White Beach

P1050291There is some place that we might not set foot again but inside us we are grateful we had the chance to savor its beauty and serenity. Like the White Beach in Malamawi Island in Isabela City, many may not even have heard or imagined it existed. Blue skies that meets the blue sea, cottony white clouds, white sandy shores coupled with sun shining – uncluttered and never rearranged by humans – my kind of place where I can sit and watch the horizons in oblivion.

The dark blue waters beyond held some mystery to me, I wonder what’s in store in the depths.  There could be more, the life underneath, the amazing world beyond. I knew in its bosom held many secrets, secrets to be revealed. Perhaps.

Perhaps, some other time….

Bucas Grande A Drench!

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Talisay was my refuge in my homecoming

Three years. Since I last came in this group of islands I called my second home.  Not really long, but I have promised to be back again.  I have missed its tranquility and stillness. There are so many issues at the back of my mind that needs to be soothed by pure serenity, as if to disconnect. I randomly decided to be home once more.

Coming here is always a wet pursuit but I love the waters, its turquoise and emerald  surroundings always gave me a warm welcome! Again, the hop was just brief but it was some kind of a retreat.

Jellyfish Lagoon

This is my favorite spot and I always come here to visit my jelly friends.  Last time there was none,  it was fortunate they were around, although it was not yet in full season, but its good to see them again. Swimming, floating, pulsating on the emerald waters. 🙂  I can’t help being with them, but you need to be careful not to disturb them. Just float and swim without flinging one’s limbs – the proper way to interact with this invertebrate.  So soft, so gentle – I simply love them!  I scampered up the boat when Brandon (my boatman) begged me to come up when he noticed other guests are coming. Swimming with the jellyfish is not allowed anymore!

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I can’t imagine how our boat maneuvered getting inside Sohoton!

Caving in Sohoton

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Hagukan Cave can only be viewed by swimming down and holding breath for at least 10 seconds!

The two caves inside the cove are worth coming again but you must need to be comfortable in the waters.  It was new moon when I got there, so the waters movement was quite slow and even if it was low tide, the waters are still up but the good thing is,  current was almost non-existent.  🙂  If you have entered Hagukan before, you knew about the rock in the middle of the lagoon, where you could stand to rest from swimming.  Well, it was too deep to stand on, it was floating and swimming all the way!

Magkakakaub Cave is another challenging – rock climbing and that big splash to the Water! I came in here more than five times, in those instances I can walk  inside without soaking my body but this time I was swimming inside. It was amazing how it could change with the moon’s movement!

Beaches

Time was too short but I still managed to hop in Marka A Island, it was swimming and lazing in its small patch of white beach under the noon sun, in the end I took refuge under a cavern from the scorching heat while watching the horizon.  Lastly, I went to Cinnamon Island (my home in my last visit) for my sumptuous lunch with Raffy and Director Bulabong (of DILG). I enjoyed the seafoods, the buko and the home-made biko! Dining al fresco watching the blue horizons was just perfect.  🙂

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The water front of Cinnamon Island!

Nothing much has changed since I knew Bucas Grande in terms of Structures.  Well, there are new Lodging Cottages and Huts, but still of indigenous materials.  The park and its waters have maintained its cleanliness, mainly because the community manage it and everyone takes part in its preservation and protection! 🙂

Home It Is

The community always welcome me even how short the notice was – DA always arrange everything with no fuss. My boat has been waiting several hours before I arrive at Port Hayanggabon. Roldan, Raffy, Renan, Jun-jun, Brandon, Chelyn were just few who would be willing to sit for some leisure talk and dine with me even if they have other chores to do.  Most importantly, I can laze around to all my heart’s content. The wide horizons, the orange sky, the cicadas, the roaring waves and the dark nights. Just immersing myself with simple things that give pure joy.

It was another drenching visit in my home, which was purely cathartic to me.  And I will be back again, it’s a promise.

