Why A Philippines Liveaboard is the Way Forward

Why A Philippines Liveaboard is the Way Forward

The first time I went to the Philippines was a budget trip with my husband, Thomas. We had all our dive gear and just a few clothes crammed into our burgeoning backpacks and set out with the aim of seeing as much as we could of the Visayas region by public transport. Our journey took us around Cebu, Negros, Bohol and Panay and there was so much to see and absorb of the colourful life here another visit was definitely on the cards. But whilst it was a fun experience, 5 hours on a bone-shaking bus to Malapascua or waiting 8 hours for a ferry from Bohol to Siquijor were not some of the trip highlights of our vacation!

When we were offered a job as cruise directors with Siren Fleet we jumped at the chance to dive the Philippines a different way, and even though we were working hard we did get to some new dive sites and the travelling was far easier.  We spent 8 months on board and during this time one of my favourite itineraries took us to Southern Leyte. This was a new area for us, plus being on the liveaboard we were able to explore a new diving region even further east – Hagakak Island. Here we found untouched reefs with soft corals, bommies, a wealth of critters and a few shark species. Even better there were no other divers around and the islands themselves are picturesque and easy to explore by kayak or speedboat. It was also whale shark season so we snorkeled daily with these gentle giants at Limasawa Island.

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Luxury Liveaboard Philippine Siren

With a wealth of dive resorts for all budgets in the Visayas (Cebu / Bohol / Negros) it would hardly seem that a liveaboard could improve your diving experience, but this year I boarded the Philippine Siren as a guest for a 7- night trip to Cabilao, Balicasag, Apo, Dauin (Negros) and Pescador Islands. Diving all those areas in just 7 days would be an impossible feat if you were land-based. We also dived with whale sharks at Oslob and could be there first thing in the morning before other snorkelers and tourists were up and about. Siren Fleet also run 10-night dive safaris which include Malapascua – so you can dive the highlights of the region without having to step foot on land – or wait for the Ceres Liner bus! The other great thing about being on a liveaboard is having a group of like-minded people to share the experience with. We met up with some old friends and made a few new ones which all adds to the fun of a dive trip.

Tubbataha, a tiny atoll in the Sulu Sea, is only open for diving between February and June each year. Due to its remote location is only accessible by dive liveaboard and sadly I have not as yet managed to take a trip there. The abundance of marine life – from sharks and rays to huge fish schools and turtles, plus pristine corals, sponges and sea fans – make this area a top destination for divers. The good news is that there are now several liveaboards to suit all budgets that operate dive trips to Tubbataha each year – so the plan for 2017 is made!

Diving by liveaboard can really enhance your experience in the Philippines and there are now several quality liveaboards to choose from. I dived with Siren Fleet but other options include Atlantis Azores and Solitude 1. You can search for trips and compare prices at www.liveaboard.com/philippines  

High Five for Koh Haa

High Five for Koh Haa

Koh Haa islands in ThailandKoh Haa, or Five Islands, is in Thailand’s South Andaman Sea, the area consists of 5 limestone outcrops, under which are caverns and coral encrusted boulders.  I came to this famous dive site in December 2014 as part of a Thailand dive liveaboard holiday and was instantly impressed by the coral life and critters. Due to persistent rumours that the corals in Thailand were bleached and mostly dying, I hadn’t expected the diving to be that great but was so pleasantly surprised during the 3-night liveaboard trip that I’ve vowed to go back again.

