The CCC Expedition required me to stay for a whole month in the base camp located in one of the most diverse coast along Sogod Bay. Napantao is one of the 22 barangays of San Francisco, a lowly coastal town in Southern Leyte. Remote and unheard of, out of the tourism radar even for diving.
My stay was brief but long enough to observe and experience the diverse marine life on its front waters. It was however, for my eyes only since photo shoots were not allowed or never part during the training and survey dives. In some way, it was a good opportunity to focus on the existing marine life in the surrounding reefs. Actually, a volunteer should be mindful and must stay focused, accuracy is necessary. In many instances, I was too engrossed on the lessons and actual exams underwater and so unconsciously ignored species in one way or another. Like, if the agenda was Invertebrates & Impacts I will easily ignore the fishes and other marine life; or if our aim was for the Substrates, my eyes will search for the corals, sponges, rocks, mud, so on. My eyes were out for the day’s mission – no more, no less.
Yet, I could not undermine the richness of the surrounding waters which has been my training ground and the scenery at the end of each day. I caught glimpse of them every time after our second dive for the day. If we have more time, we swam back slowly over the reefs, wiggled among the big boulders and watch the colorful corals and variety of fishes. The surgeons, a group of damsels over there, a pair of trumpet fish darting from behind, brown and yellow box fish, a swarm of blue fusiliers and the different chromis in colors. Then I encountered a giant hump head wrasse, it was unbelievably huge, it was roaming around perhaps looking for prey. I was just watching at a distance, it’s unethical to go near and disturb them. Indeed, one should have a tremendous respect even for the marine animals. Those giant spadefish that swam coyly every exit or approach in the channel, reminding me to relax and to take easy on a daily basis.
One morning, we woke up wondering that a luxury boat anchored in the front waters, only to find out it was a dive cruise spending whole day for the dives. And regularly, dive boats from Padre Burgos cruised to Napantao for diving bringing their guests, which for me brought home that surrounding waters is tremendously rich with marine life.
I will always think and believe that this coastal barangay is a legendary dive site and marine habitat. The soft waves riveting the blue waters and the golden hues of sunset at the end of each day were great reminders of God’s wondrous works. And there was much beyond the surface, the fish sanctuary and surrounding reef were filled with colorful marine life keeping in balance its marine ecosystem and sustaining the valuable resources of its community.
After a successful mission at Coral Cay Conservation, I was aching to be back in the waters for my quests. There was no definite plan though, but I need to get immersed again in a more relaxed environment in my own terms in my grand element. And what a better way to start my diving year with my dive buddy in one of the outstanding community managed marine protected area in the country. It’s been more than three years since our last hop to Apo Island, after a relaxing sojourn from Siquijor, and again it was diving and snorkeling in the sanctuary. I could vividly remember the turtles silently grazing the sea grasses as I watched them while floating in the shallows, it was a lovely sight!
We took the long route by bus from Cebu City to the southern tip of the province in Santander town taking the ferry from Liloan Port. Arriving past 4am at the port, I succumbed to my drooping eyes for few minutes before we took the 4:45am first trip to Sibulan. While cruising, the waves tossed us fiercely and I begun to worry that the waters would be too rough for our dives. Approaching the Sibulan port was hard, and coming up to the port was even harder. Perfect timing was necessary, you need to run up the gangplank before another big wave tossed up the ferry. It was a good way to start the day for some adrenaline rush to be wide awake!
After a tsokolate-suman painit at the tiangge which we loved, we rushed to Harold’s Dive Center and felt relieved that our dives went as scheduled. To my surprise, we were a big pack for Apo Island that day, the Chinese and Koreans dominated the bunch. We were all in two full mini-buses!
Katipanan and Chapel
The waters was rough indeed slowing our cruise to the island yet the sight of wide blue seas lifted my spirit, I was hoping to see again the friendly turtles. There were diving boats already when we got there and to my surprise, many snorkelers were scattered already in the waters. The waters got crowded and I was sad thinking of the turtles, sea kraits and juvenile fishes in the sanctuary, the pressures of the disturbance in their habitat could cause much damage. I was hoping it wasn’t on a daily basis.
