I never imagined for one minute when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 that I’d ever take up scuba diving. I’ve never been one for water sports, or lazing about on the beach either. But that changed not long after Steph, Hannah and Philippa arrived in the Philippines, and we decided to see what the beach had to offer. This is how it happened.
Our first beach trip was to Puerto Galera (at the bottom of the map below) in February 1992, taking the ferry from Batangas City.
We went there with IRRI entomologist Jim Litzinger and his family, and a couple of other IRRI staff at that time (Jim left IRRI during 1992). Much as I enjoyed walking along the beach, taking the odd dip every now and then, I’d never even considered snorkeling (something I hadn’t actually tried before). Well, I borrowed a mask and snorkel, and some fins, and off I went for my first attempt at snorkeling. Not being a very competent swimmer (I almost drowned when I was about 10 – my elder brother Ed had to dive into the river and drag me out), I found it quite a challenge to relax and breathe through the snorkel – it just didn’t feel right. However, I persevered, and after about 30 minutes I was beginning to get the hang of it, and the wealth of marine life that opened up to me in the shallows of a coral garden was just stunning. “That’s it” I thought, “something to keep me occupied if and when we come to the beach again.” Just to add, we never did go back to Puerto Galera. Instead, we discovered Anilao.
Arthur’s Place in Anilao
A few weeks after our Mindoro trip, another IRRI colleague, Jean-Claude Prot (a French nematologist), suggested we try a resort in Anilao – Arthur’s Place* – about 95 km south of Los Baños, at the tip of the Mabini Pensinsula, to the west of Batangas City.
Arthur’s Place was opened in the 1980s by local divemaster Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita.
Sadly, Arthur died in September 2002, but Lita has kept the business going – and has expanded it significantly in terms of rooms and other facilities. And of course the resort is a haven for divers who come from all over the world, although most are actually based in the Philippines. It rapidly became a focal point for IRRI staff wanting a weekend away at the beach.
In 1992, the paved road did not reach Anilao, and even along the main roads between Calamba and Batangas the journey was quite slow due to the volume of traffic on a single carriageway highway – mainly jeepneys and tricycles. Between Anilao itself and Arthur’s Place there was just a mud road, essentially impassable except for a few vehicles. So we used to drive to Anilao, and then take an outrigger boat, known locally as a banca, sent by the resort to pick us up. Quite often we’d set off from Los Baños after 5 pm once work was over on a Friday afternoon, and Hannah and Philippa had arrived back from school in Manila. Taking the banca in the darkness was always enjoyable on a calm and moonlit night, but if squally could be quite unpleasant. After a couple of years I became increasingly uncomfortable driving at night, so we’d get up early on the Saturday morning and head off to Anilao before the traffic became too heavy. With the opening of better highways over the past decade, that by-passed most of the towns on the old highway where most traffic congestion occurred, the journey from Los Baños to Arthur’s Place could be made in 90 minutes or less on a good day. Over the years the road from Anilao to Arthur’s Place was widened and eventually paved, and a road down the hill to the beach was constructed. Before this road to the beach was opened we had to park at the top and walk down – I can’t remember the number of steps, fine on the way down, somewhat more taxing on the way up. Fortunately there was always a helping hand from the resort staff to carry all our dive gear in crates. Take a look at the video below to see how things have improved on the 15 minute drive from Arthur’s Place to Anilao.
Unless there were no vacancies at Arthur’s Place, that’s where we spent our Anilao beach weekends over the next 18 years, trying to get away once a month, about eight times a year. Most often the resort would be full of other guests, but just occasionally we would essentially have the resort to ourselves – time for chilling out with a good book, a backlog of the Guardian Weekly, and some great music on my iPod.
In 2010, I was honored to be invited by Lita’s daughter Joanne and her fiancé Rhonson to be a principal sponsor (or ninong) at their January wedding. And Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding and reception, held at the resort – and there must have been more than 200 people at the reception.
Learning to dive
As I said earlier, in my wildest dreams I never expected to learn to become a PADI Open Water Diver, but that’s what I achieved in March 1993. Hannah had received her NAUI certification the previous year (I was too busy during 1992 at the time when she took the course), and Philippa received her PADI certification in 1995.
Diving was THE hobby among IRRI staff in the early to mid-1990s, and several courses were organized to train groups of budding divers.
Instructors would come down from Manila to give the theory classes over a week, we’d take the confined water training in the IRRI pool, and then head off to the beach the next weekend for the open water training sessions.
We were fortunate to have an excellent dive instructor, Ramon E (Boy) Siojo, assisted by Mario Elumba. I’ve lost contact with Boy Siojo, but I ran into Mario several times while diving, and am still in contact through Facebook. Our dive group included IRRI physiologist Tim Setter and his son, Crissan Zeigler, Jane Guy, Michael Goon Jr, and Art and Victor Gomez.
Our open water training session was held over the weekend of 13-14 March 1993, in Anilao. Everything went well, and for one of our training sessions, the instructors took us to Layag-Layag, a banca ride across the channel from the Mabini peninsular (check the dive site map below). What an experience – I knew then that diving was for me! On the trip back to the mainland, we rescued passengers from a large banca that started to sink – men, women and children in the water, even babies. I was facing towards the bow of our banca, and one of the instructors was sat facing me, looking over the stern. I suddenly saw his jaw drop, and he screamed for the boat to stop. We turned round, as did the other banca in our group and we headed back for the rescue, with dive instructors donning their scuba equipment again. After all the passengers were safe, we began to tow the stricken banca back to its port, but the engine fell through the boat’s bottom and sank. By the time we arrived back at Bethlehem, and were greeted by the villagers – silent and stunned; you’d have thought half the passengers had drowned. But they were on their way to a wedding across the channel, and had lost everything.