Travel Notes

1. Vans going to Port Hayanggabon, Claver is available at Bad-as, Placer. Multi-cab/jeep also can be found at Surigao City bus terminal.
2. Last trip boat (public utility) from Port Hayanggabon to Socorro town is 4pm.
3. Consider the Moon cycle when visiting the islands, tide and current movements should not be taken for granted.
4. Lodgings with generator have electricity  6:00pm to 12:00 midnight only.
5. Cellphone signal which is not necessary actually, is almost non-existent!
6. When you visit Bucas Grande, please patronize the community-managed lodgings in Cinnamon Island, SIFAI, Green Cove and Titktikan Lagoon. Always arrange your visit to the island through the local tourism unit.

 

Life in the Islands!

P1050172There is only stillness and serenity.

Orange skies, sound of cicadas and the placid waters reflecting sky hues are simple signs that another day has ended.  I can sit all alone watching the horizons until darkness engulf the scenery.  Then a sparkling light in the distance from fishers going their way or the occasional fireflies in summer nights.

Home. There is only stillness and serenity…

Diving in Pearl Island

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Pearl Island before destruction from Typhoon Yolanda. Photo credits to http://www.fotocommunity.de von Herr Martin Schaublin. Danke viel mals!

An off-beaten site, I haven’t even heard or read about the spot and we only knew we were going there when we were already on the boat for our scheduled dives.

“Where do we go today? Asking in wonder our DM, whom we just met that morning.
“To Pearl Island!” He blurted briefly with no further description about the mysterious island.

It is just one of the islets off Guiuan, Eastern Samar and coming to this town was just a detour when Biliran province was just hit by typhoon. The lone dive shop in the province cancelled our weekend dives accordingly.

The morning skies was down cast and I was crossing my fingers the waters would be considerate enough for the dives. We were fortunate, Angel found a DM on the web who accepted our last minute booking. Guiuan being hit by Yolanda (in November 2013) was still picking up pieces from the havoc and finding lodgings was also hard, but thankfully we found a home stay at Barangay Hollywood. The town is not in the diving map and definitely not yet in our list but it was more than a blessing we had what we need for that weekend getaway last July.

The waters was bit choppy and the cruise took us an hour but the aqua marine hue of the surrounding waters and the prospect of the far-off island slowly getting near was a real treat to perk us up. But seeing the place as we step on its shores was heart-rending – total wreckage was overwhelming. The three white dogs and the caretaker welcomed us warmly, enough to soothe the pain I felt watching the miserable state of the station.

The sky was still downcast and the visibility was not favorable but hoping for surprises in our descents, we geared up leisurely for our first dive – it was a shore entry but somewhat tricky as the viz was hazy. The plan was to circle the islet swimming with the current hoping to cover the whole sanctuary. There were variety of soft and hard corals with juvenile fishes, I needed to be more keen for critters. But what I saw was more wreckage – uprooted talisay tree, broken coco trees, galvanized roofings, rubbles and more. There was more debris than marine life as we went around. Inspecting closely a crevice, I found a lobster, its antlers swaying slowly outside the hole. She stood her ground as I came a bit closer beckoning Angel. It was a rare find and quite a surprise, it was my first sighting of a big lobster! We roamed around over a coral but in a twist of fate, I was separated from Angel and our DM, the obscure viz was not really a help. I surfaced about 15 minutes later than them….

For sure, there was still more to explore down but the DM beg-off for the second dive, it would be rude to demand from him as he was feeling sick.

The devastation of the town was fading physically barely noticeable in one glance but visiting the island could pierce one’s heart, the BFAR building was totally destroyed, rows of concrete beds for the pearl culture was empty and useless, coconuts and talisay trees uprooted. It is almost bare to the ground. The lash of the unforgiving typhoon was evident even underwater. Exactly the small islet was an exact show window of the Yolanda devastation.

Perhaps, there will be another chance to visit Guiuan, by that time the town is booming & blooming and the typhoon destruction will only be a faint memory.

