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
On November 8 we switched on the television in the morning to discover that the typhoon had made landfall at Samar and Leyte, and was due to hit northern Cebu next. It was the most power storm ever recorded to make landfall, with winds up to 300 kmph, and had a front over 1000km wide, covering almost the entire nation. We were bunkered down in our hotel, and even with large cracks in the wall from a recent earthquake we felt pretty secure.
By mid-morning Cebu City was getting hit by strong winds and driving rain. The power soon cut off, the hotel had a generator, but no television signal and very poor internet reception. We just watched the storm from our hotel window, observing the fierce winds shred trees and demolish the pergola roof on a nearby building. It went on for hours. By late afternoon the typhoon had passed Cebu City and everyone was out cleaning up. We later learnt that the eye passed around 80km north of us, almost right over Malapascua Island.
We still had ten days in the Philippines, but didn’t know if we should head home or continue the holiday. From the snippets of news that we got off the internet it didn’t sound too bad at first, but it was hard to confirm what areas were affected. We were booked to dive Moalboal, 80km south, for the next six days, but thought it may have been damaged. But an email from Cebu Fun Divers informed us that they were barely affected by the typhoon and would pick us up the next day.
The next morning we woke to blue skies and no wind. Apart from streets littered with branches and leaves, and the odd bit of structural damage, you wouldn’t have known that a super typhoon had just passed. Arriving at Moalboal we checked into Love’s Beach and Dive Resort, where Cebu Fun Divers are based, to find calm blue seas lapping the front of the resort. They had cancelled the afternoon dive the previous day, but it was back to business already.
We had a lovely time diving at Moalboal, which offers incredible wall dives along the Copton Peninsula and nearby Pescador Island. Brilliant corals decorated these walls, which are cruised by pelagic fish and often swarming with immense schools of sardines. Turtles are a feature here, and we saw them on every dive, but like many spots in the Philippines it was the critters that are the real highlight. We saw ghost pipefish, sea snakes, sea horses, frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, razorfish, pipefish, sea moths, moray eels and a great assortment of nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs. The water clarity on the first two days was a bit stirred up from the rough seas, but soon cleared to 20m visibility. A little broken coral was evident, but it was mainly the hard corals in the shallows that quickly regrow.
Our favourite dive here was the only non-wall dive we did at Moalboal Bay. Only 6m deep, this sand bay is a world class muck diving site. We entered the water at twilight, to find pipefish and flounders, but not much else, then it got dark and the critters emerged from the sand. Over the next hour we found a huge variety of shrimps and crabs, plus snake eels, ghost pipefish, brittle stars, sea pens, anemones, an usual dog-faced water snake, a demon stinger and a stargazer.
As the days passed we were stunned by the news that up to 10,000 people may have been killed by the typhoon and that Tacloban had been virtually flattened. We also started to get news from TSD about the damage to Malapascua Island. We were greatly relieved to hear that no one had been killed or seriously injured, but the photos posted on their Facebook page showed a scene of devastation – buildings demolished, roofs missing, trees uprooted and rubbish everywhere. TSD, like all the resorts and dive operators on Malapascua, employ a large number of local staff, including their incredible dive guides, and many of these had lost their homes. With the Philippine Government slow to act and overwhelmed by the disaster, TSD and the other dive operators swung into action bringing food, medicine and supplies to the island.
Media reports back home had everyone thinking the entire Philippines had been wiped out – we had to keep posting updates on Facebook just to reassure people that we were fine, it was sunny and that the great majority of the country was unaffected by the super typhoon. Some of our friends wondered why we didn’t come home, but as our dive guides at Moalboal told us, why would you go home, we need your money spent here more than ever.
A few days later we experienced another typhoon warning, which gave us more of an idea what a normal typhoon is like in this part of the Philippines. We had planned to dive with the whale sharks at Oslob, about a two hour drive from Moalboal, on the day this typhoon was due to hit. We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to go, but were told not to worry.
The scenic drive around the southern coast line of Cebu was very pleasant, if a little wet and windy, but the seas were still flat. All the inter-island ferries had been cancelled as a precaution, and after diving the Dona Marilyn we could understand why, even though there was barely a ripple on the sea.
We arrived at Oslob to find sunny skies and no sign of a typhoon, so signed up for our whale shark dive. We had seen whale sharks in other parts of the Philippines, but we knew the experience at Oslob was going to be completely different, as they are fed here, which has caused quite a bit of controversy. The local fishermen began hand feeding these giant sharks two years ago, much to the concern of scientist and conservationist, and it is now a major tourist attraction.
We were briefed before entering the water on the rules and regulations – no touching, no flash photography and keep 3maway from the sharks. You can snorkel or scuba with the sharks, we decided on scuba thinking it would be easier for photography, but the experience would have been just as good on snorkel.
Having eight whale sharks cruising around you in 8m of water was just the most amazing experience. Most had their head up and tail down, gobbling down mouthfuls of tiny shrimp fed to them by local fishermen, who now work as whale shark wranglers, from their canoes. It was good to see no one touching the sharks, even though it was hard to keep your distance at times with sharks all around you. Also in the water with us were researchers from the group Physalus that are studying the sharks and the impact the feeding and tourists are having. They would like the feeding to stop and a more natural eco-friend encounter to take place as in other areas of the Philippines. They also have concerns that the sharks will associate boats with food, leading to boat strikes or fisherman killing them, and also that the feeding is disrupting their normal migration and feeding habits. It will be interesting to see if the government allows it to continue or even if it spreads to other areas, but at the moment it is one of the most surreal and unforgettable diving experiences on the planet.
The whale sharks of Oslob topped off an incredible two weeks around Cebu. By the time we left the Philippines we had heard the good news that TSD and Tepanee Beach Resort had reopened, plus reports that the local reefs had suffered little damage and the thresher sharks were still coming each morning for their daily clean.
If you have booked a holiday to the Philippines GO. If you are planned a holiday to the Philippines GO. They need tourists and divers to inject money into the economy now. You will not regret the decision as you will help to rebuild this island nation and enjoy some incredible diving at the same time. And should you visit during typhoon season? Well that’s up to you to decide, but it wouldn’t stop us.
The latest news from Malapascua is that most of the dive operators and dive resorts will be reopened by Christmas 2013. As Andrea Agarwal, the owner of TSD reported - initially it appeared everything was in ruins, but once the debris had been cleared it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Teams of builders, working 24 hours a day, quickly had roofs repaired. While the rebuild will continue over the next few months the best thing divers can do, apart from donating money to on the ground charities, is to visit Malapascua Island and experience its wonderful diving.
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