Sogod Bay is the Philippines’ best kept secret for scuba diving – a marine sanctuary that boasts beautiful reefs, great critter life and regular whale shark visits. Sogod Bay Scuba Resort director Phil McGuire explains Sogod’s hidden charms
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Diving Sogod Bay – Dive Happy Episode 9 Show Notes
- Sogod Bay Scuba Resort – The resort which Phil helped found and now directs.
- Coral Cay Conservation – one of the local organisations who help protect and assess Sogod’s reefs
- LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertibrates Project Philippines) – whale shark
Dive Happy Sogod Bay Trip Reports
- Whale Sharks at Sogod Bay (video) – video from my first Sogod trip in 2007, shot by Pedro Batestil
Diving Sogod Bay – Dive Happy Episode 9 Summary
Breath-taking corals of Napantao attract divers from all around the world
Sogod Bay Scuba Resort is based on the Island of Leyte with over 22 top notch dive sites, and two of those being some of the best in the Philippines and even Southeast Asia. It boasts an array of everything, with a sleepy town feel and a relaxed atmosphere. It is quite a trek to get to Sogod Bay in Southern Leyte, which enables the remarkable peace and quite that you experience at the resort and surrounding area.
Recently there has been a new fast ferry introduced that can take travellers from Cebu to Maasin, which is the capital of Southern Leyte. From there it is only half an hour drive to Sogod Bay Scuba Resort. One of the most popular and well known dive sites is a 17 year old marine protected area called Napantao. The diving area makes a horseshoe shape and dives down about 75 meters. It is abundant with both small and big fish, including giant trevally schools. One of it’s forte’s is the coral, which attracts many divers from all around the world and therefore makes it one of Sogod Bay’s premier dive sites.
Reef and marine conservation efforts see great impacts in Southern Leyte
The area is monitored by Coral Cay Conservation, who do an excellent job of maintaining the marine protected areas as well as keeping out unwanted fishermen. They do a lot of surveying of reefs and implementing new marine protected areas. This is a reason why the dive spots have lasted so long. One of the goals of the provincial government is to implement marine protected areas every couple of kilometres, all the way around Southern Leyte, Sogod Bay. This will also assist fishing for locals, banning fishing trawlers from using nets in the bay.
These conservation efforts have been spurred on by several governors who have taken a very green-oriented stance to their leadership, many working closely with Coral Cay Conservation to protect the bay and its’ people. The area is also known as the entrance where the whale sharks enter, accompanied by seasonal pilot whales, humpback whales, and dolphins. This has classified the bay in high environmental prestige in that regard.
Scientific research of whale sharks gives real value and data for conservation
A group called Lamave, an environmental NGO, has been studying whale sharks in Leyte for nearly three years. They have been tagging and gathering statistics that conclude that there are more whale sharks in the area than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Lamave staff come along on whale shark tours with local dive shops to take pictures and identify any new whale sharks in the area. So far more than 120 whale sharks have been identified and sighted in other areas around Southeast Asia.
Historically, whale shark season is between November and May. However, during that time the water temperatures can drop from the regular 29°C to only 25°C. Visibility also decreases down to 10 to 15 meters. March, is usually the best month to see whale sharks as there is much better visibility. A lot of travellers, especially photographers, come from all over to photograph the whale sharks during those times, so March through May can be quite a busy season in Southern Leyte.
Weather factors and optimum dive seasons
Contrary to what is described, the weather patterns in Southern Leyte are much different that what is experienced overall in the Philippines. Rainy season in Leyte is usually between November through the beginning of January. It is not located within the actual typhoon belt, which tends to move north of Leyte. What most people are not aware of is that the best diving months are between June and August, which is the summer season.
The world famous night dive under the village pier and new dive site discoveries
The pier night dive is another must see in Southern Leyte. Like Napantao, it attracts a lot of macro divers and photographers from all around the world. There is an array of everything you can think of; stargazers, frogfish, blue ring octopus, mimic octopus, and many nudibranchs. There are also several other great macro dive sites, including Ghost Town, and over 220 nudibranchs have been spotted and documented in these areas.
