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Visayas Trip Report: Alona Beach and Dauin, January 2020

Discussion in 'Philippine Paradise Divers' started by Ironborn, Feb 24, 2020.

  1. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    This first trip of mine to the Visayas was my second visit to the Philippines, after my first trip to Puerto Galera and Anilao two years ago. The combination of Alona Beach on Panglao Island and Dauin (better known as Dumaguete) on Negros Oriental was almost equally rewarding, albeit in different ways. I had originally come to the Philippines for its famous macro, and it certainly delivered on this trip. I nonetheless found that these two destinations might have been equally or more rewarding for rich coral reefs, high fish density, and larger animals. Dauin had originally been my must-see destination for its muck diving and macro photography opportunities, and I decided to combine it with the reef diving of Alona Beach for balance and variety. The reef diving from Alona Beach and on Apo Island, off the coast of Dauin, actually ended up impressing me more. This trip fueled my interest in further exploration of the Coral Triangle, the Philippines, and the Visayas: my next priorities include Bali, Malapascua, and Sogod Bay. Please see the link to my Instagram profile in my signature bloc for my photos from both Alona Beach and Dauin.

    Why and How I Went There

    Having already been to Puerto Galera and Anilao, I wanted to explore another part of the Philippines. The Visayas seemed like the most logical choice, as they have the widest selection of diving destinations. I had two weeks and wanted to combine two different destinations that were both different enough from each other to provide variety, but also close enough to each other to travel from one to the other in one day without a domestic flight (due to off-gassing requirements and baggage limits). Dauin was a must-see for me due to my special interest in macro photography. Alona Beach was the best choice to combine with Dauin because of its coral-centric reef diving and the ease of traveling between there and Dumaguete (a two-hour OceanJet ferry ride). I gave serious consideration to both Malapascua and Sogod Bay, but I ultimately decided to save that pair of more remote destinations for a future trip.

    I chose to fly on Philippine Airlines (PAL) because: a) they have non-stop flights between New York and Manila; and b) I could connect in Manila to and from Panglao/Bohol/Tagbilaran (TAG) airport on the same PAL ticket. I flew into TAG for the first leg of my trip on Alona Beach, took the ferry to Dumaguete for the second leg of my trip in Dauin, and then took the ferry back for a flight out of TAG. Flying out of Dumaguete would have been more expensive as an open jaw itinerary, and it also would have cost me a day of diving because the PAL flight from Dumaguete was early in the morning.

    I had been satisfied with my previous PAL flights between New York and Manila, and the international legs of this trip were OK. The domestic flights and the transfers within the Manila airport, however, were atrocious, almost as if I were flying on a totally different airline. My flight to TAG was delayed three and a half hours, and they did not even bother to update us until I pestered them about it at length. Transferring between terminals at Manila is almost as if one is moving from one airport to another. I had to go through security *five* times between disembarking from my flight from TAG to boarding my return flight to New York. Suffice it to say that my next flights to the Visayas will probably be on non-Filipino airlines to Cebu, from which I will take land or sea transportation the rest of the way.

    My Choice of Dive Operators and Lodging

    I chose my operators and lodging through research on Scubaboard, Undercurrent, and Trip Advisor. Choosing an operator on Alona Beach was somewhat harder because there are not as many reviews and trip reports on the first two of those websites, which I would consider more useful than Trip Advisor. I nonetheless identified three candidates: Philippine Fun Divers (PFD), Haka Dive Center, and Seaquest Dive Center/Oasis Resort. Seaquest did not answer my inquiries, and PFD's responses were more satisfying to me than those of Haka. I thus went with PFD, which had already struck me as the most reputable of the three, particularly among Scubaboard members.

    In retrospect, PFD was probably the right choice, but I think that much of the dive shop market on Alona Beach caters more to a demographic of divers with tastes and expectations different from mine (e.g. backpackers, not photographers). My only major gripe was that many of the dives had arbitrary bottom time limits (i.e. other than NDLs and gas consumption), which contradicted what they told me when I booked. They were nonetheless so accommodating in every other way, such as taking me out on a few afternoon or night dives when no one else wanted to go, or adding me to one of their Balicasag trips at the last minute, that I let it slide. PFD's prices were reasonable. The guides demonstrated solid wildlife spotting skills and safety consciousness, although one or two of them were more conservative than I would have liked. I was at first uncomfortable with the smaller boats that they use for local dives along Alona Beach and to ferry us out to the larger bangkas that they use for longer trips (which cannot land on the beach). I then compared them to the boats of other dive operations (who have similar arrangements), some of which were little more than platforms with motors attached to them. I thus came to appreciate that PFD was probably better than other local dive shops in this regard too. Nitrox blends were reasonably accurate, and they had a homemade Nitrox analyzer that I came to admire.

