CHOCOLATE ISLAND, south-west of Malapascua, really was the icing on the cake. Like candy in a selection box, its top poked out of the Visayan Sea, concealing a soft centre of fluffy pink coral mousse!
As we arrived in mid-afternoon, herons swooped to pluck minnows from beneath the surface. I took this as a good omen for what lay beneath!
At a depth of around 5-8m, broccoli, xenia and daisy corals danced in the swell. Gobies scooted up and down their fragile whip-coral slides like kids on too much fizzy pop, while clown anemonefish made me dizzy playing hide-and-seek inside a leather anemone.
As a contrast, on the shallow plateau surrounding the island a “racing-stripe flatworm” failed to live up to its name, and a motionless double-snouted spindle cowrie lay motionless, camouflaged into a tightly meshed whip.
I marvelled at the density of other coral species as we ascended back into the shallows. Encrusting sheet corals merged into leather coral which became organ-pipe, bubbly honeycomb and hammer coral.
It made perfect sense that this area was Evolution’s choice for night dives.
At both of the above sites there were statues of the Virgin Mary. Evolution and some of the other local dive-centres are placing these under water to discourage dynamite-fishing.
Bugtong Batu is a pinnacle that rises from 30m at the seabed to 13m below the surface. It is recommended as a nitrox dive, because you gradually snake your way up around the pinnacle and then spend some time on the top enjoying the diverse marine life below you.
This was a spectacular dive for observing fish behaviour. At this time of year, lemon damselfish are guarding the eggs they have laid on the multitude of whip corals that adorn the pinnacle.
This gave me a good opportunity to shoot the vibrant blue lines across their fins and on their face and eyes.
Banded boxer shrimp busied away cleaning a lionfish, and an irritated pufferfish tried to dislodge a sea cucumber it had swum into, by rubbing itself against crinoids and broccoli coral.
Larger pelagic fish such as schooling batfish swam around the massive purple gorgonian and black coral seafans, while pink-spotted nudibranchs and a Miller’s Nembrotha kept the macro lovers happy among the crinoids and carpet anemones.
The local muck-sites required some more effort to find life, but the guides are adept at this. The Evolution house reef is a short boat-ride from the beach.
After being asked to find us a blue-ringed octopus, Gino’s Knight Rider eyes were scouting the seagrass like the scanning light on Kit’s bumper!
A boat, bamboo structures and some toilet bowls (all placed there by the resort team) have started to show coral growth and are creating interesting habitats for lionfish, eel catfish and glassfish. A fire-worm flitted around two nose-to-nose sea moths, and carpet anemones unfurled in the gentle water movement to reveal delicate porcelain crabs hiding under tentacle skirts.
On the bottom we marvelled at colourful sea-apples, sea-pens, a moon-snail egg-casing and hermit crabs fighting over a new shell domain. Well-buried sand-eels gazed vertically up to the unachievable surface ripples.
As we gave the thumbs-up signal to leave the 1m sandy bottom, Gino squealed through his reg. He had seen the holy grail: a blue-ringed octopus.
This little fellow was some 7cm long. We watched as it changed shape and stretched out its tentacles to walk along the green seabed.
It flashed the blue rings as a threat but also attempted to camouflage itself in among the fauna by spiking up to look like a fern in the seagrass.
Deep Slope – a sandy slanting bottom joining a reef top – was my favourite muck-site. We descended a line to a small purple gorgonian seafan. Guide Joe pointed out a Bargibanti seahorse just a few centimetres in length.
This one was coy and it was hard to focus on such a tiny critter inside the purple branches of the fan. I was impressed that our guides didn’t use pointy sticks to influence the pygmy seahorse’s position and – as there was a queue behind me to see it – I decided to move on, safe in the knowledge that this was going to be a good dive.