During the June through August months, it is a much quieter time in the area. This presents the opportunity to do a lot of discovery dives of new sites in the Bay. Many long-term and repeat divers come back during this time to explore and document the new discoveries of uncharted waters.
The legacy of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort
Sogod Bay Scuba Resort was founded in partnership by Ron Parkes and Phil McGuire. It started out as a vision to build a dive family, along with their wives, Darlene and Annalyn, and Pedro Batestil, a local born in Southern Leyte, who is now the Dive Shop Manager and one of the greatest guides and photographers in the area.
After Ron’s passing, the team has continued to build his legacy of promoting Southern Leyte, diving, and photography. It is a passion that they share with all divers and travellers alike. Their mission is to cherish return customers, with their main aim on supreme service. This is something that Phil instils in the staff to this day.
Prospective new airport to be a game-changer for the Southern Leyte area
Currently there is an airport located 12 kilometres north of Maasin. The terminal is half-way constructed and hopefully by January 2017 it will be completed. The Department of Tourism, along with the governor and president Duterte, are working to see the project come to completion.
The completion of the airport can be quite a game-changer for Southern Leyte, Padre Burgos and Sogod Bay. The area is ready for an influx as a lot of the resorts are already in place and the Padre Burgos municipality has made sure that septic systems are being used throughout the area. Although the influx is expected with the increasing ease of access, Phil believes that the peaceful atmosphere will always remain in Southern Leyte.
Diving Sogod Bay – Dive Happy Episode 9 Transcript
[0:00:06.5] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about the best places to go scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Christ Mitchel and my guest for this episode is Philip McGuire, a director of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort which is located on the Island of Leyte in the Philippines. Phil, welcome to the show.
[0:00:23.6] PM: Thanks, Chris, thanks for inviting me to be part of this show.
[0:00:29.2] CM: Oh you’re very welcome mate, it’s good to talk to you. So obviously I’ve been to Sogod Bay a couple of times but I’d like to know how you would sum up in a nutshell what’s so special about the diving in Sogod Bay.
[0:00:43.1] PM: Most people who visit it, and I’ve been doing it for 12 years now, here in Southern Leyte, and the corals are one of our most strongest fortes in the actual scheme of things but we have a diverse range of marine life. As I said, we have a lot of macro, we also have the visiting Laos shark at certain times of the year. In other words, we have over 22 dive sites here that are top notch and two that are probably some of the best in the Philippines and even in Southeast Asia.
So you get an array of everything plus you get the province style living where we’re not like a lot of other places like the Bohol and so forth where it’s very busy. We are more like a sleepy town pretty much. So you don’t get many people on dive boats or anything like that. We’re a pretty relaxed sort of area and as I said, the marine life and the corals here are superb.
[0:01:41.2] CM: Yeah, that’s a great summary. I was going to say that, if there was one word that I’d use to sum up Sogod or “so good”, my pronunciation’s always going to be a problem. If there’s one word that needs to sum it up, it would be quiet. It is remarkable how peaceful it is there and the lack of other boats around and just the general sense of sort of peace and quiet you get there, which is I found even more remarkable, given that I’ve been there twice but that was separated by nine years and when I went back there this year and met up with you again, it didn’t feel like it had changed that much in the nine years since I’ve been away. Obviously you live there, so you have a different perspective, has it been changing much?
[0:02:25.8] PM: Due to — there’s a number of issues here, actually access, it’s quite a trek to get to Sogod Bay in Southern Leyte, we actually just recently in the last month or so, we’re now getting a fast ferry from Cebu to Maasin, which is the capital of southern Leyte, which is only half an hour drive from our resort. I believe that may change things over time but normally we have four metal, three really major dive shops. A few smaller ones but the main reason why people don’t get here is A, because of the traveling time.
But now it’s been reduced considerably because of this fast ferry, take three hours from Cebu to Maasin port. So it’s three and a half hours which you will find out at Cebu for example where the major international airport is, most dive destinations are three to four hours. We’re on par with that now and I’m hoping that we will get a few more guest just to push us through all the parts of the seasons.
[0:03:31.2] CM: Sure, is there sort of a rough estimate of how many people come to Sogod every year? Has it sort of dramatically increased or has it stayed pretty much the same over the last 10 years?