Corals of ThailandMy favourite dive site of the trip was the Cathedral due to  outstanding corals. We descended down to the large cathedral-like cavern at just 5-8m depth. This is a super spot to capture divers in silhouette if you’re into underwater photography. Emerging from the cavern you come to a ravine between the main island reef and two large boulders, which I can only assume was all one structure at some point. Diving along the ravine I opted to make a figure-of-eight pattern around the boulders. Cutting through the split I came to one of the most fantastic broccoli coral gardens I’ve ever seen. The sea bed, at 20-30m, was covered with these light purple dendronephthya, only having air in my cylinder I was unable to explore for very long at that depth but this coral field stretched as far as I could see and that was at least 30m!

chromodoris_1Returning to the boulders, themselves covered with soft corals, cup corals and black coral bushes, I was able to find several species of nudibranch, moray eels being cleaned by attendant commensal shrimps, file fish, scorpion fish, wentletraps and a porcelain crab. I’m positive that this site would also be home to ghost pipefish and perhaps seahorses but I didn’t manage to find any at this time.

wentletrap Batangas halgerda

porcelain crab

Moray eel

Moving up to the shallow top of the boulders at 8m I was stunned to see beautiful schools of snapper cruising about in swathes around the ridges. I spent the rest of the dive time there, mesmerized by their movement before returning to the main reef for my safety stop.

Sea fans thailandThis was definitely one site I would have been happy to dive again, but being there were more places to dive and we needed to begin our journey back towards Phi Phi Island. Over the course of the 3 days we dived not only Koh Haa but spent a day around Phi Phi. Bida Nok was lovely – with big fish schools around us and one group finding leopard sharks and maybe a hammerhead, though I’m not sure I believed them! Other dives were made at Shark Point, where the sea fans are huge and very pretty, and the King Cruiser wreck. This wreck is now home to huge schools of fish and so encrusted with corals and barnacles that nudis, flatworms and smaller benthic fish call it home.

Sadly due to adverse weather we did not make the crossing down to Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. These sites are also famous not only for their soft corals and fish life but for manta ray and whale shark sightings, so of course I was disappointed but I think the dives made at Koh Haa made up for that and I have even more excuse to go again!

Many of these dive areas in Thailand can be reached by day boat from Phuket, Phi Phi or Koh Lanta but choosing a liveaboard I was able to combine them all together and miss the day boat crowds. My trip was only 3 days long and we managed 11 dives in total. I opted to dive with MV Scuba Adventure, a budget liveaboard operating out of Phuket, but there are many more options to choose from.

Thailand Aggressor LiveaboardThe Thailand Aggressor offers 7-night trips on their “South Andaman” itinerary departing from Chalong, Phuket. This itinerary can also be combined with a 7-night trip to the Similan Islands, to make a full dive program of the west coast of Thailand.

 

Panunee (1)w825h550crwidth825crheight550The Panunee Liveaboard, offers 5-night trips to Phi Phi, Hin Daeng and Koh Haa, also departing from Chalong. Dive safaris can be combine with trips to the Similan Islands, with a 2 day break in Phuket.

 

 

Giamani Liveabaord ThailandThe Giamani Liveaboard offers a 3-day / 2-night dive safari which departs from Chalong and cruises directly to Koh Haa then Hin Daeng and back to Phi Phi before returning to Phuket. You could easily combine with their 7-night Similans trip too.

 

Diving Palau; A Sharktastic Adventure

Diving Palau; A Sharktastic Adventure

The spectacular diving in Palau first came to my attention when a dive buddy moved there for work in 2008, but it would be almost 5 years before I had the opportunity to dive there for myself…and yes it was worth the wait!

Palau -where’s that?

Palau is an island nation made up of around 250 islands in the Pacific Ocean, to the east of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. The remote position and being on the edge of the Coral Triangle makes the country an ideal location for a wide variety of marine life. Many shark species are known to frequent the waters of Palau, so much so that in 2009 the country was declared a shark sanctuary with all shark fishing activities banned.

