Romblon island is a hotspot for tiny underwater critters rarely seen elsewhere in the Philippines. Founder of DiverBliss.com Ara Juan explains the appeal of Romblon’s super macro marine life
Romblon Cyere Nigra © Ara Juan. Used with permission.
Diving Romblon: the Philippines’ Secret Super Macro Paradise – Dive Happy Episode 16 Show Notes
- Ara’s comprehensive guide to diving Romblon on her site DiverBliss.com
- Ara’s new site PhilippineDives.com currently in soft launch mode
- The 3 P Dive Resort – lots of great info on Romblon diving, including videos of the rare pgymy seahorses they’ve found
- Neville Coleman: A Life Less Ordinary – an interview that I did for Scuba Diver AustralAsia magazine back in 2008. Neville is sadly no longer with us but discovered and named numerous macro critters – a real pioneer
The Philippines’ Main Scuba Diving Areas
Romblon is not marked on this map, but it’s around the island to the right of Anilao and Puerto Galera, which are marked. Romblon is a lot harder to get to!
Other Related Dive Happy Stories
- Diving Anilao – my guide to diving at the most famous place for macro critters in the Philippines
- Diving Dumaguete – my run-down of the great macro diving on the coastline at Dauin and the wide angle coral gardens of nearby Apo Island
- Diving Lembeh Strait, Indonesia – probably the world’s most famous weird and wonderful critter destination, Lembeh is muck diving heaven.
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Diving Romblon: the Philippines’ Secret Super Macro Paradise – Dive Happy Episode 16 Transcript
[00:00:06] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy. This time, we’re talking to Ara Juan. Ara is a Philippines-based diver who runs the excellent website, diverbliss.com.
[00:00:18] CM: Ara, welcome to the show.
[00:00:20] AJ: Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:22] CM: You’re very welcome. When I was looking around your website, you’ve produced some really excellent detailed reports of different locations in the Philippines, and some of these places I’d either never heard of or I was only vaguely aware of. It really made me want to up my game and do better at writing stuff on Dive Happy, because the level of detail you would give was just really great and also really good videos and hitches. It’s the kind of detailed intelligence that people really need, particularly about places like the Philippines because everything tends to focus on the same destinations over and over again.
[00:01:01] AJ: Yeah. That was actually my intention for the blog that I did.
[00:01:05] CM: Right. What? To try and point out these harder to find places.
[00:01:09] AJ: Mm-hmm, yes. Like what you mentioned, I’ve been to Romblon, which is off the beaten path kind of diving, and I’ve been to Antique. Probably, I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but that’s also one of those remote unknown places that I’ve been through, and that’s what I’m trying to do to bring that information to other divers around the world.
[00:01:31] CM: Awesome, yes. Today, I mean, obviously, there’s lots of places we could talk about. But today, I wanted to focus on Romblon because I had only heard about this place until I found your website because I have two friends, Sue and Andy, and they are crazy about the super macro photography, like the really, really tiny stuff. I met them on a boat, and they were raving about Romblon. They were like, “Oh, my God! You’ve got to go there. The stuff there is incredible.” I mean, would you agree with that?
[00:02:06] AJ: Yeah, definitely. It’s like one of those places that a lot of divers do not know. Even the locals here, they’re not so familiar about how awesome diving in Romblon is. Every time, I meet someone who’s been there, they always rave about it.
[00:02:22] CM: Is there like one particular thing that people are particularly excited about finding there or is it the whole variety of stuff?
[00:02:30] AJ: I think it’s a whole variety of stuff because actually I’ve only heard of Romblon from three years ago. When I went there, I didn’t even know that they were into the macro type of diving. I just went there for fun because I wanted to see the island. My friend, my dive buddy, she told me that there was diving there, so I was like, “Okay, let’s check it out.” But I’ve never heard of diving in Romblon before, so I just kind of went them on a whim.
When I got there, we went diving, and the dive guide kept on pointing to all these tiny stuff. It was kind of amazing because I’ve never seen those kinds of critters before and I’ve been to different places in the Philippines. I’ve been to places like Anilao, Malapascua, Bohol. I’ve never seen those critters before, so it kind of got me excited. But at the same time, it was kind of frustrating because it didn’t have the right camera with me because everything was just super tiny. You could just imagine. I had like a small Nikon camera that was point and shoot, and all my pictures are like crap because I wasn’t prepared that it was going to be that tiny.