[0:03:41.9] PM: Well, we weren’t actually hit by the typhoon which went past, well passed us and hit Tacloban but unfortunately, we were laid into the Leyte area, we’re actually a separate province to southern Leyte and we weren’t affected at all except in tourism which reduced our numbers three years ago. But things are picking up now. I couldn’t really give you off the top of my head but what sort of numbers we do get but the actual dive shop or all the dive shops, we had about three and a half thousand visitors in 2015, approximately anyway.
[0:04:20.7] CM: Wow, yeah, that is still quite low numbers, which is fantastic if you’re one of the divers who makes the effort to go out there which is precisely why I love going back so much because it felt like you get a just reward for making the effort of trekking out there. You said in your summary about, obviously there’s over 20 different dive sites and you said a couple of some of the best in Southeast Asia. Could you tell me a bit more about those sites?
[0:04:51.0] PM: Well we have what they call here, it’s about a 17-year-old marine protected area called Napantao, very well known within the diving destinations of the world. It’s just sort of a horseshoe shape diving, dives down to about 75 meters. It’s just abundant with small and big fish, we have giant trevally schools at the top with other brims and so forth and has Anthias and a huge array of fish all around it. One of its fortes is the corals, I haven’t seen corals like that pretty much through, especially through the Philippines now.
Yeah, in itself it gets a huge array of divers from all over the world. We get a lot of liveaboards here as well as our own dive shops and everyone, it’s our premier dive site, put it that way and most people when they come to visit us in southern Leyte or Sogod Bay, they want to visit that site for sure, it’s a must.
[0:05:51.0] CM: Absolutely, yeah. I must say that when I was back there in April this year that I remembered it but going back over there, it really was kind of quite jaw dropping to see it again because of the clouds of Anthias, there’s thousands of them around the green corals, it’s just absolutely fantastic. Just wonderful for taking photos as well. I think it’s one of those sorts of really — sometimes you can go and see sites and they have great corals but it’s not particularly photogenic whereas, at this place, you can’t stop taking photos there.
[0:06:25.3] PM: It’s fortunate too they have Coral Cay Conservation groups right there on its doorstep and they also helped to maintain the marine protected area and keeping out unwanted fisherman and so forth. That is also a major reason why it has lasted so long because of Coral Cay Conservation, they do quite a good job over there shooing away fishermen.
[0:06:46.5] CM: Yeah, I remember those guys, they were there when I visited the first time. So they’ve been in the area for a long time as well right? Are they there year round carrying out monitoring and protection?
[0:06:59.4] PM: They do a lot of surveying of the reefs and also implementing or surveying certain areas to become marine protected areas. One of the goals of the provincial government here, and it’s very good goal is they’re trying to implement marine protected areas every couple of kilometers all the way around Southern Leyte, Sogod Bay, which in itself will help assistance fishing here for the locals. They’ve also put in a ban now of fishing trawlers coming in and using nets in the bay. It’s all plus in regards with the governor here, Oging Mercado, he has one of the forefronts in pushing this, he’s a very green governor which is very unusual for the Philippines.
[0:07:45.7] CM: Yes, it seems like the area, it’s had quite a progressive approach to conservation over the last 15 years or so. I mean if I’m right, this is all set in motion by a governor like 15 years ago and she was quite ahead of her time when she sort of really pushed this forward. Is that right?
[0:08:04.3] PM: That’s correct, yeah, that’s correct. She was quite good friends with Coral Cay Conservation group. As I said, all through now, the governors that we have had are very green orientated, they do push the things. They can see it too, it will benefit — like I said before, it’s hard to get here so it is a slow — we could be as good as Bohol here but I don’t really want that, only because of the reason of getting here has been so hard but you could have probably 10, 15 dive shops all the way around the bay and you probably wouldn’t meet up because it’s such a large bay.
It’s 400 meters in the middle and then we get — this is supposedly the entrance where the whale sharks come through and we also get seasonal pilot whales, we’ve seen humpback whales here, we got a lot of dolphins. It’s a very environmental prestige area in that regards.
[0:09:00.7] CM: Yeah, for sure. Leyte Gulf, it’s a huge body of water and it basically has that — it’s very shallow at the top and then it just drops off to a really deep water, right?
