Just when he thought he had seen it all, long-time muck-diver NIGEL MARSH dives two extraordinary sites in the Philippines
I GOT HOOKED ON MUCK-DIVING more than 30 years ago, long before the word came into general usage among divers. My muck-diving adventures have taken me throughout the Indo-Pacific region to explore a wide variety of habitats in both tropical and temperate waters, and have allowed me to see some amazing muck-critters.
I fell in love with the Philippines on my first trip to this island-nation a decade ago, and have now been four times. Usually my wife Helen and I aim to descend on a new area of the country, but on our most recent trip we decided to explore one destination that was new to us, and also return to an old favourite.
The new destination was Dumaguete, the old one Sogod Bay. Both have wonderful coral reefs but, more importantly to me, some great muck-diving.
Over the past two years I have been working on a guide-book to muck-diving, and this trip was to be the final muck adventure before it went to print.
I had high hopes of exploring some great sites and also seeing a few critters I hadn’t seen before.
Dumaguete lies at the southern end of Negros, and in recent years has become one of the most popular diving destinations in the country. For our week there we stayed at Liquid Dumaguete, one of the newest resorts in the area and a PADI 5* IDC Dive Resort.
Over the first few days we enjoyed dives at Apo, exploring the lovely coral reefs around this offshore island and seeing abundant fish, turtles and numerous sea-snakes.
We also experienced some of the great local muck-sites along the coast near the town of Dauin, home to an excellent range of critters, especially frogfish.
Dumaguete has a reputation as the frogfish capital of the world, and we weren’t disappointed by the numbers and variety we saw. However, it was November and the Liquid Dumaguete dive-crew told us that frogfish numbers were greatest between March and May.
We might have mistimed the frogfish season, even though we saw plenty, but according to the staff we had arrived at the perfect time to visit one of their best muck-sites, Bonnet’s Corner.
I hadn’t heard of the place in my book research, and wondered how it had escaped my attention (I later learnt that it is also called Punta, a site of which I had heard). The staff insisted that the site was “going off, with cuttlefish and octopus everywhere”. With our great love of cephalopods, we were easily sold.
On day three we got the chance to dive Bonnet’s Corner. Our guides Rocky and Carlo briefed us that the site was basically a sandy slope containing lots of octopus and cuttlefish.
Carlo added that there were so many flamboyant cuttlefish “they’re like cockroaches”. Quite a boast, we thought.
ARRIVING AT THE SITE in a traditional bangka dive-boat, we geared up but without sky-high expectations. We knew that octopus encounters at muck-sites by day could be very hit-or-miss, and far more reliable at night. But jumping into the water we found great visibility of at least 20m, and a sandy rubble slope perfect for muck-critters, especially octopuses.
We had barely reached the bottom when Rocky tapped his tank, and before him was a magnificent wonderpus.
We were astounded. We were in only 8m of water, and less than a minute into the dive.
We spent several minutes photographing this incredible cephalopod as it slowly ambled across the bottom, then moved on and quickly found typical muck-critters such as mantis shrimps, box crabs, razorfish, sand-divers, garden-eels and a tiny painted frogfish.
More tapping from Rocky, and we swam over to see another octopus, a rare species we hadn’t expected – a Mototi.
Related to the blue-ringed octopus, the Mototi octopus is extremely rare. We had previously seen only one on dozens of dive-trips to South-east Asia.
Thinking that this elusive creature would quickly disappear into the rocks, we snapped off images madly.
However, this bold octopus just sat on top of its rock lair and calmly watched us and the world go by.
Right next to the Mototi was a lovely Napoleon snake-eel, and beyond this were several dwarf lionfish and a species of fireworm we hadn’t seen before. But the cephalopods were coming thick and fast now. Rocky pointed out a tiny stumpy spined cuttlefish, then a coconut octopus – and then we couldn’t believe it when we saw two more Mototi octopuses!
This was a male and female pair, with the male displaying a range of colour patterns as he slowly crept up on the female. Possibly a prelude to mating, we watched these two for several minutes, but nothing more happened.
