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The Philippines: Beneath the sea, behind the clouds

From whale sharks to manta rays, kaleidoscopic coral to a perfectly conical volcano, a journey into the Philippines’ Bicol Region highlights the extraordinary natural riches of this island nation

The Philippines: Beneath the sea, behind the clouds
View of Mayon from Daraga Church, Albay. Image: Getty

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I’m finning just below the surface of a balmy, emerald-green ocean, when a banded sea snake sidles into view.

It ghosts through the water, pierces the surface with a tiny yellow snout, sucks in a few breaths of air, and slinks back towards the seafloor. Like a wind spinner, it shimmers in the sunlight before disappearing into the coral gardens several metres below.

“In the Philippines, we call it walo-walo,” says GL, one of the dive instructors leading our bangka boat on a dive safari around Ticao Island. “It means eight-eight,” he smiles, wetsuit peeled to waist. “That’s because if it bites you, you have eight seconds to live. And if you are still alive in eight seconds, you have eight minutes to live. And if you are still alive in eight minutes, you have eight hours.” GL has a glimmer in his eye. I’m not sure how much of his info is scientific fact, how much old divers’ tales. Banded sea kraits are certainly poisonous, though not aggressive. Just like the baby blacktip reef shark I’d seen circling the cove minutes earlier, or the bright orange clownfish peeking out from its anemone, or the green turtle, or the thousands of reef fish flitting about Ticao’s forests of green, purple and orange coral, it seemed almost oblivious to my presence. And ultimately, it ends the day as just another line in a diver’s logbook.

Diving off the bangka boat, off Ticao Island, Bicol, Philippines. Images: Pól Ó Conghaile

Diving off the bangka boat, off Ticao Island. Images: Pól Ó Conghaile

It’s been quite a journey. Between the flights, detours, delays, layovers, road transfers and boat trips, I’ve taken a couple of days to get from London to this remote scene. The basic luxury of Ticao Island Resort’s beachfront cabanas can be found just a few hundred miles south west of traffic-snarled Manila, but it might as well be in a different galaxy. Boarding the dive boat at 8am, the water was a syrupy sky-blue, the shore a lush line of foliage interspersed with the odd bamboo-and-thatch village. “We opened the door in the morning and the sea was just right there,” a fellow traveller sighs. “It’s perfect for those selfies where you only show your legs.” We have to wait a few days before testing the theory on Instagram, however. Nobody has phone signal.

At the last count, the Philippines comprises 7,641 islands, and the waters between them are the stuff of divers’ dreams. In this magical matrix of currents and sea creatures, options range from shallow dives and snorkels to steep walls and drop-offs. You can float through sweet shops of hard and soft coral, or descend to countless shipwrecks (Palawan’s Coron Bay is home to an entire Japanese fleet sunk by the US Navy during the Second World War). You can get up close with cartoonishly colourful nudibranchs (sea slugs), or seek out poster-friendly pelagics like whale, hammerhead and thresher sharks. Toss in sea temperatures hovering in the high 20s, and you’ll see why the word ‘paradise’ is thrown around like confetti by visitors and locals alike. I’m spending the day snorkelling, freediving, and flunking out in the sunshine between immersions, sharing stories with the other divers. The hours are flying by.

“We’re not going to be back by 4pm,” someone quips, to absolutely no panic whatsoever. “But it’s not like we’ve anything else to do.”

Rewind two days, to the start of my trip, and I’m in a completely different space. It’s not exactly mindful. Online weather forecasts for the Philippines are full of grey clouds shot with ominous flashes of lightning, and a soupy humidity gets its maw around me the moment I emerge from Manila International Airport.

The sky is egg-box grey, the city choked with congestion, and my perception of the country is clouded by President Duterte’s war on drugs, travel warnings (focusing mainly on the high risk of kidnapping in the south of the archipelago) and a trail of devastating typhoons. My plan is to get beyond all that — bypassing the party beaches of Boracay and Cebu for the Philippines’ rich oceans and remote communities. But I’m afraid to get my hopes up. Bucket-list sea creatures don’t exactly sync to visitors’ schedules.

Nor do volcanoes. “She might show,” the driver tells me, picking me up from Bicol’s Legazpi Airport and transferring me for a tour of Mayon, a stunning volcano in southern Luzon. This area is my departure point for Ticao, and I’ve made time to check out this 8,077ft peak — famed for being one of the most perfectly conical volcanoes on the planet. When it’s visible, that is. “She always hides behind the clouds,” my laid-back driver adds. “That’s her personality.”

We continue south, honking the horn to pass shoals of bikes, trikes and Jeepneys (colourful buses, many converted Second World War US Army vehicles). The names emblazoned on their fronts range from ‘Chariot of Fire’ to ‘St Lourdes’ and the less inspiring ‘Keith’. Above the roadside stalls — beyond the rice paddies — the volcano constantly threatens to fully reveal herself, before disappearing behind shreds of cloud. But I stick with it, hopping off outside the town of Albay to join an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) tour. Soon we’re driving quad bikes through lava fields towards the reclusive peak.

