Near to the Philippines’ Dumaguete City are not one but two outstanding dive areas – the famous Apo Island, and the macro heaven of Dauin’s coastline. Tony Exall outlines the merits of each.
Dumaguete Diving – Dive Happy Episode 30 Show Notes
- PhilippineDiveHolidays.com – Tony’s dive travel agency
- Diving Apo Island and Dumaguete: A Quick Guide – the Dive Happy overview of diving Dumaguete
- Atmospheres Resort – luxury Dumaguete dive resort
- Atlantis Dumaguete resort – the resort with the excellent dive guides Tony mentions
- Thalatta Resort – one of Tony’s favourite resorts, a little further along the coast at Maluay Zamboanguita
- Mike’s Dive Resort – another Tony favourite, a very small resort located in Dauin
- Dumaguete City – Wikipedia entry
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Philippines’ Main Dive Site Locations
Dumaguete Diving – Dive Happy Episode 30 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchel and on this episode, I’m joined by Tony Exall, an accomplished underwater videographer and founder of travel agency philippinediveholidays.com.
Tony, welcome back.
[0:00:23.1] TE: Hello, good to be back again.
[0:00:25.6] CM: Thanks mate. Dumaguete, this area is actually perhaps more famous in diving circles as simply Apo Island. What is it that makes Apo such a landmark dive attraction in the Philippines?
[0:00:40.6] TE: Basically, reef and fish, in a nutshell. Which is not so much what you get on the main land when you’re diving down there. But, to sort of expand on that, you need to go back a little bit and go back like 20, 30 years in the history of scuba diving around the way.
Apo was one of the first places to set up a meaningful sanctuary around there, which wit the help of the Silliman University, there’s a number of different universities in Dumaguete, one of them has a very well renowned marine biology department. They went and had a chat with the locals on Apo Island to create a sanctuary that all this data, to say this is where we should – the sanctuary and the locals said, “No, we’re not doing that because that’s where we fish, we are going to put it there?”
Somewhere completely different. They somehow, it just became a huge success. It not only did they create just a fish sanctuary but the whole humanity brought into the project as well as – so that they started charging divers to dive in that waters, the fisherman could only take what they would use for their families, so they’re not allowed to export fish, back on the main land to just for the personal consumption. That actually brought things in like birth control and family planning on to the island as well.
It’s quite a small island but it’s actually got a reasonably sized population, I think it’s about, I don’t know the exact numbers now but it’s something like two or 3,000 people live on the island which when you see the size, it’s not that big.
[0:02:14.1] CM: Wow, that’s a lot of people, that’s remarkable.
[0:02:20.3] TE: You know, Filipinos in the provinces live a bit differently from how we would live. You know, we have big houses or apartments where there’s 50, 60, 70, whatever it is plus square meters of space, in the provinces because the socioeconomics are a bit lower than what we have in the west than more developed countries. You know, they may be like four, five, six people living in a space where we don’t even have one person living over here for example.
You get more people in a smaller space. They set up the sanctuary, started charging divers and would allow other people to – other fisherman to come into their waters and quite amusingly, apparently, one of the first things they bought with the proceeds from setting up the sanctuary and the funds from the divers, was a gun. If any fishermen from the outside the area decided to come and fish in their waters, they would shoot at them. The fishermen from outside the area soon learned that that wasn’t the place that they would go and fish. It’s just been a huge success and you know, they protected the reef, there are certain things that they do there which I don’t particularly like as a diver, they still to this day use these bamboo fish traps called bobos.
Which they just throw on to the reef and have a line on there and have a line in a barrel, fish swim around, go inside, and they pull them out and it does quite a lot of damage to the reef at the same time. But you know, aside from that, what they’ve done down there is really quite remarkable, you know, they got their lovely school of bigeye trevally down there which is really quite a sight when you see them all come together and you have nice clear water, that’s one of the real benefits of diving aside from the reef and fish life on Apo Island. Because it’s a little bit away from the mainland and there’s no rivers coming in and stuff, you generally get some really nice visibility there.