The year after, I decided to come back and say, “Okay, I have a better set of better camera. I have a micro lens.” The first thing they show is a sheep nudibranch. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Shaun the Sheep, the tiny nudibranch. It’s like the size of the grain of rice. So I was frustrated once again because it was just too tiny. My camera wasn’t good enough for it still. Going to Romblon, it’s not just nudibranchs. They were pointing to stuff like pygmy seahorses, and it wasn’t the pygmy seahorse that you usually see like the pink one or the yellow one that you always see in a sea fan. It was a different kind of seahorse. They were showing me shrimps, showing me sea slugs, showing me crinoid shrimps.
The variety is just amazing, so I understand why your dive friends kept raving about it. If you’re really into the super macro photography, then you’re going to get that kind of experience there.
[00:04:34] CM: Right, exactly. I mean, that was the thing because at first I was kind of like, “Well, Anilao is fairly nearby and it’s obviously down in Dumaguete,” and which obviously both of which are much easier to get to. So I was kind of like, “Yeah,” and you’ve just reinforced that. I mean, they were kind of like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. It really is kind of unique,” which is pretty amazing.
Essentially, Romblon has its own microenvironment then, because these critters are being found there and not so easily found anywhere else.
[00:05:04] AJ: Yeah. I can assume that they are also available or you can probably find them in other places in the Philippines. It’s just that I guess the people there already know where to find all these wonderful critters. They probably know where it lives or they’ve been trained to look under rocks or algaes or wherever these critters are known to breed and live, so it’s so much easier. The people I dived with there, they’ve been diving in that area for many, many years, so they really know where to find all these amazing creatures.
[00:05:39] CM: For those guys who actually grew up on the island, are they local locals or did they move to the island to become dive guides or –
[00:05:46] AJ: From what I understood or remember from their stories, the mom is Filipina and the dad is a foreigner. I don’t know which country. I think Germany. Then they moved to Romblon and started diving for fun, and they realized how good the diving is there. So they built up their business and they specifically just catered to underwater photographers.
[00:06:12] CM: Is there only actually one dive resort on the whole island?
[00:06:17] AJ: Right now, I think there’s about three. When I was there the first time, there was only one. I guess people started to hear the buzz about it, so two other dive shops opened up. I think there were like some that were there also a long, long time ago. But because of the business probably not getting enough tourists, they probably closed. But now, from the past two years, I know there’s been two additional dive shops that has opened up in the island itself.
[00:06:45] CM: In your excellent post about Romblon, you talk about this specific creature. That’s why you went back there a second time to – Could you tell us about that?
[00:06:53] AJ: Yeah. I didn’t really do my research because I was [inaudible 00:06:56] that I just went there for fun and I wasn’t really into photography at that time. The first time that I went there, one of my favorite things that they showed me was the ghost nudibranch, which is supposedly the holy grail of nudibranchs. It’s called Melibe Colemani. I’m not sure if I just butchered the scientific name of that. It looked like it has a transparent body. That was one of the favorite things that I saw because I’ve never seen it before. Since it was dubbed like the holy grail of nudibranchs, that got me pretty excited.
After that, when I went back, going through the pictures, I realized that there is the logo of Three P, which is the dive shop. I never saw that. Apparently, people were also raving about it because it’s like one of those rare nudibranchs as well or rare sea slugs. It’s that butterfly nudibranch.
[00:07:47] CM: The butterfly nudibranch. The dive shop has it as their mascot, do they?
[00:07:52] AJ: Logo, yeah. The log of the shop and it’s the one that I didn’t see. Can you imagine? It’s like their mascot and I didn’t even get to see it. So I went back and I specifically went back because I really wanted to see it. They finally bring me diving, and I said, “Okay, this is my only request for this dive. I want to see this critter.” They bring me to the dive and the dive guide finally shows it to me. It was like super, super tiny. I always assume it was going to be big, because the logo was big, the pictures that I saw online was big. I was like, “Oh, my God! It’s so tiny.” It was probably around one centimeter. That’s the biggest that I saw. It was like one centimeter but it was super, super pretty. It was like, “Oh, my God! It’s super worth it to come back here just to see it.” Because after the first dive, I was like, “Okay, you have to show me another one because that was just too tiny.” That’s how good they are.
