Some Fishy Friends 

WHEN you admire the scenery and absent-mindedly run your fingers through some fine coral white sand as you soak up the sun on any of the beaches in the Philippines, forget what it felt like and immediately go and wash your hands…you’ve just unwittingly stuck your digits in a load of someone else’s poo, you dirty little devil… 

Now, we know it does not look like poo – and it usually does not smell like it, either – but it has definitely been in the mouth of a body, over the tonsils, completed a few somersaults around the stomach, done a few twists and turns in the intestines and come out the other end…and you have been playing with it! 

Do not worry – millions of other people have done it as well and lived to tell the tale.

But it was not someone human who swallowed that tasty morsel – it was probably the parrotfish that you are about to eat, or one of those spiky sea urchins that some people eat instead of Viagra. Both of them like nothing more than to crunch on a bit of coral reef - and to turn out sand as a by-product of their digestive system. 

It’s not that the parrotfish and the sea urchin like eating lumps of limestone: they just like the little bits of food caught up in them, little animals called polyps, which just happen to have a calcareous skeleton on the outside of their bodies, as well as algae which likes to sit on rocks while it ponders its’ existence. 

In times of danger, the polyps just pop back inside their skeleton, but just can’t escape the jaws of the ever-hungry parrotfish which simply gnaws them off the rock they thought was a safe home. 

The trouble with the reef eating parrotfish is that although they are mostly under 18 inches long, they can grow to 12 foot long, and their teeth have fused together to form a blade which is just right for scrapping coral off rocks – and you have to eat a lot of coral to get a decent meal when you are three or four meters long, however colourful you may be. 

Male parrotfish are often more brightly coloured than the female – sporting a mixture of radiant blues, greens and yellows, with the odd bit of mauve and orange thrown in for good measure – and they have the odd ability to change sex at different stages of their life: some fish start out female but end up male if there are no boys in their particular school! 

Responsible for a great deal of reef destruction during their lifetime, they are also answerable for producing a lot of sand as well – and that is one of the reasons you are here… 

Some Fishy Friends 

IF YOUR mother was once your grandfather and your present aunt was your former uncle, your sister may well have once been your brother…and no one could blame you for being a little bit confused and thinking you are part of a crazy mixed-up family. 

Do not laugh – it is enough to make a clown cry. And that is the trouble with clownfish: there is a lot to cry over. The fact is, they do not know who they were yesterday, and who they might become tomorrow. 

Clownfish are not only funny, they are downright peculiar: there are no hard and fast rules as to which sex they are or which sex they should stay. 

Sometimes called the anemonefish, this group of colourful little fish live in a symbiotic relationship with anemones on coral reefs all around Alona Beach and were initially all born male, so where the first female came from is like asking if the chicken or the egg came first. 

With 27 different species living in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, they have alternative vertical stripes in various colours, usually white, orange and black, and live and nest inside certain types of anemones, where they are immune from the tentacles - which sting other creatures to death - by producing a mucous covering. Omnivorous, they eat seaweed and plankton organisms that filter through their nest site. 

Getting their name from their colourful stripes, and not their odd behaviour, clownfish live in small groups among anemones with only the dominant male and female mating to produce eggs. 

The largest of any group is always the female, but how they make the choice as to which boy turns into a girl as he/she grows up is again anybody’s guess. It could be that the bigger you are as a boy the more likely you are to turn into a girl in later life…so perhaps the boys had better stick to the diet before they become a she! 

With the eggs laid at the base of the anemone, the character who is lucky enough to be elected male is the one who protects them, but he also has to do the housework and keep the nest clean and flash out at any passing fish or snorkellers who venture too close, often butting into snorkelling masks and trying to bite eyes to ward off any would-be interfering busybodies. 

Although some clownfish seem to have a preference for one particular anemone, others are not quite so choosey and appear to make their home in any convenient clump.

Some Fishy Friends 

ONCE upon a time, there were thriving colonies of turtles in the Philippines. Today they are restricted to one or two lonely islands and, luckily for some of us, we have a few of them around Alona. 

