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

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.

Angel C. Juarez of 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.

Mania in Mantangale!

As we drift off for safety stop, school of jacks appeared obscurely!

We were back again in Mantangale for CY 2015 dives kick-off, after two failed attempts in December and this January. Aiming for Mantigue Island (in Camiguin), the desire was too great to ignore – my gills were dried up after nine long weeks from my last dive.

Early morning dive at Mantigue is preferable as waters can get choppy, my favorite school of jacks also appears on mornings as they look for food. We arrived late at the diveshop, but too grateful that the captain waited for us, it was a shame as other guests were already on the boat.

Mantigue Island

Coming back after three years was with much anticipation, my encounters on this site were productive and I was hoping for its diverse life exploding with colors. We descend in a slope with wide coral area, hard and soft corals in variety decorated with tropical species – shrimp fish, giant moray eel, spade fish, emperor, wrasses, chromis, damsels, angels and those colorful anthias! And when we were about to have our safety stop, the school of jacks appeared like teasing us. It was unexpected! It was amusing, a drummer was manipulating a female jack to separate from the school. 🙂

Colorful anthias over variety of corals

We went deep for 48 minutes at 30 meters as deepest. Our surface interval include exploring the park with its mini- forest which Angel wanted, our cruise back to Talisayan and our lunch break of fish n chips!

A drummer and a jack!

Sipaka Point

Some guests call it a day and new tanks were needed for next dives, another boat came and after the transfers of equipment and passengers we prepared for the last descent. Sipaka, in the next town of Talisayan is another site with diverse marine life.

Colorful christmas tree worms! Each time I see them, I poke playfully and they quickly hide! 🙂

We sighted stonefish, frogfish (!), banded sea snake and giant groupers not to mention the colorful anthias and other tropical fishes hovering over the colorful reef. It was another relaxing viewing of the colorful depths, 54 minutes at 18 meters deepest. Both dives were at 30% EAN!

If you are a diver and you haven’t been to Mantangale, you need to reconsider your dive trip plans. In my last engagement at MADRI, there were more than ten Russians for more than a week stay – either diving, swimming or lazing around in the beach. It was amazing they chose such obscure dive resort right here in Mindanao for their vacation, there must be something in this resort which I called my diving home.

No doubt, I will be back. I will be back home again…

Home Again!

Homecoming to favorite spots in Balingoan waters

I had the opportunity to be back again in MADRI, although I was clueless for the perennial year-end dive. I was overtaken with other concerns and priorities. My dive buddy just pop-up to come over, because he wanted to have his last dive of the year with his favorite dive buddy. It was like an ambush though I have no qualms about being in the depths.  It has always been my therapy for all the unrestlessness, especially with year-end hullabaloos.

The distance of the airport and inconvenient flight skeds to CdeO wasn’t of help for a timely arrival in Mantangale, coming almost 11am the most that we could do was only for two dives instead of the usual three dives.  Luckily, the weather was sunny like summer and I could only expect good viz for our descents.

Clownfish playing hide & seek on anemones

Speeding our way under the noon sun, our first descent was at the house reef (aka Banaug Shoal), it has been a favorite spot and again it didn’t disappoint us.  My colds slowed my descent through the bouy line and thankful I made it.  The unequalled diversity of marine life is simply engaging, swarm of damsels and chromis abound as we reached the hill.  The snapper couple was also there, following us as if asking for food.  The black corals and a variety of hard and soft corals decorated the shoal.  The tangles of soft corals blocking my way felt like I was in the grasslands finding my way out.  There were nudis, the clownfish that played hide & seek on anemones, anthias, angels, moorish idol, box fish and more.  But I missed the resident moray eel, the stonefish and pygmy seahorse.  The leaf fish surprised us, I wasn’t expecting to meet her again, discreetly it was swaying with the current between the corals.  Our DM was too keen to notice this elusive specie, but we failed searching for macros in the soft corals.  The currents could have swept them off. We ascend after 44 minutes at 32.3 meters as my deepest.

Leaf fish at Banaug Shoal
Leaf fish at Banaug Shoal

Our surface interval was spent back at the resort dive shop, sitting and watching the horizons – blue waters, blue skies and Camiguin island afar!  Finishing up our left over food (fish & chips with rice pop), sitting comfortably with afternoon breeze and the rustling leaves blown by the wind – was purely relaxing. MADRI is always home to me, the familiar surroundings gave me such comfort.  There were no other guests, so it was like an exclusive dive for us!

Both dives were in nitrox with no extra cost!

Our DM suggested for Lapinig Island for our last descent, speeding our way almost 3pm to this lowly uninhabited island, the waters went choppy already. There was mild current as we descend on the sandy slope. We went around searching for macros but we found more trash, so it was some kind of clean-up which we always do as our commitment.  There were sea fans, nudis, clownfish, anthias over corals, butterflies and more tropical fishes.  The spot is a ground of bristle worms, there were plenty of them embedded on the corals.  We stayed over an hour going around feeling the warm afternoon waters, my deepest at 28.9 meters.  Both dives were in enriched air with no extra cost!

It was over two months from my last dive during the International Clean-Up Day, the two descents undoubtedly freshen up my dried-up gills!  It was such bliss to be back in Mantangale, surely there will be next time to be home again.

It’s Christmas!

Christmas bristleworm among soft corals...

Surely, the underwater realm is teeming with a variety  forms of life.  Invertebrates, bivalves, sea slugs or nudis, bristleworms, mollusks, flatworms and more.  Slowly, I’m learning and getting more keen as I swam searching for anything known or unknown.  There is always something new to discover, unfold or unravel and everything is so transforming. I am not the same person every after my dive.  I am a changed person after I become a diver almost five years ago.

