Bohol: aloha Alona

Photo: Alex Frew McMillan

A talc-soft white beach is the centrepiece of a stay among the chilled-out resorts of the Bohol dive scene

Alex Frew McMillan

Photo: Alex Frew McMillan

The green turtle swam out from its overhang and off into the deep blue. It wasn’t keen on the affections of our dive guide, who had tried to stroke it, so it headed up to the surface for a breath of fresh air.

While we were watching the turtle’s departure, a batfish and a bluefin trevally swam cross paths in front of us. Suddenly our dive guide put his hand to his head to make the universal shark fin sign – only this was surely a mistake, because he was pointing to a clump of coral.

Bohol is a sleepy island in the centre of the Visayas, themselves the central belt of islands that form the Philippines. The pace is always unhurried here, even in the relatively touristed area of Alona Beach on Panglao Island, connected by a causeway to the southwest edge of Bohol, where most divers base themselves. From here, numerous operators run daily trips to the islands of Balicasag and Pamilacan as well as to the sites along Alona Beach itself. With enough warning, it is even possible to set up island-hopping trips to further-flung spots such as Siquijor, Dumaguete or Moalboal.

It turned out that there was a shark in that clump of coral: a small whitetip reef shark sleeping in a hole, its mouth visible on one side, while its long tail stuck out the other. It was one of only two sharks that I spotted on a recent 22-dive trip to Bohol, and it was a tiny one at that. But while you shouldn’t expect a procession of big pelagics in Bohol, each dive is coloured with schools of various reef fish, hunting eels, sleeping sea snakes, cowries and cone shells, and various other oddities and diversions.

Whichever of the main areas you choose to dive, you will encounter a similar dive profile: a near-shore entry, dropping down to 30-40m, and then steadily moving up the wall or reef slope to 5m or less. This makes for more interesting deco stops with none of them out in open ocean.

BALICASAG

Must-do dive

Black Forest
Location: East coast
Attractions: Hordes of reef fish
Depth: 5-40m

Photo: Alex Frew McMillan

Black Forest sits just off the east coast of Balicasag, an island which has one government-run resort but which is normally visited as a day trip.

The sloping wall here is dotted with trees of black coral, a misnomer because it is actually green when lit up. Each head is like a shrub stripped of its leaves, with thumb-thick branches covered in clumps and knots that ’flower’ at night.

The water around is at times thick with damselfish, chromises, gregories and wrasses – all typical small reef fish. There are others here too though, such as a school of hundreds of chevron barracuda which spiraled about us as we looked up into the sunlight.

We were later surrounded by another equally big school. At first I assumed the barracuda had tracked back, but then noticed that this was a large school of jacks, whirling around with the light glinting silver off their bodies.

Photo: Alex Frew McMillan

A pair of large titan triggerfish danced playfully by with two yellowmargin triggerfish. This was the first time I had seen yellowmargin triggers, just as large as the titan but paler and sporting a striped eye. They also have supersized dark dorsal and anal fins with yellow trim that appear to ’flap’ in the water as they swim.

The best of the rest

Black Forest would reward repeat visitors, but Balicasag is surrounded by other good sites.

Diver’s Heaven is also interesting, a wall dive that ends at a shallow reef full of small fish feeding in the current. At 29m, there is a large purple sea fan that is home to pygmy seahorses of a matching deep purple. Schools of big-mouth mackerel swim along the wall, and there are midnight snapper, scorpionfish and jacks.

Stick to the reef all the way in to the shallows as they yield bright purple-and-orange nudibranchs, trumpetfish, black-saddled tobies and anemonefish of all colours and kinds: pink, tomato, false-clown and orange.

Sanctuary is also worth a visit, one of numerous sites of the same name in the region: fishing isn’t allowed in this area, in theory at least. This dive runs along a long wall in front of the resort on Balicasag and is a pleasantly slow drift dive if the current is running.

Here there are stonefish, scorpionfish and pufferfish to amuse you. We even came across one giant pufferfish that had two small remora sucking on it, perhaps a sign of the lack of big fish since remoras normally stick to species such as sharks.

CABILAO

Photo: Alex Frew McMillan

As the island is a leisurely two hours by banca boat north of Alona Beach, it is worth going out to Cabilao with a dive operator so you can dive a couple of times on the way.

Once the island was home to large schools of scalloped hammerheads, with divers able to see up to 350-400 sharks at one time. But the schools were fished out by a passing fleet of fishermen from Siquijor who got stuck here in a storm.

“Lonely Planet and books like that keep saying this place is full of hammerheads,” says Gregory Maciejowski, who runs a dive shop on the island.

“It’s rubbish. Seven years ago, from December to late March, you could see that, but not now.”

But the diving around Cabilao is still very good though again, you will be happier if you are into scrubbing around for interesting small stuff than if you obsess about big pelagics. There are some dazzling discoveries to make, with the waters loaded with unusual species such as flying gurnards, devilfish with their yellow-and-red ’wings’ and poisonous spines, pygmy sea horses, fire clams and giant frogfish.

Must-do dives

Lighthouse
Location: Northwest coast
Attractions: Reef critters, sharks?
Depth: 5-50m

This is one of the most dived sites on Cabilao. One dive at sunset turned up a hunting sea snake, two banded pipefish, a large octopus hiding in a coral bolthole, a school of barracuda, flurries of surgeonfish, a school of 15 batfish nestled in the depths of the wall and then razorfish, nudibranchs and the unusual-looking radiated leatherjacket in the shallows.