Exploring more of this amazing site, and going no deeper than 20m, we saw cockatoo waspfish, hermit crabs, cowfish, nudibranchs, juvenile cuttlefish, another Mototi and, finally, a pair of flamboyant cuttlefish. After 75 magic minutes, and several hundred images, it was time to go.
Bonnet’s Corner had surpassed all our expectations, and we couldn’t wait for a return visit. And return we did, diving the site three more times, and each dive was equally as good.
The Mototi and coconut octopus were there on every dive, but we also saw a number of greater blue-ringed octopuses.
However, a special find on the second dive was a rare algae octopus, a species we hadn’t seen before and one that I dearly wanted for the muck book.
This species turned out to be not-so-rare at Bonnet’s Corner, as we saw several more over the next few dives.
THE FLAMBOYANT CUTTLEFISH were also there on every dive, not quite as common as cockroaches but we generally saw two to four on a dive.
We had one memorable encounter with a male and female pair, the male dancing around the female wanting to mate.
It was quite a performance, but just as he lined up to lock tentacles, she rejected him. All that work for nothing! A second male then joined in the antics, which was fine with the female as she started to feed, while the first male was busy trying to block the advances of the interloper.
The dive staff later told us that they also see mimic and long-arm octopuses at Bonnet’s Corner, but warned that the explosion of cephalopods occurs only between October and December. After seeing mating behaviour from several of the cephalopods, and also seeing flamboyant cuttlefish eggs, we have to assume that the octopuses and cuttlefish are gathering at this site, at this time of year, to mate.
After a wonderful week at Dumaguete, and four magic dives marvelling at the extraordinary collection of cephalopods at Bonnet’s Corner, it was time to move on to Sogod Bay.
Dazzling after dark
Located at the southern end of Leyte, Sogod Bay is one Philippines destination that doesn’t see hordes of divers.
Only a handful of dive resorts are found in the area, near the town of Padre Burgos, including the delightful Sogod Bay Scuba Resort.
Located right on the beach, this has one of the best house reefs I have seen. We first visited in 2007 and had vowed to return, as the area is blessed with great reefs, wonderful muck and whale sharks.
The latter are seen at Sogod Bay from November to May, the area having the largest population of these gentle giants in the country. We had seen them on our last visit but, while always hopeful of a surprise visit, we planned no dedicated whale-shark expeditions on this trip.
We were more interested in diving several new sites that had been discovered since our last visit, and also wanted to return to one unforgettable muck-site.
Over the first few days we dived many colourful reefs, seeing numerous fish and turtles. Many of the reefs in Sogod Bay are marine reserves, so have a good population of reef and pelagic fish.
We also explored a muck-site called Little Lembeh, discovered since our last visit and home to a wonderful array of critters, especially Coleman shrimps.
But we were counting down to Monday night for Sogod Bay’s most popular dive-site, Padre Burgos Pier.
This small pier is not much to look at, especially as the water around it is often full of rubbish. You can’t dive this pier during the day because of boat traffic and council restrictions, and it is open only for night dives on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
On our previous visit we got to dive this pier only once, but it was one of the best night-dives we ever experienced. We hoped it would be as good as we recalled, but a lot can change in a decade.
We arrived in the back of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort’s flatbed truck. Conditions were not appealing for a shore-dive, with onshore winds creating waves and murky water in the shallows. But knowing what awaited us under the pier, we geared up.
After a scramble down the slippery steps we waded through the shallows, occasionally pushing rubbish out of the way. Fortunately, once in 2m of water the visibility cleared to 15m, and it was time to descend.
Dave, our guide, quickly led us under the pier, and within seconds was pointing out a beautiful white freckled frogfish sitting on a pylon. One of the rarer members of the frogfish family, this species is usually seen only at night, so this was a great start.
We dropped to the bottom to find a dusky-banded moray, another rare species we hadn’t seen before. The critters then started coming quickly. On the bottom, among the debris, we found seastars, brittlestars, decorator crabs, lionfish, coral crabs, flatworms, shrimps and numerous shells.
