PLANNING YOUR DIVE HOLIDAY around the best time to visit a location is usually sound advice, but from our experience this is not always the case.
There are plenty of destinations where it is wise to follow recommendations, because it is either too rough or too murky, there is nothing to see or the dive shops shut up in the off-season.
But there are other locations where you have to take pot luck going out of season (and sometimes in season).
You would think one of these would be the Philippines in typhoon season, especially after the recent devastating super-typhoon Haiyan, but in fact most typhoons have little impact on this island-nation or its diving.
We arrived in the Philippines on 1 November, at the tail-end of typhoon season, which officially runs from June to November. Numerous typhoons (19 on average) form around the Philippines each year, but only a handful make landfall, and mostly in the north.
The southern islands, where the majority of dive destinations are located, are rarely affected. The only spot that isnt dived in typhoon season are the Tabbataha Reefs, which can be reached only by liveaboard.
Our holiday plan was to dive the main locations around the island of Cebu - Moalboal in the south and Malapascua in the north, where we were booked for the first week.
Malapascua is at the top end of Cebu, about three hours drive by car and then 30 minutes by boat. We arrived on the island to perfect conditions - flat seas, blue skies and no wind. So much for the typhoon season, or even the wet season!
We were booked to dive with Thresher Shark Divers (TSD), and were staying at one of the newest resorts on the island, Tepanee Resort, and both proved very good choices.
We had wanted to visit Malapascua for years, ever since we first heard about the thresher sharks there, but had also heard reports of lovely reefs, great critters and some good wreck dives.
Malapascua Island is unlike any
other dive destination in the world, as everyone is up and about at 4.30am, every day, for the sunrise dive.
These early rises can be a bit of a shock to the system for those who enjoy a lie-in on holiday, but if you dont rise early youll miss one of the best shark dives in the world.
Boarding the dive boat at 5am we headed 30 minutes east towards Leyte, where the first beams of sunlight were struggling to peek over the rugged mountain ranges. We jumped into the dark waters and were very happy to discover that the visibility was at least 30m as we descended to the top of the famous Monad Shoal.
This sea mount rises from 200 to 14m. Once settled on the top of the bare rock we looked down the sloping rubble reef before us, praying that a thresher shark would appear.
Our prayers were answered quickly. After only a minute a large shape materialised from the depths - a 4m-long common thresher shark.
It was an impressive sight, with its huge eyes (because of its deep, dark-water preference), small mouth and elongated tail, more than half the sharks total length. It was here to get its early-morning clean, serviced by a team of cleaner wrasse.
The thresher paraded in front of us for a few minutes before it was joined by two others of the same length. By the end of our 50-minute dive we had seen half a dozen sharks, plus pelagic fish and two pygmy devil rays.
Each morning we did the sunrise dive it was different. Some days the sharks would come in very close, to check out the bubble-blowing alien visitors; at other times they were shy and stayed on the edge of the visibility.
We even had one swim around the mooring-line with us, and saw another do a spectacular breech!
This is one incredible dive experience that appears to have grown better and better over the years with the good management of the dive operators on Malapascua. More sharks are now seen than ever before, due to nightly patrols to stop fishermen targeting them.
If we had come to Malapascua just for the thresher sharks we could have left very satisfied after the first day, but the sunrise dive is just the start of a very long day on this island. Each day TSD does a morning and afternoon dive on the local sites around the island or a two-tank day trip to nearby sites - all were wonderful.
The local dive sites vary in depth from 6 to 30m and feature pretty hard and soft corals, abundant reef fish, not a lot of large fish but some incredible critters for those who like the small stuff.
The local dive guides proved invaluable for finding this small stuff, and treated us to Coleman shrimps, zebra crabs, nudibranchs, pipefish, porcelain crabs, orang-utan crabs, mushroom coral pipefish, cuttlefish and many other species.
The day trips were just as good. At Calanggaman Island we explored a sheer wall festooned with gorgonians, sea whips, sponges and black-coral trees. Pelagic fish were more common here, including barracuda and trevally, but the highlight was again the critters, including ghost pipefish, blue-ringed octopus and pygmy sea horses.

