Philippines Diving Hot Spot: Moalboal

Victor Tang
Exciting Photos & Best Dive Sites in one of the Philippines' first Hot Spots

Philippines Diving Hot Spot: Moalboal


Exciting Photos & Best Dive Sites in one of the Philippines' first Hot Spots

By Victor Tang

 

moalboal philippines

 

 
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The Visayas region of the Philippines has long been a mecca for scuba divers, with enthusiasts arriving from all over to savor the teeming underwater realm beneath its waters. The focal point of all this diving activity is squarely on the island of Cebu, since Mactan (just next door) has the only international airport and hub for all sea-lanes serving all the Visayas. Cebu Island attracted tourists because of this proximity. Moalboal was a sleepy fishing town with bountiful harvests until dive explorers from the western hemisphere discovered it in the 1970s – one of the first places on the island to be developed primarily for scuba diving.

 

moalboal philippines

 

Moalboal - On the Mega Wall

Moalboal faces the Tanon Strait, a deep channel that separates the Islands of Cebu and Negros. Its coastlines are characterized by sharply sloping drop offs, so the vast majority of dive sites in the Moalboal area are wall dives along the coastlines. With the exception of Pescador Island, the dive sites combine together to form one huge gigantic wall: the diver enters at different points to explore different sections of wall. Each section of the wall has its own distinct flavor, each with its own unique sightings. All the dive sites lie along a known whale sharks migratory route, so sightings of these gentle giants, though infrequent, have been recorded all year by various lucky divers.

 

Saavedra Fish Sanctuary

Situated right at the northern limits of this mega-wall, Saavedra Fish Sanctuary seems unremarkable at shallow depths – nothing more than a gentle sandy slope with sporadic outcrops of soft coral. After descending past the vertical drop-off at 22 meters, however, the diver is greeted with a vertical canopy of giant gorgonian fans that are the wide-angle photographer’s dream and nightmare at the same time, for these gorgonians will truly test the limits of your wide- angle lenses and strobe power.

As if that wasn’t a large-enough “problem,” these gorgonians host colonies of one of the holy grails of macro photographers: the skeleton shrimp. With the really huge and extremely small living together, this is a site that is definitely worth more than one dive to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

 

moalboal philippines

Gigantic Sea Fans. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/1000s. Dyron 8mm fisheye.

 

moalboal philippines

Pregnant Banded Pipefish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f18 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

moalboal philippines

Lionfish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f11 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

White Beach

Picturesque White Beach, the lone sandy beach in Moalboal, is so exclusive that you need to pay an entry fee.  But beyond the sand a wall of macro opportunities awaits.  This site is one of the more fruitful areas for nudibranchs and crustaceans, with some truly strange macro subjects popping up when u least expect.

White Beach is home to a resident school of Razorfish that plies the shallow waters among the hard coral gardens, creating enjoyable safety stops as they sway among the coral in strange but wonderful formations. I had the suprise of spotting a lone Mandarin Fish popping up in broad daylight from among the hard coral at the start of dive, but alas it retreated before I could even react.

 

moalboal philippines

Orang-Utan Crab. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Tamron 60mm.

 

moalboal philippinesmoalboal philippines

Photo left: Hypselodoris Tyroni. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.
Photo right: Lone Razorfish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f9 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

Tuble Point

Always keep an eye on the open blue water when diving here, for Tuble Point comes just after Pescador in the number of recorded whale shark sightings.  Some unique coral formations dot the seascape here, with schools of yellowtail barracuda darting in and out of your field of vision. Turtles are regularly seen here resting on the wall or just gliding by.

This dive site also has many mature whip corals, with some supporting up to three whip gobies. The Xenon Crab can be spotted regularly here if one looks hard enough.

 

moalboal philippines

Pipefish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

moalboal philippinesmoalboal philippines

Photo left: : Soft Coral Habitat. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f13 and 1/250s. Tokina 10-17 Fisheye.
Photo right: Patient Jaws. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f4 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

moalboal philippines

Sergeant Fish Eggs . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

Panagsama Beach

This is the site I have dived the most in Moalboal, for this is the house reef of my partners Blue Abyss Dive Shop. This is the dive site where I first learned the dynamic nature of a reef and the surprises that the deep waters of the Tanon Strait can bring. Many different types of frogfish have visited the dive site over the course of my visits there, with occasional sightings of blue-ringed octopuses and the occasional pygmy seahorse hiding out in the tiniest of sea fans. In short, this is a truly good site for spotting macro subjects.

Night dives are a must in Moalboal, especially for divers who love to spot critters. If you dare turn off your dive torch for a moment you’ll see the reef dropoff glittering from the reflection of the critters’ eyes. There is a resident pair of mandarin fish just before the dropoff, though they tend to be very shy. It was on one of these mandarin fish hunts that I spotted the scene that I would never forget: a fairly large bobtail squid relaxing on the reef bed, preying on a prawn.

 

moalboal philippines

Feeding Bobtail Squid. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-110a at ISO080. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.

 

moalboal philippines

Good Morning Moalboal!. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.

 

moalboal philippines

Healthy House Reef. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f8 and 1/160s. Tokina 10-17 Fisheye.

 

moalboal philippines

Mandarin Fish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f18 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

Tongo Point

This dive site could arguably be one the best places to capture images of the flame fire shell, for three of them seem permanently anchored to the walls of a small cave just eight meters deep. Macro opportunities abound, with walls covered with large sea fans.

Some huge Scorpion Fish live at Tongo Point, and it is one of the more reliable places to spot pygmy seahorses. The shallows here are great for spotting critters especially if the dive is later in the day.

 

moalboal philippinesmoalboal philippines

Photo left: Flame Fire Shell. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.
Photo right: Laomenes Amboinensis. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

moalboal philippines

Emperor Shrimp on Spanish Dancer. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.

 

moalboal philippines

moalboal philippines

Photo left: Pair of Whip Gobies. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105mm VR.
Photo right: Predators of the Reef. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at f11 and 1/320s. Tokina 10-17 Fisheye.

 

 

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A Guide to Mixing Business with (Scuba) Pleasure

Ron Watkins
World Class Wreck, Reef and Muck Diving on a Business Trip

A Road Warrior's Guide to Mixing Business with (Scuba) Pleasure


World Class Wreck, Reef & Muck Diving on a Business Trip

By Ron Watkins

 

 

 
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The Dream

When avid scuba divers and underwater photographers aren’t in the water, they are often dreaming about that next great dive vacation. Maybe it is a place that has been on your bucket list for a long time (like Palau) or the latest hot spot for diving that you keep seeing in amazing photographs (like Papua New Guinea). The dream may be a great land-based dive resort like Wakatobi or that Socorro Islands liveaboard everyone is talking about. No matter how long that list of places you dream about has become, the realities of working for a living and family responsibilities limit your ability to check destinations off that list. Many of us, particularly Americans, work way too hard and only get to go on one or two major dive trips on a good year. Vacation days and budget are usually the two dream-busting constraints that stand between you and your dream dive trips.

