Category Archives: Philippines

Can’t be “Apo”thetic about this reef!

Another long travel day awaited us in our journey from Whitebeach to our next destination of Sablayan.  I had been fascinated the night before with the dueling Ladyboy shows that Jake described, but otherwise was anxious to leave the overdeveloped and tacky feeling Whitebeach.  We were still hoping to head out to the highly touted Apo reef for one last hurrah of diving.  But it really seems that from anywhere to anywhere in the Philippines is far.  The overloaded tricycle habit continued as we made our way to board the boat at Balatero cove.

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I really didn’t think it wise to try to put all us and our stuff on one trike but the driver insisted.  I was sure we’d blow a tire or worse.  The Canadian in me worries that short term financial imperative overrides good long term business thinking.

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But … he got his 4 fares with his trike intact.  He knows best.

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The outrigger boat took us west along the north shore of Mindoro Island to the port of Abra de Ilog. The coast is rugged and largely unpopulated.

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This village almost became significant to us. The engine (gears I think) gave up about half the way along the coast. They got it going again but it failed 30 seconds later and I thought we were done and would have to get plucked from the rough waters by village boats. Fortunately their Jerry rigging got us going again and to port.

After a rather perilous disembarkation from the boat (in high seas, dodgy gangway, 15 ft above the water) at Abra de Ilog we were rushed onto a bus that sped its way 2hrs south along the coast to the town of Sablayan.  The road was covered in drying corn and rice – so much that we were swerving violently side to side.  But it all works out.  We got talking on the bus to Christo from Belgium who had a great approach to travelling … moving slowly, staying with families wherever possible.  He had a wonderful way about him and we ended up spending the next 3 days together.
Sablayan had a refreshingly authentic feel to it, especially after having come from the touristy Sabang and Whitebeach.  Not another tourist it sight here.  It did have a modest “ecotourism” office that connected us with two Apo Reef dive operators and we immediately headed off to “Gustav’s Place” to see what we could do.  Gustav is off the beaten path … really off the path.  We left our bags at the tourism office and grabbed a trike down one twisty gravel road after another, ending at a river.  On the other side of the river was a welcome sign for “Gustav’s Place”.  OK, so we needed to take a boat to cross.  Gustav’s Place had some bungalows and was otherwise very understated, as was Austrian Gustav himself.  His boat going out the next day to the reef was full with divers, but we negotiated to be taken along as snorkellers then dropped on Apo island to camp for the night.  He would send his boat out the next day with our diving gear and a dive master.  Sounded pretty good!  Expensive, but good.

Apo reef is the second largest continuous reef in the world (after the Great Barrier reef) and is located about 30km out to sea from Sablayan.  The core area is 34km square in area.  It was protected in a National Park back in the 1980s but fishing continued.  In 2007 the boundaries were expanded, a buffer zone was put in place and fishing (including the destructive dynamite fishing) was stopped within park limits.  Divers were then courted to provide income for locals – especially the displaced fishermen.  It is known for fantastic biodiversity, including huge schools of pelagic fish, sharks, turtles and manta rays.  We were really excited!

We rushed back to town and headed straight to the local market to get food for our overnight outing on the island.  Christo offered to work up a curry; we didn’t argue.  Veggies and rice bought for dinner, eggs, onions and cheese for breakfast omelettes. 

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Christo and Yvonne with our market vendors.

Back to fetch kids and bags at tourism office then back to Gustav’s Place.  Unfortunately his boatman had his earphones in grooving to some tunes so we had to work pretty hard to find a boat to cross the river this time. Some 10yr old girls found one and got us across.  We squished into a tiny bungalow with Kaia and Jake on thermarests on the floor.

Something I’d eaten didn’t agree with me that night … I hardly slept a wink.  And we slept in for our early morning (6:30) boat departure.  We’d hoped to leave half our stuff behind … that wasn’t to be after sleeping in so we threw all our bags into the boat and away we went. 

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Two and a half hours later we arrived at the first dive site on the reef.  We donned our snorkelling gear as the divers set out.  Snorkelling was a bit of a bust as we were in at least 8m of water.  The second site was better though .. we saw schools of huge bump headed parrot fish ( 2-3 ft long) and some lovely turtles.

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cultures clash ... we were rather horrified when our snorkel guide dove 8m down and caught this grazing turtle. He brought it up to show to us ... as it madly struggled to free itself. This guy spoke no English so we waited till we were back with Gustav next day to voice our concerns. Gustav clearly agreed it was not appropriate and said he'd speak to the fellow.

Lunch was enjoyed under a thatched roof on Apo Island.  The island is small .. maybe 500m x 200m.  Great lunch, shared with the dive clients.  We then had the afternoon to explore, snorkel, swim and otherwise chill.  This was ocean paradise.

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our bags coming ashore

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This covered area for eating is pretty much the extent of tourist infrastructure on Apo Island.