[0:09:13.6] PM: That’s correct. Quite a lot of different currents come through, I can’t always promise whale sharks every year but most years, we also have a group called Lamave, they’re an environmental group here, an NGO and they’ve been studying whale sharks and they’ve actually put out a paper just my last eight, nine months saying there are more whale sharks here than anywhere else in Southeast Asia because they have the statistics. They’ve been doing tagging and they’ve been following them and doing sightings.
All the whale sharks trips we do, plus all the other dive shops whale sharks we do, we bring on a Lamave staff member who takes pictures and we also identify them as well. There’s been over 120 now that have been identified and sighted in other areas around southeast Asia.
[0:10:03.2] CM: Wow, that’s fantastic, that’s so great to have such comprehensive info.
[0:10:08.4] PM: Yeah.
[0:10:08.8] CM: Those guys must have been going at it pretty hard then as well? They’ve been there for quite a while, at least four, five years?
[0:10:16.3] PM: Two and a half, nearly three years I think now. They’re also involved with a lot of other — they’ve got one in Oslob where they feed them, unfortunately, in Cebu. They have also got a station there but their main station is here and as I said, they have got a statistics, there probably is other whale shark areas that have more but they’ve proven it by statistics which is scientific and it’s proven. So that has given a boost to our whale shark industry or our tour industry here. We don’t dive with them, we don’t feed them.
[0:10:49.0] CM: Yeah, we just had a little technical hitch there, where me and Phil got cut off from each other. But Phil, you were talking about the scientific research about the whale sharks and how they’ve been taking them and that Sogod has one of the largest whale shark population in southeast Asia. So I know that it’s a popular reason for people to go to the area. Would you say that the whale sharks are the main draw or that the reef is sort of what people are really turning up to see?
[0:11:17.4] PM: I would say both, I always say having whale sharks is a bonus here but my main aim and my business partner Ron, our main goal was to start up a dive resort because we know the diving here is spectacular with all the sites and so forth. It’s such a diverse range of diving you can do here. The whale sharks is a bonus and some years, we get lots, we have great interaction, sometimes up to an hour at a time.
Then sometimes, some years we don’t see as many. So I always say yes, they’re both a draw card but I mean, for people coming here, I would say, “Yeah, come to see the whale shark but come to see the diving as well because the diving is very good here.”
[0:12:01.8] CM: Yes. What is this sort of whale shark season typically?
[0:12:05.9] PM: Whale sharks, historically, it’s between around about November through to the end of May is the norm. Unfortunately, the temperature of the water drops down to around 25 C, it’s normally 29, 28 which is cold but we put our five ml’s on but that’s how it is. The visibility drops down to around about 10 to 15 meters and then as it progresses into March, April, and May, we usually, the best month normally historically is March to see whale sharks here and the visibility. A lot of people, photographers especially, come to take pictures or video of the whale shark in those times. So we are quite busy March, April and May.
[0:12:50.3] CM: Right. As you go into the low season, is the area bothered by the weather like the northern Philippines get sort of typhoons and stuff passing through, but is that really an issue for where you are?
[0:13:04.3] PM: Well no and unfortunately, the department of tourism here paints the picture. They’re a little bit old fashioned but they paint the picture as, because of Manila and Northern Philippines, they say it’s the rainy season and in actual fact, it’s not. Our rainy season is between November, December and a little bit of January normally, and we get rain. We’re not in the actual typhoon belt where touch wood, we’re just outside that and most of it goes well north of us through Tacloban and Samar. The best time for diving, for example, is between June, July, and August. That is our summer here. But again, a lot of people don’t realize that and it’s a very hard thing to portray. But our whale shark season as I say is November through to the end of May.
[0:13:47.6] CM: Okay. Obviously, you’ve got the really big animals coming through but also, there’s lots of really great macro stuff isn’t there? Particularly the world famous night dive on under the village pier, can you tell us a bit about that?
[0:14:02.9] PM: Yeah, well, the pier night dive is a dive to, another one like Napantao, it’s one that a lot of macro divers and photographers come and that’s a must to see. We have an array of pretty much everything you could possibly think of, we have stargazers, we have frogfish, we have blue ring octopus, mimic octopus, yeah, pretty much everything you could possibly think of and a lot of nudibranchs.
