When I finally got myself certified for scuba diving, the urge to travel became even more pronounced for me. And when I started hearing about far-off places like Tawi-Tawi, I knew I wanted to dive there! (Not that I’m tired of the dive sites in Davao already — in fact, I haven’t even been to half of the sites in the Davao Gulf.)
Fortunately, I was scheduled to give a seminar in Zamboanga City on 3 August 2011, so I resolved to go to Tawi-Tawi from there, no matter what. I had attempted to go on previous occasions, but was thwarted each time due to something or other (but never because of security reasons, mind you). Thanks to Airphil Express, whose marketing people readily listened to my proposal, I got the chance to visit Tawi-Tawi at last! This airline pioneered the missionary route between Zamboanga City and Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, and they now fly there four times a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays). I was there from 5 to 8 August 2011.
There is a very active dive club in Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi province. A month before going, I asked my SDI dive instructor, John Neri of the Carabao Dive Center, if he knew anyone in Tawi-Tawi. It turns out he’s friends with some members of the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club, and introductions were made.
Sidebar. People say, if you’re going to remote places in Mindanao, you have to know local residents who’ll accommodate you. This is sound advice, but unnecessary in Tawi-Tawi if the purpose is security. I’m in no position to categorically proclaim that it’s a safe place, but when I was in Tawi-Tawi, people were just as they would be in any other town in the Philippines. They’re probably less used to tourists, but I noticed no hostility or xenophobia or anything like that.
Engr. Rosendo Reyes of the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (and general manager of the municipal water district) was happy to be my host, and we exchanged emails prior to my trip. I wasn’t expecting to be treated like royalty — and I wasn’t — but they did go out of their way to make my stay comfortable and my diving memorable. I was even assigned a personal dive master!
When I met Dive Master Ramon Tañgon, he immediately asked to see my c-card. He apologized for the necessity, but I was actually put at ease by his action. It showed that the club is serious about safety and professionalism in diving. They don’t have a dive shop or dive center in Tawi-Tawi, so it’s the club members who take care of diving arrangements when the need arises.
And I do hope that the need does arise more for them. Tawi-Tawi is such a beautiful mini-archipelago! It’s not as undiscovered as many people might think, because quite a number of divers have already been there, but not nearly enough. The perception that there are grave security risks in the deep south has caused this stigma to become as pervasive as the common cold. If only a lot more divers would see the wonders of Tawi-Tawi’s true underworld…
Due to bad weather when I was there, I was only able to dive at two sites: Kubbung, which is right in front of my hotel (Beachside Inn Hotel & Restaurant); and Pahut Plane Wreck. Too bad, because there are, in fact, dozens of other sites.
Kubbung Dive Site
|Features:||mini-wall, reef, gently sloping bottom|
The first dive was at the Kubbung dive site, which is accessible from Beachside Inn via shore entry. The disadvantage of such an entry is the distance that has to be traversed, about 200 yards (183 meters) of knee-deep water. I had just climbed Bongao Peak prior to the dive, so I wasn’t about to lug heavy stuff on my back that far, so I towed my equipment all the way to the descent point. (It is possible to hire a boat in Bongao, by the way.)
Descending, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of achievement: I was diving Tawi-Tawi at last!!
The visibility wasn’t all that great, though, because of the bad weather; it had rained very heavily the night before. Ramon told me that, during summer, they’d get a visibility of 80 feet or more. But I got a pleasant surprise when we approached the expansive sandy-bottom area — the waters cleared up and revealed quite a few critters. It was my first time to see a black-finned snake eel, all but buried in the sand. There was also an elongated fish (or another eel) that was white and had a pointed tail.
Table coral were everywhere, some of which were twice my size, and some looking like great steps because they were one on top of another. There were lots of soft coral as well, showing a vibrant marine ecosystem very much alive in the waters of Bongao.
What’s interesting about this dive site is that, it’s where two weddings have actually taken place. On both occasions, the entire entourage was underwater! An imam officiated both weddings (although the couples were Christian), and the I do‘s were exchanged at a depth of 30 feet (by way of slates, I imagine).
Pre-nuptial photo shoots underwater are fairly common now, but the whole wedding ceremony? Wow!!
Pahut Plane Wreck
|Features:||WWII fighter plane, reef, flat bottom|
Before the first dive, I didn’t know that there was to be a second. I have a feeling the first dive was my hosts’ way of evaluating my scuba skills; after all, I only had an Open Water license. After the Kubbung dive, we had lunch of fresh seafood and local dishes, and for dessert: the sweet announcement that we would dive the plane wreck.
The Pahut dive site is named after the barangay adjacent to it. At exactly 60 feet, three-fourths of a Word War II fighter plane sits in crystal-clear waters. The plane’s tail, I was told, is now about 40 feet deeper. We didn’t go there anymore, but three quarters of the wreck was more than enough of a sight for me.
The entire fuselage and what’s left of the wings are almost entirely encrusted in various kinds of coral, and is now home to a variety of fish. Mostly I saw squirrelfish around the site, but there were also quite a lot of puffers and angels and butterflies.
Here’s a video of the wreck dive, courtesy of Engr. Reyes.
The current at that depth was manageable but very, very noticeable. I felt deeply grateful for my buoyancy training — thanks, East & Karlo! — as I did my best to take photos of the wreck. (I touched the plane to stabilize myself only once… but, unfortunately, it was captured on video.)
What I found extremely exhilarating was when we were about to surface. From the wreck, we gradually ascended up a short wall, then faced a roller-coaster ride underwater. At about 20 feet, there was a surge so strong that, no matter how much I kicked, I couldn’t move forward at all. (That’s when I decided I wanted jetfins.) At least I wasn’t being sucked in back to the deep. But when the current rushed inland, I rode with the shore-bound current like crazy! The finning techniques I picked up from the SDI dive instructors, and my swimming training from way back, came into play like instinct! It was actually a lot of fun dodging coral heads like I was in a watery maze. How I wish that had been caught on video!
Tawi-Tawi Divers Club
The divers of Tawi-Tawi are an accommodating bunch, and they’re very eager to share their awe-inspiring dive sites with anyone who wants to visit. They have about a dozen sets of complete gear, and maybe 20 or so tanks available. They have their own compressor — and their air is pretty good, I’m happy to report.
The day before I arrived, the group did a scubasurero at the dive site between Bongao and Sanga-Sanga islands. These divers are passionate about their marine environment and strive to protect and conserve it. They do need some help, though, because environmental problems are slowly creeping into Tawi-Tawi’s islands.
The province is booming economically, if we measure development in local terms. And when development happens, the environment usually suffers from the ill effects of progress. I hope that, as a growing number of people get to know about — and get to go to — Tawi-Tawi, more locals and visitors alike will realize the importance of protecting the aquatic resources of the deep south.