Diving Ticao and Donsol, Philippines
Diving with Mantas and Whale Sharks
Text and photos by Mike Bartick
Ticao island Philippines is a tropical dreamscape of aquamarines, blue and lush green, powder blue skies melting into cobalt blue seas. From Donsol (a 45 min flight from Manila), Ticao is a short bangka (outrigger canoe) ride across the San Bernardino strait.
This morning the water resembled blue glass, not a ripple on the horizon. Our crossing was very comfortable and often accompanied by flying fish. In no time we were hugging a palm tree-lined island that is Ticao, making our way towards a small bay that hosts the resort. As we round the point the Ticao Island Resort comes into full view.
The resort is very small and consists of ten traditional thatch roof huts with big porches, private baths and AC, all constructed on a white sand beach.
Jason the resort manager and his staff are all happy when we arrive and welcomed us with a tropical drink. If this isn't paradise then I don't know what is, truly an amazing setting.
We are early enough to catch a night dive or two so while Jason informs the dive shop, I set up my gear. Our destination is San Miguel island, a little strip of land with palm-peaked hill tops at the western end of Ticao.
Around San Miguel Island - incredible macro life
We arrived in the bangka at a site called Bobby's wall in a small cove with a fishing village nearby and back-roll in. It's always comforting to splash into warm water.
Immediately I begin to find interesting creatures: colmani shrimp paired up on a fire urchin, nudibranchs, pipefish, frogfish, coriocella and more. Lots of subjects from the famous underwater critter list. I fire away filling my memory card quickly, as we continued to explore the area which was so full of creatures that we never made it to the actual wall, rather spent our time exploring the sloping sand and small coral heads.
Soft Coral Mimic Nudibranch
Robust Ghost Pipefish
Afterwards, we head around to the back of San Miguel island to a spot called "Lighthouse". Dramatic striated cliffs drop into calm clean water. This is more of a longshore dive where the substrate is made up of a huge variety of healthy hard coral in the shallows. Then sloping down into soft corals and finally sandy bottom below the hundred foot mark. A bit of current is at work here feeding the area with nutrients and an endless supply of food. The marine life here is very similar to what I have seen throughout the Philippines - robust ghost pipefish, pygmy squids, several species of nudibranchs, seahorses, and many types of reef fish. A really incredible diversity and density of marine life.
Concentrating on lighting I vacillate between a single strobe and dual strobe for dramatic effect. I also love to incorporate as much natural contrast into a photo as possible, whether it be from the background like algae, sponge or coral. I even like shooting with a fast shutter speed for a deep and rich black negative space. One thing is for sure, there are many ways in macro photography to shoot a single image.
We take our time shooting and exploring, a nice long dive is just what the doctor ordered.
While surfacing I'm looking through the water into the night sky and see the milky way trail across. A million stars light up the deck of our boat, and the unmistakable southern cross become a topic of discussion on the way back from our fantastic first dive.
Jason greets us and the kitchen has a delicious meal ready for us. Reviewing my memory card that night I couldn't help thinking about the incredible macro life that must be everywhere around this secluded island.
As the sun rose the next morning, I decide to take a walk along the beach and explore the nearby village. Small canoes at the water line, palm trees, dogs romping around having fun and children with smiles from ear to ear. I always measure a place I'm visiting with an easy test: could I live here? Glancing up I daydream of my own house right here on the sand.
Arriving back in time for coffee, word has spread of the macro life to be found here. So we discuss the day and decide the "Manta Bowl" will have to wait.
This next trip out we head back to Bobby's wall, except this time we head around the point and actually dive the wall. Bobby's wall is stunning, with sea fans, pulsating xenia coral, stonefish resting on the soft corals, frogfish and more nudibranchs. What better way to start your day than this?
Ticao Dive Site: Corolla
We wrapped up our morning diving a spot called "Corolla". This site appears to be another longshore dive, but as we descend that changes. Soft corals rule the day - reds and purples and beautiful barrel sponges, Incredibly, the current here is a bit strong which is nice as we slowly cruise the depths. Exploring drop offs, cuts, ridges and other various types of substrate.
