By Sander van der Zwan
Like in the rest of the world, people in the Philippines have to stay home as much as possible. Bohol however, is COVID-free, so weare free to go around the island. If you can choose between staying at home, or staying at a 4* dive resort with world class diving a what would it be? Exactly! For me, Sander van der Zwan- a Dutch retiree who lives in the Philippines, this question wasnat difficult to answer.
With a handful stranded tourists, I stayed at one of the few open resorts in Anda, Bohol: Magic Oceans Dive Resort. Magic Oceans has approval to be open, having a COVID-protocol in place, so I should be all good and safe.
In Anda Bohol, we were lucky enough to wake up every morning with a position of the pond and ocean in this quiet and laid-back village. The best part of being in the asecret dive gem of the Philippinesa: we are also able build daily( shore) dives! Drop the face mask and put on the dive mask. Social distancing and safety guaranteed( with own dive gear ).
The toughest decision that we had to make-up daily was whether we would go right, to see fifteen turtles and beautiful soft corals, or go to the favorite left and find special nudibranchs in the sandy region and frogfishes on the wall.
The marine life seemed to enjoy the worldwide lockdown and appears to be more present and active than ever! We had some great and unusual encounters with all kinds of marine life. From a huge Spanish dancer in only 50 cm depth, Whale Sharks, Melon Headed Whales during sunset and eagle rays that flew by!
Tuesday morning. In normal situations it would be a day as every other day a being in my hometown in South-West of Bohol island, having a coffee in one of my favorite eateries while watching hundreds of tourists passing by, looking forward to their adventure. Well, as we all know, at the moment the situation is far from what weare used to and a lot of people would say thatas not in their advantage. Except for me. Iam waking up in my own private deluxe bungalow in a 4* boutique dive resort at the other side of Bohol island: the little town of Anda, which is now even more quiet and peaceful than usual!
This town, an undiscovered village with loads of history, culture, pristine beaches, friendly people and a beautiful untouched underwater world with the most colorful and healthy corals Iave ever seen, is my perfect, secret getaway in these times.
After a refreshing dive in the pond while catching the first sunshine lights of the day, I walk to the restaurant where my daily breakfast is immediately served by one of the lovely waitress. The stranded Portuguese couple and resort administrator Eef are joining at the table, which is large enough to keep the required 1,5 meter/ 5 ft. social distance without the need to shout. We discussed the schedule of the day a the dive schedule to be exact.
While water activities like diving are prohibited in most parts of the country, we were lucky enough to construct daily dives on the house reef of Magic Oceans Dive Resort, merely 50 meters away from the restaurants we had breakfast.
Whilst enjoying my breakfast and a coffee, the toughest decision was to be made: what did we want to see today? Loads of turtles and beautiful soft corals? Or special nudibranchs in the sandy area? The day before, we went to the right side of the house reef and were lucky enough to see Humpback Whales at the beginning of our dive. Followed by an Eagle Ray that flew by before we even recognized it was there!
After a well-counted discussion of 5 minutes, we decided to go left this time, fantasizing about what we might be able to see. Maybe another Eagle ray, maybe a Black Hairy Frogfish or an Ambon Scorpionfish. Maybe even a Whale Shark!
The special thing about Anda is that you never know what you will dive into. From the XXS Shaun the Sheep to the XXL Whale Sharks and even Killer Whales have been spotted lately. Most of the times the amaze turns out bigger than you expected!
What are we waiting for? We promptly finish our breakfast and get ready for our dive. We were with a small group and the dive center is huge, so no need to divide the group to be able to keep distance. Marlon, marine biologist and dive center director of Magic Oceans Dive Resort, decided to join as well. We also called him aEagle Eye Marlona, because of his ability to find EVERYTHING.