But what if you could minimize those two constraints and go on 8-10 dive trips a year? Sound like that "get rich" infomercial scheme that is too good to be true? Well it isn’t and for the last several months, that has been my goal and I have been averaging about 1-2 dive trips per month.  

 

The Reality

My job requires business travel and I have looked at each trip as an opportunity to dive and enjoy my passion of underwater photography. Even if your job doesn’t require frequent travel, there often is the annual convention or user conference that gets you on the road at some point during the year. And what about those family reunions each summer, or the holidays spent at the in-laws? Whatever the reason or destination, look at how you may add a few days at the beginning or end of the trip to squeeze in some diving. Since your company (or you) are already planning the time and money to get there, make the most of it. Below is an example of how I maximized this approach on a recent business trip.

 

The Planning

I had a two-day sales meeting scheduled in Fort Lauderdale, FL and decided I was going to turn it into a dive trip. My company had planned for me to fly out on Monday for the meeting, so I decided I would fly out late Friday afternoon instead, using the long weekend to get in some diving. So with airfare booked and paid by the company I started my dive planning. Fortunately, Florida has ample opportunity so I contacted my long time dive buddy, fellow photographer and Miami resident George Ordenes, to see what he recommended. He first recommended Blue Heron Bridge (BHB) which sounded fantastic since I hadn’t been there in awhile, and then suggested we take a drive down to the keys and dive the Spiegel Grove. Unable to decide on just one site, I decided to try and squeeze them both in. That would allow me to do some world class wreck, reef and muck diving all in one long weekend.

A few days before the trip, I planned out my packing, which included my dive gear, camera equipment, and business dress for the sales meeting. I packed the business attire separately since I wouldn’t be touching it until later in the trip and stuffed my dive bag with minimal dive equipment. I threw in a few t-shirts, shorts, a pair of flip-flops, bathing suits and other bare necessities into my dive bag. I squeezed my DSLR wide-angle setup into a 36 pack AO cooler bag which I could carry on. The macro equipment went in my work backpack with my computer and the remaining miscellaneous items fit in the dive bag. A packing list always helps to make sure nothing critical is left at home. Fortunately for me, I was flying an airline that allowed me two free check-ins, a carry on and a personal item so there was no extra expense for baggage.

 

Dive Trip Packing

Two Checks bags and two carry-ons (Dog not taken on trip).

 

The Execution

After a 5 hour flight I arrived in Fort Lauderdale, rented my car and checked into an inexpensive airport hotel. In the morning I picked up George and we were in Key Largo before noon on Saturday. We checked in with Conch Republic Divers, with whom George had dove with in the past and highly recommended. The plan was for two afternoon dives on the Spiegel Grove as well as two reef dives Sunday morning. We boarded the spacious and well laid out Republic Diver boat with ample room for large cameras and dedicated rinse buckets. 

The USS Spiegal Grove is a 510-foot (almost 2 football fields) landing ship dock and was intentionally sunk in 2002. She rests in 130’ of water, but is reachable at 60 feet and with the majority of her decks resting at between 80’ and 90’. The visibility was about 70’ as we descended the bowline to her hull and entered the wheelhouse to begin our exploration.  We then proceeded to her bow and explored the vast deck, which was full of colorful growth and several barracuda, large jacks and scrawled filefish. On the second dive we explored the stern of the ship and the large horizontal tower structure which was densely covered with sea fans and sponges. On the back deck we found the American flag and a dive flag that was fully extended in the slight current. A 6-7’ Goliath Grouper and large barracuda patrolled the stern as well as several large schools of jacks. This was truly an amazing wreck dive!

View as we race out to the wreck on the Conch Republic Diver boat.

 

speigal grove wreck

George exploring the massive bow of the Speigal Grove (F8, 1/200th).

 

speigal grove wreck

A large cleat encrusted with growth (F8, 1/250th).

 

speigal grove wreck

One of the many large barracuda patrolling the Speigal Grove (F10, 1/250th).

 

barracuda

Large 6’ barracuda with a fishing hook in tow (F9, 1/160th).

 

speigal grove flag

Dive flag flowing in the current on the stern of the Speigal Grove (F9, 1/320th).

 

Sunday morning we woke up early and Captain Gary took us out to a shallow patch reef called Molasses Reef. I decided to shoot macro on the reef but regretted the decision as soon as I backrolled and saw the 100’+ visibility with large schools of snapper and healthy coral. We spent much of the dive exploring the spur and groove channels of the reef in awe of the density of marine life. We saw trumpetfish, parrotfish, filefish, nudibranchs, bearded fireworms, and large schools of yellowtail snapper. On the second dive I found a friendly scrawled filefish that approached quite close and allowed me to take several macro shots of his intricate blue and black patterns. After two long dives at the shallow Molasses Reef, we sped back to Conch Republic Divers where we rinsed our gear dockside then hit the road for Miami, dropping off George and continuing my journey up to West Palm Beach. Read more on tips for fish photography.

 

blue striped grunt

Blue striped grunt portrait (F11, 1/125th).

 

bearded fireworm

Bearded fireworm on a sea fan (F22, 1/250th).

 

sedna nudibranch

Red-tipped sea goddess super macro (F32, 1/250th, with diopter).

 

Tritonia hamnerorum nudibranch

Tritonia hamnerorum sea slug on a sea fan (F29, 1/250th, with diopter).

 

scrawled filefish

Close-up of scrawled filefish eye (F16, 1/100th).

 

My next dive stop was in West Palm Beach at the famous Blue Heron Bridge (BHB) and its shallow muck dive site. I had planned ahead and checked the tide charts because it is best dove around slack tide for better visibility and less current. It's critical to get a parking permit from a ranger or dive shop because it is required to park at Phil Foster Park at night.  I entered the water just before dusk and explored the East side bridge structure area for nearly two hours at a max depth of 22’. The visibility was only about 10’ at best but the diversity of life was amazing. There were multiple octopus, tropical juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp, stingrays and scorpionfish.

 

juvenile bottom dweller

Juvenile bottom dweller (F22, 1/250th).

 

Pair of juvenile fish (F22, 1/320th).

 

hermit crab

Close-up of Hermit Crab eyes (F22, 1/320th).

 

Octopus on the move at night (F16, 1/250th).

 

At 6:00am on Monday the alarm clock woke me from a dead sleep and it was time for one more dive at BHB before I started my workweek. This time I explored the many columns of the larger West side bridge area. The visibility was less than 10 feet again and the current was a little brisk but I still managed a bottom time of 105 minutes. The East side had many of the same critters that I had seen the night before, but I found a large colony of jawfish, one of which was brooding eggs. I also found a couple of shy mantis shrimp and a colorful juvenile wrasse, along with more juvenile tropicals. BHB never disappoints with diversity and is a must dive when in the area.

 

Blue Heron Bridge

The large columns of the West side BHB Bridge.

 

jawfish eggs

Shy Jawfish with eggs (F22, 1/250th).

 

juvenile wrasse

Colorful Juvenile wrasse (F16, 1/250th).

 

octopus in bottle

Octopus in a bottle (F20, 1/250th).

