Philippines Trip Report - Ticao, Malapascua, Coron, Tubbataha
Philippines trip report (23 March – 13 April 2018)
As mentioned in my other post, I just got back from a fabulous 3 week mostly-diving trip to the Philippines. With the hope that it can assist and inspire other divers to the region, I thought I would share my experiences with different dive sites and shops.
For the first part of my trip, I paid for a dive and lodging-inclusive “dive safari” through Thresher Shark Divers that would split a week between Donsol/Ticao and Malapascua. I flew into NAIA T3, stayed the evening in a pod at the Wings Transit Lounge (I can recommend this for layovers – shared showers, wifi, pretty clean and quiet) and then flew out again, also in T3 luckily, to Legazpi. Turns out we were only 2 ladies on our “safari” and we were promptly picked up in Legazpi and taken to Donsol for a butanding interaction (whale shark snorkeling) before a boat transfer to Ticao Island where we would (supposedly) have a few days of diving. I specifically chose Donsol because, after some reading and research, I had decided that Oslob would not be an ethical place to try to see whalesharks. Having been to Donsol, I can’t say that I would promote this option either. While they do not feed the whalesharks in Donsol, it is still quite a circus (and the day we were there the weather was rainy, cloudy, cold and had generally poor visibility in the water so there were far less than the maximum number of 30 boats) – the boats keep their engines on the entire time (your experience is for 3 hours and they have departures in the morning and the afternoon) and if there is only one or two whalesharks in the area, they tend to circle around them the entire time. As a diver, I know how bothersome it is even at 30 metres when a motor boat flies across overhead – I can’t imagine how terrible it is for the wildlife to be inundated with up to 30 engines buzzing all day long. They say only a max of 6 people in the water at a time but again if there is only one animal and guests have been sitting on a boat for several hours, their BIO is going to let them get into the water. In sum, I can’t recommend this activity – it really doesn’t feel like it is good for the marine life (although I know it is important for the local economy) and I would recommend diving in the Ticao Pass for a more natural and ethical interaction with whalesharks.
The boat ride to Ticao Island took us about 2 hours as conditions were sub-optimal (on a good day you could maybe make it in 1.5 hours) and we stayed 3 nights at the Ticao Island “Resort”. It’s a cute place but by no means a resort in the western sense. I had a budget fan-cooled room (it was cold and stormy while I was there so the fan was more than enough) and was surprisingly clean and critter-free. The shared bathrooms were decent though the water pressure in the ladies WC was practically nil (so I used the men’s after) – dinner is a buffet set-up in the main dining hall and it was generally pretty good with a western-dish and a Filipino dish on offer. At dinner they had you select your packed-lunch for the next day of diving which included sandwiches and Filipino food like adobo (all options were really good). As for the dive shop, I have to say I was pretty disappointed with its organization – it didn’t seem like anyone was really in charge of the place, communication was generally poor and it seemed like a lot of people were missing out on dives for inexplicable reasons. While the weather was not great while we were there, it did not seem poor enough to justify canceling the amount of dives that they did. Our first day was a no-go and other guests had told us they had their dives cancelled the two previous days and people were pretty frustrated. While Manta Bowl is out in the open, San Miguel Island is sheltered and there seemed to be no reason to refuse to go there. We had winds around 12 knots and waves were very very small. This is when I started to realize that bangkas are not very good boats for diving – kitting up is uncomfortable and often unsafe in the small and rocky spaces on the boat and we were crawling around when getting back up on deck with our tanks strapped to us. The first day, we were initially told to report for our dive day at 8 am but were told at breakfast that we wouldn’t dive until 10 am because that’s when another group was going and they seemed unwilling to send more than one or two boats if it could be avoided. When we questioned this, especially since the weather was not going to improve as the day went along, we were then told that we would go out at 8:30 but then sat at the dive shop for over an hour, received a very long briefing and then around 10 were told that the weather had worsened and we couldn’t go out anymore and would sit and wait until noon to see if it would get better. We were promised dives at San Miguel if the weather didn’t improve by the afternoon but by noon they told us to wait another hour – everyone disappeared so we had to keep chasing after DMs to get the news, ask why we couldn’t go to San Miguel – everyone had a different story and kept pushing the waiting time back and eventually we were refused dives at San Miguel because the weather was too rough to even travel there (it was not – we were there with Thai dive pros who said the weather conditions were typical for their everyday dive outings in Thailand) – it seemed that the boat captain didn’t want to go out for whatever reason and another guest who understands Viscolino heard the captain saying that he would tell the guests that we would try to go out to Manta Bowl but then stop halfway there and say it was impossible – which is what happened when we finally kitted up and set off around 3:30 pm. It was all the more disappointing to have a Donsol-based dive boat come up on our beach that afternoon for a visit and to hear that they had been to both Manta Bowl and San Miguel – the divers there told us the top-side conditions were a bit choppy but nothing crazy and that the current was strong (as is normal for the bowl) but again nothing crazy or unsafe. We managed to go out the next day and got 4 dives in at Manta Bowl – make sure you drop in at RAC Point because we didn’t even have time to get our reef hooks into the rocks before an 8 metre whaleshark cruised right over heard. Manta Bowl is an advanced dive due to the current and the depth (we had 2-3 knots so hooks are needed) and you tend to sit at around 25 metres waiting for the big guys – Nitrox would have been very good on this dive to extend bottom time (it wasn’t offered at Ticao) and since it is a sandy bottom around the 25 m level, you don’t need to really worry about exceeding your depth limits. We unfortunately saw no mantas and were told by the guides that they hadn’t seen any for at least 2 weeks. A friend was there the week after me and saw about 10 whalesharks in a single dive at RAC but again no mantas… I do have to say that the DMs were really great – they were safe, considerate and know the sites really well – its just that the shop is completely disorganized and no one seemed to care or acknowledge that people travel very far to get to Ticao to go diving and that when dives are carelessly cancelled, it creates huge disappointment. We learned later that a couple at the resort were denied a day of diving because they only wanted to do 2 dives (dives here are expensive at 10,300 PP for 4 dives) and were told both of the boats going out were doing 4 dives. This was ridiculous since the plan was always for both boats to do 2 dives in the morning, return to the resort to switch out and fill up tanks, and then go back out for 2 more dives. We could easily have accommodated this other couple for their 2 dives in the morning or afternoon but they lost that opportunity because of poor organization and general lack of care for the guests. In the end, I highly recommend dives at Manta Bowl but can’t recommend Ticao Island Resort’s dive shop. They have a monopoly on diving and even though it is only 30 minutes to MB (versus 1.5 hours from Donsol), I’d think that the increased competition in Donsol might mean you have a better chance of actually getting out and doing your dives (in the number of dives you would like).
After a great day of 4 dives, we were told that our safari boat to Malapascua (on which we had 3 dives scheduled) was being cancelled because of a “typhoon”. There was no typhoon anywhere nearby and in fact the weather that day was the best it had been in over a week (totally calm waters, sun, no wind). We are thus suspicious of the cancellation of the boat – since it was Easter week, I wonder if the boat owners got a better offer (more $$$) from someone else and decided to divert the boat elsewhere. In any event, I chose the safari explicitly to avoid the backtracking and long travel day to Malapascua but that is what we had to do – boat back to Donsol, winding road to Legazpi, flight to Cebu city, over an hour in Cebu City traffic (ugh) and 3 hours north to Maya Bay and a very uncomfortable and slightly frightening 45 minute Bangka transfer in the dark to Malapascua. But we made it.
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