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Diving with Threshers in Malapascua

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

 

You don’t come to Malapascua by accident. It takes a fair amount of planning and time to reach this tiny island just north of Cebu, including a flight from Manila (usually) to Cebu City, followed by a 3-hour drive to the northern tip of the island, and finally a 30-minute ferry to Malapascua. You’re most likely here to see thresher sharks, as Malapascua is one of the only places in the world where divers can reliably spot these elegant animals, named for their long, scythe-like tails. If you’ve come all this way to see them, why not venture out with the pioneers of thresher-shark dives, Exotic Resort?

Malapascua features several fantastic dive sites, but its crowning glory is the near 100 percent probability of diving with threshers at Monad or Kemod Shoals. The big-eyed pelagic sharks rise from the depths in the early morning, coming to the shoals at dawn to get a good cleaning before the sun gets too bright in the sky. Divers who want to see these graceful but somewhat shy sharks, rarely seen by recreational divers, must head to the boat shortly after 4 a.m. — yes, you read that right.

Deep water and low light didn't lend itself well to great pics of the theshers

Deep water and low light didn’t lend itself well to great pics of the theshers

More often than not, these sharks inhabit water beyond the reach of recreational divers, and the shoals near Malapascua are the only two sites in the world where they regularly come up to recreational depths. But as exciting and rare as it is to see these beauties, these encounters aren’t all that Malapascua and Exotic Resort have to offer.

Exotic Resort Guide
Cave at Gato Island
flowing anemone
Gato Island

Multiple sites near the island offer interesting dive profiles and marine life. Gato Island, a marine sanctuary, is a great place for divers to find a sea bottom covered with soft corals, seahorses, tons of cuttlefish and nudis. Whitetip sharks frequent the area and are often seen sleeping under ledges and inside the small tunnel that runs from one side of the island to the other. Lighthouse Reef is home to mandarinfish, seahorses and blue-ringed octopus within a beautiful coral garden. And Chocolate Island is a great place to hunt for that perfect frogfish picture or search for nudis, seahorses and Spanish dancers.

green black nudi
pink
Shark in a cave
Soft Coral at Gato
Sea Cucumber

It’s easy to choose which sites you want to visit, as all scheduled trips are easily visible on Exotic’s whiteboard in the dive area. Since the resort has multiple boats, it generally has divers heading out to multiple locations throughout the day. The boats are spacious, with fresh water and coffee on demand.  And since Exotic is a PADI 5 Star IDC facility, you can take any classes you want.

Divers who come to Malapascua should know that it’s a small island with limited resources. Service operates on “island time,” water resources can sometimes be scarce, and certain foods could be absent if shipments haven’t arrived recently. If you go to Malapascua expecting luxury, you will be disappointed, but if you come expecting a fun social atmosphere and outstanding diving, along with a truly unique shark encounter at Exotic Resort, then you’ll be quite happy you made the trip.

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Dive Site: Daryl Laut, Anilao, Philippines

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

While they call the Daryl Laut a barge, it was actually a floating casino in a former life. The frame of the ship is completely intact, whereas the rest of the wreckage was picked apart for scraps. What’s been left behind is this large frame, covered with hard and soft corals. Nearly everywhere we looked were nudibranchs and flatworms in countless bright colors.

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barge3
dueling cameras
nudi4
wall

Schools of reef fish hang out inside and around the frame of the wreckage, and the wreck itself offers endless wide-angle shots with divers and blue waters juxtaposed with the coral-encrusted frame. Move slowly and pay attention and you’ll be rewarded with sightings of nudibranchs, flatworms and scorpionfish hiding in plain sight. You can easily swim through the beams of the wreckage, just watch your buoyancy and keep your gear streamlined so as not to catch any part of it on the beams or coral. Because of the higher probability of bumping coral on this site, I’d highly recommend wearing something that covers your legs and arms, even if the 80 F (26 C) water temperature doesn’t call for it. Stay shallow or go deep on this site; there’s coral and life to be seen everywhere.

