Trite as they may be, sometimes there are real pearls of wisdom to be found in the old bromides we break out when the seas of life get choppy. When our first attempt at snorkeling in the Philippines left us rather underwhelmed, rather than hanging up our mask and fins, I simply embraced the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and became all the more determined to find a slice of underwater paradise for us to explore.

Of course, Albert Einstein had some thoughts about doing the same thing repeatedly: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Now, I don’t want to disparage one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time, but happily, this time around we proved Albert wrong!

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Having done our research, we had ascertained that the coastline of Negros island offers some of the most spectacular (as well as relatively unvisited and untouched) reefs in the Philippines. In particular, the little township of Dauin is known for having some rather phenomenal muck diving, and some lovely snorkeling directly off shore. Though we had already learned that the mantel of “marine sanctuary” doesn’t necessarily count for much in this part of the world, we had read that the preservation guidelines in Dauin were actually enforced, which certainly seemed like a step in the right direction.

To reach Dauin, we hopped on an “easy cab” in the center of Dumaguete which was headed out of town. Easy cabs are the short-distant buses of the Philippines (very much like jeepneys); they apparently run fixed routes, but the only way of knowing what they are seems to be by being a local, but by telling people where we were headed, we were able to get on the right one. It might have been easier to get our own trike to drive us out there, but that would have cost us approximately 10x the cost: our trip only cost us 55PHP ($1.25USD)! When you see where you’d like to stop along the way, simply bang on the roof or holler at the driver and he’ll pull over for you. Gotta love the simplicity of it all!
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We rented our snorkel gear at Sea Explorers, a relatively posh resort based in Dauin that is right on the beach, as they were one of the only operators in town that had an optically corrected mask that Tony could use. From there we traipsed off down the beach, in the hope that we would eventually run into the marine sanctuary. Though a stroll along the beach sounds fun and romantic, it was actually quite a hike, and was made a little bit stressful when we accidentally wandered through a stretch of private property… a fact we were made aware of by a shotgun-toting security guard. Oops.

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Thankfully, just as our spirits were flagging and we worried that our outing to swim with the fishes might take a sinister twist, we finally saw a little kiosk was set up on a patch of shaded beach  that was hung with a banner emblazoned with “District 1 Poblacion Marine Sanctuary”. We gladly bought our passes (50PHP—$1.25USD—apiece) from the chatty septegenarian manning the booth (optimistic about the fact he had even asked for payment) and then, with bated breath, waded into the water.

Before we were even knee deep, we could see the shimmering flash of fish as they darted eagerly about our legs. Our excitement growing, we tightened our grip on each other’s hands and delicately dipped our heads under the waves.

(Yes, we are one of those schmoopy couples who snorkel holding hands… what of it?)

What a revelation and unadulterated joy snorkeling Dauin was! The coral was still rather sadly trampled in parts, but on the whole the reef was in fairly healthy shape, especially considering how close to shore it was and how shallow the water gets at low tide. There was a mild but rather insistent current when we snorkeled, which we actually made work in our favor, as it allowed us to just float there and watch, barely even paddling as the current pushed us lazily where it would. We drifted this way and that, gazing at magnificent, Technicolor coral kingdoms. As my sensory input kicked my imagination into overdrive, they resembled aquatic skyscrapers and we nothing more than clouds gliding overhead in the sky.

Best of all, however, were the dwellers of this underwater city. If the coral was spotty in places, the multitude of fish that swarmed about us never disappointed. We spotted beautiful schools of Moreish Idols, mottled Parrotfish in impossibly vibrant hues, ghostly white pufferfish who skimmed the bottom like overloaded blimps, along with hundreds of other fish neither of us had the expertise to recognize.

Tony jokes that I spent the majority of our time snorkeling in Dauin paddling about in circles as I locked onto a particular fish and then did my best to track it, valiantly trying to get a good shot. Though the majority of the photos we took were absolute rubbish, I’m quite proud of the few photos we managed to get, because truthfully, underwater photography is ridiculously challenging. With the fish darting about unceasingly and currents bobbing you up and down, most of our photos are so blurry, not even Instagram could save them.

Perhaps that’s part of why my favorite fish to photograph quickly became the ever-popular anemonefish (a.k.a. “clownfish”; or as they are colloquially known in the Philippines, “Nemos”). Unlike most fish that rapidly flit about in the most annoying fashion (that is when you’re trying to get photos of them), anemonefish are fierce little fish who are ardently territorial. They prefer to simply bury themselves in the protective tendrils of the anemone and never stray far from home, only bursting out to guard their turf if you should get too close. Their courage and feisty personalities, lack of wanderlust, and the fact that they frequently make their homes in shallower water, all combine to make them excellent subjects for novice underwater photographers. Behold some of my favorite clownfish shots from the day:

(It’s worth noting that I am ridiculously buoyant, and so in order to submerge myself sufficiently in order to get several of these shots, I needed assistance from Tony. He pretty much had to push me down and hold me under, and I wouldn’t be surprised if to casual observers on the beach it looked like they might have a forced drowning on their hands!)

