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.

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A Different Kind of Anniversary (or maybe it’s more of the same)

Jo and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of us being together while we were on Panglao.

Yup. Tenth. We are officially old.

After a day of whale watching/island hopping, I thought we could have a good day just enjoying the beautiful beach scene on Panglao.

The day started well enough. We slept in (slightly) and took a little stroll along Alona Beach. We then settled down for a nice brunch at one of the many beach-side cafes..

Like I said… Well enough.

I was thinking we’d be having one of those peaceful anniversaries those old couples tend to have – you know, just enjoying each others’ company, when midway through her coffee, Jo suddenly declared, “I’m BORED! Let’s DO something!”

The most important meal of the day – Brunch!

And just like that, we were off!

We gobbled up our brunch and decided (why not?) to do a refresher course for our PADI scuba diving license.

There are MANY dive shops along Alona Beach. Some of them have all the bling and blang you’d associate with a high end hotel, while others (from appearances at least) would not have looked out of place in a Martin Scorsese flick.

We were drawn to Sea Explorers because of Raphael, a Swedish dive master who had decided to settle on Panglao to pursue his love of the slacker’s life. To say the least, we have IMMENSE respect for that.

Raphael very patiently went through the basics of the PADI Open Water course with us again. It was not easy (for him), since the last time we dived was a good 6 years ago.

There was this one moment when he pointed at the Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) and asked, “At least you know what this is, right?” and I answered very loudly, “REGULATOR!”

I was sure he was going to walk off right there and then.

Somehow, we managed to go through all the theory portions and pass the paper test (I did not peep at the answer sheet. I did not peep at the answer sheet. I did not peep at the answer sheet).

This was followed by a pool session and the whole event culminated in a dive at the House  Reef just off Alona Beach.

I wish I could tell you that the dive was awesome and that I saw many beautiful fishes and corals, but to be honest I spent most of the dive bobbing up and down because I could not control my buoyancy very well.

There was also the little problem of me not having my contact lenses on.

I really expected it to be a day of chilling at the beach, so I was wearing my spectacles that I had to take off prior to the dive. This means that the entire 40 minutes at the House Reef, I was just making sure I could see the bright blue blob of Raphael’s fin in front of me so that I didn’t get “Open Water”-ed.

Jo said the underwater landscape was lovely, and the visibility was awesome though.

With Rapahel. Photo courtesy of  Dr Marco Leone. We assisted Dr Leone in his doctorate thesis to measure nitrogen levels in the body before and after a dive. The measurement was done by using an instrument to calculate the fat percentage we have on various parts of the body. This explains the tiny markings we have on our bodies (No, I am not pointing at Raphael’s crotch). True Story: the fat percentage on Raphael’s tummy was 5, mine was a whopping 16. I am not allowed to tell you that Jo’s was 14.

If anything, this day was quite a fair reflection of our past 10 years together. We bumbled along, stumbling onto one (mis)adventure after another, sometimes with our eyes wide open, but more often not.

Whatever the case, we try to have fun along the way and just enjoy each others’ company… at least until Jo gets bored.

So, here’s to 10 more years of that!

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.

Dolphin! Yeah… singular…

When we first started travelling, we were very cautious when it came to money matters. We were constantly on guard and made sure we were not overpaying for stuff. This attitude was kind of draining, and after a while we relaxed our stance. It took us one month and a half for us to run into our first scam in China.

In Philippines, we learnt our lesson. We wasted no time and started overpaying for stuff right off the bat.

Our first stop in the Philippines was Panglao Island in Bohol. The star attraction of Panglao is a stretch of pristine white sand beach called Alona Beach. And one of the highlights for tourists at Alona Beach is to go Whale and Dolphin watching.

According to locals/numerous guide books, so many dolphins and whales infest this stretch of water that you have to be REALLY down on your luck to not be able to see a single dolphin when you go for one of these tours.

The thing about these tours is that a lot of the tour guides/whale spotters used to be whale hunters in the region. Whale/dolphin hunting was a traditional way of living for the people of  the Bohol region. Understandably, there was public outcry when the international news media got wind of this. An effort was made to “educate” the whale/dolphin hunters.

It took a while, but the hunters were finally convinced that there was more money to be made in tourist-hunting than in whale/dolphin hunting. It was also supposed to be a more sustainable source of income. The ex-whalers converted their whaling boats to sightseeing ones and got their income from bringing tourists out to sea. Not long ago, the Philippines government passed a Bill that banned the hunting of endangered sea animals such as whales and dolphins.

Whale lovers around the world rejoice.

The whale/dolphin watching tour was one of the things we really wanted to do, so we actually did some advance research and booked a tour online BEFORE we even flew into the Philippines (It is a Big Thing for us – we hadn’t even booked our accommodation yet).

We found an ex-whale hunter (with his own website!) online and booked a tour with him for the morning after we arrived (at 5am!). There was even a moment when I was quite proud of my negotiation skills because I managed to get them to throw in an extra snorkeling trip to nearby Pamilacan Island into the package.

When we arrived on Panglao, we were able to confidently dissuade the numerous touts asking if we wanna go for a “dolphin tour” by saying we’ve “booked one already”.

The first time we realized all might not be right in the world was when we saw that our boat was A LOT bigger than all the other boats leaving for sea.

Also, instead of departing from Alona Beach like everybody else, we were driven to mainland Bohol (by a driver called, I kid you not, Bimbo) and boarded our HUGEASS boat from a pier there.

The dolphin watching tours leave at the break of dawn since that’s the time when the dolphins/whales are feeding and at their most active. In Bohol, sunrise means 5 in the morning. I am so proud that Jo managed to open her eyes this wide….

It was only when we reached Pamilacan that we managed to talk to another group of tourists who had chartered a boat too. Three of them had to “squeeze”onto a boat half the size of ours, but they paid half the price of what we paid for our half day cruise to charter their boat for the entire day.

Other than that, the dolphin watching was errr… great.

We saw a grand total of nine dolphins.

Believe it or not, we thought it was a bit of a downer since some online blog mentioned that their boat was swarmed by so many cetaceans they could not see the water surface… grr….

Our first dolphin sighting of the day. It’s there. You just need to squint REALLY hard

Ok, a bigger picture. This was one of the closest we got to the dolphins. Also, we were there slightly late because we… ermm… overslept SLIGHTLY. The dolphins are supposedly slightly sluggish after their breakfasts… No jumping and flipping out of water acrobatics for us

While we did not see overwhelming hoards, we did manage to catch a glimpse of two to three of them at play. It was quite fun to watch them bask idly in the sun.

But hey…we are still glad to help with the conservation effort… just maybe a little bit less so for the price we paid.

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It’s possible to arrange a packaged tour for whale watching online. There are many sites available and the fees include the rental of the boat, a boat driver and a “whale spotter”. Package includes morning pickup, dolphin watching, lunch and a ride to a nearby island (Balicasag or Pamilacan) for snorkelling (gear and fee charged separately). Average price is around 2000php -2500php per boat

Alternatively, negotiate with the numerous touts at Alona Beach (you’ll be able to see them a mile away waving laminated brochures for the tour. Prices for a small bangka (comfortably seats four) can range from 1500php – 3500php depending on your bargaining skills.