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Sailing With Sirens - Underwater Photography in Southern Leyte
 October 17, 2011 @ 03:01 PM (EST)

If you look at the Philippines on a map, it’s as if it was a country built for scuba divers. It’s a nation of 7,107 islands, all of which are situated on one of the axes of the coral triangle – the ocean’s most biodiverse area.   For underwater photographers, the Philippines are a one-stop shop, with subjects to fulfill every specialists' needs. 

There is world-class macro near Cebu in Dumaugette, Anilao and Puerto Galera; healthy soft and hard coral wide angle opportunities in the Visayas, big animals in Malapascua and Tubbataha, wrecks in Coron, and many other sought after opportunities in between.    You could spend a year just diving the Philippines' reefs and wrecks, and still not scratch the surface. With so much to offer, one of the world’s leading live aboard fleets, Worldwide Dive and Sail, dedicates one of the six luxury sailboats that make up their Siren Fleet to diving the Philippines.




Sailing With a Siren –Diving on the S/Y Philippine Siren

If you are looking to travel in the most remote areas of the Philippines in complete luxury, let me introduce you to the S/Y Philippine Siren. The 130-foot (40 meter) vessel is a true Phinisi -- a traditional two-masted Indonesian sailboat, made of ironwood and teak. The stern has a spacious outdoor dining area, where you can enjoy the chef’s international food. After a meal, you can spend time in the comfortable entertainment room, where you can download images from the day's diving. Here, you find the dedicated camera table, equipped with charging stations and overhead lights, for preparing your gear.  

The luxurious SY Philippine Siren

Perhaps what sets the Philippine Siren apart from most dive vessels, however, is the size of the eight-bath en suite, air-conditioned rooms found on the lower level. The room’s polished wood floors, personal computers and spaciousness environment make them seem more like 5-star hotel rooms than a ship's cabins.


The spacious cabins

You'll be spending most of your time in the bow area, on the large dive deck, where tanks are lined up, waiting for a BC and reg to be attached.  Here, you will don your gear before each dive, and line up to board the dinghys, which take you to your dive site.



The dive deck - perhaps the most important area. There is plenty of room for camera maintenance here as well


Southern Leyte

One of the Philippines’ principal regions is the Visayas, which consist of several islands in northern part of the Sulu Sea.  The southern-most islands are known for their beautiful coral reefs, and underwater photographers have been focusing their wide-angle lenses there for years. Recently, however, diving at the bottom tip of the Visayas' easterly island, Leyte, has become increasingly popular. What put Southern Leyte on the map were the numbers of whale sharks that visit in the months of April and May, offering opportunities to photograph these elusive gentle giants in calm, tropical waters.

However, it was soon discovered that even when the whale sharks are not around, the area is home to world-class macro subjects. In May, I journeyed to Southern Leyte on the SY Philippine Siren to look for whale sharks and to photograph some of South East Asia’s famed critters on a 7-day itinerary.

The trip starts at the major port of Cebu, before heading southeast to Limasawa, a small island off the southern tip of Leyte, known for congregations of whale sharks. After spending time snorkelling in Limasawa searching for the world’s biggest fish, the Siren moves slowly into Sogod Bay, which is a small inlet that cuts the tip of Leyte into two separate points.  The sailboat then travels slowly up the eastern side of the bay, and back down the western side, passing Limasawa again, before making its way back north to Cebu.

A map of the dive sites around Southern Leyte and Limasawa



Cebu – Diving a major city

The journey to Southern Leyte starts in the Philippines' second largest city, Cebu. It’s nice to be able to begin the trip at a major port that is easily accessed from an international airport, especially before entering the remote Leyte region. You can spend the night before embarkation in a nice hotel, and enjoy your final moments of consistent cell service. Usually, being at a major port means no diving, but this is not the case in Cebu.  There are some worthwhile macro opportunities in the area, so you can dive on your first and last days.

Particularly worth diving is the Shangri-La House Reef, which is a macro dive with white sandy areas and small coral bommies in which small critters are often found hiding..  The diving is easy and shallow, and a good place to get acclimated to being back underwater. However, the reason for coming to the Philippines doesn’t start until you make your journey down to Sogod Bay.



Limasawa – In Search of a Big Fish

The crossing from civilization to Sogod takes all night, and when you wake up in the morning, you will be greeted by the sun rising over the island of Limasawa.  Most waking moments in Limasawa are spent looking for whale sharks, but diving with whale sharks isn’t allowed, so prepare your snorkel gear.