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Diving on the Philippine Siren

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Liveaboard diving is appealing in general because guests can be assured that they’ll hit all the best sites any given location offers, and the Philippine Siren is no exception. We spent 10 glorious days on the boat’s southern Visayas trip, doing as you do on a liveaboard: eating amazing food, sleeping in spacious quarters, and blowing bubbles in crystal-clear water, filled with a dazzling array of marine life. The crew and other divers were pretty incredible too, keeping the atmosphere lighthearted and fun throughout the entire trip.

Lots of liveaboards have fairly cramped quarters with little storage space, so we were pleasantly surprised when we got to our room. The cabins on the Siren fleet are, to put it simply, huge. There was plenty of storage over the beds and in the multiple closets. Each cabin has a private bathroom, air-conditioning, and a TV that’s wired to a central server so you can relax and watch some entertainment, if you’re so inclined. But we think the better entertainment is either under the water, on the spacious sundeck admiring the views during the day, or on the sundeck-turned-stardeck admiring the stars at night. Add a little wine and dive stories into the mix and you’ll have better entertainment than any TV show could hope to offer.

Food

Liveaboards are known for two main things: Lots of diving and lots of food. The excellent chefs on the Philippine Siren work hard to keep their divers well-fed and happy. Many of the dishes are Filipino-based, but you’ll see plenty of other international cuisine as well, and chefs will always go out of their way to accommodate special diets (if you tell the booking agent in advance). It’s one of the day’s most anticipated moments when the chef arrives to announce and describe each dish he’s prepared for the buffet-style dinner, all with a bit of flair and humor.

Diving

As any liveaboard veteran will know, another great feature of this style of trip is that you’ll set your equipment up once…and that’s it. Dive-deck crew will fill your tanks, set up your regulator on your next tank — everything but squeeze you into your wetsuit. On the Philippine Siren’s main deck, the shaded dive area is as spacious as the rest of the boat. Each diver has their own numbered spot with drawers to help keep track of their small items. With multiple rinse bins, tons of space to hang things to dry, and a crew that’s eager to help, divers never need worry about getting and keeping their gear clean and secure. They also never need worry about bumping elbows in cramped seating arrangements.

As for the diving, well, it was pretty amazing. On this itinerary, the Siren stops in the Bohol area, Apo Island, Dauin and Moalboal. Most of what you’ll see in the Philippines is small — seahorses, scores of nudibranchs, frogfish, several varieties of shrimp including mantis shrimp, sea snakes, and eels. And some of it, while still small, is quite unusual and charismatic, such as the various octopuses — mimic, wunderpus, blue-ringed, and coconut octopus — and the ever-interesting cuttlefish. That’s not even mentioning the massive reefs and walls, covered with gorgonians, crinoids and hard and soft corals, including the seemingly endless hard-coral garden at Apo Island.

anemone and blue background-cropped
clownfish anemone diver
eel
fan and diver
group shot
hanging nudi
huge sponge
moray
three frogfish
turtle close
turtle nadia 2
whale shark mouth open2
white and red nudi face
white nudi

Even though the Philippines isn’t known for larger animals, there are a few of those around too. The biggest, most photogenic sea turtles we’ve ever seen were in the Bohol area. At the Oslob stop, divers get the opportunity to dive with some juvenile whale sharks and in Moalboal, there’s always a chance to see some thresher sharks.

Overall, this Philippine Siren itinerary is best for patient macro divers and reef lovers, with a few big guys thrown into the mix for good measure. The trip itself is suited for any diver looking to have a great time in paradise with an attentive and amazing crew, tasty food and luxurious quarters. If you want to relax while still hitting some of the best dive spots in the Philippines, give the Siren Fleet a chance to make your dive dreams come true.