The next dive, the dive guide comes back and then he started to point to me not just one but two of them and was like, “Here. Here’s your nudibranchs.” I spent another – Practically the entire time just trying to shoot it because it was just that pretty.
[00:09:07] CM: Awesome. I think I’m looking at the photo on your webpage that shows the two butterfly nudibranchs together, and it’s a lovely shot. You said you aren’t happy with your camera but you’ve got some really great shots here. I mean, because my problem is I can’t even see the things even like when I’ve got a telescopic lens or whatever. I’m just kind of like, “Where is it?”
[00:09:29] AJ: Yeah, it’s super hard. These people were showing me stuff that were like one centimeter and below. So anything that was like one cm, that’s like one inch, that’s considered big to them. So everything that they were showing me, those were like super tiny. I had to talk to Peter, one of the owners and I was telling them, “Oh, my God! I’m so frustrated because my pictures suck because everything is just too small. I was already in macro and I couldn’t shoot properly.” They ere kind enough because they were into the whole photography thing. I mean, that’s their entire business, so they were kind enough to lend me some lenses to use or to practice on. I kind of appreciated that.
[00:10:08] CM: That’s great. That’s really nice.
[00:10:10] AJ: Yeah. They were like giving me tips because I was new into this whole macro thing. Since they knew what they were doing, so like, “Oh, why don’t you try this?” They were teaching me stuff. I kind of appreciate that kind of relationship that they give to their customers.
[00:10:27] CM: That really enhances the whole experience, doesn’t it? I mean, that makes you feel like pretty special. Then also, you get to learn something new and you got some great shots. That’s a pretty cool outcome. I’m just looking at your photo of the ghost nudibranch and I just realized the name of [inaudible 00:10:42]. I’m probably saying it wrong as well, is that Melibe Colemani. I think the Colemani bit comes from Neville Coleman who’s sadly no longer with us. But he was the daddy of identifying nudibranchs. He’s an Australian guy.
[00:10:55] AJ: Oh, really?
[00:10:57] CM: Yeah, yeah. He wrote some of the definitive books about nudibranchs across the Asia Pacific, so there’s several nudibranchs out there with Colemani in the name, because it’s after his surname, Coleman.
[00:11:11] AJ: Cool. Okay.
[00:11:15] CM: That’s really great. Then the guides obviously, they really know their stuff.
[00:11:18] AJ: They really know their stuff, yeah.
[00:11:20] CM: I assume as well then, if there’s only you said three dive shops on the island now, you’re going to be diving in very small groups with your guides, so there’s not going to be a [inaudible 00:11:30] photo or something. Would that be right?
[00:11:33] AJ: When I was there because I was traveling alone, so the guides are pretty good in terms of showing guests where the critters are. They’ll find one, give one guest one, and then they’ll find another creature and find another guest to shoot. So you’ll kind of [inaudible 00:11:50]. It’s not like you’re lining up, just waiting for one photographer to finish to dive. Sometimes, you’re like, where, the dive shop and you’re just like waiting for one photographer to finish before it’s your turn. These people, they look for a critter, give it to one guest, and then look for a critter, and then assign it to another guest. Once you’re done, you can swap. Since there’s really few divers or dive shops in the area, you’re not going to encounter other divers underwater, except your group most likely.
[00:12:23] CM: That’s something that’s really underrated. But for me, to have that situation, where you aren’t running into other groups and stuff, it kind of really makes a much nicer diving, yeah.
[00:12:33] AJ: It’s very leisurely, because you have the entire area to yourself. Since you’re all photographers, are you planning to go in a group or just yourself?
[00:12:43] CM: It would be me and my girlfriend who loves the macro stuff.
[00:12:47] AJ: Usually, you can just request the shop to assign one dive guide for you and you take as much time as you want underwater. I was actually logging in around 7 to 19 minutes per dive because it was just kind of leisurely. Take as much time as you need. It was pretty nice to not be in a rush.
[00:13:08] CM: Yeah. That’s kind of my perfect kind of diving, which is [inaudible 00:13:12] around. In general, there’s quite a few dive sites there, right?