The local municipality has spotters, and the dinghy drivers go out looking as well, asking the assistance of the local fishermen.  One particularly entertaining way of looking for whale sharks is to tow the divemaster or a willing guest behind the dinghy, snorkeling, while scouring the open waters for the silent, 30-foot giant.

As with all big animals, whale shark sightings are not guaranteed. The year 2010 had many encounters, while the early part of the 2011 saw only a few whale sharks in the area.  On my voyage in early May, our group saw a single whale shark, but alas, I was not in the area at the time. 

The whale sharks come for the plankton that is in the area at this time of year, but this also means reduced visibility.  Therefore, you are faced with a predicament when deciding on a lens to use. Although the plankton-rich, murky water might make you gravitate towards putting on a macro lens, don't. Nothing would be more devastating than seeing a whale shark through anything but a wide angle lens, so most photographers will stick to wide and hope for a sighting.

Being in the heart of The Coral Triangle, there are still plenty of wide subjects besides the elusive whale shark.  Large barrel sponges covered in crinoids and surrounded by reef fish, the beautiful mantle of a curled up anemone and the loyal protective clownfish that call it home, and the occasional sea turtle will reward the photographer that sticks to a dome port in Limasawa.  

But because the visibility is less than ideal, if you don’t pay close attention to the background, the water column can look dull and uninviting, rather than that bright tropical blue water we all love to see. 

On the northern end of the island, there is a fish sanctuary that is watched over by a small NGO. This area, unsurprisingly called “Sanctuary,” makes for a particularly prolific dive, as the fish life here is extensive and the schools of small reef fish can give an otherwise dull background interest.   In other sites, where schools of fish may not be as prevalent, like Adrian’s Cove or Gunther’s Wall, consider using the sun in the background on your images to help make the water column, which can look plain and unexciting, appear more dynamic.

If you have a wide-angle lens on and a whale shark comes by, then you will be heavily rewarded by your discipline. Such was the case for a number of lucky photographers  at Adrian’s Cove,  a dive site on the eastern side of island, where  a group stumbled across a 10-foot-long whale shark. I was not as fortunate, and by the time I got there the shark was long gone.



Sogod Bay 

After two days looking for whale sharks in Limasawa, the SY Philippine Siren headed into the heart of Sogod Bay, which has become known for the small animals that hide in the sand and reef crevices found in the area. Anxious to put on my macro lens and photograph the minute animals I had to reluctantly ignore in Limasawa,  I missed a special wide angle opportunity at a dive site called Napantaw off the west coast of Panaon island.

Napantaw is another fish sanctuary where commercial fisherman are not allowed to fish (although local hook and line fishing is still permitted). This small, protected area is enough to convince sceptics on the importance of giving fish a sanctuary away from destructive fishing practices. Masses of brightly colored pink and orange anthias form thick schools, waiting for oncoming plankton to feed on. They are joined by schools of damsels, chromis, multiple species of elaborately designed wrasses and other reef fish that outnumber the quantities I have seen at any other dive site.

If you have a macro lens, you will have an opportunity to shoot portraits. Reef fish tend to be ignored because they are so common, but readily available subjects should not be confused with boring subjects.

Colorful anthias are abudant around Napantaw

The bright anthias stand out against a black background, but getting the constantly moving fish in focus, and alone in the frame, can be a daunting task.  If the weather and water cooperate, photographing these schooling fish with a wide angle lens amongst the shallow hard corals on a sunny day would be ideal.


Further north, into the heart of Sogod Bay, await shallow reefs with abundant macro photo subjects for the observant photographers..  Perfectly camouflaged scorpion fish lie silently on the reef, ready to snatch up unsuspecting prey.  Stone fish, which are vibrant pink and comically wedged in between two rocks, so they are hanging head first, are slightly more conspicuous but equally as photogenic.  These ambush predators, and other subjects, are at the larger end of the critter scale. And while a 60mm lens tends to function as an expensive paperweight on other dive trips, you just might find it a good lens to use in Southern Leyte.

A sleeping scorpion fish
Ambush predators are common in Sogod Bay


For those with 100/105mm range macro lenses, look carefully on the colorful corals for small gobies. The pattern of the coral polyps creates a wonderful background for macro images. Whip corals are always worth exploring as well, as they are relatively reliable places to find interesting macro subjects.


Gobies are a species that are often overlooked by divers, but treasured by underwater photographers

Don’t ignore the sandy areas either, as these areas that appear desolate at first glance are actually loaded with interesting life. Camouflaged crabs, predatory lizard fish and feeding pipefish can all be found around the sandy patches of the dive sites in Sogod Bay.