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Jake is getting us set up for the night.
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Christo didn't have a tent so we loaned him a mosquito net.
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These "liveaboard" dive boats are a great way to dive, but expensive. You don't have to head back to shore at the end of the day. You dive 4x per day, and this boat made its way from Apo reef south to Corazon.
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Christo and Yvonne worked their magic and WOW was that curry good! The park rangers got a cooking fire going for them.

We had just enough time after dinner for a trip up the island’s light tower to catch the sunset.

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I slept soooo well that night after my horrible previous night and the fact that there were no car/kareoke/dueling ladyboys/rooster noises – just the lap of the sea.  We had time for a leisurely breakfast before the boat/dive crew appeared off the horizon to meet us. 

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Our divemaster Albert was very attentive and relaxed at the same time and had a very keen eye to spot things that we'd otherwise have swum past.

The diving at Apo was phenomenal!  On all three dive locations we descended to the ocean floor then made our way to the “dropoff” (yes, Marlin .. the dropoff!).  The 15m deep floor ends abruptly and you look down into deep blue nothingness.

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Yvonne, Kaia and Christo
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Christo is his deep thoughts.

It was so thick with fish .. of every shape, size and colour.  It’s impossible to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by such vibrant beauty in such a quiet, peaceful place.    You want to call out your amazement to the other divers but can use only your wide open eyes to communicate.  The photos here come nowhere close to capturing the visuals … but they at least remind us.

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In case you're wondering, this photo was taken without the red filter so appears much more greeny/blue.

The coral was in such great shape here, so there were infinite little things to gaze upon in the nooks and crannies.  Colours fantastic.  Every now and again Albert would tap is metal pointer stick on his tank to get our attention, to point out sharks, turtles, jack fish, Napoleon fish etc etc.  It was all quite overwhelming. 

Perhaps that’s why I ran through my air so quickly.  I am always the first in our family out of air.  I am relaxed in the water, and try to breathe slowly.  But clearly I am doing something different.  We all start with about 200-220 “bars” of pressure.  When you get to 50 bars you need to be near 5m of depth so you can do your 3 minute “safety stop” at that depth (to prevent nitrogen release into the blood) and still reach surface with a reasonable amount of air left.  I would hit 50 bars around 35-40 minutes while Kaia, Jake and Yvonne would still be at 120-150!!  At Sabang we all came up when I ran low on air, which meant the other 3 were cut short in a way. I am the week link!  I asked Albert if I could do my safety stop and surfacing on my own and he said that would be OK.  So he pointed me in the direction where the coral rises and I made my way up to 5m.  As I was waiting my 3 minutes I came across a large school of large bumphead parrotfish that were more or less indifferent to me.  They are huge, and a bright blue/green colour.

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I have to say it was lovely to be alone in the sea like that and have these giant fish to myself.  Clearly there is safety in numbers/buddies.  But I was only 5m from surface and knew I could easily reach the surface in one breath.  I just hovered with only fish moving around, and only the sound of my own bubbles.   Ahhhh..

I surfaced and hailed the boat over for a pickup, then waited about 20 minutes for the others to surface (they stay down for about an hour, air permitting).

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Here are the others after just surfacing. The dive master inflates the red "divers down" tube during the safety stop then sends it up - to call the boat over and to ensure another boat doesn't come overhead during surfacing.

You need “surface time” between dives to ensure nitrogen levels are down before starting the next dive.  So we relax/snack on the boat while the crew changes our tanks over and the captain maneuvers to a different part of the reef.

I had a plan for staying down longer on the final 2 dives of the day (3 total).  All divers have secondary (breathing) regulators attached.  It can be used if the primary fails.  But mostly it is to be used by your “buddy” if they run out of air – “buddy breathing”.  This is supposed to be done in emergencies only, but I asked Albert if I could buddy breathe from one of the kids when I run low so I can stay down for the full dive.  He said that would be OK.  So down we went on 2nd dive, this time with current, ,so we descended the anchor chain then headed “up current” to this second reef dropoff.  Equally enthralling!Sharks were cruising by in the deep the schools of fish surrounded us.

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This white tipped reef shark is harmless and about 5' long.
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Clams grow with the surrounding coral, embedded in a way. They close as you approach - can sense trouble somehow. This one is about 8" long.
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clearly we haven't mastered the underwater family photo yet!
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Jake recalls these as Trevallies. They are about 12-18" long.

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look carefully on top fin for the "white tip". They more or less "sleep" until you get close.
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a huge school of the exotic butterfly fish that resemble "moorish idol"s.
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Kaia is doing here what I liked the most about the 2nd dive. There was a slight current, so we could drift effortlessly along the coral wall, and if you got your buoyancy just right you'd be about 1 or 2 ft from the coral. There is simply a phenomenal amount of biodiverstity in these reefs, and I know that my untrained eye is seeing but a fraction of what is actually there, let along understanding the interrelationships.

True to expectations I ran out of air much before anyone else.  So I linked arms with Kaia (the hoses are short) and took my regulator out and put her secondary in.  Though we practiced this in our training, it is still unnerving as a new diver to take your regulator out when you are 18m down.  But all was fine and away we went together.  Thanks for the air, Kaia!  Together we lasted the full hour which was a nice change for me.