We were joined with an Australian and Chinese, four divers in one DM was good enough. The larger bunch of Chinese divers were in different groups. After setting up our gears, I was glad our DM reminded us for the buddy check before jumping off, I admitted we overlook this necessary protocol often times. The water was still choppy though it was sunny, but the cold waters felt good as we jumped in. As we waited for the other two newbie divers, we beg off for descent as the waves were surfing up and could waste my energy. Holding hands with my dive buddy, we immersed and quickly seek the depths from the rough surface. Yes, down there it was calm and safer as I expected.
Katipanan as I vaguely remember was teeming with life, wide coral fields decorated with juveniles. Indeed, it is healthy as it was before but I didn’t see much fish life but large swarms of juveniles were visible. Surprisingly, my favorite garden eels came into view but not without Angel pointing it out to me. Their bodies half-way up poking from their holes on white sandy area, perhaps eyeing for food but as soon as we get nearer they went down slowly. Few stood their grounds and I paused momentarily, I just love watching the eels! We found a turtle resting above the corals, not moving even we got near. The turtles in this island are generally friendly, perhaps they got used already to human visitors! I was taking my time while floating weightlessly, just as it is, while it was choppy at the surface, beyond it was all serene and relaxing. It was a surprise there were group of jacks that graced as we swam around for the coral fields, a banded sea snake appeared also wiggling among the corals which we promptly evade. 🙂 We had our safety stop over the corals until we got near under our dive boat. We had 21.5 meters as deepest with 42 minutes bottom time.
We had light meals that served as our surface interval, it was bit windy though and staying on the boat felt cold. The waves getting fierce in the afternoon, the waters more choppy.
The boat moved to the Chapel for our last descent, finding refuge in another dive boat as the waves tossed us. Again, we waited for the two divers after we had the giant stride – the waves kept tossing us and I practically stayed near my buddy for safety. It took forever waiting for them, but as soon as we got down there was silence and the current was just mild. We were on coral fields again, just flourishing beating each other! Different hard and soft corals abound the area, there were nudis and my favorite moray eel appeared for me too, it was a giant one. The gentle turtles again – well, it won’t be Apo island without the turtles! We roamed the colorful coral fields just near our dive boat until we had our safety stop. We ascend still with 110 bars after 55 minutes bottom time.
The two relaxing dives were just perfect, after the works during the expedition it was what I needed. No pressures, just purely at peace with my favorite critters wanting to connect with them in their natural habitat. The marine environment of Apo Island is healthy as of now but I am not sure if this can be maintained. I was bit troubled of the large swarm of snorkelers and even divers, such bulk of disturbance is surely detrimental for the marine life. I fervently hope the community shall be mindful of the risks and inevitable impacts in a better perspective.
We silently cruise back to the shores of Dauin, bearing the cold winds and salt water spraying us from the fierce waves. Again, the cruise took forever but felt relieved that the shores was very calm. Angel and I flashed a wide smile as we talk about Casablanca and Sans Rival as we drove back into the city.
My dives during the CCC expedition led me to surprising encounters with marine critters, especially that their field base is nestled within Sogod Bay which is just one of the richest marine environment in the Philippines. We were having our second survey dive of the day doing outward for the fish survey, it was in pretty normal conditions, no current and animals were contentedly calm. I was scouring my side for the target species and unexpectedly this large shell came into view, I tried to come near but getting conscious that invertebrates was not our aim for the descent, time is always precious during survey dives! But the sighting was too rare to ignore, I tried to get Manon’s (our Project Scientist) attention – she was too absorbed as she was leading our mission. I pointed it out and she was surprised too! The intricate pattern of the its shell was just beautiful. We both came nearer and she signaled to record the sighting. That was my first encounter of a giant Triton in its habitat surrounded with other animals and I was wondering of its contribution to the marine ecosystem.
This invertebrate is an active predator and is known to aggressively chase its prey, which it detects through its excellent sense of smell.
