N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
DIVERSE & DELIGHTFUL CEBU
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
When the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in Cebu in 1521 he established the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines. Unfortunately he didn’t get to thoroughly explore this picturesque island as he was killed only a few days later in a clash with the native king Lapu-Lapu. Today the Cebuano people are far more friendly and renowned for their hospitality, welcoming divers with open arms that come to explore this wonderfully diverse destination.
Cebu, located in the central Visayas region of the Philippines, is a long skinny island stretching 225km from north to south. Surrounded by clear blue waters, and some 167 neighbouring islands, Cebu offers the visiting diver an unparalleled range of underwater experiences at a very affordable price.
You could jump in the water just about anywhere around Cebu and have an amazing dive; however the major dive centres are Malapascua, Moalboal, Oslob and Cebu City itself. Liveaboard boats depart from Cebu City to explore the islands and reefs of the Visayas, however dive centres and dive resorts can also be found on Mactan Island, which is actually part of the city and home to the airport. We didn’t allow time to dive Mactan Island, as being part of the second largest city in the Philippines we didn’t think it would have much to offer. How wrong were we. Speaking to divers that visited Mactan Island it sounded very interesting with colourful reefs, a huge cave and also the impressive San Juan shipwreck, a ferry resting in 50m. Our own diving adventures in Cebu started four hours’ drive north at a lovely island called Malapascua.
MALAPASCUA – A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING
Beautiful picture-postcard tropical islands are scattered right across the Philippines, but only one of these has a dive site to suit every taste, the wonderful Malapascua Island. Whether you are into muck diving, wall diving, cave diving, reef diving, wreck diving or shark diving; Malapascua has a dive site just for you.
We booked a week at Malapascua Island with Thresher Shark Divers (TSD) to sample the wide variety of dive sites found here, and we were not disappointed. TSD is a PADI 5 star IDC dive centre that have a well-stocked shop, offer every dive course you can think of (and a few you probably didn’t) and operate three traditional banca boats to the dive sites around the island. They work closely with a number of the resorts on the island so can offer package deals to suit every budget. For our stay we selected Tepanee Beach Resort, one of the newer resorts with comfortable air-conditioned rooms, many of which overlook the ocean.
Our dive adventure at Malapascua started on the local reefs that fringe the island. We explored Bantigue, Deep Rock, North Wall and North Point, only a fraction of the sites available, and were impressed by every site. These sites vary in depth from 6m to 25m, and we enjoyed 12 to 20m visibility. While they all had pretty corals, they were lacking in large fish but more than made up for this with a great range of reef fish and invertebrates.
Most of these sites could be classified as muck dives, as the best part of each dive was spent on the sand or coral rubble looking for critters. We saw nudibranchs, pipefish, scorpionfish, garden eels, shrimp gobies, orang-utan crabs, dragonets, cuttlefish, porcelain crabs and numerous shrimps. But a highlight for us was all the fire urchins; these were everywhere and many were home to zebra crabs, squat lobsters and spectacular Coleman shrimps.
Naturally we wouldn’t have seen half of these critters without our wonderful guide Wilbert, one of six local dive guides employed by TSD. Wilbert informed us that if we had more time to explore we probably would have seen flamboyant cuttlefish, anglerfish, snake eels, stargazers, pygmy sea horses and maybe a mimic octopus. But we were more than happy with what we saw and photographed.
Lighthouse Reef was another local reef we dived, but this site is reserved for the sunset/night dive. Only 6 to 12m deep this site has dense gardens of hard coral and each evening Mandarinfish emerge from the coral to mate. We watched their captivating mating dance for over ten minutes, and then gave these colourful small fish some privacy while we explored the rest of the reef. By torch light we spotted hermit crabs, decorator crabs, sleeping fish, hunting moray eels, flatworms, shrimps, nudibranchs, cowries, volutes and surprisingly a dozen sea horses clinging to the corals. Also on this reef are the remains of a small Japanese landing craft, sunk during World War II, but we were so preoccupied with all the sea horses that we didn’t check it out.
Besides the local dive sites that TSD do every morning and afternoon, they also schedule regular two dive trips to nearby islands, reefs and wrecks. Gato Island is easily the most famous and popular of these nearby sites and we could see why. This tiny limestone island is surrounded by rocky reefs in depths to 25m and riddled with ledges, crevasses and caves. The biggest cave, simply called ‘The Cave’, cuts right through the island and is 30m long. Only 12m deep, this brilliant cave is decorated with tubastra corals and sponges, and we saw countless crabs, shrimps, cowries, squirrelfish, sea snakes and a tiny sea horse. White-tip reef sharks often rest in this cave, we missed these but instead saw a much rarer white-spotted bamboo shark wedged in a crevasse.
