Pacificklaus Island Review: Camiguin

On the north side of the large Philippine island of Mindanao lies much smaller Camiguin, a green spot in the Bohol sea, and almost the archetypical tropical island paradise. It has it all: several cloud-covered volcano peaks, stunning coral reefs and enigmatic historical sites. The people of Camiguin speak Visayan, as on the island to Camiguin’s northwest. As in all of the Philippines, folks also speak at least reasonable English and they are friendly and easy-going. A couple of people jokingly offered to hook me up with a new girlfriend, and one market lady laughed wile offering to get me in touch with a potential boyfriend. And all I really wanted was some pineapple!

I hiked up one of the volcanoes of Camiguin, mount Hibok Hibok. I think I am in reasonable shape: I usually train a few times a week, even if it is mostly strength training, and not cardio. And even cardio-wise, I walk a lot, and occasionally go for long ocean swims. Still, Hibok Hibok kicked my lobot (ass). My guide was a small dude in his 50s, one of these guys with veins running all across his legs. He was moving a bit faster than myself. The hike led us through tropical agricultural areas with coconuts and banana plants, then into a low-land rain forest, and then into some magnificent highland rain forest. The vegetation was so dense that we had to push it aside on some parts of the track. Mosses were hanging from the trees like the beards of old very old men. Birds were singing, but rarely seen in the dense forest. Just from the fog I was completely soaking wet.

After about 5 hours of hiking up through steep muddy narrow paths, we reached the caldera of the volcano, which was mostly filled with a lake. We rested and ate. One minute the sky was clear and sunny, only minutes later clouds dropped in from over the crater’s edge and filled the whole caldera. What a spectacle! When the skies were clear again, I could observe a young fishing eagle hunt for frogs in the volcanic lake.

After the hike I was about as exhausted as I had ever been. I had fallen about then times on the slippery way back. My legs felt like sour lead. In my 20s, the American Football team I was playing on had not enough linemen, so I played offensive and defensive line during one game held in the intense summer heat. In the third quarter I collapsed from overheating, took a few plays off, put my helmet back on and finished the game. I had two sacks in that game and allowed none myself. I was more exhausted after the Hibok Hibok hike than after that game.

There are public hot springs in Camiguin, in a wonderful open air setting with tropical tree giants on the slope of the volcanic mountains. The hot springs are a fun place to chill, even though they are not particularly hot.

Also definitely worth checking out: A church, destroyed by a volcanic eruption, now overgrown by tropical vegetation. It looks like right out of the Indiana Jones movie. There is also a via dolorosa, Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion, re-done with life-sized concrete models of Jesus, the Romans, Pontius Pilatus ect. All of that is set on the slopes of a walk up an older, lower volcano. A bit tacky, for my taste, some of the Roman Legionaries look stoned or on downers. But it’s certainly a unique thing to see, some Middle Eastern fable happening all over again on a Pacific volcano. These are the things which make the Philippines so charming: islands not only have pretty beaches and great reefs, but often unique bits of local history and natural history.

Dazed looking Roman.

The diving in Camiguin is quite superb: extensive, healthy hard coral reefs, populated by a large variety of fishes. I was especially taken by the diversity of the wrasses and damselfish playing between the abundant finger corals. The marine co-system is what could be called mildly disturbed: no masses of sharks like on completely pristine reefs (but that is rare on Planet Earth in the Anthropocene), but very diverse corals, diverse fish, and lots of medium-sized predators like snappers and emperors. Turtles, too.

There is a sunken cemetery, which slipped into the ocean during the 1871 volcanic eruption on Camiguin. It’s a top dive site, but none of the gravestones are visible anymore. A stone cross was sank at a later time, and the corals have also started to overgrow it. A large cross, above the water, on a small artificial island just off the coast commemorates the location of the cemetery.

I originally had planned to dive with Dive Special Camiguin, but the owner who was supposed to dive with me got sick and was so friendly to hook me up on short notice with Johnny’s. A good dive operation; we did long, relaxed dives, and they picked me up from my accommodation by boat.