PERCHED ON EVERY OUTCROP were large basketstars, their arms spread wide to catch food particles. There were so many that I had to make a conscious effort not to bump into one while engrossed in taking photos.
Dave then pointed out several common and tigertail seahorses clinging to debris on the bottom, and also on the gorgonians sprouting from the pylons. Before I had time to take a photo of the seahorses, a banded sea krait had swum between us.
As we moved from pylon to pylon it was hard to know which way to point the camera – at the colourful corals, the echinoderms, the crustaceans, the fish or the molluscs. It’s a pity you can’t dive this site in daytime, because the gorgonians, sponges and soft corals covering the pylons are outstanding.
After 30 minutes under the pier, which is only 50m long and 8m at its deepest, we turned our attention to the sand around this structure. It didn’t take long to find mantis shrimps, sea-pens, tube anemones, Pegasus sea-moths, cockatoo waspfish, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, crabs and more. But the highlights in this zone were the snake-eels and stargazers.
The last time we had dived this site we had been promised both but saw none. This time we had a treat. Dave pointed out the first stargazer, and by the end of the dive we had located another four.
But more impressive were the crocodile snake-eels. At most muck-diving destinations you’re lucky to find one of these impressive snake-eels in a week of diving, but at Padre Burgos Pier we saw five, including three of the spectacular red-coloured species.
After an hour around the pier it was time to exit, but this can be a slow process as you’re forever stumbling across another critter you just have to observe and photograph. When we finally clambered out of the water, we couldn’t stop talking. The pier was as good as, if not better than, we remembered it.
TWO NIGHTS LATER WE RETURNED, and this time the pier was even better. We had to share it with a group from a visiting liveaboard, but with so much to see that didn’t matter.
Once again we saw plenty of stargazers, seahorses and snake-eels, but also pipefish, cuttlefish, octopuses and a Donald Duck shrimp.
The white freckled frogfish was joined by three freckled friends, coloured green, brown and cream. We also found three giant frogfish that had moved in since the last dive, and saw one flicking its lure and even sucking down a cardinalfish.
There also seemed to be more shells out feeding, with many cowries, strombs, helmets, cones and moon shells on the prowl. We exited suffering from sensory overload. Diving Padre Burgos Pier at night, it takes several hours to process all you have seen. A few San Miguel beers were required to slow our thinking and allow us to sleep.
We had done more than 40 dives over two glorious weeks exploring Dumaguete and Sogod Bay, but the sites we will long remember, the ones that will draw us back to these destinations, were the unforgettable Bonnet’s Corner and the dazzling Padre Burgos Pier.
GETTING THERE: Most international flights to the Philippines arrive in Manila, but some operate directly into Cebu City. Flights from Manila to Dumaguete are provided by Philippine Airlines (www.philippineairlines.com) and Cebu Pacific Air (www.cebupacificair.com). The quickest way to reach Sogod Bay is a flight to Tacloban and a three-hour drive south, but there are also ferries from Cebu City. An airport due to open in southern Leyte during 2017 will make the journey much easier.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: There are many dive resorts in Dumaguete around the town of Dauin. Nigel Marsh stayed at Liquid Dumaguete (www.liquiddumaguete.com). A small number of resorts are located in Sogod Bay, with Sogod Bay Scuba Resort (www.sogodbayscubaresort.com ) popular with visiting divers.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Water temperatures range from 26-29°C, and the climate is driest and warmest from November to May. Padre Burgos Pier is excellent at any time but Bonnet’s Corner is best dived between October and December for cephalopods.
CURRENCY: Philippines peso (60 pesos = £1).
HEALTH: Both destinations are low-risk malaria areas. The closest deco chamber is in Cebu City.
PRICES: Liquid Dumaguete has fan-cooled cottages from 1600 pesos and air-conditioned cottages from 3300 pesos (two sharing). Dive prices start from 1600 pesos per single dive. Sogod Bay Scuba Resort has rooms from 1100-2400 pesos per night (two sharing), while boat dives start at 1350 pesos each.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.itsmorefuninthephilippines.com