Not 20,000 leagues . . .

Diving at Anilao, Philippines

Actually, 16,504 minutes (almost 11½ days) under the sea. That was the extent of my scuba diving experiences over 17 years from March 1993 when I first learned to dive in the Philippines.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of my first Open Water training dive that I made at Anilao, about 95 km southwest from Los Baños where I worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

I received my PADI Open Water Diver certification on 17 March 1993.

We were a group of about ten IRRI staff and family members, trained by Boy Siojo (left below) and Mario Elumba.

After Confined Water dive skills training in the swimming pool at IRRI (right), it was quite an experience to transfer to the ‘open ocean’.

L: About to plunge backwards into the IRRI pool on 6 March 1993; R: With PADI course classmate Crissan Zeigler at Anilao after successfully completing the four Open Water training dives on 14 March 1993.

And although I have mostly been risk averse, never having any interest whatsoever in mountain or rock climbing, potholing, jumping out of planes, and the like, I took to scuba diving enthusiastically, although it had never crossed my mind as an option when I first landed in the Philippines two years earlier. Our elder daughter Hannah had taken the NAUI course in 1992, and I saw how much she enjoyed it. I decided it was a ‘sport’ we could enjoy together, and signed up for scuba training at the next opportunity.

Diving with Hannah, just three weeks after certification in April 1993. By then I’d already bought my own wet suit and other scuba equipment.

Our younger daughter Philippa took the PADI course in January 1995, just before her 13th birthday.

Phil and other students in the IRRI pool for the Confined Water training.

Returning from a dive in April 1995, with IRRI friends (L-R): me, Crissan Zeigler, Philippa, Kate Kirk, Clare Zeigler (Phil’s best friend), and Bob Zeigler (who became IRRI’s Director General in 2004).

I made all my dives around the many sites at Mabini, Anilao, never straying further to other locations in the country.Click on the map to enlarge.

That’s because Steph did not dive, and Anilao was excellent for snorkelling which she enjoyed, cataloging all the fish species she observed over nearly 19 years.

I also made my last—and 356th dive—on 14 March 2010. These photos were taken during my last two dives. Fittingly my last dive was an early one, probably around 7 am, at Kirby’s Rock.

With my dive buddy Katie and other members of my IRRI staff after the last dive, heading back to the dive resort for a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

And on that last dive, we were lucky to see a sea snake, a creature that eluded me for most of my 356 dives.

Anilao was very convenient for a weekend getaway, and the dive resort where we mostly stayed, Arthur’s Place, almost became a second home to the many IRRI divers over the years.

As I gained experience, and was more relaxed underwater, I could extend my dives to at least 45 minutes and longer, some lasting an hour or more. But it all depended on whether there were strong currents, visibility, and the capability and experience of my dive buddies.

The shortest dive I made, in August 1997, was just 10 minutes at my favorite dive site, Kirby’s Rock a 20 minute or so ride across the channel from Arthur’s Place. I was diving with an American couple, Bert and Annette Gee who were also staying at Arthur’s that weekend.

The dive started normally, with a back roll over the side of the dive boat, or outrigger banca. We descended the rock face (as you can see in the video below filmed on another occasion), and then, at 90 feet, my breathing equipment (both regulators) malfunctioned and I had to abort the dive. Thank goodness for outstanding training from Boy and Mario. I coped – and lived to tell the tale!

My deepest dive, at 135 feet, was at Kirby’s Rock, and I made over 50 dives there to over 100 feet. I relished the sensations of descending into colder water and increasing water pressure compressing everything, knowing that we’d have only a few minutes at that depth before slowly returning to the surface.

It’s been 13 years since I last dived. Do I miss it? Yes and no. Been there, done that. It was great while I had the opportunity of great diving on the doorstep, so to speak. I have no desire to re-learn so I can dive in the North Sea. For one thing, it’s too damn cold. And for another, I think I’ve been spoiled by having dived in one of the most diverse coral environments on the planet.

A variable neon slug (Nembrotha kubaryana) at Anilao.





Like a duck to water . . . scuba diving in the Philippines

Late afternoon in front of Arthur’s Place, Anilao
(with Maricaban Island in the distance)

I’ve never been one for competitive sport, or strenuous outdoors exercise. No fell or hill walking for me, nor rock climbing, potholing, or other like pursuits.

