Diving in the philippines

A recurring passion.


Coming through customs and seeing the Philippines 14 day visa stamped in my passport always makes me smile.  Time once again to indulge my passion scuba diving some of the finest reefs in the world.


I travel the world for business and pleasure, but only the Philippines holds me in her spell, drawing me back time and again.  I come for the diving, but I’m rewarded with so much more.  The little things impress me.  A friendly taxi driver happy to chat about his family and giving the correct change; children showing respect to their elders with the traditional blessing of a hand  touched to the forehead; or arriving during one of the many colorful fiestas and having a short glass of beer thrust into my hand by a stranger with cheers from the crowd shouting ‘Tagay’ as I join the fun.


The staff in my favourite café are so familiar and relaxed with my presence they perform dance practice when no other customers are dining, I cannot think of another country I’ve visited where this would happen.


But it’s the warmth of feeling from the crew on my regular dive boat which makes my trips special for me.  I can name all the captains six children, I know who is dating who, upcoming birthdays, university graduation dates, the sad news of a death in the family, or the joyous news of a new born.  For them this is everyday tsis-mis (gossip), but for me it’s a window into a fascinating culture a world away from my own, where people share freely the little they have and ask for nothing in return.


Returning from a dive safari to S.Leyte last December I was invited to join their Christmas party.  Each crew member came onto the stage to showcase a talent they have.  The cook duly sent on her children to gasps from the audience as they began to perform a fire dance, complete with spitting flames.  Bernie the dive guides’ solo guitar rendition of Jingle Bells was much less shocking, though no less warmly received.


I hired a motorbike on one recent trip and visited the tarsier sanctuary on Bohol.  As a threatened species the Philippines are working hard to preserve this wonderful and unique animal.  On the same day while simply exploring at a leisurely pace I stumbled upon a genuine bee farm serving a tasty flower salad, a café bistro inside an old Spanish monastery, and a cock fighting arena where men go to watch their national sport.


Back under the water I’m spoiled for choice as a photographer.  One site, Oslob on Cebu Island, has a resident group of whale sharks with sightings 99% guaranteed.  I actually saw one instructor teaching a scuba class as two whale sharks swam overhead and no one looked up – now that’s when I know I’m diving in paradise!


I can vividly recall coming up from a dive at Balicasag Island just as the sun set.  The brilliance of the colors reaching down to a flat sea, while a short distance away a large pod of pilot whales had gathered around our boat.  Memories like these are special, and yet almost common when I dive in the Visayas.






Tambuli Plane Wreck

Location: Mactan Island, Cebu


There’s something special about seeing a plane under the waves.  Lying at 18 meters this artificially sunken wreck is a relaxing dive that always rewards me with good photo opportunities.  I believe it’s the only wreck of its type in the Visayas.


During a recent trip my DM proved the old adage that a good dive guide is worth their weight in salt and can make or break a dive.  Bernie, from Club Vera, easily brought us to the wreck, spotted a pair of ghost pipefish on the way down and a giant frogfish coming back.  The dive was so cool the wreck was almost a bonus.


Natampo Marine Sanctuary

Location: S.Leyte


This site has an almost unbelievable number of small reef fish.  Damsel, basslet dottybacks and anthasis– more than anywhere else I’ve dived.  I’ve spotted the resident Giant Barracuda each time I’ve dived there along with large schools of snapper, trevally, surgeon and sliver batfish.


I committed the divers worst sin there one time.  Absorbed in my photography I allowed my air supply to run dangerously low.  I spent the three minute safety stop sharing my buddies octopus, but still managed to take a few photo’s as we glided over uncountable fish below.


Snake Island

Between Balicasag & Pamilacan


I was surprised the first time I came here as there is no island.  Despite it’s name it’s actually a shoal down at 20 meters best found by locating the patch of open sea populated with little fishing boats.


Some of my strongest dive memories are here.  The seabed is alive with black & white banded sea crates.  It’s no exaggeration I counted over 40, all in various states of activity.  It’s a unique and thrilling experience to look across to your dive buddy and see him entwined in multiple snakes in some kind of underwater dance.



Olango Island, Cebu


This dive never disappoints, and always draws me back due to it’s abundant marine life.  The remains of a fishing schooner lie close to the lip of the drop-off down at 16 meters and this is where I find the highest concentration of marine life.



But It’s the many different and rewarding ways to dive this site I love so much.  Staying on the shallow slope extends my air supply and gives the best chance of spotting the resident school of Jacks and the many Oriental Sweetlips.  Dropping down the wall I’ve spotted dog tooth tuna, wahoo, and even a devil ray one time.  There’s a swim-through at 22 meters which is fun, and the many snorkelers this site attracts look comical when viewed from below in their orange life vests and thrashing legs.


