Layang Layang: Pelagics and the Star of the Show – Hammerhead Sharks

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The reason why we were at Layang Layang was really for hammerhead sharks and the pelagics that were so famous in that area. The whole area was just wall diving with corals dropping off from zero metres all the way to 2000 metres into an oceanic trench! We were under strict instructions to secure things to ourselves because anything that fell into the abyss certainly would never be retrieved.

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Our first couple of attempts to find hammerheads drew a blank. We saw other animals instead, like pretty green turtles…

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… who were quite friendly and didn’t spook too easily when we got close.

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We had to go further out into the blue, away from the coral walls, to get a better chance of seeing hammerheads. Sometimes, all we saw was each other in the blue…

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… and nothing but bubbles rising. We normally had to go pretty deep as hammerheads are very shy and never get used to divers because as migratory animals they pass by Layang Layang only occasionally in the year.

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Sometimes we got so bored that we’d take pictures of anything in sight, such as this jellyfish relative that join up to form a rope-like organism floating in the water.

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Yet our persistence paid off. On three different occasions we saw hammerheads, and mostly in threes and fours. They were generally pretty deep and hard to capture on camera. This is the best picture I have, where you can clearly see its scalloped head. On another occasion, we saw a few outlines appearing out and down and as we descended lower, just about reaching the 40m limit, more and more shapes appeared in the blue gloom and the dim shapes with high pectoral fin and just barely discernible odd-shaped heads filled in the entire field of vision. It was truly an awe-inspiring vision seeing that school.

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There certainly were other pelagics that were much less shy, such as this dogtooth tuna that I certainly didn’t want to get any closer.

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Thankfully, it swam over my head and off to find smaller prey instead of taking revenge for my penchant for otoro sashimi!

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We saw quite a few reef sharks, including this white tip reef shark that swam away before I could get in any closer for a better picture, and an even shyer thresher shark that I saw for a few seconds before it swam off.

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The friendlier creatures were the manta rays, which we saw quite a few of.  One of them came in at quite shallow depths and sailed past majestically.

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Others were quite deep and some were in flocks and flitted like birds, disappearing before we could react to take photos. There’s something about how they fearlessly continue on their way, not bothering to hide themselves, that really impresses me about this beautiful creature. I don’t think I could ever get sick of seeing them.

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Other pelagics included many members of the trevally family, including schooling big eye trevally, like below.

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And them turning this way and that to form a tornado.

It was another of those amazing sights, and quite mind-boggling, to see these silvery masses of fish turning round and round, probably to trap prey within.

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Other big fish include this bumphead parrotfish that was curious enough to check us out instead of the other way round!

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I’m glad to report that its ferocious-looking beak is used for chomping down on coral and not on divers!

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And before long, our dive time was up and we had to head back to the surface.

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April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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April in the Philippines: The World’s Smallest Airport

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The landing at El Nido was very smooth. The plane coasted across a strip of sea polka-dotted with giant white jellyfish, and dipped down onto a runway flanked by two low hill ranges. I should have expected it, but the sheer (lack 0f) size of the airport stunned me.

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Everything was done manually because it was so darn small, from the steps for passengers to get on and off to the baggage cart. Incidentally, I was the only one getting off the plane and I offered to carry my own bag to the arrival hall but I was waved away with cheerful grins. I then trotted off to the arrival/departure hall.

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It really was more open-air shack than airport hall. Low benches were the departure/arrival area. The check-in counter was but a rostrum with a manual weighing scale next to it. Both were covered with plastic canvas once check-in was done. It was lovely and relaxed chatting with the departing passengers, mostly western tourists. We exclaimed at how quaint and dinky the airport set up was.

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Of course this wasn’t quite the whole airport. The VIP lounge was at the back. In reality just a hammock strung between two tree trunks. Much of the time airport staff used it for their siesta.

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I gather that this here is the side gate of the airport. I don’t know where the meandering path goes to but it sure looks pretty.

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Seeing that there wasn’t a road in sight, I worriedly asked the friendly folks manning the counter how I could get to El Nido town. No problem was the answer: I’d just wait till the plane took off and then they’d open the runway gate. A trike soon came rumbling in and I was off on the next part of my journey!

The Black Manta: Seven Skies Wreck

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It was a short chug over to the Seven Skies Wreck. The Swedish tanker went down in 1969 and settled rather conveniently upright so that we recreational divers could reach the funnel easily and explore to just above 40m. Only the technical divers with special training went deeper to the base of the wreck at about 60m. We used a line attached to the funnel as a guide on our way down and back up again. It got a bit hectic as people were moving up and down the line at different stages of the dive, so lots of patience was needed here.

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I don’t look particularly pleased in this shot, mainly because of the gobs of jellyfish in the water. It was nuts just how many of them were streaming past in a continuous filamentous flow. Sure, they were each rather small, but the trailing tentacles brushed past the exposed bits of my face and neck, leaving trails of fire as I descended. Now I knew why the divemasters all put their hoods on despite the warm water. Thankfully the layer of jellyfish stopped at about 20m, so by the time we got to the wreck, things were a lot more comfortable.

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There were lots of fish on the wreck. One of the reasons why people like to visit wrecks just to swim on the outside is that despite it being a dead ship, lots of coral like to grow on the shell. And where coral grows, there we find fish too.

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I’m still trying to figure out whether this is the wheel or not. It was a bit too far to the aft of the ship and not quite in the right location for a bridge. Hard to tell but still cute to imagine steering the ship of coral with this wheel.

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There were some chambers that had large enough openings to pass in and out of. There was plenty of soft coral encrusted all over and plenty of fish hiding inside, only to scatter quickly when a diver intruded into their space.

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The coral can be very pretty. I like the many shades of pink and orange on this one!

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There wasn’t a whole lot of macro-life on the wreck. The only thing I found was this slightly nondescript nudibranch.

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