Usually found at a few dive sites feasting on hydroids, this “Bob Marley” nudibranch was photographed after laying eggs on a discarded liquor bottle
Whether you are new to scuba diving or a seasoned veteran, you have probably read or heard that the Philippines is full of great diving opportunities. Boasting locations such as Malapascua, home to daily thresher shark sightings, and Tubbataha Reefs National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, the Philippines is usually mentioned for its sharks and turtles. Many people don’t know that there is a small town in the Visayas, central Philippines, that is quickly growing in popularity due to the quality and variety of critters that can be found in the dark sand.
This town, called Dauin, is located on the island of Negros. It is accessible by daily flights from Manila (75 minutes) and Cebu (50 minutes) as well as multiple ferry options from Cebu. Cebu happens to be the hub for tourists going to Bohol and Malapascua, so it is very easy to include these destinations in one itinerary for a nice variety of diving. Communication with dive centers and resorts is very easy since English is the national language of the Philippines, unlike many other nearby countries that are popular with divers.
Although hairy shrimp are extremely small, always search the seagrass during a safety stop for these little crustaceans
One of the bonuses that Dauin offers in addition to muck diving is Apo Island—not to be confused with Apo Reef off western Mindoro. Apo Island is a small island, about 45 minutes away from Dauin, that has multiple, shallow cleaning stations for green and hawksbill turtles. Many resorts run two- and three-tank trips and turn a visit to Apo Island into an enjoyable day trip. It’s great for snorkelers and, of course, turtle lovers, and is home to plenty of sea kraits, schools of jacks and barracuda, and even the occasional thresher or whale shark. It is the oldest continuous marine sanctuary in the Philippines and a successful model has been copied all over the world.
Many turtles can be found feasting on seagrass along the Dauin coast, but the true turtle action is 30 minutes away at Apo Island
The main attraction of Dauin is the dark sand, home to some of the world’s most sought after critters. The coast here is clearly volcanic, with a mix of sandy and rocky beaches. Many of the muck dive sites are accessible from shore so bring booties for traversing the rocks and pebbles. Although there are plenty of critters to be found here, one in particular—the frogfish—has put Dauin on the map as the “frogfish capital of the world.”
There are a least 11 species of frogfish found in Dauin, with some dive sites home to 20-plus frogfish encountered on a single dive. My personal record is 28 in one hour, but I know of multiple guides who have found 30 or more. Due to the variety of species, most dive sites have resident frogfish, although the habitats will determine which species that resident is. For example, giant frogfish prefer artificial and natural reefs, while ocellated frogfish prefer tiny sponges or clumps of algae in vast areas of dark sand.
Frogfish are the one of the most popular critters requested by guests and luckily there are plenty of species and sightings in Dauin. This specimen is showing off its fishing lure
I have lived and worked in Dauin since I took my PADI Instructor exam in 2014 as a marine biologist/dive instructor and currently teach my own PADI Frogfish Specialist Course. Frogfish are the reason I moved here, and photographing them, as well as other critters, nearly everyday for the past five years has given me great insight as to how the dive sites change during the year and which animals have specific seasons. A diver who visits in April will have a completely different experience than one who visits in October, who will have a different experience from one who visits in January.
Frogfish begin showing up in Dauin around December to January and will continue showing up in good numbers until around April–May, depending on the season. The best time to visit to see frogfish is April–June. These months are home to the most numbers and most species, since juveniles are still showing up while the frogfish from the beginning of the year are maturing and finding permanent spots to call home. Hairy frogfish tend to show up a bit later in the year and stay a few months longer, but this overlaps with April–June.
You have a great chance of seeing frogfish year round, but later in the year, September–November, there are only a few species still inhabiting the local dive sites and the numbers are lower. Something to keep in mind if you have trouble seeing really small critters: The average size frogfish you will encounter in the beginning of the year will be around one centimeter or less, increasing each month as the frogfish mature and grow. One of the best sites for small frogfish is San Miguel, home to at least eight species of frogfish on a good day, while a few sites in neighboring Zamboanguita are home to plenty of giant frogfish for wide-angle opportunities.