 

The Summary

After my last dive at BHB on Monday morning, I showered, rinsed my gear and then went online to attend a web meeting and focus on my day job. The next day when I arrived at the sales meeting that brought me to Florida in the first place, I was well-rested and ready to focus on business. When asked when I arrived in Florida, I shared with my team the fun filled weekend I had enjoyed. One of my coworkers commented that he has been traveling so much over the past several years, but never takes the time to enjoy the places he travels to for business. I just smiled and said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” 

In addition to my Florida adventure business trip, I have also been diving in California three times this year on separate business trips. All of this diving was done without using a day of vacation and minimal expenses while on business trips.

I hope this article has inspired you to look at your next business trip as an opportunity to dive or do something you love. We all need to work towards a better work/life balance.

All of the above images were taken with a Nikon D300, Sea&Sea housing, dual YS-250 strobes, Tokina 10-17mm (at 10mm) or Nikor 105mm.

 

About the Author

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. More of Ron’s photography may be viewed at www.scubarews.com and www.allwetportraits.com, which features his unique underwater portraits of children.

 

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Malpelo: A Must-Visit for Big Fish Photographers

Mikhail Kisin
Dive a Unique Eastern Pacific Island with Hammerheads, Mantas & Pelagics

Malpelo: A Must-Visit for Big Fish Photographers


Dive a Unique Eastern Pacific Island with Hammerheads, Mantas & Pelagics

Text & Photos by Mikhail Kisin

 

 

 
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Many divers go a long way to the Galapagos to see whale and Galapagos sharks. Many visit Cocos to swim with hammerheads, or Socorro to play with giant mantas and enjoy the immense variety of Pacific fish. The small Colombian island of Malpelo has it all and still remains practically unknown among North American divers.

 

The Region

The Tropical Eastern Pacific is unsurpassed for interactions with big marine life. The west coast of both North & South America is washed by two grand oceanic currents: the California Current from the North and the mirroring Humboldt Current from the South, which makes the west coast a classic upwelling zone. Near the Equator, the collision of two gigantic streams is further mixed with another upwelling produced by the stable, low-pressure system of the Tropical Convergence Zone – the place where the ever-in-zenith sun heats the air, and easterly trade winds of the Northern and Southern hemispheres converge into high-towering clouds and thunderstorms. Strong ocean upwelling feeds a huge pyramid of marine life, and there is no better place on Earth to see the top of that mighty pyramid than the remote volcanic islands of the Tropical Eastern Pacific.

 

Malpelo shark

 

The Island

Malpelo island is unique to other islands in the Eastern Pacific. First of all, it is only eight square kilometers. Barren and nearly vertical cliffs of the island expose the summit of the three-hundred-kilometer-long volcanic ridge rising from the ocean floor at a depth of nearly 3 kilometers. With such a small island size and the entire ocean abyss encircling, the concentration of pelagic life in Malpelo waters is enormous. The spacious Galapagos and Socorro (Rivillagigedo) archipelagos pale in comparison. Even Cocos, solitary but still a larger island, does not have the geological advantage of Malpelo. At Cocos, divers have to visit deep-water pinnacles located well away from the main island to admire schooling hammerheads. At Malpelo, sharks are abundant near the island itself and as a result, hammerheads are often encountered in very shallow waters. The advantage for a photographer is obvious – more chances to run into your model and more bottom time to take advantage of the opportunity.

 

Malpelo island

 

Another advantage for Malpelo divers is provided by the Colombian government, not nature. Access to Malpelo is very limited. As of writing this article, only five liveaboards are permitted to go to the island and only one boat with a max of 16 divers is allowed per day. The presence of small Colombian marine outpost and the very short wide open shoreline of the island help keep away the poachers.

 

The Diving

Unbelievable. Period. The best way to describe Malpelo is not through individual stories about individual dive sites, because Malpelo is one big dive site.  You can encounter many animals pretty much anywhere around the island. We're talking about a genuinely wild place and truly wild animals. No sitings are guaranteed, but the chances of unique encounters are very, very good.

 

bluefin tuna

I wouldn’t recommend Malpelo for novices. The diving isn't too challenging, but if your first trip is Malpelo, you will have serious problems finding your next destination.  Most other places will look dull and boring. That is how I felt after Cocos and how I found Malpelo.

 

yellowfin tuna

You don’t need to be a really advanced diver to dive Malpelo, but nitrox is a must. Eastern Pacific diving without nitrox is just not a good use of hard-earned money. You also need to stay very conservative in Malpelo because the “nearest” decompression chamber does not exist - plain and simple.

 

whale shark

In open ocean diving your safety sausage should be big - about six feet. A smaller one might be obscured by the waves, and once deployed your next stop might be Australia. For Malpelo I prefer long stiff fins like the Cressi Gara - clumsy in the panga but indispensible in currents. Whale sharks do not pose for photos so you'll need to exert a lot of effort swimming next to them. Since there is not much coral around, damaging the reef with long fins is not a huge concern, but divers should still be aware of sealife around them.

 

eel

When diving shallows near the wall, divers shouldn't brace themselves against the rocks. In high swells it is safer (and more fun) to move with the water. The same rule applies when taking photos in the grotto - do not grab the rocks. There are plenty of nasty eels in Malpelo. Free swimming morays are a trademark at Malpelo, and lots of fun to watch.

 

fish

There are many different fish species in Malpelo, but don’t be entirely absorbed by the reef. You can admire Pacific fish in other places on much cheaper dive trips. Look into the blue. The most interesting stuff swims in from the open water. Beware though - if you look for too long to the right, you are surely missing something on the left.

 

shark malpelo

Look for thermocline. Large sharks huddle there. If the shark is below you, never swim towards it as it will dodge deeper. Wait. Sharks circle around and will probably come back towards you. Whale sharks are an exception.

 

hammerhead shark malpelo

Hammerheads fear strobe flash. If one comes toward you, remember that you have a single photo opportunity. Wait patiently for the best photo opportunity. If you don’t have an external strobe the best option is video. If you have a compact camera, get a wide-angle conversion lens.

 

hammerhead sharks malpelo

The cleaning station is the place to be when a school of hammerheads is nearby. Approaching the school will get you deeper and you will lose time and light. The school is best watched from the side, and at the cleaning station large singles will often swim within hand distance. Patience is key in order to get close to the sharks.

 

whaleshark in malpelo

Fish are your key to finding cleaning stations. Besides the regular barber-fish, there are two other cleaners in Malpelo, Clarion angel fish and juvenile rainbow wrasse. Get to know them. Black jacks often accompany whale sharks and seem to be hitting the shark sidewise, which is another form of cleaning.

 

manta in malpelo

Big mantas here are not as abundant as in Socorro but they do show up. Watch for rocky outcrops in the current, since these create an upward water flow. Mantas are heavy and love those upward currents.

 

malpelo pelagic fish

A common misconception is that bubbles scare away pelagic fish, but actually it's the direction of your movement that causes fish to flee. If there is large pelagic nearby, ascend slowly, moving away from the fish and it will come closer. This trick works as long as you avoid the eye contact.