    I booked my lodging at the neighboring Lost Horizon Dive Resort through PFD, which is a separate business but cooperates with the resort. I had been concerned about staying there due to the many highly negative reviews on Trip Advisor, to which the resort responded by accusing reviewers of exaggerating. In retrospect, it was adequate for my purposes, and perhaps the negative reviewers might have been exaggerating after all. I just needed a place close to PFD to sleep, use the bathroom, work on my camera, and eat, and to that extent it was fine. If you are looking for an actual “resort” experience, though, one would probably be better off elsewhere. My only gripe was that the food portions at the restaurant were small, so I only ate there before and between dives and went off-site for dinner. For those of you diving with PFD that want a more upscale option, there is a Best Western right next door to Lost Horizon and thus very close to PFD.

    There were many more reviews and trip reports on the resorts of Dauin from like-minded divers (e.g. photographers), which facilitated my decision. I gave serious consideration to Atlantis and Atmosphere but decided against them due to their high prices, e.g. twice as much as the next-best alternatives, and some of Atlantis' billing practices that sounded like double-dipping to me. I enjoyed my previous stay at Atlantis Puerto Galera enough to consider giving them repeat business, but my main reason for staying at their Puerto Galera resort was that there were few or no others there with comparable reputations; that was not the case in Dauin. The next-best option seemed to be Mike's Dauin Beach Resort, with an almost equally good reputation (albeit on a smaller scale) and moderate prices.

    In retrospect, this choice worked out well enough, but it was a bit different from what I had expected. I had been expecting a dive-centric resort, but in practice it seemed like more of a beach resort with an attached dive shop than a dive resort per se. The excellent resort manager, who went out of his way to accommodate me in so many ways, explained that he has been trying to push the resort in this more dive-centric direction that I had in mind. This difference was not a problem per se, but I had hoped for more like-minded guests (e.g. photographers) with whom to mingle, compare notes, and share stories. I had been expecting to be the only compact camera user (SeaLife) among an army of DSLR users, as in Anilao and Lembeh, but in fact my relatively modest rig was often the most substantial one onboard. The facility itself was quite nice, with comfortable rooms and a pleasant atmosphere and natural scenery. The “house dog,” a black Lab that the manager described as their “head of security,” made a point of sleeping in front of my room for several nights in a row, as if she felt the need to guard me. Some of the stray dogs that roam up and down the beach came to greet us when we got off the boat.

    The British manager at Mike's may have been one of the most dedicated and accommodating hosts that I have encountered in my dive travels. If I asked for something and it was within his power and operational constraints to provide it, he delivered – such as night dives for which I was the only guest (which we did as shore dives and were often quite good). The boats at Mike's were comfortable, spacious, and a big improvement over those in Alona Beach. The guides were professional and safety conscious, but there seemed to be some significant variation in their wildlife spotting; it was unclear to me if this variation was due to differences between their respective skill levels, the sites that we visited, or other factors. There was one guide, however, that clearly distinguished himself in this regard. The food tasted good and came in reasonably sized portions. I nonetheless developed a digestive problem that was not bad enough to keep me from diving but did put a damper on the experience.

    (to be continued on this thread)
    AlMitch and Luko like this.
  2. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    Dive Sites, Conditions, and Marine Life: Alona Beach and Vicinity

    I had six days of diving from Alona Beach. I spent the first full day of four dives at the local dive sites along the wall(s) in front of Alona Beach, which enabled me to familiarize myself with the environment and get my sealegs back. These sites were also where we did all night dives and all but one of our afternoon dives. The relatively shallow wall(s) often maxed out at around 60 feet. Currents were manageable or neglible, but visibility was often low, which I would attribute not only to occasional high winds that week but also the high volume of diver traffic. The reef growth here was nonetheless still quite good, but the main attraction for me here was the selection of macro critters.