After 2.5 hours of snorkeling the reef, we hadn’t gotten our fill, so we returned the next day and spent another 2 hours swimming about, this time armed with crackers to feed the fish. I admit that this is not our most ecologically sound decision, as fish-feeding can disrupt their natural patterns and behavior, but the sanctuary at Dauin receives enough food-wielding visitors that for better or for worse, it’s clear the fish there had already been affected well before our visit. That’s not to justify or excuse our own feeding, and we’ve not done it since, but I will say that as a one-time activity, it was quite a thrill to have the fish come right up to us and nip the crackers straight from our fingers.

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Despite our lackluster introduction to snorkeling in the Philippines, our time at Dauin repaid our perseverance far beyond our wildest expectations. The water was clear, the fish were colorful and in abundance, and the reef was encouragingly healthy and well-cared for. The two days we spent wallowing in the waves there were utterly delectable and picture perfect… even if our own were far from perfect!

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Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (8)

  1. March 20, 2013 at 11:07 am
    Mar. 20, '13

    Oh my gosh, Steph, this is the most beautiful thing I have seen all week! I love that you didn’t give up, and that you had the time of your lives down there! I think you have captured the beauty of the reef with amazing and vivid loveliness and I am so glad that I got to see it! This is something you will never forget.

    • March 22, 2013 at 6:04 am
      Mar. 22, '13

      Thank you so much for the compliment! I am so happy you felt the photos we managed to get transported you to that little slice of paradise. It may be hard to believe, but it was even more magical in person! 😀

  2. March 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm
    Mar. 20, '13

    Wow, I’ve never been snorkeling anywhere that is that lush and diverse! And more gorgeous underwater photos — I’m asking for your camera for my birthday, by the way 🙂

    • March 22, 2013 at 6:09 am
      Mar. 22, '13

      We were actually lucky enough to snorkel in Puerto Rico when we visited a few years back, so that set our snorkeling bar quite high for us… I don’t know that this was better (the coral was definitely in rougher shape), but it was still a fantastic two days spent in the water regardless.

      As for the Panasonic Lumix T4, it was actually a really awesome camera, both above and below the water. The only thing is that it leaked a few weeks later and obviously stopped working after that. I was SO disappointed, but reading up on that line, apparently they sometimes have issues with leaking in salt water. We wound up replacing it with another camera and actual waterproof housing so we could take photos while diving (the Lumix can only go to 12m underwater which is not deep enough for the diving we do). If you do plan to do underwater photography with the Lumix, I would probably suggest getting a housing for it as well. After it leaked, I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable taking “waterproof” cameras into the ocean without an extra barrier ever again!

      • March 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm
        Mar. 22, '13

        Good to know, maybe I’ll consider just getting a housing for the point and shoot Lumix we have now. And great note about snorkeling being good in Puerto Rico, I’ve never been but have been wanting to get out there! Here’s one more reason. Before the Galapagos, I’d only ever snorkeled in Hawaii and Mexico’s Riviera Maya, neither of which are as lush as what you saw, despite the destruction you witnessed. Anyway, great tips, thanks!
        Cassie recently posted..Foto Friday | High on Jamón

        • March 24, 2013 at 6:06 am
          Mar. 24, '13

          Yeah, if you are happy with the camera you already have, it might just be a better investment to get an underwater housing for it. Plus, that way if you decide to learn how to dive, you can take pictures when doing that too!

          Surprised to hear that snorkeling in Hawaii wasn’t amazing – I would have thought it would be paradise! (But yes, Puerto Rico is amazing and not just for snorkeling. Still one of our all time favorite destinations!)

  3. March 23, 2013 at 2:03 am
    Mar. 23, '13

    I love your idea of living in the present and trying to focus only on the country you’re in at the moment. It seems like an easy concept yet it’s something I feel we constantly need to remind ourselves to be mindful of.
    Mike recently posted..Captured for the Camera in Beautiful Baños

    • March 24, 2013 at 6:09 am
      Mar. 24, '13

      I mentioned it in another post, but about a year ago someone introduced me to mindfulness meditation and the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn and that really changed the way I view things. I’m a planner so being present is hard for me, but JKZ made this awesome point when he said something to the effect of “the only moment we are ever truly alive is RIGHT NOW.” If you’re ruminating over the past or dreaming about the future, you are missing out on your life as you are living it, and that’s something I don’t want to do. There’s no point being on the adventure of a lifetime if you can’t enjoy every step of the way rather than simply anticipating the next one!

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