I wasn’t meant to go diving this Easter. I’d booked a yoga retreat at Hariharaliya (post coming later) just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, with a few besties, planning to head straight back to Hong Kong after. But a month before departure, in a whirlwind couple of days I applied for and accepted a full time position at Justice Centre, so decided to give myself a few days off in-between to of course take the opportunity to go diving.
I was looking for a spot only one ferry or one bus ride away from an International airport. All signs (and forums) pointed to either Thailand, or Moalboal, Philippines. A mate had been there 6 weeks before, and I’d been jealous of his photos, so what better remedy to the green eyes than to get myself in the water there!
Being the planner I am I wanted to maximise my time in the water and after recommendations I got in touch with Cebu Dive Centre. From the start the Manager Cameron was amazing. Fast responses, super friendly, but also very professional. Whilst I was there they constantly had to turn people away due to being fully booked, so I’d advise contacting them before. That said, still worth popping your head in just in case, or to get some other recommendations, or just to hang out and have a beer (or soda in my case.)
I flew with Cebu Pacific; Siem Reap to Manilla, spent a few early morning hours in the airport, then on to Cebu. Picked up a taxi to the South Cebu bus station (about 200 pesos) and then jumped on the ‘Ceris Liner’ bus to Moalboal. (140 pesos.) I was so grateful to get the last window seat. I planned to catch up on sleep at least some of the way, but the scenery was just too stunning. I sat wide-eyed, elated, for pretty much the whole journey. It’s incredible what energy nature can invoke in you. Even on 2 hours sleep.
The drive took about 3 hours, through raw, dense forests of varying vibrant greens, towering palm trees and ferns, broken up by wooden stilted houses in differing degrees of (dis)repair. Utterly beautiful. Shops (Triple J anyone?) seemed to be overhanging the forest on the side of the road, balancing delicately, some just holding on to their existence! Staring out the window in a daze I ended up catching the eyes of many locals inciting huge friendly smiles and waves. Exhausted, but oh so happy.
I was intrigued by the anti drugs signs on the side of the road in Valladolid, Carcar; ‘normal people don’t need drugs’, ‘drugs are retarded, so don’t get started,’ (!!) and impressed by the ones advocating women’s rights and against domestic violence and child abuse; ‘the broken heart never heals.’
I got off the bus at the main market near Moalboal, and jumped on a motorbike towards Panagsama Beach. Bargained down to 40PHP from 170PHP. I’d booked a little Cabana for one at Bamboo Huts, just a few minutes walk back from the waterfront. Very cute, basic and reasonably priced. Lots of hammocks and a nice terrace area, owned by a very friendly couple, the lady a Moalboal local. It was the Mancheseter Derby one of the nights… and with the owner being a City Fan I enquired to whether the main house being Man City Blue was just a coincidence or not… He didn’t deny anything..! 🙂
I took a wander to the Cebu Dive Centre and was told that this was now my home for the next few days, and pretty much instantly, it felt that way. As seems to keep happening, solo holidays ‘to read and think and unwind’ end up being super social, and full of random chat and laughter.
After dropping off my gear and kitting up for the next morning I went snorkelling in the water just in front of the shop, and within THREE SECONDS saw a large Green Turtle. I watched him for a while, then snorkelled over a variety of cute and beautiful coral reef fish towards where I was told the Sardine run was. And there they were. All THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of them. Swimming under, above, through the Sardines… I felt like the (a?) Sardine Queen. What a fabulous, fabulous day.
Headed up to FreeDiving Planet to grab some lunch as I knew they had vegan options. I went for a green vegetable salad, in need of non carb-sugar foods (my usual late night travel foods) but regret that I didn’t have a chance to try their vegan waffles or pancakes. The day I tried was the day of the planned power cut. Doh! I considered the free diving course here, wanting to go further than 8m (I think thats the most I’ve done) and hold my breath for longer than 90 seconds! But ultimately decided I just wanted to scuba. It’s supposedly a fantastic place (and centre) to learn to free dive at. Given the shallow walk out followed by a 45 metre drop off wall with tonnes of marine life to focus on (instead of the fact you haven’t breathed for 73.. 74..75 seconds..) I can completely see why.
I spent the next few days diving, talking and eating (so many mangos <3). My new wetsuit (Bare 3/2mm) I was elated to find, was THE comfiest wetsuit I have ever worn, in and out of the water, even easy to get on soaking wet. Sadly it wasn’t the same for my gorgeous pink ScubaPro SeaWing Novas. You can see above just how beautiful they are. How perfect they should be for me. But, they aggravated my stress fracture and I just didn’t feel as smooth finning as usual and looking after my fragile foot has to come over beauty. Meh!
And the diving? Fantastic.
<— See how happy I look
Most of the sites were only 5-10 minutes boat ride away, (Pescador Island 15-20 minutes) meaning you’d go out for one dive, come back and chill, eat some Mango, chat, then head back out again. Easy breezy relaxing.