If the current is manageable, ask the DM to end the dive by ascending in open water. There might be interesting encounters with pelagics away from the island. If you end the dive near the wall, pay attention to the foamy surge and you might be surprised with what you see.

 

Photo Tips

I have only one comment on photography in Malpelo: forget about macro. Be prepared for big stuff, non-stop action and fast-changing conditions. All pictures in this article have been taken with a compact camera, fixed 1/125s exposure and God's help. Even with simple settings I was able to capture only a meager fraction of what I saw. That said, the beauty of the animal encounters at Malpelo stays with you regardless of photo documentation.

If at this point you are still reading this article, you should indeed consider visiting Malpelo. And if you have not safely stopped yourself, well, you are facing two major questions – how to get there and when to go.

 

The Boat

Due to limited access to the island, your options are few. First of all, no operators targeting North America go to Malpelo, and I believe this is the main reason for the lack of promotional information in the US. Secondly, out of five liveaboards operating at Malpelo, three come from Colombia. Unless you want to make your trip a true adventure, you would be better off staying with either of two German-owned Panamanian vessels: Yemaya or Inula. Both operators advertise primarily in Europe. Even in Russia, believe it or not, we have a web domain malpelo.ru. Check it out. At least out of curiosity... unless you read Russian.

Out of two vessels, Yemaya is the boat of my choice. I'm sure Inula (a catamaran) is no less respectable and is a reliable operator, but MV Yemaya is just much larger and more comfortable, with a great upper deck to hang out on after the dives. Yemaya will pick you up directly from Panama City, while you would need another local flight to David when diving with Inula.

The Yemaya is run by Coiba Dive Expeditions.  Coiba Island, by the way, is yet another perk and will be your first dive stop on the way to Malpelo. Truly, I’ve never had so much fun as I did diving Coiba, but that island needs its own article!

Yet another valuable bonus with Coiba Dive Expeditions (which isn't promoted on their website) is that they pair up with an equally excellent tour operator who will gladly fill your arrival and departure days with Panama Canal or Old City tours. Both places are a real treasure-chest for photographers.

 

malpelo

 

The Weather

In short:  The winter is a sunny and windy dry season while summer is calm and rainy.  Summer is generally considered the high season but there is no guarantee in the Eastern Pacific. Thermocline and visibility can change fast and dramatically. Even in high season you are better off with your luck than with the weather forecast.

In detail:  This might be a little tricky. Remember the Tropical Convergence Zone from the intro? The hot humid air rising from the ocean near Columbia will move to the north, drying and cooling down, and will finally descend on Southern California bringing us blue skies. Thank you, Panama. The same air mass will then head back to Panama in the form of Trade Winds, thus closing the circle. To understand the Panamanian seasons, imagine that during the winter time the Tropical Convergence Zone with its ever-in-zenith sun would naturally move south (remember, we are still in the Northern hemisphere) leaving the Panama and Colombia region exposed to dry Northern Trade winds. Drop in the collision of two main ocean currents and two types of upwelling and the result is relatively unpredicatable dive conditions.

In conclusion, to answer the “when should I go” question I would say go as soon as you can afford it. Unlike Galapagos and Cocos, Malpelo is still well off the beaten path. How long will it stay that way? Will you see it before it changes?

 

malpelo

 

A Last Word of Advice

Beware: Malpelo is addictive. On my last trip to Socorro I met a guy who patted me on my CoibaDiveExpedition t-shirt and nodded:

 – "Malpelo?"

 – I replied, "Yes, ever been?"

 – "Fifteen times."

He was Colombian.

 

About the Author

Mikhail Kisin is Russian physicist struggling to match his tightfisted vacation time to generous travel opportunities of the New World. He writes for two Russian dive magazines. If your liveaboard is booked by Russians, blame him.

 

 

 

Further Reading

 


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Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River (pg 2)

Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River & Eastern Lake Ontario

By Jo-Ann Wilkins

 

Page 2

 

Many wrecks, mostly wooden boats or schooners, date back to the 1800s.  One of the most popular is the wreck of the Lillie Parsons in Brockville.  Turned upside-down on the side of a cliff with her belly still filled with coal and her enormous masts pointing downward, she is a pretty wreck to visit.  Other wooden wrecks worth diving are the schooner A. E. Vickery, the wooden barque Robert Gaskin and the schooner-barge Kingshorn. There are also steel ships such as the very popular wreck of the Keystorm, which sank in 1912, and the Henry C. Daryaw, lying upside-down on the riverbed.  Other steel ships worth diving are the Oconto (although this is a technical wreck), the drill barge America, the highly damaged barge John B. King and the Muscallonge (a very damaged wreck but worth diving mostly for the impressive amount of fish on her).  Noteworthy wrecks in the Eastern Lake Ontario area are the Wolf Islander II, the beautiful Comet with its sidewheels still relatively intact, the dredge barge Munson and the three mast schooner George A. Marsh.

 

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The schooner A. E. Vickery. This wreck has strong surface current but once on the wreck, divers are shielded from the current. St-Lawrence River. F 9, 1/50, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Experienced divers can explore the hold of the  A.E. Vickery. St-Lawrence River. F 4.5, 1/60, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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The schooner-barge Kingshorn with its unique ship’s wheel. F 6.3, 1/100, ISO 400. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

There are also more recent wrecks that lie in these waters.  The most popular is without any question the Roy A. Jodrey, which sank just off the coast guard station on the south shoreline of Wellesley Island in 1974.  This large freighter (640’ x 72’ x 40’) now lies in 140 to 242 feet of water and is open to only technical divers.  Another recent wreck is the Eastcliffe Hall, a 343-feet bulk freight motor vessel that sank in the Morrisburg area in 1970.

 

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The upside down steel freighter Henry C. Daryaw. There are plenty of photographic opportunities on this wreck. St-Lawrence River. F 7.1, 1/100, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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The damaged bow section of the work barge Robert Gaskin.  This ship was relatively intact until a few years ago.  High diver traffic on this shallow wreck has damaged the fragile 1863 hull.  St-Lawrence River. F 5.6, 1/30, ISO 500, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

st lawrence river scuba diving

Exploring one of the many submerged locks of the old canal. Most locks are accessible from shore and are popular local diving destinations. St-Lawrence River. F 9, 1/80, ISO 640, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

Closer to the Massena area (Cornwall Ontario), divers can explore many structures that were submerged by the construction of our modern seaway in the 1950s.  Whole villages were lost when dams and locks were erected in the area and caused massive flooding.  Most homes, churches and other constructions were either displaced or demolished prior to the flood but many structures still remain.  For instance, we can still dive on the former lock system of the old canal.  Locks 21, 23 and 28 are easily accessible and are very popular dive sites.  Another noteworthy site is the ancient Mille Roches Power House.  Her roof and walls were removed in preparation for the St-Lawrence Seaway flooding, but her water turbines, wheel chamber and exciter reservoirs are still intact.  Submerged structures such as swing bridges, paved roads, water pipes and building foundations are common in this area rich in history.