 

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An Atmosphere of Giving in the Philippines

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

The owners of Atmosphere Resorts, Matt and Gabby Holder, saw an opportunity to give back to the community that they now call home. But far from just giving handouts, the couple opted to offer knowledge and opportunity to help locals help themselves. What followed is a testament to the intelligent philanthropy of a conscientious couple, as well as the determination and desire of the community around them to work hard to improve their own situations. The couple made it very clear that they didn’t feel like Atmosphere Resorts did much at all, but merely served as a catalyst, a spark that lit the way for the local Filipinos to follow, if they chose to do so.

Soup kitchen

Seeing a need in the community, the Holders hired an expert at establishing successful soup kitchens in impoverished areas. They engaged the parents of local children to volunteer in the kitchen so they had ownership and responsibility in the success of the endeavor. The kitchen has grown to serve 80 children a day, providing a balanced, nutritious lunch five days a week throughout the year.

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Located about 30 minutes away from the resort, the kitchen is fully funded by Atmosphere with the occasional contributions given by guests who’ve toured the kitchen on one of the resort’s twice-weekly visits.

In order to encourage education, every day that a child attends the local community school they receive a ticket for a free meal at the kitchen, and nearly all of them participate. The kitchen weighs the kids to make sure their weight is healthy, as well as providing toothbrushes, floss and school supplies. All of the food is sourced locally, further contributing to the betterment of the community.

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Crafts from recyclables

Even the local dump sparked an idea in the minds of the Holders. They noticed that some locals were rummaging through the dump, looking for anything of value. With some assistance from outside resources, they taught many of the local women how to make jewelry from recyclables such as aluminum cans, magazines, leather and cotton. They’ve turned a dump into a source of beauty, fashion, and most importantly – income.

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For the parents of the children in the community school, the jewelry they make has become the sole means by which they support their families. This endeavor has become a thriving business, Lumago. The women of the group create new designs and continue to improve upon the quality of their products. All of their items – bracelets, necklaces, keychains, purses and bags are for sale in the Atmosphere Boutique.

To expand upon this initiative, Atmosphere Resorts is providing a platform for a sewing co-op so that new members can increase their skillset and tap into additional markets for income.

 

Piggy Project

One of the latest ventures for the community is what Atmosphere has called the Piggy Project. The resort gives local families piglets to care for and raise to adulthood. The families provide the food and care for the pig and, when it’s fully grown, they sell it at the market for a considerable profit. The families are able to pay Atmosphere back for the cost of the piglet (no profit for Atmosphere), take some profit for themselves, and then invest in purchasing another piglet.

School

After having children of his own, Matt felt as though the local schools were lacking, and that the better educational facilities were too far away and far too expensive. Beginning with just three students in their own living room, the Holders started a private school on Atmosphere Resorts property. That living room has grown into a Philippine Accredited school with 30 students, which is also a member of the Council of British International Schools. The school has a significant tuition cost, but it’s far less than the cost of any of the private schools in Manila. It’s a non-profit school, funded by Atmosphere and the tuition costs.   Having a quality school nearby allows expats with children the opportunity to live and work in the area, as well as giving locals another option to the more expensive Manila schools. Right now, the school serves children up to 10 years old, but they are aiming to expand the age group, as well as increase the number of children from 30 to 60, with a maximum of 12 students per teacher. To the Holders, the best part of the curriculum is that it’s transferable to other countries, so children attending here are not behind any other country’s standards.

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Credit where credit is due

The Holders feel strongly that the success of these endeavors is owed entirely to the people who benefit the most from them. They feel that it took so little effort on the resort’s part to put things in motion since the people of the community were eager to jump onto the opportunity. Matt in particular aims to speak to other resort owners across the world and share these ideas and the means by which their resort was able to see them to fruition. He hopes to put to rest to rest the misconception that this kind of philanthropy is difficult and expensive, and that resorts across the world will follow in Atmosphere’s footsteps.