Generally I was wall diving, and on all sites saw a huge array of marine life. On most dives the safety stops were over little coral gardens at the top of the wall. Great to just swim around feeling like I was in a tropical reef aqaurium! At Pescador we entered a little cave, ‘the Cathedral,’ which was a truly peaceful experience, admiring the beams of seemingly biblical light cutting through the water. Second time in wasn’t quite as peaceful, but riding the fairly strong current along the island wall was fun fun fun. After dropping a weight I had a little trouble getting down swimming against the current and when I started using my hands (even with the voice in my head going NO what you doing woman!) I felt my heart rate accelerate way too much I said to myself, ‘you need to calm the fuck down NOW’ and took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and put my index finger and thumb together in a meditative position. According to my dive buddy this looked quite… interesting. Hehe. But it worked. Seems like the week at the yoga retreat helped eh… ?My breath slowed, I told the DM I was having issues and he gave me a weight, and all was totally fine. I really enjoyed the rest of the dive, and felt totally comfortable, a big milestone for me. I had great dive & boat buddies (HEY LAUREN <3) even the dude that back-rolled on to my leg. Ouch.
On a beautifully peaceful night dive, expecting to see lots of small critters we spotted (though is spotting huge things really spotting?) GIANT frogfish, huge decorator crabs, giant sea cucumbers (I never thought I’d find these guys beautiful!) a massive map pufferfish… and a LOT of mandarin fish (not so big, but oh so gorgeous.) I saw many turtles over the three days as well as an array of tropical fish, some new to me; the clown triggerfish – how does this beauty really exist?! How did those colours and markings evolve? And a few of my new favourite, the Mantis Shrimp. I saw these vividly colourful guys in Malapascua, but it was only now I realised how much you could interact with them, how they watched you, thought about you… and then scuttled away. Good times! Remember to keep your distance though, because they are incredibly strong with enough power to smash a glass aquarium!
The water was warm (28*C) and aside from one dive on Pescador Island the currents were almost non existent, just giving a little push to float slowly along the walls. It was heaven. There is no other way to describe it. Being perfectly buoyant, staying perfectly still, just watching the fish around you, looking at the blue beneath you. H.E.A.V.E.N.
I broke my flip flops within an hour of arriving at Moalboal, and on deciding this trip I was going to be a new super minimalist me, I didn’t bring a second pair. Not wanting to buy super cheap ones I’d never use again I stayed barefoot. Screw it, I’d spent the week before at the yoga retreat sans shoes too.
The evenings were spent hanging at the Cebu Dive Centre Bar with great people, interesting (and stupid) chats, accompanied by awesome music taking me back to my late teens… (Thanks Kevin, and for the Dive Computer lesson!) followed by dinner. Food service was slow, so bear that in mind if you think you have time for a meal between dives… you may not! I ate much better than expected, and enjoyed vegan curry’s at Ven’z Kitchen, Lynn’s & a non-cheese pizza at The Pleasure Principle (apparently incredible food for non-vegans.) Tonnes of restaurants, and lots of bars for drinking and dancing, for really reasonable prices. (Or, compared to Hong Kong & London, dirt, dirt cheap.)
As well as wonderful people, I had the pleasure of meeting this little darling, Layla. There is something super special about her.
She knows all.
She understands all.
So six weeks after being incredibly sad to leave the gorgeous waters, creatures and people North of Cebu (Malapascua), here I was South of Cebu experiencing the same… Philippines, I do love you. I made more friends for life, and felt even more at home in the water. Next stop is Coron. And Coron, you have a lot to live up to…!
On my dry day instead of heading to Cebu City early I decided to go Canyoning first. I went with Cyan Tours, who were clearly more safety conscious than others as we were also kitted up in wetsuits and bum protectors (I think more for the suits than us) and, as everyone else also with booties, life jacket & helmet. Overall, it was a lot of fun, but rather than the jumps and slides what I loved the most was bopping around in the crystal clear water, being in the middle of the jungle. The view from the water, the view above the water, was spectacular. (Sadly the pictures taken, and there were so, so many of them… tended to focus on us padded up people, rather than the natural awesomeness around us)
The highest jump I did was 7m and I think the max was 12m. Apparently the day we went wasn’t that busy, but for much of the trip it felt it. After hearing 10 people had died in the last year I didn’t feel so bad for respecting my comfort limits…
The 25 min walk to the entrance was through stunning countryside and with the hot hot heat meant by the time we reached the water we were desperate to get in. Though I suppose, when am I not desperate to get in water? Ha.
Our guide J was great, and humoured us by bringing us our snacks to eat whilst leisurely floating….
As it was dry season there was a lot more walking than expected, and the second part of the day was in busy areas, queuing for jumps and swings. But the rope swing was pretty damn fun.
Afterwards I headed back up to Cebu City with Alexis, discussing EVERYTHING under the sun; all histories, regions, conflicts, done and dusted in 3 hours. DONE 😉
Stayed at the same little hotel near the airport, took a shower, re-packed, got 4 hours sleep, then headed back to Hong Kong. Just like 6 weeks before.
This whole trip felt like such a gift. One month before I had no idea I’d be back in the Philippines so soon, meeting such awesome people, feeling so contented, and being so blissfully happy in the water again ❤ and eating many, many Filipino mangoes, undoubtably the best mangoes in the world.