Tubastrea corals blossom at San Agapito in the biodiverse Verde Island Passage
Ask anyone about diving in the Philippines and they will tell you about all the star attractions: Wrecks, whale sharks, thresher sharks, and Tubbataha roll off the tongue, but this expansive archipelago of 7,641 islands has more than just the usual high-profile suspects. With the country being the epicenter of global marine biodiversity and with almost nine percent of our planet’s coral reefs, we were sure we could find something a bit left of center, something more exploratory and off the typical diving trail.
Embarking from Anilao, a mere two hours’ drive from Manila Airport, our trip on board the mighty MV Solitude One would take us on a seven-day safari exploring the lesser-known dive areas around Romblon, Tablas, and Puerto Galera, before finishing in the 4,400-square-mile Verde Island Passage, widely considered the richest and most biodiverse marine area in the world—not to mention the island at its center being my namesake!
Stunning sea fans make the Verde Island Passage home
Ghosts in the Night
Our first stop was Romblon. We had only ever heard about Romblon from a fellow photographer friend who had long desired to witness the holy grail of all nudibranch species, Melibe colemani, otherwise known as the “ghost nudi.” First discovered in Mabul, Malaysia in 2008 by Australian naturalist Neville Coleman (1938–2012), this strangely translucent, gelatinous creature is scarcely seen by chance. You have to be exceptionally fortuitous to find it, let alone photograph it, except if you are in Romblon.
The evening was blessed with superb conditions for a night dive on the unassuming house reef of the Romblon Beach Resort, a new resort on the outlying island of Logbon meticulously established during the pandemic by acclaimed underwater photographers Jim Chen and Lynn Wu. Tonight was about finding and photographing one thing, Melbe colemani. We were fortunate to be joined underwater by the resort’s guides, giving us the best possible chance to find and photograph this peculiar creature.
Materializing from out of nowhere, like ninjas in the dark, we were lured to a small area of Xenia coral, the Melibe’s food source, cautiously approaching what resembled a small jumbled assortment of “snotty” string. Its vaporous body wavered in the current; it was as if with any slight exhale or movement, the Melibe would lift off and fly far, far away. It took a considerable amount of time to comprehend what it was we were actually looking at. Which way was it facing? Where was its mouth and its rhinophores? Did it even have a head? A photographic challenge to say the least, but we were smitten by this obscure and strangely beautiful creature.
The rare and delicate Melibe colemani at night in the macro haven of Romblon
Butterflies of the Sea
An estimated 3000 nudibranch species exist across our planet’s oceans. Their kaleidoscope of colors, shapes and extravagant dance moves have earned them the name “butterflies of the sea.” But there is one special critter in Romblon that truly epitomises this name: Cyerce nigra, or tiger butterfly. A sacoglossan (sap-sucking) sea slug of the Caliphyllidae (Polybranchiidae) family, it lives on Romblon’s shallow, sandy bottomed algae fields and is a prized find for super macro photographers.
At less than half a centimeter in length, this little slug was tiny! It wasn’t until we captured it on camera that we appreciated how precious and delicate it was. Dressed up in its ruffled ballgown, it crawled off its algae onto the white sand, its plumage (cerata) dancing back and fourth at mercy to the current, wavering to give us a sneak peak of both sides of its elaborate costume. On top, tiger stripes; below, leopard spots in reverse. Could there be anything more adorable?
While the ghost nudi and tiger butterfly are definitely the stars of the show in Romblon, the house reef at the Romblon Beach Resort will keep photographers entertained for days on end. Lembeh sea dragons, minuscule blue medallion crabs, candy crabs, and sashimi shrimp—the size of a sashimi grain of rice itself!—all make this house reef home. You’ll be guaranteed a new discovery on every dive.
The rare and beautiful Cyerce nigra on the shallow white sands
The shy Lembeh seadragon is another Romblon jewel
The Big Blue Hole
One of the most tempting things about liveaboard diving is the exploratory aspect and the chance that almost anywhere you put your mask in the water can lead to an incredible experience. Having the competence on board to adventure that little bit further, this curiosity led us to a site our dive guides had been told about in the very northeastern tip of the nearby island of Tablas. Here, the Punta Gorda lighthouse stood sentinel, marking a vertical descent into a spectacular blue hole. How this hole formed is a mystery, but it is, without doubt, the most treasured underwater landscape on the reefs here.
With a leap of faith, we descended into the eerie, deep hole, our eyes fixated on detecting any glimpse of light at the base of the shaft. On our descent, timid cardinalfish took refuge against the cavern’s walls. The exit seemed endless to reach, as the current from below vigorously welled upwards, slowing our descent and conveying the sensation of skydiving.
A diver hovers at the exit cavern of the blue hole at Tablas Island
Exploring the vibrant white corals on the slope of the Blue Hole dive site
As we finally reached the exit chamber at 100 feet, there was no doubt that this was a very ethereal and atmospheric place. We paused to look back up the shaft to the surface and enjoyed the vista of the divers descending from the sky above. This strikingly beautiful, vertical cavern, which lured us deep into the gloom, released us out into the blue and on to a vertical outer-reef wall of raging soft coral. We now understood where the up-current was coming from as we witnessed the profusion of Anthias dancing on the wall.