 

Underwater Photography in the River

Most of the wrecks in the St-Lawrence river have one thing in common: current.  The river is relatively narrow and current is present on every dive site, although it can range from unimportant in some areas and quite strong in others.  Generally, divers can expect a current anywhere from 0.5 knots to 3 or 4 knots.  But don’t let that scare you away!  The current is mostly felt at the surface and on ascents and descents.  On the bottom, it is often negligible and is easily managed.  It is important to attach your camera gear securely on you with one and preferably two clips so you can let go of the gear if the current gets too strong on descents and ascents.  I personally always carry my neoprene dome port cover underwater just in case I need to protect my dome if both hands are needed for descent or ascents. Photographers want to try to shield themselves as much as they can from the current and staying close to the bottom helps.  There is very little to no current in the Eastern Lake Ontario area.

 

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Photo left: Boiler inside the old abandoned steel ferry Wee Hawk. This wreck sits in very shallow water and is interesting to photograph.  Visibility can be stirred up pretty rapidly inside the wreck.  Divers have reported seeing beavers inside the wreck! F 8, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

Photo right:  One of the most popular wrecks amongst local divers, the Conestoga.  It lies in shallow water close to shore.  It offers many photographic opportunities, with its enormous upright engine sticking out of the water.  F 11, 1/50, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

The sediments on the riverbed are easily disturbed and a careless diver can whip up a ‘silt storm’ pretty rapidly, so photographers must be very careful in these conditions.  That said, the advantage of the strong current is that it moves the silt and restores visibility fairly quickly.  However, if a silt-out occurs inside a wreck where there is little current, the silt can remain in suspension for hours.  When we get to a dive site, I’m always the first one in the water, ready to go as soon as the boat anchors.  This allows me to photograph the main attractions of the wreck before fellow divers, even if they are really careful, mess up the visibility.  General visibility varies a lot in the river.  Late summer, fall and winter offer the best visibility, while early spring offers poor visibility and is not really good for photography.

Mastering strobe positioning to light your subject is of utmost importance.  Since there is a lot of sediment in suspension, you really need to spread your strobe arms as far out as possible and to point them outwards a little.  You definitely want as little light as possible to hit the particles between your lens and your subject.  If you have extra strobe arm extensions, this is the place to use them.  From many years of doing photography in the river, I find that using your strobes at half power rather than at full power gives better results (less backscatter and less of a bluish-white spotlight effect on the sides of your image, especially on deeper darker dives).  You need to get as close as possible to your subject to get good results.  Of course, this is general underwater knowledge but I would say that in the river, it is even more relevant.

Using a diver in your pictures helps to provide perspective on the size of the wrecks.  However, be sure that you coach your model before the dive.  Ask him to remain away from the easily disturbed bottom.

Shooting upwards to capture surface light is a must.  Ambient light vanishes rapidly as you descend and pointing your camera upwards will bring natural light into your picture.  The water has a glowing green color to it and it is interesting to incorporate it into your image.  You will find that you will have to work at higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds to capture the ambient light in these conditions.

Photographers will find that wide-angle photography is usually the best choice because of all the beautiful large wrecks.  Points of interest on most of the wrecks in the river are the props, the anchors, wheel, windlass, bow and stern.  On the wrecks of eastern Lake Ontario, you can still find beautifully preserved wooden deadeyes, tools and artifacts.  Some wrecks even have intact canned goods on deck.  Besides the wrecks, there are plenty of other interesting things to photograph, such as a large variety of fish, lily pads, tree roots, etc.  Sure, the fish are not as colorful and plentiful as you would find in tropical destinations, but they still make interesting subjects.  Furthermore, photographers shouldn’t leave their macro ports at home!  There are plenty of zebra mussels, freshwater sponges and other smaller organisms to photograph too.

Even though most underwater photographers will naturally travel to tropical destinations, Eastern Lake Ontario and the St-Lawrence River, with their rich maritime history, warm water in the summer and an abundance of photographic subjects, are definitely destinations worth discovering.

Divers who would like to learn more on the wrecks of the St-Lawrence River and the Great Lakes should read The Great Lakes Diving Guide Enlarged Second Edition by Cris Kohl (2008).  This well documented reference guide is a must read for anyone interested in discovering the area.

 

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Mooring line on one of the many wrecks. F 9, 1/250, ISO 200, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Shallow dive from shore. St-Lawrence River. Rockport area. F 10, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Lily pads are common in the St-Lawrence River. F 11, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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About the Author

 

Jo-Ann Wilkins is a Canadian underwater photographer based in Montreal.   Passionate about cold water diving, she photographs the historical shipwrecks of the Canadian Great Lakes and the St-Lawrence River and documents the diverse marine life found in these waters.  Jo-Ann also specializes in underwater portraits.  Jo-Ann’s work has been featured in Canadian and American publications and has been recognized in international photography competitions.  Jo-Ann is also a contributing photographer for the photo agency In Transit Images and her work is featured in the innovative and unique underwater exposition Aquart.  She is an underwater scuba diving and photography instructor and runs a commercial dive charter operation on the St-Lawrence River with her husband.

 

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Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River

Jo-Ann Wilkins
A Photo Essay on Diving & Shooting Amazing Freshwater Wrecks in Cold Canadian Waters

Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River & Eastern Lake Ontario


A Photo Essay on Diving & Shooting Freshwater Wrecks

By Jo-Ann Wilkins

 

St Lawrence River Scuba Diving

 

 
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The St-Lawrence River and Eastern Lake Ontario, both lying between the United States and Canada, are popular dive destinations.  Their riverbeds are littered with hundreds of beautifully preserved historical and recent shipwrecks – a combination of their strategic location within the continent for the shipment of merchandise and bulk freight along with their many navigational hazards.  The area is known to many as being the World’s Best Fresh Water Wreck Diving destination.

 

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Diver photographing the sidewheels of the Comet. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/60, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Divers on a relatively intact portion of the deck of the Comet. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/50s, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Divers can explore the machinery, an old crane and the ship’s original1890s tools laid out on deck. Wreck of the Munson. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/30, ISO 640. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

About the Wrecks

The wrecks are incredibly well preserved.  The fresh water in which they rest lacks the saltwater organisms that would normally destroy their structure, while the cold temperature (with its low oxygen levels) preserves them.  Deeper wrecks are better preserved as a result of less exposure to light.

The wrecks of the St-Lawrence River, more precisely between Watertown and Massena on the American side and Kingston and Cornwall on the Canadian side, are preserved in cold water for most of the year.  However, during the summer months, the water temperature rises to the mid seventies with no thermocline and is thus very comfortable. This is one of the reasons this dive destination so popular for divers on both sides of the river.

 

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A diver exploring the 12-foot high rudder and 4-blade propeller on the Glendora. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/40, ISo 640. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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The former dive vessel Effie Mae. She was scuttled next to the Aloha after she was retired. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 8, 1/60, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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Inside the machine room of the very popular ferry Wolf Islander II. F 6.3, 1/15, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

The border between the Canadian and American side is in the middle of the river in most places, and as a result, some wrecks lay on the Canadian side and others on the American side.  Crossing the border to go dive on a wreck is no simple task.  Many of the dive trips depart from Rockport, Canada.  American divers cross the border into Canada by car, board a Canadian vessel and must then go through customs again on an American island (Heart Island in the Alexandria Bay area) to be able to go dive on an American wreck. After the dive, they must pass through Canadian customs and then head back home by car and go through customs yet again. 