Balicasag, Cabilao and Panglao Islands are places where they can be occasionally found by visiting divers, but too much human habitation and pollution has driven them to find new homes. Rumour has it that they have moved to the northern part of the province where you can still find uninhabited islands with undisturbed sandy shores. 

Unfortunately, you still will not find them every day even in the southern part of Bohol, and there do not seem to be any egg laying sites in the more populated areas, although years ago they used to say that on some full moon nights you could see turtles hanging around Alona Beach longing to lumber onto the sandy shores and dig their nest sites. 

The turtles have almost gone now, but the memory still lingers on…in both turtles and human beings.

Like their land cousins the tortoise, they can lead a long and happy life for more than 100 years if left alone, but the Hawksbill has been hunted for both its meat and its shell in the Philippines, where it was once the most common variety of turtle. 

Protected as an endangered species, it grows to about 36 inches – about the same as its relative, the Loggerhead turtle, which is also found in Philippine waters - before it fully matures, wandering the ocean currents around the islands although calling no particular place ‘home’ as it browses on seaweeds and algae or hunts for squid and crustaceans, especially in the shallows around mangrove swamps and at the edge of reefs. 

Burying their eggs two to three feet deep in sand just above the high water mark, they lay clutches of nearly 50 at a time, leaving the birthing process to nature itself and hoping that the heat of the sun will keep the sand at the right temperature for the embryos to grow. 

Dating from the Triassic period some 245 million years ago, before dinosaurs ruled the earth, the Hawksbill found around the Visayas unfortunately has a carapace of tortoiseshell, or a shield, which is useful for jewellery and this can be burned off for commercial use. 

Growing slowly to some 250 pounds in weight, 116 countries have now banned the use of sea turtle products and impose harsh penalties, but the Hawksbill is still on the edge of extinction. 

Some Fishy Friends 

HUNTING out one particular species of fish and finding out how different they can be in different locations around the Philippines can be one way of getting to know the fish and the islands more intimately at the same time. On the other hand, hunting Ogcocephalidae could drive you batty.

Are you surprised with a scientific name like that? It would even be a wonder if the batfish themselves could pronounce their own name. 

Very little is known about the sex life of batfish – well, only the batfish are interested in that really – but they do have some odd characteristics: their shape, for instance. Although they look streamlined, they are in fact poor swimmers and part of their escape mechanism is to turn on their sides, when they look like a bat, and drift lazily to the sea floor and simply lie there looking like a dead leaf and drifting with the current. 

Another odd thing is that their lower dorsal fins are used as legs: when on sand they propel themselves forward by walking on their two lower fins as they hunt among the seagrass for food.

Inhabiting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the juvenile batfish take up lonely patrols in shallow waters and around mangrove plantations. Their striped features do not show until maturity, which gives the young a dark brown and more leaf-like appearance. Like tigers on land walking in tall grass, their stripes also help to camouflage them when swimming in seagrass. 

Although they do not usually congregate in large shoals, they do make up small groups and can be seen around the 30-meter mark on the edge of coral reefs, and while some species can grow up to 30 cm most are smaller. 

Because of their bony structure and the fact that they have little flesh they are not considered eating fish, but they are hunted for aquariums because of their odd appearance. While it is feasible to keep them when young, they soon outgrown their fish tanks and usually die before reaching maturity, possibly because they do not get enough plankton in their diet. 

Batfish are usually in colours of black, red or brown but can also been seen in shades of pale yellow, all with a stripe across the eye and across the gill and another near the ventricle. Tallfin Batfish in black and white stripes exist all over the Visayas and are easily seen off Moalboal, especially off Talisay Wall, and from the dive shops around Mactan, Malapascua and Negros islands, while other colours exist at Balicasag Island, one of the main diving sites visited daily by the fourteen diving shops operating from Alona Beach. 

Some Fishy Friends 

SOME creatures seem to have lived forever – and that includes the Nautilus, which looks like a primitive underwater spaceship. It began its’ journey into the future some 510 million years ago and is still swimming around the Pacific Ocean, although it is doubtful if it ever reached the depth of twenty thousand leagues (about 100,000 kilometres!) under the sea that Jules Verne’s submarine of the same name is supposed to have achieved! 

