After our early night I awoke around 1a.m and just could not for the life of me get back to sleep. I tossed and turned all night and eventually excepted I was up for the night. At 6.30a.m I bounced out of bed ready for the day. We had set our alarms for 7 but it was close enough. It was our first experience of the Amorita breakfast buffet and extravaganza is the word that springs to mind. It started out with fruits, bread, cheese and meat, then had a whole host of hot dishes including Chinese and British specialties and finally had fruits, cereal and juices. Where to begin? I opted for some good old hash browns, sautéed fish with ginger, garlic rice, local pork and some cheese. It was a feast and along-with a pot of green tea I was ready to start the day.
When we had booked the trip we had the option to organise each element individually or to book an organised trip. Despite the slightly more expensive price we opted for the package booking through Dive Safari Asia who could offer us everything that we wanted to do including all diving, accommodation and transfers. The only place that we didn’t have diving booked for was Alona Beach our first stop. The agency couldn’t guarantee us to visit Balicasag Island – the most famous sight in the area and so we decided to organise this ourselves. After doing some research and reading some blogs we opted for Sierra Madre Divers as they offered a turtle ID speciality course and seemed very professional on communication by email. So it was with that that we headed down to the beach an along to the dive centre. When we had went along the evening before we had been told that our instructor had already left and so we arrived early to find out about our course.
We met our instructor Bernard who would be taking the course and our two DMs Mattia and Dexter. Bernard gave us a briefing on photographing the turtles underwater including data collection and guidelines for how close to get so as not to distress the animals. The course had been written by the dive centre along-with a marine organisation based in Cebu and teaches students about IDing turtles, different species, recording data and the plight the animals face. When you spot a turtle there is a sequence to follow including taking a photo of your dive computer, then a photo of a hand signal explaining what the turtle is doing, eating, sleeping, swimming, then a photo of your finger to show if the turtle is smaller or larger than 50cm and finally pictures of the turtle itself including identifying features, its tail (females have very small almost invisible tails). With all that in mind we jumped on the boat and headed off to Balicasag Island – the marine reserve we would be doing our course at.
After a short 30 minute boat ride we arrived at our first dive sight of the day – Black Forest. After kitting up we jumped in and almost immediately spotted some turtles. We had to abide by the strict data collection rules so that the data we collected could be used to identify the population of turtles in the area and help with identifying specific individuals. I had purchased a new dive light for the trip and the difference it made to my pictures was phenomenal. We saw some beautiful bright nudibranch as well as the usual suspects; butterflyfish, angelfish, pipefish and trevally. It was a gorgeous first dive and we emerged elated – being underwater without a drysuit is such an enjoyable experience.
You have to have around an hour at least surface interval between dives and so we sat in the sun drying off enjoying the beautiful views of Balicasag Island. After a short rest it was back in the water for a new sight – Cathedral. This was a wall dive and so it made navigation particularly easy. We just floated in the current along and when we were done the boat came to pick us up. Unfortunately I had an issue with my tank, in that the strap came loose and it fell off. Luckily the 2 training DMs were there to help out so that we could continue on with the dive. The wall was huge and really beautiful with lots of bright corals along it. We saw some really epic frogfish along-with a lot of nurseries for baby fish and a cool set of fish eggs. It was a gorgeous dive but unfortunately no turtles!
We headed back to shore for lunch at Hayahay – the spot right next door to the dive centre at Bernard’s recommendation. I was so thirsty and so enjoyed an ice tea, mango juice as well as a spicy seafood pizza. It was wafer thin and absolutely delicious. Carolyn had some seafood noodles which were also lovely – I would definitely recommend to those looking for good food on Alona Beach. After lunch we headed back to the dive centre to complete the theory for the turtle ID speciality. We learned about all sea turtles including that there are 7 species in total, all of which are either endangered, critically endangered or at risk. There are 3 types you can see in the Philippines but the most common is the green turtle. We learned about their lifespan from when they hatch out of their eggs and make a wild dash for the sea, to the lost years where they hang around and grow in the open ocean before starting to breed where they return to where they hatched as nestlings. A turtle can lay between 80 – 120 eggs per nest to which 80% usually hatch. With that sea turtles are hugely under threat from man, particularly in accidents with fishing nets, swallowing pollutants and having their breeding patterns disrupted by human development. There is lots we can do to help out such as not buying any sea turtle products (these are not illegal in places like China despite the vulnerable status), recycling our rubbish sensibly (lots of turtles swallow human trash such as straws and plastic bags) and not taking part in turtle tourism that is not eco-friendly. When the turtles hatch they must be released straight away. Places that allow the turtles to grow before being released are contributing to their downfall – they only have a set amount of energy to get to the sea which is wasted if kept in captivity for a while.
The course was really interesting and a nice way to dive as well as learn more about a specific species. We headed back to the pool to chill out for a bit before making our way back to the dive centre for our final dive of the day – a night dive. We were just diving Alona House Reef and so we hopped onto a speedboat for the 5 minute journey out. The sun was just beginning to set and it was such a stunning evening. After gearing up we rolled back and descended, just in time for the sun to completely set and the black of night to come upon us. With the camera light and my torch I could see well but photographing what we saw was so much trickier at night! We spotted a huge sponge crab (but the photo didn’t turn out) and so many baby lionfish. It was such a spectacular night dive – potentially the best I have ever done given the lighting and how much we saw. Staying down for 60 minutes helped too. As we arose to the surface shining our light the speedboat was straight over to pick us up and whizz us back to shore with the bright lights beckoning.
By this point we were so tired and headed straight back to the hotel to shower and rest. We decided given the busy day we would just eat dinner at the resort and because of how late we were, were the only ones in the place. I enjoyed a mango daiquiri with some Vietnamese spring rolls and then some wine with a local Filipino speciality of pork belly, salted greens, aubergine and a salty red sauce. It was quite unlike anything I have ever tried before (Panlasang Pinoy). Feeling full and relaxed we decided on a chilled evening to enjoy our room and relax after our fun-filled day ready for another busy day of diving ahead the next day!