Southern Leyte, Philippines, December 28 2008 - January 4 2009

Conventional wisdom has it that getting from one obscure place in the Philippines to another always takes two days, but we defied the odds and made it from Cabilao Island to Southern Leyte in one. We left Cabilao by small bangka boat, as we'd arrived, returning to a pier on the southwest corner of Bohol (photo 1). From there a van drove us to Ubay in Bohol's northeast corner, where ferries depart for the neighboring island of Leyte. To Americans, Leyte is famous as the island where, during World War II, General MacArthur proclaimed "I shall return," and did.

Nobody at either end of our journey was quite sure of the exact time a ferry might sail from Ubay to Leyte, nor where exactly on Leyte it would take us. Rumor had it there should be an early afternoon ferry to the town of Bato, and indeed a 1pm ferry set out for Bato at 1:40pm, not bad for island time. Philippine ferries have a dicey reputation, and we were duly shocked when we saw ours (photo 2). Just kidding -- the actual ferry didn't look that bad, although it was plenty well-worn. We had a choice of paying $4.00 each for "ordinary class" -- shoulder-to-shoulder plastic chairs on the hot deck -- or $4.40 for "tourist class" -- a large, uncrowded, air-conditioned cabin with cushy seats and bad American movies. The extra $1.60 for the family was well worth it. We were the only Westerners on the entire ferry, but the very few Filipinos who also splurged for tourist class were fine company.

Before boarding the ferry our van driver notified Peter's Dive Resort by text message that we were on our way, and the resort's van awaited our ferry arrival for the last leg of our journey, to the small town of Padre Burgos at Leyte's southern tip. All in all it was a long day, but a surprisingly smooth trip.

Even in name, Peter's Dive Resort doesn't pretend to have a beautiful beach (photo 3) or cater to anyone but divers. Accommodations are generally modest, although we were fortunate to have been offered what's normally Peter's house: a spacious and comfortable place steps from the ocean; at $65/night an amazing bargain. The open-air restaurant is also modest, but a pleasant hang-out spot and a gathering place for visitors to this outpost of the Philippines.

Peter runs a serious dive operation and attracts a diverse clientele. Companions during our stay included:
  • A group of Peace Corps volunteers stationed throughout the Philippines, meeting up for a holiday break. Their experiences made for many an interesting tale, perhaps giving us our best glimpse into the real Philippines.
  • A personable, well-traveled Canadian combat photographer on R&R from Afghanistan. When he heard what life is like for the peace corps volunteers, he responded "I'd rather be shot at."
  • An Oklahoma family visiting their Filipino relatives. The teenage kids had never been out of the States before and were having some difficulty coming to grips with the third world.
  • A friendly Japanese couple, their 10-year-old son, and a male friend. Except when diving, the two men stationed themselves in the restaurant 24/7, making their way through numerous bottles of vodka.
  • An American living in Beijing and an Australian living in Singapore. We continued to meet many Westerners living in Asia and vacationing in the Philippines; the fact that we came to the Philippines all the way from the USA for a two-week vacation was met uniformly with surprise.
As in Cabilao, we did a ton of diving and not a whole lot else. (That's Emily in photo 4.) The diving at Peter's is diverse and generally excellent. Many of the smaller creatures are similar to those at Cabilao but we did see quite a few new ones, along with numerous sea turtles and a wide variety of fish-life. The lush and healthy reefs here do lead one to feel deceptively optimistic about the condition of our oceans. Tim's picture-taking passion didn't abate one bit; photos 5-13 are all his.

A rather unusual experience is night-diving at the town pier. After lumbering down slippery concrete steps in full gear while half the town watches, one enters the water through floating garbage that's best not examined too closely. Underwater, the pier posts and scattered debris attract a host of unusual nighttime critters, including nudibranchs (photo 9), frogfish (photo 10), decorator crabs (photo 11), and numerous seahorses (photo 12).

The highlight at Peter's, probably the highlight of the entire trip, was our encounters with whale sharks (photos 13 & 14). Whale sharks are an apex experience for most divers -- some travel to remote Western Australia and use spotter planes just for the possibility of swimming with them. We didn't choose Southern Leyte specifically because of the whale sharks, but seeing them was certainly an exciting possibility. These "gentle giants" are 30-50 feet long and have no teeth: they're filter feeders. Being in the water with them is scary only because of their sheer size -- it feels like one might be knocked silly with a small flick of the tail, but it (almost) never happens. Mostly, swimming with them is awesome in the true sense of the word.

Seeing the whale sharks involved a 1½ hour boat ride across Sogod Bay to the area where they're found most frequently. On arrival a "whale shark interaction officer" from the local village came aboard, along with his companion who collected fees. Most importantly, several fishermen who ply the waters daily came alongside in their tiny outrigger canoes (smaller than the one in photo 3) and helped us locate the sharks. It took a couple of hours, but once we found them we were able to swim with them several times as they came to the surface to feed.

Weather-wise, the occasional showers we experienced in our first week unfortunately worsened to not-so-occasional downpours in our second week. Apparently the dry and wet seasons are less distinct in this part of the Philippines, although the weather was still unusually stormy for this time of year. The accompanying choppy seas occasionally impeded our boat travel and underwater visibility, but the dive guides knew where to go to accommodate the weather, and by the end of our stay we'd visited all of the major dive sites in decent conditions. Sunny skies and flat seas would undoubtedly have enhanced our stay, but no such luck, and everything else went so well that we're not complaining.

The 27-hour trip home involved our last lengthy and bumpy van ride (passing through a lovely, though slightly hair-raising, tropical mountain region), a Cebu Pacific flight from Tacloban, Leyte to Manila, and finally another comfortable and early-arriving Philippine Airlines flight to San Francisco.

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