THE creature blended in with the corals almost invisible at about 2 inches. Adorned with spikes from head to tail, it waltzed along with the waves of the soft corals, which it calls home.
Found along the coast of Dauin was the first ghost ornate pipefish I have ever seen in my entire two years of scuba diving. I almost missed it, if not for my dive guide from Coral Dive and Adventure Zamboanguita named Koykoy, who spotted the pipefish on a small family of delicate whip corals at a dive site called Cars in Dauin, a few kilometers away from the city of Dumaguete.
My heart started to thump out of excitement, a rhythmic beat of joy, as I marveled at the beauty of the marine animal. It was only a few minutes into the dive when we saw the pipefish swaying back and forth along with the corals.
Cars is a sandy slope with a few car parts here and there. It is home to a plethora of small sea creatures known to divers as critters. Along with the delicate pipefish, the dive site is also home to sea horses, frogfishes, box crabs and garden eels.
A few more meters and a pregnant frogfish welcomed us to her home. Her neighbor was another pipefish—a green and yellow variant—who was also camouflaging with the feather stars embedded on a hard coral.
This was my first experience in muck diving. As the name suggests, muck diving is a sport of plunging into sandy bottoms laid with seagrass and little to no reef. During such dives, scuba divers are treated to a variety of critters—tiny sea slugs, colorful nudibranchs, seahorses, shrimps and lobsters, to name a few.
Dauin, a small town half an hour away from Dumaguete in the province of Negros Oriental, is a gem for muck diving enthusiasts. It has a swathe of dive sites for macro photographers who love their small marine creatures.
Each dive in Dauin felt like a treasure hunt, as marine life tends to keep them safe by hiding behind corals of their same color and feature. Along with a keen eye for detail, the dives in the coast of Dauin require a lot of patience and persistence.
At Ginamaan, an artificial reef created made with about two dozen tires adorned with a variety of hard and soft corals, black reef crabs, dwarf peacock and banded cleaner shrimps live. Right smack in the middle of the coral-festooned tires was a napoleon wrasse frolicking, its colorful scales glimmering with the little ray piercing through the reef.
On the way back to the boat was a spotted pufferfish, blotches of electric blue dotted its body. It has full lips and pleading eyes, both of which seemed to have been speaking to this diver.
During our safety stop, I saw a huge silhouette, a slender neck extending to the sea grass, feeding.
It was a green sea turtle, which was about a meter and a half in size. Its back was decorated with starburst pattern of different shades of brown and green, and has wide marble-like eyes. This dive site was really a feast for the photography enthusiasts.
Dauin threw a critter party that day, and I was glad to have dived with Coral Dive and Adventure Zamboanguita, a small dive shop nestled at the center of dive sites in Dauin, Zamboanguita, and Apo Island. The dive shop is owned by Maria Fe and Mark McMillan—a beautiful couple who have both logged thousands of dives and are certified instructors.
Mark, a former military man from the United Kingdom, and his team are supportive of marine conservation, an initiative very close to my heart. Its operations are in line with the Green Fins Initiative of the United Nations, a program that is designed to increase public awareness and management practices, enhancing conservation of coral reefs and reducing unsustainable tourism practices.
And while it offers regularly serviced rental gears, and has a crew that genuinely cares for the ocean, what really sets the dive shop apart from its competitors is that safety is always the No. 1 priority. During our dive briefing for the dives at Apo Island the following day, Mark told about the features of the boat. First, he showed us where to find the safety vests, the first-aid kits and the oxygen tanks.
He then pointed out that should any emergency happen, there is a satellite phone and a tracking unit on the boat that will help authorities to respond more quickly.
After the briefing, we sped off to Apo Island, some 25 minutes away from the resort. It was a quick trip, considering the huge boat that we have, whose capacity extends to more than 15 guests at a time.
It wasn’t my first time to visit Apo Island, but it was my first time to dive into its sites. There are a handful of dive sites around the island, whose waters are a perfect mix of different hues of blue. Its clear waters are a treat to divers who love stunning reef dives.
Touted as one of the world’s most diverse collection of corals, the reefs of Apo are well-preserved marine-protected areas. One of them is Chapel Point.
The dive site, which got its name from a church that overlooks the site, is a gentle slope of sand dotted with corals leading to a huge magnificent wall lined with different varieties of corals—sea fans, leather corals, finger sponges and anemones, among others.
Atop the wall was an impressive formation of fine table and funnel corals, which looks like underwater rose petals. From afar the reef looked like the Chocolates Hills of Bohol.
Just a few meters away from the gorgeous hill-like coral family was a turtle sleeping under an overhang, whose neighbors were boring clams pursing their lips, a green-and-black harlequin nudibranch, and a varicose wart slug.
A few hours later, we found ourselves in the waters of Largahan, a steep slope of sand that leads to a small wall. It was probably one of the most amazing wall dives that I have ever done, as there was little to no current, and the wall was decorated with a wide variety of corals.
After the dives, Mark and I had a good talk about how he advocates for sustainable tourism, and how he fights to take care of the sea through awareness campaigns. He and his family clean the beach in front of White Chocolate Hills Resort from time to time to ensure that sea creatures won’t mistake trash as food.
White Chocolate Hills is the resort where Coral Dive and Adventure is based. It offers guests a relaxing after-dive rest in its bungalows, whose roof is similar to the shape of the Chocolate Hills of Bohol.
Two diving days to Dauin and Apo Island are quite short for me. But it also gives me a reason to come back to dive in other sites, and to try diving in Zamboanguita.