It is only a short flight from Manila to Dumaguete, located on the southern coast of Negros Oriental Island.
On the flight over, we met Marilia, a friendly college girl who was on her way to visit her father, who had moved to Dumaguete from Los Angeles.
Marilia has been a global citizen, starting at a young age, and has the easy going laughter and personality of someone who knows how to connect to people.
Her mother is a Brazilian, who moved back to Brazil after her parents divorced.
Marilia’s mother had seven brothers and eight sisters.
“They did not have TV or internet in those days” Marilia joked, “Or they would not have been so busy in the bedroom all the time.”
Of course there was also the Catholic faith, which prohibited her grandmother from taking birth control pills.
There are 7107 islands in the Philippines including the Spratly Islands, which the Chinese claim as theirs.
International Boundaries and Water laws say that any island up to 200 nautical miles from the shores of a country, is considered to be its territory.
The islands are 150 nautical miles from the Philippines, but China has claimed that the sea is called “The South China Sea,” which is a tacit admission that the islands are theirs.
China’s need for oil and gas has prompted them to already send oil rigs to the islands and to seize control over them, despite protests from both the Philippines and the United States.
We chose to spend some time on the southern tip of the island of Negros, where we heard that the diving and snorkeling are very good.
We chose to stay away from Boracay and the other famous islands, which attract loads of tourists.
We landed in Dumaguete, and our resort sent a car to pick us up.
It is amazing how much ‘island living’ shapes the people who live on islands.
You will not see much difference between remote island life in the Cook Islands or Indonesia, or in Thailand, and here in the Philippines.
The people eat similar food like rice, fish, coconuts and tropical fruit, they all dress for the heat in a similar manner, and they spend their days doing similar activities.
Along the way I saw a large billboard sign attempting to educate the island women to “Practice Safe and Responsible Motherhood.”
The sign said: “Do not get pregnant if you are too young, too old or too sickly!”
I guess that is a health department initiative to try to stop the births of too many newborns with birth defects, or extremely premature, tiny babies.
I also saw a sign saying: “Be honest with others even if they are not!
If you are not, others will not be also!”
We asked our driver to stop at a fruit market, and we loaded our bags with an array of tropical fruit.
I only pointed to what looked good to me and let the driver do the talking for us.
He shopped the way islanders buy fruit, not the way we normally do.
He bought kilos and kilos of mangoes, bananas, pineapples, melons, yellow watermelon and a small fruit called Sariguellas (also Siniguellas) which we have never had before.
It has a purple outer skin and bright yellow flesh.
It tasted like a cross between an apple and a mango.
When we were done, Jules commented that we had enough fruit to start our own fruit stand.
Luckily, in our resort we had booked a large one bedroom apartment which had a full size fridge.
We got organized in our comfortable apartment and took an early evening swim in the pool.
Before dinner, we attended a presentation about diving in Apo island presented by a marine biologist named Daniel who has moved here from Orlando, Florida.
Global warming and massive typhoons that tear up the coral reefs, have left very few places around the world where diving is absolutely amazing and sea life is abundant.
Another major problem is that the natives on many of the remote islands around the world have overfished the sea.
Many use sad and destructive fishing methods.
They have used cyanide, which poisons everything in the sea from live coral to fish and every other sea creature, to dynamite, which blasts the reefs and everything living around it.
In Apo island, right off the shore of Dauin where our hotel is located, the natives started a program with the help of a University of Manila professor, who promised them that if they were to create a marine sanctuary, they would actually increase the number of fish around their island.
Before this program started, there were almost no fish left near the shores of Apo, and fishermen needed to go farther and farther into the blue ocean in order to find fish.
The idea of a marine sanctuary creating more fish in the sea is that if the islanders protected an area of 450 meters by 500 metes of reef on which they do not fish at all, the fish and sea life population in this sanctuary will grow SO much, that the overflow will spill out into the rest of the shores around the island.
It was also explained to them that they must ONLY practice safe and honest fishing methods with nets or hooks, and not with dynamite nor cyanide.
The result is that Apo Island nowadays boasts one of the most beautiful live coral reefs in the Philippines.
On my first dive, I dove twice at two different dive sites in Apo Island.
The first dive was around the lush coral garden and the second dive was a “Wall Dive” in which we drifted along a sea wall full of coral and sea creatures.
I was the only one diving with two dive masters on one dive, and on the other dive, another woman joined us.