Marine Life of Palau

Palau is a veritable dream for big fish lovers. There are numerous dive sites where grey reef sharks and white tip reef sharks are commonly seen – and in good numbers. Other shark species seen are black tips, hammerhead, tiger, whale and bull – though these are not on the day to day dives the possibility is thrilling. Add to that the huge schools of snapper, barracuda and trevally jack and you’re on to a winner. Hawksbill turtles, though considered rare, are found on almost every dive in Palau, whilst huge Napoleon wrasse get up closes to divers, unperturbed by our presence and schools of bumphead parrotfish congregate in their thousands during mating time. During my liveaboard trip I had the pleasure of diving with 8 manta rays for 60 minutes! Though I’d seen a few mantas before in Egypt, Komodo and Raja Ampat, this had to go down as one of the best manta dives ever due to the way these graceful creatures looped and twisted, open mouthed feeding hungrily on the plankton.

Now I’m a small critter lover and some of the dive guides found it entertaining that I should be photographing nudibranchs when there were sharks to watch, but if you love a mix of big and small then Palau is a fabulous option for a dive holiday. During my 10-day trip we not only saw nudibranchs but pipefish, leaf fish, mandarin fish and dart gobies. I’ve read reports of frogfish and seahorses too.

Palau’s Best Dive Sites

The topography of dive sites in Palau is varied from reef walls and coral shelves, to caverns and shallow reefs as well as several wrecks.

Reef Sharks Palau
Sharks at Blue Corner courtesy of Julie Barlow

Unarguably the most popular dive site in Palau is Blue Corner. Famed for its shark action and big schools of fish, divers approach the reef edge and, if the current is running, use a reef hook to secure themselves to watch the impressive shark displays. Blue Corner can be combined with Blue Holes – an open cavern where fire clams are found spectacular for atmospheric photography. We dived here 4 times during our trip as the site was so superb and the shark activity fascinating.

New Drop Off is another dive site known for shark action, but a great place for watching turtles munching on the soft corals. This quickly became one of my favourites due to the variety of marine life, one minute we were watching sharks cruising about on the reef edge, the next turtles, then a large trigger fish buzzed by followed by more sharks in the shallows. Awesome!

Chandelier Cave provides an excellent experience. The entrance is at about 10m and very open so there is plenty of natural light. As you dive deeper into the cavern it opens very wide, however the water does not reach all the way to the cave ceiling creating air pockets and a place to chat mid-dive.

mantas in palau
Crazy manta action in German Channel – courtesy of Julie Barlow

German Channel, a deep cut in the reef has two coral bommies at 25m and 15m where manta rays come to be cleaned. With plankton bloom the mantas stick around for feeding. Best manta dive EVER!!!

Jake’s Sea Plane – is likely one of the most photographed wrecks of all time –save the Thistlegorm or Kittiwake. The dive site is compact but the plane itself is of interest to photographers – especially when the viz is great and sunbursts can be seen.

Siaes Corner/ Tunnel lies on the outer edge of the reef surrounding Ulong Island. Getting there can be a little tricky as the reef shelf is very shallow. On our liveaboard trip the wind was up so our cruise director changed the dive plan to an alternative site – except no one told the dinghy driver and we ended up there anyway. Descending down the steep coral covered wall, we entered the large cavern and came out on the other side of the reef at 25m.Continuing on to the corner with reef sharks cruising around us we hooked in and just enjoyed the snappers and jacks bustling about, chasing fusiliers. Our dive group was thrilled by this turn of events as the dive was excellent (the other group not so much!)

If you want to see schooling snappers spawning then Peleliu Cut is the place to go around new moon. Whilst for spawning bumphead parrotfish diving at Ulong’s Sand Bank around the full moon produces results. For guaranteed action join the team from Unique Expeditions who run special spawning trips each year aboard the S/Y Palau Siren liveaboard.

Palau Dive LogThese were just a few of the dives we made during the 10-night safari, others included Dexter’s Wall, Virgin Blue Holes, Iro Maru wreck, Ulong Corner / Channel, Heian wreck, Peleliu Express, Big Drop Off and Sam’s Wall.

 

We also found time for snorkeling in Jelly Fish Lake and for a boat cruise through the Rock Islands.