Lunch was taken onshore again and we had time to explore the island a bit more.

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This volcanic rock is wickedly sharp .. heaven help anyone trying to make an emergency beach landing here.

Third dive after lunch was equally sublime.  This time I buddy breathed Kaia down to 70 bars so then set off to mooch from Jake who helped me get through to the full hour.  I knew there was a good reason to get my kids certified for scuba!

And so ended the diving on our year adventure.  Kaia was so right on an earlier blog entry where she noted that our diving experience has given us new appreciation of what’s at stake in our oceans – an emotional attachment if you will.  It is stunning, precious. 
Apo reef marks the northern tip of the “coral triangle” which stretches through the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.  Coral experts describe it as the epicenter of marine biodiversity and it “seeds” reefs and fish through the Pacific & Indian oceans.  Coral reefs cover just 1% of the ocean floor but harbour over 25% of the oceans fish.  A heathy square km of coral reef can provide over 40 tonnes of food.  It has been noted by marine biologists many times over that “as the corals go, so goes the ocean, and so goes the world”. If we can’t protect the coral, the ocean is in a dire position.  Ocean and terrestrial die backs are historically linked to vanishing coral.  It is now well known that our coral reefs are in trouble.  Over fishing, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, pollution, sedimentation and climate change are taking their toll.  In the Philippines and Indonesia only 5% of reefs are identified as being in good condition. It is with this knowledge that these countries have been setting aside marine protected areas (MPA) like the Apo reef.  The Philippines leads the charge, with 500 MPAs.  Encouraging is the fact that many if not most of these MPAs, including the Apo reef, are the work of local communities/governments.  Discouraging is the underfunding of the management programs; one estimate has only 1/5 of the MPAs possessing sufficient resources to actually protect. The rest are “paper parks”.  Further complicating protection is foreign fishing.  Chinese and Vietnamese boats have been found with enormous numbers of endangered turtles aboard, to say nothing about the actual fish.
Since full protection of Apo was put in place in 2007 (and corresponding opening of the ecotourism office and alternative livelihoods program), the reef has shown some very promising signs of recovery.  And the MPA financing means for Apo are unique.  Almost all the management funds come from an initiative of regional Cebu Pacific Airlines where fliers are encouraged to donate to the Apo reef MPA as a means for offsetting the (climate change) damage of their flights.  Have a look at https://www.cebupacificair.com/WWFBrightSkies/index.html
I wish we had known this when we flew with Cebu Pacific twice …. but we didn’t see anything. 
Here are the words of WWF Philippines president Jose Lorenzo Tan: “In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation: should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people. This is a natural investment.”

Only several days after our Apo diving I received a very sobering email drawing further attention to this very issue.  I encourage readers to have a look at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/science/earth/study-raises-alarm-for-health-of-ocean-life.html?_r=0

To support the work of the respected Avaaz organization in addressing these threats, visit https://secure.avaaz.org/en/save_our_oceans_dn_image/?cl=7064444552&v=55264&OtherAmount

Where will our next dives be?  Hard to say.  But we’d all like to rent for a dive on Kennisis lake at the family cottage this summer.

We were all lost in thought as we made the return trip to shore, arriving at sunset.

We had a couple more days before needing to get to Manila for our flight out so took some time to lay low and explore Sablayan.  We enjoyed the always vibrant markets, delicious (but repetitive) road side food stalls otherwise roamed around. 

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The kids were really a novelty here.  Philippines is not a huge family destination, and most of those that do come end up at resorts.  Eyes lit up when they spied the blondies and often pictures were requested.  But it was done with grace so K&J didn’t mind too much.

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In Sablayan there are boats and beach in every direction.
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so many people have built at water's edge. Toilets hang over the water. We swam elsewhere, and all got really really itchy. I hope it wasn't what we feared it might be!
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I was wandering by this fish stand without notice until those two giant tuna heads caught my eye.

Christo spent a day at Sablayan’s 2nd biggest tourist draw – the large prison just outside town.  Really!  You go part way into the prison security and chat with prisoners and maybe buy some of the crafts they make.  It is a garden-prison – the inmates have to largely feed themselves.  Although the Lonely Planet says you can only meet with the low and medium security prisoners, Christo had some very moving conversations with two 2nd degree murder inmates.  We considered going, but the kids weren’t super enthused and kids can’t really get past the gate so we left that experience to Christo’s stories.

On our final day Kaia and I made our way about an hour out of town and climbed to the Mindoro Pines.  I had arranged a guide but he did not make the bus on time so I thought we’d do it alone, but he found a friend to zoom him out behind the bus on his motorcycle so we had guidance … two of them as it turns out.  The hike starts out at a Mangyan village.  The Mangyan are Mindoro’s indigenous peoples and are known as the indigenous group with the best preserved culture in the Philippines.  This despite continued interference and persecution by just about every group that has since occupied the island.  Remote Mangyan villages are still very traditional (including non western clothing) but those like the one we passed through have partly embraced new ways, including the use of cell phones.