[0:04:13.4] CM: Right, yes, because it’s the benefits of being, if you’re like, in inverted commas and ocean-y site but you’re actually quite near to the mainland so easy to get out there but with all the benefits of an ocean-y dive site.
[0:04:26.1] TE: Yeah, typically from the mainland, it takes 30, 40 minutes to get to Apo Island from there, it’s a nice little day trip. If you were staying in Dumaguete. Dumaguete has become the collective for the area. Actually, it should really be called – the vast majority of the dive sites are in a municipality called Darwin so that when they start off, when you go from Dumaguete city and you move further south with to where the dive centers are, resort and the dive sites because Bagon, then Darwin, then Sampaguita.
[0:05:02.7] CM: Okay.
[0:05:04.6] TE: Darwin is the municipality where you get the majority of the dive sites and dive resorts so a place like – El Dorado, trying to think of the other ones now. A little bit further down, I think Atmosphere Resort which I regard as the capital THE, best dive resort in the Philippines in terms of the products of the resort. How it’s run, the standard of the rooms, the quality of the restaurant, the house reef and so on. It’s awesome, I mean, it comes with a price tag, it’s not –
[0:05:37.9] CM: I’ve stayed there and I would agree with you but you certainly are going to pay for everything that you have to, that you want there so –
[0:05:49.4] TE: You get a free night [inaudible].
[0:05:55.1] CM: I certainly never – I mean, it’s actually very few dive resorts I’ve stayed in are at that level. It’s quite remarkable. Yes, that’s right. It’s certainly, what would you say, like the fact that so much has been invested into that property is a real – I think testament to how good the diving is in that area, you know? Because obviously, it’s a very long term investment, you’re expecting that people be going there for years and years.
[0:06:21.3] TE: The owners are British, obviously, having great success with a product down side the UK. Matt, it’s a husband and wife that set the place up. Matt, he’s an architect by trade.
[0:06:33.6] CM: Right.
[0:06:35.1] TE: You couldn’t see how he’s put this all together, there’s a masterplan for the whole thing and it’s top drawer and his wife Gabby is a course director. Two of them together, just make the perfect balance and they brought key people in to run certain parts of the spa, they got somebody’s who is a manager it for that but got very experienced people running the dive center, the restaurant is fantastic. Some of the best food you get in the Philippines there.
What’s different about it is that they change – I just begin to sound like an advert for Atmosphere. The restaurant, there’s not many places in the Philippines where you can go to the restaurant, look at the menu and not know what you’re looking at and ask one of the waiters or waitresses, “What is in that?” And the waiters and waitresses tell you, they can describe what’s in that meal, which is unusual in the Philippines. And a lot of places, you know, a lot of places where they, “I just need to go and ask chef.” They don’t have to do that there, they know it. There’s a really high degree of training that’s gone into the service there. It’s a great place for them.
[0:07:43.4] CM: Would you consider then like the dive staff there are also similar caliber, are they really good spotters and stuff like that?
[0:07:51.8] TE: Yes, I would say, they have an in-house marine biologist so if you want to pay for the marine biologist dive with you, you really get out of it. You know, as much as you possibly can, then you could do that. The presentations in the afternoons and evenings to explain the dive sites and the creatures and so it’s a good learning place as well, it’s not just you know, you pick up a tank, you go for a dive and you’re going to see there’s a froggy or whether there’s a clearing. You have the ability to get the full learning experience there as well as –
[0:08:24.5] CM: Okay, we wondered off talking about Apo Island because I think – we were just thinking about, when I, the first summer I dive there which was I don’t know, 10 years ago or so, I was on a liveaboard, I was doing night the whole central Philippines. We were there for a day and I remember being really impressed with it. It’s why I went back there to do a resort based trip and the reef we were talking about before we started recording, the reef there has got some remarkable areas to it. What are your particular favourite dive sites around the island because it is big enough to have several distinct areas to dive in, isn’t it?