Does this sound complicated?  Well, it sure is… and it’s also a funny sight to see.  When the customs open on the island in the morning, you have dive vessels lined up eagerly waiting to go through to be able to be the first ones on dive sites.  There are some American vessels that can take American divers on American wrecks without this border crossing commotion but if they want to go dive the Canadian wrecks, they must also go through customs.

 

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Exploring one of the masts on the Keystorm. F 6.3, 1/30, ISO 800, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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The wheelhouse on the Keystorm.  This ship rests in US waters. F 9, 1/125, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

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The stern of the Keystorm resting on a clay bottom. F 5.6, 1/30, ISO 400. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

 

Continue to Page 2 for more Photos, Wreck Info and Photography Tips!

 

 

 


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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track (pg 3)

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track


Page 3

 

Sunok Point & Limasawa Island

Adrian's Cove and Zack's Cove, the two main dive sites on Limasawa Island, along with Sunok Point on Panaon Island at the opposite side of the bay, are the areas with the highest possibility of spotting whale sharks mid-dive.  The question for photographers is whether to set up wide-angle to await possible whale sharks arrival or concentrate on macro subjects and beat yourself up when whale sharks do make an appearance.  I recommend wide-angle because these sites are perfect places for reefscapes, with huge soft and hard coral formations dotting the walls and reefs teeming with marine life.  Even if whale sharks prove elusive, the underwater photographer will be more than busy framing perfect reefscape photos.

 

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Photo Left:  Crowded Coral Head. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.
Photo Right:  Gigantic Soft Coral. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/1600s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.

 

Padre Burgos Pier

A 10 minute drive from most dive resorts brings you to the small town of Padre Burgos, and right in the center of its shoreline sits the pier - a 150 meter protrusion out into the ocean.  This is still a functioning pier with significant boat traffic during the day and fishing at night.  The reason this pier deserves a section of its own is that after dusk the Padre Burgos Pier is arguably one of the best night dive sites around the Philippines... if not Southeast Asia.  Fishing lines and divers do not mix well, so an agreement has been ironed out for divers to exclusively use the pier on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Anglers use the pier on the other days.  The waters around the pier have a maximum depth of around 5 meters, so one can hang around for a very long time – essential because the amount a marine life seen here is absolutely staggering.

Padre Burgos Pier is a muck diving site and there is rubbish strewn around, which provides more hiding places for macro subjects.  The entry for the pier is via a staircase down to the water on the left, which is quite rocky and slippery so great care must be taken.

Divers can safely descend once 1/3 of the way to the end of the pier.  Upon descending, marine creatures immediately start to show themselves, from small octopi to strange flatworms to rare nudibranchs, with so much to discover and photograph that one feels impeded in exploring the rest of the dive site.  As you slowly reach the end of the pier, large banded cleaner shrimp can be spotted on the bottom of the outermost pylons, and seahorses further up among the sea fans.  About ten meters out from the outermost pylons is what I would term “Stargazer Town,” where up to three stargazers have been spotted on one dive.  Other areas of the pier are full of pleasant surprises, and soon you are investigating anything that looks organic and out of place with hopes that it might be a new personal discovery.

There are certain things to take note of when diving this man-made wonderland.  Remember that the locals do fish from the pier and fishing lines are all but invisible to the naked eye during night dives.  Another important note is that the site is swarming with sizable lionfish who have grown accustomed to using dive lights to hunt their prey, so it’s likely that divers will be bumped a few times during the dive - a chilling experience for some.  The lionfish are attracted to the area illuminated by your dive light and any collisions are purely accidental.  That said, this is still one of my favorite night dive sites.

 

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Pygmy Pretender. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.

 

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Snake Eel. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron +7 Diopter.

 

Conservation Efforts In Sogod Bay

The degeneration of marine habitats around the world has been an issue for enviromentalists for decades. With a vast archipelago like the Philippines, the enforcement of marine laws (with the exception of internationally administered places like Tubbataha) has predominantly relied on local enlightenment and and self-restraint.  Places like Sogod Bay are far away from central government oversight and the choice between preserving the bay’s marine richness or putting food on the table comes up often.  The Anilao reefs benefit from increased protection because of the many vested interests who earn their livings from visiting scuba divers.  Unfortunately, Sogod Bay doesn’t have this same benefit with just 4 active dive resorts.

The Marine Protected Area concept was introduced in 2002 when Coral Cay Conservation, a UK based conversation specialist, set up shop in front of Napantao Wall with the goal of creating an MPA to balance sustainable local fishing with protection of the reefs and fish.  Destructive practices like coral harvesting and cyanide fishing are prohibited, but in return the village collects a fee from every diver that wishes to dive there.  The success at Napantao persuaded other areas to set up MPAs of their own, and with the help of dive resorts in the area there are 11 MPAs in Sogod Bay.  The most recent MPA is at Limasawa Island.

 

A Thorny Issue

Sogod Bay is not only faced with man-made threats to its underwater world, but also has to deal with a more stealthy menace from the sea itself: the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Overfishing in the area has caused an explosion in the crown-of-thorns starfish population, who have less preditors to keep their coral-devouring numbers at bay.  Killing them in the water only compounds the problem as their surival instinct allows them to spawn before death, meaning they have to be brought to the surface and killed on land. Efforts at controlling the crown of thorns starfish population are ongoing and vigourous, with more than ten thousand of them being “harvested” in 2012 alone.  There is a new method of injecting the starfish that kills them before they can spawn, and this is starting to be used throughout the bay.  The government is in support of the new erradication method and locals hope to receive more support in removing the crown-of-thorns starfish.

 

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Eradicating The Thorny Menace

 

Sogod Bay - A Place I'd Rather Be

Sogod Bay divers have mixed feelings on whether the long journey is with the extra effort (compared to Anilao or Cebu).  The beauty of Sogod Bay is that it offers the diver something very special - total serenity and pristine marine environments.  Being off the main tourist track means minimal dive pressure, and chances are high that you will not see another dive boat during your time there.  Of course, the only entertainment available is your ability to amuse yourself, but as a serious underwater photographer there are few places I'd rather be.

 

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About the Author

Victor Tang is the founder of Wodepigu Water Pixel, an adventure dive company and photography consultancy with a nose for off the beaten track dive destinations.  When not stranded on shore with other pursuits as a musician and TV producer, Victor is on the prowl around Southeast Asia searching for new pristine waters to explore. His sister will always tease him for taking an oath never to take a camera underwater again after his first try in Malapascua, but lately he carries a camera anywhere he goes.