The giant Triton is known for relatively high speeds, especially for a snail.
They feed on other snails and sea stars, most notably the crown of thorns starfish (COTS), Triton isthe only natural predators of this destructive starfish.
The specie was considered extremely important to reef health and is given legal protection particularly in Australia.
The giant Triton reproduces through internal fertilization, and the female lays her sticky eggs on the sand, where they quickly become covered with sand and other material, protecting them from potential predators.
Unfortunately, because of its valuable and attractive shell it is collected at many places around the world, they are often sold in shops or markets in popular tourism destinations in the tropics such here in Philippines. Gladly, that night during dinner as we were discussing the day’s activities, the giant Triton was nominated as critter of the day and was voted by majority!
NB. The giant Triton was sighted in Nueva Estrella Norte, a fishing community in Pintuyan, Southern Leyte where a marine protected area (MPA) was just established.
Coral Cay Conservation is an internationally renowned and accredited conservation specialist dedicated to providing the resources to help protect coral reefs and tropical rainforests throughout the developing world.
Since 1986 CCC have run over 20 successful conservation projects in more than 10 different countries around the world involving more than 10,000 volunteers, training several hundred scholars and publishing more than 300 key scientific research papers.
Across the world, CCC have had several internationally notable accomplishments such as the introduction of several Marine Protected Areas including the creation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Belize; The Danjugan Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary for Negros, Philippines in 2000; The Limasawa Community Managed Marine Protected Area for Southern Leyte, Philippines in 2008.
Marine conservation and protection is undoubtedly becomes a passion for many, everyone is becoming conscious of the environment and for people who loves the ocean, always believe that it needs necessary care not only for the present but more importantly for the future generation. Inside me, I felt and thought that my effort for these issues was only a minuscule of what was necessary of the vast waters around us. The seventy percent water that comprises the Earth is unimaginable and sustaining this important resource from all forms of risks including global climate change is very challenging and gargantuan for that matter. The Earth is in dire need right now of human intervention.
It was in September 2017 that I stumbled from the internet after curiously searching on marine volunteer works, about Coral Cay Conservation (CCC) based in London, UK with a field base in San Francisco, Southern Leyte. So, I carefully browse the information from their website believing that their target participants were foreign nationals only, consequently inquired if they accept local residents for the programme. The reply was good news, scholarships are offered to local residents with matching screening and qualified divers were very welcome. The rest was history. I was accepted as a CCC Expedition scholar in October 2017!
It was only in November 2018 that I finally traveled to Southern Leyte for my engagement, the year was filled with challenging tasks and I was only available in the last few weeks of the year. Such a long wait, yet the excitement was coupled with apprehension as I would be working with total strangers in an obscure remote town I was not familiar with. I chose the long trip by land which was an adventure by itself, cruising to Visayas through Lipata and San Ricardo route was one of the routes I was searching on and wanted to do, long before.
I found it an advantage choosing the last batch team for the year, it was lean period and so it wasn’t crowded. The pace was fitting for me as I need to absorb the lessons deeply, the follow-up exams were not easy, both underwater and on computer. The lessons were to prepare the volunteers for the survey works, identifying the substrates, invertebrates and target fish species correctly so that only accurate data were provided for the study in establishment of marine protected area. The community were involved also and participated in gathering data and raising awareness for marine conservation understanding.
The four-week stay in Barangay Napantao was full – household chores, lessons, exams, dives – Sundays however, serves as off-gassing day as a rule. Our meals were venues for stories, accusations, confessions, jokes, or the critter for the day’s dive nomination, and laughter… 🙂 Seriously, it was hard work and definitely not for the faint-hearted, diving have standards and protocols, whether boat or shore dives. I gained thirty five (35) dives during the expedition including one night shore dive at the house reef, again I would say it was hard work. Yet, I was grateful I was given the chance to work for a cause for the marine world. Perhaps my contribution was too trivial, yet I learned so much more about marine life and environment, most importantly gained scientific skills. The encounters were memorable and truly enriching. Indeed, we can only protect what we love. Obviously, the CCC team and other volunteers made my stint possible and a rewarding one.
