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
ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL AT MOALBOAL
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
The Philippines is a great dive destination to see a wide range of species both great and small, and on a recent trip to Moalboal we saw it all, from tiny pygmy sea horses to massive whale sharks – who could ask for more on a dive holiday.
Moalboal is located on the south west coast of Cebu and has been a popular dive destination for decades. Numerous dive shops and resorts are found here lining the shore at Panagsama Beach, along the Copton Peninsula. Your choice of dive operators and accommodation is endless, but we selected Cebu Fun Divers and Love’s Beach and Dive Resort, which proved to be a great choice as they are located at the quieter southern end of the strip and provided great service.
Cebu Fun Divers operate daily boat dives to the best dive sites in the area, most of which are no more than ten minutes away and most are located right in front of the resorts. However, their own House Reef was a great introduction to the diving at Moalboal and is located only 30m from the dive shop, as fringing the Copton Peninsula is a lovely coral reef and wall that drops to 40m.
We started our dive on the reef top, where extensive coral gardens are found in 3 to 6m. This coral garden is popular with snorkelers as it is packed with hard corals and a multitude of reef fish. One thing that quickly surprised us was the number of pipefish, they were everywhere and we must have seen hundreds on each dive. Reaching the reef edge we descended the wall to 25m to find it covered in black corals, gorgonians, sponges, soft corals and sea whips. The visibility was a little stirred up on this afternoon dive, only 12m, but most days we enjoyed visibility of 20m or more.
As we slowly drifted along the wall our guide Cayo pointed out an amazing variety of critters – orang-utan crabs, nudibranchs, scorpionfish, commensal shrimps and numerous razorfish. There was also no shortage of reef fish, the more common being angelfish, butterflyfish, lionfish, anemonefish and huge schools of basslets. But the highlight of this first dive was a giant anglerfish, one of our favourite fish.
Over the next few days we explored wall after wall along the Copton Peninsula, and while each had lovely corals they all seem to have their own special critters. At White Beach we saw banded sea snakes, moray eels and mantis shrimps, while at Panagsama it was leaf scorpionfish, pygmy sea horses and ghost pipefish, and at Kasai Point we saw numerous orang-utan crabs and a lovely red painted anglerfish.
On almost every dive along this wall we saw green turtles, and they appeared to be so use to seeing divers that you could easily approach them for photos. Each of these turtles also had a gang of remoras stuck to its shell, their regular hosts sadly missing from the area, sharks. Also cruising this wall were numerous pelagic fish like trevally, mackerel and rainbow runners. But this wall is also visited by sardines, millions of them. This immense school of sardines comes and goes, but we were lucky enough to be engulfed by them on our last day. Truly an amazing sight.
There are no wreck dives at Moalboal, apart from the scuttled plane found at Copton Point. This plane was fun to explore, but the sandy plateau it rests on is also a great critter spot, so we spent most of the dive photographing garden eels, nudibranchs, shrimp gobies, sea pens, ghost pipefish and four Pegasus sea moths.
Night dives are popular right along this wall and we did a wonderful dive on the House Reef, seeing Mandarinfish and other critters. But the best night dive was at nearby Moalboal Bay. This sandy bay is only 6m deep and at first glance appears quite barren, but just wait until it gets dark, then the critters emerge. We saw snake eels, sand crabs, box crabs, shrimps, decorator crabs, numerous molluscs and also a stargazer. This site also offered moray eels, ghost pipefish, demon stingers, pipefish, sea snakes and a sea horse.
Only a few kilometres of the coast of Moalboal is Pescador Island, a tiny island surrounded by walls that drop to 50m. We had a lovely dive drifting around the island, admiring its wonderful corals and abundant fish. We also found numerous caves and ledges and encountered a massive school of trevally.
If you can drag yourself away from all the small creatures of Moalboal a day trip to Oslob is well worth your time, as the critters seen here are slightly larger – whale sharks. Located two hours away on a scenic drive around the southern coast of Cebu, Oslob is the hottest whale shark experience on the planet. Not all the dive operators at Moalboal visit Oslob, as it is quite a controversial location, but Cebu Fun Divers organised a special trip for us so we could report on the situation there (and assess whether they should start taking divers there again).
In September 2011 the local fisherman, who regularly encounter whale sharks in the area as they both compete for brine shrimp, started to feed the whale sharks to lure them away from their fishing grounds. Divers and tourists quickly followed once word got out, and the situation quickly got out of hand. Even though regulations are now in place to control the feeders and tourists, the feeding is not popular with scientists, conservations and many of the dive operators in Moalboal.
After signing up and briefed on the regulations we entered the water for one of the most bizarre shore dives we had ever done. You can either snorkel or scuba with the sharks, we decided on scuba thinking it would allow more scope for photography, but snorkelling would have been easier. The feeder boats were located only 80m offshore, and after only a few minutes underwater we found ourselves surrounded by eight whale sharks in only 7m of water.
The sharks were constantly on the move, swimming from boat to boat, depending on where the food (brine shrimp) was, so you had to be vigilant to avoid being rammed or flicked with a tail. All the sharks were around 6 to 8m long, and spent most of the time with their heads at the surface gobbling shrimps. It was easily the most amazing whale shark experience that we have had, but we can see why people object to the feeding.
Calls to stop the feeding are led by researchers from the group Physalus that have been studying the sharks almost since the beginning. They have many concerns, and would like to see a more natural eco-friendly encounter take place at Oslob. Their main concerns are that the feeding is disrupting the natural migration of the sharks and that they will associate boats with food, leading to boat strikes or the sharks being killed by fisherman elsewhere. While the local government and the whale shark feeders argue that the whale sharks are bringing in much needed money into the community and that they are free to come and go as they please. All we can say is that it is an amazing experience to see so many whale sharks in such clear calm water and it appears to be well run.
Our Oslob whale shark experience top off a wonderful week at Moalboal, a place of creatures great and small!
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