggers, damsels – such active fish life. There was an abundance of bubble corals with glass shrimps and crab lurking in between. It was

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Have you seen a yellow banana nudi branch?

interesting that critters live in commensal with each other. There were nudis too and the most striking was the yellow bananas, there were at least three we found – real big and fat!  There was a stone fish silently waiting in the corner for a prey, the clownfish playing hide & seek over the anemones. There were more corals, wide seafans and thick bunch of whips. I found a brownish sea cucumber and observing she was defecating, I guess its wastes become sand dissolve in sea water! We went round until we finished off in a sandy area with kelp forest alike passing those brownish sea grasses, sponges and soft corals.  We lingered for our safety stop and wade and had our ascent few meters from the stair case, back where we started off.  I still had 70 bars after 46 minutes with my deepest at 31.5 meters.

Tinoto East

We had a long surface interval just lounging at the poolside. We didn’t take lunch as we were thinking to find a nice café in the city.  The infinity was so relaxing, the blue waters both from the pool and sea below was calming enough. We had our second descent past 1:00pm, we went down again but this time we took a small speedboat that brought us a bit to the east side. We sank down unto mounds of concrete artificial reefs, it’s good to see them again. Such an awe watching them with marine life depending on them as shelter, some of which are almost covered with corals and have fossilized.  The active fish life engrossed me again as I wade along, watching them wiggling around me was truly

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Clown fishes live in commensal with anemones

calming. There were variety of corals, hard and soft decorated with crinoids and hydroids adding colors of the scenery.  When we got to a sandy area, Angel pointed out something and it took me few moments to see the garden eels before us, I smiled watching them from afar.  We found nudis too, blue ribbon eel and banded sea snake.  It is seldom to find a ribbon eel and lingered to watch its wide mouth opening, perhaps for food? Then as we went shallower in the sandy area finishing off our safety stop, we found something brownish moving with the currents, it looks like a pair of dead leaves. I hastily took photos wondering what it was, when we surfaced later our dive guide Nolan informed us those were ghost pipe fish. So amazing, their appearance was a perfect camouflage!  We ascend after 51 minutes with my air still at 90 bars my deepest at 20.9 meters. We cruised back to the stairs of resort feeling glad of all our sightings!

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Brownish sea grasses with soft corals

My two dives on that day was a perfect de-stressor for me, feeling light hearted as we packed our gears preparing to leave the resort. Lemlunay is an ideal get-away, so homey and never crowded.  Indeed, it is such a paradise and definitely worthy for another visit.  🙂

Glass Shrimp

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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!  🙂