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ANILAO – CRITTER CAPITAL OF THE PHILIPPINES

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

On our first day at Anilao we saw some amazing critters – ribbon eels, frogfish, oriental sea robins, seahorses, pipefish, snake eels, nudibranchs and mantis shrimps to name a few. However, the standout critter was a fabulous flamboyant cuttlefish walking across the bottom and feeding on tiny shrimps. But every day we dived at Anilao we encountered amazing creatures, as this is the critter capital of the Philippines.

 

When we first visited the Philippines almost a decade ago, Anilao, only 120km south of the capital Manila, was not a well-known dive destination. We had heard that the area had some pretty reef diving, but it was mainly a spot enjoyed by local divers. But since then word has spread that Anilao has some of the best muck and macro diving in Asia and is home to as many critters as the legendary Lembeh Strait in Indonesia. We finally decided to explore this area ourselves in November, and were very pleased that we did.

 

For our week long stay in Anilao we booked into one of the newest dive resorts in the area, Buceo Anilao Beach and Dive Resort. This lovely dive resort is located at the southern end of Anilao and has spectacular views, great rooms, wonderful meals, friendly staff and brilliant dive guides. We were impressed with the resort from the moment we arrived and were greeted by one of the owners, Martin Nussbaumer. Set on a steep hill, there are a few stairs to climb, especially if in the upper villa like we were, but we didn’t might this as the view of the surrounding islands and the Maricaban Strait is breathtaking.

 

The dive centre at the resort is first class, with gear storage areas, wash tubs and even a dedicated camera room for underwater photographers. And with over 50 dive sites in the area, Anilao has something for everyone, but especially critter lovers.

 

Our first dive was a great introduction to the area, a wonderful dive site called Bubble’s Point. The black sand at this site bubbles from volcanic activity, but the site also features a pretty coral reef, so has a great mix of reef and muck. With 20m visibility, which was typical at most of the sites we explored, we had a fabulous dive and encountered two giant frogfish, a wealth of reef fish, numerous nudibranchs, ribbon eels and even a rhino shrimp.

 

One of the main reasons we had ventured to Anilao was to sample the muck diving, and we can confirm that this area is blessed with sensational muck. Secret Bay was the second site we explored and a muck diver’s dream. The black sand at this site slopes beyond 20m and is a haven for critters. Every minute during the dive our guide June would tap his tank to get our attention to show us another marvellous critter. In our 75 minute dive we saw thorny seahorses, oriental sea robins, pipefish, demon stingers, cowfish, nudibranchs, dragonets, sleeper gobies, xeno crabs, mantis shrimps, lionfish, razorfish, flounders and many other species.

 

Secret Bay used to be the top muck site in the area, but that honour now belongs to the site we explored in the afternoon, Coconut Point. This is another site with a sandy slope, and it so impressed us that we did it four times. Our cameras were on overdrive each time we explored Coconut Point as we saw garden eels, snake eels, seahorses, nudibranchs, dragonets, lionfish, cowfish, boxfish, commensal shrimps, ghost pipefish, scorpionfish, saw blade shrimps, gobies, zebra crabs and much more. But the highlight on the first dive was a flamboyant cuttlefish. This is one of those species that had eluded us over the years, so it was great to finally see this incredible critter slowly walking across the bottom and hunting shrimps. We were fortunate to see it each time we dived Coconut Point, and on one dive were even lucky enough to see it laying eggs inside a coconut.

 

That night we returned to Secret Bay for a memorable night dive. At night the sand comes alive with crustaceans, we saw shrimps, prawns, box crabs, elbow crabs, carrying crabs, hermit crabs, pebble crabs and spider crabs. Our torches also revealed snake eels, soles, seahorses, pipefish, bobtail squid and countless shell species. On another night dive at this site June pointed out a tiny pygmy squid hiding in a black coral tree. This was the first time we had ever seen this species, which was only around 5mm long. Upon reviewing the images I discovered that the squid had capturing a tiny shrimp, which must have been less than 1mm long!