That is because the deepest known depth of the seas around us is the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, between the Philippines and Guam, which is 11,033 meters (36,198 feet) down…and the shell of the Nautilus – submarine or shell - would be crushed to pieces. 

Jacques Piccard and his bathyscaphe, the Trieste, together with a few other scientists, popped down for a look-see in 1960 and reported that it was deeper than Mount Everest was high…but no sign of Nautilus. 

But that is probably because nautilus only goes about 600 meters down (2,000 feet) during its daytime dives when it mostly has a nap on the seabed. At night it goes on its’ jet-propelled patrols by forcing water through a funnel looking for a tasty treat of shrimps, fish and algae. 

With two pairs of gills, instead of one, the ancient oddity has 90 tentacles in two rings around the mouth…and hopes that its favourite food will swim into the tentacles as it jets backwards (it’s nice to see where you’ve been, even if you do bump into the odd rock or two!) and gets entangled in the sticky mass because, unlike its relatives the octopus and squid, it has no suckers with which to grip them and slide them towards its’ mouth. 

The poor thing is also almost as blind as a bat because its’ eyes have no lenses: they operate like a simple pinhole camera. 

Growing up to 11 inches in diameter, the coiled shell is made up of compartments filled with nitrogen gas which helps its buoyancy, with the animal vacating its old living quarters inside the shell as it grows, thus adding another gas chamber which compensates for its’ extra weight.

With a bluish blood, four kidneys and four ways to detect underwater smells, it has a reddish stripes and the shell, made up of mother-of-pearl, can withstand fairly deep dives without crushing. It is the only living cephalopod with an external shell, but has no ink sac to aid it in escape attempts. 

Some Fishy Friends 

WHAT do a lion and a scorpion have in common? Answer: they are both fairly deadly to human beings and neither of them lives in the sea around the Philippines 

Do not get too happy about it, though: the lionfish and the scorpion fish do live in the waters around our islands and both can be a pain in the proverbial butt if you encounter them at the wrong moment. In fact, one of their close relatives can actually kill you with just a prick on the sole of the foot, so watch out where you step when you next decide to take an invigorating swim. 

Careful, that odd-looking stone you are about to step on in the sand may be much rockier than you think: it could be the deadly stonefish, the most poisonous creature in the seas around the Philippines…and you thought that was the sea snake? Bristling with its’ own brand of hypodermic needles, the renegade ‘doctor’ injects its’ venom in a split second and is found in almost all oceans of the world, but is far more abundant in the warmer waters of the Pacific. 

While the lionfish – also known as the devil fire-fish - and the scorpion fish can cause a lot of pain and localised swelling for a few days, the stonefish can kill you.

All three of the venomous creatures are part of the same family and there are some 130 species under the innocent-sounding common name of rockfish, but none quite as attractive-looking as the lion and scorpion, both of which sprout fins all around the head and spine area in gaudy reds, an obvious warning to any interloper to keep a safe distance, unless they want to become part of a fish and chip meal without the chips! 

Although none of them are big enough to eat human beings, they are carnivorous - with some of them having the ability to stretch their mouth wide enough to swallow a fish half its’ own size…so the young ones learn to steer clear of mummy and daddy soon after they are born and become skilled at living alone. 

Edible in themselves - if you can find a way to get rid of the spines without being stung yourself - they actually produce live young instead of eggs and live in rocky areas and along reef edges. 

Some Fishy Friends 

IF YOU have to kiss many frogs to find your Prince Charming, make sure the frogs you kiss belong in a fairytale and not at the bottom of the ocean with a different type of tail. 

That is because the frogfish is one ugly-looking creature, and if it turned into a human being you would not give him a second look or the time of day…you would run the other way and hope he did not follow! 

The tale of the tail of the frogfish is a complex one, and they are distantly related to the anglerfish, sea toads and batfishes. They creep around on the ocean floor on modified pectoral fins while searching for food, although in most cases they prefer to sit and wait for food to come to them. With the ability to camouflage themselves to the background when they need to – which makes it difficult for inexperienced divers to see them – they come in a variety of colours. Even their method of catching their prey is different. 

