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A TALE OF TWO MUCK SITES

By Nigel Marsh

 

I first got hooked on muck diving over thirty years, long before the word came into general usage in the dive community. My muck diving adventures have taken me throughout the Indo-Pacific region to explore a wide variety of muck habitats in both tropical and temperate waters and allowed me to see some amazing muck critters. But just when I thought I had seen it all I dived two extraordinary muck sites in the Philippines. This is a tale of two muck sites.

 

I fell in love with the Philippines on my first trip to this island nation a decade ago and have since been back three times. On each visit my wife, Helen, and I descend on a new area of the country to dive new dive sites, but on the most recent trip we decided to explore one new destination and return to an old favourite. The new destination was Dumaguete, and the old Sogod Bay. Both destinations have wonderful coral reefs, but more importantly to me, some great muck diving.

 

Over the last two years I have been working on a guide book to muck diving, and this trip was to be the final muck adventure before the book went to print. I had high hopes of exploring some great muck sites and also seeing a few muck critters that I hadn’t seen before.

 

CEPHALOPOD CITY

Dumaguete is located at the southern end of Negros and in recent years has become one of the most popular diving destinations in the country. For our week at Dumaguete we stayed at the wonderful Liquid Dumaguete, one of the newest resorts in the area and a PADI 5 Star IDC Dive Resort. Over the first few days we enjoyed dives at Apo Island, exploring the lovely coral reefs around this offshore island and seeing abundant fish, turtles and numerous sea snakes. We also experienced some of the great local muck sites along the coast near the town of Dauin. These sites are home to an excellent range of critters, especially frogfish.

 

Dumaguete has a reputation as the frogfish capital of the world, and we weren’t disappointed by the numbers and variety we saw. However, visiting in November the dive crew from Liquid Dumaguete informed us that frogfish numbers are greatest between March and May, when dozens are seen on every dive.

 

We may have miss-timed the frogfish season, even though we saw plenty, but the staff at Liquid Dumaguete told us it was the perfect time to visit one of their best muck sites, Bonnet’s Corner. I hadn’t heard of this muck site in my book research and wondered how it had escaped my attention (I later learnt that the site is also called Punta, a site I had heard of). The staff insisted the site was ‘going off with cuttlefish and octopus everywhere’. With a great love of cephalopods, we were easily sold.

 

On day three we finally got a chance to dive Bonnet’s Corner. At the pre-dive briefing our guides Rocky and Carlo described the site and what we would see, basically a sandy slope with lots of octopus and cuttlefish. Carlo even added that there are so many flamboyant cuttlefish ‘they are like cockroaches’. Quite a boost we thought.

 

Arriving at the site in Liquid Dumaguete’s traditional banka dive boat, we quickly geared up, but didn’t really have high expectations, as from past experiences knew that octopus encounters by day at muck sites are very hit and miss, but far more reliable at night. Jumping in the water we found great visibility, at least 20m, and a sandy rubble slope, perfect for muck critters, especially octopus.

 

We had barely reached the bottom when Rocky tapped his tank, and before him was a magnificent wonderpus. We were astounded. We were only in 8m of water and less than a minute into the dive. After spending several minutes photographing this incredible cephalopod, as it slowly ambled across the bottom, we moved on and quickly found typical muck critters like mantis shrimps, box crabs, razorfish, sand divers, garden eels and a tiny painted frogfish. More tapping from Rocky and we swam over to see another octopus, a unique and rare species we hadn’t expected to see – a Mototi octopus.

 

Related to the blue-ringed octopus, the Mototi octopus is extremely rare. We had previously only seen one of these octopus after dozens of dive trips to Southeast Asia. Thinking this elusive octopus would quickly disappear into the rocks, we madly snapped off images. However, this bold octopus just sat on top of its rock lair and calmly watched us and the world go by.

 

Right next to this octopus was a lovely Napoleon snake eel, and beyond this were several dwarf lionfish and a species of fire worm we hadn’t seen before. But the cephalopods were coming thick and fast, as Rocky pointed out a tiny stumpy spined cuttlefish, then a coconut octopus and then we couldn’t believe it when we saw two more Mototi Octopus. This was a male and female pair, with the male displaying a range of colour patterns as he slowly crept up on the female. Possibly a prelude to mating, we watched these two octopus for several minutes, but nothing more happened.

 

Exploring more of this amazing muck site, and going no deeper than 20m, we saw cockatoo waspfish, hermit crabs, cowfish, nudibranchs, juvenile cuttlefish, another Mototi octopus and finally a pair of flamboyant cuttlefish. After 75 magic minutes, and several hundred images, it was time to ascend.

 

Bonnet’s Corner had surpassed all our expectations, and we couldn’t wait for a return visit. And return we did, diving the site three more times, and each dive was equally as good. The Mototi and coconut octopus were there on every dive, but we also saw a number of greater blue-ringed octopus. However, a special find on the second dive was a rare algae octopus, a species we hadn’t seen before and one that I dearly wanted for the muck book. This species turned out to be not-so-rare at Bonnet’s Corner, as we saw several more over the next few dives.

 

The flamboyant cuttlefish were also there on every dive, not quite as common as cockroaches, but we generally saw two to four on a dive. We had one memorable encounter with a male and female pair, with the male dancing around the female wanting to mate. It was quite a performance, but just as he lined up to lock tentacles, she rejected him. A lot of work for nothing! A second male then joined in the antics, which was fine with the female as she started to feed, while the first male was busy trying the block the advances of the interloper.

