Recently I went to the Philippines with a small group of friends where we boarded the beautiful Philippine Siren with our destination Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, in the middle of the Sulu Sea. The crew greeted us warmly and showed us to the dining area where we gathered with a cold drink for a briefing. Shu and Ed (cruise director and assistant cruise director, not to mention dive guides extraordinaire) covered all aspects of life on board including diving and dining schedule, where things were on the Siren, and on-board safety.
The boat is beautiful, made of smooth polished wood intermixed with bright white paint and blue canvas. The cabins are large enough for me to do yoga and my stretches on the floor and still have two comfy single beds. The rooms are amazingly clean with private heads and showers with lots of hot water! . We unpacked and settled into our cabins and our suitcases disappeared into the hold. Captain Russell and first mate Paul fired up the engines and we began our journey across the Sulu Sea to Tubbataha.
Dinner is always a fun end to the day on the Siren with the chef Boy or sous-chef Joanry coming up from the hot kitchen, following the soup which I would often have seconds of, to announce the delicacies presented that evening. Breakfast is just as well presented as dinner with egg and pancake stations (cooked your way), with some other choices, fruit and tons of bacon. Lunch brought another plethora of delicious food items to select from. And if you aren’t full yet every afternoon a snack was provided, mini hamburgers, fried bananas, lumpia etc.
In the dining area there is always cold water and juices, and hot water for tea or coffee available as well as sodas and beer (although no diving after a beer). Snacks are also available, chips or Oreo cookies (a fought over staple in our group), and hard candies to get the salt water taste of the ocean out of your mouth. Inside is the salon with soft couches to lounge on, a TV, and the charging station and camera tables. I’m not sure about other cruises but with our group having seven out of eight underwater photographers and several photographers among the other guests the camera tables came up a little short on space.
Our first dives were at Jessie Beazley Reef. I had come down with a head cold and had to sit out that day, so can’t give a detailed report but I was told the diving was amazing with light to medium current and multiple sharks (white tip and grey reef) circling the reef. Then off we went to the North and South Atolls of Tubbataha. Sharks, mantas, turtles and schooling fish were seen, and photographed. An occasional whale shark was seen. We saw bumphead parrotfish, turtles, snappers, unicorn fish and thousands of anthias in a rainbow of colors popping in and out of the staghorn coral.
The reefs in Tubbataha were beautiful, with mostly healthy hard coral (there some areas the reef was damaged and I am not sure if this was due to typhoons or human interaction) and colorful soft corals and the visibility on most dives had to be at least 60-80 feet. We dove sites with huge fans, gorgonians that a person or two could hide behind. And so warm; warm water! As Northern California divers warm water is such a treat. Often there was strong current whisking us along the reef. I have to admit, current dives aren’t my favorite and I sat out a couple of dives that were expected to have strong current. But this is how I missed the whale shark and the hammerhead!
After six amazing days diving Tubbataha we headed east across the Sulu Sea stopping to dive in Cagayancillo before heading to Dauin. I had been to Dauin before and knew we were going to be checking off our lists a lot of the macro creatures we loved so much; tiny frogfish (check), seahorses (check), robust ghost pipefish (check), scorpion fish (check), nudibranchs (check), schooling striped catfish, leaf fish, juvenile sweetlips AKA the fluttery fish, sea moths (check, check and check)! Even a flamboyant cuttlefish! The diving at Dauin is easy, none to a very slight current and the best creatures are usually in shallow although there are some that like to stay deep on the artificial reefs that have been installed along the coastline. We did a day trip to Apo Island, known for its healthy reef system and turtles. And we saw turtles! Plus big-eye trevally, GIANT puffers, large frogfish, more anthias, and banded sea snakes! Very creepy but so cool!
Then we headed to Oslob to see whale sharks. I have never seen a whale shark in real life before and I was so thrilled when we saw maybe six or eight of them. The whale sharks are fed by the fishermen, which is a controversial practice with many people feeling that feeding the whale sharks to attract them for tourists to see is not a natural process. I kind of agree with that but the sharks are free to come and go and I understand that most of them don’t stay there but continue on their way after a few days. So I went, saw and photographed but my favorite picture is of one of the whale sharks that the crew on the Siren pointed out to me as the dingy brought me back to the boat. I jumped in with my mask and fins and camera and was able to get a couple of pictures of the whale shark without a fisherman, tourist or fellow SCUBA diver in the picture.
Next we travelled to Balicasag where there was yet more great diving including an awesome night dive where I found a huge black frogfish. There were also two kinds of Morey eels, waspfish, banded shrimp, box crabs, pipe fish and so much more. Our last two dives of the trip were at Cabilao where we saw giant yellow frogfish (three by report), an almost black tomato anemone fish, more juvenile sweetlips (one of my favorites but hard to photograph), orangutan crabs, and the most beautiful colorful soft corals of the trip.
Then came the sad day when our gear was rinsed for the final time, the cameras taken apart and our bags brought up to be packed so we could head home. That last night there was a special BBQ dinner with lots of great food, special drinks made by hostess Marefe, frivolity and photo and video sharing. We also posed with and without the crew for a couple of pictures. ! At this point I have to say that the crew on the Philippine Siren is one of the best I have encountered in all of my liveaboard trips. They were all helpful, full of smiles and just great people. Thank you to Shu, Ed and Andrew for being such great dive guides, taking such good care of us (not always easy) and the entire Philippine Siren staff for making our trip a great one!
I hope to be back on a Siren Fleet liveaboard soon!