    The highlight of this leg of my trip was nearly Balicasag Island. I had originally booked two two-tank morning trips to Balicasag but added a third two-tank trip because the first two were so impressive. Balicasag is well worth booking in advance, the somewhat higher price, and the longer boat rides. Balicasag had some of the richest reef growth and highest fish density that I have ever seen. I liked the high proportion of soft coral and the enormous schools of jacks, mackerels, and other fish, some of which literally blotted out of the sun and almost separated us. Turtle sightings were common as well. There are also plenty of macro critters here, but the combination of dense coral growth and strong currents was often less conducive to searching for them. The downside of Balicasag was the less favorable conditions, including routinely strong currents and lower visibility than I would have expected from a place with such routinely strong currents (but still better than Alona Beach).

    I also went on a two-tank trip to Pamilacan Island and a three-tank trip along the north side of Panglao. Pamilacan was worthwhile for the variety, including many sea snakes, some different macro critters, and more crinoids than I have ever seen in any one place. The trip to the north side of Panglao included the Napaling wall, which is famous for its large schools of sardines and other fish, and where we also saw many frogfish. We were also supposed to go to Doljo Point but had to change plans due to high winds, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We ended up doing the other two dives at Puntod Island, which was probably the best diving of this whole leg of the trip, other than Balicasag. It did not have quite the same coral and fish density as Balicasag, but it came close enough, and as a trade-off it had almost no current and almost Caribbean-like visibility. The better conditions were more conducive to both wide-angle photography and looking for macro critters, of which we found many.

    Dive Sites, Conditions, and Marine Life: Dauin and Vicinity

    Mike's offers three types of diving days: “Dauin days,” “Apo days,” and “Oslob/Sumilon days,” in the words of the resort manager. Dauin days are local muck dives along the coast of Dauin, although some are so far south that they are technically in Zamboangita. Dauin days involve a two-tank morning trip and the option for a third tank in the afternoon. All their night dives are also Dauin shore dives, as the Coast Guard has recently barred them from using their larger bangkas at night. Apo days are longer three-tank trips to the more distant Apo Island, with its dense coral reefs. Oslob/Sumilon days involve even longer boat rides to the much more distant Oslob to snorkel with whale sharks in the morning, followed by two dives on nearby Sumilon Island. Apo and Oslob/Sumilon days depend on having enough divers to justify the longer boat trips. I had asked for two Apo days and one Oslob/Sumilon day when I booked, and it turned out that there were enough divers to make those trips happen that week. The other three days of my six full days of diving were Dauin days.

    The opportunity to scratch a major item off my bucket list by snorkeling with whale sharks at Oslob was important to me. I have never seen one before, and I realized that I might be waiting a long time to get lucky enough to see one by more natural means. I cannot argue with ethical criticisms of inducing the whale sharks to stay there, nor can I dispute negative characterizations of the overcrowded, hectic, and circus-like atmosphere. I am still glad that I did it, as these huge creatures made quite a remarkable impression on me that has still not worn off, even a month later. Unlike some other Dauin resorts (including the expensive ones that I decided against), Mike's also offers the opportunity to dive at Sumilon Island, which was also quite good. It had very nice reef growth and manageable current, although visibility was lower than I might have hoped. Notable creature sightings included black tip and white tip reef sharks passing in the distance and a good selection of macro critters.

    The highlight of this leg of the trip was Apo Island, which, along with Balicasag, had some of the richest reef growth and highest fish density that I have ever seen. Apo Island was better than Balicasag in its conditions, with almost Caribbean-like visibility and more manageable currents (with the exception of one site known as a strong drift dive). Apo Island also yielded some notable creature sightings, including turtles, snakes, frogfish, and of course the usual macro critters. The resort manager heard rumors from another resort of a school of hammerheads on Apo Island, so we went to the same site to try to see them ourselves, but we were not so lucky.

