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DUMAGUETE – FROGFISH CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

There is something about frogfish that makes them irresistible as a photographic subject. It might be the way they walk on their hand-like fins, or the fascinating way they flick their lures to attract prey, or it may be because they look like a child’s cute soft toy. Either way they are one of our favourite camera subjects and we can never go passed one without taking dozens of images.

 

We have been fortunate to encounter many species of frogfish at a diverse range of dive destinations throughout the Indo-Pacific region, but recently dived an area overloaded with these delightful creatures. A wonderful location that claims to be the frogfish capital of the world – Dumaguete in the Philippines.

 

Located on the island of Negros, Dumaguete has always been popular as a reef diving destination, with the coral reefs at nearby Apo Island a major attraction. However, in recent years, with the discovery of amazing muck sites along the coast south of Dumaguete, the area has also attracted divers looking for weird and wonderful critters. This has made the area perfect for those that want a great dive holiday combo of reef and muck diving, and also means a wonderful range of subjects for underwater photographers.

 

There are numerous dive resorts at Dumaguete, most located around the town of Dauin, and for our stay we booked a week at one of the newer resorts in the area, Liquid Dumaguete. This wonderful resort has all the standard features, a pool, bar, restaurant and comfortable rooms. It also has a great dive centre offering daily boat and shore dives, and being a PADI 5 Star IDC Dive Resort, it is also a popular spot for people learning to dive or continuing their diver education.

 

After a morning flight from Manila and only a 30 minute drive to the resort, we quickly settled in our spacious room, setup our camera gear and were ready to dive. With a love of muck diving, and working on a book on the subject, we requested a few of the local muck sites to start our Dumaguete experience. Our first site was only five minutes from Liquid Dumaguete by boat, a lovely site called Bulak. The sloping sand at this site was a great place to observe and photograph garden eels, shrimp gobies, nudibranchs, anemones, razorfish and harlequin crabs. And with 20m visibility and 29°C water, it was a great introduction to Dumaguete diving. No frogfish unfortunately, but our guide Rocky said we were visiting in the frogfish low season (November) and during the peak season (March to May) dozens are seen on most dives. He said we would still see plenty of frogfish, and he wasn’t wrong.

 

In the afternoon we dived another interesting muck site called Poblacion, which also had pretty coral gardens. Here we photographed ghost pipefish, mantis shrimps, moray eels and even a turtle, but still no frogfish. Next up was San Miguel, and Rocky assured us we would see frogfish. The sandy slope at this classic muck site was occupied by cuttlefish, snake eels, waspfish, dragonets and sand divers.

 

We were beginning to think we wouldn’t see any frogfish until Rocky pointed out a tiny orange spot on the sand. At first we thought this orange spot was just a piece of sponge, but getting very close we could see a tiny eye and hand-like fins. It was a minute painted frogfish, barely 4mm long!

 

Rocky then proceeded to pointed out several other tiny spots over the next half hour, a collection of miniscule hairy and painted frogfish that varied in size from 2mm to 10mm. These were the smallest frogfish we had ever seen, and very difficult to photograph with a 60mm lens. After the dive Rocky promised we would see plenty of larger frogfish in the coming days.

 

Frogfish were far from our minds the next day as we joined Liquid Dumaguete for a day trip to Apo Island. Expecting clear water and pretty corals we got out the wide angle lens to explore this wonderful marine reserve. It takes around an hour to travel to Apo Island, so the trip includes three dives and lunch.

 

Our first dive set the tone for some spectacular reef dives, jumping into the water at the northern end of the island at a site called Coconut Point. This site often gets washed by strong currents, so has rich corals and a multitude of fish. There was only a gentle current for our drift dive, but still no shortage of marine life.

 

Drifting around the coral canyons and coral gardens we saw large barrel sponges, beautiful gorgonians and feather stars everywhere. But the highlights were the prolific fish and numerous reptiles. Coconut Point has a healthy population of reef fish, including triggerfish, gropers, snappers, fusiliers and angelfish. We also saw schools of batfish, bigeye trevally and quite a few large mackerel. However, a special treat were several green and hawksbill turtles, and a good population of sea snakes. Swimming amongst the coral and fish we encountered several common banded sea kraits, but also saw four larger and rarer black-banded sea kraits. These serpents kept our cameras busy.