That’s something that Ron, my business partner, he was an avid photographer and pushing macro in a lot of ways because as you go into the bay from the pier and in towards the end of where Sogod, the township is, the end of the bay, it turns from white sand, or crushed coral-y type stuff to black sand. So we have a site called Ghost Town, we have a site called Little Lembeh. These sites are fabulous macro sites and we’ve spotted over 220 nudibranchs in this area which we’ve documented now.
I know that Anilao has 600 and something or rather but that’s because they have the human traffic. But there’s a huge amount still to discover and in June and July, we do a lot of discovery dives. We have a lot of long-term customers who come, a repeat customers who come back and we usually do new dive sites then. In June, July and August, that’s sort of when it’s a quieter time but we do a lot of discovering of new sites.
[0:15:29.2] CM: Yeah, that’s pretty exciting isn’t it? That there is literally uncharted waters that there is still so much stuff to be discovered around the area.
[0:15:37.9] PM: Yeah, very true. This year, we have a Finnish couple or a Dutch couple that comes every year. We’ve had two new macro sites we found which we found the Hairy frogfish, we found a lot of new nudibranchs, one called shore and the sheep we call it, and that’s another interesting thing, we’ve been getting into super macro. It’s the size of half the size of a rice grain, it’s so small you look at the thing and go, “Ah.” And you get the number 10 lens, pull it out and you can see it. So we have a lot of unusual critters here.
[0:16:13.6] CM: Yes, and it’s also worth mentioning that Pedro who is also part of the dive resort, one of the co-owners and the long term dive master, he basically came up to the ranks didn’t he? He’s an instructor now isn’t he actually?
[0:16:28.7] PM: Yeah, that’s correct.
[0:16:30.1] CM: But he also is just an incredible spotter as a guide, his eyesight is phenomenal. The stuff he was finding for me when I was there in April, I mean half the time I couldn’t actually see what the hell he was showing me. So we had to go back down with a magnifying glass.
[0:16:47.3] PM: Oh I dive regularly with a magnifying glass.
[0:16:52.3] CM: But it’s great that not only has Pedro stayed with the business for over 10 years but also that he has become sort of an integral part of the reef himself in terms of looking after it and understanding it and explaining it to all the people that come to visit.
[0:17:10.5] PM: That’s correct, he is a legend here now in Sogod and as I said, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this, Ron and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this over the years without him. He’s a jack of all trades, he’s a diesel mechanic, he is a welder, he’s an instructor, he is everything. Also, he’s building up a very good album of photos, he’s very keen on the marine life, he knows so much about it now and I’m hoping next year, we’re going to the DRT show in Manila this year, the end of this week actually.
Next year I’m hoping he will be one of the photographers in the show because they pick about a hundred photographers nationwide and overseas to come into the show and do talks. I’m hoping Pedro next year will represent Southern Leyte.
[0:18:01.1] CM: That will be fantastic. Yeah, and well deserved because he has become a very good photographer. Which he should be because he’s in the water often enough.
[0:18:09.7] PM: Yeah, a plus bonus too, he loves doing that. That’s one of his passions. It’s all very well to have a job but when it’s something you really love doing, it’s very nice that he can do that and all the gear from Ron went to him, hand me down to Pedro. And we also have an American photographer here, Clark Guigle, which has helped Pedro greatly and he comes every year for four or five months and has taken a huge amount of photos and you see a lot of them on our Facebook site and website. They’re both Pedro’s and Clark. He’s a great help too and I’m hoping he will get involved more in the years to come as well because he’s sort of like a very shy type of photographer, he doesn’t really want to put his name on anything but he loves doing it, he has a passion for it as well.
[0:18:57.3] CM: Fantastic. I should point out to our listeners that Ron who sadly is no longer with us, was the, well he was the original founder of the resort, wasn’t he?
[0:19:06.7] PM: Yeah, partnership with me and Ron. We started and then we opened up a company right at the beginning and then we used Pedro and my wife Darlene and Annalyn as owners because of being in the company we are only allowed a certain percentage as foreigners. Yeah, it’s developed from there and this is what our legacy, or Ron’s legacy and this is exactly what he wanted to do us to keep as a family and we are part of all family here, and move on and promote Southern Leyte and promote diving and photography, that’s our passion pretty much.