The bruises, stings, scratches and scars I got during the expedition will soon disappear and forgotten but the memories and gained insights will surely linger on. Surely, we can only have good intentions for what we love and for what we need to protect. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I am one proud CCC scholar!
NB.Photo credits to Mr. Gareth Turner, Field Base Manager during the period. The expedition base is located in Napantao, San Francisco, Southern Leyte within Sogod Bay.
So after being away and organizing a lot of issues when I got back, the depths was my most urgent agenda. Six months were just so long. More than anything else, I need the waters in preparation for the expedition in Southern Leyte.
Through all these years, MADRI (Mantangale Alibuag Dive Resort, Inc.) has been my refuge whenever I need a plunge without getting far, and of course not incurring much expenses. I am always grateful because they’re just a call or text away, even if there were no other guests I got accommodated. So one Saturday morning of October I head for Balingoan to quench my salt water craze, and I was alone. Obviously, it was an exclusive dive for me! 🙂
The favorite and most wanted site at the shop was none other the house reef at Banaug Shoal, as I said again and again I’ll never get tired of coming here. I was welcomed by Sir Dong which later joined me on the first dive, it felt good to be back once more, just like a refuge. The waters were bit choppy as we sped off, there was current and so I seek safety through the line for the descent. And there was silence, into another world…
After lunch which served as my surface interval, we head for Bugtong Bato near Sipaka Point. Although I visited the point few times in the past, I have blurred memory of this big rock emerging off the coast of Sipaka. It can be seen from a distance as you approach the boundary between the next town of Talisayan, from the surface it looks desolate, barren and devoid of life. But underwater, it depicts a different picture, so colorful, very diverse and teeming with life!
Our descent was shallower as we aimed to circle around the tiny rock isle, it was entertaining and spent a good 60 minutes just awed with its abundance.
The two dives just made my day, I was still in high spirits as I packed my gears preparing to leave. One important thought was, MADRI will always be my home as I can always come in its fold anytime and they all welcome me with open arms and for sure, open hearts. A home for my diving needs decorated with a relaxing view of the blue seas with Camiguin island as backdrop. So picturesque! 🙂
Speaking of Camiguin!
Two weeks later, catching a bus too early we head off to Balingoan with my dive buddy but went further beyond, cruising to my favorite island. 🙂 The sunny cruise lifted our spirits while watching the surrounding blue waters and Mantigue Island at a distance. 🙂 Our host (Camiguin Soul Divers) warned us to be on time as there were other guests for the day. Our transpo connections went fluidly and we still got time for coffee with our dive master when we got to the shop located at Looc, Tupsan. The good news from Jenny was, the island was temporarily closed to public and only dive boats can get to Mantigue which meant it’s not crowded and no waters disturbance during our dives!
It felt good to be back when just ten months ago (December 2017) we had our year-end dive in Mantigue Island and set foot to watch sunrise at White Island. We were back just in time when lanzones (buahan in dialect) were still abundant as the festival just ended. You know, you can only find the sweetest lanzones in Camiguin Island!
Our first descent was at the Marine Sanctuary as we were aiming for the jacks, we went south meeting resident species – the giant batfish swimming coyly, green turtles, snappers, etc. There was giant clam, the crown of thorns lurking under the corals without doubt slowly feeding from polyps. There was only a vague group of jackfish hovering above but not actively swimming in unison. The perennial anemone fish graced us before we ended our dive.
We descend again on the other end of the Marine Sanctuary on the sandy bottom passing over the coral fields, we had a dose of turtles around the area. There was one who was unmindful of our presence, it was some kind of sleeping hiding its head under the crevice. It was not moving even if we are so near trying to get its attention, so endearing I wanted to pet its back! We continued floating around feeling weightless, grateful being underwater with critter friends – turtles, batfish, jacks, triggerfish, anemone fish, and more. The abundance of the sanctuary was pure blessings. We cruised back to the dive shop shores ending our day dives but not the fun we had in the island.