[0:09:03.0] TE: Yeah, there’s a lot of diving there for such a small island, it does have quite a few dive sites. My personal favourites, it’s like, if you were to go to Dumaguete, Darwin or whatever you like to call it for a week and so you want me on a five to six dive days there. You definitely have to go out to Apo Island for a day. If you can manage the dive schedule then Mamsa Point and Coconut are the two dive sites to do there without a shadow –
[0:09:29.0] CM: Okay.
[0:09:28.7] TE: That’s the two dive sites where you’re most likely to bump in to the big school of bigeye trevally, beautiful reef, there’s lots and lots of reef fish there, you don’t often see pelagic coming in although every now and then, a whale shark will pop up or a manta or I think I’ve seen hammerhead and thresher sharks there as well as – but you can’t bank on that, it is more just like the reef is just teeming with life and on almost every dive site they have there, when you come up into the shallows, there’s a really beautiful soft and hard coral garden and you’ll see lots and lots of turtles which really don’t give a monkeys about divers.
They just got used to it now. The horse bill chomping away on sponges sand soft corals and stuff and you can get right, I suppose with your camera and get the perfect shot. Yeah, Mamsa and Coconut are two wow dive sites and there’s other ones like Rock Point east and west, Chapel, I’m trying to think of the other ones now. But yeah, there’s a few others that all of them have in common is really great reef. Some of them more of a mixture of sponges, soft coral and hard coral and some of them are just all out hard coral which is just beautifully preserved.
[0:10:44.9] CM: Yes, that’s the thing that’s really apparent is like you just drop in and it’s like holy-moly, this is like untouched reef, apart from the turtles having a go.
[0:10:53.5] TE: Yeah.
[0:10:54.3] CM: That’s fantastic. Any of the sites particularly deeper in Apo? A really steep drop offs or.
[0:11:01.0] TE: It drops off into deep water, the sea immediately around there, I think it goes to a few hundred meters but typically, you don’t really need to go any deeper than 30 meters there to get what it’s all about there. Yeah, normally when I dive there, depending on where the jack fish are or what the currents do, some of the dive sites that you can get from pretty strong currents like Mamsa Point, when you go over there, you dive and then there’s a little village where you go and pay your marine sanctuary fee to and or you just go and buy a drink and there’s all these, the local ladies there are selling T-shirts.
Sometimes if you don’t go on to the beach, they’ll come out in their little boats and try to flog you a t-shirt or you just get, there will be thousands of them on the beach trying to sell you the t-shirt, all different shapes and sizes and colours and so on but one that I bought myself is it’s just got the strap line on the front to it, I dived and survived Mamsa Point. It can be a bit of a — not so much a roller coaster, it’s the current isn’t churning, but it can be strong in going in one direction and so normally where you want to see the jacks or where you see the jacks all schooling together is toward to the end of the dive, your air is low and your bottom time is running out. And then, sometimes you can get a strong down current.
[0:12:23.8] CM: Great, you’re really selling this.
[0:12:29.6] TE: Because you run out of bottom time and gas, it can be a little bit frustrating. Sometimes you know, the more experienced diver will go, “Okay, what I want to do is see the jacks,” kind of like you, you head down and you motor through the first bit because they’ve got very fixed – one of the things that possibly don’t like is not quite the right word but they have all the dive centres over there and the way the dive, you start here and you finish there.
“I just want to jump in there,” you can’t do that, you have to start and finish at a certain places which if you want to see something specific, it means that you’ve got 150, 200 meter, whatever it is swim to get to the bit where you want to spend time and take your video or pictures. You know, that’s the way it is, there’s nothing you can do about it.
[0:13:16.4] CM: Sure.
[0:13:16.4] TE: Other than just like head down, get on with it, put your blinkers on and just get to where you want to go rather than meander along and then now have too much time when you get to the end of it.
