Days off as a ZEP means more diving of course! I suppose you don’t usually dedicate eight weeks to marine conservation if you’re not obsessed with the ocean and underwater world. And yet, after four weeks of placement in Panglao, I had yet to see the renowned Balicasag Island. As a marine sanctuary with white sand beach and beautiful corals in clear blue water, not to mention the occasional whale shark, Balicasag is something of a diving Mecca here in Panglao. It is unheard of to be here this long and not have been.
So, even though the other ZEPs had done assessments at Balicasag and perhaps wanted to go somewhere else, I dragged us all on a three dive adventure to the island. First dive of the day at dive site “Cathedral” paid off big time. With more than twenty meters of visibility, the colours of the corals sparkled in the beams of sunlight streaming through the water.
Waving gently back and forth on a shelf of brown hard corals, a white leafy scorpion fish stands out like a beacon. Schools and schools of every colour fish flash as they swim along with us. Turtles float to the surface for a quick gulp of air before soaring back down to the safety of the reef.
Rounding a bend in the wall, we hear the ding of the dive guide’s pointer stick rapping against his tank. Frantically waving us closer, we can see the excitement in his face from meters away. He points to a small, delicate animal I have never seen before: a blue-ringed octopus. No bigger than the size of my fist, and already a fully grown adult we watch as it changes from brilliant yellow with blue rings to slate grey-white with black rings and back. For twenty minutes we are hypnotized by its gentle crawling over the reef and sudden squirts of propulsion. Playing peekaboo in and out of holes in the reef, finally the blue-ringed octopus retired to a cozy den in the rock and we had to swim on. The beauty of its balletic choreography will haunt my dreams.
Second dive at “Black Forest” however unlikely is equally amazing. Less than five minutes underwater and we are completely engulfed by a school of jackfish so massive they block out the sun, casting shadows over everything they pass. At first they cut their path directly through our group, so dense I cannot see Lara and Stephen on the other side of this fish wall. Slowly they arc around us all, enclosing us in a swirling, shimmering bowl of silver.
Finally, and not to be out done by its predecessors, the third dive at “Diver’s Heaven” is a slow drift above a kaleidoscope of corals. A tiny anemone crab peeks out from its protective liar. Transparent anemone shrimp are barely visible as they flit among the swaying tentacles. I watch a cuddle fish mottle alternatively dark and light before it inks and scoots away.
Peeling flecks of crispy sunburnt skin left over from a full day on a boat in the equator sun, I replay the dives in my head. I hear the rhythmic rasping of my breath through the regulator. And I am home.