From our resort, it took only 45 minutes on the 30 foot outrigger boat to get to Apo Island.
The sea was calm with no swells.
It is my absolute dream come true to find a place that is so relaxed and beautiful, with rich and interesting sea life but without the massive amount of tourists that normally come to dive.
On the next day I did a muck dive combined with a dive in an artificial reef in Dauin.
I was the only diver with a dive master called Noel, and Daniel, the marine biologist who came with his huge macro camera.
For those of you who do not know, a “Muck Dive” is a dive along the sandy floor of the sea, where there are no corals.
At first, it might look like there is nothing to see, but on closer inspection you see some of the most alien looking creatures on earth.
For the first time ever, I saw 8 different sea horses.
I have seen some in aquariums, but never on a dive.
Those were pretty large sea horses of about twenty centimeters in length.
The Seahorses had long thin snouts enabling them to probe into nooks and crannies for food. When they find food they suck it up through their snouts like a vacuum cleaner. Their snouts can expand if their food is larger than their snout.
They eat small crustacea such as almost microscopic Shrimp or tiny fish which I saw swimming around them.
Adults eats 30-50 times per day.
Seahorse babies eat a staggering 3000 pieces of food per day.
Sea horses do not chew their food, they swallow it and the food is digested in their stomach.
Excuse me for elaborating so much about the Seahorses, but for me, this was a very exciting day to be able to see so many Seahorses in a dive.
I saw a green one, a few white ones, a pink one, a few purple ones and a silver one.
I thought they comenin different colors, but as it turns out, Seahorses change their color very quickly to match any surroundings in which it finds itself.
They have even been known to turn bright red to match floating debris.
Seahorses pair for life.
They meet early in the morning and celebrate their bonding with an elaborate courtship display.
The female meets the male in his territory and as they approach each other, they change color.
The male circles around the female and the pair often spiral around an object.
This display can last for up to an hour.
After the wedding is over, the female goes back to her territory.
A male Seahorse is the ONLY creature where the male participate fully in the pregnancy.
The female transfers her eggs to the male, and he self-fertilizes the eggs in his pouch.
The number of eggs can vary from 50-150 for smaller species and up to 1500 for larger species.
The embryos receive everything they need in the pouch from oxygen to food.
Gestation time varies from 14 days to 4 weeks.
Giving birth can be a long process with contractions lasting for up to 12 hours.
Baby seahorses live totally on their own.
They spend the first weeks of their lives drifting along in the plankton layer of the ocean.
Only a few become adults due to predators.
I saw Seahorses seating on the sand with their tails curled around a grass seaweed to prevent them from being washed away by strong currents and waves.
The live coral in the area has vibrant colors and so many interesting sea creatures that are rarely spotted, like the ‘Frog Fish’ with its large feet and funny looking frog face.
The frog fish sprouts a lure from his head.
He waves the lure to attract fish and when a fish approaches, he jumps and swallows the whole fish.
I saw large turtles, a white lobster, black and white sea snakes, schools of colorful fish, many clown fish, and spotted Nudie Branch, which look like large snails without their shells but with a flower growing on their backs, which is actually their gills.
I saw the odd couple called “the Goby and the Shrimp.”
It is one of nature’s symbiotic relationships which might seem odd, but is actually beneficial to both species.
It is a supportive relationship between a goby fish and a blind shrimp.
The pistol shrimp builds a home for both itself and for the goby by digging a cave in the sand with its small claws.
The goby fish provides protection to the blind shrimp while it excavates their home from the silt and sand; the fish look out for predators.
The shrimp also maintains the home if it were to be damaged by currents or storms or if the walls of their burrows collapse.
The shrimp places one of its tentacles or antennas on the tail or the fin of the goby.
With specific flicks either up or down, or left to right, the goby warns the shrimp of any danger.
The ocean is SO fascinating with so much to see….
On my second day of diving, I wasn’t excited at first to dive an artificial reef, since I heard that it was built from truck tires only two years ago.
But this artificial reef is a major conservation success.
The tires were tied two at the time at the top, and are open wide on the bottom.
They were placed on the ocean floor to form many small pyramids.
Only two years later, they are completely covered with live colorful coral.
Large schools of tropical fish swam everywhere.
This dive site exceeded all my expectations with its beauty.
And…. No other dive boats were around.
When we returned to the resort, a waiter met us at the seashore holding a tray with fresh mango juice and ice water for me.