Like the anglerfish, they have a fishing lure, but instead of being external it is in their mouth and wriggles around like an inviting worm. 

As soon as another fish comes close enough to investigate, the mouth extends in one instantaneous split-second and the would-be explorer is swallowed with a swift intake of seawater: sometimes the fish swallowed can be almost as big as the frogfish itself because the frogfish also has the capability of enlarging its’ stomach at the moment of swallowing. 

There are some 260 related fish in all parts of the world but the frogfish family, Antennariidae, is usually about 18 inches long and has few natural enemies – what you cannot see you cannot eat. 

Territorial to a large degree, during the mating season around Alona Beach they become more gregarious and it is then that small groups can often be seen lurking in close proximity to each other as the sex urge overcomes the eat urge. 

The moment of sexual bliss is not all that wonderful either: the male is ten times larger than the female and the parasitic male bites into the neck of the female and hangs on until the circulatory systems of the fish join together…then she has to provide him with his only source of nourishment through her blood until his sexual appetite is sated. 

Yep – who wants to kiss Prince Charming when he turns out to be nothing more than a sex-mad vampire? 

Some Fishy Friends 

IT IS usually the man who leaves the woman when she has an unwanted pregnancy, but in the world of the Hippocampus it is the wife who dumps the babies on the husband and high-tails it past the winning post and into the hills as fast as her little fins will carry her. 

It’s so topsy-turvy in the seahorse world around the Philippines that the male doesn’t just get left holding the baby, he has to act as the mother and father the moment she starts to feel a little bit maternal…the wife promptly squirts her eggs into a pouch on his abdomen and says: “Hey, you wanted ‘em – so you can fertilize ‘em and keep ‘em!” 

For the next few weeks the male has to sit around with his tail wrapped around a piece of coral while the eggs attach themselves to the abdominal wall for their nourishment.

He then sits and watches his stomach swell and wriggle about until, in the end, he ejects his sons and daughters out of house and home and tells them to go and find a life: so much for the kids being the wife’s responsibility, eh? 

Despite this, the seahorse is monogamous and stays with his partner for the rest of his life, which is why they are usually spotted hanging around in pairs like a couple of lovebirds cooing on a branch.

Found in shallow seas and in sea grass and mangrove areas and around reefs of certain corals – especially the Hippocampus bargibanti, the pygmy seahorse which can be found in various locations in the Visayas region in similar-coloured corals – the elongated snout makes it look like a horse, while the almost transparent fins look like fast-fluttering angels wings. 

Some 30 species are found worldwide and the elongated body appears to be a compressed series of bony plates supporting a series of spines and fins and come from the pipefish family, which shares the same style of marsupial ‘kangaroo pouch’ method of reproduction. 

Although they can move in a fish-like way with their elongated body and prehensile tail stretched out behind them, short journeys are taken in a slow upright position: their food is thought to be minute crustaceans growing on the corals. 

Believed by the Chinese and Japanese to be aphrodisiacs, at one time the Philippines was the world’s biggest exporter of dried seahorses for medicinal and jewellery purposes with most of the product coming from the Cebu region. 

Some Fishy Friends 

SOMETIMES called the robber crab – because he nips in and steals your home if you pop next door for a bite to eat with the neighbours – the Hermit crab can be found all across the world.

But the largest are found in the Pacific region, which means the Philippines, and can grow up to 18 inches…if they can find a shell that is large enough to accommodate their ever-growing body. 

In total, there are something like 1,400 types of hermit crabs and their allies – which includes the most powerful crab, the land-based coconut crab, which can crack a coconut shell with its’ claws – while the true underwater crab numbers 4,500.

Without any type of armour on the soft part of their bodies from the ‘neck’ downwards to the tail, their bodies form a spiral shape inside their latest home with the final twist taking a grip to stop them being pulled out. 

The front part of the hermit crab is heavily armoured and in many species one claw is enlarged and is drawn back into the shell to form a seal when they are disturbed…but you can get them to crawl halfway out if you are prepared to risk getting nipped: blow gently across the claw and watch the crab emerge to find out what the devil is going on! 