But be warned, one time when photographing the tombstone of a missing diver here my guide was bitten by a very angry triggerfish, almost as if he were protecting the grave!


Caubian Cave

Danajon reef


I’ve never found this site in any dive books but a few local operators have the gps coordinates.  The cave is below 30 meters so a nitrox blend of 30% is ideal for extending my time here.  It’s really a cavern and my favourite part of this dive is rising up to the roof and looking down on the outside light streaming in. This illuminates the confused fish swimming upside down and strange rock formations casting their eerie shadows on the smooth black walls.


Nalusuan Marine Sanctuary



Every time I’ve dived here I’ve always seen at least a dozen Blue Spotted Stingrays.  They hang around on the rubble slope remaining hidden until, believing they’ve been see, bolt out from under the sand, swim 10 meters only to settle once more.  This is the only place in the Visayas where such a large population can be found.


What’s nice about this site is the way it’s naturally divided into two distinct areas.  When the current isn’t running I like to break the site into two separate, very different and interesting dives.  The 1st dive is to enjoy swimming with the rays on the slope.  The 2nd dive begins where the slope gives way to a wall.  A mermaid at 12 meters marks the start and features large, fully mature coral / marble groupers (know locally as Lapu-Lapu in honor of the man believed responsible for the sleighing of the famous Spanish explorer Magellan).

Cock Fighting

Cock fighting

4:30am here in the Philippines and I hear the familiar sound of two dozen roosters

announcing to the world it’s time to wake up; I reach for my earplugs and secure an

extra hour. But why does my neighbor keep so many birds?

The answer lies in the Philippine national sport of cock fighting. The premise is simple:

two chickens forced to fight to the death with bets won or lost on the eventual winner.

Certain death is almost guaranteed as each has a single sharp steel blade extending

from their left foot.

With 10’s of millions of mostly male Filipino devotee’s, the cock arena on a Sunday is

referred half jokingly as the men’s church. Fights are also arranged throughout the

week, often at local fiestas or illegally on small patches of earth away from official eyes.

A popular misconception is that the Spanish brought the sport to the Philippines in the

16th century, but most likely the Malays introduced the sport in the west of the country

some time earlier, with the Spanish then helping to spread the sport as they began their


Wherever the truth lies one thing is certain, cock fighting is ingrained into the fabric of

Filipino culture and everyday life. If I were to move to another house, street, town, or

island there would be no escape from the near constant crowing of the rooster.

Perhaps silent and invisible to a local, visitors will be assailed by them at every street

corner, shopping mall, beach, and while travelling by jeepney, boat, bicycle or train.

You’ll often see their tail feathers sticking out of small woven hand carried baskets on

their way to a fight. In short they are everywhere.

It’s not even an exaggeration to say some men treat them better than they do their own

children. In a society where salaries can be as little as a few hundred pesos a day ($5)

a mans fighting cock will always be well fed & watered, supplied with multi-vitamins,

and shown a love and adoration his family can only envy. A common scene may be of

a father returning home and concerning himself only with the health and wellbeing of

his prize rooster. A child can expect to be scolded for any ill that befalls a fathers pride

and joy while he is away.

To the outsider this may seem bordering on the ridiculous. But gambling is addictive,

children are often distanced from their father, and with few affordable distractions cock

fighting offers much. Big money is wagered on the outcome of a fight, there’s the

tantalizing possibility of easy money, plus the adrenalin and anticipation before the

fight. Time and money are invested in their wellbeing, and as many men have pointed

out, it’s the perfect excuse to avoid their wife and spend time in the company of other


Owning a fighting cock is a serious hobby. After buying your chick for around 400

pesos it will be at least one year to eighteen months before it’s ready for its first fight.

This time is spent strengthening the bird with a mixture of high protein meals, vitamins

and in some cases illegal steroids. Should your cock survive its first fight it’s most likely,

and highly lucrative for it to fight again. However the wounds often sustained will

require recuperation of at least six months to a year.

There is prestige and kudos with owning a winning cock. The more it wins, the higher the accolades. Come the next fight more people will back your cock to win, meaning a higher share of the winnings for its owner. Regular fight training takes place with a friend or neighbors bird. Actual fights are selected on weight much the same as in boxing, along with negotiations between the respective owners. Gloves are placed over the feet to prevent injury during training and the bird is held and encouraged to peck at the neck of the other to stimulate aggression. Strength and aggression are highly prized assets in a fighting cock. This process is repeated shortly before a fight using a fluffer, and again with the opposition cock moments before the commencement of the fight.

There are several ways a victor can be recognized. When the two birds come together

deep lacerations are caused by the blade tied to their feet. If no fatal blow has been

struck but both birds are still clearly living they are brought back together to continue

fighting. An unresponsive bird is given three attempts to stand and fight before

confirmed defeated. A cock who turns and runs from the fight loses. Perhaps this is

where the term ‘chicken’ originates denoting a person too scared to fight.