Palau gets better and better…

Plans are currently underway for Palau to become a full marine sanctuary with strengthened surveillance and enforcement of their Marine Sanctuary and Fishing zone by 2017.

Want to Dive Palau?

I spent my time in Palau diving with Sam’s Tours Palau and S/Y Palau Siren. Whilst the hospitality and experience of the guides at STP was fabulous and I’d definitely choose them again for a land-based trip, I felt the ease and comfort of the Palau Siren, less time to dive sites, plus avoiding the crowds tips the balance in favour of taking a liveaboard. There are several dive liveaboards operating in Palau from which to choose – S/Y Palau Siren, Palau Aggressor II, Ocean Hunter I, Ocean Hunter III and Solitude One.

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Ocean Hunter I
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Tropic Dancer
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Solitude One

 

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Palau Aggressor II

Essential Packing Tips for Your Next Liveaboard Diving Holiday

Essential Packing Tips for Your Next Liveaboard Diving Holiday

One of the key elements of many liveaboard dive trips is that they take place in remote locations, which often require domestic flights to reach. With a continuing reduction in airline baggage allowance and growing fees its becoming increasingly important to get your packing just right.

Choosing the Essentials

Topping the list of essential items of course would be your dive gear. Or would it? Several liveaboards offer free equipment rental or low cost packages as an alternative to bringing you own. Perhaps you are supremely attached your own BCD or Reg and would not wish to rely upon rental gear, but what about your fins? Do you really need all those wetsuits? For most trips there is not really a need to pack in all that spare gear and parts for those “just in case” moments when perfectly adequate alternatives are available on board the yacht? Much depends on the quality of the dive operator so its important to check with them what they will have available before you depart. Then think about what you couldn’t dive without and bring a fix-it / repair kit of o-rings, mask and fin straps and a mouth piece or two.

Clothing next, so lets just be honest you’re on a boat with 12-20 other divers, dinner will not be a cruise ship captain’s table black tie affair. In my experience most people wear the same clothes repeatedly – after all we’re hardly in them. Shorts, t-shirts and 2 sarongs would more or less cover it. I always pack at least 1 sun dress and a fleece jacket in case it gets chilly. Men might want to bring long trousers and shirts and if you’ll be taking any land tours, think about whether its prudent to cover up to avoid offending the locals by displaying bare shoulders or knees. Shoes, just forget about them! But very importantly don’t forget your swimwear… I’ve seen a naked 70-year old man bent over on the dive deck and I sincerely wish I hadn’t!

No one wants to be known as “Mr or Ms Stinky” during the trip so some toiletries won’t go amiss. Most operators I’ve dived with provide shower gel but shampoo/conditioner you should plan to bring for yourself. Don’t bother packing huge bottles – decant your usual brands into 100ml bottles then you can also take in your hand luggage too. Essential advice for the ladies: don’t forget your menstrual products! Such items can be exceedingly hard to find in places such as Egypt and Indonesia (note any unused supplies are always very welcomed by female cruise directors!)

Don’t bother with a towel. Every liveaboard I know provides one or more and if you would like extra, a sarong works brilliantly and takes up far less room.

Forget Shoes - Wear Your Fins on the Plane!
Forget Shoes – Wear Your Fins on the Plane!

Now we know what to bring the big question arises – can I fit it all in? Here the importance of maximising your carry-on comes into effect. The best items for placing in your carry-on bag are your reg (if you decided to bring it), dive computer, mask, toiletries and any bulky but light weight items that you could put on if necessary. Any medications too just in case your check-in luggage gets lost in transit.

Of course if you are photographer you’ll likely be struggling with which lenses, dome ports, strobes etc etc etc to bring with you. Most airlines count a camera as a separate hand carry item you are allowed on top of a 7kg bag, but even so it can be a tough decision so do your research on the destination and make your decision based upon that… or buy a jacket with loads of pockets and stuff everything into them instead!