Exploring the rest of Gato Island we found lovely corals and a range of reef fish and invertebrates; including cuttlefish, banded sea snakes, sea horses, pipefish and a diverse range of nudibranchs, including a few we have never seen before.
Another day trip we enjoyed was to Calanggaman Island, which has a steep wall off its western side. We did two dives here and enjoyed 30m visibility as we drifted, seeing gorgonians, sea whips, black corals, soft corals and many giant barrel sponges. Pelagic fish and turtles cruise this wall, but it was the small creatures that captivated us including pygmy sea horses, ghost pipefish, razorfish, shrimp gobies, scorpionfish and even a blue-ringed octopus. Between dives we also had a wonderful lunch on this picturesque island that is regularly featured in ads for the Philippines because of its beauty.
For those with a ‘lust for rust’ three large shipwrecks are found around Malapascua Island, including two Japanese ships sunk during World War II. We only had time to dive one of these wrecks, so missed out on the war wrecks; the Mogami Maru (in 50m) and the Oakita Maru (in 30m), but did dive the spectacular Dona Marilyn. This 100m long ferry sank in a typhoon in 1988, with the tragic loss of 389 people, and today rests on its side in 33m of water. We descended on this immense ship to find it a fitting tribute to the people lost, as it is now a very colourful artificial reef. Covering almost every inch of the wreck are black corals, sea whips, soft corals and sponges. Pelagic fish circle the top of the wreck, while smaller reef fish dart about the corals and structure.
For those into larger marine life, especially sharks and rays, Malapascua also has something for you, something very special. Not far from the island are several sea mounts; Kimud Shoal is visited by schooling hammerhead sharks from December to May, while Monad Shoal is visited by manta rays and thresher sharks year round. We were out of season to see hammerheads, and the day we visited the manta ray site it was dark and stormy with rather gloomy visibility. But we were far more interested in seeing thresher sharks and we didn’t leave disappointed.
Thresher sharks were first discovered at Monad Shoal over twenty years ago, well before any dive operators were based on Malapascua Island. Fishermen were catching the sharks regularly on the shoal, which rises from 230m to 14m, and when divers investigated they found these deep water sharks visit the shoal to get cleaned. Today the site is protected from fishermen and the best place in the world to see thresher sharks. While the sharks can be seen at any time of the day, it has been found that more sharks visit the shoal at dawn, so this is when the site is dived.
The 4.30am wakeup call is a little rough when on holidays, but with the boat departing at 5am you don’t want to sleep in and miss this dive. Departing in darkness it is a half hour journey to Monad Shoal, enough time for a coffee or a snooze on the boat. While all the dive shops on the island work together, staggering their visiting times, the main cleaning site at Shark Point seemed to be crowded with a dozen dive boats while we were there. Fortunately TSD have their own site called Shark Wall, and they rarely have to share it with any other dive boat, so no crowds.
Descending into dark water, with the sun still below the horizon, we found visibility to be a lovely 30m. We settled on the top of the shoal at 14m, and peering down the slope waited for a shark to appear. It was only a short wait as the first shark appeared within minutes, a spectacular pelagic thresher shark around 3.5m long. This shark was quickly joined by two others, an incredible sight to see three of these amazing sharks with their elongated tails cruising up and down the reef in front of us.
Most of the sharks we saw were just cruising around, occasionally coming in close to check out the divers, but we also saw sharks getting cleaned by both cleaner wrasse and moon wrasse. The cleaning was quiet wonderful to watch as the shark would swim slow circuits around the cleaning station, only giving the working fish a few seconds on each pass for them to pick off parasites. At Shark Wall there are a dozen cleaning stations in depths to 30m, so you move in small groups from station to station, depending on where the sharks are.
We saw thresher sharks each morning we dived Monad Shoal, anywhere from two to six sharks, and even had one buzzing the divers on the mooring line and saw another do a spectacular breech one morning before we entered the water. On these dives we also saw plenty of other marine life; trevally, barracuda, garden eels, nudibranchs, sea moths and also two pygmy devil rays.
We could have easily spent another month exploring the brilliant dive sites around Malapascua Island, as we only sampled a small portion of the available sites, but with more to see around Cebu we departed and headed south to our next destination, Moalboal.
MOALBOAL – WALL TO WALL CRITTERS
One of the oldest dive destinations in the Philippines, Moalboal is located on the south west coast of Cebu, about three hours’ drive south of Cebu City. Dive centres and resorts line the coast here along the Copton Peninsula and it is easy to see what attracted them to this spot, as right in front of their door step is a fringing reef and wall that drops into 40m of water.
Your choice of resort and dive operator at Moalboal is almost unlimited, meaning good competition and value for money. We settled on Love’s Beach and Dive Resort, a very comfortable complex with a pool and restaurant, and also the home of Cebu Fun Divers (CFD). Part of the Seven Seas Aquanauts Group, which have four dive shops around Cebu, CFD operate daily boat dives but also have a wonderful House Reef that you can explore at any time.