Travel Notes

1. Pearl Island (aka Kantican Island) is an experimental station of Bureau of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources (BFAR) on pearl culture, at the same time a protected marine sanctuary. It caters as venue of seminars, training and workshops of the province. It was established and a gem during Marcos era.
2. There is no commercial diveshop at the moment but can book diving services from a local DM. Bringing own gears would be advantageous.
3. Aircon vans from Tacloban to Guiuan (and vice versa) have daily regular trips every hour, travel time is two hours.
4. There are more than 10 dive sites in Eastern Samar including Homonhon Island.

Disclosure

I savor few moments on the swing under the talisay tree (survivor after the typhoon) just before we left the island. Despite the devastation, there still a little source of simple joy for a sad soul. Angel was worried to death when he surfaced and cant find me.

Tales from Romblon

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The mystical Blue Hole in San Agustin, Tablas, Romblon

It’s been awhile since my last descent – twenty weeks to be exact, for some reasons, good reasons that is. In my own terms it was fundamental and non-negotiable. Yet my undying admiration for the depths never wane a bit. I was fighting my own demons and trying to fulfill my mission as I simply understood it. I was painstakingly waiting for my next dive trip, obviously I was like a fish out of water!

The merry month of May was just apt, and coming to Romblon was just fitting – it is off-beaten for diving and undoubtedly a good recompense for the abstinence. Angel and I were utterly intrigued with Blue Hole, actually he has been suggesting for a hop to these group of islands for some time.

Secrets No More

Indeed, this quiet capital is too good in keeping its secrets. Arriving in early dawn, there was enough time to get some sleep after a long haul – it was a plane, bus, boat rides for me starting my trip in the wee hours from CdeO. The short nap was a good way to start and we needed enough rest for the day’s events.

After a relaxing breakfast, we head for Three – Ps Holiday & Dive Resort at Barangay Lonos, only to find out later that we have to get back at the town, our dive boat was waiting at the pier just near our lodge! We left late as planned, aside from boat preparations our DM was not feeling well. But we were blessed with a good weather, sunny skies and calm blue waters graced us as we cruise for the site in San Agustin, somewhere at north western end of Tablas. Verdant hills and fields and few patches of white beach were in the horizon as we sailed on. We caught sight of two lighthouses, the last one was near in our dive site. We started to gear up as we approached and asked if we could climb up to the lighthouse. DM Peter assured we can during the surface interval, his wife Anne was too encouraging feeling proud as a local.

I was wondering if a check-out dive would be necessary for me being a deep dive, I was thinking of ear squeeze for sure, again it’s been twenty weeks. Cavern diving is too alluring and it’s not new for me and Angel, the mystery of the dark always held surprises and we found that very interesting. The penetration is always enticing! I was dying for the depths and the smell of sea waters and gears just heighten the thrill. One big step to the waters and we all descend swimming shortly near a wall until we got to the hole, a big wide dark hole but never scary. We went down lighting our torch, there were no fish life or maybe I missed them distracted by its mystery, until we got to the exit unto a sandy slope. It wasn’t long enough to fill my curiosity, which left me wondering the occurrence of the sink hole. The environs were decorated with variety of soft and hard corals, spirals, feather stars, sea ferns/grasses, nudis, anemones, juvenile fishes and more. It was all healthy until we got to a colony of crown of thorns – so many scattered over the corals. Going further, we found more colorful corals and juvenile fishes hovering over. It was all beautiful I can’t put it in words – you know it’s something that sent a flutter in your heart. Our safety stop was spent over a coral area going around until we ascend near the boat after 54 minutes, our deepest at 37.5 meters.

“You have to swim to the shore, the boat cannot get near due to the corals.” DM Peter quipped when we asked his permission for the lighthouse. Well, we did swim but I need to hold Angel’s hand, to be sure he won’t leave me behind. Our surface interval was spent exploring Punta Gorda – climbing the hill, going around the lighthouse (old one is beside the new) but felt sorry we can’t climb. The place was desolate, but the lighthouse is perfectly functioning – it is one of major lighthouse in the country. We found goats grazing in the surrounding foliage and boats on the shore, for sure there’s a community offshore. We sat on the shore seeking shed from a tree watching the horizons until our DM summoned for our return, we all swam together with his wife back to the boat. Another secret uncovered!