Spontaneity… It sounds exciting to me especially if it is about travel and my last dive trip in April was one. Although my mind was set to revisit Pandan in Antique province to conquer the ever elusive Maningning Island, we succumbed to Sipalay City as alternative destination. Our DM was not available and the weather was unstable. It was another long trip as it was necessary not to waste my ticket to Iloilo City from Cagayan de Oro. Took the early ferry to Bacolod, endure the long bus ride to the southern most town of Negros Occidental, until finally we had the tricycle ride to Punta Ballo at our refuge in Artistic Diving Beach Resort. The long day was filled with good tidings though, the morning rainbow while in Iloilo pier and the afternoon rainbow at the white beach were enough to cheer us up and took it as a promise of wonderful trip just like in the past.
Taking refuge in a dive resort while diving is always advantageous, there is no rushing to commute going to the site and there’s no need to carry heavy wet gears back to camp. Artistic Diving Beach Resort sat along the west coast with an idyllic white beach, so the sunset always beckon at the end of the day. It has at least 14 dive sites including wrecks, and is just nearby Campomanes Bay. After eight months we were back, there was much to explore and we barely covered this unassuming city in our last visit.
Dive and Swim
After attending the Sunday mass at the city center and taking light breakfast, we gathered up our gears and met up with DM Dick at the shop. And again, it was an exclusive dive for us! We aimed for MS Jojo for our first descent, it was a short twenty minutes boat ride to the bay. This boat was a small cargo ship for copra and other produce that sank in early 1980’s, they said exploring the wreck is somewhat tricky. It can be murky down there even during sunny weather, and so we were hoping that we could get at least a glimpse of the wreck. We back rolled and hold on to the buoy line together descending slowly until at 20 meters we saw obscurely a huge mass. We were very fortunate that visibility cooperated us and we tried not to disturb the water hovering carefully trying to cover as much as we can. Perhaps I was so distracted, I only saw a lionfish but never the spadefish that normally dwells on wrecks. We lighted our torches but there wasn’t much to see, penetration was not allowed inside the wreck, the entire hull was still intact. We were biding our time until my NDL went down to 1! I signaled for ascent feeling sorry that it was too short and was just indeed a sneak peek underwater. Later, I learned from my computer of my bad profile, I still had 90 bars of air with my deepest at 32 meters after a bottom time of 36 minutes.
After an hour for our surface interval, we geared up again for our next descent at MiamiBeach which was a lot nearer from the diveshop, it was another boat dive. We descend the slope while maintaining our left shoulder towards the reef. We caught sight of an artificial reef of concrete slabs filed on top of the other. Indeed, it became a shelter and refuge of variety of reef fishes, we saw like two or three mounds of slabs all filled with fish. There were glass shrimp, violet hairy shrimp lurking in soft corals and juvenile lion
fish. There was a field of corals decorated with wiggling fishes, floating around wandering the waters. I sighted a COTS taking refuge under the corals. Just when we are about to ascend, we noticed a large lobster with its wiggling antlers. I still have 100 bars air with bottom time of 56 minutes with 26.9 meters as deepest.
Trek, Swim and Sunset
We ended our dives early enough to explore more of the city which were missed in our last trip. One good thing about Sipalay is its remaining idyllic and still devoid of distracting structures that seemingly hide the natural beauty of locality.
We hired the trike we had in the morning when we went to church, for our afternoon get-away. Somehow, the locals always knew what to see, where to go next and what not’s. Our first stop was at Perth Paradise Resort, we went around the floating catwalk wondering those hills on the waters like fjords. We climbed the steps up the topmost level at the pool admiring the stunning view. The afternoon was scorching so we didn’t linger on but instead left hurriedly and sped off to Tinagong Dagat which was indeed hidden. It was all trek from the gates, crossing the rickety hanging bridge and climbing up the hill to the viewing deck. The view was stunning again, the green mountains over the blue waters – it was all glorious!