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This is traditional Mangyan architecture. I did not get an answer from our non Mangyan guides as to why all floors were raised like this. Flood protection? Insect/vermin protection?
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Our trail followed a ridge .. very steeply up.
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This father was taking his 3 young children to work on their garden here for the morning.
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Here is our guide (his name escapes us). For the 1st time this trip, we were in better walking shape than our guides. They kept wanting to stop to rest, because it was "so hot". Kaia and I encouraged them to press on.
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Mondoro Pines in sight (top right).
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2 hrs of climbing brought us to this small patch of beautiful pines that looked like Canadian red pines. We didn't get a satisfactory explanation as to why they grow only on this one part of the island.
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Kaia and I had to push them pretty hard to get them to begin the return journey. Kaia shares my "press on" sort of attitude.
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On our way back down.

Kaia and I were glad to stretch our legs, even though this wasn’t a particularly memorable hike.  Jake wanted to stay back at the hostel to work on his blog and Yvonne was happy to have a down day.  After we left however, they had a visit at the hostel from “Bert” who we’d met the day before.  Bert used to live and work in Brampton and has 8 children all over the world, including one in Mississauga.  He really liked Canada but his wife insisted that they return to the Philippines.  Bert invited Yvonne and Jake to lunch at their house his wife and cook put on a great spread of Filipino food and shared stories of their globetrotting children and their time in Canada.

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We caught a bus 2hrs south from Sablayan later that afternoon, to the city of San Jose.  I had a major boil at an inopportune place at the top of my leg that pretty much prevented me from sitting down and I couldn’t get my head around the 10-12 hr bus/ferry ride north to Manila.  We could catch a short flight from San Jose instead.  San Jose was absolutely bustling that evening and we savoured our last street-side dinner and tricycle rides in the Philippines.  We were airborne for Manila by 9 AM next morning and lifted off for Hong Kong later that afternoon.  Philippines had offered up some rich experiences.  People were welcoming always.  We loved the tricycle as a means of transport.  I would LOVE to make one back home as a car alternative (groceries, running the kids around).  Can you imagine the look on the cop’s face as I drive by?
Looking  back, I think we could have done better with our planning.  2 weeks is really short in the vast array of large Philippine islands so for this time frame we would be better to have looked for just one island – maybe Palawan – with a multitude of experiences.  I do wish we’d been able to visit the villages in north Luzon with the spectacular rice paddies.  I’ll throw a net photo in in case you haven’t see the visuals before.

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Hong Kong here we come!

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Jake and I are blogging at the Manila airport here. We always try to make use of power, wifi and "down time" at airports to write and catch up on email.

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Coasting along in northern Mindoro

Northern Luzon is known for it’s amazing rice paddies.  Lush, green staircase-looking fields on hillsides as far as the eye can see, and villages are built on “islands” in the fields.  They’re so beautiful that they’ve become a UNESCO world heritage site.  With about a week left in our time in the Philippines, we planned to go see these (my dad seems to have an obsession with rice paddies), but we also wanted to do our last scuba diving on this trip, because we’d be leaving warm ocean soon.  The plan was to travel overland from Caramoan to Batangas, a town south of Manila, where we’d go diving, then travel north to Banaue, the place to see the iconic rice paddies.  In case you’re wondering, that’s a long way, and it would take 2 full days of traveling on a lot of different kinds of vehicules.  Our travel day started in Paniman (on the Caramoan peninsula) at about 7am.  Here’s a list of all the modes of transport we took that day:
-a tricycle from Paniman to the town of Caramoan, 15 minutes
-a minibus from Caramoan to Naga City, 3-4 hours
-a bus from Naga to some place I forget (the bus was going to Manila, but we got off early), 8 hours
-2 jeepneys between places I forget, 40 minutes
-a bus to the Batangas bus terminal, 15 minutes
-a tricycle to a hotel in Batangas, 5 minutes
A VERY EXHAUSTING BUT BORING DAY!
Okay, so after 2 tricycles, 2 buses, 2 jeepneys and 1 minibus, we were pretty fed up of traveling.  And we’d need to do another day like that to get up to Banaue, so we gave up on our original plan.  Instead, we decided to go to Mindoro, an island south of Luzon that we heard had some good activities, including great diving.  So the next morning, we headed down to the Batangas port and caught a 2 hour ferry to Porto Galera, a town on the northern coast of Mindoro.

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Mindoro is a pretty mountainous island.

Then, we took a short jeepney ride to Sabang, a small town on a beach that’s all about diving.  In fact, they’ve built the shops so close to the ocean that there’s hardly any beach left.

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There was even a floating bar!

Most of the businesses there provide accommodation, dining and diving, so we got a deal with one of them for a room because we dove with them too.  It was a nice room, and there even was a swimming pool with a diving board!

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Kaia and I spent hours practicing our backwards dives.

At about 2pm, we got ready for a dive.  There were the 4 of us, the divemaster Joel, and Mikka, a diver from Finland.

