Words by Dave, video by Carmen
Picture the biggest, meanest bouncer you have ever seen at a night club.
Notice how he walks, fists akimbo, swaying side to side like he owns the place – a real tough, grizzled guy calculated to intimidate.
Well, the next time you see one of these specimens you may giggle a bit, because check this guy out:That’s a Frogfish, a stocky little fellow that struts around on the seafloor with his fins looking like fists and a face only a mother could love.
These curious fish are found all over Asia, but they are particularly concentrated off the island of Bohol in the Philippines where Carmen and I were lucky enough to see scores of them guarding the coral reefs.
Check out the other fish we saw while scuba diving in the Philippines
Diving lures us to the Philippines
The Philippines is consistently rated as one of the best scuba diving spots in the world – and that’s exactly why we packed our bags and dive books for a three-week jaunt across this archipelago of over 7,000 islands in the south Pacific.
Now that’s a lot of islands, so we narrowed our sights to just two where we knew the scuba diving would be good – Bohol just off the coast of Cebu and the long expanse of Palawan which hosts the world famous El Nido area.
We wanted to jump into crystal clear azure water, equalise our ears and descend into an underwater paradise where sea turtles, nudibranches and tropical fish cascade along coral so colourful it would camouflage Dame Edna.
A trip from hell to paradise
The thing I’ve found with scuba diving is that it doesn’t matter what happens before you hit the water – once you’re down within the silent world then nothing else matters, you enjoy the hour of wonder you’ve carved out and marvel at wonders like those frogfish.
So at the very start of our Philippines adventure I tried to accentuate the positive as we suffered through a horror travel day to get our scuba fix.
Three hours from Denpasar, Indonesia to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Two hours stop over. Four hours to Manila. Three hours waiting in the airport. Then a one hour flight to Cebu City, arriving at our shabby Airbnb around midnight in the middle of a rain storm, arguing the taxi driver because he didn’t have any change. Hmm.
The next morning we jumped into a public bus so cramped my own grasp of maths utterly failed me – how does a space designed for ten get divided by thirty?
Finally we arrived at the dodgy docks and bought tickets for the fast ferry to Bohol – an immaculately seaworthy vessel that boasted top-notch entertainment – a CD player with Backstreet Boys Greatest Hits blaring out.
We made landfall at the woebegone port of Tubigon and quickly wished to be gone, jumping on a ramshackle bus that inched its way through the hills to the town of Carmen where we crossed the famous Chocolate Hills off our to do list.
After a few days exploring the landlocked pleasures of the island on our hired scooter, we made our way to Tagbilaran City on the southern tip and crossed the causeway to Panglao Island where world-class scuba diving awaited.
Panglao delivers the goods
The main area for scuba diving, the main area for everything on Panglao really, is Alona Beach, a bustling hive of cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels and dive shops that runs all the way to the white sandy beaches. A tourist trap if there ever was one, but beyond it lies some of the best scuba diving ever.
Go Scuba was our first choice dive shop and when we went inside we were impressed. Lots of happy divers washing out their gear, which was all brand new, and friendly staff who booked us in easily. We went out that night for a grilled fish dinner on the beach and turned in early to get up bright and fresh the next day.
We boarded the Go Scuba boat at around 8.30am and when the crew cast off the anchor and opened the engine throttles I breathed a sigh of relief as the land faded away in the wake behind. Ahead of us lay the little island of Balicasag, one of the Philippines premier dive spots.
Balicasag island hosts scores of underwater slopes and walls where coral, fish and sea turtles abound. The shallow areas beyond the deep host garden-like environments where you can float above the animals and sea plants as if you are in a private exhibition.
Our first dive that day was at a site called Black Forest, a steeply sloping area where you can find black coral called Antipathes that contrast sharply with the colourful life they support. We descended down, equalised and cruised along, spotting huge sea turtles, every stripe of tropical fish, toothpaste streaks of multi-coloured nudibranchs and a lone barracuda patrolling near the surface.
On the second dive we went across to a place called Diver’s Heaven, which was quite a shallow dive in amongst hamlets of weed and coral where sea turtles could be seen munching away like animatronic exhibits. We also saw loads of frogfish, the bouncers of the coral reefs!
The following day we went out with another dive company called Genesis Divers, one of the oldest dive shops on Panglao. They took us back to Balicasang to another dive site called Cathedral and had another crack at Black Forest. It’s no criticism to say it was more of the same – nudibranchs, frogfish, turtles and numberless tropical fish filling the vision arc of my mask.
I’ve been a diver for about two years and in that time I’ve amassed close to 50 descents in the Caribbean, the Galapagos, Mexico, Indonesia and now the Philippines. The diving in the Philippines was the best of lot on that list.
The water temperature is perfect – it was 28 degrees when we went in June so I could get away with a short wetsuit and stay down comfortably the entire time. The visibility was clear even on days when the sun hid behind clouds and rain scudded in. And the array of sea life on display – unspoiled – was spectacular.
Unfortunately, the most disappointing diving I have ever experienced also happened in the Philippines.
Rain, rain, go away!
After saying goodbye to Bohol and Panglao, we flew over to the island of Palawan and caught a private bus from the city of Puerto Princesa to the scuba diving mecca of El Nido – an eight hour journey by road.
Upon arrival, we stretched our legs and booked in with a dive company to begin our week-long odyssey in this fabled place. As we went to bed that night, disaster struck.
A typhoon bore down on the Philippines – followed by two more swirling their way towards us from the Pacific.
The wind came up as a gale, thunder cracked and lighting streaked and torrents of rain crashed onto our beach hut’s corrugated steel roof. When we awoke the next morning, we found El Nido soaked, grey and shuttered with the sea riding high and choppy.
We made our way to the dive shop and were told that due to the high seas the cast guard had forbade any boats to go out that day. Nooooo!
Oh well, we thought, better safe than sorry. We’ll try tomorrow. So we spent the day doing our digital nomad thing in a café, working through lunch and then playing scrabble over dinner in the same place.
The next day was cancelled, and the next, and the next, and the next. And we left El Nido without even having put a toe in the water. It was hugely disappointing and very frustrating, having the world’s best dive sites right in front of us yet having them put out of reach.
And so we left Palawan and went to Hong Kong, where the sun shone brilliantly and there was no trace of the typhoons. And according to the weather report, the sun was now shining in El Nido too… oh well, there’s always next time!
Have you been scuba diving in the Philippines?
What you need to know:
When to go – We went to the Philippines in June, just as the wet season (and the typhoon season) was beginning and had a good time despite the difficulties on Palawan. But to avoid all bad weather, try between November and April.
Costs – Our dives at Bohol cost between AUS$64 – AUS$77 for a two tank dive.
How to get there – There are loads of cheap flights to the Philippines. We flew Air Asia to get there and Cebu Pacific to get around internally.
Thanks to Genesis Divers for hosting us for one dive. As always, our opinions are our own.