A victorious cock is still very likely to be a seriously injured cock. Chicken doctors attend

all major fights and it’s their job to repair the damage incurred in the pit. With little

more than a hooked needle and thread they skillfully repair the damage on the winning


Alas, the same cannot be said of the loser. Once defeated in the pit it’s then handed

over to the winner. The losing bird is unlikely to take much solace in the knowledge it

will be cooked up and served that evening in a celebratory feast.

Wishing to know more about this unique aspect of Philippine life we contacted a friend

who raises fighting cocks. A fiesta was coming up and we agreed to back his birds for

the fight.

Arrangements were made, motor scooters hired, birds guaranteed, and questions of

costs dubiously vague. First stop was the house of Dodong to select which cocks would

be entered for todays fight. We’re assured we have the winning birds, and can

therefore expect a healthy return on our initial investment of 3,000 pesos (~70$)

Lush tropical forest opens up to a small clearing housing small chicken coups

ingeniously made from old car tires. There are many noisy roosters tethered here, but

which can return with their lives, and our money by the end of the day?

Beyond the chicken coups lies Dodongs house. It’s a simple wooden affair reflecting

his status as one of the Philippines many tricycle drivers. As a self employed man he

can expect to earn between 100 and 500 pesos a day. Raising fighting cocks is his only

hobby and offers the potential for bringing in extra cash.

Three roosters are selected for showing promise after displaying aggression against a

fluffer bird. These are tucked under an arm each as we jump back on our hired

scooters and head to the fight.

Arriving at the cock pit a few heads turn as we are the only foreigners at this modest

gathering. Sited on a grassy patch at the side of the road, the pits four sides are little

more than makeshift crowd barriers. It’s fiesta time and the people assembled are in

good spirits. One corner finds a vocal group of men playing Hantak. Small bets being

wagered on the outcome of three coins tossed, with the winner guessing correctly how

they will land.



Meanwhile Dodong has entered into negotiations for a possible match up for his first

fight. The birds are weighed to ensure compatibility and allowed a brief face-off to see

if this will make a good fight. After much pecking, scratching and loud crowing the fight

is agreed.

Each bird is assigned its own corner man. He is the one who will attach a sterilized

steel blade (bulang) to the cocks foot, traditionally the left. Measuring three inches, it’s

razor sharp along the leading edge, running to a point. Simple cotton thread is used in

a very precise set of crosses and knots. The binding is checked and double checked for

weakness or fault. As we later found out losing owners can be sore and often look for

excuses as to why their cock didn’t win.

Inside the cock pit the two birds are paraded for the crowd. This is the opportunity for

punters to place their bets. Inilog (bird on the right side) or biya (bird on the left side).

The noise around the cock pit is deafening as the excitement and tensions rise. The

birds are encouraged to peck around the head of their opponent, and they claw the

earth trying to reach one another while being held back by their tail feathers. Men

bellow and gesticulate, backing one bird over the other, straining over the barriers,

jockeying for the best position to view the fight. The birds are released and then…


Each bird seemed content with scratching the floor, pecking for food and completely

disinterested with one another. Then, in a flash of feathers they were upon each other.

Wings beating as each tried to gain the advantage of being higher than the other.

Claws extended, steel blade slashing, feathers flying and then as quickly as it had

begun it was all over. We had lost.

During the interval before the next fight there was an opportunity to capture some shots

of the opposition’s bird as it had its blade attached to its foot. Eager to get close to the

procedure the corner man became angry shouting in bisaya that we were distracting

him in his work. When their bird duly lost mumblings of foul play and recriminations

were cast. For the remainder of the day we kept a low profile.

Many people see cock fighting as wrong, out of place in the modern world given its

fundamentally barbaric nature. However up until now both fights had seen a mercifully

quick death so it was possible to convince oneself it wasn’t as inhumane as outsiders

insist. Any sense this may hold true showing the sport to be more sanitary than it is was

was shattered in the next fight.

We now had one win and one loss. The crowd seemed to back the other cock to

triumph. Dropped into their respective corners the birds came flying towards each

other tangling in midair, crashing to the floor only to bounce straight back up. The

crowd were clearly enjoying the spectacle.

This process continued for some minutes. Occasionally the pit master would separate

them if the action slowed. Both birds looked tired and visibly injured, with ours coming

off the worst. Seemingly the crowd had backed the winner. Our bird was now unable

to walk, but made to continue fighting as it still gamely attempted to peck the other.

Then without warning the other cock turned and fled. It was caught and brought back

three times and each time it would limp away. Our cock was declared the winner.

We left with more money than we arrived but with little taste to repeat the experience.

For millions of Filipino’s this is their passion and obsession. I came wanting to know why

I was woken up at 4:30am each morning. Now I know, but it doesn’t help.