Packing
Specialist Dive Travel Gear from Aqua Lung

Knowing the struggles us liveaboard divers face, equipment manufacturers have developed specialist equipment for travel. I have the complete Aqua Lung travel set – it’s a bcd, complete reg, fins, mask, shortie 3mm and bag all weighing in at 10kg. I leave the shortie behind and just take a skin and hooded vest for most trips. The bag itself is the perfect fit for the overhead bins on planes too, so I can be really flexible with how I pack.

Last month I met two divers from Australia who only had 10kg each to check in as they had purchased the Aeris backplate which doubles as a bag and then rented other kit on the yacht. There are plenty of great choices out there for divers who love to travel.

Now you are all packed and ready to go – unpack, remove half of the clothes from the pile, pack again and you’re all set!

Keeping your check in under 20kg is most certainly do-able with a bit of planning. “Know Before You Go” guides are provided by liveaboard.com for each destination and liveaboard yacht, to help you plan what you should bring to get the most from your dive trip.

My Favourite Dive Site

My Favourite Dive Site

As a diving instructor and liveaboard cruise director I’ve often been asked which is my favourite dive site. Having dived in the Red Sea, Central America, Asia and Australia this is of course a very tough decision, being a libran makes it even tougher! I’ve tended to basically divert the question. So much does depend upon the time of day, the weather, the marine life seen and the divers you’re with. I’ve had fabulous dives at SS Thistlegorm but likewise I’ve had exceedingly challenging and not so enjoyable dives at that site too.

So when on a liveaboard diving trip in Komodo last month I was asked this very question, I decided to turn things around and look at it from a different perspective – which dive of this trip, or any trip, would I not want to miss? Suddenly the answer was clear – The Unusual Suspects in Bima Bay.

Ornate Ghost PipeFish
Ornate Ghost Pipefish

I first dived here with Siren Fleet in 2009, it was the first dive of our holiday and having a new camera housing I didn’t take my camera but instantly regretted it. There was so much to see and my eyes were really opened to the amazing critter life that’s so active in this Indonesian bay. Thankfully our cruise director mentioned we would dive the site again at the end of the holiday and all the divers were in whole hearted agreement.

 

 

 

Ambon Scorpionfish
Ambon Scorpionfish

The site itself is little more than a sandy slope with a few boulders, dotted here and there are soft corals, crinoids, hydroids and algaes providing a little colour and plenty of places for creatures to hide.  The max depth advisable is 18m though much of the dive time is spent in the 5-10m range. Technically you could consider this “muck diving” due to the trash debris that the critters have turned into homes but its not really dirty – no used nappies (diapers) have been seen.

Tiger Shrimp
Tiger Shrimp

As a lover of the little stuff, I’m totally in my element diving here. Going along slowly and sticking closely to a keen eyed guide can really open your eyes to some of the wonders. Thorny and estuary seahorses, ambon scorpion fish, waspfish, mimic octopus, frogfish and seamoths are typically sighted in the shallow sand and rubble, whilst deeper along the boulder strewn reef its common to find ghost pipefish, fringed filefish, lobsters, mantis shrimp, moray eels, zebra crabs and coleman shrimp riding fire urchins, and the latest dive afforded a new sighting for me – Tiger shrimp!

Since that first time I’ve returned to The Unusual Suspects 11 times, with my longest dive recorded at 103 minutes and that still felt like not long enough. Needless to say I’ll be heading back again in 2016 – with a better camera!

Bima is on the island of Sumbubwa, part of the Lessser Sunda Islands. There are as yet no dive centres in the area so its only possible to dive there by liveaboard. Waow, Indo Siren, Damai and Arenui all have scheduled departures from Bima or offer the site as part of their Komodo itineraries. If you’d like to experience the delights of this critter hotspot visit liveaboard.com for trip dates and availability or select from the photos below.

waow indo-siren

 

 

 

damai arenuiSpecial thanks to Dive Instructor Megan Collins for her stunning shot of Bima Bay taken last week aboard S/Y Indo Siren

The 5 most difficult decisions you’ll ever have to make as a liveaboard diver.