[0:13:26.9] CM: Yes. The jacks are maybe the biggest thing that you would get a good chance of seeing the manta point are like so many places in the world, doesn’t actually have mantas seen there all the time.
[0:13:39.6] TE: Mamsa point.
[0:13:41.5] CM: Mamsa Point. I’m sorry, I thought you were saying manta.
[0:13:44.2] TE: Mamsa, being the local dialect, means jack fish.
[0:13:50.6] CM: Okay, forgiven then. No need need to worry about manta rays, okay. As you pointed out at the beginning is that you know, typically you would go and spend a week in Dumaguete and you may only go out to the island once maybe twice, which means that you’ll obviously be spending most of your time diving on the mainland along the coastline.
So what are the really special attractions of diving along the coast rather than going out to the island? I mean what is the big draw that keeps people on the mainland?
[0:14:25.9] TE: In a word, macro. It is really — most of the coastline in Darwin, go down to Sampaguita is a sandy slope. There is some reefs there but it is not in the same caliber as what you see on Apo Island and in truth it has taken a bit of a battering from typhoons over the last decade or so. So the dive sites like Masaplod and I am trying to think of some of the other ones that got reef on it, Masaplod South, Masaplod Sur and Masaplod Norte they used to have some really quite nice reefs there.
It has taken quite a bit of battering also the one that’s right in front of Atlantis, I can’t remember the name of it though so there but yeah, it’s taken a little bit if a battering and bleaching to a certain extent as well but all the fish is still there. I mean actually some of the dive sites has really got quite nice fish populations because most of the orders of the dive sites are sanctuaries. So the reefs is well protected and sometimes you go into Masaplod and it is teaming, absolutely teaming with fusiliers.
Now it is really quite impressive, you know thousands and thousands is coming in for a clean on the reef and on the shallows you see the drummers and rabbit fish and snappers and so on and some of the dive sites although they are not necessarily pretty in the way that you get to Apo Island, there is certainly full of life. But if you are a diver and you know your biology then you begin to Darwin and Sampaguita for the macro life. So most of it is just the sandy slope.
But what you find on the sandy slope is really quite cool. It’s different from diving in Anilao. So I regard Anilao as the macro diving capital of the Philippines. That is in the league of the likes of Lembi and Ambon and Batanes. It is an all-out macro place. So Dumaguete Negros mainland or however you like to call it is the same but it is just a little bit step down from there. So you don’t see the same number and diversity of newly ranks that you would see in Anilao.
But you still and I don’t see anybody has actually found a Rhinopias in Dumaguete yet but you see a lot of frog fish of many different species and hairy and Randal’s and painted and warty and giant and so on, you see all of that there but really good cephalopods. A good chance of seeing [inaudible] mimic octopus. Normally there is quite a lot of flamboyant cuttlefish around as well as regular cuttlefish, quite good crustacean life as well and things like Harlequin shrimp, saw blades, skeleton shrimp and so on. There is a lot of really good sort of stuff around there and I’ve seen Ambon Scorpionfish down there, which is pretty cool. There is not many place in the Philippines where you can see those. So yeah, there’s some special stuff.
[0:17:16.3] CM: Yeah, you’ll say you’re going to come away with several full memory cards on your camera. I’m trying to think now, I think I have been there three times and yet, the macro stuff it is real wow stuff because it is also just like in Anilao it’s like you just don’t have time. Once you finish shooting one thing and before you even got to that I’ve finally got the shot sorted out, the guide has had found you something else to look at.
So it is just this sort of cavalcade of riches basically. I mean obviously you can have quiet times and stuff but usually every dive is just like bang-bang-bang, loads of different things to see. It is really quite remarkable and I think that coupled with Apo itself is just the contrast in it too. It is just a great way to spend a week of diving because you feel like you are getting a bit of everything.