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The boat ride to the dive site was really short.  Within 5 minutes of us leaving the beach, we splashed into the water.  We went down slowly, but for a while, my dad had troubles equalizing the pressure in his ears.  Eventually, he got down, and we started our dive.  It was beautiful!  What really stood out to me was the amount of soft corals, that unlike hard corals, move and sway in the current.

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And there were also lots of Nemos!
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This is a giant brain coral.
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This is a big pufferfish. The patterns on it are really cool.

There was a small shipwreck, and lots of fish and coral were living around it.

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It was a great dive!

We went back to Sabang, and spent the rest of the day playing in the pool, blogging, and trying to organize a trip to Apo reef, which my dad will write about.  My mom, Kaia and I went to a pizza restaurant for dinner.

The next morning, we had a light breakfast, did the usual swimming & blogging stuff, and did an 11am dive.  This time, it was just the 4 of us and a divemaster, Bunny.  The boat ride to the dive site was even shorter than it was the day before.  The dive was quite different from the one the day before too, because it wasn’t on a coral reef.  Instead, it was a sandy bottom, but with a few small shipwrecks with tons of coral and fish on them.  A while before, we noticed that the photos from the GoPro camera while snorkeling were great, but when we took it diving, everything in the photos looked blue-green. So in Sabang, my dad bought a red filter, something you put on the GoPro lens to make the red and orange come back.  You’ll notice that the fish and coral in the following photos are much more colourful, but the filter sometimes makes stuff look too red.

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These are well named "chocolate chip starfish".
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We saw lots of these batfish, which are actually about 30cm long, which is bigger than most reef fish.
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This big moray eel was hiding in one of the wrecks.
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The wrecks were absolutely littered with fish.
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this weird looking fish is a scorpionfish, which apparently has venomous spines on its back.
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This lionfish also has venomous spines.
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These tiny, weird fish look exactly like the coral they cling to. They are called ghost pipefish.
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This flounder has some of the best camouflage I've ever seen.
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And this is a snake eel poking his head out of the sand.
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This suckerfish latched onto my mom's tank! We were near the surface by this point, so the filter really makes everything look red.

We can all agree that that was one of the best dives yet.  It really goes to show how weird creatures in the ocean can be.

There’s not much to do in Sabang other than diving, so we decided to take a short boat ride to White Beach, a place that the Lonely Planet travel guide said was a bit more “family oriented”.  It was pretty touristy, but at least they didn’t build right up to the water like they did in Sabang.  After finding a room, we got into our bathing suits and swam out to a floating bar.  We had great fun on their slides and jumping platforms!
Then, we went to a cafe for some drinks (and WiFi).  While we were sitting there, a man dressed in women’s clothing and makeup walked by.  Seeing that we looked a bit confused, the waitress said “That’s a ladyboy”.  They’re similar to what we know as transvestites, but more committed to their feminine identity.  She said that there are a lot of them in White beach, and many of them are part of a show on the beach every night.  We went for a simple dinner on the beach, and while walking back to our room, the show began.  Music started, and dancers ran onto the beach spinning fire poi.

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We stopped to watch them for a while, and during that time, a show started at one of the bars.  Women, or so we thought, were dancing and lipsyncing to super loud music pounding out of the bar’s 2 metre high speakers.  Then, we realized that they were almost all ladyboys.  Even some of the firedancers we thought were women were  ladyboys.  I think I only saw one real woman in the show.  The rest were either men or ladyboys.  Since no one’s making money if you’re standing and watching, there were ladyboys trying to get you to sit down at a table and buy drinks.  And as if the night weren’t crazy enough, shortly after the one bar started it’s show, the neighbouring bar started a very similar show, and started competing with the other bar by pounding music even louder!  When one bar started a slow, exotic dance, the other would start a rock or hip hop dance that would completely mess up the other’s music.  There was a little sheet hanging to “divide” the 2 bars’ parts of the beach!  It was very, very obvious that the 2 bars just hated each other.

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This ladyboy danced and lipsynced to "Dance Again" by Jennifer Lopez.
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And just as one bar started this slow dance...
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the other started pounding hip hop music while these acrobats threw each other into the air!

If it wasn’t for the fact that the 2 bars were trying to outcompete each other in terms of music volume, it would have been quite an enjoyable experience, because a lot of the performances were quite impressive.  Curious, my dad went back to the cafe we were at earlier to ask the owner about the show.  She said that White Beach is a hub for ladyboys from all over the Philippines.  One bar did a show alone for a while, but another started right next door, and it’s been going on like this every night for a year and a half!  There wasn’t a crazy amount of people watching, so we were wondering how the bars could afford to pay all the performers, but apparently, since it’s not too far from Manila, it’s very busy on weekends.  And during Holy Week there can be as many as 10 000 people on the beach. That whole thing really left us wondering why the Lonely Planet said White Beach was a family friendly destination!

Well, with the fish in Sabang and the ladyboys in White Beach, I can definitely say that we saw some interesting stuff during our time in northern Mindoro. 

