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!

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!  🙂

Cortes: The Kujaw Pride

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Lush sea grasses, corals and marine plants…

Our quest for off beaten sites is still going on, that spirit of curiosity is never put to rest and so we continue to explore and hunt from island to island.  And most often such locations are remote, far-flung and most likely unheard of in terms of tourism radar. The town is off the national highway en route to other Surigao Sur municipalities. It is practically off-road, a separated land mass like an annex facing directly the Pacific Ocean.

I met up with Angel in Tandag after sleepless rides and again, it was another long trip for almost ten hours.  Saturdays or weekends for that matter are always in a relaxing mode for the town folks but fortunately there were people in the Tourism Office just beside the Kujaw Diveshop, perhaps due to forthcoming national elections.  We waited for our contact Archie (an LGU staff) who made arrangements for the day’s dives, he lives in a barangay outside the town.

Kujaw Depths

Our first descent was in Poblacion, it was yet high tide, but water movements shifting for the low tide was intense, carrying one back to the shallows, finning hard was necessary and it was just exhaustive!  The visibility wasn’t good enough, there had been rains in the past few days and it was fortunate that it was sunny! We found pipefish, Moorish idol, angels, triggerfish, snappers and unicorn fish.  There was these three snappers who were inseparable and keep by side near me, perhaps they were siblings and was wondering what kind of black fish I am.  🙂  And there was a herd of barracuda somewhat obscure from my point, which Angel tried to swim after, I thought it was trevally! We went around, found a patch of branching corals, and the white sand ripples underwater brought by the water movements.  After 45 minutes we ascend, our deepest at 18.2 meters.

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A field of branching corals obviously competing with one another

Our surface interval was spent on the boat, Jun and Ramil (our guides) have lot of stories about Cortes and its efforts in the preservation and protection of its marine environment. They were all praises for their Mayor (vehemently against mining), they recalled that dynamite fishing was a common practice even in neighboring towns. Now,  the surrounding  waters is teeming with fish life.  The fisher folks need to observe the spawning season, strictly no fishing is allowed during the period and they perfectly understood the reason.  The local government labored for the information and education campaign, respectively livelihood projects were initiated for the people.

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Giant clams abound in the area

Our second descent was in Uba Marine Sanctuary, the current was still moving as the water recede for the low tide. There were rock formations, some cavern and crevices.  There were variety of anthias, clown fish and herds of yellow breams.  There was patch of sea grasses, which I keep holding on as I went around, the waves current is pushing me back.  We went round and round in the shallows. After 63 minutes, I signaled for ascent as the tide movements was getting rough.

Kujaw Side-trips

After checking in our refuge, we make most of the remaining time in the afternoon.  We were aiming for the Laswitan Lagoon, the town has been known for this natural wonder. The gigantic waves from the Pacific whip up the rock formation along the coast, creating like Falls.  It was not in season anymore so what we got were clear pools trapped by rock formations.  The good thing was it was calm and so serene, it was not filled with people.   It was already late, but our guide still made us to Lubcon Falls. Just a bit off the highway near the boundary to next town, a small dirt road led to this small falls.  Its cold waters was refreshing enough after a long day.  It was almost dark and it was all to ourselves, our dip was quick but the sound of the gushing waters was a calming assurance of nature’s peace and tranquility, like a soothing balm for weary souls.

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Such a welcome from a purple/yellow tree worm!

Everything in Cortes is about simple living obviously not yet spoiled by technology advancement and so called development.

Unconsciously I mentioned Cortes as my latest destination in one of work chitchats and they were asking where? Sometimes even locals are surprised such unheard town can have wonderful marine environment.  I almost joked it is in Mexico!

NO, this obscure town is not struggling for visibility, but the sincerity of the local officials and the cooperation of its people have made this community compliant to sanitation, environmental preservation & protection issues that are required for coastal communities.  Cortes has been afforded numerous awards including the Para El Mar MPA Award as one of the most outstanding MPA in Mindanao (for Uba Marine Sanctuaty). This humble town is undoubtedly worthy for a visit, you wont go home empty -hearted!  🙂

Travel Notes:

  1. My route for this trip:
    To Cortes:         CdeO to Butuan by AC bus (10PM) – 4.5 hours
    Butuan to Tandag by ordinary bus – 5 hours
    Tandag to Cortes by multicab – 30 minutes
    From Cortes:     Cortes to Tandag by multicab
    Tandag to San Francisco (Agusan Sur) by AC van
    San Francisco to Butuan by AC bus
    Butuan to CdeO by AC bus
  2. Lodgings available in town are limited to Kamalig (home stay) and the guest house of Philippine Independent Church, advance bookings necessary.
  3. Dive bookings are handled by Kujaw Diveshop, a LGU operated diving facility housed just beside the Municipal Tourism Office. They have boat, complete diving gears, tanks and compressor for air refilling
  4. Other natural spots in town worth visiting are beaches, caves, Lubcon Falls,  and  Laswitan Lagoons/Falls in which the town is known for
  5. Single motors and habal-habal are available for hire for transport needs.
  6. Kujaw is a Surigaonon word for kuyaw (Visayan) which means dreadful, horrible, alarming, appalling or shocking but for Cortes in a positive way
  7. The Kujaw Team who assisted us in our trip and whom we are grateful were Archie, Jun, Ramil and Elpedio

Charms of Camiguin

The island-province of Camiguin is a pear-shaped volcanic island in the northern tip of Mindanao. It is approximately 90 kilometers north of the City of Cagayan de Oro. It is bounded to the north by Bohol Sea, to the west by Macajalar Bay, to the southeast by Gingoog Bay and to the east by Butuan Bay.

