IT’S GREAT TO WAKE UP in the morning, draw the curtains and think “wow!”. It does wonders for the enthusiasm, getting the diving blood flowing and relieving the exhaustion of travel.
While the Blue Star Dive Resort’s website quotes “68 steps to the beach”, that hardly conveys just how sparkling is the view from our bungalow atop the cliff. Blue sky and sea meet within a frame of palm trees and green foliage.
The wow continues into my first dive, a shore-dive on the house reef. The profile is a typical swim out across the relatively flat back reef and slightly raised crest to the wall.
Visibility is still stirred up from a storm a couple of days before my arrival, so my wow is not about the wall or the corals or visibility, but about a seafan with a colony of pygmy seahorses. Pygmy seahorses on the house reef on the first dive. Wow!
Even better, I have the right lens on my camera. On most trips I would start with a wide-angle lens. Today I am forewarned of both vis and the resident critters and am prepared for macro.
Knowing that seahorses can become stressed by too much flash, I take my time to line up just a few good shots rather than popping away at the rate modern cameras and strobes allow.
Dive-guide Nelson is no slouch when it comes to finding cool stuff, and nearby picks out a hairy squat lobster hiding in the crevasse of a barrel sponge.
I find a few nudibranchs and shrimps for myself and fill the gaps in-between by spotting reef fish.
But having started with that, would the rest be an anticlimax?
An hour later the tide has turned and the current flows the other way along
the wall. Tidal range is less than 1m, providing gentle currents along the Anda coast that fuel the reef while never requiring much thought or effort.

FOLLOWING THE HOUSE reef to the east there are no more pygmy seahorses. Between countless nudibranchs I squint to see orangutan crabs among finger and bubble corals, and dragon shrimps looking like tiny warts on whip corals.
Sufficiently small, camouflaged and fuzzy, I have trouble picking many of these out with the naked eye, and often don’t know what I’m looking at until I focus my macro lens on it.
My buddy uses the simpler solution of an underwater magnifying glass.
As on the first dive, after half an hour at depth we ascend to the lip of the wall to avoid further nitrogen intake, conserving the second half of our air while working our way back towards the start. This general profile proves to be the pattern for the rest of the week.
As we cross the crest onto the reef flat, critter-spotting continues with a banded sea-snake. I have a love-hate relationship with sea-snakes built on frustration. They are beautiful to watch, but hardly ever stop moving long enough for me to get a good photograph, are long and thin so are awkward to fit in a frame, and are that unhelpful size between what works best with a macro lens and what works with a wide angle.
After a third dive the steps back up the cliff could be a daunting prospect with dive-kit, so it’s a relief that the dive-crew ferry cylinders and weights up and down for you. They would carry my camera too, but I prefer to look after that myself.
Diving continues by boat, with the bangka returned from hiding from the storm of a few days ago. I had travelled to the island of Bohol via an international flight to Cebu followed by a ferry that had also suffered from side-effects of the storm. By the time of my ferry the sea had calmed, but there was a backlog of passengers from previous days on which the ferry had been suspended.
The dockside ferry terminal was even more hectic than public transport usually is in this part of the world.
The benefit was a day less travel time than the alternative route via Manila, which would have involved an overnight wait between flights.
Bangkas are the traditional Filipino boat with a hardwood hull stabilised by bamboo outriggers. A shallow draught enables them to cross the reef and come within paddling distance of the beach. Motive power is an ingenious recycling of a Toyota car engine.
Other dive centres in the area use various bangkas, speedboats and even an engineless dory being towed behind a small fisherman’s bangka. We laugh at its passing most days while having lunch on the restaurant terrace.

FOR SHORE-DIVING I had stuck with the lighter 80cu ft cylinder that is standard in so many locations. Now on the boat I opt for a heavier 15-litre. In years gone by I used to hardly breathe, but now I’m a bit of an air hog.
I blame it on both carrying a camera and too much time on rebreathers.
OK, I am mixing my units, but that’s diving for you, especially with aluminium cylinders. For those who require a bit more consistency, the volume of an 80cu ft cylinder is 11.1 litres, so pumped to the same pressure a 15-litre cylinder holds just over 35% more gas.
The diving round Anda, on Bohol’s east coast, is a fringing reef and wall that runs along nine miles of that coast, with Blue Star being well located just west of the headland in the middle.
Sixteen dive-sites are marked on the map. In practice, many have variations to either side. Further east, some are far enough apart to leave unnamed possibilities between them.
The width of the back reef varies from close in at the house reef to a few hundred metres from shore further afield. The wall typically drops to 25m or 30m before breaking into a sandy slope, and is occasionally cut by sand channels.
If you look it up on Google Maps’ satellite view, you can see the reef structure, back reef, crest and sand channels.
Fifteen minutes or more to the east by bangka, dive-sites are characterised by more frequent and wider sand channels breaking though the wall.
At Virgen we have the usual discussion about who is eligible to dive there, then conclude that the rule doesn’t count, based on a technicality of the spelling.
The spelling is long-standing, the site being named after the village just back from the shoreline. Variations in phonetic translations are not unusual. Bangka is also spelt banca and banka, and simply means boat.
While the sand channels may not be as exciting for those who like to drift along the wall, on a macro critter-hunt they provide another habitat to search for the weird and wonderful. The first lonesome featherstar Nelson inspects yields an ornate ghost pipefish, then a few metres along the next featherstar is home to another ornate ghost pipefish.
A few scraps of broken seagrass turn out to be one less scrap of grass and a robust ghost pipefish.
Close examination of a fire urchin reveals a zebra crab, about the same size as a porcelain crab, but more angular and with stripes instead of spots.