It’s more than respecting about the life in the depths.  Over and over I’m saying this –  it’s about passion, a love like life itself. It’s about meeting friends and understanding about their life. There are even more forms of life beyond what is visible, there are many microscopic organisms forming as part of the ecosystem. How vast it is – surely my experience is just a speck of the large water world!

Taking underwater photos of marine life is astonishing, sometimes taking organisms I hardly knew. Admittedly, the colorful underwater world is so captivating.  The bristleworm above was taken in Mantangale, beautifully shaped in spiral in white & yellow,  hardly as a worm!  I am amused that there’s  Christmas tree even underwater.  🙂

Blowing Bubbles in December!

picturesque horizon from the diveshop... 🙂
I went for my last dive of the year as I promised myself,  to brace for the upcoming year ending & year beginning tasks, it was also my way of capping this year’s  adventure trips.  Mantangale would be kinda perfect – not so far, warm staff, amazing marine life and idyllic place.  Sometimes when you want something you always find ways to accommodate your whims,  and that’s what really happened last Sunday.  I squeezed my weekend – skipping laundry & community party and had my Sunday free.  I was up early to catch the 6am aircon bus but when I got to the terminal, it was brimming with passengers.  Squeezing with other travellers to get unto the bus for a seat is not my fare, but have to do it – I am expected at the dive shop at 830am!  The weather was downcast and it was drizzling when I arrived at the resort earlier than appointed time, I was able to have breakfast while observing OWC students having exercises at the pool.
Just as I thought there wasn’t much divers for the day, and I was up for some surprise when Sir Dodong announced after a call from SSB radio  that Fr. Young is joining us.  I’ve been hearing about him  as a  diver, and being the current president of my alma mater I was looking forward to finally meet him.  He arrived just as I getting dressed while talking with Sir Dodong on my latest dive trips.  So, some kind of exclusive dive for the day.
mantangale alibuag dive resort

After some preliminaries, we speed off for our first descent  at the house reef, one of my favourites.  Banaug Shoal always excite me, it’s abundant  marine biodiversity is probably one of the richest of my many encounters.  The sergeants, damsels and  snappers, which always come in throngs as you touched down on shoal’s top.  They come near you as if wanting to be feed 🙂 , so near as you stretch your hands and sometimes so near your face! But I got a lot of whistles from Sir Dodong warning me not to go far away!  The black corals, gorgonians, crinoids, colorful sponges decorated the shoal – being there felt like I was carousing in a colorlful garden.  I tried to search the walls for some critters, spotted tiny nudis and hunt for unusual specie. I went around a little bit to search for critters – groupers, variety of anemonefish, trumpet, surgeons, anthias & more.  Two big snappers keeps darting on us.  I was surrounded with colourful reefs and then found a small alibuag.  Indeed, it’s a paradise!

We got back to the bouy line, I waited and searched for the moray eel and there it was!  🙂 Hidden under a reef, a white moray showing its head and gawking at me. 🙂  As if challenging me to come nearer… While watching in awe, Sir Dodong signalled for ascent – I still wanted to stay but pointing to my SPG, my air was down to 500psi.  So slowly I ascend still watching the view below, our deepest was 32.9m for 43 minutes underwater.

all in nitrox!

We went back to the diveshop for our surface interval, MSU-IIT students who were having their OWC was preparing for their exercises.  We left with them for our second dive to Sipaka Point on a speed boat and transferred to Seareyna for the cruise.  Our second descent was a shallow one, as it was purposely for the students for their exercises.  We explored sandy, wide coral gardens decorated with colourful crinoids, sponges and gorgonians.  Spotted variety of nemos, sandperch, wrasses, fusiliers, small puffer, goatfish,  triggers and long thin sea cucumber that looks like a snake!  We found too crown of sea thorns, which I learned Fr. Young has personal hatred as he was been stung once.  I was left with him while Sir Dodong were taking documentaries for the students.

We covered a large area just going around, somewhere on a slope we stumbled a fishing line entangled among the reef, so we carefully untangled it and gather almost a 10 meter nylon line.  I took delight in touching those critters on reefs that immediately hid and disappear from view.  I remembered my diving lessons then. I picked up some trash and finally ascend after 64 mins with 17.5m as our deepest, far from the boat.

Our lunch served as our surface interval for the last dive, we joined the students again on the dive boat.  After a brief rest after lunch, we boarded the speed boat and separated from them heading for lowly Lapinig Island.  It was almost 2pm and the surface was bit choppy, we descend on a sandy slope getting deeper.  In awhile, Fr Young pointed out something which we barely got a glance from the elusive manta ray.   I spotted a big puffer which I tried to follow but keep on wiggling away from me.  🙂  There were batfish, damsels, anthias, sweetlips and a variety of anemone fish. There were colourful crinoids – black and green feather star.  There were sea fans too, I was most attracted to a lavender gorgonian!  We searched for critters on sea fans, crevices and on corals.

beautiful camiguin!

Lapining is a paradise beyond the surface, I remembered I had wonderful sightings when I had my lessons more than three years ago.  This lowly island which is hardly ever noticed by people cruising to Camiguin, has treasures beneath not everyone got the opportunity to view.  We ascend after 56 minutes with 32.5m as our deepest.  When I surfaced, the sight of the glorious Island Born of Fire right in front of me!

It has been a wonderful sojourn, three deep dives all in nitrox, a perfect way to end my diving pursuits for the year.  The mermaid in me is rejoicing, really it’s all about passion…  I’m looking forward for next year’s dive escapades with my favourite dive buddy.  No doubt 2011 is a promising year for more adventures!  🙂