There is something unsettling with the hole, yet when DM Peter asked if we want to do again the Blue Hole, we both opted for another site. Our second descent was still at Punta Gorda exploring a wall, decorated with barrel sponges, knotted fan, sea fans, feather stars, sea ferns, table corals, brain corals, maze corals and anemones. DM Peter examined closely a large gorgonian and found a bargibanti pygmy – so minute I could hardly see it. I caught sight of a clam, some nudis and obscurely a white tip, which disappeared quickly. Again, the environs were colorful and appeared healthy, I guess the area is seldom visited by divers and disturbances are all too minimal. We had our safety stop on a wide coral area going around again in the shallows until we ascend after 67 minutes. Although I refused to be bothered, I noticed earlier that my precious D4 went dead and appeared flooded.

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On the wall, were barrel sponges, feather stars, sea ferns and more critters

We sailed back to town, wanting to speed the cruise. We need to explore one more secret – the old Fort San Andres and watch the sunset on the hill. Indeed, we did watch the setting sun unwinding on the tiny park near the fort. It was wonderful to cap the day with the calming sight of the golden horizon. But our day did not end there – we had dinner in an Italian deli and had foccacia, home made pasta with meat balls plus fruit shakes. It was more than enough and finished our day with a walk at the old town district. It was exhausting but had lot of discoveries in just twelve hours or so.

More Secrets

The next day, we made the few hours in Romblon productive and unraveled more secrets. Before leaving downtown, we paid church visit in Saint Joseph Church built in 1727, perhaps one of the oldest church in the country. It was evident in the town the colonial Spanish influence – the old church, old fort, old town square, old houses and the historic Spanish bridge in the old town district.

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The white sandbar at Bonbon Beach almost reaching Bangug Island

We headed south of town until Apunan Point in Agpanabat, Angel just wanted to see another lighthouse. The caretaker was all too friendly and allowed us for a climb, the 75 feet structure standing proudly with its old counterpart just few meters away. We had a breathtaking view before us – the vast ocean with sunny blue skies! We looked over a string of white beaches we passed from Barangay Palje to Lonos – Talipasak Beach, Marble Beach, San Pedro Beach, Tiamban Beach until Bonbon Beach. The last one is with a sand bar gleaming under the sun, with its end near Bangug Island. There were no crowds, these are the kind that is worthy lounging the whole day – pure and relaxing. Indeed, Romblon is more than just marbles as it has been originally known.

The breathtaking view from Punta Apunan lighthouse!
The breathtaking view from Punta Apunan lighthouse!

Notes of Inspiration

Our DM said, we were lucky there was no current when we got at Blue Hole, there were times when penetration is not possible, surge of current will push divers up not allowing entry. Our experience was never tricky, we all went fluidly and the waters cooperated with us. The God of the Seas was with us again all throughout!

Tim Scott said that there is great intimacy in diving with another human being. Getting back in the waters with my favorite dive buddy was sheer joy. Diving with someone who is a good friend and someone you trust brings shared joy, undoubtedly a reinforcement of the friendship and closeness above water. It was such a reassuring gesture of shared belief and admiration of the depths. The Blue Hole encounter is another mystical moments shared with my best dive buddy.

Travel Notes:

1. We stayed at Park Bay Mansion – P 750.00 for AC room good for two persons
2. Tricycle can be hired for town tours, we paid P 500.00 round trip as far as Apunan Point in Barangay Agpanabat
3. There are two dive resort in the island, Three – Ps is more convenient if you stay in Romblon town. Diving within the island is cheaper, but if you head for Blue Hole it will cost more due to additional cost for boat rentals going to the site which is one hour away.
4. Word of caution – if your dive computer needs battery replacement, don’t use it underwater. Never!

Back in the Waters!