 

Each day four dives are scheduled at Buceo Anilao Beach and Dive Resort; two morning dives, an afternoon dive and a night dive. The dive staff are very well trained and look after you superbly, the only time you touch your gear is to put it on just before you roll off the boat. The resort has several banca style dive boats, which are very comfortable to dive from, and most dive sites are only 5 to 15 minutes from the resort.

 

Day two found us heading to a site called Bethlehem to find a weedy scorpionfish, another species that had previously eluded us. This dive site is located in front of a small village and is their garbage dump. But even with the rubbish it is a wonderful dive site with pretty corals and plenty of rubble for critters to hide. We saw ribbon eels, numerous nudibranchs, dragonets, Coleman shrimps, moray eels, mantis shrimps and garden eels. But the main feature was not one, but two spectacular weedy scorpionfish, one a yellowish brown colour and the other pink and purple.

 

The critters continued when we explored the local reefs, the first was a lovely spot called Saddle. Washed by currents the reefs around Anilao are very rich with corals and marine life, and at Saddle we were dazzled by the soft corals, sponges, sunshine corals, ascidians and featherstars. Fairy basslets cover these reefs in their millions, and there was no shortage of smaller reef fish, but the only big stuff we saw was a Spanish mackerel, a hawksbill turtle and a banded sea krait. However, the macro life was just brilliant; nudibranchs, giant frogfish, mantis shrimps, filefish, shrimps, jawfish and even a boxer crab.

 

Each day we would generally do a mix of reef and muck sites, and on day three we even dived the local wreck, known as Daryl Lout. It is hard to call this a shipwreck, as it was actually a floating casino that today looks more like an underwater construction site with beams, walls and bricks. The wreck sits on a sandy slope in depths from 15m to 28m and is covered in corals and home to reef fish, schools of batfish and the odd turtle. It is also riddled with critters, including longnose hawkfish, two-spot lionfish, leaf scorpionfish, flatworms, nudibranchs, shrimps, mushroom coral pipefish, flaming file shells and reef octopus.

 

One critter that we dearly wanted to see at Anilao was a mimic octopus, another one of those species that has managed to elude us over the years. These octopus are often seen at Coconut Point, but to guarantee an encounter June suggest we dive Anilao Pier on a combined afternoon and night dive trip, as it is a 40 minute boat ride away.

 

At first we wondered what we were doing at this site, the visibility was only 8m, and it wasn’t a pier dive, as we were actually diving the sandy bay nearby. After twenty minutes of sand, rubbish and the odd shell it was looking like a waste of time. Then June tapped his tank frantically, we swam over to see him with a large mimic octopus. What an amazing animal, we watched it fan its arms, change colour and texture to match the sand and swim across the bottom imitating a flounder. After this encounter the dive site seemed to come alive and there were critters everywhere; grinners, nudibranchs, flatworms, murex shells, demon stingers, snake eels, gobies, razorfish and sand divers. Towards the end of the dive we even found another smaller mimic octopus.

 

At night a new set of critters emerged from the sand, we saw several coconut octopus and long-arm octopus, prawns, shrimps, spider crabs, box crabs, bobtail squid, snake eels, pipefish and numerous shell species. But the big surprise was when a large file snake swam through the group.

 

Each day at Anilao we explored new sites, and returned to a few favourite sites, and continued to see amazing critters. At Koala Point it was pygmy seahorses and a pretty warty frogfish. At Tres Cuevas it was a lovely pair of harlequin shrimps. At Apol’s Point it was two giant frogfish and a Donald Duck shrimp. And at Dakaida it was mating splendid Mandarinfish on a sunset dive.

 

We never got a chance to dive the house reef, known as Buceo Point, during the day, but we did do a fabulous night dive here. This sloping sandy rubble site was home to another great collection of crustaceans, nudibranchs, lionfish and several octopuses. But the highlight was a Bobbitt worm, with its rabbit trap like jaw set to snap on any unsuspecting fish or shrimp.

 

Our week at Anilao exposed us to the best set of critters we have seen anywhere, and combined with our stay at the wonderful Buceo Anilao Beach and Dive Resort it was the perfect dive holiday.

 

 

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