    The muck diving and macro photography opportunities of Dauin were my original reason for going there. This facet of this leg of the trip probably yielded the best and the most images, which were important to me as a photographer. I had gotten the sense beforehand that Dauin muck diving might be a notch or two below Anilao and Lembeh, which was why I went to those two places first and adjusted my expectations for Dauin. The difference turned out to be greater than I had expected. The key differences were: the lack of sightings of some of the more “iconic” creatures, such as blue-ringed or mimic octopi, flamboyant cuttlefish, hairy frogfish, rhinopias, pygmy seahorses, etc; and the small numbers of key types of animals, particularly octopi (I only saw a few) and seahorses (I only saw one). I learned that Dauin octopi are seasonal and most common in November and December, so I must have just missed them. On the bright side, I probably saw more frogfish in Dauin than I have anywhere else, even though they were not in season yet (they peak in April and May). Also on the bright side, there were more schools of fish in the muck diving sites than I expected, and even several turtles, which I did not expect at all. The night dives were as rich in macro creatures as I might expect of Anilao or Lembeh, and I did notice that the muck dive sites improved the further south we went.

    (to be continued on this thread)
    Luko likes this.
  3. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    For Further Discussion

    This trip was very satisfying and reinforced my preference for the richer marine life of Indo-Pacific ecosystems in general and the Coral Triangle in particular. It further persuaded me that the richer marine life is worth the additional travel time and the often less favorable diving conditions, compared to the Caribbean destinations closer to home for me. Another advantage is cost; even when you account for the more expensive airfare, a two-week trip to the Philippines could cost less than the two one-week trips to some Caribbean destinations that I could have otherwise taken. My next priority in this regard is to return to Indonesia – probably Bali, where I can combine the reefs and big animals of the south with the macro and muck diving of Tulamben up north. I also hope to return to the Visasyas again for Malapascua and Sogod Bay, if I can make the logistics for that pair of destinations work.

    I came back to the Philippines for its famous macro, of which I had gotten my first taste in Anilao and Puerto Galera. In retrospect, however, I think that these two Visayas destinations were just as or more rewarding for their coral and fish density and larger animals. I would say that Anilao and (to a lesser degree) Puerto Galera were better than Alona Beach and Dauin for pure macro but had less to offer in terms of coral, fish, and larger animals. I enjoyed the muck diving of Dauin, but I would probably stick to Anilao as my preferred go-to muck diving destination in the Philippines. I found Anilao's muck diving to be significantly better, and Anilao has the added advantage of not requiring a domestic flight (a non-trivial factor, as I learned). I would say that the chief selling point of Dauin is actually the proximity to Apo Island, which was fantastic, but I would not choose a muck diving destination on the basis of the fantastic reef diving nearby. If I were to return to the area, I would want to spend more time diving Apo Island, or even staying there and diving directly from there, since there is a resort there. If I were to stay in Dauin again, I would try to stay further south along the coast, as the muck diving seemed to improve as we went further south (which would also be closer to Apo Island). I am also curious about Siquijor, of which I had a great view from Dauin, and how the diving there might be similar to or different from the areas that I have already seen.

    The diving from Alona Beach made me curious about other parts of Bohol. PFD does offer a long day trip to Cabilao, but it could not happen that week due to insufficient numbers and high winds. I understand that it is possible to stay on and dive from Cabilao, so I am curious as to whether or not Cabilao has enough to offer to justify staying and diving there for 6-7 days. I am also curious about Anda, but I have found relatively little information about it online. Balicasag was clearly the highlight of diving from Alona Beach. I understand that there actually is a resort on Balicasag from which one can dive, but the little that I have heard about it did not inspire confidence.

    Here are some questions for further discussion.
    • Have you, or anyone else you know of, stayed on the resorts on Apo and Balicasag Islands, and would you recommend doing so or sticking to Dauin and Alona Beach instead?

    • Does Cabilao Island have enough dive sites and variety to justify staying there for 6-7 days, doing three or more dives per day?

    • Do you have any reviews, trip reports, or other details for the diving in Anda or on Siquijor?

    • What if any seasonal variations in visibility are there in the Philippines? Is there any time of year when visibility is, on average, significantly better or worse?