I stayed with July’s Seaside Heaven, which is a very friendly budget place right by the sea. They own a Palawan Hill Mynah bird which would say “guapo” (handsome) when I walked by. Clever bird. There are also a number of up-market places available.

I was mainly spending time in the barangai (district) Yumbing, where my accommodation was located, and I didn’t find anything special dining-wise. That might be better in the main town of the island. The traditional little corner barbecues were just fine, though, if you like bbqued chicken, which I do.

Camiguin gets a Pacificklaus island rating of 4.26 out of 5 gobies.

If you would like to tag on a visit to Camiguin after a stay with us at Amotillado, we’ll be happy to make the arrangements for you. Since Cebu is both a convenient hub to reach Dumaguete and Camiguin, a visit towards the end or in the beginning of your vacation makes sense. The flight from Cebu City, with Cebu Pacific, is scheduled for 50 minutes, but curiously only takes about half that time. Happy diving!

Philippines!

Big Move! Big news! I’m off to another country again! I’m moving to Dauin/Dumaguete on the Philippine island of Negros, to the lovely Amontillado Resort. I’ll be taking care of the guests and teaching scuba courses. Dauin is one of the best diving locations I have been to, and I have been to many. Nearby Apo island has one of the healthiest and most diverse coral reefs I have seen. I found working in scuba tourism a positive experience during the last few years when I did it casually, it often really is like going for a dive with old and new friends. I also think that eco-tourism is a force for the good, since it creates economic chances for the local population and an incentive for them to protect the environment.

First shot since coming back to the Philippines.

University employment just isn’t a good deal anymore. I found that between the pressure to obtain external funding and an absurdly overblown bureaucracy, less and less time and energy were left for actual science. Add to that an absence of job security and very mediocre pay, and it was the highest time to leave. Reasoning about biology is not dependent on university employment, and it will be much more enjoyable to do that on a tropical island outside of the corrupt system of modern academia. I will have a new scientific affiliation, my mate Jay’s independent research institute Neurolinx. Good times!

See you in the Philippines, where it is more fun!

Pacificklaus reviews Cebu Pacific Airlines

Cebu Pacific, a low cost carrier, has recently started flying to Australia, which is great news, since that means that my Oz friends will be able to visit me for less, and I will once in a while be able to go back to Sydney for a reasonable price. A friend of mine got a return flight Sydney – Dumaguete for 350A$ in a sale!

The international flight had no in-flight entertainment on the seat backs, which is ok, since I rather have a cheap fare than a lot of Hollywood mass entertainment on my fingertips. The seats were basic, but there was enough space (even for the powerlifting Pacificklaus), and everyone in the plane and on the ground was friendly. The food cost extra (but not much, and I could have booked it), and was also basic: rice dishes, cup noodles and chips, but again, I’d rather get a cheap airfare than a pseudo gourmet meal! Nothing wrong with cup noodles, it brings back grad student days.

A bit funny: For the international flight I had to check in my camera bag, since only 7 kg of carry-on were allowed, and they were quite strict about that. For the domestic flight I had to rearrange again, since the rules for carry-on were relaxed this time, but I had not had the possibility on the webpage to book for more than 20 kg of check in when making the online-booking. Oh, well. Again, only a minor inconvenience for a really chap fare.

Flight attendants: 10.26/11 on the Pacificklaus scale for female hotness (which of course goes to 11). Little goddesses, especially on the domestic flight. The uniforms of Singapore Air are more elegant, though, that cost them a few fractions of a point. At the end of the flight they staged a quiz show where we passengers could win airline merchandise. The ladies really had a good time playing quiz mistresses. It’s more fun even on the way to the Philippines!

Image by Cebu Pacific.

Else: In the 5 years since I have been coming to the Philippines, the airports have come a long way. It used to be that international flights left & arrived at Ninoi Aquino International Airport, terminal 1, which is a noisy, unpleasant large hall with no coffee. From there one had to take a shuttle bus or taxi through the city to go to the domestic terminals. With Cebu Pacific, both international and domestic flights arrive & leave from the new and shiny terminal 3, with lots of quality gastronomy and places to sit down. The lack of need of a dash across Manila reduces the thrilla but makes traveling more comfortable.