CRINKLY PEBBLES RESOLVE into a pair of sea moths. Camouflaged beneath a solitary sprig of coral is a regular seahorse, one I can see the details of by naked eye without needing to look through a macro lens.
As with the pygmy seahorses, I limit the number of shots I take.
It’s not actually muck-diving because it’s sand rather than muck, but the search techniques and results are similar. I would expect nothing less from a location dead centre in the Coral Triangle, and Bohol is an island renowned for good macro-diving.
As bottom time diminishes we make our way back to the wall and cruise along, slowly working shallower. Anemones and anemonefish are the obvious common factor between the sand, the wall, the reef crest and the flats that stretch away to the shore.
In addition to many varieties of anemonefish, including Nemo, in most anemones we also find shrimps among the tentacles and porcelain crabs under the corners – so many that I soon lose count, and bother to try to photograph only the best prospects.
But it begs the question; do all the anemones have families of shrimps and porcelain crabs, as they do families of anemonefish? Certainly we find shrimps or porcelain crabs on many anemones, but on the anemones where we don’t find them, is it because they are very well hidden, or is it because they are simply not there?
Between dives the bangka crew serve a selection of local fruit, the mangoes being exceptionally good and, Nelson tells me, Bohol has the best mangoes in the Philippines all year round.
It’s a small world – it turns out that I know his auntie Liberty. She owns the hotel on Apo Island at which I stayed on a previous trip to the Philippines.
In a few days’ time Nelson has a few days off to visit his family, so I ask him to say hello for me.
What else do local dive-guides do on their days off? Apart from catching up with his family, Nelson has plans to go diving. There is a voluntary project surveying near his home and he likes to volunteer with it. That is the kind of enthusiasm for diving that makes dive-guides who stand out from the crowd. It’s not just a job – it’s a passion.
Also to the east of Blue Star, DapDap begins with a wider sand channel opening further as it cuts through the wall. For critter-hunting this provides an expanse of sandy substrate at a good depth for a third dive of the day.
Ornate ghost pipefish are starting to become as common as the motortrike taxis that are the prevalent form of public transport, though without the compulsory biblical verse painted on the back. Nelson soon finds another one loitering in the fronds of a featherstar.

THAT WOULD MAKE nudibranchs the equivalent of jeepneys – generally bigger than ornate ghost pipefish and with a variety of bling attached to all corners. Though we do see some micro-jeepneys on the road and there are some nudibranchs that are absolutely tiny.
After a few days of macro diving my instincts are getting tuned in to the Anda environment. I check each featherstar I pass to see if I can find an ornate ghost pipefish for myself.
What is that blip on a limb? It’s not until I have it in focus and filling my viewfinder that I see a crinoid squat lobster just sitting there – crinoid is the scientific name for the class of echinoderms that includes featherstars.
I feel quite chuffed, and also very lucky. These tiny and well-camouflaged critters normally hide beneath the claws of their host featherstars, and rarely come out in daylight.

Having extolled the great critter-diving to be found on the sand, what about the wall? After all, there is nine miles of it.
Well, there are critters there too – just as many, I suspect, if not more.
With all the hiding-places a coral wall affords, some are simply harder to spot. That is, except where the critters are resident in anemones, like shrimps and porcelain crabs, or where nudibranchs munch their way along without a care in the world, as their bright colour schemes proclaim that they shouldn’t be eaten.
With a consistently shallow crest, gentle currents and maximum depth of 30m, the whole length of the wall is ideal beginner-to-intermediate diving, with a good coverage of hard coral with sponges and soft corals hanging from it.
Some sections favour sponges, some favour fans and some favour whips.
The wall and reef-flat are also home to a variety of small reef-fish – various damsel and butterflyfish and cute little boxfish. Of bigger fish there are not so many. Outside Snapper Cave we catch
a glimpse of the resident shoal in the distance, the visibility slowly improving as the effect of recent rain is washed away.
The larger fish to be found on every dive are sedentary ambush predators. There are some monstrous crocodilefish, scorpion- and stonefish.

COMING TO THE END of a dive at Coco White, I am examining a particularly large and fat scorpionfish wedged above a green tree coral on the wall, almost missing a bigger and fatter frogfish a couple of metres further along. It’s a frogfish with aspirations of becoming a black hole, judging by its size and colour. I wonder how many frogfish I miss simply because they are so well camouflaged?
Nine miles of wall is plenty for five days. If I were staying longer and conditions permitted, Blue Star runs day-trips on a larger bangka to offshore reefs and other islands with different reef structures and marine life, even as far as Leyte to snorkel with whale sharks, if you’re lucky.
There are also reports of a couple of wartime wrecks within day-trip distance, sites to be explored when time permits.
Last day, last dives, where do we want to go? There are four of us on the boat and the vote is unanimous. We’re all into critter-hunting, and while all sites have been good, one has been outstanding. Virgen East it is.

GETTING THERE: Fly via Manila or Cebu.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Blue Star Dive Resort,
WHEN TO GO: Year-round.
MONEY: Philippines peso.
HEALTH: Cebu is malaria-free. Deco chamber in Cebu City.
PRICES: Budget £1000 for flights via Manila including an overnight stay, or £885 for flights via Cebu, with about £15 for the ferry to Bohol. Room rates at Blue Star Dive Resort vary from about £50 to £80. Five days’ diving costs around US $350.