Check out our video of Atmosphere Resort

Atmosphere Resorts, PhilippinesCheck out our latest video episode featuring Atmosphere Resorts in the Philippines!

Posted by Scuba Diver Life on Sunday, January 31, 2016

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Diving Anilao, Philippines: Macro Paradise

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Diving in Anilao, Philippines is an eye-opening experience, as long as you go with the right expectations. If you’re hoping to see big stuff such as mantas, sharks, large reef fish, or anything of that sort then you will be sorely disappointed. These animals are around at certain dive sites, but there’s never any guarantee. If, on the other hand, you understand that this a macro- and muck-diving paradise with some gorgeous, massive reefs thrown in for good measure that draw the occasional pelagic, then you’ll be overjoyed. Want to work on your photography in a slow-paced, easy-going environment? This is the place to be. We spent a week at Aiyanar Beach and Dive Resort and came away amazed by the diversity of critters we found underwater there.

The ever-elusive and extremely rare Rhinopias showed up on our first dive. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I, so I had to look it up. It’s a rare type of scorpionfish, the sighting of which excited even our guides. Anemones full of various clownfish, nudis everywhere, the occasional cuttlefish, eels, shrimp and scores reef fish were just a few of the highlights. The guides know the area well and seem to take a very personal interest in helping you find whatever you want see.

The reefs in the area have an array of soft and hard corals and sponges that can make for some dramatic wide-angle shots in dazzling colors. If you take your time and look closely, you’ll see nudis of nearly every size and color making their way across corals and rocks. My favorite critter was the flamboyant cuttlefish, though. Having never seen a cuttlefish before, I was so excited to be in an area like the Philippines where they are plentiful. The guides managed to find three of them on one dive for me, one of which was of the flamboyant variety. All three of us could have watched it for the entire dive as it strutted across the ocean floor like a poster child for LSD.

Skeleton of a coral encrusted barge
Flamboyant cuttlefish putting on a show for us
A shot of one of the great food at Aiyanar
Leaf fish on a night dive
A very shy moray gliding through the coral
One of the many nudis to be found in Anilao
Scorpion fish hiding in plain sight
Star sea urchin on a night dive
There are many opportunities to get that great wall shot
Aerial view of Aiyanar Resort
Morays cuddling under a ledge
Sombrero Island in Anilao

The resort does three dives a day, plus a night dive if you’re so inclined and not too exhausted. We did two night dives while we were there, one at the pier and one on a large wall. On our first night dive we found a couple coconut octopuses, bobbit worms, decorator crabs and bobtail squid. The octopuses were the most charismatic, even a little touchy-feely as they reached out to our cameras. The squid were fast and aloof, darting out into the darkness and leaving us able to see only its eyes, glowing back at us. If you turned off your lights and waved your hand through the water, you’d see trails of phosphorescence. Mimic and blue-ring octopuses are known to frequent the area but we didn’t have any luck seeing one while we were there.

The diving can be pricey if you’re traveling solo. There’s a fixed price for taking the boat out and paying the guides, so adding another diver or two into the mix makes the price extremely reasonable. Most of the sites are within a 20-minute boat ride of the resort, but a few, such as Verde Island, are further out. These are only dived by request and must be scheduled ahead of time.

Pre-dive couldn’t be easier — you need only get yourself onto the boat since the crew handles your gear for you. Hydration is important and they carry ample water for each diver, as well as some coffee if you still feel the need for a pick-me-up after your salty plunges.

All in all, we found the diving in Anilao to be spectacular. We deemed it the hidden gem of the Philippines since we hadn’t heard much about the destination prior to arrival. The area has a lot to offer divers of all sorts — keep it shallow or head deep, stay on the reefs or muck it up. As long as you don’t expect to see great big critters, you’ll be pleased not only by the diving in Anilao, but also and specially with the Jedi-master guides of Aiyanar Resort.

For some incredible footage, check out our video here.

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