    • Would it be feasible to travel between Malapascua and Sogod Bay in one day without a domestic flight?
    Trailboss123 and Luko like this.
  4. FT

    FT Contributor

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Ottawa, Canada
    I have stayed numerous times on Apo Island (tho not been back since 2013); never stayed in Dauin. Liberty’s Lodge is friendly, entirely dive-oriented but pretty basic: dipper baths, lights out at 9:30 as that is when the island’s generator shuts down. Decent food. Rinsing a big camera might be an issue, I dunno. Walking in off the beach for night dives with the sleeping turtles makes for an awesome experience. Guides are very accommodating though the professionalism varies. I understand that Liberty’s brother Mario now runs his own home stay. Can attest that he is an excellent instructor.
  5. Tippytoes12

    Tippytoes12 Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: UK
    Thanks for a great report ! I stayed in Anda in Spring 2016, with Magic Oceans, just after it opened. The owners, a lovely couple from the Netherlands, their managers and the staff were wonderful and the food by far the best I have ever experienced in the Philippines. It’s hard to comment on the quality of the diving compared to Dauin and Alona, thé guides understandably were not as familiar with the reefs as if they had been diving them for years.My camera died on the third day of a three week trip and I didn’t have a spare. However an Australian friend stayed there recently and her photos are spectacular, BROs , wonderful macro and a whaleshark on the house reef. It’s a beautiful part of Bohol.

    I am a huge Southern Leyte fan. Having done Oslob twice and seen whalesharks in the Maldives on three trips, I would say that the SL experience is way way better. No overcrowding, no chasing of the whalesharks, no resort boats dropping their no swimming guests ontop of the whalesharks. If there is a morning boat from SL to Cebu you should get there by midday. Then if a private car picks you up you should get to Malapascua by evening time.

    Regarding visability in the Visayas, we have been there at Christmas, in February and in June.The vis on our June trip was by far the best.
  6. Luko

    Luko Regular of the Pub

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Paris, France
    First thanks for your very detailed report !

    Cabilao island is really nice for the laid back atmosphere topside and for its coral coverage below, even better than Balicasag, though much less fish. There are a few spots where you can do macro dives as well. Now I would say in 4 days you'd have most of the dive sites covered, maybe not 6-7 days, you'd have to couple it with Alona (which is 2hrs transfer from Cabilao).
    I'd recommend Sanctuary beach resort for staying and diving, it's the most comfortable accoms and most flexible dive center you can get. Polaris next door is also good but there will be twice or three times the number of divers (they cater to the german dive market, while Sanctuary is still under the radar). I wrote a report on SB diving with Sanctuary.

    I was utterly disappointed with Anda, even though the resort I dived with (BlueStar, mid market range) had a guide originated from Dauin for macro, who was trying his best. Macro was mostly white sand, which is not very productive usually, and it wasn't -largely 3-4 steps below Dauin white sands spots-, on the wide angle side the reefs were the boring kind with fields of soft cream colored corals, lots of turtles but very few fish. Checked Anda once, would never be back.

    Visibility : I stayed in Alona/Dauin/Visayas on various trips December, Feb, March, April and May.
    Clearly April - May was much better.
    Feb and March can be quite windy deteriorating the visibility, especially on Alona which is a sensitive area with regards to shallow depth and white sand bottom.
    Trailboss123 likes this.
  7. BoundForElsewhere

    BoundForElsewhere Are we there yet? ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: NYC
    Thank you. I am heading to RoP in November with the family and your report is very helpful.
    One thing I've learned so far is that we probably have too many choices when it comes to the Philippines. Kind of like tie shopping at Century 21.
  8. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    Thank you, I will look into this place. How many dives a day do they typically offer?

    Is this what you mean by dipper baths?

    Tabo (hygiene) - Wikipedia

    Now that you mention it, where would resorts or residents of Apo Island get their fresh water? Is that why rinsing a big camera might be an issue?
  9. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    I came across Magic Oceans when I briefly looked into Anda. Indeed, it was one of the few establishments there on which I found any significant reporting or reviews.

    Would you say that Anda is more of a reefs/fish/larger animals destination or a muck diving/macro destination? Or is it equally both?
  10. Ironborn

    Ironborn Contributor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Miami, Florida
    More coral than Balicasag? Wow!

    Did Cabilao also have strong currents like Balicasag? The downside of Balicasag was that the strong currents made it very difficult to line up good wide-angle shots of the very rich reefs. I actually got more and better wide-angle shots at Puntod Island.

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