[0:19:39.0] CM: Yeah, absolutely, also, I was going to say what fantastic taste Ron had in choosing the location of the house. One of the things when I came back this year and I brought my girlfriend and a couple of friends as well, they were all just blown away by it. On the one hand, it’s such a simple house but it feels like number one you are in someone’s house, which makes it lovely and cozy. But that veranda is just, it never gets old, you can just sit there all day and watch the sea, it’s fantastic.
[0:20:12.0] PM: Yeah, a fabulous million dollar view here and yes, we try and keep it much, we do cherish our return customers and service is our main aim here and that’s what I preach to all the lads on the boat and every one of my staff. That’s the sort of thing, I said, “If you have good servers, maintain your resort, we’ll always do well here,” and we have. We’re doing it okay, we’re moving on and it’s just one of those things. Yeah.
[0:20:41.1] CM: Just to sort of start to wrap this up, when I saw you, we were talking about the possibility of an airport being built in Southern Leyte. Is that sort of progressing or is it still bogged down in bureaucracy?
[0:20:55.6] PM: Well I’m the president of the Tourism Association and president of the Divers Association, and that’s my two goals. I’ve already got the fast ferry, that was one goal, that took us 19 months to get but we’ve got that now. Regarding the airport, I can see it probably — the airport’s there which is about 12 kilometres north of Maasin, the terminal is halfway there, it needs a roof and walls and so forth. I believe maybe by the first month of 2017 like January of 2017, it will be completed.
We’ve had talks with the Department of Tourism and the governor and also Mr. Duterte, the new president. He was born in Maasin, so we’re hoping we might get some leverage on that as well. It does look like it will happen in 2017, it’s well on its way. Again, Filipino time as you probably know. But I’m hoping anyway. I’m not going to say much more than that.
[0:21:53.0] CM: Sure, but if it does happen and if it happens let’s say within the next couple of years, that could be quite a game changer though couldn’t it?
[0:22:01.7] PM: Yes. I mean, one good thing is, because it’s hard to get here, there have been a lot of structures and establishments built like small resorts all over the place, not so much in diving, just in home stays and so forth. But that has gone in and so, one thing is, if it does happen in the airport, I think Southern Leyte or Padre Burgos and Sogod Bay will be ready for this because a lot of the resorts are already in place. The Padre Burgos municipality where we are, they’ve made sure that everyone has to use septic’s and it’s not sewer straight in the sea like you see a lot of Puerto Galera and places like that.
It’s not like that and the environment is the big, big push for them, that’s hopefully that may stop the massive building of everything because there isn’t a lot of areas to build on now because as I meant, like as in beach front type things, there’s not a lot of availability because the road follows the bay all the way around. So there’s not a lot of room for resorts. You might find that yeah, we’ll get an airport and maybe it will get busy but I don’t think it will get busy like Bohol and places like that. I can never see that happening.
[0:23:14.2] CM: Yeah and I imagine there would be kind of like a golden period there where for the first couple of years, the airport will be open but people don’t really catch on that suddenly it’s so accessible to get there. So you wouldn’t see necessarily an overnight massive increase of numbers, would you? It’s going to be a gradual thing?
[0:23:34.0] PM: No, it’s gradual. I mean I expect to get some customers, like six million people in Cebu and we have a daily fast ferry now, it takes three hours. So I envision, we might get some weekend traffic, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday sort of thing like Bohol does but as I said, that’s in its’ early stages and that will happen but I don’t think it will be as busy as Bohol, no.
[0:23:58.1] CM: Awesome. All right Phil, well thank you so much for talking about it. It was great to see you gain and I am very much going to make sure I come back in much less than nine years for the next visit to see you.
[0:24:12.1] PM: No, it was great seeing you. As I said, anytime, you’re most welcome. I’m sorry Ron wasn’t here but that’s how things move on and anyway, bring people from Thailand, I’d love to see them.
[0:24:26.4] CM: Yeah, thank you mate. Okay, cheers and take care.