A jeepney stops to pick up passengers, Bicol, Philippines. Image: Alamy

A jeepney stops to pick up passengers. Image: Alamy

Mayon is the Philippines’ most active volcano, a deceptively serene cone that’s erupted some 47 times since recordings began in 1616. Named for the folkloric princess Magayon (a name that roughly translates as ‘beautiful’), its symmetrical sides rise up at angles of up to 40 degrees, peaking in a small, smouldering crater. Thumbing the throttles, we motor closer to the base of the mountain before scaling giant lumps of black and rust-brown rock on foot. Rain spits. Thunder rumbles. And every now and then, the clouds part to reveal a tantalising glimpse of a hypnotic volcano that seems to look different with every fresh sighting.

The blind shark

The day ends at Casa Simeon, a restored Spanish colonial-style guesthouse in Bacacay. Here, Rico Calleja — who runs Donsol Eco Tour with his wife, Jessica Noelle Wong — takes me on a bike ride, past a basalt-black Catholic church, vulcanising shops (tyre repairs), street stalls and a man sawing up tuna on a street corner (the velvety fillets on sale for a few pesos). It’s early evening — although not too early for karaoke to start booming out of living rooms (“Everyone here wants to be a singer,” Rico quips), and we pause to take some photographs of Mayon, overlooking lush green rice fields outside of town. By now, the volcano is in plain view, wisps of smoke rising skywards in a spellbinding sunset scene, and I’m easing into local time.

On our way back to Casa Simeon, we pass a parade of young girls, dressed to the nines and being led by a little boy with a cross and candles. “It’s Flores de Mayo [Flowers of May],” Jessica explains over a dinner of crispy lao-lao (sardines) and plump pili nuts. Sitting in the guesthouse — walls, floors and ceiling fashioned from dark local woods, slow fans slicing through the humidity — we get to talking about the Philippines that exists beyond the horrible international headlines; a nation of vibrant countryside, friendly villages and tropical seas. Tucking into chunks of watermelon, I ask Rico (a qualified dive instructor) what he thinks is unique about diving in this part of the world. He leans back in his chair, throwing out his arms. “The colour, the life, the warmth, the drama!”

I also want to know about the first time he saw a whale shark. Marine biologists believe the Ticao Pass could host the highest density of these fish on Earth, according to the WWF-Philippines office. Until recently, however, they were completely off the tourism radar.

“It was in Donsol,” Rico replies. “Back then there was no tourism. Donsol was nothing. The fishermen would say that butanding were in the bay — its name means blind shark, because its eyes are so small. Nobody believed them. But one day they came and said one of them had swum into a fish pen. There are fish pens all over the Philippines, and it had gotten trapped. So we went to have a look. There it was. I was wary about getting in the water. It was so big!”

Whale shark spotting alongside a bangka boat. Image: Getty

Whale shark spotting alongside a bangka boat. Image: Getty

Needless to say, Rico got over his fear. Since then, these gentle giants — whale sharks, distinguished by their beautiful white spots, can grow to over 12 metres in length — have become a major draw in the Philippines. These large fish are nomadic, travelling thousands of miles around tropical and warm temperate waters on migratory routes that still mystify marine biologists, and from November to May, dozens track towards the plankton-rich waters of Donsol Bay.

Donsol is my final stop before Ticao. A sleepy fishing village right up until 1998, when the government banned whale shark fishing, today it’s a mecca for wildlife fans. Every morning, a flotilla of long, thin bangka boats heads out, with several spotters and official guides on board each, to maximise the chances of an ‘interaction’ during the three-hour trip. Romeo B Asejo Jr, who works with WWF-Philippines, joins mine; a thin black balaclava shielding his face from the sun.

“Hey, hey, hey!”

It’s not long before the first burst of activity. Spotters balancing on beams over our heads spring to life at the sight of a dorsal fin. “Get ready, sir!” the guide urges, throwing off his sunnies and pulling out a dive mask. Fingers point. Brusque directions are issued. I scramble to pull on a rash vest and spit in my mask. But it’s a false alarm. “Just a dolphin,” he sighs. Just a dolphin!

It takes two hours of tacking back and forth across the bay before the next frisson of excitement. This time, it’s caused by another boat, which the spotters notice has slowed to a crawl, with the passengers lined up along the deck in bright orange life vests. Within a few minutes, six boats are circling the same small area, scouting for shadows beneath the surface. And then suddenly, I’m being ushered towards the ocean.

The next seven or eight minutes go by in a blur. Face mask and fins on, I hop off the boat with Romeo and the guide, swooping under its starboard outrigger and swimming forwards. Pods of swimmers and snorkellers are piling into the water from all angles. Below me is a field of jade-green, with plankton reducing visibility to three or four metres. My guide surface-dives, pointing into the depths. And suddenly, a shadow with those electrifying white spots emerges from the ether.