Another plus in this resort is the food.
It is awesome, and I do not say that lightly.
Yes, there are ordinary dishes on the menu to please Western taste buds, but we did not eat any of those.
For breakfast they made especially for us Buko rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with Guimaras, the yellow island mangos which are one of the sweetest mangoes on earth.
For dinner we had some of the islands’ specialities mixed with Malaysian food.
It was truly awesome.
From our many travels, we wised up to dining only on the kind of food that island chefs really know how to cook.
If you order a burger or a salmon sandwich or a pizza in the islands, do not expect it to taste as good as what you are used to in your country.
On the other hand….
Chances are that the locals know how to make their own food very, very well.
We LOVED our food and it was also nice to wear the summer dress I had just bought in Manila, and to sit outdoors under the stars by the ocean and eat.
We have sworn to return to the Philippines, and on our next trip, to free up more time to explore and dive more of the islands.
And if you are reading this:
Please please please do NOT tell your friends about this place!
South to Negros Oriental Island
Before we checked out of the Manila Hotel to fly south to Dumaguete, I wanted to get an idea of the hotel’s rich history.
I asked to view the three-bedroom MacArthur Suite, located on the fifth floor of the original hotel, which was built in 1909, and opened on July 4, 1912.
The MacArthur Suite is named after General Douglas MacArthur and it served as his residence while he was the Military Advisor to the Philippine Commonwealth during World War II from 1935-1941.
When the Japanese occupied the Philippines at the start of the Second World War, they set up their military command in the Manila Hotel, and a Japanese flag flew over the Hotel for all of the war.
During the battle for the liberation of Manila, the Japanese set fire to the hotel, with only the shell of the structure surviving. Everything in the MacArthur Suite, except for two massive arm chairs which somehow survived the fire, is a careful reproduction of the pre-war hotel’s furnishings and design, so it still conveys the feel of the grand residence that the controversial General had while he served as Military Advisor here.
During this brief but fascinating tour, we were told that this historic suite is available for rent and that many famous entertainment, political and literary figures have stayed here.
We soon met our taxi driver and headed for the domestic airport to catch our flight to Dumaguete Airport, our gateway to the snorkeling and diving marine preserves around the small town of Dauin, in the province of Negros Oriental, about a ninety minute flight from Manila.
On the flight, we talked with the young woman sitting next to us.
She was returning to Dumaguete for the first time in three years, to visit her father, an American who has retired to the small mountain town of Valencia, about a twenty minute drive from the airport, where he owns a banana plantation and a backpackers’ accommodation.
She was currently completing her university education at an American college located in Panama, and she also visits her mother, who lives in Brazil, quite frequently.
Tali asked her who pays for all her travel around the world, and she said that wherever she goes, she gets a job and works.
She has no problem getting jobs.
We could see that this girl was so adaptable and easy going.
It’s amazing what a multi-cultural upbringing does for a person – we have met many people like this girl, who demonstrate wonderful poise, a good sense of humor, and the intelligence that comes only from personal experience – there’s nothing else like it!
We were picked up at the airport by a friendly staff member from our hotel, Atmosphere Resorts and Spa in Dauin, two towns south of Dumaguete, just a twenty minute drive away.
We stopped to buy some fresh fruit at a local market in town, before going to our hotel.
There was a big selection of locally grown mango, melon, banana, pineapple and several other fruits we had never seen before, and all at very low prices. In just a few minutes, we had selected everything we could possibly enjoy during our four day visit to this area.
The resort itself is wonderful, as we discovered on our introductory tour of the facilities.
Our one bedroom apartment has a fully equipped kitchen, a large comfortable living room, a comfortable bedroom, and an outdoor seating area.
The property is long and relatively narrow, with a large swimming pool, an outdoor bar, and the restaurant occupying the space closest to the beach, and the accommodations stretched out among the mango, lime and flowering trees of the garden area.
The dive shop is run by employees of the hotel, including two marine biologists, and is right in between the bar and restaurant.
We signed up for a day-long diving and snorkeling trip to nearby Apo Island for the following day.
Later, we ate a wonderful dinner, including a yellow Thai curry served inside of a young coconut, a Malaysian Mee Goreng with fresh prawns, and a delicious fish prepared Philippine style with coconut milk, mango and local herbs.
We feel so happy to be here, at this small, friendly resort, not crowded or rushed at all, with great accommodations, great food, and as we discovered the next day, great snorkeling and diving!