No photos in this post as I don’t have an underwater housing for my camera. The only expection was the one above taken with my friend’s GoPro Hero 3.
1) Cebu City, just like the rest of the Philippines, has seen better days. This main hub of the Visayas was once a leading beach destination in Asia, although that status has long been overtaken by Bali, Koh Samui and Phuket. But Cebu still has a trump card in its pocket – from Hong Kong it is only a 2.5 hour flight, and 4.5 hours from both Seoul and Tokyo. This relative proximity to many of East Asia’s metropolises means Cebu will always remain a destination for tourists looking for a cheap and easy beach holiday, and it has done especially well catering to South Koreans.
Korean investment is everywhere, from restaurants to massage parlours to resorts. Often these establishments only serve Korean tour groups, which allow their clients to have a sun and beach holiday without the challenges of speaking a foreign language or eating unfamiliar cuisines.
2) The diving in Cebu, concentrated on Mactan Island, is decent but unexceptional. But as one of the few popular dive spots with good direct flight connections, as well as being one of the cheapest places to get the PADI certification, many East Asia-based divers would have dived in Cebu one time or another. The main dive sites are an artificial house reef off the Shangri-La and a nearby coral-covered wall that descends to 37m.
3) From Cebu to Dumaguete it is either a once-per-day, 40 minute flight with Cebu Pacific, or a whole day journey by bus and ferry. My buddy and I chose the latter, which involved a five hour bus ride from the South Terminal to Liloan, followed by taking a half-hour ferry ride to Sibulan in Negro Oriental, and hitching onto a tricycle to finally reach Atlantis Dive Resort, located in Dauin just south of Dumaguete. The journey began at 11 am when we got off our plane in Cebu and ended 10 hours later.
If that sounds too complicated, just take the plane like most people would.
4) Whichever way of transport you choose, your reward would be Apo Island, one of the top dive sites in the Philippines, renowned for its steep walls covered with hard coral and clear water. We made two dives, one each at the Cogon and the Sanctuary, and regrettably coral bleaching had affected a large percentage of the reef. We saw a school of angelfish, along with clownfish, lionfish and a few moray eel. Visibility was only around 10 m, around half of what’s expected in the dry season.
Dauin also has a number of sites centered around muck diving along the coast. I am not a fan of constantly searching for small aquatic lives in the mud, though macro fans would probably love this place, as potential subjects include sea slugs, shrimps, eels and pipefish. Visibility was less than 10 m.
5) During our stay at the Atlantis, only five other guests (3 Americans, 2 Canadians) were at the resort even as the calendar had flipped to November and the weather was becoming more stable. That’s great for us – often we were the only boat around and we could have entire sites all to ourselves. And while we didn’t get to see the best side of Apo Island, I had my most pleasurable diving experience yet thanked to Atlantis’ impeccable service. Granted I am still a novice diver with only 30 dives under my belt, but my eight dives with Atlantis had turned around my perspective of what’s expected of a diving operator.
Our trip began on a bad note. Cathay Pacific had misplaced our luggage, causing a delay of two days before it was delivered to our resort. Atlantis lent us all the gears except for BCD and regulator, which we didn’t own anyway, free of charge. The overall charge was $100 for five dives a day, including one night dive. The ratio of DM to divers was 1:3. A two-single-bed room cost $90 per night before tax.
Our divemasters Paul and Miguel have lived in the area all their lives and are extremely knowledgeable about the sites. At all my previous dive trips I carried my gear at all times, but here the crew was responsible for transporting everyone’s gears on and off the dive boat. My only duty was to enjoy the dives and everything else was taken care of. Comparing the cost and quality of service, it is really hard to justify diving in the developed world – I can’t see myself diving at a place like Australia again.
6) On our way back to Cebu City, we stopped in Oslob on the south-eastern tip of Cebu Island, about 30 minutes north of Liloan. This obscure, sleepy seaside town was put on the map when the UK’s Daily Mail published an article in 2011 about fishermen riding on the back of whale sharks and feeding them by hand. This caused a sensation internationally, and a few businessmen took advantage of this publicity and employed a group of fishermen to feed the whale sharks with the intention of keeping them in Oslob for as long as possible. Almost overnight Oslob was transformed into a busy tourist attraction, and the serenity of the past was thoroughly shattered in the process, replaced by tour buses and a beach side resort.
There was no sign of any tourist infrastructure after leaving Liloan – we passed by wooden shacks, free range chickens and unsupervised kids playing curbside until suddenly our bus made a right turn and pulled into a gravel lot. At 8:30 am a few buses were already parked in front of ours, most of them coming from Cebu City. A public announcement was blasting loudly instructing visitors not to put on any sunscreen to protect the whale sharks, and guess what, this message was promptly ignored as everyone was doing just that.
Next to the resort was a small pier, where an assembly line was in place to direct the tourists on boarding several small boats. You could either snorkel or dive – most went with the former because the feeding whale sharks would swim close to the surface and the cheaper cost. Whenever one was filled to its capacity of around ten passengers, it sailed out to the shallow sea where fishermen were feeding the whale sharks.
Once in the murky water filled with bits of brine shrimps, I immediately felt besieged from all directions; up top were boats and paddles, and my fellow snorkelers to my left and right. When I finally settled down a giant black object swan straight towards me. I quickly ducked to my right and an 8 m long whale shark and its 1.5 m mouth just missed me by a few centimeters. Just as I was making sense of what just happened, the whale shark made a U-turn and charged towards me again. Another two were looming in the background. In this frenzy everyone was attempting to avoid each other and the boats while concentrating on the whereabouts of the whale sharks without colliding with them.
Clearly this entire enterprise is not sustainable. This practice of feeding impacts the whale sharks in a myriad of ways; physical injuries from bumping into tourists and boats; an incomplete diet that now consists of solely brine shrimps; an alteration of migration path and a decline in survival ability in the wild.
It is possible to see these gentle giants in the wild without the assistance of feeding, but that’s always a crapshoot. Most people I met in Oslob were fully aware of the negative impact of our collective presence, yet all of us couldn’t wait to get into the water to see the whale sharks up close. The result was one of the most exhilarating and guilt-ridden experiences I ever had while traveling.