GATO ISLAND PROVED TO BE A FAVOURITE. This small island is surrounded by pretty corals and even has a 30m-long cave that cuts right through it.
We missed the whitetip reef sharks, but did see some wonderful nudibranchs, sea snakes, pipefish, cuttlefish and quite a few seahorses.
If you still have any energy left, TSD also does a daily sunset dive to Lighthouse Reef to watch the mating dance of the tiny mandarinfish. These fish were a joy to watch, but not the highlight, as this site is home to dozens of delicate seahorses.
During our stay we experienced the odd shower and storm, but calm conditions and blue skies quickly returned. So we were quite surprised to learn from Dino, TSDs operations manager, that Super Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) was heading our way.
We got daily updates, expecting to hear news that it had swung north or dropped in strength, but it didnt.
The projected path would bring it right over Malapascua.
Dino also informed us that the island had been hit at the same time in 2012, for the first time in years, resulting in several boats being sunk or washed up onto the beach, but added that the centre was back in business in days.
However, he was far more concerned about this typhoon, because it was a lot bigger and more powerful.
We had a reminder of the power of typhoons when we dived the Dona Marilyn shipwreck, a 90m ferry that sank in 1988 after getting caught in a typhoon, with the loss of 389 people.
Though born of a terrible tragedy, this wreck is now a very colourful artificial reef. The ship rests on its side in 33m, covered in corals and fish, and makes for a fascinating dive.
Our week at Malapascua Island over, we left the morning before the typhoon was due. Preparations were underway; boats were beached or moved into the creek, trees were trimmed and everything was being tied down.
All tourists were advised to leave, although some decided to stick it out.
We said our goodbyes and wished everyone the best, not knowing what was going to happen on the island.
We headed across choppy seas to the mainland and back to Cebu City for two nights.
We had hoped to tour the historic sites around the city, but by the time we arrived the rain and wind had already started building.
On 8 November, we switched on the television in the morning to discover that the typhoon had made landfall at Samar and Leyte, and was due to hit northern Cebu next. It was the most powerful storm to make landfall ever recorded, with winds of up to 195mph, and had a front more than 650 miles wide, covering almost the entire nation.
We were bunkered down in our hotel, and even with large cracks in the wall from a recent earthquake we felt pretty secure.
By mid-morning Cebu City was getting hit by strong winds and driving rain. The power was soon cut off. The hotel had a generator, but no television signal and very poor Internet reception.

WE JUST WATCHED THE STORM from our hotel window, observing the fierce winds shred trees and demolish the pergola roof on a nearby building. It went on for hours.
By late afternoon the typhoon had passed Cebu City and everyone was out cleaning up. We later learnt that the eye passed around 50 miles north of us - almost right over Malapascua.
With 10 days left in the Philippines, we didnt know if we should head home or continue the holiday.
From the snippets of news we gleaned from the Internet it didnt sound too bad at first, but it was hard to confirm which areas were affected.
We were booked to dive Moalboal, 50 miles south, for the next six days, but thought it may have been damaged. However, an email from Cebu Fun Divers informed us that it had barely been affected by the typhoon, and would pick us up the next morning.
We woke to blue skies and no wind. Apart from streets littered with branches and leaves, and the odd bit of structural damage, you wouldnt have known that a super-typhoon had just passed.
At Moalboal we checked into Loves Beach & Dive Resort, where Cebu Fun Divers is based, to find calm blue seas lapping the front of the resort.
The afternoon dive had been cancelled the previous day, but it was back in business already.
We had a lovely time diving at Moalboal, which offers incredible wall dives along the Copton Peninsula and nearby Pescador Island. Brilliant corals decorated these walls, which are cruised by pelagic fish and often swarming with immense schools of sardines.
Turtles are a feature here, and we saw them on every dive, but like many spots in the Philippines it was the critters that were the real highlight.
We saw ghost pipefish, sea-snakes, seahorses, frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, stargazers, snake-eels, razorfish, pipefish, sea moths, moray eels and a great variety of nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs.
The clarity on the first two days was a bit stirred up from the rough seas, but soon cleared to 20m visibility.
A little broken coral was evident, but it was mainly the hard corals in the shallows, which quickly regrow.
As the days passed we were stunned by the news that up to 10,000 people might have been killed by the typhoon, and that Tacloban had been virtually flattened. We also started to get news from TSD about the damage to Malapascua Island.
We were greatly relieved to hear that no one had been killed or seriously injured, but the photos posted on its Facebook page showed a scene of devastation - buildings demolished, roofs missing, trees uprooted and rubbish everywhere.
TSD, like all the resorts and dive operators on Malapascua, employs a large number of local staff, including their incredible dive guides, and many of these had lost their homes.
With the Philippines Government slow to act and overwhelmed by the disaster, TSD and the other dive operators swung into action, bringing food, medicine and supplies to the island.
Media reports back home had everyone thinking that the entire Philippines had been wiped out - we had to keep posting updates on Facebook just to reassure people that we were fine, that it was sunny and that the great majority of the country had been unaffected by the super-typhoon.
Some of our friends wondered why we didnt come home, but as our dive guides at Moalboal told us: Why would you go home We need your money spent here more than ever.
A few days later we experienced another typhoon warning, and this gave us more of an idea of what a normal typhoon is like in this part of the Philippines.
We had planned to dive with the whale sharks at Oslob, about a two-hour drive from Moalboal, on the day this typhoon was due to hit. We were worried that we wouldnt be able to go, but were told not to worry.