Just two weeks ago I was back in my blue world with my favorite dive buddy and new found friends, in an off beaten site in Romblon waters.  It was such a joy!

NB.  Photo courtesy of Angel for photos 1 and 2, using Lumix TS2 with Ikelite casing.

Breathless in Bongao

You can never miss Bongao Peak before toucihng sown Sanga-Sanga Airport
You can never miss Bongao Peak before touching down Sanga-Sanga Airport

After two plane rides a day apart, I find myself in the southern most province with a cluster of 307 islands and islets, one of the red flag spots in Mindanao – Tawi-Tawi, more than 328 kilometers from the nearest urban center in Zamboanga City. I had been doing my research and inquiries about diving in these group more than three years ago, and in 2011 chance upon a seat sale on Zamboanga – Bongao – Zamboanga route. My MRDP workmates were too encouraging having visited the province for marine preservation activities. Unfortunately, we had the trip cancelled after some irrational changes of flights leaving my tickets down the drain. Finally, I made it with my dive buddy, of course. I watched Bongao Peak in wonder as it loomed before us, while approaching the terminal of Sanga-Sanga Airport. It was still early, and the locals were just starting the day.

Zenith Moments

We went straight to our refuge in Beachside Inn, our modest room with windows facing the sea  was just to our liking. We had a long day at hand and after an hour break, headed for the trek to Bongao Peak. Yet we need the bananas for the macaque monkeys which is really necessary, the climb is not possible without the offering. Our friendly guides assured the trails won’t be horrid as it has been sunny in the past weeks. The midday sun was already scorching as we started our ascent.

The climb was only one third when we got at the cemented steps, it was getting steep which surely make one breathless but the glimpse of surrounding waters beyond was so alluring. The myth is true, the monkeys appeared for the offering and I was thinking, without the bananas all of them will swarm and block the way. They could be dangerous indeed. But personally, I found the plastics tied on the trees so disturbing, I will always see them as trash – inarguably, it marred the purity of the trees and forest. Lot of trash was left on the trails, from the climbers without doubt, it was so pathetic.

The peak was all consuming, it gave us an ample view of the surrounding islands with turquoise waters around, the town, the communities and the airport. The endless blue seas meeting the blue skies beyond is so calming. Breathless with the panorama! Peaks are always marvelous indeed.

Intense Depths

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Diving in Bongao includes climbing or hoisting yourself from the waters to this boat!

The main agenda of the trip was diving of course, what else? An off-beaten site is always to our liking,  Some what mysterious and there is much to unravel. We were up early the next day, it was a gloomy Saturday morning as we gather up our gears waiting for our transpo at 7am. There is no dive operator in Bongao but the local Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) has been handling diving trips in the province, and we are grateful to them.

The hired boat, similar to those floating at the old Chinese pier was already at the bridge connecting Sanga-Sanga Island to Bongao, waiting for us. Our first site was at Sanga-Sanga Reef which is just at the front of the airport. The waters started to get choppy when we got there, but DM Ramon first sought permission from the guards, it meant wading down the waters until the shores.

Summary of our descents during the day, our first and last dive was with DM Ramon while the wreck was with Sir Dong Reyes, the president of TDC:

   Sites                  Depth   Bottom Time     Conditions
 Sanga-Sanga Reefs        15.3m     0:45        Strong current
 Pahut Plane Wreck        19.1m     0:31        Very strong current
 Sowangkagang Tiny Wall   12.1m     0:36        Mild current

One need to be an experienced diver especially that current are all common in every sites. The most challenging one and my top pick was the Plane wreck in Pahut, it was believed to be a World War II Japanese Tora-tora plane. Sir Dong had a detailed briefing before the descent making us aware of the currents judging from tide movements. The good thing was other local divers were invited, making us six in all, two of which are new graduates form MSU – Tawi Tawi from Marine Bio and Environmental Management. The instruction was once in the waters, descend immediately to the floor and hold on while waiting for others, everyone will swim or drift to the wreck together.  Angel warned me to stay close with him and never to get lost, I went ahead of him for the entry.

