On the Hunt

The sun sparkled across calm waters as we kitted up for a late morning dive at Secret Bay, a signature muck site in Anilao, Philippines. “Find us something we’ve never seen before,” we demanded playfully of our dive photo guides, Vernie and Marco. They responded with slight eye rolls and smiles that said, “Sure, no problem.” After a leisurely backward roll, I bobbed upright, grabbed my camera rig and trusty muck stick and descended to the shallow sand bottom. It was time to hunt.  

At first glance Secret Bay looks like many other muck sites: a bland sand-silt bottom that slopes steeply downward. We were kicking into a mild current and scanning for critters close to the seabed when I noticed geothermally heated water jetting up from patches of hot sand — a common sight on this dive. Marco had already spotted a thorny seahorse and a striking red whip coral goby. I was focused on a small orange Thecacera nudibranch, sometimes known as the Pokémon nudibranch. Then, without warning, there was a noise like cracking thunder, and the bottom began to shake — seriously shake. My nudie was snapped like a whip on his hydroid, but it held on tight. Silt rose around us, and my chest reverberated with the sound waves. It was an amazingly strong percussive earthquake that would have been truly alarming had we not been feeling modest tremors both above and below the water for a few days. Our request for something unique had certainly been fulfilled.

We all looked at each other until the sounds and reverberations began to wane, and then we exchanged OK signals. This event seemed far stronger than anything we had experienced before, but the conditions were still good, so we continued our dive. We gradually worked our way shallower while shooting critters, then a second big earthquake struck with enough intensity that we opted to surface and head to the boat. Back on board, our whole group was gobsmacked by the event and couldn’t stop babbling about the wild sensation we’d experienced underwater. The captain told us he had watched buildings swaying on land.

We later learned we were diving within a mile of the epicenter of the quakes, which is why they felt so pronounced. In my eight years of diving this region I had never felt even a tremor, but I was now reminded that much of the world’s best diving can be found along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Such experiences are rare but not unheard of, and they are undoubtedly related to factors that influence the amazing marine diversity found in this region of the Philippines.

A diver watches a hawksbill sea turtle search for sponge morsels on the reef wall at Verde Island.
A diver watches a hawksbill sea turtle search for sponge morsels on the reef wall at Verde Island.

An Accessible Gem

Within the Philippines, some refer to Anilao as the birthplace of Philippines diving. Divers living and working in Manila made the drive to the sleepy coastline for decades, as did some tourists. But Western photographers really began to take notice after seeing Scott “Gutsy” Tuason’s photos in the award-winning 1999 book Anilao.

Anilao, a region (barangay) on the large island of Luzon, is about a three-hour drive south of Manila. The area lies on the Mabini-Tingloy Peninsula, west of the Verde Island Passage, which separates Luzon and Mindoro. Anilao is located where the South China Sea meets the Sibuyan Sea and the Pacific Ocean beyond. This means marine life is diverse, unique and plentiful within this heart of the heart of the Coral Triangle.

A yellow warty frogfish has its mouth wide open. It probably wants a snack
A yellow warty frogfish opens its mouth in a defensive posture at Caban Cove.

These rich waters are filled with unique Holy Grail species, including dazzling nudibranchs, funky-looking frogfishes and numerous well-camouflaged cephalopods. It is almost impossible to visit without encountering a creature you’ve never seen before. Spend a week diving this place, and you will see why both locals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have put so much effort into protecting the region.

Let the Guides be Your Eyes

This is a place where it really pays to develop a rapport with your guides. Tell them what you are interested in finding. If you say you like supermacro subjects such as skeleton or hairy shrimp, you will surely see them, but if 3 mm hydroid-eating nudies are not on your bucket list (or within your lens’ capability), let them know. There is plenty of bigger stuff to find. Also, don’t assume that sites other divers have proclaimed great on previous trips will still be that good. Ask the guides what is hot when you are there. The sites change season to season and year to year.

During my visit several guides suggested El Pinoy was “going off,” albeit in a slow-motion, mucky sort of way. The site’s denizens included a fantastic Ceratosoma alleni nudibranch (referred to by the guides as alleni), which was named after its discoverer, ichthyologist Gerald Allen. For a first-time critter hunter, these suckers can be challenging to spot despite their large size, as they resemble the xeniid soft coral they hide near. On one dive we got to watch as they laid electric-blue egg ribbons. This site also offered abundant anemonefish, pygmy seahorses, blue-ringed octopus, countless wrasse, waspfish, dragonets, mototi octopus and skeleton shrimp. In Anilao, you run out of time before you run out of subjects.

