The Philippine island of Bohol isn’t one with a lot of international name recognition — yet. Just ninety minutes by ferry from bustling Cebu City, or a cheap one-hour flight from Manila, it’s nonetheless often overlooked by underwater enthusiasts, who flock to better-known dive spots like Thailand’s Ko Tao and Indonesia’s Gili Trawangan.
Despite the lack of mainstream cachet, however, Bohol’s been gaining a steady buzz amongst hard-core divers for years, and when the opportunity came for a weeklong whirlwind tour of the island’s underwater wonders, I put sleep on the back burner and jumped in with both feet.
Day One: Anda
A two-hour drive from the airport at Tagbilaran City, the undeveloped Anda peninsula lies on the far southeastern edge of the island. After checking into bungalow six overlooking the ocean from the cliff top at Bluestar Dive Resort, I grab a snorkel and head with the resort’s small outrigger bangka to the Marine Sanctuary dive site just around the rocky headlands.
The shallow reef shows scars of old damage, but is now recovering nicely with a mixture of mostly healthy hard and soft corals that slope off gradually to around twenty-five feet. I practice my freediving skills here along the drop-off. Trying to get my breath-holding chops back, I spot huge-eyed gobies, pissed-off pufferfish and –yes! — even a dazzling mandarinfish, its colors like a psychedelic vision against the deep blue of the depths.
Day Two: Leyte
I’m up and onto the resort’s large ocean-going outrigger before dawn, motoring four hours across the Bohol Sea to the southwest coast of the island of Leyte. Here we’re hoping to rendezvous with the world’s largest fish — the majestic whale shark.
It’s midmorning when the spotter on our boat finally sights the dark shape of a 23-foot juvenile beneath the waves. I splash into the water like a wounded duck, suddenly finding myself face to face with the shark’s gigantic mouth. Now, when I say ‘gigantic’, I’m aware that I may not be adequately describing what that means. Think ‘swallow a compact car’ gigantic, or ‘dismember a baby elephant’ gigantic. Fortunately, the whale shark is a gentle filter-feeder, and it just slides on past, tame as a housecat, its enormous grey-and-white-spotted body generating a wash of pressure as it passes. This, I think, is the kind of experience bucket lists were made for. As we motor back to Anda in the equatorial sunset, livid as a prizefighter’s bruise, I find myself having to quote Ice Cube: today was most definitely a good day.
Days Three and Four: Cabilao
Early morning of the third day sees me en-route to remote Cabilao Island off Bohol’s northwest coast, via a series of random inland stop-offs across the vast interior. The inland attractions (like the Chocolate Hills and a tarsier sanctuary) are merely so-so. But Cabilao itself is idyllic. I cross the narrow channel on a tiny boat, then hitch a motorcycle ride to Forsing Cottages on the island’s western beach, thinking that the word ‘unspoiled’ was made for places like this. There are only four small diving outfits on rural little Cabilao, and with the wandering goats and rutted dirt lanes, it feels like the perfect place to go ‘off the map.’
The next morning I’m back in the water, swimming for hours along the wall of the house reef just offshore and pushing my freedives down to 15 meters. The reef is slightly depopulated, a casualty of years of fine-net and cyanide fishing on the island. But in the afternoon, I get a surprise: a glimpse of deepwater fishes (sharks from Hammerhead Point just to the north?!) faraway in the depths.
Days Five and Six: Panglao, Balicasag and Pamilacan Islands
Another early morning and off to Alona Beach on Panglao Island, connected to the mainland of southwest Bohol by a short bridge. Anda and Cabilao might be places to get far from the madding crowd, but Alona is the polar opposite — Bohol’s party spot and tourist center, heavily populated and boasting countless bars, restaurants (CU Restaurant — yum!) and beachfront nightlife. My room at the Alona Tropical Beach Resort is slightly pokey, but I’m only there for a moment before it’s off across the water to the tiny coral-fringed dot of Balicasag Island 45 minutes to the southwest.
Balicasag is Bohol’s most famous dive spot, and unfortunately it shows. The shallows of the marine sanctuary just offshore are crammed with two dozen small boats and their visitors from Alona, and the corals are dead, bleached and beat-up — the price of popularity the world over. Luckily, the tourist hordes won’t venture into the deeper water above the dropoff, where the reef is much healthier, and over the course of the morning I spot a juvenile barracuda, a sea turtle and a wriggling sea-snake (thankfully at some distance).
The following morning is even better, as I head at sunrise to the waters off Pamilacan Island, an hour to the southeast. There, huge pods of cheeky dolphins congregate, following our boat for nearly an hour and launching themselves into the air in increasingly incredible and acrobatic maneuvers.
Pamilacan Island itself, where we stop for lunch, is gorgeous — a rocky teardrop of reef-fringed beaches which, despite being only slightly further from the mainland than Balicasag, receives almost no foreign visitors. I swim out from the beach with a snorkel in my mouth, marveling at some of the richest waters I’ve seen yet, full of urchins, starfish and gigantic healthy corals surrounded by galaxies of reef fish.
Here, I’m all alone; there’s not another diver or snorkeler to be seen. This is the final dive of my week, though, and as such it’s bittersweet. Visibility at the drop-off is at least 20 meters, and sunlight shoots in bright rays to the distant bottom, lighting up colorful damselfish, triggerfish, wrasses, parrotfish and clownfish as they browse amongst the vivid anemones and corals growing on the underwater cliffs. I’m tired and ready to head back to the beach when I catch a bright flash of motion — a school of huge jackfish, hundreds of them, swirling like a silver whirlwind. If I weren’t already holding it, I think it would take my breath away.
And just like that, the next morning it’s goodbye Bohol and back to Manila. “The world is a book,” wrote St. Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only one page.” Very true, I realize. But if the last week in Bohol has taught me anything, it’s this: if you want to read some of the world’s most amazing pages, come to the Philippines, and pack a snorkel.
Writer, photographer, and longtime meditator, Matthew Crompton (winner of the 2013 Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing) has at various times called San Francisco, Seoul and Sydney home, though he believes that for sheer variety, nothing compares to life on the open road. His travels and published work now span the globe, from Guatemala to Europe, Russia and an assortment of destinations across Africa, Asia and the Pacific.