Janice Nigro dives the Visayas in the Philippines on her own terms – and in her own time.
There are a lot of ways to come up with a dive itinerary for a dream destination. The “no plan” kind of a plan is not exactly the typical consideration, especially when you will step off of a plane 7,000 miles from home with a load of dive gear and camera equipment. It is possible though if you want to dive in the Visayas of the Philippines, and not only will you take part in the fantastic diving, but you will also have a chance to experience more of the local culture unedited by another Westerner.
I didn’t have a name for it before I arrived in Cebu City, Cebu, but by the time I left, I knew that my itinerary in development was locally referred to as the dive‘n’drive. The term refers to diving and driving in the Philippines where you can arrive by plane on one main island, but drive to several dive destinations on different islands with the help of ferry transport. It sounds perhaps familiar to divers who have been to Bonaire, for example, but where it differs in the Philippines is that it is both feasible and reasonable to transfer yourself, your gear, and even a car by ferry to a completely new island. Since ferries run daily, it is possible to move to your next destination any day of the week.
The dive‘n’drive is perhaps a different version of the liveaboard experience, but one that you are entirely in control of. You can leave one place for another, or not leave at all. You have the chance to mingle outside of a boat and eat the kind of food that you want each day. Most importantly, you have a chance to participate more directly in the local culture, like browse around a local market or have a ride in a brilliantly painted jitney that says “Jesus loves you” on it. The beauty of the dive’n’drive is that it is a work in progress and all the while you can adjust the plan based on the diving, the weather, and whomever you are with. It is for a group, or for one, or for one that becomes a group.
On your travel days, you can be diving either before you leave one destination or upon arrival to the second. When I left Dauin, Negros for Panglao Island, Bohol, I had the entire morning to dive in Dauin because the ferry was leaving at 15:30. When I arrived at Panglao Island, I got to say that my last day of diving was “this morning”.
Admittedly though, I had some inside help. This part I did plan. My connection in the Philippines (Alex) was a relative of some Filipino friends living in the USA. He was also a diver so I had a local dive expert as well as chauffeur/companion/travel agent. The first day was a drive across Cebu from east to west to Moalboal through some spectacular scenery. We stopped to eat locally made rice cakes in banana leaves, and then my new friends left me alone in Moalboal with a third new friend, Bo, who was from a Filipino family famous for diving. If I had planned the trip, it could not have worked out better.
I had 21 days. Malapascua Island was on the mend after the typhoon, but Bo steered me away from there, as resorts were only marginally operational in January of 2014. Based on the weather and options available to me at the moment in the Visayas, he suggested a three-stop dive adventure which was also a three island adventure (actually more): Moalboal, Cebu; Dauin, Negros; and Panglao Island, Bohol. This plan sounded great to me and while the details were a bit vague, somehow it would work out in the way that island adventures usually do (barring all natural disasters which the Philippines had had enough of in the recent months).
I had close to 600 dives at this point including temperate water dives (even Tasmania!). I was not necessarily expecting novel underwater experiences, just the “usual”. But you never know until you hit the water. The highlight of Moalboal in January 2014 was a sardine ball, which remarkably was only about 30 meters from shore rather than out in the deep blue. An amazing display of synchronized swimming. Macro life was prolific on every island. You can sometimes be jaded and say, “oh, I have seen this one before,” except for example, on Apo Island near Negros, where the nudibranchs were no longer macro subjects. It was as if the marine reserve was off limits even to predators of nudibranchs or they simply taste not so great.
The diving routine was similar in Moalboal and Panglao Island in that it was a short boat ride to a dive site, a backward roll into a hard coral garden, swim a bit to the drop off, and descend along a wall. In all three places, there were other smaller islands to visit: Pescador Island, Moalboal; Apo Island, Dauin; and Balicasag, Bohol.
There were amazing surprises. I thought I was having such a big adventure on my own…and then, I found myself in an 8-person capacity banca crossing over to Apo Island on my first dive day in Dauin. It was the one adventure that I have to say that if I had known what the situation was before I arrived that morning for the dive, I never would have agreed to it. Once I was at the boat, I thought that it would be all right because Filipinos crossed to other islands probably for centuries in these boats, and ours had an engine. Although I had to wonder when after the second dive, the trip was cut short because of the possibility of a minor typhoon.
Dauin was different than Moalboal and Panglao Island because the immediate area is a muck diving paradise. At Car Wreck, my official first muck dive in the Philippines, there were breeding cardinal fish – lots of them. It is an amazing behavior to witness because their mouths are stuffed full with their eggs, as if they have eaten too much banana and might throw up. Occasionally they will “burp” and a couple eggs will drop out, but otherwise, they swim around like this until the babies hatch. And during those magic last minutes of daylight, we peered at mating pairs of mandarin fish shedding clouds of their gametes on the house reef in Moalboal.
The Dauin dives were really a macro photographers dream. All sorts of critters were living on ropes and the other odd bits of metal deposited at different sites as artificial reef. At first glance, you would have thought it was an underwater desert, but there were incredible creatures to find if you had a Don Don or a Gardo as your guide. The dives at Dauin were similar, sloping brown sandy with tiny coral bommies. Each day we went to three new sites along the coast and then spent an exhaustive hour moving from one micro-habitat to the next, exposing unique creatures. What I did not expect was to find a field of anemones. Dauin South was a magical site for me because I was surrounded by anemones – green columns, red columns, white columns, polka-dots, open or closed – and they were covered with small cleaner shrimp.
One twist to the dive ‘n’ drive was that a dive site for whale sharks, Oslob, on the southern end of Cebu, was actually easier to reach by the dive boat from Dauin, which is on Negros. Another diver had warned me ahead of time, that while I would certainly see a whale shark, it would not be with the same kind of excitement as with a spontaneous sighting. I took the opportunity anyway, and in the end, I am not sure I would recommend it. It felt a bit like a circus, and it might not actually be good for the whale sharks. I have to admit, however, that to see this dark shadow slowly turn into a giant fish looming directly over me was awesome.
Ultimately though, I found the other islands to be a distraction at Dauin; Dauin itself deserved at least another three to four days just to focus on the muck dives.
I can’t really say that it is exactly one thing or another that makes a good diving trip great. It is some kind of combination of the reef life and the people and culture, and not necessarily in that order. I have been to great places for diving but not connected with the vibe of the resort or boat. But with guides like Bam Bam, Bismark, Don Don, Belyong, Jaguar (guess if you are choosing wildlife better to be Jaguar than pygmy something or other from underwater)… So my time seemed as if it was up pretty quickly. On top of it, the dives were so relaxing in all of the places, that I was taking some of my best underwater photos. And therefore, I will leave it to my photos as the ultimate proof for the remarkable diversity in the Visayas.