Moulting every few months, these members of the decapod family are constantly seeking newer and bigger shells and rivalry can lead to one-armed boxing matches between the contenders. 

With the ability to grow another claw or leg should they lose the fight for a desirable apartment, they walk and feed by extending their antennae, retractable eyes, claws and two pairs of legs from the mouth of the shell and scuttling sideways: they also have fewer legs than their land cousins. Although dragging their home behind them, they can almost walk up vertical walls. 

With compound eyes and strong senses of taste and smell, even underwater, some hermit crabs live inland, except when breeding, and have gill chambers, which function like lungs, giving them the ability to live out of water for weeks on end. 

Unfortunately for the hermit crab, the un-armoured soft tail is especially edible and delicious to other marine life - which is why they are often broken out of their homes by anglers who use the tail as bait to catch bigger fish. 

Some Fishy Friends 

IT IS an undisputed fact of existence – whether we like it or not – that we are all garbage eaters: we all eat something that something else has thrown away as useless. Since matter cannot be created or destroyed, we have all been eating the same thing over and over again since time began…and we are all part of the recycling chain.

In that sense, we are all dung-eaters. 

Not to worry: it all tastes pretty good, especially when it is in shrimp form – and they eat almost everything that every other sea creature has thrown away (as well as us landlubbers who dump everything we do not want into everyone their back garden in the first place). 

Unless cooked, shrimps are usually transparent, green or brown in their internal body colouration, although the outer casing of the crustacean may show a variety of striking colours in its’ natural environment. In close-up it is possible to see the internal workings of organs in the body, like the heart beating and the ‘blood’ moving in veins. 

Unfortunately for some people, these little sea creatures are rich in cholesterol, as are squid, so people with heart and stroke problems are not advised to eat them in large quantities. The same goes for their bigger friends, prawns and lobsters. 

Feeding mostly on small animals and plants, they are also apt to be scavengers, having a quick nibble on detritus dropped by other creatures. The cleaner shrimp makes its living by picking parasites and dead skin off the gills and mouth           of a variety of fishes and even have regular ‘surgeries’ with patients waiting in line for their services. 

Ranging in size from small insects to 8 inches long, they differ from their prawn and lobster cousins by not having pincers. A few are free swimming in the ocean, but most are bottom dwellers and can be found three miles deep.

Moving rapidly and suddenly backwards as a means of locomotion, they achieve this by contracting and expanding their stomach muscles in rapid succession – the bit we humans eat.

It is thought there are some 2,000 varieties of shrimp in the sea, but recent investigations by marine scientists around Alona Beach and Panglao Island have discovered unknown species of the decapoda family, to which shrimps – with eight pairs of ‘feelers’ on the front of the thorax -  belong. 

Some Fishy Friends 

NEVER stick your hand in a hole you have not explored first with your flashlight. On land you could be bitten by a sleeping snake, in the sea it could be one of his non-related look-alikes – because both of them like to hole up in comfortable dark places. 

The seas of the Philippines abound with the snake-like creatures and – ignoring the poisonous banded sea snakes – some of them can grow to 9 foot long with a head containing needle-sharp teeth, which could bite your fingers off: meet the conger eel of the South China Sea. 

There are something like 600 species worldwide that snake along the bottom on their bottoms because they only have small gill fins, a thin dorsal fin and sometimes a fish-like tail for movement: they rely on a wriggling motion for propulsion, aided in the process by the slimy mucus that coats their mostly scale less skin and turns them into the slippery customer that we all know. They are, however, very lithe and strong swimmers. 

In fact, the sea-snake is the enemy of eels and other elongated fish as it hunts them for dinner, paralysing them with its’ venom before swallowing.

Mostly hiding in cracks and crevices on shallow reefs, conger and moray eels sport a fascinating range of colours and patterns: moray eels can grow up to 10 foot long with bodies the thickness of an arm. 

Moray eels tend to feed at night on other fish and molluscs and have elongated sharp teeth and, although they do not normally attack humans, can do serious damage if they are provoked or feel threatened in their lair. 

What divers call garden eels burrow in sandy areas with their head and most of the body waving in the motion of the water as they catch passing prey: there are sometimes so many in one particular area that they look like a patch of seagrass itself. 