We love a good house reef, having the freedom to just stroll into the water and dive as long as you like, and it is even better when the site has an endless supply of critters to photograph. We entered the water and quickly found ourselves in a coral garden 3 to 6m deep. Lovely hard corals dominate the shallows and are home to a diverse variety of reef fish, especially pipefish which were everywhere. We then dropped down the wall, following our guide Cayo on our first exploration of the House Reef wall. The corals on this wall were just beautiful – gorgonians, sea whips, black corals and numerous sponges, but some didn’t look too healthy and there was also rubbish in the water, a typical problem in Asia. But we couldn’t complain about the visibility, which varied from 12 to 30m depending on the tides and wind.
This wall was typical of the area, and of the Philippines, with not a lot of big fish, but overloaded with small reef fish and invertebrates – perfect for macro photography. Cayo knew where all the good stuff could be found and pointed out orang-utan crabs, commensal shrimps, razorfish and some lovely nudibranchs. But we also saw a great variety of anemonefish, hawkfish, sea stars, angelfish, rock cods, lionfish and a very photogenic giant anglerfish.
Each day we explored a different section of the Copton Peninsula as there are dozens of dive sites to be investigated. At White Beach we saw several banded sea snakes, including the biggest one we have ever seen, well over 2m long. These reptiles are quite a challenge to photograph, as they are either sleeping, tucked up in the coral, or constantly on the move poking around the reef looking for fish to eat. We also saw mantis shrimps, moray eels and thick schools of damsels and basslets.
Panagsama, right in front of all the bars and restaurants, provided a smorgasbord of subjects for our cameras. Cruising slowly along the wall here we saw ornate ghost pipefish, leaf scorpionfish, lionfish, pygmy sea horses, banded pipefish, nudibranchs, crabs, shrimps and a very shy comet. We also saw quite a few pelagic fish stalking this wall, including trevally, mackerel and batfish. Green turtles are quite common here and are very use to divers, allowing you to get up close for photos. Each of them also had a contingent of remoras, probably because of the lack of sharks in the area. One turtle we saw didn’t appreciate giving a free ride to these hitchhikers and was trying to dislodge them with its flippers.
The second time we dived Panagsama we saw something very special that Moalboal is famous for – sardines, and millions of them. Massive schools of sardines swarm in this area from time to time. Swimming under and through this massive cloud of fish was an amazing experience as there are so many of them that they almost blocked out the sun. We saw trevally and mackerel feeding on these fish, but thresher sharks have also been known to zoom in and whip them with their tail and pick up the stunned fish.
Kasai Point was another wonderful wall dive that we enjoyed, especially when Cayo pointed out a very beautiful red painted anglerfish. But our favourite along the peninsula was Copton Point. This site was very different to all the other sites we dived as it has a sandy shelf sloping to 23m and then the wall. On this shelf sits a small plane, scuttled by the local dive operators, that was fun to explore, but we spent most of our time on the sand. Here we saw nudibranchs, shrimp gobies, mantis shrimps, anemones, ghost pipefish, sea pens, garden eels and scorpionfish. But the highlight was four Pegasus sea moths, including a lovely yellow coloured one.
Night diving is popular right along the peninsula and the House Reef was full of life after sunset. We actually got in just on sunset to first watch the colourful Mandarinfish, then explored the reef to find basketstars, brittlestars, flatworms, octopus, moray eels, lionfish, coral crabs, shrimps, decorator crabs and numerous molluscs. This was an excellent night dive, but we enjoyed the one at Moalboal Bay even more. This sandy bay is only 6m deep and at first glance appears quite barren, apart from the usual pipefish. But once darkness fell the critters emerged on mass – decorator crabs, box crabs, sand crabs, shrimps, demon stingers, snake eels, volutes and also a stargazer. Small coral outcrops are also found here and were home to sea horses, ghost pipefish, moray eels, nudibranchs and brittlestars. A highlight was finding a little file snake curled up in the sand. This non-venomous reptile is not a true sea snake, lacking the paddle-like tail, and kills its prey by constriction.
We didn’t get to dive all the wonderful sites around Moalboal in the week we were there, missing out on more sites on the peninsula and also a nearby sea mount. But we did get to dive the prettiest dive site in the area – Pescador Island. This small island is only 2km off the coast and surrounded by walls that drop into 50m of water. We started our dive at the southern end where wonderful gardens of hard coral are found. We then drifted along the wall to see lovely sponges and soft corals, easily the most beautiful corals we had seen in the area. This wall is alive with fish, especially schools of damsels, fusiliers and basslets. We also found numerous caves and ledges to explore and saw a massive school of big-eye trevally hanging off the wall.
