Last October 24-26, 2013 marked the Philippine Association of Marine Science 12th National Symposium on Marine Science in Tacloban City, Leyte and the first time I’d presented (part of) the results of my graduate thesis. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. After the conference, I marked another milestone with my first visit to Southern Leyte. I spent four days (well, really three days) in the quiet and no-stress Padre Burgos, about 3.5 hours from Tacloban City.
I decided to stay in Sogod Bay Scuba Resort because a friend recommended it and because they offered a slightly lower van hire cost to and from Tacloban (P7,000 instead P8,000 from Peter’s Dive Resort). The van hire was the most expensive part of the trip so hopefully you’re in a big group and can split the cost. Another friend who traveled to Padre Burgos the day before was able to get a round-trip van for P6000. Despite the cost, I think it was worth it because the commuting alternative sounded daunting: jeep from Tacloban airport to the terminal, shared van ride to Maasin City (the capital of Southern Leyte), a jeepney ride to Padre Burgos, then a tricycle ride to the resort in Brgy Lungsodaan.
Brgy Lungsodaan is pretty small. There are only two dive resorts (Sogod Bay Scuba Resort and Peter’s Dive Resort) and three restaurants (the resorts’ restaurants plus Moose and Squirrel). We only spotted one sari-sari store and the bakery was a tricycle ride away. TIP: if you’re eating at Moose and Squirrel (and you should!), better to order beforehand then come back later. E.g if you’re eating lunch there, place your order before you go diving to cut down on the waiting time.
Tourists go to Padre Burgos and Sogod Bay for the diving and after two days, four dives, and perfect visibility, I understood why. I wanted to do three dives a day but I couldn’t afford it. Haha.
Day 1 had us visiting the Max Climax and Santa Sofia Marine Protected Areas. The local government charges P100 per diver per sanctuary per day for access to the MPAs. Thank you to our dive guide Pawiks (short for “Pawikan” or sea turtle. I never did learn his real name) for showing me my first pygmy seahorse! Also spotted snappers and sweetlips.
I will admit that I wasn’t wowed. The first part of Max Climax was good, with coral cover consisting mostly of massive and encrusting corals and lots of soft corals. This is where we spotted the sweetlips, snappers, and other fish. The second part, however, was a field of dead branching corals. There were a few damselfish but that was it. Pawiks said that the site was hit by a crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak about 2 years ago 🙁 Santa Sofia was the nicer site IMHO, with better coral cover and more fish. It was very encouraging to see large patches of branching Porites and Acropora with lots of juvenile damselfishes hiding in them. A huge and very friendly green sea turtle was hanging out near our exit point tolerated our presence and allowed us to take pictures during our safety stop.
We did two dives in the Napantao MPA on Day 2. Napantao is the oldest marine protected area in Sogod Bay (more than 15 years old) and it shows! Oh god. My first thought was “This is what a marine protected area should look like!”. Extensive hard coral cover, a magnificent wall overrun with gorgonians, and so many fish that they sometimes blocked my view of Pawiks! Spotted a hawksbill sea turtle eating but we didn’t get close.
Napantao’s strong current caught me by surprise though. Diving exclusively in Bacuit Bay, El Nido for the past six years has rendered me used to diving in slow-moving water, with only the occasional currents when the tides move in and out. I had to fight down a (slight?) spike of panic whenever a little voice inside my head would pipe up and say that I’d get swept away. It also didn’t help that I had a hard time equalizing because of a cold. Ended up (slightly) holding on to Pawiks to slow me down during the worst of it. He just laughed it off and said that wasn’t even the strongest the current got. Our initial dive plan had us diving along the wall at 20 meters then coming back up and going over the reef flat on our way back to the boat. But because of the strong current, we separated the plan into two dives: just the wall first and get picked up at the end, then go back to the original start point and do the shallower reef flat. I added 3 lbs weight for the second dive and it helped some, but not much.
The trip to Sogod Bay was definitely worth it. Thank you thank you to Pawiks, Pedro the Mickey Mouse dive instructor, Berto, and the rest of the SBSR boat crew for the great dive experience! I’d love to return and stay longer. I did notice though that the dive sites, even though they’re protected, haven’t recovered from the fishing pressure of years prior. Even Napantao, with its 15 years of protection, had minimal numbers of surgeonfish, rabbitfish, parrotfish, and other commercially and ecologically important herbivores. There were also some piscivores – a school of jacks in Napantao and small groups of snappers and the occasional sweetlips in the other sites but that was it. I hope the management is going well and that the next time I visit, the protected areas have recovered somewhat and are supplying the community with spillover fish.