So it was rather out of character that I took to scuba diving in the Philippines with such enthusiasm. Although I’d lived in the Tropics before moving to the Philippines in 1991, in Peru, I only went occasionally to the beach south of Lima during the summer months from January to March; and when we lived in Costa Rica, the best beaches were hours away by road.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, quite a number of IRRI staff had learned to scuba dive, and spent weekends away, either in Anilao (about 90 km or so south of Los Baños) or at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, the next island south of Luzon.

In fact, when we did go to the beach in Puerto Galera for the first time, in February 1992 (just a few weeks after Steph, Hannah and Philippa had joined me from the UK), I’d never even snorkeled before! So the last thing on my mind was the idea of taking a scuba diving course. Snorkeling was fine – once I’d got the hang of it, and learned to relax and actually breathe with my face in the water. So we invested in masks, boots and fins, and started visiting Anilao about once a month. Our first resort was Arthur’s Place, established by local dive master and entrepreneur Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. Arthur’s Place was quite modest in 1992, just a few rooms available. And since there was no telephone at that time, making a reservation was rather hit-and-miss. In fact, it was only possible to reach the resort from Anilao village by outrigger canoe or banca, which took about 30 minutes or so. Eventually, the road was opened up, the mobile phone network spread to include the Mabini peninsula, and Arthur’s Place even had email and a web presence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My elder daughter Hannah took a NAUI dive course in 1992, not long after we first went to Puerto Galera (my one and only visit there). She’d have been about 14 or 15 at the time. There was a group of IRRI staff and children taking a course, and the dive instructors came down to the staff housing where we had a 20 m pool to conduct the theory classes and confined water exercises. The open water exercises and final certification were carried out at Anilao. Well, for a year I watched Hannah getting ready for one of her dives each time we went down to Anilao, and began to wonder what it would be like.

Mario Elumba - a recent pic

Mario Elumba – a recent pic

And my opportunity came in March 1993 when a group of us got together to arrange dive classes with two PADI instructors – Boy Siojo and Mario Elumba. I took to scuba diving like a duck to water, and I have to say it has been one of the best things I have ever done. Including my four open water exercises dives (just prior to receiving my Open Water Diver certification) I completed 356 dives, making my first on 13 March 1993, and my last (just before I retired from IRRI and returned to the UK) on 14 March 2010. I only dived in the Anilao area – there’s just so much to see, and in any case, as Steph did not dive but loved just to snorkel, there was no reason to go elsewhere. The reefs just in front of Arthur’s Place were ideal for this, and for about 18 years she kept quite detailed records of what she observed, some 100-150 m either side of Arthur’s Place.

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

I also kept a detailed log of all my dives, who I dived with, where we dived, the conditions, and how long each dive lasted. For the first few years, my main dive buddy was Arthur. Most weekends I would complete three dives (very occasionally four, and exceptionally five). But three dives was a comfortable number: a morning and afternoon dive on the Saturday, and an early morning dive (usually to Kirby’s Rock) on the Sunday morning (that was always followed by a great plate of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee).

Sunday morning - post Kirby's. Bacon and eggs on the table.

Sunday morning – post Kirby’s. Bacon and eggs on the table.

We stayed at Arthur’s Place as often as we could  but when full, we had to stay at other resorts along the coast. However, I guess we stayed at Arthur’s more than 95% of the time, and by the time we left the Philippines, we had become the longest term clients at the resort. So much so, that Lita’s younger daughter Joanne invited me to be one of the ‘godfathers’ or ninong at her wedding in January 2010. Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding – a great honour.


There are many great dive sites around Anilao, but my two favorites have to be Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. I think Arthur was one of the pioneers of the conservation strategy along the coast, and the development of many dive resorts led, quite quickly, to an overall increase in health of the many reefs, because the presence of divers (a considerable economic benefit to the local communities  reduced the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing.

One or two sites were famous for their fierce currents, especially Beatrix and Bahura. Both Kirby’s Rock and Seepok Wall had impressive walls to explore. At Kirby’s it is possible to descend about 140 feet to the bottom of one of the walls – which I did many times. The feeling of the water pressure, the (general) clarity of the water (many times over 100 feet of visibility), and the wealth of marine life make this a special dive site for me.

