To do nothing at all

We brought the Kindle along for this leg of our trip, and we didn’t know how we managed to survive without it all this while.

We loaded up the pdf version of Lonely Planet Philippines and Taiwan and literally felt a weight lifted off our shoulders. Other than that, it was also an excellent companion for those long long bus rides when one of us falls into a deep coma.

After the day of temple running, there was basically nothing much left for us to do in Tainan, so we decided to just hang out at some of the cafes found around our hostel.

It had a race car parked beside its front door. How could we not go in?

The important things in life

Somehow, we wandered 8km away to the Fort City of Anping (安平) where we were supposed to look for Fort Zeelandia (熱蘭遮城) (yup, there’s a Dutch fort in the centre of Tainan), but ended up at the Eternal Golden City (億載金城) instead. (We decided to take a break from directions for the day as well)

The gates of the Eternal Fort

The cannons of Anping

A LOT of cannons in the fortress

ls it bad that we found the trees in the Eternal City more charming than the cannons?

I mean, these trees are practically begging us to sit under them and spend the afternoon reading away.

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Cheap at half the price

Diving was not really high up the list on our agenda when we decided to go to the Philippines. But since we got our diving license renewed and after the amazing dives at Balicasag, we were badly hooked and really wanted to go again.

Our Master Travel Plans for the Philippines was pretty much shot by now, so we decided we’ll just wing it the whole way. It’s a good thing we did that because we found out that the dive centres in Dumaguete organize dive trips to Apo Island.

It’s a big thing.

Apo Island is one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Besides the vibrant (read:unbleached) corals, Apo Island is supposed to have more marine lifeforms than there are uncredited background musicians in an episode of Glee.

And the best part of it all? Diving in the Philippines is a lot cheaper than it is in a lot of the other parts of the world.

While we were in Dumageute, we stayed in Harold’s Mansion.While it is more of a hostel than Bruce Wayne’s manor, it is pretty comfortable and comes with its own in-house dive centre. Harold quoted us 2500PHP (US$59 or 41 Westeros Silver Stags)/head for three dives out at Apo inclusive of pickup/refreshment/lunch/all equipment rental.

It was one of those few times when we did not need to do a comparison across other shops and just agreed to go along.

Even so, we (ok, I) was not particularly convinced and I was sure that there must be a catch somewhere.

First off, the rental equipment we checked out was pretty ok. They were not fresh off the rack, but they were definitely serviceable and more importantly (to my unprofessional eye) safe.

And then we were transferred via a pickup truck to our boat boarding point. We had to share seating space with the dive equipment in the truck. It was a bit of a squeeze and there was a period when I had my ass dangling out in Filipino traffic like a makeshift meat bumper.

I’m not kidding.

At that point in time, I was all prepared to make myself miserable and thinking, “AHA! NOW the cost savings come in!”

That’s when they brought out the big guns.

Exhibit A: The “boat” that was taking us to Apo… It’s comfortable, clean and comes with a very friendly crew. The pylons at the side can even be used as a improvised diving platform/monkey bar/playground.

Our Ride

Exhibit B: The Dive Master, Toping was crazily cheerful and very detailed in his dive briefs. So detailed he even brought along a white board to supplement his brief. Although halfway through the day, we suspected the white board was for him to wean off a DrawSomething addiction. He was also really patient with the two bumbling divers he had to string along.

The Master… Diver…

Exhibit C: The Crew. We never felt so pampered in our lives! The only “equipment” we needed to “prepare” ourselves was the wetsuit. The support crew prepared all the gear and readied all the equipment for us.

Prepped and ready!

They even help scaredy cats SOME divers off the boat with a gentle push.

Exhibit D: The Diving. It IS one of the top ten dive sites in the world. There’s the wall dive which is reminiscence of our dives in Balicasag. And then there are the volcanic plateaus which, for us, is like floating through a dreamscape of bubbles. One of those experiences we’re really glad we had.

Wall diving

Hard/soft corals along with tonnes of marine life attach themselves to the wall. It’s quite surreal, actually. Kind of like an M.C. Escher sketch.

Stages of Turtle spotting: Discovery, Creeping up, And trying to spot the turtle again

Turtle!

The dives were also a bit simpler than the ones we had before. Many of our dives are at depths of 7 – 20 meters. The currents are relatively gentle so we don’t have to exercise that much. More importantly, these are also depth that my DiCAPac casing works in! So, great cam whoring opportunities abound!

Floating… just keep on floating…

Total Cam Whoring

Did I mention that Apo Island itself is really beautiful? It’s on par, if not better than some of the Thai resort islands that we’ve been to. The boat anchored off various points around the island before and after every dive for us to take a break.

That, in itself was probably (but not really) worth the price of admission.

Just chilling…

and goofing around…

Fishy Business

Two of the main things that draw tourists to Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers.

The Chocolate Hills (touted as one of the flagship tourist attractions in Philippines) is a geographical formation of more than 1500 symmetrically rounded hills in a 50 square kilometer area and is supposed to look gorgeous. The tarsiers, on the other hand are supposed to be the world’s smallest mammals. They have HUGE eyes, and as one of our friends put it, “look like mini gremlins caught in headlights”.

Realize that “supposed” is used a lot in the paragraph above?

That’s because we did not go see the Chocolate Hills nor the tarsiers. It’s not because we did not know about them, but we were too enamored by the underwater scenery from the day before (at least Jo was), such that we decided to forego them in favor of one more day of diving at Balicasag (an island 40 minutes away from Alona Beach) instead.

Not a bad call from us, since it turns out that Balicasag is one of the best dive sites in the Philippines.

Our first dive was at a marine sanctuary where we swam against a coral wall that was 40 metres high. It was GORGEOUS, and we felt kind of surreal floating alongside the wavy soft corals as swarms of huge fish passed us by on the other side.

