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Phenomenal Frogfish of the Visayas
By Daniel Geary, February 11, 2024 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

The star of the show! This fantastic clown frogfish had a starring role with its own segment on BBC’s Planet Earth III
 

One of the most sought-after critters on a critter nerd’s wishlist is the frogfish. Grumpy-looking, stationary, extremely well-camouflaged, and equipped with a fishing rod, they are always a great fish to encounter during a dive, especially for underwater photographers. They can be found globally in warm waters, especially in the Indo-Pacific, with Indonesia and the Philippines having the highest densities. Although Lembeh is often mentioned as the top frogfish destination, many people overlook a small town in the Philippines that is slowly but surely making a name for itself as a top location for frogfish addicts.

This small town, Dauin, is centrally located in the Philippines, in the Visayas region, and boasts a healthy, seasonal frogfish population. Upwards of 10 species call this small coastline home each year, with some dive sites hosting more than 20 individual frogfish at a time. My personal record is 28 different frogfish during a single dive. I have also seen six species on one dive, eight species in one day, and 10 species in two days.
 

Painted frogfish come in just about every possible color—including purple
 

A favorite of photographers across the globe is the hairy or striated frogfish. An incredibly variable species, this is a classic individual from the tropical Pacific
 

Although the timing varies each season, juvenile frogfish usually begin to settle en masse from their pelagic phase sometime in December or January. These tiny juveniles, less than 1cm in length, continue to appear along the Dauin coast in large numbers for the next few months. The abundance of these minute frogfish starts to decline towards the middle of the year, transitioning to a rarity by the end of the year, only for the cycle to restart. Peak frogfish season for Dauin usually lies somewhere between April and June, depending on the season and how early or late the frogfish settled that year. During this time, there is a healthy mix of adult and juvenile frogfish and a wide variety of species.

Diving in Dauin can best be described as muck diving. Although this might sound unattractive to a new or non-diver, this simply means that it’s not going to be a coral reef. Muck habitats in Dauin can include sponges, sunken tree logs, mooring blocks, ropes, algae, seagrass, rubble, tires, artificial structures, basically any and all places where smaller prey may congregate. Some species are found living beneath rocks in less than 10 feet of water or even clinging to floating seaweed. This kind of habitat is the best place to find camouflaged critters, such as frogfish, seahorses, and cuttlefish. These critters don’t have a colorful coral reef in which to shelter so they have to use their own camouflage mechanisms to survive. Luckily, all dives in Dauin are guided so you will always have someone with a keen eye to find these camouflaged critters for you.
 

The ocellated frogfish is a small species, named for the eclipse-like ring at the rear of its dorsal fin
 

Out of the 10 confirmed species of frogfish found in Dauin, four can be considered common in season (painted, clown, giant, hairy), five can be considered rare in season (Randall’s, freckled, spotfin, ocellated, sargassumfish), with bandfin frogfish rounding out the pack as an extremely rare find. Only one species, the giant frogfish, can be reliably found during every month of the year. It is thought that most species of frogfish in the wild have a lifespan of less than one year, except for the giant frogfish. This species is confirmed to live at least three years—a conservative estimate—with stories of some individuals living at least five to seven years.

If you want a preview of what Dauin has to offer, look no further than season three of BBC’s award-winning documentary series Planet Earth. Filmed on location in Dauin in 2022, the opening sequence of the “Oceans” episode features a bright yellow clown frogfish exhibiting some incredible behavior. This species is relatively easy to find during Dauin’s frogfish season, one of the reasons Dauin was chosen as a filming location, so this is a great testament to Dauin’s healthy frogfish population.
 

Those familiar with Caribbean frogfish might note the similarity between this Randall’s frogfish and the dwarf frogfish. It is thought both species mimic the leaves of halimeda algae
 

Most divers that travel to Dauin also visit Malapascua, known for its thresher sharks, due to its close proximity. What many people don’t know is that Malapascua is home to two extremely rare species of frogfish: the cryptic frogfish and marble-mouthed Frogfish. Although the cryptic frogfish is almost never found, the marble-mouthed frogfish can be found somewhat reliably if the guides are looking for them. Unlike the majority of frogfish species that release their eggs to float away in the current, these two species brood their own eggs near the full moon—a rarity in the frogfish family—which can result in some fantastic photos and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness hatching frogfish. Pictures have even surfaced of a “honeycomb frogfish,” a different species but most likely the same genus as the cryptic frogfish, at the thresher shark dive site.
 

An extremely rarely seen frogfish, the cryptic frogfish: This one was photographed off Malapascua, an area most well known for thresher sharks
 

A remarkable image and a very rare sighting: yet-to-be-born marble-mouthed frogfish still inside their egg cases! The mother guards them until they hatch
 

If diving with frogfish is part of your future plans, do not overlook the Philippines as a potential destination. There are direct flights on Philippine Airlines from big cities around the world. There are multiple daily flights to Dumaguete, the nearest airport to Dauin, from Manila and Cebu. Dauin has plenty of resorts and hotels covering all budgets and can easily provide transportation to and from the airport. It is also a great place to learn to dive due to the easy conditions at many of the dive sites, and all of the guides and instructors are locally registered and certified. Almost all of the dive sites are within half an hour of the resorts and most of them are accessible from shore. You won’t regret traveling to Dauin during frogfish season—just remember to bring all your macro and super-macro gear!
 

This version of the juvenile clown frogfish mimics a toxic flatworm to make it less appealing to predators
 

A painted frogfish gone fishin’, using its modified foremost dorsal spine to lure prey close to its monstrous mouth
 

An absolutely adorable juvenile painted frogfish. Early in the season, baby anglers litter the substrate around the Philippines
 


 

About the Author: Daniel Geary, also known as Dr. Frogfish, is a marine biologist and PADI dive instructor based in South Florida. He previously lived in Dauin for nearly a decade where he created the PADI Frogfish Specialist course. He is an award-winning underwater photographer and has published online and in print, with frogfish photos in “Frogfishes: Biodiversity, Zoogeography, and Behavioral Ecology,” “Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific,” the Planet Earth III book, and the cover of the Copeia Scientific Journal. He is also credited in BBC’s “Oceans” episode of Planet Earth. He can be found diving beneath the Blue Heron Bridge in South Florida or on Instagram.

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