I’m always amazed by how in Anilao I can reliably find subjects that can be challenging to locate in other parts of the Indo-Pacific. Matu Point, a dive site near the entrance of Anilao Harbor, exemplifies this. Giant boulders that rise above the surface create shallow walls underwater that lead to a long rocky and silty slope. There is no real coral growth or sponge life and only a few anemones here, but the site is amazing in its own way. Every visit seems to produce fire urchins with Coleman shrimp — sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, but reliably there.

A purple pygmy seahorse has its tail wrapped around pink coral
A Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse resides on a tiny sea fan at El Pinoy.

On this visit I counted at least 11 fire urchins with Coleman shrimp and a couple with zebra crabs. But this is no one-trick dive site; the guides showed me hairy algae shrimp in 12 feet of water, and nudibranchs from pea size on up cover the wall. Frogfish do their best to disappear, while juvenile boxfish hide in crevasses, and the floppy antics of young sweetlips unfold before my lens. Golden chain morays hunt the rocks, while small grouper lurk nearby, hoping to steal their meal. Here I photographed a blue tunicate shrimp — my first — and encountered one of my favorite reef crustaceans: an Oliver’s squat lobster. I had been asking for one for many days, and here sat several in their holes looking like a cross between a 1950s Martian and something that Hunter S. Thompson dreamed up while under the influence. When you light up these quarter-inch subjects, they are simply awesome.

You Need All Your Lenses

A couple of tropical striped triplefin (Helcogramma striatum) rest on a tunicate.
A couple of tropical striped triplefin (Helcogramma striatum) rest on a tunicate.

The oceanfront dive resorts of Anilao are mostly small establishments nestled against the steep rocky cliffs and slopes along the shoreline. Mingled among the resorts are small colorful villages with even more colorful banca boats (traditional Filipino fishing boats) with bamboo outriggers. This all makes for exotic scenery on trips to and from dive sites.

A netted Ceratosoma nudibranch looks tie-dye in color and has weird horns.
A netted Ceratosoma nudibranch flattens out while feeding at Caban Cove.

On most days our resort provided us with a stable banca-style dive boat crewed by a captain, first mate and dive photo guide. Most of Anilao’s 50+ dive sites are within a 30-minute boat ride, and they’re not all macro muck dives. In fact, the area’s varied reef types and other underwater terrain are part of what makes it special. Yes, there is white sand muck, dark sand muck and even trashy muck. But there are also soft coral slopes, boulder hard coral reefs, stunning pinnacles swarming with life and sheer walls and ridges.

At Twin Rocks it’s especially hard to choose between wide angle and macro. The site consists of two cylinder-shaped bommies that rise from the bottom to within a few feet of the surface. These towers are incredibly prolific with colorful soft corals, swarming anthias, butterflyfish and plenty of hungry grouper and jacks on the prowl. Clumps of crinoids in every color of the rainbow burst like fireworks. I counted at least six different clownfish in different colored anemones, three giant frogfish, blue ribbon eels, numerous jawfish, nudibranchs of several varieties and a large field of Euphyllia coral that was as green as Kentucky grass. During our dive, a large green sea turtle came in and nestled right under a huge table coral. Needless to say, divers gush with praise for Twin Rocks. Only the guides seem a little bored —photographers get so preoccupied by all the abundance, their strengths aren’t always needed. 

A pair of Willan’s Chromodoris nudibranchs embrace in courtship or mating at Koala Point.
A pair of Willan’s Chromodoris nudibranchs embrace in courtship or mating at Koala Point.

One day we ventured toward the islands of Maricaban and Sombrero, home to Beatrice Rock, Sombrero, Sepok, Layag-Layag and Bahura, coral reef sites that teem with kaleidoscopic activity. Soft corals and sponges are plentiful, and currents can be strong to screaming. But if your timing is rewarded (or you’re just lucky) you will find clear water, pulsing clouds of tangerine anthias, reefs painted with brilliant Tubastrea coral and an amazing parade of tropical denizens you would never expect to encounter in one of the world’s most famous macro locations.

Another interesting and unusual site is the Daryl Laut, a former floating casino. We ducked into a protected rock beach for shelter from a brisk wind and were amazed to find a wonderland just fin kicks from the shore. A framework of girders rising from 90 feet is all that remains, but every square inch is covered with clusters of tunicates, cup coral, crinoids, sponges and a palate of various soft corals. At one corner a stand of black coral grows from the frame; we spotted two resident longnose hawkfish among its branches. A large school of spadefish performed synchronized maneuvers at the deep end of the wreck, and tucked around the base of the girders I found a multitude of male ring-tailed cardinalfish that were mouth-brooding eggs.