There’s one remote beach that tickled my curiosity since I first came in Sipalay but unfortunately left hanging for next visit. I was imagining the reddish horizon over the waters as the sun sets. Unbeknownst to us, going to Sugar Beach was not an easy one. The dirt road was potholed so the ride was a bumpy one as we sped off to catch the colorful sunset and finally hopped to a short boat ride crossing the river to reach the area.
And indeed, everything was crude – place was utterly untouched by modernization. We were able to explore a bit as we waited for the sunset, and swam enjoying the warm afternoon waters. Purely idyllic, almost devoid of people and there was no rushing as we watched the horizons turning from golden, to fiery reddish, orange until it mellowed to pinkish. Such wonderful display of nature. It was already dark as we rushed back to the city center and finally, to the dive resort.
If given a chance to be back south of Negros Occidental, it would be Sipalay, the rural and picturesque attractions coupled with diverse marine life is a perfect combination. It could only take a rich underwater world for me to love a city or a “punta” for that matter!
It was a quick decision to revisit one of my favorite destination in Cebu province, initially we were aiming for an offbeat town in Southern Leyte but unfortunately, the lone local dive shop was fully booked for that weekend. We made quick arrangements on our favorite hostel and dive shop in Moalboal but then again, all were fully booked. We ignored the hindrances though, coming to this favorite town southwest of Cebu was a joy. My last visit was yet in June 2014!
The last minute changes made me scrambling from a quiet lunch with friends, it was already past 2pm and everything else went as a whirlwind – tickets, packing, gears assemble, so on. By 8pm, I was already on board the boat sailing for the night to Cebu.
Travelers always trust things will work out well as you arrived the destination, and it sure did. As long as you are open-minded and make most of what is available at hand. One last bahay-kubo was the lodge for the night and our friend DM at Cebu Dive Center offered us one dive in their house reef for the coveted sardines run, it was good that one dive guide was available for that afternoon. The arrangement worked well and it gave us time to see other sites. 🙂
White Beach (Bas Daku)
For the many times I went to Moalboal, I never got the chance to visit the area and Torsten (of Moalboal Backpackers Lodge) described it as a wonderful spot to relax and watch sunset. It was low-tide when we got there, the shores was wide and long enough for the walk but unfortunately it was too crowded. So, we had the walk, sat at the beach, watch people, watch the sunset and in the end, had a dip and quick swim in its warm waters! 🙂
The town of Samboan is 60 kilometers away from the lodge and almost two hours bus ride, so we woke up early for the trip south. Indeed, the early bird catches the best view! There was no crowd, no noise just the sound of the gushing waters! Yes, the short walk and climbing the four levels was a sure test of agility and strength. I love the early trek and swim at its basin with the majestic falls behind us. It was a wet morning adventure! 🙂
Being with the sardines was a joy!
Completely lost in their midst!
The swarm is getting larger!
DM Cameron (of Cebu Dive Center) was just good-hearted to arrange with another diver for our afternoon dives, one dive was truly not enough for me but it was better than none considering the long trip. The afternoon waters was turbulent as it was moving for the high tides, it was hard to keep steady as we wade for our entry. At 15 meters though, we had a grand show of million sardines. It clouded above us, as we swam coyly in the warm waters – so beautiful and surreal! It was amazing, a nature’s wonder that can not be explained. For a time the swarm was in the deep in Pescador Island, but now it’s in the shallows right next the shores. Maybe, the fishes knew that they can survive well away from the predators. Yes, the spot is a protected area and fishing them is illegal! I knew I will get back in Moalboal for the sardines again and again.
The brief get-away was a carouse but never in a noisy and lively way as in a party, but it’s about enjoying nature’s gifts in it’s most simple, relaxed, spontaneous and unaffected way. The wonderful dive was just I needed during the Moalboal visit. After we bade goodbye to our host, we left for the city thankful that our traspo connections went fluidly.
It was late when we arrived downtown Cebu, rushing but still had enough time for a relaxing dinner at La Maison Rose. C’est la vie! 🙂
NB. All photos courtesy of my favorite dive buddy.