 

The dive staff later informed us that they also see mimic octopus and long-arm octopus at Bonnet’s Corner, but warned that the explosion of cephalopods was only found between October and December. After seeing mating behaviour from several of the cephalopods, and also seeing flamboyant cuttlefish eggs, we can only assume that the octopus and cuttlefish are gathering at this site, at this time of year, to mate. After a wonderful week at Dumaguete, and four magic dives marvelling at the extraordinary collection of cephalopods at Bonnet’s Corner, it was time to move onto Sogod Bay.

 

DAZZLING AFTER DARK

Located at the southern end of Leyte, Sogod Bay is one destination in the Philippines that doesn’t see hoards of divers. Only a handful of dive resorts are found in the area, near the town of Padre Burgos, including the delightful Sogod Bay Scuba Resort. This charming resort is located right on the beach and has one of the best house reefs I have ever seen. We first visited this wonderful destination in 2007 and had promised ourselves a return visit, as the area is blessed with great reefs, wonderful muck and whale sharks.

 

Whale sharks are seen at Sogod Bay from November to May, with the area having the largest population of these gentle giants in the country. We had seen whale sharks on our last visit, and while always hopeful for a surprise visit, we didn’t do any dedicated whale shark expeditions on this trip. We were actually more interested in diving several new dive sites that had been discovered since our last visit, and also wanted to return to one unforgettable muck site.

 

Over the first few days we dived many colourful reefs, seeing numerous fish and turtles. Many of the reefs in Sogod Bay are marine reserves, so have a good population of reef and pelagic fish. We also explored a great muck site called Little Lembeh, discovered since our last visit, which is home to a wonderful array of critters, especially Coleman shrimps.

 

But we were counting down to Monday night, to revisit Sogod Bay’s most popular dive site, Padre Burgos Pier. This small pier is not much to look at, especially as the water around it is often littered with rubbish. You can’t dive this pier during the day, due to boat traffic and council restrictions, and it is only open for night dives on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Last time we were in Sogod Bay we only got to dive this pier once, and it was one of the best night dives we had ever experienced. We were hoping the pier was just as good as we remembered, but a lot can change in a decade.

 

Arriving at the pier, in the back of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort’s flatbed truck, the conditions were not very appealing for a shore dive, with onshore winds creating waves and murky water in the shallows. But knowing what awaited us under the pier, we quickly geared up. After a scramble down the slippery steps, we waded through the cloudy water in the shallows, occasionally pushing rubbish out of the way. Fortunately once in 2m of water the visibility cleared to 15m and it was time to descend.

 

Dave, our guide from Sogod Bay Scuba Resort, quickly led us under the pier and within seconds was pointing out a beautiful white freckled frogfish sitting on a pylon. One of the rarer members of the frogfish family, this species is usually only seen at night. This was a great start. After snapping images of the frogfish we dropped to the bottom to find a dusky-banded moray, another rare species and one we hadn’t seen before. The critters then started coming quickly, as on the bottom, amongst the debris, were sea stars, brittle stars, decorator crabs, lionfish, coral crabs, flatworms, shrimps and numerous shells. Perched on every outcrop were large basket stars, with arms spread wide to catch food particles. There were actually so many basket stars that I had to make a conscious effort not to bump into one while engrossed taking photos.

 

Dave then pointed out several common and tigertail seahorses clinging to debris on the bottom and also on the gorgonians sprouting from the pylons. Before I had time to take a photo of the seahorses a banded sea krait swam between us.

 

As we moved from pylon to pylon it was hard to know which way to point the camera, at the colourful corals, the echinoderms, the crustaceans, the fish or the molluscs. It is a real pity you can’t dive this site during the day as the gorgonians, sponges and soft corals covering the pylons are outstanding.

 

After thirty minutes under the pier, which is only 50m long and a maximum of 8m deep, we then turned our attention to the sand around this structure. It didn’t take long to find mantis shrimps, sea pens, tube anemones, Pegasus sea moths, cockatoo waspfish, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, crabs and many other species. But the highlights in this zone were the snake eels and stargazers.

 

The last time we dived this site we had been promised snake eels and stargazers, but hadn’t seen any, but this time we were in for a treat. Dave pointed out the first stargazer, and before the end of the dive we located another four. But more impressive were the crocodile snake eels. At most muck diving destinations you are lucky to find one of these impressive snake eels in a week of diving, but at Padre Burgos Pier we saw five, including three of the spectacular red coloured species.

 

After an hour around the pier it was time to exit, but this is a slow process at Padre Burgos Pier as you are forever stumbling across another critter you just have to observe and photograph. We finally clambered out of the water and couldn’t stop talking. The pier was as good, if not better, than we remembered it.

 

Two nights later we were back once more, and this time the pier was even better. We had to share the pier with a group from a visiting liveaboard, but that didn’t matter as there was so much to see. Once again we saw plenty of stargazers, seahorses and snake eels, but also pipefish, cuttlefish, octopus and a Donald Duck shrimp. The white freckled frogfish was joined by three other freckled frogfish, coloured green, brown and cream. We also found three giant frogfish that had moved in since the last dive, and saw one flicking its lure and even sucking down a cardinalfish. There also seemed to be more shells out feeding, with many cowries, strombs, helmets, cones and moon shells on the prowl.

 

Finally exiting the water we were suffering from sensory overload. The only problem with diving Padre Burgos Pier at night is it takes several hours to process all you have seen. We found that a few San Miguel beers were required to slow our thinking so we could sleep.

 

After two glorious weeks in the Philippines exploring Dumaguete and Sogod Bay we had done over forty dives. However, the two dive sites that we will long remember, and will draw us back to these destinations, were the unforgettable Bonnet’s Corner and the dazzling Padre Burgos Pier.

 

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