 

Further Reading

 


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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track (pg2)

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track


Page 2

 

Pygmy Seahorse. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

Tankaan MPA

Further south from Santa Sofia lies Takaan, another Marine Protected Area close to the mouth of Sogod Bay, and whale shark sightings are a definite possibility here. It features another gentle slope going down to 27 meters, but unlike Santa Sofia, the slope is populated mainly with soft corals punctuated with barrel sponges and huge gorgonian fans. Takaan is a good place to spot frogfishes and other critters like orang-utan crabs, and if diving in the late afternoon there is a good chance of seeing solar-powered nudibranchs.  Turtles like to loiter here too because of the abundance of soft coral, with pelgaics like barracudas and trevally darting in and out of the blue.

 

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Photo Left:  Frogfish . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.
Photo Right:  Halgerda Batangas. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s.Subsee +10 Diopter.

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Orang-Utan Crab. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 Diopter.

 

Little Lembeh

Located around thirty minutes north of Padre Burgos by boat, the site is landmarked by an array of stilt huts rising out of the water.  As its name suggests, the site contains excellent muck diving (Lembeh is well know for its muck diving).  Many types of pipefish make their home here, with scores of seahorses roaming above the black sand. Pegasus fish hide amongst the stilts while nudibranchs are also abundant here.

 

Long-nose Pipefish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 Diopter.

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Mantis Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron +7 Diopter.

 

Sogod Bay Scuba Resort House Reef

Directly in front of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort, the house reef (or more commonly called Max Climax) is accessed from a dive boat parked on the shore.  The beach is coral rather than sand, and a pretty risky entry/exit with full scuba gear and camera.  This is a wall dive that starts at about 8 meters down to 45 meters, and features a wonderful array of hard and soft coral.  Currents can get strong here, and it brings about pelagic fish as well as schools of sweetlips and snappers. The wall is also chock full of macro subjects with crabs and shrimps taking center-stage, and pygmy seahorses if you are willing to go deep enough.  A night dive here is also highly recommended, as there is a huge variety of critters on parade across the reef.  Decorator crabs are seen often.  There is actually so much to see and shoot here that it is wise to check your SPG and dive computer frequently, as you could easily become distracted by all the photo subjects.

 

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Neighbours. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

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Sea Pen Crab. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

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Decorator Crab. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.

 

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Bubble Coral Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

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Mating Nudibranchs. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/200s.

 

 

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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track

Victor Tang
An Underwater Photo Adventure in Southern Leyte, Philippines,with some surprisingly good photo ops

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track


An Underwater Photo Adventure in Southern Leyte, Philippines

By Victor Tang

 

Sogod Bay

 

 
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Sogod Bay, Philippines is a relatively unknown dive destination, and many of us would even have trouble locating it on the map.  Those who do venture to Sogod Bay soon learn that the diving is incredible.

History buffs and those with long memories would nod knowingly if you mention that Sogod Bay is in the south of Leyte Island (home of Palo Beach) and the place where General Douglas MacArthur strode up the beach in the reconquest of the Philippines from the Japanese in World War II.  For an island with such historical significance and tourism potential, Leyte still remains something of an afterthought for travelers to the Philippines.

 

Sogod Bay

 

Getting There: A Journey In Itself

A plausible reason for Sogod Bay's anonymity is that Padre Burgos, the main diving town and home of the dive resorts, is surprisingly hard to reach.  There are at least 4 “direct” routes to Padre Burgos, each a travel combination of plane, boat and wheels.  Ferries in the Philippines generally are much less reliable and prone to delays than flights, so flying presents the most reliable way to get there.  There are currently three daily flights from Manila to the main airport on Leyte, Tacloban, with another two daily flights from Cebu.

From the airport it is a three hour(!) car ride to Padre Burgos and I highly recommend undertaking this journey during the day, as it allows you to see the natural beauty of Leyte Island.  The last hour or so is a nice coastal drive, allowing you to take a sneak peak at the waters that you will explore in due time.  Another big joy noticed during the ride is that traffic is virtually non-existent, unlike during transfers to more accessible diving destinations near Manila or Cebu City.  You soon notice a refreshing sobriety to the urban planning here as you get into the mindset for your dive vacation.

 

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Sunlit Fishbowl. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f7.1 and 1/160s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.

 

Whale Sharks

Scuba divers and photographers will find that Sogod Bay is a great destination for massive, plankton-feeding Whale Sharks, who swim in the waters near the bay’s entrance between November and April.  As in Donsol, east of Manila, snorkeling trips are organized allow opportunities to swim with the whale sharks as they glide along their migratory route.  Whale shark viewing trips do not come cheap, however, and sightings are not guaranteed.  Also, those who have snorkeled with whale sharks know that trying to swim alongside them requires some real swimming fitness.  Because the reefs around Sogod Bay also have a high likelihood of spotting a whale shark during a “regular” dive, I found that the best diving option was to book 3-tank boat dives instead of the snorkeling trips looking for whale sharks.  Sogod Bay arguably has some of the most pristine reefs and superb macro sites in the Philippines – a photographer’s paradise.

 

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Napantao: Star of the show. Taken with 3 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/1600s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.

 

7 Amazing Dive Sites in Sogod Bay

There are 22 official dive sites in Sogod Bay, so there’s more diving than you could hope to explore on one trip.  Average dive trips in Sogod Bay are 10 days, and the following is a selection of dive sites you should not miss.

 

Napantao Wall

Located across the bay from Padre Burgos, Napantao Wall is a wall large enough to be split into northern and southern sections, requiring 2 dives to fully traverse. Napantao is the first designated Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the area, and once you descend it is easy to see why.  Dense schools of reef fish congregate around the wall down to the fifty-meter bottom, with armadas of purple and yellow anthias flitting in and out of huge gorgonian fans, and green branch corals jutting from the wall with pride.  This is one place where watching the skittish anthias vanish into their coral hiding places is truly a sight to behold.

 

sogod bay

Anthia wonderland. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f7.1 and 1/60s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.

 

Once through the thick layer of reef fish, divers are presented with a rich hunting ground for macro subjects.  Napantao is fertile ground for spotting frogfishes and all types of nudibranchs, from the rare to the mundane. Pelagic fish and whale sharks do visit the wall so you do have to divide your attention between the wall and the open water – not a bad problem to have!  Napantao presents a true dilemma for the underwater photographer as there are many wide angle and macro subjects, and multiple visits to the wall should be arranged if possible.  It can be confidently asserted that Napantao is a representative microcosm of the marine landscape that is fast disappearing from Philippine waters.

 

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Fish Everywhere!. Taken with 3 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/000s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.

 

Santa Sofia MPA

Situated just south of Padre Burgos, Santa Sofia is a gentle slope full of hard coral that descends down to a 25 meter sandy bottom. Again, this is a great place for macro with a large variety of nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses and ambush predators like the scorpion and crocodile fishes.  Hawksbill turtles are known to patrol these waters and take a “breather” among the hard coral, so keep your eyes peeled for them.  It is definitely possible to have a close-up encounter and photo session with these gentle creatures.

 

sogod baysogod bay

Left Photo:  Doriprismatica Atromarginata . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 dopter.
Right Photo:  Taringer Halgerda . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron +7 diopter.

sogod bay

Skeleton Shrimps. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.