We all swam to the wreck with Sir Dong leading us, the overriding current almost sweeping us but firmly finned for the spot. I was somewhat dismayed that the remnants barely outlined the plane, far from the photos I saw taken two years ago. I came too near holding on an iron part, the strong current fiercely gushing and swooshing before us. Although I was focused with the currents, my eyes never failed to notice the colorful fishes hovering the artificial reef, such lovely sight! I tried to circle around still seeking refuge in the wreck mound. We all drift away as our DM signaled to depart from the spot, passing hard and soft corals with the tropical fishes – there was no pelagic in sight. We ascend too far from the boat!

Diving in Bongao or in Tawi-Tawi for that matter is not for the faint hearted, its depths is as fierce as its local people, silent but tough and can be dangerous. Confidence and trusting in one’s capacity is necessary but never forgetting basic safety rules. Forget about the comfortable white-washed dive boats with amenities and ready stairs, doing the Spartan way is the mode, climb your way from the side sans modesty and without reservations. I have gone that far, but that’s all part of the job!

Our last descent was for finishing touch with DM Ramon, it was already late at 4pm but the current has gone mild fading away. Sowangkagang was just near our lodgings. It was not a wall actually but a sandy slope decorated with soft corals like it was filled of brown grasses swaying with the current, it was mild and barely noticeable. We took some time trying to find the giant clams Sir Dong was talking about but it was nowhere. Three dives with currents are exhaustive and left us almost breathless, thanks to my oxygen! I learned that there is more joy in the routines than conquering the site – challenging or not!

The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting
The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting

Marine Preservation and Protection

It is impressive to note that while Tawi-Tawi province is distant and the frontier to Malaysian waters, it is not last in terms of marine environment protection – government agencies, local government and advocacy groups like WWF, FISH and even MRDP are collaborating cohesively in information & education campaign around the islands. The efforts to address existing environmental problems is supported by local communities particularly in preservation of MPAs, research studies and activities were put in place too. I learned from Engr. Dong Reyes that TDC in cooperation with MSU Tawi-Tawi College of Fisheries replanted coral polyps from dead corals due to dynamite fishing. He showed few of this artificial reefs scattered near the university’s port with the grown corals which will be transplanted in areas with depleting coral reefs. WWF Philippines on the other hand has satellite office in Bongao and extension works in the islands of Simunul, Sibutu and Sitangkai. They claim that marine resources have depleted precariously, fish stocks are overfished and important habitats are being lost – fish catch of fishermen are dwindling over the past years. The increasing number of people living in coasts and continuing rise in consumer demands for fish threatens marine biodiversity. Yet hopeful with this impending crisis as the rural communities are aware and cooperating in preservation and protection efforts. The Tawi-Tawi group is one of the country’s significant breeding grounds and a rich source of marine products and by-products – definitely more than just a “tourist” destination.  No, definitely this province is not struggling to be seen, just come and be their guest!

Travel Notes:

1. There are no dive shops in Bongao, diving in islands can only be arranged with Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) through Engr. Rosendo Reyes  at 0917 7222905 or 0921 2938287.
2. Bringing your own gear is recommended, TDC gears are owned by members and by chance not available.
3. Boat hires are available at old Chinese Pier: for diving within Bongao it costs P 1500.00; going to the islands costs more depending distance, Simunul Island is P 2,300.00 – haggling skills may help.
4. Trek to Bud Bongao is more than an hour including stops and monkey offerings, the descent is about fifteen minutes depending your pace.
5. Sunsets are best viewed at the Provincial Capitol that sits on a hill.
6. Simunul island, is the site of oldest Mosque in the Philippines and home of the revered Sheikh Makdum one of the early pioneers in the spread of the Islamic religion in the country.

NB. My point and shoot cam was totally useless during my dives, sorry no underwater photos on this post

Related Article:

Scuba Diving expeditions launched in Tawi-Tawi  (www.zambotimes.com)