The ocellated frogfish is small and rare, but with good eyes they can be found quite often at San Miguel dive site
Dauin is also home to great cephalopod encounters. Just like frogfish, it is important to time the season right to give yourself the best chance of seeing the most sought after species, like blue-ringed octopuses and flamboyant cuttlefish. Cephalopods can be sighted year round, but the best time to find them is October–December. There seems to be a mini season around February–March, but the October–December period yields the most sightings of the desired species.
Many of these cephalopods can be found at Secret Corner (also known as Punta or Bonnets Corner, depending on your dive operator). This large, sandy slope full of garden eels and patches of small rocks needs to be dived at high tide due to the strength of currents that can be present. Cephalopods at this site include the blue-ringed octopus, mototi octopus, wonderpus, algae octopus, mimic octopus, coconut octopus, and flamboyant cuttlefish, and many can be found in one single dive. These species can be found at many other dive sites on the coast, but the Corner has the highest variety.
This dive site is also one of the best locations for Ambon scorpionfish, hairy frogfish, and ocellated frogfish when it is covered in algae mid-year. This algae disappears as cephalopod season approaches, paving the way for new critters to take over. Broadclub cuttlefish buck the trend and start showing up in the beginning of the year, using that algae to their advantage. Not to be left out, bobtail squid can be found at many dive sites during night dives, although they are almost impossible to find during the day.
Seeing multiple flamboyants together is not an uncommon sight during cephalopod season
One of the rarer octopus species in Dauin, the mototi has multiple color patterns that can be displayed depending on the situation, such as this male mototi (far) putting on a show for a not-so-receptive female
Ghost pipefish have a distinct season and can be found in large numbers in Dauin. It is not uncommon to see more than 10 individuals during one dive, comprised of multiple species: ornate, robust, roughsnout, Halimeda. Ghost pipefish returning from their pelagic stage start arriving in the beginning of the year, around the same time the frogfish begin to show up. They continue to come during the first few months of the year and then sightings drop off after June.
They tend to aggregate around crinoids, with a large, dominant female noticeable by her large pouch created by her pectoral fins, with the males clumped around her vying for position. They can also be found hovering around soft coral, seagrass, and Halimeda, depending on the species. Ask to dive San Miguel or Cars/Poblacion if you want to see plenty of ghost pipefish.
Ornate ghost pipefish fish are very common in the beginning of the year, with this individual choosing a black coral bush as its home
Dauin is home to plenty of nudibranches, seahorses, crustaceans, eels, and other critters and fish, enough to keep any underwater shooter satisfied, although the majority of them don't have a set season or—like seahorses—live multiple years. Some species, like harlequin shrimp, will show up and stay in the same place, at times for months, but the length of their residency depends on the number of guests and their behavior when photographing the harleys, not the change in environment. Sharks aren’t common in Dauin and are encountered rarely and by chance, although we do have plenty of their close relative, blue-spotted stingrays, as well as blue-spotted ribbontail rays.
Seahorses live multiple years, so there is no set season for them in Dauin. They can be found at both the muck and reef sites, so always keep an eye open for them
Blue-spotted stingray utilizing the services of a cleaner wrasse
Ribbon eels, which change color depending on age and sex, can be found at many of the reef dive sites along the Dauin coast
If you haven't been to the Philippines, or hadn’t heard of Dauin the last time you visited, I highly recommend adding it to your next itinerary, especially if you love frogfish! Be sure to plan your trip at the right time of year for your desired critters. My favorite time of year to dive is April–June due to the numbers of ghost pipefish and frogfish, as well as juvenile broadclub cuttlefish, that can be found. November is a close second for the rare cephalopod action. Many resorts are very open about seasons for critter encounters, so don’t be afraid to email some prospective dive shops and ask for their recommendations when you are planning your trip.
There are usually a few resident harlequin shrimp at any given time, but if luck is on your side, you might spot a juvenile, dwarfed by the blue starfish it loves to eat
About the Author: Daniel Geary grew up in Florida and has fostered a love of the ocean ever since he was a few years old. He has been diving for 13 years and photographing for the last eight years. He is an award-winning photographer living in Dauin, Philippines and a frogfish expert who teaches an exclusive PADI Frogfish Specialist Course at multiple resorts along the Dauin coast. Daniel enjoys speaking at international dive shows about frogfish as well as how to photograph critters in a responsible and environmentally-friendly manner, and will be leading frogfish-centered dive trips in the near future.
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