Manta Bowl - diver's mecca in the Philippines
Finally that afternoon I would have my chance to dive the famed Manta Bowl. Lisa, our smiling british DM, is all too excited to take us out. After lunch and a nice rest we board the bangka and head out, not more than twenty five minutes later we arrive at the "Manta Bowl". As we approach we can see several converging currents, swirling water, eddies, roiling footprints of upcurrent and a manta right below the surface. Lisa briefs us on this unique place, "The Manta Bowl is only a small area of this 40 square hectare sea mount" she says. The sea mount is divided into quarters and each area is named differently. "Classroom", "Carlos", "Sweetlips" and the "Manta Bowl" were discovered approximately 20 years ago. This current swept sea mount has been a mecca for divers ever since.
Then Lisa lays out the dive plan. We need to drop down quickly to beat the current, stick together, find one of the several cleaning stations and hook in. So in we go all together, back-rolling into the current and with a few kicks were off. Right away we see sharks dashing away startled by the sound of our bubbles, and the tunas and trevallies present are already a good sign. Quickly arriving at the bottom we signal each other and set off with reef hooks in hand.
Just a few minutes later Lisa is pointing up into the water column. Nothing really prepares you for the appearance of a majestic animal like a manta ray. Gliding without effort into the current and appearing as if it materialized right out of the mist. This mammoth animal is stunning, mouth wide open, calipers swinging in scooping the krill. The first few sightings are a bit distant for quality photos but just as I think it's over, a big manta swoops in right over our heads, extending its wings into a rigid position above a cluster of rocks. Small cleaner fish dart from the rocks and begin cleaning this beautiful animal.
Hooked into the reef I push up into the current and fire away. The giants are just out of reach and I know you can't chase them so I have to play it cool and hope they relax enough to come close.
Symbiosis is the way of the sea and it all makes sense when you witness this behavior occurring right in front of you. Soon enough the huge winged creature circles off. We all look at our air and signal, this ride is over. Heading for the surface our DM shoots her balloon to notify the boat as we drift along on our safety stop. Schooling jacks come flying by, and soon after, tunas. We clamber aboard the bangka and high five. What an incredible experience.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard the "if you were here last week" stories. Coming into this trip I had met with an expert on the area and we discussed my chances of seeing the mantas on my trip. Afterwards I lowered my expectations thinking if I see just one manta I would be happy. Well we saw not only one but three. Needless to say I was not only happy but my faith had been restored.
The Manta Bowl and wide open macro life make Ticao an incredible destination. Ticao is truly unique, romantic, quiet and off the grid. Quiet time is eminent as there is no cellular service or internet. This makes for a very good opportunity to decompress with some downtime, unwind, dive and appreciate the diverse world around us.
Donsol, Philippines, Whale Shark Capitol of the world
Nearby Ticao is Donsol, one of the best places in the world to see whale sharks, especially from February to May. You can usually see many whale sharks, but visibility can be limited due to plankton. You can only snorkel with the whale sharks, not scuba dive.
If you want to swim with whale sharks, Donsol is not to be missed. The whale sharks begin to appear as early as November and increase in numbers through April and into May.
Each dive group is shown a video of how to interact with the whalesharks before boarding the bangkas. A BIO or Butanding Interaction Officer then accompanies the group and helps to spot and assist. Each boat is also assigned guides who keep a close eye on the divers. During the high season there can be as many as 10 or 12 whalesharks in close proximity.
Diving with whalesharks is done on snorkel only in Donsol, which makes it tough to keep up and dive deep. Thus the guides are there to help by literally pushing you through the water like a human outboard motor. Fom children to the older adults, anyone can take part and enjoy interacting with these majestic sharks; it’s a wonderful experience for all ages.
Whale shark culture
The people of Donsol are as enthusiastic about whale sharks out of the water as they are in the water. Every year as congregations of these gentle giants move in to feed on plankton, the locals prepare for a huge festival. The Butanding (Boo-Tan-Ding - tagalog for whale shark) festival is a celebration of the yearly return of the whale sharks. During the last week of April, the celebration reaches a crescendo as a huge parade takes place and a young lady is crowned Miss Butanding.
Donsol is an hour’s flight from Manila into Lagaspi. A van or car can be arranged for airport pick up and transport. The overland portion of the trip winds through some very picturesque countryside offering many photo opportunities like rice fields, aquaculture, small townships and the always smiling faces of local filipinos.