Equally, the airport in Cebu City (Mactan) has improved from a somewhat filthy place with shady characters hawking taxis to a really nice & clean small airport. When I arrived this time, a group of teenagers did a welcome dance performance, and smiling employees of the airport handed out tasty chocolates with dried mango chunks. Nice!

Obituary to my 5 mm wetsuit

With great anguish and constipation do I have to announce that my 5 mm wetsuit today left the ranks of the diving. No longer does it submerge with me. It has ceased.

I bought the wetsuit in 2008, in Sydney, on a visit from my then place of residence in Japan, where the scuba retailers do not stock neoprene fashion for grown men. The friendly people at Plunge Diving sold this beauty to me: black, 5 mm thick neoprene, and at XXL wide enough to fit all my muscles and the occasional fat cell into it.

So many dives have we dived together: Many of them in Sydney, right after the 5 mm purchase in Clifton Gardens. Later, many more in Clifton Gardens. Also, I took it to the monument and the steps in Kurnell, to many night dives in Botany Bay, and to Ship Rock off the Hacking river. Nelson Bay saw a lot of me in this great 5mm.

Together we dived the kelp in La Jolla, Cahli-Fornia, Southwest Rocks in Northern NSW, and the Rapid Bay Jetty in South Australia. In the middle of the Sydney summer I would occasionally ditch it for a 3 mm, and in the coldest winter days for a dry suit. But none of these other suits fit my physique like this 5 mm. It was a special wetsuit for sure.

IMAG0955

But by late 2014 the neoprene had eroded, and many holes let the seawater flow onto my sensitive skin underneath. An especially big hole near the ass region provided an inflow of ocean water, and caused a never ending series of jokes at my cost. And in the Philippines I won’t need such a thick suit anyway, seriously! So the wetsuit had to go. After a brief ceremony it found its final resting place in a rubbish bin in Rockdale.

May my late 5 mm find a worthy warrior in Valhalla (a XXL sized dead dude) who wants to give scuba diving a try!

More Absurd Antiscientific Beliefs

We live in times of unprecedented scientific progress. The workings of distant planets, the most elementary particles, the DNA in our cells and the information processing in our brains are all understood to an astonishing level. Not every scientific question is answered of course, and answers often gave rise to more questions. Scientific theories sometimes get revised, but many of them have supreme predictive power in the 21st century. Science ain’t perfect, but what we know now and what we can do with this knowledge is utterly astonishing in comparison to humanity’s state of knowledge only 10 generations ago.

But unfortunately not all of humanity is participating in this enormous gain in knowledge. Many findings have become difficult to understand, and people want simple answers. Not everybody has the intelligence, education and leisure to acquire advanced knowledge about the workings of the world. And people often vehemently resist believing in facts which are counter to their religious beliefs or would force them to reconsider their life styles.

Denial of anthropogenic climate change, evolution, and the moon landing, and a belief that the condensation trails of airplanes are mind-control tools are well known examples of absurd anti-scientific beliefs. But let me introduce a few more, albeit lesser known anti-science conspiracy theories:

Whale Shark Denialism

Whale shark: whale or shark? Scientists agree that it’s a shark, but an increasingly vocal group of whale shark deniers, with ample support of the corporate media, claim that the issue is not settled and that it might as well be a whale. Whale sharks have gills like sharks, a cartilaginous skeleton like sharks, a shark nervous system and a shark skin. “But this is simply the opinion of the scientific establishment”, said Peter O. Daneben, spokesperson of the whale shark sceptic’s movement and prolific blogger & newspaper columnist. “I am keeping an open mind here” he added.

Whale or shark? Not everyone agrees.

Anti-Toilet Paper Movement

Everyone does it, almost every day: take a shit. Many people then clean their asses with some toilet paper. But: God does not want us to use toilet paper. Two thousand years ago, when god spoke to his people, there was no toilet paper, so it would be blasphemy to use it now. Anyone who uses it will surely go to hell (at least with a clean ass, I might add).

