Critter Party in the Philippines

Divers Log #146
24 April 2016
Dauin, Island of Negros, Philippines

The creature was ablaze. Waves of violet, cream and ebony fired along its armored back as it lumbered across the ocean floor like a miniature triceratops. Three pairs of arms stretched and swayed from its mantle in hypnotic motion. We hovered nearby in practiced stillness, anchored only by the tip of a muck stick and the lip of a fin. The sound of our slow steady exhalations bubbled rhythmically upward. Indifferent to our presence, it extended an extraordinarily long, skinny tongue with the controlled skill of a patient hunter. It paused, and with the quickest twitch, snatched a microscopic snack out of the surrounding water.

I looked at my guide and scuba instructor Tim in delighted surprise. He nodded as if to say, “Look who’s come to your party!”

Flamboyant cuttlefish!!!

As we continued watching, an errant crab startled our little cuttlefish, and in a flash, its brilliant undulations disappeared. For a moment it stood in a cloak of ghostly white…

Oh the flamboyant cuttlefish! Such an enchanting animal, and at about three inches in length, so small! If you aren’t already acquainted, this video from National Geographic might help you understand its charm. (It’s also a great tool for delighting and diverting small children, one which I have brandished several times since returning to the U.S.)

The aforementioned “party” was a critter-seeking expedition off the coast of Dauin on the island of Negros in the Philippines. We were celebrating my certification as a “Rescue Diver,” which meant I was newly qualified to identify, prevent and manage any number of dive-related emergencies.

The course was one more step in a long journey that began two-and-a-half years earlier when a brief encounter with a gorgeous coral reef inspired me to face a lifelong fear of the ocean by learning how to scuba dive. That quest eventually took me across the seas of Asia. A few certifications and 100 dives later, I thought I had mastered my deep oceanic dread. Then I spent seven months ashore, and the next time I stepped onto a boat, I felt more certifiable than certified.

“This is crazy!” I thought. “I am about to descend meters and meters down, into an environment where I can’t breathe without the gear strapped to my body, where I will be surrounded by animals who spent aeons adapting to the environment in which I am a stranger, where I can’t easily escape by shooting up to the surface without potentially fatal consequences.”

Although I knew better, I was envisioning something like this…

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“20000 Lieues Sous les Mers” Édouard Riou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While half of my brain was preoccupied with psyche-based sea monsters; the other half was marvelously excited about what neat creatures I might actually see in the depths. So, of course, I jumped in, and after I quashed those nerves, I had amazing time.

I did not, however, want to repeat this high-anxiety stage fright on future trips. A plunge within revealed two obstacles: lack of knowledge and low confidence. Sure, I was trained, and I was, actually, a pretty good diver. But it’s a sport that involves depending your life on a set of internal and external factors. And beyond the few basics covered in my early training, I didn’t feel equipped or able to handle contingencies.

PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) promises the following for rescue course students in language that simultaneously reminds me of a self-help book and a 1980’s infomercial:

“As you master rescue techniques, adapting your new-found skills to suit a variety of different situations both in and out of the water, your confidence level will soar.”

And if you order now, a flamboyant cuttlefish will make a guest appearance at your celebratory party…

Ok, no. It didn’t say that last bit, but the sea-life near Dauin was a good incentive for taking the course there, as was my positive past experience with Tim, an instructor and course director with Sea Explorers. I had worked with Tim during my first visit to the Philippines in 2015 on the island of Malapascua, which is famous for the thresher shark “spa” not far off its coast.

Dauin, is also well known, but for a completely different type of scuba activity: muck diving. If you aren’t in the scuba club, muck diving entails floating about over long stretches of otherwise unremarkable ocean floor hoping to spy some of the oddest and most captivating animals that cohabitate this vast Earth.

If there had been a roster of notable and eccentric party guests from our celebratory dive, it would look like this:

  • Flamboyant cuttlefish: This diminutive yet festively adorned cephalopod was a most delightful and alluring party guest.

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    A pregnancy male Thorny Seahorse (Photo by Timon Bogumil)
  • Thorny seahorse: This bad-ass of the seahorse family appeared in studded refinery, achieving a look that said both punk and statuesque at the same time. Other than the occasional sway in the surf, it never moved, not even a blink.
  • “Shaun the Sheep” nudibranch: A sea slug with a “face” reminiscent of the British stop-motion star for which it is nicknamed, this tiny party guest almost went unnoticed. Its excellent scalloped fashion is generally best admired through a magnifying glass or macro lens. (Please do click the link to see these adorable sea slugs!)
  • Phantom velvet fish: The curmudgeonly and dusty-looking bottom-dweller graced the party with a short interpretive dance before burrowing in a flash of sand.
  • Stargazer: Shy about showing its ugly mug, this fish remained mostly buried through the duration of the party using its topside eyes to keep an eye on the action. Coincidentally,  the fish’s cousin recently acquired some pop-press fame when it crashed a family party on Virginia Beach in the U.S. In its fine reporting style, the NY Daily News said, “After finding the fish, the family returned it to the water unharmed — but it remained hideous.” (Ouch.)
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Whitemargin Stargazer (Uranoscopus sulphureus) (Photo by Bernard DUPONT from France, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

These creatures were a source of great amusement.

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Learning rescue techniques in the pool. (Photo by @seaexplorersphilippines)

The course itself was also fun, despite the worrisome number of potential dive-related emergencies it covered in great detail. After reading a somewhat onerous course manual and completing a written test, I was tasked with learning and demonstrating rescue skills through a variety of simulations, first in the pool and then in the open water. These ranged from assisting a panicked diver to bringing an unconscious person ashore from out at sea. The role of diver-in-trouble was most often played by Janine, a dive guide at Sea Explorers who is also an excellent critter spotter.

So, I had a dynamic and patient teaching duo, which made what could have been a nerve-racking course a fun adventure.

In planning, I left plenty of time in my itinerary for non-course related diving. While macro life is a big draw for Dauin, nearby Apo Island is home to a long-protected marine reserve where one can see lovely coral vistas. It’s quite a contrast to searching for tiny life hiding in the muck. Unfortunately, my day trip to Apo Island was cancelled due to boat-engine trouble.

It was difficult, though, to feel I was missing something when the waters closer to Dauin held frogfish, hairy squat lobsters, orangutan crabs, tiny juvenile scorpionfish, ghost pipefish and so on…

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Hairy Squat Lobster (Photo by Elias Levy, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After lessons and dives, I would mostly lie about enjoying the breeze that swept across beach-front lounge chairs and sometimes watching the local kids play in the surf.

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I did occasionally venture along the streets of Dauin. In town, the air was still and the concrete radiated the day’s accumulated heat. I found it nearly impossible to move faster than molasses under the searing midday sun, but my slow pace left ample time to admire the lovely tropical flowers along the roadside and just observe happenings around town. One afternoon, as I sat at a cafe for lunch, a squawking chorus of roosters erupted. Within minutes, a trio of screaming goats chimed in, and I could only giggle at the cacophony.

“What an adventure,” I thought. From flamboyant cuttlefish and hairy squat lobsters to screaming goats, there was so much to see (and hear) in Dauin.

Now you may ask, what about those diver confidence levels? Well, that my friends is a story for another day, and it begins in Malaysia which was my next stop on this particular adventure…

 

 

4 thoughts on “Critter Party in the Philippines

  1. Very cool. Sometimes it does pay to sweat the small stuff. I can’t say I’ve done much muck diving, but my best seahorse dive was also in the Philippines, with a guide who seemed to have seahorse goggles.

    Liked by 1 person

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