Within a few steps from the dive center we entered the house reef and slowly swam to the left. The noise of a pointer stick banging on a tank, followed only a few seconds later. I looked around and ensure Marlon making the sign of a nudibranch, pointing at the sandy bottom underneath him. I swam to his direction. Normally it takes a few seconds before you find what youare looking for when it comes to nudias, but this time I couldnat believe I was looking at a Spanish Dancer of easily 30 cm. long. WOW! Such a good start of our dive! I made a few shoots with my underwater camera before we slowly continued while watching the colorful soft corals with clown fishes swimming around. Being a bit spoiled, we didnat pay a lot of attention on those way-too-energetic fish. After a short amount of hour, we descended to 20 meters. Pablo, the Portuguese guy, banged his tank and built the shark-sign. Ha ha, thatas a good way to catch our attention, was my first supposed. You must know that Pablo is a funny guy a he always makes jokes, both underwater as above. Anyway, he kept on pointing in the blue. I screened the region , not too obvious so he couldnat attain the aha ha, I saw you watching for ita- kind of joke. However, it took less than a few seconds to actually realise he wasnat making fun of us. I immediately considered the blue pattern and the moving, waving gills of this enormous creature. It genuinely was a shark, and not just a shark: a Whale Shark of easily 6 meters long! It was floating close to us and maintained on swimming in circles, like he was enjoying the bubble bath that we created by breath. A perfect timing for me to take some selfies with this great creature!
Stop at your peak, is what we all believe, even though I had more than 100 bars left, we decided to swim back and discontinue the dive. Once on the surface we decided to make a night dive. The remainder of the afternoon we would spend in the pool, what a terrible quarantine.
The night dives had a motto: shallower is better. Having aEagle Eye Marlona with us, we were able to see the most incredible underwater scene by night. It started with a small Black Hairy Frogfish and a probably the same a Spanish Dancer on 1-meter depth. Followed by a Blue Ringed Octopus at 2 meters, turtles, nudias like a huge Platydoris, squids and more nudias! Even though I am not such a fan of muck diving during daytime, I appreciate these dives during nighttime. This dive was remarkable and definitely one not to forget! After spending 72 minutes underwater, we headed back to the shore, getting ready for a delicious dinner, made by my favorite home cook Errol. Of course, a drink in the bar afterwards couldnat be missed. No, being in quarantine isnat that bad.
The following day, I decided to head back to my hometown, but that didnat last long. South-West of Bohol island isnat the same without the many tourists who maintain this area alive and kicking. So, after 2 days I was back in Anda, having my lucky day when resort director Eef told me upon arrival he got the allowance from the local government to dive at the most incredible dive site in the area: Lamanoc! This dive is supposed to be a check-up dive, to check the status of the site. Well, Iam more than happy to join and check every tiny spot of this site every day if needed!
All set a the next day Marlon Eagle Eye, the Portuguese couple, Eef and me were on our route to Lamanoc to check this dive site in all its glory. And, glory it was! Lamanoc is also known as nudibranch paradise, having a sloping sandy bottom where you can find all kinds of different nudias, as well as other special and rare critters.
Eef developed into a distinguished dive guidebook this time. He spotted a Blue Ringed Octopus floating around while tapping the bottom with the tops of his tentacles, looking for an early lunch, and a Mantis Shrimp, hidden in its secret place which turned out not be as secretive has he supposed. The nudibranchs were still as colorful as always, merely sitting there, being photogenic. Iave spotted one Iave never seen before and get Marlon to have a look at it, trying to explain to him to remember it, so he can tell me more about this special one once we would be back at the resort. He knows every single original and difficult name of all of them!
After nearly 60 minutes, we cease the dive and went to the surface. We all concluded the reefs status was still phenomenal, so we could report that back to the authorities. We figured it would be smart to tell them that this dive site needs to be checked more often and that weare more than happy to volunteer! Who knows how many times we could take advantage of that!
No, being in quarantine wasnat that bad at all, although I hope, like many others, that this pandemic will be completed soon. However, the good thing about this worldwide crisis is the healing effect it seems to have on nature. It is incredible how the marine life is more present and active than ever! I was lucky enough to have some great encounters during the lock down, staying in a great resort that offered me the possibility to enjoy these times as much as possible. Hopefully weare all able to enjoy the marine life as much as I did in the last few months, in the near future as well.