[0:18:02.6] TE: Yeah, it’s really nice to go to — I’ve been to Apo for a day trip, to a nice beautiful scenery over there and underwater as well as above water and you can do other day trips as well. I’ve been to Silliman Islands, Siquijor or something. Actually I have never dived Siquijor but you can do those things as a day trip but yeah, the core of the diving, your main reason really for going there if you are an unexperienced diver is the macro life on the Negros Mainland.
[0:18:30.1] CM: Is there anything like when you had your videographer hat on, was there anything that you were particularly thrilled about finding when you were shooting there?
[0:18:38.4] TE: There was one time I went there, I was staying at the Atlantis Resort and I had at the time, it was probably about four years ago, maybe five years ago, I had never seen a Halimeda ghost pipefish. So the guys at Atlantis, so I am going back to the Atmosphere thing and I have to decide in my books Atlantis is a step down from atmosphere but in Atlantis Resort their dive guides are real — dive guides almost everywhere are excellent anyway.
But the guides at Atlantis are really quite good and very amenable guys all local, until we go there sat down and have a chat with them and said, “You know you might like to see this, like to see that.” And just threw you to a conversation. “You know if you can find me a Halimeda ghost pipefish I’ll give you a 1,000 peso.” So you could see the light bulb instantly lights up. The guides said, “Yeah, I think I can do that. You sure you’re going to pay me a thousand pesos?”
I said, “Yeah of course I will, yeah absolutely.” Next dive we went out, two Halimeda ghost pipefish were right on the house reef. I was like, “It’s cool, this is cool. I like this.” Like going shopping really. What’s the special offer today?
[0:19:51.0] CM: Yeah that is exactly it. Yeah it really is, it is remarkable just how much is there. Tony, awesome, we have obviously done a big fat plug for Atlas here and you just mentioned Atlantis. Is there anywhere else that you have stayed at in that area?
[0:20:07.2] TE: Yeah there is a number of places to mention. Yeah, I really liked Sampaguita for the south a resort called Thalatta. It’s owned by this French guy, Patrick and it probably is the ways of the geography works there is the shortest crossing to get back to Apo Islands. It only takes about 20 to 25 minutes. The real advantage of being down there is because you’re a little bit further south in Darwin where the majority of the resorts and the dive sites are, there are some really, really good dive sites down in Sampaguita as well, but it is quiet. There is only –
[0:20:44.5] CM: Interesting.
[0:20:45.8] TE: And that’s where Atmosphere as well. They’re a little bit further north, a couple of kilometres up there the coast line from there but they are pretty close. That is very close to Malatapay is the small little village where if you take the public ferry out to Apo Island that is where you go from. So it is the shortest distance there and it’s a really, really nice that you run from resort. It is very well looked after. There is the gardens, a swimming pool, picturesque.
It’s really nice and it is owned by a Frenchman so it’s got to be good fee otherwise you know you take a bit of a battering but it is a well-run place, nice and quiet. The house reef is great and there is nobody there and in some of these dive sites can – I wouldn’t say they actually get busy. It is not like, I am trying to think of another – it is not like diving Balicasag in Alona Beach in Bohol where you got 20 dive boats going out there and divers all over the place.
You know, because you are just looking at sand the whole time, you know everybody can sort of spread out. Now in some dive sites like Carex for example, it is one of my favourite in Darwin where they sunk a load of jeep and cars and other paraphernalia down there and it just creates a habitat for the weird and wonderful to live in. There is some other places around there where you got this natural bowl in the reefs there where for some reason stuff just go down there and that’s quite likely you’ll find the Ambon Scorpionfish around that way.
So yeah, it’s good I’ve also stayed at Mike’s Darwin Resort, which is in Darwin, another great place. It is small, it’s only got eight rooms. A very personal service down there and Mike is a really great guy, an American guy that has been down there for quite a few years. So those are good places to stay down there and so there is more places popping up all the time because Dumaguete is becoming more and more caught onto the dive map in the Philippines. You know when I first dived there in 2004, there was probably mostly, I don’t know, a dozen dive resorts down there and now there is probably more than 20, easily more than 20 now.