Both conger and moray eel are edible, but they have a tough and rubbery skin that needs to be peeled away from the meat either before or after cooking. Basically, they contain only a spinal cord of vertebrae with very few small fish-like bones and are considered a delicacy in some countries. 

Some Fishy Friends 

SOME of the most colourful fish in the world are also the smallest, but comprise one of the biggest fish species – and a lot of them live close to where you are right now in the Philippines.

A favourite of seawater fish tank owners because of their bright and varied colours and sizes, the goby inhabits freshwater lakes, ponds and the seas around the area and boasts 1,500 related species of fish – and the two smallest are Philippine born and bred, both of them in the volcanic Lake Taal just south of Manila. 

Classified as a pygmy goby, the smaller of the two measures 1.3 cm long (half an inch) while the slightly larger is regarded as a staple food of superior delicacy by people living around the lake. The only problem is that it takes 30,000 fish to make up 454 grams (16 ounces), enough for one good meal. 

Most gobies bury themselves in mud, sand and loose gravel, popping only half of their bodies out of their holes to take a look around and feed, using their mouths as shovels to excavate their ‘nest’ site and keep the area free of debris. 

Around the diving spots on the islands of Negros, Cebu and Bohol there are several hundred varieties, some of them making their homes inside living coral sponges. 

Patience and stealth is needed when trying to photograph any of the goby family as they shoot back into their holes at the slightest disturbance: it is best to go hunting for them using diving re-breather equipment since it produces fewer bubbles and less sound than conventional gear. 

During the breeding season, the female attaches her eggs to plants and rocks near the hole and the male stands guard until the fry hatch and become independent. Often two or three gobies will take up residence in the same hole and share the housekeeping duties. 

In the same family of Gobiidae are the Asian mudskippers, which can exist out of water for several days at a time and are mostly found living in mangrove areas and other muddy domains. 

Flipping over by using their tail as a springboard, they can leap forward by up to a meter to escape any threat and can retract their stalk-like eyes to re-moisten the lenses: it also uses its’ pectoral fins as legs to walk across mud banks. 

Some Fishy Friends 

KNOWN worldwide for its abundance of fish, Panglao Island is home to one of the biggest fish alive, the whale shark, which can grow to more than 50 feet and weigh up to 18 tonnes. In general, however, they are much smaller. 

Now classified as an Endangered Species and once more common around Pamilacan Island, which actually gets its name from the fishing hook which locals used in times past to catch them, it is one of nine species of marine mammals, which were sighted around Panglao Island during the Bohol Marine Triangle Project survey. 

Of the nine different mammals seen - especially around the nearby islands of Pamilacan and Balicasag - bottlenose and long-snouted spinner dolphins were the more frequently sighted in the deeper waters of the area, but also included were Risso’s dolphins, Fraser’s dolphins and pantropical dolphins, which are often seen by visitors. 

Surprisingly, whale species were more abundant and included the short-finned pilot whale, the melon-headed whale, Blainville whale, Bryde’s whale and the giant sperm whale, which migrates to mating and calving grounds near the Equator and then back to higher latitudes for feeding: mature females grow to some 12 meters (39ft) while mature males can grow to 18 meters (58ft). 

Only recently one 22ft sperm whale got itself caught in a fishing net close to Doljo Beach, but after suitable treatment for minor wounds was maneuvered into deeper water and set free by local divers and boatmen. 

Commercial fishing boats around the islands of Panglao, Balicasag and Pamilacan “disturbs them and poses a threat to their lives” says the BMT report, which also cites tanker and ferry traffic, as well as some dive banca and pleasure craft plying between the islands to dive sites, as posing a menace to their future existence if great care is not taken when taking tourists out for whale and dolphin-watching. 

Some Fishy Friends 

SAY the world shark and most people will say that it sends a shiver up their spine: it is synonymous with evil. On Panglao, it brings out something different...visitors. Everyone who goes diving wants to have the ultimate experience of being face-to-face with a big shark and living to tell the tale in embellished detail, and on Panglao you can get close to the ultimate experience. 