Next door, is a site called Shark Point but that’s more of a name than a promise. There ARE sharks – whitetips and even threshers – but they are deep and only come to diveable depths when the water gets colder. Still, experienced divers will want to try this or Lighthouse each day on the off chance and some will feel the urge to drop even below standard recreational depths in a bid to catch a glimpse of their quarry.

Three Coconuts
Location: West side of the island
Attractions: Large table corals
Depth: 5-50m

We were lucky enough to spot a solitary 1.3m whitetip making his rounds along the wall deep below us at this site which is next to a fishing sanctuary that is likely the shark’s home.

However, Three Coconuts is more famous for its impressive collection of table corals, at just 5m. Two large napoleon wrasse joined us at this point, examining us while we examined the corals and checked out the tiny fish that had taken refuge among the outcrops as we closed in.

Best of the rest

At Lo-Oc on the island’s north shore, our divemaster discovered the magic little sea cucumber under a coral head. The cucumber buries its body deep in the sand and then feeds with its tentacles, slowly lifting one after another to its mouth in the centre. It’s fascinating to watch and hard to find.

Lo-Oc offers plenty of these sorts of interesting species, though visibility, especially with the tide going out, is often quite poor, making it almost like muck diving.

The House Reef in front of Polaris is great even to snorkel, while the south of the island has Shark Cave and the east side, Cambaquiz, with a sandy slope populated by blue-spotted rays, garden eels and the flying gurnards.

ALONA BEACH

If the islands of Cabilao and Balicasag get the headlines, there are those that prefer the ready access of Alona Beach itself and its variety of smaller critters.

The House Reef stretches along the shore off Alona Beach, each section named after the resort it fronts. There are white-eyed moray eels, large snake eels with their head jutting out of the sand, the occasional sea snake, banded pipefish, black frogfish and the like. At the Sea Explorers section, divers have created a house for one mantis shrimp that allows guides to poke the shrimp out

so you can see its bright colours and strong claws.

In front of Bohol Beach Club, there is a rather bizarre wreck: one of the colourful local jeepneys [rugged local jeeps-cum-buses] now overgrown with coral and anemones but with the steering wheel, the outline of the vehicle and the tyres still visible.

Further west along the reef, is the more conventional Danao Beach Habagat Wreck, where a sunken banca down at around 37m is home to giant frogfish, scorpionfish, lionfish and ghost pipefish.

Arne Jensen, has run a dive shop on Alona Beach for six years and says that in his opinion the diving has improved during that time: “The dynamite fishing has stopped, and the big boats have been chased off,” he says. The Alona Beach operators have sponsored boats and diesel for the police to enforce dive permits. Still, the sea at night is dotted with the lights of scores of local fishermen.”

PAMILACAN

This island is worth a visit, but for the time being the diving is not as good as at Balicasag. There is now a marine sanctuary off the island’s shores to the east of Alona Beach which should improve things with time but until now the ban on fishing within its limits has been only imperfectly enforced. Those that know the island say that Pamilacan’s fishermen seem still to be fishing indiscriminately – and are rumoured to prey on mantas and whale sharks when they pass by.

Spanish Tower, a site named after the ruin on the shore, stretches deep down a wall. Soon after the start of the dive, we spotted a yellow leaf fish sitting on a coral clump, watching the world through its silvery eyes, while in the depths, we found pygmy seahorses at home in a large gorgonian sea fan.

The visibility is good here but that also makes it easy to lose track of your depth. While watching a banded sea snake swimming at the bottom of the wall, we realised we had dipped below 40m and were bumping up against our no-decompression limits, so we climbed quickly back to the shallows. While there, we rounded out the dive with yellow and white warty frogfish, boxfish and large lionfish.

The dive boats normally run a second dive at Pamilacan, then head back past Snake Island, a coral outcropping that reaches almost to the surface and is a breeding ground for sea snakes. This sometimes serves as the day’s third dive.

Practicalities

When to go
The diving is good all-year-round in the Philippines. Dry season runs from November to May. There can be typhoons in the second half of the year, but they are unpredictable. You have the best chance of seeing sharks when the water is coldest, from December through March.

How to get there
Most divers fly into Cebu airport on Mactan Island, then hop in a taxi to the fast ferries to Tagbilaran run by Weesam Express or Oceanjet. The trip from Cebu to Tagbilaran takes around two hours.

Dive shops
More established operators include:
Philippine Islands Divers, www.phildivers.com
Scubaworld Bohol, www.scubaworld.com.ph
Seaquest Dive Center, www.seaquestdivecenter.ph
Sea Explorers, www.sea-explorers.com
World Tropical Diving, www.worldtropical.com

Accommodation
Alona Beach, Panglao:
Alona Palm Beach Resort, www.alonapalmbeach.com
Alona Tropical Beach Resort, tel: (63-38) 502 9024
Alona Vida Beach Resort, www.seaexplorers.com
Oasis Resort, www.seaquestdivecenter.ph

Other beaches, Panglao
Bohol Beach Club, www.tambuli.com
Bohol Sea Resort, www.boholsearesort.com

Cabilao
Cabilao Beach Club, www.cabilao.com
Polaris Beach and Dive Resort, www.polaris-dive.com