[00:13:19] AJ: There’s a lot but the one that I went to – I think we only went to a few of the known ones where they could find the critters, so they have like a favorite spot. There is a dive spot for called Bon Bon, and I think I went there several times. But since you’re looking for small stuff, you don’t really mind the reed and big corals and whatnot, so it’s mostly sandy area with patches of corals and not much of the type of marine life that you would see compared to Anilao or Malapascua probably.
[00:13:55] CM: Yeah. That’s interesting. So the reef is in pretty good condition but it doesn’t look particularly spectacular. Would that be fair?
[00:14:03] AJ: Yeah, because it’s pretty much sandy in most parts with patches of corals and because of all these tiny critters that really live in all these nooks and crannies under the water.
[00:14:14] CM: Yeah. How did you find the visibility? Was it generally good or is it like quite murky or –
[00:14:20] AJ: It was generally good. When I was there, probably like 20 meters more. But then, again, you don’t really care like the visibility when you’re looking up close and personal at a nudibranch that you need at a one-inch distance. But generally, the visibility in Romblon is pretty good, although I must admit that there was a lot of trash in some areas, so I think mostly because of the island being in close proximity to the community.
[00:14:48] CM: Right. Well, that’s the interesting point is there are three dive shops, but is there much out there for tourists? Are there like restaurants along the beach and that sort of stuff? Does it got a little touristy scene or is it still quite chill and local?
[00:15:01] AJ: It’s a bit more chill. There is not much tourists. Actually, the only tourists that I would see there are basically the ones from the dive shop. You can go into town. The town would have its usual wet markets, stores, restaurants but also very few. I mean, there are like places for tourists but it’s mostly to cater for the local tourists as far as I could remember. It’s not very touristy because, again, it’s very hard to get to. So it’s the number one or the top choice of most backpackers to visit. I mean, there are a lot of nice local beaches. It’s starting to get some promotion or a lot of visitors because of its beautiful beaches, but I think the special part about Romblon is really the diving there, which a lot of people don’t really know about.
[00:15:56] CM: You’ve mentioned a few times that it is more difficult to get to, so how would I as Johnny far now, I fly into Manila Airport and then what would I do? Ride down to Anilao and try and get a boat? I mean, what would be the easiest way to do it?
[00:16:10] AJ: I think that, for me, I personally prefer doing it by boat. If you do it by boat, when you arrive to Manila, you go to Batangas Port, which is near Anilao. Then you take a ferry straight to Romblon. Then from Romblon, once you arrive in Romblon, you take a tricycle to the dive shop. I think that’s the easiest. Although it’s the easiest, it will take you mostly around 18 hours probably to do it, because it’s an overnight boat.
[00:16:40] CM: Wow! I was about to ask you how long is the boat journey.
[00:16:44] AJ: It’s about 12 hours probably, 9 to 12. It depends what kind of boat. Yeah.
[00:16:47] CM: Whoa.
[00:16:50] AJ: It’s an overnight boat. I think it’s easier because you can just sleep. When you check into the boat, you basically can just sleep and lounge around. Then you wake up the next day in Romblon, so you arrive to Romblon at around 5:00 AM. I think that’s the easiest. The other alternative is – It could be a bit faster but I think it’s just too much inconvenient, at least, for me because, first, you have to go through – If you’re going to fly, so you fly out of Manila and then you go land in an island called Tablas I think. When you arrive there, you take another tricycle or a car towards the end of the island and then take another boat to go to Romblon. Then you arrive to Romblon. When you’re in Romblon, you go to take a trike to the dive resort. I just find it more taxing to keep on transferring. That’s why I prefer taking the boat. It’s just like you sleep and then you wake up in Romblon.
[00:17:47] CM: Did you travel with all your dive gear and your camera gear?
[00:17:50] AJ: Yeah.
[00:17:51] CM: Right. That does make a big difference now because if like you say you just dump everything on the boat and then wake up there the next morning. Then that’s much easier. I was already getting interest just listening to you.
[00:18:02] AJ: Although you could – Well, you know how it is in traveling in the Philippines. It’s really going to be like you have to take all different modes of transportation just to get to all the best places to dive in. You could check probably with Three P if they have services that will just take care of you all the way through from the airport all the way to their place because they probably have people or connections from vans to boats to make it easier. Again, we’ve had so many customers from all over the world that has so much gear with them, diving and photography gear with them. So they probably know the best way for you, because I tend to travel backpacking style.
