JELLIES DRIFTED TOWARDS us out of the gloom and, as our eyes adjusted, we found tiny fish swimming in and out of the glow of our lights. My camera’s focus system went into overdrive trying to keep up with these tiny individuals.
When reviewing the images back on land, we found the recognisable shapes of barracuda, squirrelfish, parrotfish and jack, but at a very early stage of their development. Indeed, many reef fish grow up in pelagic waters, returning to a reef only once they reach sufficient size and maturity.
The treasure-hunt for the next unusual creature makes blackwater-diving very addictive. A few nights later, we tried our luck with a similar technique but in shallower water on the house reef, something often referred to as a “bonfire dive”. The encounters were different but no less interesting,
featuring more invertebrates such as sea snails, worms and shrimp.
The beautiful wall at Kontiki.
In the days that followed, we ventured away from SMS to some of the dive-sites along Mactan’s shoreline. At Tambuli, the contrast between the protected reefs we had been diving and what lay before us was clear. The human run-off, anchoring and fishing in this tourist-heavy spot had clear ramifications for a reef that has more coral-suffocating algae and broken hard coral and far fewer fish.
The highlight however was the plane wreck, laid there to entertain divers and acting as an excellent prop for underwater photographers. Once I had exhausted photographic opportunities of the plane itself (or perhaps exhausted my models), I ventured a little deeper, where the reef seemed to be moving.
On closer inspection it turned out to be a school of juvenile convict blennies, resembling a group of escaped prisoners in black and white stripes. They swam in unison, poking and prodding at the reef in search of plankton.
Research has shown that they mimic the colouring of poisonous catfish in self-defence, and will return to their burrows at night, where they dangle by their mouths from the roof of the tunnels, held in place by mucous threads!
Mactan is not just for divers. In this part of the world it’s an easily accessible beach destination, especially popular with Korean and Japanese tourists. Banana-boats and jet-skis abound, and it’s important to be extra-vigilant when ascending in the more-populated areas.
This was certainly the case for our next dive site, Kontiki, where sharing the water with hordes of screaming tourists is not really my idea of a peaceful surface interval. Thankfully, serenity was soon restored as we escaped into the deep and along a sheer wall booming with sponges and healthy soft corals.
Our guide Bernie purposefully made his way down to a particular clump of sponges at 20m and pointed out a giant frogfish that had been residing there for the past two years.
Jade swam in for a closer look, but the current soon made staying stationary for too long uncomfortable.
We drifted, marvelling at the wall. With colourful seafans sprouting in every direction, we were spoilt for choice when it came to subject selection. And yet, despite this glorious underwater scenery, we had yet to find the main event. Kontiki is home to a huge shoal of sardines.
As our profile edged up shallower, the sun was suddenly blotted out by this mass of small fish.
It is a spectacular and overlooked sight, because most people tend to go straight to Moalboal for schooling sardines.
Photographically, the sardines pose a real challenge – getting them all in the frame and in a harmonised shape is easier said than done! As Jade and Bernie gazed on this impressive abundance of fish, I searched for that elusive perfect frame.
MACTAN PROVIDES for the needs of freedivers and technical divers as well as recreational scuba-divers. Scotty’s is the go-to centre, with outlets in both the Shangri-La and Mövenpick hotels on Mactan. They cater for everything from wannabe mermaids (seriously, there’s a course) to rebreather divers and GUE courses.
Founder Scott Livingston is my favourite type of dive-shop owner, one who is still mad about diving and spends as much of his spare time under water as possible. He and his team provided a warm welcome and encouraged us to dig out our technical-diving gear to fully enjoy the wreck of the San Juan.
Examining the prop on the San Juan.
Situated in Liloan Bay, it was about 30 minutes by bangka from our Mactan base. This old ferry sank in 2000 without casualties, as either the result of bad weather, or, if local gossip is to be believed, an insurance scam.
With the top of the ship at 30m-plus you could dive it recreationally but it would be a very short bottom time.
At a maximum depth of 50m, and with the wreck being 60m long, you’ll get much more out of the day by doing a couple of decompression dives with a healthy surface interval in between.
Now I’m not one to go chasing depth for the sake of it, but I was very glad we went to the extra hassle of getting down to the San Juan. The wreck has become home to schooling fusiliers and, over a couple of decades, has developed into a thriving marine eco-system.
With the milky visibility and lack of other divers, I delighted in the sense of adventure and leaving behind the touristy shores of Mactan.
It might have been a touch of narcosis but I was buzzing on leaving the water, overjoyed to have partaken in an underwater feature so few have seen.
If you have yet to complete your technical dive training but are in search of adventure, your best bet is Marigondon Cavern. We dropped in on a strong current and dived down fast to 35m, where we found the sizeable entrance to the cavern.
Once inside and sheltered from the current, we caught our breath and enjoyed the huge seafans adorning the top and sides of the cavern walls.
As we frog-kicked into the darkness, our lights startled a big red sponge crab that dashed away awkwardly, bashing about in bewilderment. I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for disturbing this Marigondon resident.