There was once a report that a Great White longer than a banca was spotted off Balicasag Island close to the surface...but no one knows if this was before or after the July fiesta on the island! Maybe Panglao cannot give you a Great Barrier Reef experience, but we can probably - it depends on the time of year and the temperature of the water - treat you to the sight of a hammerhead shark, and even a shoal or two. 

Hammerhead Point off Doljo Beach is where shoals have been found at about 35 meters in February and March, plus some accompanying barracudas that could either have been an escort team dinning on the leftovers or teatime treat for the sharks themselves. 

This is practically a drop-off with many different kinds of hard and soft corals and their associated kindergarten fish kids, and eagle rays have been seen on the same dive as hammerheads. 

Although beginners can dive off the reef, it is better for experienced divers because of the depth that you have to go to look for the sharks, some of which turn out to be white tip and black tip.  

There is even a suggestion that dive shops might introduce some juvenile white and black tip sharks to regenerate the local population along the House Reef at Alona Beach, where there are already some youngsters at play. 

No one can guarantee finding a hammerhead shark on any dive, but they seem to make a beeline for Panglao waters...sometimes with one or two thresher sharks at the same time which make their way across the bay to the Cathedral dive site at Balicasag. 

In the same way, they usually make regular appearances at Cabilao Island on the Cebu side of Bohol before appearing at Doljo and shoals of twenty or more have been sighted at certain locations by dive boats visiting from Panglao. 

It appears that all the sharks that cruise the waters of Panglao are following a ‘fish highway’ from distant Luzon toward a summer holiday destination on the Equator somewhere around Borneo. 

As their normal prey follows the same route each year, it seems a fairly logical conclusion, but it needs a brave man or woman to try and tag them to really find out: could that be you? 

Some Fishy Friends 

PANGLAO has been revealed as one of the ‘hot spots’ in the world for several creatures, with scientists working for the Bohol Marine Triangle project counting 1,200 species of decapods (ten-legged creatures like shrimps, prawns and crabs) and so far between 4,000 and 6,000 mollusks (as well as normal shells, this also includes hundreds of brightly-colored sea slugs or nudibranch). 

By comparison, the Mediterranean Sea only has 340 species of decapods and 2,024 species of mollusks. It is believed that Panglao may have up to 250 new species of crustacean and nearly 2,000 new species of mollusks. 

One new species of stone crab was collected in a trap that was located just 20 meters in front of Panglao Beach itself, so you could easily find yourself looking at a strange creature from the underwater world for the first time when you visit one of the many resorts around the island. 

Another one of the discoveries of the team was a minute species of gastropod — only measuring 3-4mm — which scientists have only known for about 20 years from empty shells found in various sites in the tropical seas of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

The characteristics of the shell indicate that it probably represents a new family which dates from the Jurassic Period, some 200 million years ago, since it is similar to other Jurassic fossils. 

The survey team also discovered that the second most commonly caught shell was one with the Latin name of Conus gloriamaris, which is a rare and expensive shell sought by collectors around the world. 

That means that you could go home after a holiday on Alona Beach and end up being richer!                            

Diving around Alona 

WITH FIFTEEN scuba diving shops on Alona Beach, what the dive instructors and guides do not know about fish around Panglao Island is not worth knowing. But the fact is, every day they are learning more about the unique underwater world around them. 

With 23 regular dive sites which can be easily reached from Alona Beach (and quite a few more if sites which can be reached on dive safaris to places like the smaller islands around Cebu, Apo Island, Negros and Siquijor are included) without visiting the northern parts of Bohol itself - which contains the largest manmade mangrove plantation in the Far East and a largely unexplored double barrier reef – it’s not really a surprise. 

Best-known of the dive sites is probably Balicasag Island, because here shoals of jackfish and barracudas in their thousands swim among divers all day as they circle against the sun looking for their lunch. 

The almost circular island is so teeming with fish that the five regular dive sites used do themselves form a complete circle of the island itself, covering the Black Forest, Diver’s Heaven, Cathedral, Rico’s Wall and Rudy’s Rock. 

The deepest point is reached at the wall dive of Cathedral, which runs from three meters to 45 meters and is about a 30-minute banca ride from Alona Beach itself. 

