My biggest regret of the Philippines was that I didn’t take my own snorkel and mask for the trip. I’d underestimated just how much time I’d end up spending under the water, resulting in overpaying rental fees for old, uncomfortable masks. I estimate I spent $30 on rental fees, more than what nice pair would have set me back.
There were three locations around the Philippines that were my highlight of the underwater world. Each had their own ‘special feature’ that they sold themselves on.
I hadn’t planned to visit Moalboal, it hadn’t popped up in my research, but whilst jumping off some waterfalls in Badian I chatted to some Filipino tourists who were heading there the next day and said the sardine shoals were amazing to snorkel in and after a quick google search that afternoon I decided to jump on a bus for an hour to find this place.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I arrived, I’d seen some impressive looking pictures on the internet, but assumed that they’d been taken in prime conditions. I grabbed a quick plate of noodles from a local looking café and chatted to another backpacker who recommended a dive shop that she had been using for more serious dives. The Aussie guy that ran it gave me a mask and pointed about 10 metres out from the shoreline.
“Swim out to there and you’ll find a 40 metre underwater cliff drop off and all the sardines.”
I’d been expecting something a bit more complicated than that. But I masked up and made my way out. Sure enough there was the cliff and millions of sardines. I was astounded. They sardines swam in the shoals of thousands, all following the same movements, creating these black dancing shapes underwater. You could swim into the shoal and watch it break away into new weaving arms. Swimming beneath a shoal and you could feel the darkness as the light was blocked by all the fish. Spearing up through them would shoot a bullet of light down through the water.
I was entertained for ages just shooting through the masses of fish. I got an afternoon surprise when there beneath the sardines was a giant turtle just gliding along. My excitement level was child-like, I’d never seen a turtle in the wild before and to see one when it wasn’t expected was such a buzz. I ended up seeing two and just chilling around with them under the water.
My visit out to Apo island was delayed multiple days whilst a tropical storm threatened the area, without ever actually hitting, but causing the coast guard to restrict all boats from departing. This is a pretty common thing in the Philippines apparently, and can cause havoc with travel plans. I had to cancel my planned trip to Siquijor island as I just couldn’t leave, but luckily still managed to get out to Apo island.
The island is known for all the giant turtles around its coastline and we jumped in at several ‘dive spots’ that all seemed very close to each other, but did have lots of turtles under the water, some absolutely huge. There were quite a few that were swimming in the shallow waters that you could swim right along next to.
Donsol was the final stop on my trip and something I’d been highly looking forward to with a friend saying it was the highlight of all her trips out of Korea. Donsol is a natural migration area for whale-sharks, the largest fish on the planet. Unlike in the more touristy Oslob, where the whale-sharks are fed and the place basically becomes a feeding zoo that harms the natural eco-system and the animals themselves, in Donsol you go out on a boat and hope that you come across a whale-shark swimming through the waters.
So we are out searching a whale-shark in the ocean. These things are huge, 7-11 metres long, but the ocean is a significantly larger. The boats are the traditional Filipino wooden motor boats with wide arms for stability. To spot a whale shark they rely on a guy stood up on a mast looking around for a shadow in the water.
Our first attempt searching for a whale-shark ended in failure and a rather expensive boat ride. Just three hours out scanning the waters as we steadily got more demoralized. I’d come all this way though so I wasn’t giving up and next morning were up early to head out again. We’d made a deal with the boat people to get out a bit earlier, but again after nearly 3 hours there had been no sightings. We were on our way back to the boat docking area when there was a sudden burst of excitement and the engine took a higher pitch as we started to shoot across to where a shadow had been seen.
It was all very James Bond esq. Suddenly masks and flippers were being grabbed and people getting ready on the edge of the boat ready to drop in when told. You have to be precise with your drop in location, the whale-sharks glide through the ocean at quite a pace. To keep up with them whilst they’re cruising is a lot of work and if they decide to accelerate they’d outrun our boats. We dropped in and I tried to follow where the guide was saying to swim and where to look. It was like a hectic feeding zone in the water, but of swimmers all trying to figure out where this animal was. I thought I saw a shadow, but wasn’t really sure. Others were proclaiming they definitely saw it, but I wasn’t really convinced, I could have just have seen a shadow underwater.
We got back on the boat and circled around the spotters trying to find where the whale-shark had gone. The area had gotten pretty busy with all the other boats racing over. I got up straight behind the guide on the edge of the boat determined to get a better look on our second shot. We jumped in with the boat still moving feeling the water drag against us as we hit the water. I swam hard after the guide and then he said now look down.
I was greeted by a giant soft face coming straight towards me! A couple of meters beneath me gliding straight at me. I tucked my legs up for fear of brushing against it as it swam beneath me, before a small flick of its tail had it shooting off into the murkiness of the water. I was beyond ecstatic, the 6 hours of searching had made it all the more incredible and I was so hyped for pretty much the rest of the day. We had one more jump in and swim near one, but that first meeting wasn’t to be beaten.
We were staying at a glorious backpackers resort in Donsol, with a nice pool, five hours of happy hour and a great restaurant all by the ocean. I have no regrets in saying that other than my adventures in search of the whale-sharks I didn’t leave the resort. It was a great way to relax at the end of the trip and we met a ton of great people for some late nights drinking.