Nudibranchs at Mainit Point,
27 March 2004

There’s so much I could write about. We often saw white-tipped reef sharks, and my particular bugaboo was the giant triggerfish, a particular aggressive beastie that has chased us around the reef from time to time. The myriad of brightly coloured shoals of small fish, especially the butterfly fish in all their diversity, the jacks, and tuna, the occasional turtle, the soft corals and nudibranchs – what sights on a bright morning to make one’s heart sing. And the big advantage as far as I was concerned – no-one could phone me or send me an email, or bother me about work whatsoever, when I was diving.

L to r: me, Clare, Lito, and Judy, in front of Arthur’s Place, 4 May 2003, just after diving at Kirby’s Rock

Sadly Arthur died of cancer in 2002, but in any case once I had gained some diving experience I did not really need him to be my dive buddy. I used to take Hannah and Philippa diving (Philippa learned to dive in January 1995 when she was 12), and for many years I used to buddy with one of the International School Manila teachers, Judy Baker, or Clare O’Nolan, the wife of IRRI’s IT Services manager Paul. Lito Bonquin became the resident dive master at Arthur’s Place in the late 1990s, and he was the person I dived with most over my almost 18 years of diving. He was very experienced and a safe buddy to dive with – and we had great fun exploring familiar sites.

Lito and me after my last dive (at Kirby’s Rock) on 14 March 2010

Do I miss scuba diving? From time-to-time, especially on a grey winter morning, or after someone at Arthur’s Place has posted a particularly nice photo on the Facebook page. I’m pleased I had the opportunity of taking up this great sport. I enjoyed diving with most folks I came into contact with, but there were one or two (including some of my IRRI colleagues – no name, no pack-drill  who I was less than enthusiastic to dive with, because I just didn’t feel safe buddying with them  And I was quite an experienced diver.

I remained an Open Water Diver – I had no interest in gaining further certification as an Advanced Diver, or rescue, wreck or whatever diver. I still have my mask (with its prescription lenses), my boots and fins, and my wet suit. Maybe I’ll get the chance to dive again some day, and if I do get back to the Philippines before I’m too old to enjoy diving again, I reckon there’ll be a welcome for me at Arthur’s Place, and marine friends at Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks might ‘realize’ their old ‘buddy’ is back in town.


Around the world . . . in 40 years. Part 1: Home is where the heart is.

The other day I was using TripAdvisor on Facebook to see how many countries I’d visited over the past 40 odd years, and was surprised to discover that it’s almost 90. Many of these visits were connected with my work one way or another. However, I’ve lived in three countries outside the UK:

  • in Peru from January 1973 to April 1976, and November 1980 to March 1981, with the International Potato Center (CIP), at its Lima headquarters; 
  • in Costa Rica, from April 1976 to November 1980, leading CIP’s regional program at that time, located at CATIE in Turrialba; and
  • in the Philippines, from July 1991 to April 2010, with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

In this series of stories, I will recall many of the places I’ve visited, and my impressions. In this first part, I focus on Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I’ll add more images to all posts as and when I am able to digitize the many slides that I have in my collection.

First foreign forays
But first things first. Until 1969, however, I had never been outside the UK. In September that year, I joined a group of Morris and sword dancers from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to participate in a bagpipe festival at Strakonice in Czechoslovakia. It was a novel experience for me to travel across Holland and southern Germany by road, seeing new sights (and sites). But more of this in another post.

In 1972, I attended a genetic resources conference organized by EUCARPIA – the European Association for Plant Breeding Research, held at Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey, south of Istanbul – quite exotic. Together with a group of other students from Birmingham, I stayed at an olive research institute at Bornova, some miles outside Izmir, rather than at the comfortable hotel in the city center where the conference was being held. One thing I do remember was the daily breakfast – a plate of stuffed olives, some goat’s milk cheese, crusty bread, and a glass of tea. I was a much fussier eater in those days, and was not taken with olives – quite the reverse today! We did get to visit the ancient ruins of Ephesus – a magnificent city. I returned to Izmir in the late 70s while I was working for CIP, and there was a regional meeting about potato production.