Railroad ESP Conspiracy

Almost every country in this day and age has a network of rail lines. But why? Everyone knows that it’s so much faster and convenient to get to places with your car than by train. The answer is that rail lines act as conductors for extra-sensory perception (ESP) by government specialists who in this way can exert mind-control power even into the most remote corners of a country. ESP power is usually limited to a few hundred meters, but the energy forms involved can travel almost infinitely far along metal rods.

A clear indication for this is also that many rail lines are not private property, but state owned. This almost automatically makes them a communist conspiracy, and hence a mind control tool. What more proof do you need for the rail’s function as ESP conductors?

Ion Channel Denialism

This is a rather sophisticated conspiracy theory: a type of ignorance contingent upon a lot of previous education. All of neuroscience agrees that ion channel proteins in the membranes of nerve cells are responsible for the fast electric activity these cells show. A few Nobel prizes were given for work on ion channel proteins. All of neuroscience agrees on their importance, but for one guy – this is not the most popular conspiracy theory yet. He claims steadily that proteins have nothing to do with nerve cells’ electrical potentials, and that it’s the movement of lipid molecules which does it.

Does one of these movements actually exist? Guess which one, and win a copy of my psychedelic political parody set in a globally warmed future, The Mindpost. The first two correct answers win.

Philippines Trip Report, William S. Boroughs Style

The airport: hungry flying centipedes swallowing innocent (?) travelers by the hundreds. Ultra hot air spewn from its jet engines for 8 hours straight to Singapore. So many status symbol smelly waters electronic gadgets leathery handbags for sale between the terminals: who needs that? Four more hours in the belly of the flying aluminum centipede, and then, Cebu City, pearl of the South, here I am. No diving yet but jiving about diving and Halo Halo and so many smiling tropical beauties.

Malapascua, home of the thresher sharks, getting up at 4 thirty ah-em, sleepwalking to Evolution, climbing on a banka dive boat, out to the famous Monad shoal. A big giant stride into the warm waters, and down to the top of the shoal in twenty five meters. The ocean is still a dark place just after sunrise, but oh-my, there are some big sharks swimming in circles down there: Alopias pelagicus, the thresher shark, enormously long fins, big eyes, elegance in swimming. Damn vertebrate evolution you master of animal complexity! How could you come up with something as amazing like that fish!

Filipino country festa, delicious spit roast pig, too much beer, too much rum, too much heat, too much of that heat in my head. Karaoke. Angie. Smoke on the Water. I can’t sing, even when I’m drunk.

So many things on top of other things in the ocean, every shrimp and fish and seastar plays a part in the life of its neighbor, fish jousting for territories, others feeding on little things in the sand, others doing nothing, yet other fish are mating like the underwater bunny rabbits.

Road trip down all the way along the island of Cebu, good talk, wise words, funny jokes. Country life, then city life, then country life along the road.

Unbelievable critter heaven on display in Dumaguete, flamboyant cuttlefish, legions of garden eels, shrimps, crabs, sea slugs, fish looking like sea weed, gobies symbiotic with shrimps, corals to warm my heart in the warm waters of Apo island, relaxation on the dive boats, really good cookies, fun times.

Oslob: signs saying whale watching and whale shark watching, no whales, but sharks the size of whales here, called whale sharks. The biggest fish which exist on this fantastic Planet Earth, an impressive experience for me who has seen a thousand different fish. My mate gets a shot of a whale shark with a hot bikini chick, I get a picture of the fish with a fat Korean dude. Male belly adipose tissue is almost the density of seawater and it floats like like a sack of spent saline in-between the shark giants of the ocean.

Flight home, good vibrations, crazy movies watched half-awake, back to Australia, but not for long.

Go and Swim with the Whale Sharks of Oslob!

Last week I and my friends Bo and Chang-Le went to see the whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu. This is a unique dive: You suit up on the shore of a little seaside village in the south of Cebu, walk into the water, swim out for about 50 meters and there they are: several individuals of the largest fishes in the world, Rhincodon typus, the whale shark. Whale sharks are pacifistic filter feeders, and that’s why they are there: They are being fed small shrimp by local whale shark feeders, guys in small outrigger row boats who toss shrimp into the water. Originally, the locals started doing that to keep the whale sharks away from other guys who were fishing and who were bothered by the whale sharks. A few years ago they switched to feeding the sharks so that tourists on scuba and snorkel could observe them.