I received my PADI certification on 17 March 1993, and the rest is history. I completed all my 356 dives from 1993 until 2010 (my last dive was on 14 March 2010) in the Anilao area. In the early days I would dive with Arthur, but when he became ill, he hired Lito Bonquin as the resident divemaster at Arthur’s Place. I made most of my dives with Lito, but there was a two year period 2002-2004 when Clare O’Nolan (wife of IRRI’s IT manager Paul O’Nolan) was my regular dive buddy. Judy Baker, a teacher at the International School Manila (ISM) was also a regular dive buddy.
Anilao dive sites
Anilao is a biodiversity hotspot, especially for soft corals, and is reported to be one of the most diverse marine sites in the Philippines. There are about 40 dive sites within easy reach of Arthur’s Place, the furthest being only a 30 minute or so banca ride away.
Most sites were relatively easy to dive, especially when you had a good divemaster like Lito to show you the ropes. Visibility was mostly fair to good, occasionally excellent with more than 100 feet. Some sites like Bahura, Beatrice and Mainit Point could be quite challenging if the tide was running – strong currents. But my favorite sites were Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. Kirby’s was a 15 minute banca ride straight across the channel from Arthur’s Place. It was a site I got to know extremely well, and I must have dived there over 50 times, and each time was different, in terms of conditions, and what we saw. At Kirby’s there are two rocks, one of which (to the west) mostly peaks above the surface, depending on the tide). It drops steeply to about 75 feet, where there is an overhang; the ocean floor then slopes away north to deep water.
To the east (shown on the left in the dive plan drawing above) is another rock, with its tip at about 55 feet, and base at 125 feet. On most of our dives we’d explore the first rock before crossing to the second, spending about five minutes at 125 feet, and then slowly ascending round and over the rock before making our way back to Kirby’s and the banca. I’ve dived to 140 feet here. As I gained experience I was able to make a deep dive yet have enough air to spend more than 60 minutes underwater. In the video below, I was able to dive only to 95 feet because of the limitations on the housing for my Canon Powershot S40 camera (which permitted only 30 second video clips); you can see the other divers dropping well below 100 feet at the second rock. Kirby’s Rock was a Sunday morning dive, and we aimed to be in the water before 7 am if possible – often when there was calm water and no current. Returning to Arthur’s Place for a breakfast of toast, bacon and fried eggs, and coffee was always a delight!
Another favorite was Twin Rocks, which just got better and better over the years. When we first went to Anilao in 1992 there were few resorts, and the local fishermen were still practising dynamite fishing, causing untold damage to the reefs. But as the tourist trade developed and more resorts were opened, then the reefs began to recover and fish return. Now, Twin Rocks is a marine sanctuary where you regular see giant clams, batfish, a huge school of jacks, barracuda, and cuttlefish among others.
Anilao is not visited by many pelargics, although tuna and barracuda are quite frequent. Whale sharks are seen occasionally, and dolphins come through from time to time; sea turtles are regular visitors. White-tip reef sharks are quite common at Bahura (up to 2 m in length), but the one creature that always made me feel uncomfortable was the giant triggerfish, which can be extremely aggressive. On one dive with Lito and two teachers from ISM at Bahura, we hadn’t noticed one particular critter, about 1 m, in the vicinity. Lito had handed me a shell, and turning around, there was this fish about two meters in front of him – decidely pissed off. It chased him up to the surface (about 60 feet – apologies for the mix of metric and feet in this post; I learnt to dive in feet!), and not having success, came back after me and the other two. We were crouching behind some rocks and eventually it swam off. These fish can inflict serious bites, and afterwards we always gave them a wide berth if possible.
In all my dives there were few incidents that I look back on as being difficult. On one dive that I was leading at Kirby’s with two Americans, as we descended and reached about 90 feet, my regulator went into free flow (it had been serviced just a couple of weeks previously!). I took it from my mouth, and gave it a bash – something that would often correct this sort of problem. Well, I reached for my spare, and before I knew it, it had the same problem. So there I was at 90 feet, losing air by the second. I alerted my dive buddies and indicated we had to surface. I slowly ascended – it took about 90 seconds – just breathing into the air bubbles streaming from the mouthpiece. I had no air left in my tank once we surfaced. But I walked away from the dive – a success.
Here are some photos I took at various dive sites at Anilao:
When I retired from IRRI and left the Philippines, I sold much of my dive equipment, although I kept my mask and fins. Whether I shall dive again, I have no idea – it was great fun while I had opportunity. But it’s now a case of ‘been there, done that’. I have no plans (or desire) to dive in the cold waters around the UK. I look back on all those years of visits to Anilao with great affection – and I still miss my trips there. We were always made most welcome at Arthur’s Place by Lita and her staff, and left to our own devices. I always returned home from a weekend away at Anilao with my batteries recharged. I’m sure most of the folks who stay there have the same experience.