We had a brilliant time photographing the wonderful critters of Moalboal, and also found the area a great place to relax between dives, especially enjoying the great range of restaurants in the area. We didn’t see any sharks while diving Moalboal, but did hear that reef sharks, thresher sharks and even whale sharks are seen in the area. But our final adventure in Cebu gave us a chance to see the biggest fish in the sea at nearby Oslob.
OSLOB – WHERE THE BIG FISH FEED
Oslob, a small community on the south east coast of Cebu, is a scenic two hour drive from Moalboal. We had wanted to visit this spot for the last two years, ever since we heard that the locals were hand feeding whale sharks, and not just one or two, but dozens!
Whale sharks are very common in this area of the Bohol Sea and were traditionally hunted for their flesh. When the numbers of these giant sharks declined they were protected in the Philippines in 1998, but not before thousands were killed in the area. Attracted to the area around Oslob by a thick plankton soup of brine shrimp, the local fishermen would regularly find themselves competing with the whale sharks for these shrimps. To lure the whale sharks away from their fishing grounds they started to feed them. The local dive operators saw this and started to take divers in with the sharks; word quickly spread and thousands of tourists descended on Oslob.
It was complete chaos, we were informed by Hermann Pauli from Savedra Dive Centre, when he first visited Oslob. People were touching the sharks, even riding them, and there were boats charging through the area, making it unsafe for divers and the sharks. Hermann, along with the other dive operators in Moalboal, helped to implement regulations for the feeding and the tourists, which were later put into law by the local government. For a year Hermann took groups to dive with the whale sharks, but then stopped for ethical reasons, realising that the feeding was interfering with the whale sharks natural migration patterns (whale sharks use to be seen three or four times a month off Moalboal, but since the feeding started encounters have become rare). Hermann accompanied us on a special trip to Oslob so he could see what was happening there now and if they should take groups again.
Arriving at Tan-awan, the village where the feeding happens, we signed up for our 45 minute dive (you can also do a 30 minute snorkel, which would have been just as good, but we thought being on scuba would give us more freedom to take photos). We were then briefed on the regulations – no touching, no flash photography and stay 4m away from the sharks. The day we visiting was overcast and midweek, but there were still dozens of tourists there, a good thing we hadn’t arrived on a weekend as hundreds, and sometimes thousands, line up to swim with the sharks.
We entered the water from the shore for one of the most surreal and exhilarating dives we have ever done. After swimming only a few minutes we saw our first whale shark, a 5m juvenile just gliding by. Seconds later we were surrounded by eight whale sharks in only 7m of water – an unforgettable sight!
All around us were whale sharks, either swimming or feeding, most with their heads up and tail down gobbling food from the feeders. Keeping 4m away from the sharks proved to be impossible as the sharks are constantly on the move, depending on which feeder was providing the most food. All the sharks appeared to be healthy and mostly immature males, with the largest shark about 7m long. A couple of them had scraps on their fins, but apart from that they seemed fine, and obviously go elsewhere for a proper feed, as the handfuls of shrimps they get here could hardly sustain them. We were very happy to see that everyone was following the regulations, apart from the feeders themselves that would touch the sharks with their feet.
Aside from the ethical issue of feeding the sharks, this seemed to be a well-run experience and easily the best and safest whale shark encounter we had ever enjoyed, much easier than jumping off a boat and snorkelling like mad to see the shark, with people either kicking you or climbing over you to get there first, only to have the shark dive deep to escape the horde charging towards it.
Also in the water that day were researchers from the group Physalus that have been studying the whale sharks almost from the start. They informed us that 16 different whale sharks had visited the feeding site that day, but they would also like to see the feeding stopped and a more eco-friendly experience take place at Oslob. They have concerns that the feeding is disrupting the natural migrations of the sharks and that the sharks will learn to associate boats with food, leading to boat strikes or fisherman killing them in other areas. While the people of Oslob argue that the whale shark feeding brings in valuable tourist dollars and that the sharks are free to come and go as they please. There are pros and cons on both sides of the argument, but at the end of the day it is far better to see these sharks being fed than being killed for their meat and fins!
We had an incredible two weeks diving around Cebu, seeing many amazing marine animals both big and small, and would recommended this diverse destination to any diver.
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 Air. Transfers to Malapascua and Moalboal can be organised by the dive operator.
There is a wide range of accommodation available at both destinations to suit every budget. We stayed at Tepanee Beach Resort on Malapascua and at Love’s Beach and Dive Resort at Moalboal.
Thresher Shark Divers
Cebu Fun Divers
When to Go
Year-round. Water temperatures range from 26-29°C,
and the climate is driest and warmest from November to May.
Peso (1AUD = 35PHP)
Cebu is malaria-free. Deco chamber in Cebu City.
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