 

On the other two dives at Apo Island we explored coral walls, caves and coral gardens at Chapel and Katipanan. While these sites didn’t have the fabulous fish life of Coconut Point, they had lovely hard corals and an abundance of green turtles. At both sites we saw turtles resting, swimming and feeding. We also had fun photographing the resident giant frogfish at Chapel.

 

We may not have visited Dumaguete in the right season for frogfish, but we had timed our visit perfectly to explore a brilliant muck site called Bonnet’s Corner. The dive crew had mentioned this muck site to us upon arrival, informing us it was “going off with cephalopods”. On our third day we finally got to see what the fuss was all about.

 

Bonnet’s Corner is a sandy rubble slope, and located on a point is often swept by currents. Within a minute of descending Rocky was showing us a wonderful wonderpus, this was quickly followed by a mantis shrimp, a dwarf lionfish, a baby painted frogfish and then we were very surprised to see a Mototi octopus. Closely related to the blue-ringed octopus this was only the second time we had seen one of these rare cephalopods. From there it just got better and better. Coconut octopus, snake eels, pipefish, cockatoo waspfish, garden eels, cowfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, box crabs, razorfish and many other species. But the biggest surprise was seeing three more Mototi octopus, including a pair that looked like they were involved in a courtship ritual. To say this site was going off was an understatement, it was more on steroids!

 

We managed to dive this site three more times, and each time it seemed to get better and better. On each dive we photographed a great collection of cephalopods, including courting flamboyant cuttlefish, meandering coconut octopus, plus several greater blue-ringed octopus, a group of pharaoh’s cuttlefish, another wonderpus and numerous small stumpy spined cuttlefish. The Mototi octopus were there on every dive, but we also encountered a number of rare algae octopus. This site must rate as the best cephalopod dive site in the world! However, the dive crew from Liquid Dumaguete did inform us that octopus and cuttlefish are only seen in large numbers from October to December, which is possibly the breeding season from the mating behaviour we witnessed.

 

While Bonnet’s Corner was the highlight of the trip, every muck site we explored at Dumaguete had something special and a good population of frogfish as promised. At Sahara we explored two different areas of this large site, which also has corals and artificial reefs. At Sahara Shallow we photographed harlequin ghost pipefish, thorny seahorses, snake eels and a painted frogfish. While at Sahara Deep we watched the antics of a family of convict blennies, a strange eel-like blenny that sucks the skin of its young to receive nourishment. This site also had a resident painted frogfish.

 

On the coral and sand at Masaplod North our cameras focused on a xeno crab, candy crabs, leaf scorpionfish and a baby seahorse on a sea pen. This site was also home to a lovely orange painted frogfish and a pretty warty frogfish. We have often waited for ten minutes or more to capture the moment when a frogfish yawns, and more often than not ended up disappointed. But we got very lucky at Masaplod North when the warty frogfish yawned as soon as we started taking images. After dark San Miguel really put on a show with coconut octopus, bigfin reef squid, snake eels, nudibranchs and bobtail squid. However the biggest surprise on this night dive was when we found a rare freckled frogfish.

 

At Pyramids we photographed a giant frogfish, as well as a rhino shrimp, several moray eels, Pegasus sea moths and many nudibranchs. We also saw several giant frogfish at Ginamaan Point, plus mantis shrimps, cowries, snake eels and octopus.

 

To balance out the muck diving we also did a return trip to Apo Island. We couldn’t miss a chance to dive Coconut Point again, and it was just as good the second time around. We then explored a very unusual sandy slope at Largahan. Swimming over the grey sand we saw a few bentstick pipefish, garden eels and panda anemonefish, but the most interesting aspect of this site was the volcanic bubbles trickling through the sand. Our final dive at Apo Island found us exploring the pretty coral gardens at Rock Point West. Here we saw trevally, mackerel and a host of reef fish, but a hawksbill turtle munching on the coral stole the show.

 

We had a wonderful week at Dumaguete, exploring a great combination of muck and reef sites and photographed many wonderful critters. And even visiting in the frogfish off season, we saw and photographed more frogfish at Dumaguete than we have seen at any other dive destination.

 

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