THE SCENIC DRIVE AROUND the southern coastline of Cebu was very pleasant, if a little wet and windy, but the seas were still flat.
All the inter-island ferries had been cancelled as a precaution, and after diving the Dona Marilyn we could understand why, even though there was barely a ripple on the sea.
We arrived at Oslob to find sunny skies, no sign of a typhoon, and signed up for our whale shark dive.
We had seen whale sharks in other parts of the Philippines, but knew that the experience at Oslob was going to be different because they are fed there - which has caused some controversy.
Local fishermen began hand-feeding these giant sharks two years ago, much to the concern of scientists, and the site is now a major tourist attraction.
We were briefed before entering the water on the rules and regulations - no touching, no flash photography and keep 4m away from the sharks.
You can snorkel or scuba with them, and we decided on scuba, thinking that it would be easier for photography, although the experience would have been just as good on snorkel.
Having eight whale sharks cruising around you in 8m of water was the most amazing experience.
Most had their head up and tail down, gobbling down mouthfuls of tiny shrimp fed to them by local fishermen, who now work as whale-shark wranglers, from their canoes.
It was good to see that no one was touching the whale sharks, even though it was hard to keep your distance at times with sharks all around you.

IN THE WATER WITH US WERE researchers from the group Physalus, studying the sharks and the impact the feeding and tourists are having.
They would like the feeding to stop and a more natural eco-friendly encounter to take place, as in other areas of the Philippines.
They also have concerns that the sharks will associate boats with food, leading to boat strikes or fishermen killing them, and also that the feeding is disrupting their normal migration and feeding habits.
It will be interesting to see whether the government allows the practice to continue or if it spreads to other areas, but at the moment it is one of the most surreal and unforgettable diving experiences on the planet.
The whale sharks of Oslob topped off an incredible two weeks around Cebu.
By the time we left the Philippines we had heard the good news that Thresher Shark Divers and Tepanee Resort had reopened, plus reports that the local reefs had suffered little damage and the thresher sharks were still coming each morning for their daily clean.
If you have booked a holiday to the Philippines, GO. If you are planning a holiday to the Philippines, GO. It needs tourist and divers to inject money into the economy now.
You will not regret the decision, as you will help to rebuild this island-nation and enjoy some incredible diving at the same time.

GETTING THERE Most international flights arrive in Manila, but some operate directly into Cebu City. Internal flights from Manila to Cebu City are available with Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. Road transfers to both Malapascua and Moalboal can be organised by the dive operator or resort with which you book.
DIVING Thresher Shark Divers, Malapascua, Cebu Fun Divers, Moalboal,
ACCOMMODATION A wide range of accommodation is available on both islands. Tepanee Resort, Malapascua, Loves Beach & Dive Resort, Moalboal,
WHEN TO GO Year-round. Water temperatures range from 26-29°C, and the climate is driest and warmest from November to May.
MONEY Philippines peso.
HEALTH Cebu is malaria-free. Deco chamber in Cebu City.
PRICES Dive Worldwide offers two-centre Cebu packages from £1945pp. This price includes flights with Cathay Pacific (40kg allowance), five nights B&B in Malapascua at Tepanee Resort, 12 dives with Thresher Shark Divers, five nights B&B at Turtle Bay Dive Resort, Moalboal with six dives and a half-day snorkel tour to Oslob, and airport transfers, all based on two sharing,