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
DUMAGUETE – A MUCK DIVING MECCA
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
We have seen some weird fish while exploring muck sites, but we had never encountered anything as strange as a family of convict blennies. At first we thought we had stumbled a across a school of common striped catfish, but getting closer we could see these black and white striped fish were shaped differently and were also swimming in and out of a hole in the sand. Moving closer still, we were even more surprised when a large eel-like fish emerged from the same hole, and proceeded to spit out a mouthful of sand.
We could see the fish were related, the small fish obviously juveniles, but at the time we didn’t know what they were. Enthralled by these strange fish, and their strange behaviour, we continued to watch the juveniles swarming in and out of the hole and the adult emerging every minute with a new mouthful of sand. It was only later, speaking to a local marine biologist that we learnt it was a family of rare convict blennies, and also discovered just how bizarre these fish really are. It appears the adult convict blenny never leaves the hole and spends most of its time maintain the home, while the juveniles roam the nearby area feeding on plankton. The juveniles regularly return to the hole and it appears the adults receive nourishment by sucking slime off the juveniles! This wonderful encounter with a bizarre family of convict blennies was only one of the highlights we had in a brilliant week of diving Dumaguete, a muck diving mecca in the Philippines.
Dumaguete is located at the southern end of the island of Negros and has established a reputation over the last decade for having some of the best diving in the Philippines. Located offshore from Dumaguete are two islands surrounded by rich coral gardens, but just south of the city divers will also find some of the best muck diving in the country. For the diver wanting to explore this wonderful area there are numerous dive resorts to choose from, and for our week long stay we selected one of the newest resorts in the area, Liquid Dumaguete.
A PADI 5 Star IDC Resort, Liquid Dumaguete has comfortable rooms, a restaurant, bar, pool and wonderful dive centre. A popular resort for dive training, it seemed that half of the guests were doing dive courses from open water to instructor. We were only there to pleasure dive, and each day we explored some of the fabulous dive sites in the area.
For our first day of diving we explored muck sites close to the resort, the first at Bulak only five minutes away. Many people think of muck diving being in murky water and just exploring sand, but at most good muck sites the water is quite clear and there can also be patches of corals to see. This was very true of the muck diving at Dumaguete, as we generally enjoyed 15m visibility and most sites had a good mix of sand and coral.
Exploring the sandy slope at Bulak to 22m we saw garden eels, morays, razorfish, shrimp gobies, nudibranchs, dragonets, pipefish and spider crabs. But a highlight of this dive was when our wonderful guide Rocky pointed out a rare Donald Duck shrimp, only the second time we had seen this species. We followed this up with a lovely dive at Poblacion. This site has a number of artificial reefs, made from concrete blocks, and exploring the site we saw two harlequin ghost pipefish, mantis shrimps, jawfish, sea pens and a green turtle. We later returned for a brilliant night dive at this site, seeing numerous shrimps, crabs, basket stars, cowries, squid, cuttlefish, pipefish, fire worms and a lovely painted frogfish.
We had heard that Dumaguete claims to be the frogfish capital of the world, and is the only place where you can do a frogfish speciality course. The dive staff from Liquid Dumaguete informed us that we were visiting outside peak frogfish season (March to May), but even in November we still saw plenty of these cute fish, especially at a site called San Miguel. This wonderful muck site is packed full of critters, and exploring the sand we saw razorfish, cuttlefish, snake eels, mantis shrimps, ghost pipefish, cockatoo waspfish, dragonets, lionfish and scorpionfish. But the highlight of the dive was seeing four baby frogfish. These tiny fish varied in length from 3mm to 1cm, and we were amazed that Rocky could find them. This site proved to be even better at night, with many critters emerging from the sand. We saw squid, cuttlefish, bobtail squid, bottletail squid, octopus, crabs, shrimps, snake eels, jawfish and even a rare freckled frogfish.
Sahara was another wonderful muck site we explored over two dives. This sandy slope is dotted with artificial reefs, including small boats and crates of bottles. On the first dive we headed north to see moray eels, garden eels, snake eels, ghost pipefish, mantis shrimps and a thorny seahorse. But on the second dive we headed south, finding more reef and more artificial reefs. This part of the reef was loaded with fish life; gropers, schools of snappers, barracuda, morays, cardinalfish, anemonefish and a painted frogfish. But the highlight of this dive was encountering the strange family of convict blennies described in the introduction.
Masaplod was another site we dived twice, again exploring different areas. Heading north on the first dive we explored a good mix of sand and reef. A painted and warty frogfish may have been the highlight, but we also saw thorny seahorses, leaf scorpionfish, mantis shrimps, xeno crabs, candy crabs, sleeper gobies and a number of boxfish. On the second dive we headed south, finding a sandy slope and patchy reef. Here we found four Pegasus sea moths, a zebra moray, demon ghouls and a pretty spindle cowry.
At Cars we explored a sandy slope to see ghost pipefish, seahorses, nudibranchs and a crocodile snake eel. While at Pyramids we saw giant frogfish, moray eels, a rhino shrimp and a pair of wrasse locked jaw-to-jaw in an intense fight. Ginamaan Point was another brilliant muck site where we encountered giant frogfish, painted frogfish, cuttlefish, octopus, stingrays and snake eels.
As wonderful as all these muck sites were, the best was a site called Bonnet’s Corner. This sand and rubble site is a true muck dive, with no coral at all. It is also swept by currents, but is one of the best muck sites we have explored anywhere. We started with a bang at this site, seeing a wonderpus barely a minute after descending, and then saw thousands of garden eels, painted frogfish, lionfish, Napoleon snake eels, mantis shrimps, cockatoo waspfish, lionfish, box crabs, boxfish, sand divers, razorfish, pipefish and nudibranchs. But the main feature of this muck site proved to be the cephalopods, with cuttlefish and octopus everywhere.
Over four dives at Bonnet’s Corner we saw more cuttlefish and octopus than we have seen at any other muck site. Coconut octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, greater blue-ringed octopus and stumpy spined cuttlefish were everywhere. However, we also saw rare species like Mototi octopus and algae octopus in surprising numbers. The dive staff at Liquid Dumaguete informed us that the site only goes crazy with cephalopods from October to December, but is still a good muck site at any time. While exploring this site we witness a lot of cephalopod mating behaviour going on, and even saw flamboyant cuttlefish eggs, so suspect the cuttlefish and octopus gather at this site for reproduction.
While the muck diving at Dumaguete was superb, we also enjoyed two day trips to nearby Apo Island for some glorious reef diving. This island is surrounded by pretty coral gardens, and being an hour long boat trip from the resort, it is a full day adventure with three dives and lunch. Every site we dived around Apo Island was home to turtles. We encountered both green and hawksbill turtles resting on the corals, drifting with the currents and also feeding in the shallows. On Apo Island’s reefs we also saw moray eels, frogfish, batfish, garden eels, trevally, barracuda, sea snakes and a good variety of reef fish.
Our week exploring the muck sites of Dumaguete ended all too quickly, but we left knowing that we would return to explore more of this muck diving mecca.
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