In January 1973 I moved to Lima, Peru, fulfilling an ambition I’d had since I was a little boy. Peru was everything I hoped it would be. It’s a country of so many contrasts. Of course the Andes are an impressive mountain chain, stretching the whole length of the country, and reaching their highest point in Nevado Huascarán (shown in the photo above), at over 22,000 feet.  Then there’s the coastal desert along the Pacific Ocean, which is bisected every so often with rivers that flow down from the mountains, creating productive oases, wet enough to grow rice in many places. And on the eastern side of of the mountains, the tropical rainforest drops to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, with rivers meandering all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.

Lima is a huge city today, with more than 8 million inhabitants; in 1973 it had perhaps a million or so. Situated in one of the world’s driest deserts, there is always a water problem. Goodness knows how the city authorities cope; it was a big problem 40 years ago. I first arrived to Lima in the dead of night and was whisked away to my pensión. It was a bit of a shock the following morning seeing all the bare mountains surrounding the city, even though I was staying in one of the more leafy and green suburbs, San Isidro. Flying into Lima in daylight, and driving into the city from the airport one is confronted by the reality of poverty, with millions now living in the shanty towns or pueblos jovenes that spread incessantly over the desert and into the coastal foothills of the Andes.

But Lima is a vibrant city, and the country is full of exquisite surprises. In 1973 there was a left-wing military junta governing Peru, and although there have been many democratically-elected governments since (and some more military ones as well) there was the major threat from terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru in the 80s that made travel difficult around the country. Between 1973 and 1975 when I lived there it was relatively safe, and my work took me all over the Andes, collecting potatoes for the germplasm collection at CIP, and carrying out research in farmers’  fields.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu on a couple of occasions, and the market town of Pisac, as well as many of the archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast. Although I have traveled across the Nazca plain by road, and could see evidence of the famous lines even at ground level, I never did get to see them from the air – one ambition yet to be fulfilled. Getting to know Lima is a must, and visiting the many museums. The skyline of the second city Arequipa, in the south of the country is dominated by the volcano El Misti. And no visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca at over 4000 m above sea level. Take your oxygen bottle, or try the mate de coca (an infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant) to cope with the altitude.

My work with IRRI took me back to Peru on several occasions in later years. While at Birmingham University in the 80s I had also been part of a four man review that traveled around Peru for three weeks looking at a seed potato project. I also had a research project with CIP, and on a couple of visits, I also did some work on cocoa, traveling to some native cocoa sites near Iquitos on the Amazon River, and also at Tarapoto. Unfortunately, a cocoa germplasm project I was advising the UK chocolate industry about, and some of my potato research, was affected by the activities of the terrorist groups mentioned earlier, and the drug dealers or narcotraficantes.

My wife and I were married in Lima in October 1973.

Click to read all my Peru stories, my CIP stories, and view a web album of Peru photos taken in 1973 and 1974.

Costa Rica
After three years in Peru, we moved to Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The continental divide, dotted with a number of active volcanoes, runs the length of the country, with tropical lowlands on the east Caribbean coast, and drier lowlands on the west Pacific. We lived in Turrialba, some 70 km or so, east of the capital San José. Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica.

The volcanoes are spectacular, and my potato work took me almost every week to the slopes of the Irazú volcano, the main potato growing area of the country, and about 50 km from Turrialba. It dominates the horizon from San Jose, and its most famous recent activity was in 1963 on the day that President Kennedy landed in San José for a state visit. That eruption lasted for more than a year. But the volcanic activity is the basis of deep and rich soils on the slopes of the volcano.

Costa Rica has had an interesting history. After a short civil war in 1948 the armed forces were abolished, and the country invested heavily in social programs and education. It also established a nation-wide network of national parks, and has one of the biggest proportions of land dedicated to national parks of any country. In April 1980 Steph, Hannah and me were staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve when we received the sad news of my father’s death. We’d gone to Monteverde to try and see the resplendent quetzal – and how lucky we were. Magnificent!

