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By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose


Most dive destinations have a good and bad time to visit, but even visiting in the middle of a typhoon need not curtail your diving in the Philippines, as Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose recently discovered.


Planning your dive holiday around the best time to visit a location is usually sound advice, but from our experience not always the case. There are plenty of destinations where it is wise to follow these recommendations as it is either too rough, too murky, nothing to see or the dive shops shut up in the off season. But there are other locations that you have to take pot luck going out of season (and sometimes in season). You would think one of these would be the Philippines during typhoon season, especially after the recent devastating super typhoon, but in fact most typhoons generally have little impact on this island nation or the diving.


We arrived in the Philippines on the first of November, at the tail end of typhoon season, which official runs from June to November. Numerous typhoons (around 19 on average) form around the Philippines each year, but only a handful of these make landfall and mostly in the north. The southern islands of the nation are rarely affected by typhoons, where most of the dive destinations are located. The only spot that isn’t dived in typhoon season are the Tabbataha Reefs, which can only be reached by liveaboard.


Our holiday plan was to dive the main locations around the island of Cebu; Moalboal in the south and Malapascua in the north, where we were booked for the first week. Malapascua Island is located at the top end of Cebu, about three hours’ drive by car and then 30 minutes by boat. We arrived on the island to perfect conditions – flat seas, blue skies and no wind – so much for the typhoon season or even the wet season. We were booked to dive with Thresher Shark Divers (TSD), and were staying at one of the newest resorts on the island, Tepanee Beach Resort, and both proved to be a very good choice. We had wanted to visit Malapascua Island for years, ever since we first heard about the thresher sharks here, but had also heard reports of lovely reefs, great critters and some good wreck dives.


Malapascua Island is unlike any other dive destination in the world, as everyone is up and about at 4.30am, every day, for the sunrise dive. These early rises can be a bit of a shock to the system for those who enjoy a sleep in on holiday, but if you don’t rise early you will miss one of the best shark dives in the world.


Boarding the dive boat at 5am we headed 30 minutes east towards Leyte where the first beams of sunlight were struggling to peek over the rugged mountain ranges. Jumping into the dark waters we were very happy to discover the visibility was at least 30m as we descended to the top of the famous Monad Shoal, a sea mount rising from 300m to 12m. Once settled on the top of the bare rock we looked down the sloping rubble reef before us, praying that a thresher shark would appear. Our prays were quickly answered as after only a minute a large shape materialised from the depths, a 3.5m long pelagic thresher shark.


This shark was an impressive site, with its huge eyes (evidence of its deep dark water preference), small mouth and elongated tail, more than half the sharks’ total length. It was here to get its early morning clean, serviced by a team of cleaner wrasse. The thresher paraded in front of us for a few minutes before it was joined by two others of the same length. By the end of our fifty minute dive we had seen half a dozen sharks, plus pelagic fish and two pygmy devil rays.


Each morning we did the sunrise dive it was different. Some days the sharks would come in very close, to check out the bubble bowing alien visitors, other times they were shy and stayed on the edge of the visibility. We even had one swim around the mooring line with us and saw one do a spectacular breech! This is one incredible dive experience that appears to have gotten better and better over the years with the good management of the dive operators on Malapascua. More sharks are now seen than ever before, due to nightly patrols to stop fisherman targeting them.


If we had come to Malapascua just for the thresher sharks we could have left very satisfied after the first day, but the sunrise dive is just the start of a very long day on this island. Each day TSD do a morning and afternoon dive on the local sites around the island or a two tank day trip to nearby sites – all were wonderful.


The local dive sites vary in depth from 6 to 30m and feature pretty hard and soft corals, abundant reef fish, not a lot of large fish, but some incredible critters for those that like the small stuff. The local dive guides proved invaluable for finding this small stuff and treated us to Coleman shrimps, zebra crabs, nudibranchs, pipefish, porcelain crabs, orang-utan crabs, mushroom coral pipefish, cuttlefish and many other species.


The day trips were just as good. At Calanggaman Island we explored a sheer wall festooned with gorgonians, sea whips, sponges and black corals trees. Pelagic fish were more common here, including barracuda and trevally, but the highlight was again the critters, including ghost pipefish, blue-ringed octopus and pygmy sea horses.


Gato Island proved to be a favourite. This small island is surrounded by pretty corals and even has a 30m long cave that cuts right through the island. We missed the resident white-tip reef sharks, but did see some wonderful nudibranchs, sea snakes, pipefish, cuttlefish and quite a few sea horses.


If you still have any energy left TSD also do a daily sunset dive to Lighthouse Reef to watch the mating dance of the tiny mandarinfish. These fish were a joy to watch, but not the highlight as this site is home to dozens of delicate sea horses.


During our stay we experienced the odd shower and storm, but calm conditions and blue skies quickly returned, so we were quite surprised to learn from Dino, the operations manager of TSD, that Super Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) was heading our way. We got daily updates, expecting to hear news that it had swung north or dropped in strength, but it didn’t and the projected path would bring it right over Malapascua. Dino also informed us that the island had been hit the same time the year before, for the first time in years, resulting in several boats being sunk or washed up onto the beach, but added that they we back in business in a few days. However, he was a lot more concerned about this typhoon, as it was bigger and more powerful.


We had a reminder of the power of typhoons when we dived the Dona Marilyn shipwreck north of Malapascua. This 100m long ferry sank in 1988 after getting caught in a typhoon, with the loss of 389 people. Though born of a terrible tragedy, this wreck is now a very colourful artificial reef. The ship rests on its side in 33m and is covered in corals and fish and makes for a fascinating dive.


Our week at Malapascua Island over, we left the morning before the typhoon was due. Preparations were underway; boats were beached or moved into the creek, trees were trimmed and everything was being tied down. All tourists were advised to leave, but some decided to stick it out. We said our goodbyes and wished everyone the best, not knowing what was going to happen on the island, and then headed across choppy seas to the mainland and back to Cebu City for two nights. We had hoped to tour the historic sites around the city, but by the time we arrived the rain and wind had already started.


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.


Malapascua Update

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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