Savoring Sipalay

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I rejoice every moment of peace in marine world!

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.

Punta Ballo

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Somewhere over the rainbow!

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

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Punta Ballo is full of dive sites

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 on, 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 Miami Beach 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

P1060903fish. 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 the 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.

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Artificial reef became a rich shelter of marine life in Miami Beach

Trek, Swim and Sunset

We ended our dives early enough to explore more of the city which were in our last trip. One good thing about Sipalay is remaining idyllic and still devoid of distracting structures that seemingly hide the natural beauty of places.

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Overlooking the horizon from Perth Paradise

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!

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Watching Tinagong Dinagat from the hilltop view deck

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.

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The colorful beauty from Sugar Beach, how magnificent!

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.

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You can never miss the sunsets of Punta Ballo while in Artistic 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!

Seeking Sipalay

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Colorful life in a different dimension!

Coming to the southern part of Negros Occidental has been in our agenda but its time-consuming trip via Cebu & Dumaguete kept me stalling the plan, it needed a much longer weekend and at least three days leave considering no-fly intervals after dives. Fortunately, direct flights to Bacolod from Cagayan de Oro (via Cebu Pacific) suddenly opened last summer, such advantage that could mean shorter travel time! Without second thought, I booked my flights over the third weekend of July for that long – awaited dive trip, I could hardly wait.  My dive buddy simply can’t resist not to join!

Once I landed in Bacolod, I had so much to discover and fill my cravings – especially that Bascon Café, Pendy’s & Tom Tom’s Cafe was just a stone’s throw from my hostel. My sweet palate succumbed to half-moons and napoleones – only the best at Pendy’s and get much filled with the generous eggs benedict at Bascon’s! J Such a treat!  The following morning I heard an early mass at the old San Sebastian Cathedral.

Artistic Diving

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Branching table corals this wide is common!

The town of Sipalay is more than 130 kilometers south of Bacolod, the aircon bus that I took crawled from town to town until we arrived after 6 hours, it was uneventful though the trip gave me a glimpse of the rural setting of the province.  The only production area I remembered was sugar cane fields but none for the staples.  I finally arrived at Punta Ballo after a trike ride, my host who waited & constantly sent me SMS while on the road, perfectly gave me a warm welcome. Artistic Diving Resort sat on a quiet spot in Campomanes Bay that has exclusive beach, most importantly it houses a 5-star PADI dive shop. I waited for that golden sunset but it didn’t show up, the skies were overcast that afternoon.

Angel caught up with me early the next morning giving him enough time for a quick nap to freshen up after the long ride from Bacolod, we were expected at 9am at the dive shop.

Eva’s Point and Toscana

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Giant clams in hiding!

We told DM Rogee that we are hoping to explore the wreck in the bay but it was raining in the past days so the viz wasn’t good enough. So, for our first descent he suggested for Eva’s Point which is located at the edge of Campomanes Bay. We geared up amid the drizzle hoping it won’t rain hard, with one Deutsch diver joining us.  The boat sailed shortly northward and dropped anchors twenty minutes later, the waves rocking us bit. We descend to a reef with scattered hard corals, a lobster hiding in a crevice greeted us

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Lacy nudi, Have you seen this before?

with its waving antlers, there were at least three I noticed. There were giant clams among the corals, nudis, wide table corals, crinoids, sea fans and sponges.  I lingered over soft corals with glass shrimps perhaps feeding on parasites, then a herd of shrimpfish with their synchronized swimming show.  There’s one nudi that caught my attention, a fat white bodice with black lacy pattern all over, it was something new to me. There were snappers, batfish, wrasse, triggerfish, trumpetfish, damsels, pipefish and more.  We lingered over a wide coral area for our safety stop, just going around the colorful coral field feeling its vastness.  Just as we passed over a sandy slope, our DM signaled for something floating, indeed it was the ghost pipefish appearing like brown dried leaf, it was alone. But a couple appeared also, I guess the area is a playground of the specie.  We lingered more and found Christmas tree worms and more clams and just before we surfaced sighted a crown of thorns.  It turned out that the visibility was good more than we expected.  I still had 100 bars when we ascend after 70 minutes!

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Turtles are simply adorable!

Our surface interval was unhurried and relaxing, spent accordingly for our late lunch and rest, and got back at the dive shop at 2pm.  We geared up once more aiming for Toscana which is located closer to the resort, another Deutsch diver joined us in the afternoon dive.

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Have you seen a ghost underwater?

It was just a short boat ride but the waters more rough, in our short briefing we join with DM Rogee while the Deutsch couple with the dive guide, we descend immediately after we rolled back unto a slope with vibrant corals.  We found a turtle resting on the corals, so friendly it didn’t swim away when we got near and so we had ample time just watching it and taking more photos!  There was these two jackfish which curiously followed us perhaps wondering what critters we are. J We found more clams, hydroids and sponges and variety of soft corals.  We went through a canal-like channel looking for critters but my attention was caught up making sure of a smooth passage never disturbing the spot. Nudis, sea cucumbers, anemones and sea whips also adorn the reef and it is as diverse with Eva’s Point.  We lingered over a wide coral area for our safety stop again absorbed with the colourful domain.  I still had 120 bars when we ascend after 54 minutes.

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An early Christmas greeting! 🙂

Both of the sites had remarkable coral reefs and diverse marine life, there are at least more than ten sites in Campomanes Bay excluding the two wrecks. Now, there’s very good reason to be back in Punta Ballo for more discoveries.  DM Rogee reminded us that the best time to visit for dives in the area is between November to May.

I guess not only for Punta Ballo, but Sipalay as a whole as we barely explored the city.  Indeed, coming for good reasons and waiting for the right time is a sound guiding principle in finding a destination. Yet, that golden sunset in Sugar Beach is tickling my curiosity.  I must be back in the city, it’s a promise!

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. 🙂