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!
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.
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.
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.
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!