“Dive, dive!” the guide shouts.

I breathe, trying to get my bearings without letting the whale shark out of sight. Finding a rhythm, Romeo and I follow on the surface, freediving every now and then to fin along beside it. Around us, the boats pick up their guests, race ahead and drop them in again. Guides scurry to get people to look down as the shark glides by. We swim past them, earning another 30 seconds of alone time before the next group splashes into view. It’s an awesome creature, seven or eight metres long, cruising close enough for me to see little yellow cleaner fish at the edge of its mouth. Romeo shoots pictures of its distinctive markings. Finally, the long tail fin swishes with conviction, and the butanding vanishes into the deep.

Phew! Back on the boat, our guide pumps his fists in the air. The spotters kick back and relax. It’s been an amazing encounter, but I have mixed feelings. Before the boat trip, a briefing video made clear that a maximum of six swimmers should surround a shark at any one time; that a ‘one boat, one shark’ policy was in operation. The reality was different; at times it felt like a circus. On the other, Donsol’s efforts at eco-tourism place a clear value on keeping the fish alive — in the past, whale sharks in the Philippines were overfished for their oil and meat. They are behaving relatively naturally too — as opposed to those at Oslob, on the island of Cebu, for example, where interactions are aided by hand-feeding. It’s not easy to strike a balance between conservation, the needs of the local economy and tourists travelling across the world to earn those ‘I swam with the world’s biggest fish!’ T-shirts. Boats try to find individual encounters, but it’s not always possible.

“We sometimes have to share,” I’m told.

The closer I get to Ticao Island Resort, however, the less sharing needs to be done. During the two-hour trip from Donsol, flying fish zip along beside the boat. I disembark onto a shoreline lost in time. There are no cars, or roads. In the village next to the cabanas, mud paths are braided between bamboo huts. Two men preen their roosters for an evening bout of cock-fighting, setting them at each other in a shrieking flurry of feathers. Outrigger fishing boats have been pulled up to rest on a shoreline flecked with beach litter (sadly, not even these sumptuous seas are immune to the world’s bulging marine trash problem), and village kids ask me to take their photo, smiling from ear to ear when I do.

Every fresh stop on my adventure peels back another layer of this complex country. After nightfall, I take a canoe trip under a star-studded sky, stopping at a mangrove tree flickering with fireflies. “It’s the Philippines’ Christmas tree,” the boatman says. Over 7,600 islands, and this one feels like mine.

Swimming alongside a manta ray with Donsol Eco Tours. Image:Donsol Eco Tours

Swimming alongside a manta ray with Donsol Eco Tours. Image:Donsol Eco Tours

Later, sitting in a thatched bar, GL outlines our diving options for the next day and shows videos from Ticao’s most famous site: Manta Bowl, a cleaning station whose plankton-rich currents attract regular visits from whale sharks and manta rays. In one dramatic video (search for ‘manta rescue’ on YouTube), a female manta repeatedly swoops towards GL so that he can free a huge length of barnacle-encrusted fishing line from her pectoral fin. “There’s definitely something between those eyes,” he says, sipping a cold bottle of Red Horse beer.

I get a sense of what he means on my journey home the next day. Leaving Ticao at 5am, I see the silhouette of Mayon on the horizon. The boat driver’s cigarette blushes in blueish morning light, his companion cooks on a stove secured to the stern, and I write notes on my phone. A half-hour out from Donsol, a black fin breaks the water beside us. My heart thumps. Everybody stops what they’re doing. The driver eases off on the throttle, circling around. Drifting closer, we spot the distinctive wings of a manta. It swims along, unperturbed and close enough to photograph — a generous parting gift from the Philippines.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Philippine Airlines flies nonstop daily from Heathrow to Manila, where guests can connect to over 30 domestic destinations. It operates up to three daily flights between Manila and Legazpi, with regular services to Cebu, Boracay, Caticlan and Kalibo also. Ticao Island Resort is a two-hour outrigger boat trip from Donsol Bay.

Average flight time: 14h.

Ground and water transfers are usually included in packages. In Manila, stick to metered taxis recommended by your hotel, or use Uber. For short trips in remoter areas, tricycles (motorbikes with covered sidecars) are cheap and widely available; they can be hired by the hour, if necessary.

Outside of cities, ATMs and card services are not widely available, so withdraw enough pesos in cash and have small notes to hand. English is widely spoken, which makes travel easier. Security can be an issue in some parts of the Philippines, so before travel check gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

When to go
November to May is whale shark season at Donsol. December to April is the dry season in most parts of the Philippines, but check diving advice for your specific travel area.

More info
Diving & Snorkelling Philippines, by Tim Rock. (Lonely Planet)

How to do it
Dive Worldwide offers the 14-day Big Fish Tour from £2,165 per person, based on two sharing. It includes return flights with Philippine Airlines, transfers, 11 nights’ accommodation (including five at Ticao Island Resort), some meals, two whale shark snorkelling trips and six days’ diving with tanks and weights.



Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)