In the 1970s, Costa Rica was a very safe place to live. San José was a small city; it had only about 250,000 inhabitants while we lived there. And the police did not carry any sidearms or other automatic weapons – only screwdrivers. Screwdrivers? Yes, to remove the plates from illegally parked cars! In the late 70s, when the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza government was at its height in Nicaragua, many refugees came south over the border. And crime rates – along with house rentals – climbed steeply.

In the mid-90s I had opportunity to return to Costa Rica on a couple of occasions, and went hunting wild rices in the Guanacaste National Park in the northwest of the country, close to the frontier with Nicaragua. Ecotourism is a major activity, and with so many national parks to visit and a wealth of wildlife to observe, Costa Rica offers plenty for those interested in the outdoors.

The Philippines
Having spent a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham in the UK after leaving CIP, I began to get itchy feet towards the end of the 80s, and was offered a position at IRRI from July 1991. I moved then, and my family (my wife and two daughters, Hannah and Philippa) made the move just after Christmas.

Even today the Philippines is the easiest country to travel in – especially if you don’t have much free time. First of all, it’s spread over more than 7000 islands. But travel by road can be slow, and extremely frustrating. It certainly tested my patience for long enough – and I was driving mainly between Los Baños and Manila. For all the almost 19 years we lived in the Philippines, there were always roadworks on the road to Manila – now completed – and the highway also connects the port of Batangas on the south coast of Luzon with Manila. The volume of traffic is horrendous, and on the open road the slow-moving (and frequently stopping) tricycles and jeepneys don’t help with the traffic flow.

And because we took our annual home-leave in the UK, there wasn’t much other time for getting to know the Philippines., even though my wife and I lived in Los Baños for longer than we’d lived anywhere else. Each year we’d depart on home-leave and going home. On the return we would be coming home. Our home was provided by IRRI in a gated community some 10 minutes drive from the research center. It was built in the early 60s on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling. Los Baños is the thriving Science City of the Philippines, home to the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UPLB) and other important scientific research institutes, besides IRRI.

Our daughters attended the International School in Manila (ISM), and were bused into Manila early each day. By 1999, Philippa’s senior year, the school bus would leave IRRI Staff Housing at 0430 in order to reach the Makati campus by the start of school at 0715. The children would return by about 1630 or so, relax for a while, have dinner, then get down to homework, studying sometimes as late as midnight. Then up again at 0400. We were all glad when Philippa graduated. In 2002 ISM moved to a new (and more easily accessible) campus, several years after Hannah and Philippa had left, and a move that had been promised since about 1994.

Steph and I would get away to the beach as often as possible, about once a month. She would snorkel, and kept very detailed records over 18 years of the fish and corals that she observed in front of Arthur’s Place in Anilao, Batangas. I learned to scuba dive in 1993, and until we left the Philippines, that was my main hobby. Here are two more underwater videos from Anilao:

Finally in March 2009, we had the opportunity of visiting the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao province north of Manila. We went with a group of staff from my office. The journey both ways was tedious to say the least, taking almost 17 hours door-to-door on the return, with stops, even though the distance is less than 500 km. But it was worth it. The terraces are spectacular, and although it’s necessary to walk into the terraces at Batad, it’s well worth the effort. We stayed in Banaue, then traveled on to Sagada to see the famous caves with ‘hanging coffins’ and the local weaving. It was a short trip, but very memorable. Click here to open a web album.

We unfortunately did not get to see many of the fiestas that abound in the Philippines. But what we did see – every day – were the smiling faces of the lovely Filipino people. Yes, the Philippines was where our hearts were, for almost 19 years.

I’ll be posting other stories about the countries and places I’ve visited over the past 40 years, so please check from time-to-time.

Anilao: jewel in the Philippines diving crown

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 [1]- 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 [2]. Our dive group included IRRI physiologist Tim Setter and his son, Crissan Zeigler, Jane Guy, Michael Goon Jr, and Art and Victor Gomez.

With Crissan Zeigler after completing one of the open water certification dives at Anilao.

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.

Here is an album of photos of Arthur’s Place and underwater images as well; just click on the image below to open.

[2] On 4 January 2020, Mario posted this photo of him with Boy Siojo:

Divemasters Boy Siojo (L) and Mario Elumba (R).