It provides the best barracuda sightings, while the Black Forest - named because of the corals - going to 40 meters is described as the island aquarium with aggressive triggerfish guarding their nests from May to July and a collection of groupers. 

The jackfish hangout is around Rudy’s Rock and Rico’s Wall, while Diver’s Heaven is the place where most turtles are seen among the rainbow palette of other fish schools which use the island as a playground. 

Look toward Panglao itself and you will see Pungtod and Gak-ang islands, while in the other direction is Pamilacan Island and the underwater shoal of Snake Island. 

As its’ name implies, this is the home and breeding place of the black-and-white banded sea-snake, and because it is in open water the area often has a strong current. 

It is usually one of the stopping points on the way to Pamilacan but can be combined with an early morning dolphin-hunting trip since one of the favourite routes of spinner dolphin and Risso’s dolphins early in the morning is in the blue between Balicasag and Pamilacan. You can see the route at night from Alona because it is lit up by fishing boats which are strung out across the horizon like a highway in the sea from Panglao to Balicasag. 

In the past, the island was noted for the number of whale sharks in its’ vicinity and got its name from the ‘pilak,’ the large hook fishermen formerly used to catch them. 

While whalesharks are rarer these days, they still migrate between the island and Panglao itself, as do a number of manta ray. In fact, the island is noted for 11 species of whale and dolphin, including on occasions the giant sperm whale. 

Coming closer to Panglao itself there are a total of 11 ‘normal’ dive sites just a few minutes away by boat. 

While not a lot of fuss is made about it on the beach – because of misconceptions by the non-diving general public – there are even a few sharks around, although they are usually too small to cause any worry and are not in the swimming areas. 

White tip and hammerhead sharks can be seen in their season – usually between February and April - along with some reef sharks around Doljo Point. There are also many giant sea fans and a great selection of corals, including green leather and elephant ear. 

Around the corner – across the shallow Panglao Bay – is a wreck sunk by one of the dive shops at 35 meters which attracts lionfish and some giant anglerfish, as well as many types of cardinals in the wreck itself. 

Royal blue corals – and even purple – can be found at Kalipayan, along with some table corals. It is also a good place to see several types of pipefish, while not far away is the dive site with beautiful coral gardens and two types of sand eels swaying in the tide – a great place for night diving. 

In front of the resorts at Alona is the house reef, just 120 meters from the shore and diving to depths of between 13 and 22 meters: it’s a great place to do some quick night diving to see a wide selection of nudibranch, for which Panglao is becoming famous among macro-photographers, and coral fish which pop out after sundown to run the nightshift before a night on the town...a night on the town for you, that is! 

Stretching for nearly the whole length of the southern shore of Panglao Island as it faces across the sea to Mindanao, the reef is a haven for marine life and is inside the Bohol Marine Triangle, which has been singled out as one of the true ecological gems of the Philippines and is worthy of preservation. 

Although the corals above the reef and along the shore have suffered a great deal of anchor damage over the years, it is still a good snorkelling area and great for introductory dives and check-ups: the top of the reef is only an average five meters down and at extremely low tides is often exposed. 

This five-meter zone is always awash with sergeant major fish and a host of small reef fish like Purple Queen Anthias, Moorish Idols and Regal Angel fish. It is also the gathering ground of young barracudas. 

Ten minutes away by boat is one of the favourite dive sites and it is directly in front of Bohol Beach Club. Two jeepney wrecks have been dropped at ten meters and are still picking up passengers from the underwater world, even if they are rusting away at the same time. 

Nearby there are a great many colourful nudibranches munching the algae and just waiting around to be photographed. In this area also are many gastropods and decapods, some of which are claimed to be new to marine science and are still being classified. 

Best of all, this is the area in which to find the Brown Daisy corals where some of the many pygmy seahorses (Hippocampus barganti) found around Panglao hang out in their spare time. 

If not, pop along to the next dive site at Arco Point which has several caves – including one large one with White-eyed moray eels inside - and an overhang. 

Neptune’s world here is teeming with fish and is one of the areas where divers can get experience of fish feeding.