One of the most memorable sights for me was seeing a giant school of jack fish. If you had shown me a picture of a singular jack fish before this, I probably would have told you that this very plain looking fish (I am being kind here) probably belongs more on a dining tray than any advertisements to promote diving in Balicasag. But when these plain looking fish bunch together and swim in unison, they glide along in formation and execute the most amazing spiraling moves.

There is something so majestic about them that at that moment in time, I was tempted to believe that there really is a Watch Maker. I’ve seen my fair share of wonderful sights, but those singularly ugly jack fish are something I will remember until the day I die.

I mean that in a good way.

Totally wowed by our first two dives and kinda emboldened by our previous escapade, I decided to bring my DiCAPac soft casing down for a trial run on our third dive. The sales lady had told me that the casing is water proof up to 30 metres, although the camera would be pretty much useless beyond 11 metres because of compression of the air within the casing. I’ve come to find out that I have a rather unhealthy “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude towards advice like this, but I forgot that the penalty of her being wrong was the complete destruction of my camera.

Small matter.

We started out the dive at the 12 meter spot, and the casing held out relatively well. The plastic was now clinging tightly around the camera so it was no longer possible to change any settings, but I could still take some shots…

Ok… I took ONE shot

Diving a bit deeper, it was no longer possible to squeeze the trigger.

I believe this caused Aman, our dive master, a good deal more grief than it did us.

After wiping away his tears of laughter, he realized that he now had to take care of two rather “rusty” divers, one of whom was fumbling to hold on to a loose piece of equipment. The DiCAPac casing is buoyant, so it kinda made me look like a kid at the amusement park \with one of those floating balloons trailing behind me. There was one point in the dive where he had to take off ALL the weight in his weight belt to put on me because I was floating away too much. It sounds like a scene from Up, but believe me, it is not funny when you are the one doing the floating away.

More frustratingly, that particular dive was also the one where we saw “rare” fishes like mini frogfish and baby lionfish. He would gesture for us to take a snap, then realize (again) that the camera that had been causing him so much grief was effectively useless.

Being a nice guy, Aman actually allowed us some photo op to ensure that the chore of bringing down the camera was not wasted

Of course, I believe he exacted his payback by making us execute some truly moronic poses while he was shooting…

Thankfully the casing (and my camera) held out through our dive to 24 meters. There was some slight condensation within the case, but nothing a quick wipe could not handle.

No disrespect to people who like to look at mounds of dirt and/or large eyed primates, but I would’ve taken the diving over the Chocolate Hills or the tarsiers any day.

Under the Sea… Under the Sea…

“Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from meeeee….”

I’ve always thought the writers were having a litle *nudge wink* with these two lines. (try not giggling the next time you hear this song) (it’s not possible) (I’ve just inception-ed you).

Anyway, when we decided to go to Philippines, the first thing I did was to go shopping for an underwater casing for my camera.

That’s right, the FIRST THING.

This was even before other minor things like booking our accommodations, exchanging our currencies, buying our plane tickets and even starting research on the places we wanted to go.

Like (I assume) most guys, I love my tech! And going to the Philippines is as good an excuse as any for me to start looking into the nuts and bolts of the various options available for underwater casings.

The only small problem with my plan was that most underwater casings cost a BOMB! I am using a Panasonic DMC-LX3. It is an awesome camera with an amazing Leica lens, but it is a dinosaur by today’s standards. It is two years old.

Due to the pricing, this means that the more “pro” hard casings and underwater housings, such as those offered by 10bar are immediately struck off my list. There is no way I am paying more than twice the amount I used to buy my camera just so I can go underwater with it.

The alternative to these “housings” are “soft cases”. There are quite a few choices available for soft cases, but I eventually decided I would probably get a DiCAPac model because they have a distributor showroom in Singapore.

Call me sceptical,  but to an uneducated eye (like mine), these “soft cases” look like glorified ziplock bags. I figured I should probably test them out before throwing my camera into the water in a leaky coffin. It would be easier to return them at a local distributor’s if there was any problems after testing.

The lady at the showroom was really nice. She STRONGLY recommended submerging the soft casing with a tissue locked in to test the water tightness of the case before bringing it out to sea. The tissue should remain dry.

I never did have a chance to conduct that particular test. And there was a very good reason for that: Procrastination.

So, that was the story of how, despite our best efforts, we found ourselves with the only camera we owned locked in an untested ziplock bag just as we were about to step off the boat to snorkel at Pamilacan Island.

The moment of Truth!

Greeeaaaat Success!

Out of sheer dumb luck (or very precise engineering by DiCAPac… potaytoes potahtoes), the soft casing held and worked really well. While I wouldn’t call our photos “underwater photography”, it was still fun to be able to take stupid shots while floating weightlessly around.

Yes, I was playing the Jaws theme in my head as I did this…

Despite assurances by the DiCAPac sales lady, I had been worried that the quality of the photos would suffer because they would be taken through an extra lens. After the initial run, I would say that the soft case worked pretty well, and the photos didn’t turn out too badly either. At least, there didn’t seem to be too much of a difference to me.

An added bonus was the crazy amount of really beautiful fishes and soft corals in the waters off Pamilacan. I went trigger crazy (many a times without even looking at the view finder), and that is why our photo album is now filled with numerous unflattering shots of Jo’s ass peeking out of random corners of pictures.

The following are a few shots Jo said that I could post without her gouging my eyes out.

The number of fishes were crazy!

Fishes!

Spot the Stone fish!

And more fishes!

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that most of the photos shown here had DI work done on them. Mostly, a red hue was placed onto the original photos to take away the blue-ish tinge prevalent in photos taken underwater.

This is NOT an advertisement. All views reflected are my own.