Jake
P.S. Here’s my first published book!

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he he he...

Caramoan survivors

The Lonely Planet guidebook suggests that half the fun of going to the Caramoan peninsula is the adventure of getting there.  After our successful snorkeling outing with the whale shark in Donsol, which Kaia described in the previous blog entry, we decided to head up to this area, known for its beautiful coastline and islands.  We got to the bus terminal with our big packs by motor-tricycle, then rode a minibus to Legazpi where we transfered onto a second minibus that took us to a town called Tiwi. 

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Packs are loaded onto the roof of this Filipino workhorse. Tricycles are a more common sight than cars and the #1 mode of transport for short distances.
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That's Jake, Cam and Kaia in the sidecar. I rode behind the driver.

In Tiwi, we felt like a real spectacle — we hadn’t felt so stared at for a long time.  It turns out that Tiwi is not a very touristy place, but since we arrived too late to catch a jeepney to the next town, we would need to spend the night.  However, Lonely Planet doesn’t list any accommodation there, and there are no TripAdvisor reviews either.  We started asking around.  Eventually, someone said (with at least some certainty) that there was a place to stay about 3km out of town.  Back onto a tricycle went the packs and off we went.  Sure enough, there was a motel at the far end of town called the “Springs Resort” (formerly known as the “Hot Springs Resort” — maybe some recent tectonic activity cut off the flow, I don’t know!)  But they did have a pool, which was clean even though it was only about half full.  We swam and then caught a ride back into town to get dinner at the market.  It was our first experience with Filipino street food; somewhat puzzling since they served each type of food on a different plate and definitely didn’t want us to put any sauce, veggies or meat on the plain rice.  So we each ended up with 3 or 4 plates or bowls with portions of various things (rice, fish, beans, chicken, boiled greens) and sat down at a picnic table next to the food stall.  Then we really were a spectacle! 
We were impressed with some people’s excellent English and american-sounding accents, and learned that the biggest industry in Tiwi is call centres.  So next time you call a customer service number to change your phone service or get technical assistance for your computer, you just might end up talking to someone in Tiwi, Philippines! 

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Another local industry is the production of coconut milk. Here the copra is being grated.
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Then it is pressed to extract the milk. This all takes place in market stalls.

Back at the Tiwi Springs ‘Resort’, we were the only guests that night.
Next morning, we got a tricycle into town where we soon boarded a “jeepney” heading north.  Jeepneys are an amazing form of transportation: 
– part taxi (you can hail it anywhere and just yell “para” when you want to get off),
– part bus (it seats about 12 people inside and a few more standing on running boards at the back),
– part jeep (the front looks like a jeep),
– part graffiti wall (they are painted in vibrant colours), and
– part church (they are generally full of religious paraphernalia, and I saw several women crossing themselves as they got in — although this probably has more to do with Filipino roads and drivers). 

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The jeepney has become the national symbol of the Philippines, similar to Canada's maple leaf!

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Kaia is riding on the back of a jeepney. More rice paddies in the background.
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Mt Mayon volcano last erupted in 2013 but was active just 7 months ago. Here it's shrouded in cloud.
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Drivers swerve around the drying rice and corn when they can. Otherwise they drive over it!

Three different jeepney rides got us to Sabang, from where we could catch an outrigger boat for a 2-hour journey to the port town of Guijalo.   Lonely Planet got it right — getting to the Caramoan peninsula is not straightforward and can be quite an adventure! 

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To board the boat, a group of guys carried out and steadied a floating gangway (for which they charged us each an extra 10 pesos -- about 30 cents).

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And we weren’t even quite at our destination yet — we still had to cross over to Paniman, on the north side of the peninsula.  We had hoped to rent kayaks for a couple of days, and Cam had been in contact with an outfitter, but we decided to play it by ear (we would see what the weather and waves were like before committing — how uncharacteristically prudent of us!)
The Caramoan Peninsula may be difficult to get to, but it is definitely “on the map” as it has been the venue for “Survivor Philippines” — you know, the reality show in which participants have to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” their opponents and teammates while hanging out, scantily clad, in stunning locales.  I knew about the American version of this show, but had no idea that almost every western country has their own version.  We saw photos from “Survivor France” and “Survivor Croatia”.  Apparently the Dutch version is due to begin filming here in about a month.  Luckily, our visit did not coincide with any filming because that would have meant that the islands were off limits.  As it was, we were able to rent kayaks from a neighbouring guest house and visit the beautiful islands and beaches where “Survivor” took place.

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We got 2 singles and a double kayak.
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Paddling past volcanic rock formations.

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The beaches were pretty nice, too! This beach was one of the tribe's camps. I think I could survive here.
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The fruit in these trees was beautiful but inedible.
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This beach opened up to both sides. Take your pick.
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Picnic lunch, and then off to tribal council. Who will get voted off the island?

Unaware of how much infrastructure is required to stage a season of Survivor, we were shocked to see the village that was created solely for that purpose. 