[0:22:44.0] CM: Yes, that is something I was going to ask you. It is very interesting when you look on booking.com or wherever, you see a lot of places popping up, which I was quite surprised at. So it just shows that the level of interest about diving in the area.
[0:22:56.5] TE: Yeah and coming away from the diving, one of the other things I like going down to Dumaguete for that’s Dumaguete City itself. It is actually still a dirty noisy smelly Filipino City but it is a nice dirty smelly Filipino city. There is not many places in the Philippines, you know remember the boulevards? You got there, the sea front in the middle of the city. You know there is a green area with some lovely big – I can’t remember the trees are called, Banyan trees or something?
Huge, great big trees and these grassy area so you got the roads down there then your grassy bits and then there is the public walkway that goes down there and then you got the sea wall and the sea and stuff. You know it is just a nice place to hang out in. You know, I have spent a lot of time in Dumaguete, so it feels a little bit homey for me and there’s quite a lot of foreigners down there and the tourism. You know there are some quite nice restaurants and cafes.
And I don’t know if you went to just north of the port area, there is a collection of Filipino restaurants called Hayahay and you know Wednesday night is Reggae night so there is a live band in there and you can get pizza and you can get Filipino food, you can get fish, you can get all kinds of stuff and it is a really chilled out place to hang out. And it’s got a nice fuel to the place because of the universities. There is a lot of students there. So it is not raucous but there is a little bit more of a younger vibrant feel about it.
[0:24:21.1] CM: Yep, it’s not just a resort kind of whatever. It is actually like a real city and all of that.
[0:24:27.5] TE: Yeah I would suggest, if somebody goes to Dumaguete for a week’s holiday and you are staying down in Darwin or Sampaguita is to get up to the city for an afternoon come evening and just enjoy the place. Walk around the park, the nice little church there that’s been there for quite a few hundred years old and so it is good to see Philippine life in there.
[0:24:49.8] CM: Yes, great. Actually one of the things I always enjoyed about going to Puerto Princesa was walking around there as well, I like going up to the church and that sort of stuff. It is nice to have those extra, a little bit of culture and history around you as well as before you go out on the boat.
[0:25:05.0] TE: Yeah absolutely and there is lots of other stuff to do up in the mountains as well. You know the volcanoes, you can go quad biking up in the hills, there is waterfalls and lakes and things you can go and see. It’s got something for everybody and it’s the walking there is how we get there and it is quite easy now. There is flights from Manila and Cebu that fly to Dumaguete and because it’s got quite a long runway, you know 737s can land in there. So you know you’re not flying on a [inaudible] like you do when you go to Coron, so it is reasonably well connected.
[0:25:37.0] CM: Most of the resorts are only about less than an hour’s drive from the airport only. Yeah, I mean that is the thing that I have to say is that besides Anilao I think Dumaguete is the easiest place to get to anywhere in the Philippines for diving.
[0:25:49.6] TE: I suppose so actually from getting out of the airport to actually being in the resort, having your toes in the sand on the beach, yeah. I wouldn’t disagree with that. It’s a little bit fiddly sometimes and actually to get there the same day that — if you’re flying into the Philippines you get to land in either arrive in Manila or Cebu. If you get a Cathay Pacific arrive in Cebu or something like that in 11:00 in the morning. So you can then either, I think there is a flight from Cebu down to Dumaguete by then at five to 6 PM. So you could get there the same day but you arrive a bit later than you need to spend a night in either Manila or Cebu and then fly down the next morning.
[0:26:31.8] CM: Right, Tony thank you so much. This is – it just reignited my interest in going back there for whatever it is, a fourth time. Like you said, there is something for everyone and I think it is one of those all around destinations that is still kind of undiscovered. So there is a lot there to be seen before everyone else gets there.
[0:26:50.0] TE: Yeah I agree.
[0:26:50.9] CM: All right, cheers Tony.
[0:26:51.8] TE: Cool.
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