The 5 most difficult decisions you’ll ever have to make as a liveaboard diver.

You’ve done the research, chosen your destination and liveaboard yacht, booked the trip and packed your bags and now its time to sit back,relax and let the diving fun begin right? Well believe it or not you may have some pretty tough decisions ahead of you. Now in the general scheme of things these are not life altering choices but the daily trials of liveaboard diving are not to be scoffed at!

1 – To dive or not to dive – the ultimate question
Most liveaboards typically offer 3-4 dives per day, and whilst many divers will wish to do them all, 4 dives everyday over an extended period can be exhausting so remember there is no obligation to dive if you don’t wish to. But to the point in hand – which dives should you skip? Chances are you’ll decide not to dive just when everyone has a close encounter with a manta ray or sees that critter you’ve been hoping to photograph so seek advice from your cruise director and dive team before making your decision. They have the local knowledge and can advise you based on your skill level, site conditions and what you’re hoping to see. Its best to do this at the outset of the trip so you can plan your own schedule accordingly.

2 – How much thermal protection should I wear?
If like me you are a “warm water diver” the answer is usually simple – a skin +hooded vest. But when diving in areas such as Komodo, where the water temperature can vary vastly throughout the trip, the daily decision of whether to don shortie / full / 3mm / 5mm / extra hood / gloves / thermals comes into play. Before you go check with your boat operator what the current water temperature is and whether they have additional wetsuits onboard for rental. My advice is to layer up! Its easy to pop a shortie over a long suit to give an added level of protection, meanwhile there are numerous companies such as Fourth Element and Shark Skin which offer superb thermal under layers which are suitable for use both on their own in water and under a full wetsuit in the colder regions.

3 –How much weight do I need?
If you’ve been keeping a logbook you’ve probably kept a good note of how much weight you have used in the past with any specific kit configuration, but if you’ve long since stopped logging dives you there are several factors you’ll need to consider. Drysuit or wetsuit? Do you have new kit? Are the tanks used aluminium or steel? But its not just our change of kit and neoprene (or in my case bioprene) that we need to take into consideration. Diving in areas where the water is known to have higher salinity, such as the Red Sea and Galapagos Islands, should also be factored in. The importance of a buoyancy check at the start of the first dive will likely be stressed by your cruise director and is the best way to assess if you have enough (or indeed too much) weight for the dive. A key trick here is to repeat the buoyancy check at the end of the dive to allow for your air consumption and a lighter tank – the last thing you want is to shoot up to the surface when you should be making your safety stop. Good buoyancy leads to more enjoyable dives, for you and your buddies!

4- Wide Angle or Macro?
For those of us who love photography the choice of lens to use can be the toughest decision of all. You opt for macro on the dive where a whale shark cruises by or have your wide angle lens when the pygmy seahorses are found in the sea fan. We’ve all been there and unless you have someone willing to carry a spare camera for you, you’ll just have to stick to your plan and think “there’s always next time”. Cruise directors will often brief the dives and provide advice on what can be seen to aid you in your decision, but in case they don’t, do not feel uncomfortable to ask the dive team what to expect for each dive in advance.

5 – Night Dive or Sunset Cocktail?
For those who are not into night diving the choice is of course simple but, if like me, you enjoy seeing critters at night and a cocktail at sunset the choice of which night dives to make becomes a pretty tough one. I’ve solved this by checking with the dive team what’s likely to be seen on any given night dive, then I pick 2-3 that I definitely wish to do during the trip. So I can enjoy my sunset relaxing time and night dives without fear of ‘missing out’.

The key to a successful trip is to remember its YOUR dive holiday and you decide what suits you best within the given itinerary. Ask questions before you go and during the cruise to ensure you get the most out of the experience and if all else fails – there’s always next time!