Padre Burgos – A Pier in the Rough

On the way out of “The Bay”, you will pass right by one of Leyte’s largest cities – Padre Burgos.  While this city is by no standard a major city, with a population of just 9,000 people, it has an impressive infrastructure and size considering how far it is from the true Filipino metropolises- a true testament to the comprehensive ferry systems in the Philippines.
Many divers would cringe at the thought of diving underneath a trash-infested pier, but photographers know that these environments yield an abundance of photographic subjects, and the pier in Padre Burgos is no exception.

Soft coral on the pier

Above water, the pier is remarkably average, with no distinct features to distinguish it from any other neglected pier.  Almost everyone that uses it has no idea of the drama that lies just feet below the surface.  The pilings of the pier are covered in beautiful soft coral of warm red, pink and orange colors.  Between the pilings at the surface, small silver fish swarm like insects, trying to stay clear of the large mouths of the many circling lionfish. What’s hidden within the soft coral, and between the pilings in the sandy bottom, is what will really compels the photographer to spend hours underneath this pier.

Many different animals find refuge among the branches and delicate polyps of the soft coral, the most notable being the seahorse.  These shy animals are difficult to photograph because you not only need to navigate between the coral to get a clear shot, but the seahorses at Padre Burgos, like all seahorses I have encountered, have the frustrating tendency of turning their heads away from photographers. 

The soft corals' bright colors make them great subjects

The seahorses are long enough that a 60mm lens is probably a more suitable focal length, but with 100/100mm lenses you can achieve tight portraits and have less of a chance of spooking them, since you can shoot from further away.


Shy seahorse

Once you are finished exploring the pilings, and peeking at the soft corals, thoroughly peruse the surrounding sand. This is where the truly odd, almost delinquent looking members of the pier call home. Two of the most alluring creatures you can find are the crocodile snake eel and the stargazer – both look like they born out of Tim Burton’s worst nightmares.


The stargazer has long been one of my favorite animals, both for it’s completely unique appearance and because of its creative name.  These ambush predators spend most of lives buried underneath the sand, but at night will stick their unfortunate faces out, and wait for an unsuspecting fish to swim by.  Then, it will strike like lightning, lunging out of the sand to devouring its prey before burying itself again. 

The scary looking stargazer

Besides being an ambush predator, the horrifying nature of the stargazer stems from their downright ugly appearance. The combination of the eyes being on top of their head, their monstrous giant mouth filled with soft tassels that look like sharp teeth, and their bone white coloration make this creature one of the ocean’s strangest inhabitants.  It is, of course, these upward facing eyes and nocturnal behavior that give the stargazer its apt and creative name.

We also came upon an equally bizarre predator, the crocodile snake eel, which possesses the same unfortunate skeletal look, awkward eyes and bizarre skin texture as the stargazers, but takes on an eel-like shape. What evolutionary purpose this awful look serves is unknown to me--unless fish have the same Halloween monster nightmares as we humans!

Like the stargazer, this snake eel has a horrifying skeletal look!

With colorful soft corals on the pilings making interesting wide-angle subjects, seahorses and fish underneath the pier, and strange animals lurking in the sandy areas, this is a truly world-class photography dive site. On the day we spent here, I logged 3 dives at 90 minutes each – meaning I spent about 4 and half hours photographing the pier in a single day. I only came up because I was delaying dinner for the group…



The Way Back Home –

After leaving Padre Burgos, the Philippine Siren leaves Sogod bay and starts travelling north on to the tip of Southern Leyte.  On the western side, a huge 1.6-mile expanse of healthy coral reef lines the coast. That means it’s time to put the wide-angle lens back on. Heaven’s Gate and Coral Garden have some of the most colorful and healthy corals I have ever witnessed. If you are fortunate enough to get a sunny day, there's good opportunity for some amazing ambient light shots over shallow hard coral reefs.  For soft coral enthusiasts, large “stalks” of grapefruit-colored, photogenic, soft coral line the floor at around 90 feet.

Healthy soft coral populations


Southern Leyte has become famous in the last few years for the whale sharks, but as I learned on my trip aboard the SY Philippine Siren, there is much more to photograph than the big fish. In fact, it’s really the small stuff that makes the area so special. The macro life in Sogod Bay is top notch, and there are plenty of chances to put on a dome port and photograph some coral or reefscapes. Certain areas, like the Naptanaw sanctuary and the pier on Padre Burgos were truly special sites, and were different than any place I have dived before.



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