So far, Donsol had been a bit of a bust. It had been a mission to get there, and thus far the fireflies and whale sharks had been a disappointment. But we had one more creature left on our list to see — manta rays. We had arrived in the middle of peak season for the Manta Bowl, a famous bay for spotting those majestic pelagics that both Heather and I were lucky enough to swim with back in Hawaii in September.
The Manta Bowl is an advanced dive — divers descend to the bottom of a 60 foot underwater valley, tether themselves to the ocean floor using metal hooks to resist the strong currents, and watch in awe as mantas queue up for a spot at the cleaning station, where cleaner wrasse remove parasites from their skin. As if the mantas weren’t enough, whale sharks and thresher sharks have also been known to make appearances. The catch, aside from the inherent difficulty in such an advanced dive, is the distance from Donsol. We would be spending the entire day, from 8am to 5pm, on the boat — so as you can imagine, we were doing some serious finger crossing for good weather.
We boarded the traditional style bangka that would function as our dive boat for the day and watched as the tiny dots on the horizon slowly became idyllic tropical islands so close we could swim to them. Along the coastlines, toddlers ran out of thatch roof huts to wave hello to us as our divemaster explained that these islands had no electricity, no phone service, and limited contact to the outside world. At one point, two local fisherman paddled by and proudly held up their latest catch — an octopus half the size of me.
Now this was what I had come to the Philippines for.
We were warned that the first dive would be a simple refresher — just a shallow reef dive off the shores of San Miguel island. As experienced scuba buddies good on our air — Heather is an instructor, and I’m now a divemaster — we asked if we could stay down should anyone in the group ascend for any reason. Normally, the rule is that groups all go up together, but we got the okay to basically do as we pleased. Just another reason Heather is my favorite dive buddy of all times.
We geared in, rolled backward off the side of the boat, and descended.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to say this more poetically, but I think it stands as is — these were the best dives of my life. And while it might have been more suspenseful to reveal that later, I realized it moments into the dive, so this is kind of appropriate.
Never before have I seen such endless field of thriving hard and soft corals, such exotic and colorful creatures, and such warm and clear waters to boot. There were moments in this dive that I actually felt like I was on some sort of psychotropic drug — I’ve just never seen a reef so teeming with life and color. Sometimes there was so much to see I didn’t know where to look next.
There were nudibranches everywhere. For those of you not familiar with nudibranches, here’s a true scientific definition: they are tiny underwater aliens.
Even the simple starfish impressed me with the many forms it took in the waters off San Miguel.
We came up from the first dive on a high, and in good spirits. On the boat ride to the Manta Bowl shoal, we wondered if our luck would hold steady and translate into the manta sightings we were dreaming about. Chances were slim — despite the effusive claims in our guidebook, there hadn’t been a single manta sighted in four days.
We dropped into the bowl and immediately I could understand why the divemaster delivered the briefing with such gravity. This truly was an advanced dive thanks to the deep current ripping through the open plateau we were on. In spite of that, Heather and I hesitated to use the metal hooks that were tied to us when we saw there was not rocks on the ocean floor but live coral. As a group, we alternated between being carried along the ocean floor by the current and hooking in (or in Heather and I’s case, swimming against the current) whenever the divemaster banged his tank. All the while we looked towards the blue for mantas — but we came up empty.
I couldn’t get too disappointed. I had just had the best dive of my life that morning, and getting whipped around by the current was actually pretty fun once I felt safe. For our third dive, we had a choice between doing the Manta Bowl a second time or heading back to San Miguel — we voted overwhelmingly for the ladder.
Back at our new favorite reef, I was having more technical issues. This time, my mask wouldn’t stop fogging! I was frustrated to the brink of calling the dive several times, but each time I reached a near-tipping point I’d spot something so fascinating it would give me the energy to clear my mask every ten seconds (not an exaggeration) for another few minutes.
I see so much artistic inspiration in diving, I often wish I had discovered it earlier in my fine arts studies. Who knows where I might have gone — or still could go — with inspiration like this for patterns, color palettes, and textures?
Coral really does it for me, when it comes to diving. But I know for most, it’s all about the underwater creatures. And we spotted some truly amazing ones at this dive site — several of them new to me!
If forced to pick, I think my favorite new discovery of the day were mandarin fish — the little guys below left. These tiny little rainbow patterned beauties were hiding just inside a cave. I was so grateful my camera cleared long enough for me to snap this photo!
And we ended the dive spending some time with a harlequin sweetlips juvenile. Watching the way these little guys move is reason enough to sign up for your dive certification right now, if you haven’t already. They really know how to salsa.
Had we not already booked out flights to our next destination I just might have been tempted to sign up for another day of diving in Donsol. I’ve often worried that the golden days of scuba are over — that we’ve over-dived and over-fished and generally destroyed our oceans to the point that places like this no longer existed. This day renewed my faith in diving. It also inspired and energized me — I can’t wait to find more pockets of beauty like this around the world, and to commit myself to protecting coral reefs so that they may continue to exist. This is what diving is all about.
There are just a handful of dive shops in Donsol — I think I spotted four in total — and all have similar prices. Between Heather getting a professional discount and me having my own gear, we each paid 3,500 pesos (around $85 USD), for a full day trip including three dives and lunch. Be prepared for a long day. We were gone for almost a full ten hours.