 

 

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The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba

Goran Butajla
Incredible Shark Diving in Cuba's Jardines de la Reina - find out why divers are flocking there

The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba


Incredible Shark Diving & More in Cuba's Jardines de la Reina

Article & Photos by Goran Butajla

 

Jardines de la Reina Sharks

 

 
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The Carribean is one of the most popular scuba diving areas for American travelers, with easy access to attractive locations in the Cayman Islands, Belize, the Mexican coast and Honduras, among many others.  There is a large concentration of famous dive sites with a variety of diving styles and marine life, including encounters with large marine creatures, world-known wrecks, and cave and cavern diving.  Naturally, there are many interesting dives for underwater photographers.

But there is one area which is still virgin, and that is Cuba. There are two main reasons for this.  First, it is sort of a “black area” for American divers for political reasons, and second, it is still not easy to reach for European or Asian divers.  As a European diver, I had been exploring the possibility of diving in Cuba for a few years, and after checking some YouTube clips from Jardines de la Reina, I decided to see it for myself.  The diving in the videos was too tempting to pass up.

 

Jardines de la Reina Shark

A Caribbean reef shark passes by in the rich waters of Jardines de la Reina.

Jardines de la Reina Shark

Jardines offers many close encounters for those willing to seek out the diving.

 

About Jardines de la Reina

Jardines de la Reina is a remote and uninhabited part of southern Cuba, some 50 miles offshore (do not confuse it with “Jardines del Rey”, which is further north).  This area is heavily protected by the Cuban goverment, so only scuba diving and some “light” big game fishing are allowed here (thanks to Castro, who was a diver himself and wanted to preserve the area). Cuba is slowly starting to open the gates to tourism, and now we are blessed with the opportunity to dive in this fantastic area.

There is one single, goverment controlled but “joint venture," Cuban-Italian operator conducting scuba activities, Avalon Diving. The area is reachable only by liveaboard, but Avalon Diving made an interesting “floating hotel."  It's essentially a big boat converted into a convenient mid-category dive facility anchored in the middle of Jardines, and can accomodate up to 20-25 people living there at a time.  Each day divers are transferred to the dive locations with light, speedy boats that we are used to seeing in the rest of Caribbean. The other option is to book a “classic” liveaboard – a 7 day cruise around Jardines.  I found the floating hotel to be most effective.

 

Jardines Silky Shark

Some of the silky sharks are more than 3 meters long!

 

A 7 day diving package consists of 5 diving days with three dives a day, since you loose the first and last day on transfers to/from Jardines.  It's the only con for this trip. Also, you have to arrive in Havana (where the transfer is organised) one day before the booked trip, and stay in Havana one day afterwards.  This presents a great opportunity to explore the city for a few days after your dive trip.

 

The Diving - Sharks!

The diving itself is something trully different.  The water is very clear, and during every dive you are treated to close encounters with dozens of sharks... for the entire dive.  I've had the oportunity to dive throughout the world and have seen many sharks before, but never in this fashion.  They even started to get a little boring!  If I was the operator there, I might even dare to say, “Sharks guaranteed or money back!”  This is definitelly the place to go if you are a shark lover.  Divers will most frequently encounter groups of silky and carribean reef sharks cruising around in close proximity, giving you many amazing photo options.  Most of the sharks, if not every shark, are bigger then 2 metres, few bigger than 3m.  The dive guides, who are very competent, know exactly where and when to take you, but it also seems that sharks congregate around the mooring buoys as soon as they hear the boat engines, expecting few pieces of fish after the dive (which they receive).  The sharks are not agressive, but courious about the divers so there was never any sense of danger or threatening behavior.  Of course, wide angle photography and close-focus wide-angle are common techiques here, so i never even bothered to try macro shooting.

 

Jardines Reef Shark

The caribbean reef sharks are often found patrolling near the bottom of the reef.

 

Jardines de la Reina Lionfish

At some of the dive sites in Jardines de la Reina you'll find dozens of Lionfish.

 

Crocodiles, Groupers & more from Jardines de la Reina on page 2.

 

 


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The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba (pg 2)

The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba

 

PAGE 2

 

 

Jardines de la Reina Crocodile

This croc didn't seem to mind sharing its waters with scuba divers

 

Groupers, Crocodiles & Other Marine Life

Besides sharks, at some locations you will encounter giant, goliath and nassau groupers. Many of them grow very large, and several that we encountered were 100 -150 lbs.  They are also curious about the divers and some will even “kiss” your dome port. One of them even tried to chew my friend's compact camera hanging from his wrist.  Eventually you'll start looking for something besides by sharks and groupers, and head to the “classic” carribean reef scenery, which consists of many gorgonian fans, sponges and seagrass.  There we found green morays, tarpoons, lobsters, schools of jacks, some barracudas and few speces of rays.  There are also lionfish who don't belong in this eco-system, but they're still not overly abundant.

 

jardines de la reina grouper

At the dive site Cabezo Della Cava we found many large groupers.

Some of the groupers get really large, especially the ones we saw at the dive site Caballones.

 

jardines de la reina gorgonian fan

Large gorgonians are a trademark at Jardines de la Reina.

 

jardines de la reina tarpoon

A tarpoon we saw at the dive site Los Mogojes.

 

One of the most exciting encounters on the trip was the crocodiles.  A few are known to live in the lagoons, so during the break between dives we asked the guides to try to find them. The lagoons are a snorkel tour in water with much lower visibility, but during midday the crocs float on surface and are very calm, so you can approach them if you dare.  I dont really know what to say about the saftey of that encounter besides entering the water at your own risk.  Three photographers in our group entered the water and the guides stayed very close, holding wooden sticks (similar to baseball bats) ready to react.  That said, we stayed with one croc for more than half hour and he didnt even blink, then finally decided to swim away.

 

jardines croc

Our crocodile photo session lasted a long time, however it's over as soon as the croc decides to swim away.

 

jardines de la reina croc

The author, Goran Butajla, gets close to a croc deep in the lagoon.

 

jardines sea turtle

Sea turtles are a bit rare in Jardines de la Reina, but can be found at the dive site Caballones.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Jardines de la Reina a is really pristine, large and untouched system of coral reefs, and represents Carribean “as it was before.”  If the strict regulations remain in place it is unlikely to become overcrowded, and is with no doubt one of last underwater paradises on Earth.  The only visitors here are a very small number of divers throughout the year, with a government-mandated limit of 500-1000 divers.  But that doesnt mean you will have problems booking your trip, since they haven't reached that number of annual visitors since opening the area to scuba diving.  Cuba is also more open to tourism than before, and these days it is even common for Americans to travel travel there.  The Americans we saw came from Cancun and had gotten their visa hassel-free in Mexico, but rumor has it that American citizens can expect direct flights to Cuba soon.

 

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About the Author

Goran Butajla is a well-known croatian diver and photographer. He has traveled world-wide for the past 25 years, constantly in search of beautifull diving locations. Goran runs his own diving business in Zagreb, Croatia as the SSI and PSS Instructor Trainer. Also, he is general editor of Scubalife, the most relevant and most luxurious scuba-related printed magazine in the south-east Europe.  You can contact Goran at goran.butajla@scubalife.hr

 

Further Reading

 


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