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This shows only a fraction of the accommodation built for crew members. It is located some distance from the local village and fills up with foreigners each time there's a new "Survivor" series. There are 450 crew for the US version!!

This is the beach in Paniman with many small boats ready to take people to the islands:

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We had fun playing in the surf next to our guest house. This is where the river empties into the ocean, and the shoreline changed dramatically with the tide.
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The full moon rising was phenomenal. Kaia mistook it for the sun setting!
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That is actually the moon! I think the light sensitivity was changed on the camera.
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Boy, you would have thought they were celebrities from Survivor!

We stayed in a room at the “Mushroom Bar”, run by Dennis and his wife, Rizalie.  Dennis’ sister (whom we met) had spent 2 years in interior British Columbia, working as a caregiver for a man with Alzheimers.  With the money she earned there, she has opened a purified water refill station and helped her brother build his guest house.  She has applied to immigrate to Canada with her husband and 4 children. 

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The concrete parasols are what gave "Mushroom Bar" its name. Dennis kept it even though it sometimes attracts people who are looking for drugs.

While trying to go to sleep the first night, we were introduced to another Filipino obsession:  videoke!  Basically the same as karaoke and taken VERY seriously.  The neighbouring guest house had a videoke machine right on the other side of the wall and several customers who were very persistent but bad at singing harmonies!  It was a bit painful to listen to.  Even the earplugs didn’t block it out.
The next day, we went on a great day trip with Dennis and a German friend of his who also runs a guest house.  It started with a jeep ride (or motorcycle for Cam since there wasn’t enough room in the jeep — he didn’t mind because he got to drive!)

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Then we paddled across a reservoir in local canoes,

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through lush jungle with simple homes,

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then hiked up beside the shallow river,

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to get to a nice waterfall with multiple swimming holes.

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Luckily there were some vines to hang on to.

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Amazing where you can go with a GoPro!

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Last one in is the dirty rotten dodo egg!

Dennis barbecued fish over a fire for our lunch that was served on banana leaves.

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Both the fire and Dennis were smoking.

It was a nice day, and we finished it off with a drink at the Mushroom Bar.

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Oh! Looks like they're drinking coffee in this shot.
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Cam took the kids for a spin on Dennis's trike. It stalled in the middle of the road which drew a lot of attention.

We more than survived our Caramoan experience, and left in the same way as we arrived — on an overpacked tricycle, beginning another epic travel day!

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Yes, those are our packs. One of them is going to get voted off this trip very soon!

The tribe has spoken.

Yvonne

Les Butandings (whale sharks) de Donsol

Les Philippines!
Population: 100 million
Monnaie: Pesos Philippines (PHP). $1 canadien = 35 Pesos.
Religion: Catholique
Langues: Tagalog (langue officiel, un mélange d’espagnol, anglais et autre), Bicol (dialecte dans le sud-est de Luzon), Anglais (enseignée dans les écoles. Leur niveau d’anglais est très haut, alors on pouvait communiquer avec presque tout le monde), et plusieurs autres dialectes!
Histoire: Colonisée par les espagnols en 1565. À la fin de la guerre Espagnole-Américaine en 1898, les États-Unis ont prit possession des Philippines. Ils étaient un endroit très important pour les américains pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale. Les Philippines ont eu leur indépendance des États-Unis en 1946. L’influence Américaine est très évident partout, avec l’anglais et le basketball!

Comme d’habitude, notre horaire de vol de Bali à Manila était horrible. Départ de Denpasar à minuit, et arrivée à Manila à 4h. On ne savait pas qu’est ce qu’on allait faire aux Philippines, mais on a lu qu’il y avait des bonnes choses à faire dans la région de Legazpi. C’est dans le sud de l’ile Luzon, la même île que Manila. Legazpi est au moins 10 heures de Manila dans un autobus, mais seulement une heure de vol. Après une nuit sans sommeil, un long voyage en autobus n’était pas très invitant. Et, le vol était vraiment peu cher… alors on a choisi l’avion.
Dans l’aéroport de Legazpi, un couple suisse nous a approché. Ils nous ont demandé si on allait à Donsol, comme eux. On avait aucune idée de quoi on allait faire, alors on a décidé de partager un transport avec eux et aller à Donsol. On a trouvé quelques autres personnes qui allaient à Donsol, et une heure plus tard on était là.
La chose à faire à Donsol c’est nager avec les requins-baleines, ou “Butandings” dans la langue locale. Il y a plusieurs butandings dans la baie de Donsol, et il y a des bateaux qui peuvent t’ammener pour les voir. Puisque c’est une région marine protégé, c’est organisé par le gouvernement. Après qu’on a trouvé un accommodation à Donsol, on s’est organisé pour notre “Butanding Interaction” qu’on allait faire le prochain matin.
Le système est très organisé. Chaque bateau est pour 6 personnes, alors on a partagé le bateau avec Omar et Tanja, les suisses qu’on a rencontré à l’aéroport. Sur chaque bateau, il y a un “Butanding Interaction Officer” (BIO), un guide de snorkeling qui peut trouver les butandings. Il faut regarder un vidéo de sécurité avec des règlements pour s’assurer qu’on ne fait pas peur au butandings, par example:
-6 personnes par bateau
-1 BIO par bateau
-1 bateau/6 personnes par butanding
-Il faut garder 3m de distance entre toi et le butanding
-Interdit de nager en avant du butanding.
C’est vraiment “l’écotourisme”! Quand la baie est devenue un endroit protégé, plusieurs pêcheurs ont perdu leur emploi, alors le gouvernement leur a donné le travail de BIO. Ça montre qu’un écosystème vivant va attirer les touristes qui vont payer pour voir, alors il ne faut pas détruire la nature pour gagner de l’argent.