The wreck offers interesting possibilities for wide-angle shots that use the coral-encrusted frame, but it is hard to ignore the many nudibranchs, flatworms and well-camouflaged crustaceans hiding in plain sight. Toward the end of the dive, a steep rubble and coral slope led us back to the shallows. It’s not very attractive at first glance, but treasures such as xenia shrimp and electric clams can be found on it. We were blessed with the ultimate in voyeurism: a pair of mating blue-ringed octopuses in passionate embrace.

A Night to Remember

Even if you don’t usually dive after sunset, a night dive is a must in Anilao. Almost any location can be amazing, but the most famous is undoubtedly Anilao Pier. Some people wait until 10 p.m. to do this night dive, but others choose to watch the sunset from the boat and then slip into the water. Thankfully our guide chose the latter.

Two tiny striped bumble bee shrimp look like a cross between scorpions and bees. They look hungry.
Tiny striped bumble bee shrimp (Gnathophyllum sp.) pose at Kirby’s Rock.

We drained our cups of tea while the last streaks of vermillion faded from the sky. I could see the early twinkling of stars through my mask as the dark water erased the light above. Following a very brief descent, my knees touched the bottom in 10 feet of water. Our guide had prepped us for sightings of the usual suspects and said we’d stay in the sweet spot depth of 10-15 feet. It wasn’t long before we encountered several Bobbit worms rotating their nightmarish jaws atop their iridescent bodies. The worms were unleashing their traplike weaponry on unsuspecting fish that meandered too close.

After shaking off a shudder, I slowly propelled myself over the rolling sand bottom toward our guide’s flashing light. He had spotted a coconut octopus hiding between two shell halves. These brilliant home builders make portable shelters out of just about anything; this one’s attractive shells offered superb protection. Next up was a little tropical bottletail squid attempting to cover its head with sand using its tentacles. Then a jewellike green and blue bobtail no bigger than a pea put on a show much bigger than its size. From then on, the dark harbor waters were punctuated by constantly firing strobes and the scanning beams of focus lights as one discovery after another was made. The bottom came alive with nocturnal mollusks, their glistening shells carving tiny trails across the sand. Melibe nudibranchs engulfed prey, while pelagic squid writhed their tentacles in Rorschach patterns. Eel blennies and snake eels dotted the bottom. Dozens of tiny crustacean eyes in the sand reflected our focus lights, while headshield slugs, tiny scorpionfish and even larval blackwater subjects showed up. At 10-15 feet our air lasted for ages, but eventually we had to call it a night and head for the boat. We rode back to the resort on a calm sea under a canopy of a billion stars.

Anilao has far more dives than you could do in one trip, and some are too good not to repeat. My memory overflows with new sites and new sights that return visits have unveiled: the sheer wall and enchanting shallows at Kirby’s Rock, the elusive purple Rhinopias at Sunview, the Nembrotha nudibranch madness on the boulders of Mainit Point and the flamboyant cuttlefish and mimic octopus at Haydees. New discoveries are being made here all the time as researchers return again and again. I’ll return too, armed with a wish list of critters to hunt and expecting the unexpected.

A coconut shrimp grabs a shell, probably for a snack
A coconut octopus claims an empty bivalve shell as its new home at Anilao Pier.

How to Dive It

Getting there: Fly to Manila International Airport (MNL), also known as Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Depending on your arrival time you can stay overnight at a nearby hotel or take the two- to three-hour road transfer to Anilao.

An illustrated map of the South China Sea and the good dive locations

Conditions: The season for diving Anilao is October to early June. The best months are usually March, April and May, and the resorts are most crowded in April and May. If you don’t mind slightly cooler water temperatures, January through March is great, too.

The water temperature is generally 81°F by May/June, but in January, February and occasionally into March, it can be as low as 76°F. I recommend a minimum of a 3 mm or 5 mm full wetsuit with a hooded vest for multidive days. Most people find Anilao’s water to be cooler than they expected. Though it is in the tropics, Anilao has cool upwellings and currents. These can also affect visibility, which averages 30 to 70 feet, depending on the site. The tint of the water can range from green to crystal blue.

Topside activities: Bars and restaurants may not be easily accessible, so bring a good book. After a full day of diving, night dives, photo transfers, meals, camera prep and chatting with your dive buddies, many divers find they’re ready to hit the pillow. If you have an extra day or two in the Manila area, there is plenty to explore there.

Something different: Many Anilao resorts offer dives at the Verde Island Drop Off. The site lies at the tip of Verde Island in the middle of the Verde Passage, about 45 minutes away by boat. There is always a good chance of seeing big schools of fish, large pelagics and clear water. There are also rare species of nudibranchs to be found.

© Alert Diver — Q3 2017