The vibrant soft corals on the wall of the Blue Hole dive site
Reefs of Wonder
Regardless of where you have dived in the world, the gin-like waters of Puerto Galera don’t disappoint. It is believed that over 800 species of nudibranch have been identified here in the past 20 years, but it is the nutrient-packed currents enriching the area’s labyrinth of soft coral and sponge gardens that really impresses. In Puerto Galera’s protected coral garden coves, fairy basslets boogie to the mercy of the current. Set this against a backdrop of jaw-dropping color and you have some very pretty diving.
The area also harbors some interesting shipwrecks. Purposely sunk to become an artificial reef, the 100-foot hull of the Alma Jane, a cargo ship scuttled in 2003, makes for an alluring dive. While parts of the deck have since collapsed, you’ll find the wreck encrusted with a rage of psychedelic soft corals and harboring resident frogfish, mantis shrimp, nudibranchs, and various schooling fishes. The wreck itself presents a captivating photographic opportunity.
A diver over the bow of the eerie Alma Jane wreck in Puerto Galera
Fish school at the stern of the Alma Jane wreck
Center of the Center
Of all the dive locations of the Philippines, the Verde Island Passage is arguably the richest and most biodiverse. In 2005, a study by Dr. Kent Carpenter, IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment coordinator, and Victor Springer of the Smithsonian Institute, declared the Philippines as “the center of marine biodiversity in the world” and the Verde Island Passage as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity.” Located at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the Verde Island area was declared to have the highest concentration of marine species, having 1,736 overlapping marine species over a 40 square mile area, and the highest concentration of marine life anywhere on the planet. The diving here more than lives up to this reputation.
A diver explores the vibrant coral coves of Puerto Galera
At the pinnacle dive site of San Agapito, located just off Verde Island, marine life is flourishing and rampant. The greatest influence on this underwater wonderland is the lively and energetic currents that whirl and eddy around the reefscape, replenishing a myriad of nutrients that fuel the area’s profusion of species. The topography of this underwater landscape is arresting, with secret passages, rocky outcrops, and striking sheer vertical walls that provide the substrate for a diverse range of coral species to explode. The site endears itself to pelagics and a multitude of macro critters.
Schooling jacks, redtoothed triggerfish, Anthias, and fairy basslets are guaranteed, along with frequent appearances from numerous turtle species and sea snakes. Be sure to dive this site when the current is asserting itself to witness the labyrinth of exquisite Tubastrea corals (sun corals) blossoming against a sea of redtoothed triggerfish and Anthias. Pinnacle sites like this indeed have their challenges when it comes to managing the current, but the rewards are rich if you dive with purpose and care.
There is no doubt that when you travel in the Philippines, anywhere you descend in the blue offers up a treasure trove—that is what makes the lesser-known and more exploratory type dive safaris like this exciting and intriguing. While this part of the Philippines doesn’t get the attention of its star-studded neighbors, the alluring wonderland of coral reef systems, the weirdly obscure critters, pretty shipwrecks, pinnacles of abundance, and secret holes of blue left us speechless. Our seven days here had hardly even scratched the surface!
Tubastrea corals blossom as the current runs wildly at San Agapito in the Verde Island Passage
Planning Your Trip to Romblon, Tablas, Puerto Galera, and the Verde Passage
How to Get There: Access to diving this area is from the acclaimed muck diving and blackwater diving capital of Anilao, an approximately two-hour drive from Manila. Philippines Airlines services Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport daily across more than 40 international routes throughout Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
When to Go: While the best time to visit the Philippines is during the dry season from December to April, don’t disregard a visit during the southeast monsoon season (June to October). The reality is that rain here is hugely unpredictable and you will be surprised at how incredible the weather can be. We visited in late August and experienced warm sea temperatures, clear sunny skies, smooth seas, and great visibility underwater. There is also the added benefit of fewer divers at this time of the year and we had exclusive access to the dive sites.
Who to Dive With: Although it is possible to visit these destinations using land-based operators, undertaking this trip on the MV Solitude One is an easy decision. The reputation of the vessel, its crew, and avoiding domestic flights and overnight ferries when you have diving and camera equipment definitely appeals. Originally rebuilt from a 171-foot steel-hulled merchant vessel, the MV Solitude One’s complete makeover was entirely tailored to divers’ needs. The vessel caters to a maximum of 22 guests in 10 well-appointed and incredibly spacious rooms. Photographers are also well catered for with a generous and well-equipped air-conditioned camera room. Offering four dives daily with their team of very experienced local guides, you will be guaranteed to find the many elusive critters, and easily navigate the ever important currents of the Verde Island Passage that give the area its astounding biodiversity.
If you are a tragic for macro photography, you can also consider extending your trip with some land-based options. Set on a pretty white sandy beach, Romblon Beach Resort caters to divers in slick oceanfront rooms. With a house reef offering an abundance of peculiar marine life, a professional camera room, ocean view restaurant, and infinity swimming pool, you will feel right at home here.
If you’re looking for things that go bump in the night, you’ll find a myriad of otherworldly beings at the Solitude Acacia Resort in Anilao, where the migration of strange creatures from the twilight zone up to shallower depths provides the perfect opportunity for blackwater diving and photography.
A tiny spider crab hides among the coral in Romblon
About the Authors: Anita Verde and Peter Marshall have a passion for the planet’s wild places, and through their images and narratives hope to inspire better appreciation and protection of the natural world. Based in Melbourne, Australia, they have professional backgrounds in tourism strategy, environmental sustainability, and government relations. When they are not underwater or on a mountaintop, they also work professionally as strategic consultants, advising governments and industry on sustainable destination planning and development, investment attraction, government relations, brand strategy and marketing. www.summitstoseasphotography.com
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