Dive Report: Moalboal

November 21 – 24, 2015
Photo set on Flickr

Turtle Bay Dive Resort

Cheap and easy, Cebu is my go-to destination whenever I want a quick fix of diving. This time I was back with my dive buddy to Moalboal, 90 km west of Cebu and famous for its sardine run. After a quick search on Google and Scubaboard, we booked four nights and a total of nine dives each with Turtle Bay Dive Resort.

Our check-in took longer than expected because the reception couldn’t find our room’s key. Once finally inside we were taken aback by the strangest interior layout – a television was installed above the door touching the ceiling. Kind enough to save our necks from unnecessary stress a small note declared the television was not working. Wifi was down across the complex and the shower had barely any hot water. To cap everything off the dive shop had mixed up our booking so we could only do one dive on our second day.

Someone once told me the sign of quality service is bouncing back to satisfy a client’s need after mishap, and while Turtle Bay was not exactly running as a well-oiled machine, its staff was friendly and tried hard to fulfill our needs. We received our own portable router and recommendation on when was the best time to take shower. The dive shop, under the watch of CJ the son of Turtle Bay’s owner since only last year, was clearly still a work in progress, but the crew was flexible on where we dive and how long we could stay underwater.

The food was mediocre but some decent eateries were located on the nearby Panagsama Road. Overall we had a decent stay in Turtle Bay.

Nov 22
14:30 – Talisay Wall 

We could only fit in one dive on this day because our dive shop Turtle Bay was at full capacity with a group each from Taiwan and France, respectively. Since my buddy had only completed Open Water Diver we would be diving at no more than 18m.

Beforehand I had a chat with both groups and heard very different opinions on the quality of diving in Moalboal. The former was disappointed with the poor visibility and the lack of diving option except for wall dive. I understood the first complaint but a quick google search would reveal the Moalboal area is one giant wall, and if that’s not your thing then just go somewhere else. The French on the hand compared Moalboal’s visibility favourably to Malapascua’s and were generally satisfied with the healthy corals and bountiful reef fishes.

Sadly, for our first dive at least, the Taiwanese were right. The visibility was around 5m, the worst I had seen in the Philippines, and the only notable marine life I saw in 50 minutes was a turtle. Back on shore the Taiwanese sarcastically wished me luck for my remaining dives.

Dive time: 44 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Pipefish, Razorfish, Starfish, Turtle

Nov 23
8:30 – Basdaku Wall

Today was much quieter as the Taiwanese had gone home. Our first dive at Basdaku Wall was 10 minutes north from Turtle Bay close to the White Beach. It was like déjà vu to our last dive – poor visibility, average-quality coral and a lack of marine life variety. We did see another turtle. Hooray?

I was starting to worry what the Taiwanese said was true.

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Razorfish, Turtle

10:30 – Panasagma 1 

“When will we see the sardines?”

By this point Turtle Bay’s lack of foresight on upcoming dive schedule was starting to get under my nerve a little. I had been asking for days when would we see the whirlwind of sardines that put Moalboal on the diver map, and each time the reply was “we will see”. The divemasters were only able to decide our dive sites right before each dive. I could understand if the condition was treacherous; we were blessed with sunny weather and no current these few days. This was a reflection of Turtle Bay’s inexperience. On all my previous dive trips my dive operators would share their dive itineraries before I confirmed my bookings with an understanding that everything was subjected to the actual condition on dive day.

When the reply was again “we will make sure you see the sardines before you leave”, the French and I exerted some pressure on CJ to understand what’s the purpose of waiting? Turned out there was none and we were off to Panasagma 1, where the sardines have stayed since migrating from the nearby Pescador Island (Fisherman Island in Spanish) a few years ago. Panasagma 1 is located halfway between Turtle Bay and Basdalu Wall.

I was taken aback by how cloudy was the water, caused partly by the sardines but mainly by some construction sites by the shore. The visibility was no more than 3m and fared no better than Hong Kong’s notoriously muddy water. I knew my fellow divers were close-by but they were camouflaged into the water. Adding to the challenge was the presence of a smack of jellyfish; I decided to stay close to the wall at 10m depth and wait.

Never, as a novice, had I felt completely relaxed while submerged in the ocean. Even now, with nothing visually to focus, I was concentrating on my breathing and buoyancy, but my mind was slowly slipping into the void like a stoner watches paint dries for too long. Unaware of how much time had past, I was snapped back into consciousness when I saw, just barely, a black tornado forming in the far distance close to the surface. By the size of the blackness there should be tens of thousands of sardines, but with everything blurrier than the grainiest streaming video I couldn’t tell for sure. The only way to find out was to swim closer to the eye of the sandstorm.

I should be getting closer. I should, if my eyes could only confirm by seeing what’s hiding behind the particle-filled water. I could see the black cloud turning left, and suddenly, a beam of sunlight shone through the blackness. The sardines were actually almost within touching distance. I quickly snapped a few photos. Before I could contemplate the scale of what was in front of me, ten seconds later I was thrown back into a state of morass when the sun was covered up once again.

Dive time: 45 min
Max depth: 17 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 3 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Sardine, Grouper, Jellyfish

14:30 – Pescador Island

Pescador island, even in its current sardine-less state remains Moalboal’s most well-known dive spot, but to the locals it is not what it used to be. On our 15-minute boat ride to the island CJ tried to manage our expectation.

“Ten years ago Pescador was great. The sardines were there everyday. The reef was pristine, and sometimes we could even see thresher sharks. The quality of the reef degraded rapidly over the past few years due to fishing and hurricanes. Outsiders still flock there be there are much better spots around the area now.”

We began from the southern shore and followed the drift west. Visibility was an acceptable 15m. Immediately after I had descended to 12m I was surrounded by anthias and the most vibrant corals I had seen. This went on for the duration of my dive – I felt like swimming in a borderless aquarium.

Hearing my thought that this was the best dive I had done in the Philippines and how vastly superior Pescador was compared to Apo Island, CJ grinned sheepishly and replied, “Well that was nothing compared to ten years ago.”

It might not be. But Pescador is still a top notch dive site.

Dive time: 49 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish Idol, Black Bar Chromis, Scorpionfish, Turtle, Sea Fan

18:00 – House Reef

Night diving is mostly about seeing marine life that is more active after dark. This was a shore dive through the house reef to the wall on the southeast and then followed the drift west. Except for a few crabs, a moray eel and a sea salp we didn’t see anything different from our day-time dives, and it ended being another wall dive with limited visibility.

Dive time: 52 min
Max depth: 16 m
Water temp: 24°C
Visibility: N/A
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Goby, Lionfish, Crab, Sea urchin

Nov 24 
14:30 – Pescador Island

CJ suggested Tongo Point, but we were dead set on returning to Pescador for our last dive. Given we were the only divers doing an afternoon dive on this day, CJ gave his only customers what they wanted. This time we began from the south again but headed east. There was no current and the visibility was around 15m.

Pescador’s west wall was in slightly better condition; on the eastern side there was more dead coral but still provided ample of marine life sighting opportunities. On top of the usual reef fishes and turtles I saw a school of convict blenny. The dive ended on a plateau with the highest concentration of reef fishes I had seen over the two dives at Pescador.

After diving Pescador, I wondered why the Taiwanese had such a bad time in Moalboal?

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish idol, Convict blenny, Black Bar Chromis, Turtle, Sea Fan

Note: Here are two sites that help me tremendously in identifying the marine life I have come across in Moalboal.

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