[00:18:41] CM: As we sort of start to finish up here, is there a particular diving season?
[00:18:46] AJ: Well, diving season in general for the Philippines is around this time actually, April. So November, December, January, February, March, April would be the best time to go because that’s usually like the summer months for us. But then you could visit all year round because the first time I went there was around April, which is summer. Then I also went around October, which was like a bit of the rainy season in the Philippines. You can visits any time.
[00:19:15] CM: Cool, okay. You’ve been twice. Will you sufficiently impress that you’ll go back again?
[00:19:21] AJ: Yeah, definitely. Because my dive buddy is based on the States, so we were like, “Let’s plan a dive trip when you come back.” I was asking her, “Where do you want to go.” She was like, “Let’s go back to Romblon.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s go now.” Hopefully, I have better equipment by then because I actually want to try night diving in Romblon because I haven’t tried it and I love night diving. Then I think they also have blackwater diving there and I’m kind of curious to see how that works out or how they do it. So, yeah, I want to come back just to do those things and, of course, see more of those weird and wonderful critters they have down there.
[00:20:00] CM: Awesome. Well, that is absolutely fantastic. Ara, thank you so much for talking to us about Romblon. It’s really sort of cemented my desire to go there as well, even though I need to take a very big magnifying glass.
[00:20:12] AJ: Yeah. You have to be really ready.
[00:20:16] CM: Besides Diver Bliss, where else have you been working on?
[00:20:19] AJ: I’m currently working on another website that’s related to scuba diving. But this time around, it’s focusing on diving in the Philippines. I’m building a directory that would travelers like yourself to travel and dive in the Philippines, because that’s what you mentioned earlier. It’s kind of hard to find all this information online wherein you have to look through all the forums, ask different people who’s been here, check websites that have been published maybe five years ago. What I’m planning to do is to really put together all that information about diving in the Philippines into one platform. So I’m calling it philippinedives.com. It’s your one website where you can find out which dive centers there are in the area, what dive shops you can visit if you need to buy gear, like even a place for dive professionals who are freelancers to get found. If, for instance, you’re looking just for an instructor in this area, that dive instructor can list his information on the website and then find potential customers there.
The website would also contain information about ocean conservation groups. So people who are interested in doing volunteer work or finding NGOs that are related to conservation particularly in the Philippines, they can post all their information there. It’s like a hub for divers like us so that information is easier to find.
[00:21:52] CM: It sounds fantastic and it’s also hugely ambitious. But, I mean, if you can make it work, it’s exactly the kind of thing that the Philippines needs because, I mean, this is the other great thing about Diver Bliss, and also it’s a little bit of what I’m trying to do with Dive Happy is that things change so fast for diving. Obviously, [inaudible 00:22:12] that were good go bad. Same with dive operators, that sort of thing. Also, obviously, sadly, dive sites change usually for the worst rather than for the better. So having a resource that is being regularly updated, that was fantastic.
[00:22:27] AJ: What I’m trying to do is to really connect directly with business owners. Instead of just me getting all this information on my own, I really want to tap into all these dive businesses because it’s them who really knows what’s going on in their local areas. I want to put that information in the website so that travelers can have updated information about the different islands or the different dive destinations that we have here. Right now, it’s all general information or information that one blogger said or one website said. So I wanted to put it all together to help the diving industry in the Philippines.
[00:23:05] CM: Yeah, that’s really great. When are you planning to launch this site then?
[00:23:09] AJ: I’m still working on it. I’m hoping to like a soft launch of philippinedives.com by the end of May. Hopefully, by then, I’ll have something up and running, because it’s kind of tedious the information in itself. I’m still trying to figure out the kinks of developing a website.
[00:23:34] CM: Obviously, I wish you the very best of luck with that and I’m really excited to see it when it launches. Maybe you’ll come back and talk to us about it again when it’s up and live, and we can talk about diving somewhere else in the Philippines as well that you love.
[00:23:48] AJ: Yeah, that would be cool. That would be awesome. Well, when you come visit, let me know. Maybe I’ll be free to join you guys in Romblon.
[00:23:56] CM: That would be really great. All right, thanks very much, Ara.
[00:23:59] AJ: Thanks, Chris.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:24:03] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the show notes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter, so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you.
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