As far as I could judge, the whale sharks seemed to be mostly healthy. One had a slightly bent – broken and healed – tail fin, which did not seem to keep it from swimming properly. Another one had a small piece of lip missing. Did that happen during the feeding in Oslob? I don’t know, possibly. The animals seemed to be energetic and in a good nutritional state.

Oslob whale shark by Pacificklaus.

We got a briefing before heading to the sharks which instructed us not to touch the sharks and to not wear sunscreen. With us three were about 5 other divers and maybe 25 snorkelers in the water, with the divers (presumably more competent ocean citizens) very well behaved, and the snorkelers at least not doing anything crass.

The criticism of the situation is that it modifies the behavior of the sharks. Yes, it does, but guess what: we as Homo sapiens have been modifying animal behavior on this planet since we came into existence as a species about 100 000 years ago. Our domesticated animals are prime examples, but a lot of wildlife is equally acting very human-influenced all over the planet. In the national parks around Sydney, crows, sulfur crested cockatoos (large white parrots) and kookaburras (Australian terrestrial kingfishers) are begging for barbecue leftovers. Not natural, but fun to watch.

There are also multiple other sites where shark feeding takes place, but in these cases it’s the feeding of piscivore reef sharks. It’s done in Fiji, Micronesia, the Great Barrier Reef and other locations by respectable diving operators. A tuna head is lowered into the water, and grey reef sharks, blacktip reef sharks and sometimes bull sharks come by to take a bite. It’s a great photo opportunity and a chance to observe these fast swimming animals up-close.

In Kona, Hawaii divers have the chance to do a night dive with giant manta rays. It’s a cool dive, and I have done it a few times. Strong dive lights attract plankton in a bay just north of Kona, and the mantas, connoisseurs of a tasty plankton dinner, visit almost every evening to filter the small organisms out of the water above the lights. These mantas seem outright playful and are very comfortable with divers at this point. A few have cuts and bruises, presumably from collisions during these night encounters with humans, but a population of mantas has been coming back to this event for many years.

Do all of these man-wildlife interactions change animal behavior? Certainly. Do they harm the animals? Possibly, but not necessarily. It’s an empirical question. Providing a supplementary food source is not necessarily a bad thing. The manta ray population in Hawaii has not collapsed as a consequence of the plankton attracted by human dive on so many nights. The whale sharks in Oslob are not dying off, and recently even a 2 meter whale shark baby has appeared on the scene. Don’t get me wrong: I am certainly in favor of a very careful management of the whale shark feeding in Oslob, but I don’t condemn it a priori because it’s “not natural”. Given the horrible things humanity does to the planet’s ocean these days (overfishing, pollution, ocean acidification, …), I can’t get too worked up about the intrusion into shark and ray behavior happening during this and the other aforementioned dives.

Oslob whale shark by Pacificklaus.

And even whale sharks are being fed in other places. In Okinawa, Japan, my former place of residence, juvenile whale sharks are kept in a netted enclosure (unlike in Oslob where the sharks are free to come and go) for divers to swim with. The Japanese are rightfully known as supreme animal abusers, and they don’t disappoint in this case either: the whale sharks are poorly fed and usually don’t make it very long before they “go away” (as it’s dishonestly put over there). This “attraction” used to be advertised in many cabs in Okinawa when I was living there (until 2011 – I suspect it’s still going on?). If you want to do something for the whale sharks, I suggest you protest that cruel situation.

In a recent rather shallow analysis of the Oslob whale shark watching published in the Huffington Post, the author claims that tourists ride on the whale sharks. As noted in the article, that did not happen in Oslob but in a nearby town. Nothing like that happened when I was in Oslob, in fact the Filipino guides were very good at pulling the snorkeling tourist away from the sharks when they got too close. The author also claims that the sharks are “virtually kept captive” by the feeding and are entrapped and encircled by the feeder’s boats. It’s beyond me how a skinny dude in a small row boat on the surface could keep a super massive fish very well capable of diving below the boat “entrapped”. And since the whale sharks usually dive to depths of about 200 meters every afternoon after the feeding sessions (as tagging studies have shown), it’s a bit of a stretch to say that they are “captive”.