This island paradise is inarguably my favorite local destination and as I said, it is so replete to cater for my whims and I have always reasons to be back again and again. My predilection on this island never wane a bit and last December I hit grounds to savor once again its grandeur. A weekend sojourn barely 32 hours yet it renewed my well-being enough to brace me for the year-end hullabaloo.

Cornucopia in Depths

If you are a diver and you haven’t explored the island’s underwater world, you have missed one psychedelic marine treasures and wonders. Luckily, all our transpo transfers went fluidly and we were already cruising at sunrise watching its golden splendor in the horizon.  Our divemaster was already waiting for us when we got to our refuge in Agoho preparing our gears.  The sun was perfectly shining and the water perfectly flat just waiting to be explored.

Our first descent was at Old Vulcan, after cruising for thirty minutes. The familiar granite boulders decorating in its front.  The large sea fans in variety of colors adorned the reefs, again I was engulfed in its vastness in a different world of silence. We sighted giant trevallies seven in all, there was even a tornado of snappers magnificently emphasized by surface sunlight.  Indeed there was a variety of tropical fishes colorful enough for my senses – emperors, angelfish, moorish idol, butterfly, spadefish, fusiliers, shrimp fish and assortment of anemone fish. I didn’t miss the triggerfish, and also the turtle swimming away quickly!  We linger in the large colorful coral area taking our time until we had our safety stop before the ascent.

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Giant clams scattered in the midst of corals!

The necessary surface interval was another colorful encounter and it was like shooting two birds with one stone.  🙂  We cruise to the Sunken Cemetery being our next descent, and we swam comfortably towards the Cross marker. I have been wanting to step on the underwater cross marker just at the back of monument. We snorkeled the surrounding area, the wide coral gardens housed also the giant clams and juveniles. Such wonderful discovery!

Back rolling for our last descent, we descend to a deep slope searching until we got to a coral area, There were nudis, feather stars, colorful chromis, damsels, bannerfish, cardinals, hawkfish, angels, clownfish and anthias.  We sighted too a giant puffer, a banded seasnake wiggling coyly searching for food perhaps.  We didn’t miss the cross markers, we found two just like last time, but more corals have tangled around almost covered now.  I hold on to Angel while having our safety stop, just too famished to steady my buoyancy.  🙂

Perhaps just two of the underrated dive sites but always rich and hidden surprises abound.

Summer in December

The God of the seas and weather was with us indeed, the warm sun and the flat waters felt like it was summer.  The perfect weather prompted us for more, to drenched in its beauty and seizing moments while being offered freely.  We rushed off to Yumbing, the drop off point for White Island hoping to find a cheap boat for the round trip cruise.  The sandbar is not always accessible even on early mornings. Last September while on official trip, the cruise was restricted, the waves wasn’t cooperating and we felt dismayed. Our visitors from other regions was just eager to experience the sandbar.  We were fortunate enough, a Spanish couple offered us to join them for the boat ride, at first the operator was hesitant since we were staying in a different hotel. But the Español was too firm and argued for us! Sometimes you don’t need to fight for something if it is really meant for you.  🙂

The white island was beckoning as we cruised in the afternoon sun, we were excited for the sunset! It was a perfect unwinding after our two dives, just soaking ourselves in the shallows biding our time.  There were few people, the waters calm in low tide and the setting sun was the ideal backdrop of the scenery! 🙂

The next day was all riding our way to the two falls we have planned, but we attend mass first in Mambajao church. We dashed off after a hurried breakfast over a motorbike, the driver served as our tour guide as well. Katibawasan Falls is still beautiful but didn’t tried to swim, we feasted on the kiping instead.  🙂  Tuasan Falls was something new, it was a longer ride though, but the roads were completely paved up to the entrance.  It is beautiful also, its catch basin was big enough as a pool, got a dip but didn’t linger long the waters was just too cold. But soaking in its cold natural waters watching the gushing waters was perfectly refreshing!

Coming to Camiguin in December was an ideal year end get-away. We are coming back for a summer trip to explore off-beaten corners of the island.  As I said, there is always a reason to be in Camiguin, again and again and again!

Bits of Paradise!

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Camiguin Island is one small paradise between Bohol Sea endowed with nature’s beauty and wonder as well as heritage treasures. Be in surface or in depths, amazing scenes and adventures awaits for you.  Here are few snaps during my recent travel in December 2015!

This small island province is undoubtedly one of the jewels in Mindanao. Have you visited the Island Born of Fire?