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Voici notre BIO.
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Les bateaux ont l'air comme ça

Le matin, on s’est rendu au bureau de butandings. On a regardé le vidéo, et on a rencontré notre BIO. On était tous très excité!

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À peu près 10 autres bateaux sont partis en même temps que nous!
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Nous voici avec Omar et Tanja sur notre bateau.

Les butandings/requins-baleines sont les poissons les plus grands du mondes. Ils peuvent atteindre 14 mètres de longueur! Mais, ils ne sont pas dangereux du tout, parce qu’ils mangent seulement le plancton et l’algue. Ils vivent dans les eaux tropicales autour du monde. L’espèce est considéré comme vulnérable.
Les BIO cherchent pour les butandings. Apparemment, ils peuvent voir un ombre sous l’eau!
Un autre bateau a trouvé un butanding, mais on ne pouvait pas leur joindre dans l’eau, à cause du règlement d’un bateau par requin. On a cherché pendant 3 heures mais malheureusement on n’a rien trouvé.
Mais une partie du prix était le tarif du parc national, et c’est bon pour 5 jours. Alors aller chercher pour les butandings une deuxième fois serait moins cher. On a tous décidé qu’on allait rester une autre journée et essayer encore!
La deuxième journée, on s’est réveillé super excité! On s’est rendu aux bateaux, mais on n’avait pas besoin de regarder le vidéo encore. On a été assigné un différent bateau et BIO cette fois.
Ça n’a pas prit longtemps à trouver un butanding cette fois! Même s’il y avait deux bateaux déjà là, notre BIO s’en fichait. On était un peu confus avec les règlements, mais quand on est entré dans l’eau, on a vu ça:

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Le butanding était énorme: 7 mètres! Mais pour un butanding, c'est moyen.

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Elle nage proche à la surface parce que c'est là où se trouve le plancton.
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On était tellement content! ON A VU UN BUTANDING!!!

Wow… incroyable! On a nagé avec lui pendant 10 minutes avant de retourner sur le bateau.

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Le BIO a cherché pour un autre requin-baleine sans succès, et finalement on est retourné au butanding original. Mais il y avait trop de personnes, alors c’était difficile de l’apprécier.

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Voyez, toutes ces personnes sont autour d'un requin! Le pauvre!

Même les BIO brisaient le règlement de 3 mètres. Notre BIO a dit “Quand il y a plusieurs butandings, on adhère au règlements. Mais quand il y a juste un, on s’en fiche”. Intéressant… le jour avant, le BIO était plus conservateur, il a suivi les règlements, et on n’a pas vu un butanding. La deuxième journée, on a brisé les règles, mais on en a vu. Maintenant on est plus intéressé à les protéger. Mais quelles sont les effets négatifs sur les butandings? À l’avis d’Angela Quiros qui a fait des recherches à ce sujet, les touristes qui nagent autour d’eux font que les butandings sont plus inclinés à plonger, ou changer de direction soudainement. Puisqu’ils mangent seulement le plancton, l’algue et des autres choses microscopiques, ils doivent économiser leur énergie, alors cette sorte de comportement n’est pas naturelle. Qu’est ce que vous pensez? Comment est ce qu’on peut mélanger le tourisme avec le bien-être du butanding? Cette expérience nous a fait penser à Tortuguero, Costa Rica quand on a vu le procès d’une tortue de mer pondre ses oeufs. On était dans un groupe avec un guide, et on pouvait seulement regarder la tortue pour 30 secondes à la fois. Après, il fallait laisser un autre groupe la voir. Ce n’était pas très relaxe, mais au moins c’est pas trop stressant pour la tortue. Peut-être que les BIO pourraient apprendre des guides de Tortuguero…? On va écrire une lettre au gouvernement à propos de notre expérience, alors laissez-moi savoir ce que vous pensez! Est ce que c’est possible d’avoir une industrie de tourisme et en même temps un écosystème vivant?
Même si on se sent un peu mal qu’on a peut-être agacé le butanding, on a encore vraiment aimé notre temps à Donsol avec ces géants de l’eau. Nager avec le plus grand poisson du monde est une expérience que je ne vais jamais oublier, et je pense aussi que c’est la preuve que j’ai surmonté ma peur des poissons!

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Kaia