Let me put it this way: I don’t write anything about medieval harp music, since I don’t know anything about the topic. Ms. Sowter, the author of the Huffington Post article, should use the same reasoning when it comes to marine biology. The experience at Oslob might have violated her expectation of a serene nature encounter, but that does not mean it’s detrimental for the whale sharks. I enjoyed the experience, and the chance to spend so much time with these largest living fish. It was more of an experience akin to interacting with a habituated parrot in an Aussie national park than akin to seeing a Jaguar after a two day hike into the jungle, but an enjoyable experience nevertheless.

Given the usual realities of man-ocean interaction in the Philippines I enjoyed seeing country Filipinos take care of a marine animal. The local seafood markets in the Philippines have surprisingly small fish for offer, a sign that the oceans here are drastically overfished in many places. The nice large groupers and parrotfish are typically reserved for tourists with thick wallets these days. In that context, seeing the locals make a living by not killing marine life is positive. For marine live aficionados like me and my two friends last week in Oslob, the place provides a unique chance to observe these imposing fish. For many visitors the sharks might only be a curiosity, but for some it might spark a deeper interest in the ocean. I say, go and see the whale sharks of Oslob!

Malapascua!

As usual, the diving in Malapascua, Philippines, is supreme: I have seen the thresher sharks on two occasions even though I couldn’t take any pictures of them, since the top of Monad shoal was too dark at 25 meters in the early morning on days with bad weather. But I’ll still get some more shots at shooting them! and, the macro diving on the island is simply breathtaking, even with a well serviced regulator. Especially the house reef of Evolution Diving is always a very interesting place to hunt minute marine organisms. Dragonets, ghost pipefish, snake eels, shrimp of all kinds, diverse echinoderms, all is there. One thing which is mostly lacking are corals, though, so I suggest calling the dive site house muck rather than house reef. Muck, as in muck-diving, the king’s discipline in underwater photography.

I wrote a blog post about the dynamics on the house muck a short while ago, and it was interesting to see the place now. In brief, after typhoon Yolanda the house muck was taken over by algae as described in above blog post. Now the original biodiversity is coming back, even though a very dense population of small sea urchins has taken a hold. Some wrasses and the Manila puffer are eating these, so eventually the urchins might be reduced to reasonable numbers again. The seagrass is recovering in patches and the fish life is diverse in spots around the newly sunken boat wreck and some of the bamboo fish attraction devices.

Here are all the shots I took so far in Malapascua. Enjoy.

And these are some goodies from the Evo house muck:

Pacificklaus Enjoying himself when traveling, again

Observations:

Singapore Air is top: Enough space even for someone who goes to the gym regularly, and not just to chat. Tasty food, and gorgeous stewardesses, tall young women in tight-full length uniforms in a traditional pattern. Lovely smiles, ladies with both Chinese, Indian and Malay backgrounds. Also, Singapore Air let me take 33 kgs of check-in luggage, which is great for anyone travelling with as much scuba gear as I do.

The Philippines are just the happiest place I have ever been to. I was hanging out with a mate in one restaurant, and the eatery across from us had two girls employed to stand at the door and show passersbys the menu. After a while they spontaneously started to sing. People here will not fall into the pit of everyday grumpyness nearly as easily as in most other places. They two turned what could have been a pretty boring job into a happy get-together.

Geckos! I love the geckos. There is nothing like having a lizard with superbly evolved surface-adhesion pads on its feet run over the table between beers. I’ve been missing these.

Can’t wait to be underwater again here!

A juvenile fingered dragonet, seen at the Evolution house muck.

A juvenile fingered dragonet, seen at the Evolution house muck.

Malapascua here I come!

In a few more days, I’ll be back in the Philippines! This trip will first lead me back to Malapascua, home of the thresher sharks. I will also do some tech diving with the guys at Evolution on this island.

Then, I’ll be heading to the Dumaguete area on the island of Negros, next to Cebu, for more quality diving. I can’t wait for warm water, great viz, stunning biodiversity and all of my friends in the Philippines!