Underwater Highlights of the Philippine Islands

In 2006 I headed off to the Philippines with a Canon 5D SLR camera to replace the G2 point and shoot camera I'd been using for underwater photography.   First stop was the diving mecca at Alano beach on the island of Bohol and, a very short hop away, the very small island of Balicasag, which is a marine reserve.   That's where I found these humpback batfishes, hovering around a cleaning station just off the edge of the dropoff.

This is the first time I've seen one of these shorthand shrimps, which live in anemones.   They're so transparent that you can look right through and see the markings on the bottom of its body and even see its gut within the body.

shorthand shrimp   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Another shrimp living in an anemone, but this time with a crab for a companion.    This is a "sexy shrimp", which earns its name by the way it characteristically holds its tail up in the air.   The shrimp's friend, no doubt platonic, is a harlequin crab and they're both living within a beaded anemone.   Just as with clown fish, the two crustaceans are immune to the anemone's stinging cells.

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A royal angelfish together with friend.   Sadly, these beautiful angelfish are frequently exported for the aquarium trade even though they usually don't survive long in a tank.

There always one troublemaker in a crowd who wants to go in a different direction than everyone else!   These are striped eel catfish, the only type of catfish which lives on coral reefs.   Babies like these congregate together in large groups, but the adults go their own separate ways and can reach a length of 32 centimeters.   They might seem harmless, but they actually have highly poisonous spines on their fins which in rare cases have killed people.

If you're from Down Under like me, then you'd call this a bluefin trevally, but elsewhere people call them bluefin jacks.   They're a popular sportfish, and can reach a length of 120 centimeters and weigh well over 40 kilograms.

Up to now my trip was following the usual script, but at this point something unexpected happened - I decided to learn to scuba dive.   I've been doing underwater photography for over ten years, but always free diving with a weight belt while holding my breath.   However the big new camera made me feel a little silly and so I did my PADI open-water certification and ended up doing about 15 dives.

On one of the first dives I went back to Balicasag where we did a drift dive along the side of the island where there's a strong current.   The divemaster later told me that she was a little shocked and then amused that I swam against the current to get photos of a titan triggerfish which made three or four head-on attacks on me.   They're the largest triggerfish, and I knew that females can be very aggressive when they're guarding their eggs, and can inflict a very nasty bite right through a wetsuit with those large teeth, but I've seen plenty of potentially dangerous critters underwater and I feel comfortable to approach them with what I hope is an appropriate amount of respect.   It's also a nice security blanket to have a large camera to push them away with.

There were certainly plenty of other dangerous fish to see, like this scorpionfish which was looking suitably devilish.   I've seen scorpionfish before, but never as many as I saw in the Philippines, and there were even times when I was too nervous to settle onto the bottom because there were so many in a small area.   I'm not sure exactly which species of scorpionfish this is, because to be certain you have to count the number of spines in its pectoral fins, but it's the spines on its fins which contain the very strong poison they use for defense.

Lionfish are another family of fish with highly toxic spines, I'd seen plenty of them in Egypt, but nothing to compare with the number and variety of species I saw in the Philippines, a definite benefit of scuba diving rather than free diving.   This naughty spotfin lionfish was hovering outside the home of a shrimp or goby at dusk, hoping to pick up a quick meal.


I've also seen plenty of different types of moray eel over the years, but this is the first time that I've seen a fimbriated moray - for the uninitiated or those whose Latin isn't too good, "fimbriated" means "fringed".   So why couldn't they just call it a fringed moray eel?!

I swam around with it for several minutes to try to get good angles for a photo, and as you can see it wasn't exactly enchanted by having me as a companion.

This strange looking creature is a ribbon eel, which to my surprise is also a type of moray, but of the most harmless kind, constantly waving around in the water with its mouth open, waiting for very small fish to come within striking distance.

I saw some ribbon eels which were very dark colored and I assumed that they were a different species, but in fact there's only one species of ribbon moray - juveniles are completely black, males are dark with a yellow dorsal fin and females are a combination of yellow and blue, and are sometimes almost entirely yellow.

This species is the only type of moray eel which can change color and sex, they're classed as hermaphrodites since fully functional males can change sex and become females, like some species of parrotfish.

To my surprise, one thing I didn't see lots of was butterflyfish, which is a shame since they're such an attractive family.   While freediving I photographed many butterflyfish in Egypt and Australia, but I didn't get many in the Philippines.   Of course there are exceptions - I got a few lousy photos of a pyramid butterflyfish and a sunburst butterflyfish, two varieties I hadn't seen before, and this one nice photo of a longnose butterflyfish.   This species is extraordinarily widespread, it's found all the way from East Africa through the Indian and Pacific Ocean to the coast of South America, and it's even made its way to isolated islands like Hawaii and the Galapagos.

Wrasses are another family with a lot of interesting and attractive members.   This is one of the nicest, a yellowtail coris, which I've seen some years ago in Hawaii.   The light coloration, and many blue spots in front of the bright yellow tail suggest that this is a female.

yellowtail coris   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

I also had the great good fortune to photograph this baby yellowtail coris, which must have been only 2 or 3 centimeters long.   As you can see, the colors and patterns change significantly as the fish grow up.   It was very difficult to photograph, swimming jerkily backwards and forwards and never seeming to stop.

The bright color of these juveniles advertize their services as cleaners, removing parasites and dead tissue from larger fishes.   Once they get bigger they start eating smaller fishes, so it seems that they forget their earlier helpfulness!

The only other fish which tried to take a chunk out of me in the Philippines was this cheeklined wrasse - in fact, several different cheeklined wrasses went after me while I was diving in Anilao, a short distance south of Manila.   Thankfully they're quite a bit smaller than titan triggerfish, less well endowed with teeth and easily dissuaded by waving a camera strobe in their direction.   This individual is far more vividly marked than any of the other photos I've seen, but apparently they're able to change their color to some extent at will, and have even been seen blending in with bottom foraging goatfishes, and then darting out from the school to catch small, unwary fish.

Oxycheilinus digramma   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

This coral trout is also more vividly colored than most.   It's not a trout at all, but belongs to the grouper family, which has several colorful members.

coral hind or coral trout   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Like other hawkfishes, coral hawkfish are small to medium size fish which sit around waiting for something tasty to come along.   The red spots on the tail and dorsal fin are nice, but the yellow tassels on the dorsal spines are just crazy!

The prize for cute fish has to go to the clownfish and anemonefish, two families which have a very similar appearance and a very similar lifestyle, gaining protection from predators by swimming amongst the stinging arms of anemones.   These clown anemonefishes are almost identical to the anemonefishes used as a model for the movie Finding Nemo, though somehow that movie forgot to mention that they're protoandrous hermaphrodites like the ribbon eels above, with males turning into females in cases where the female dies - which means that Nemo's father should have become Nemo's mother!

Of course not every fish gets a cute name, as these pink skunk clownfish will tell you.   They got this name not because they smell bad, but because of the white stripe down their backs, which looks like the white stripe on a skunk's back.   The domestic arrangements here are equally unsuitable for the delicate ears of children:  each anemone houses a large female, a smaller male and several even smaller males which aren't sexually active.   If the female dies then the largest male becomes a female and the next larger male becomes his partner ... or her partner...   anyway, you get the idea!   The religious right would have a fit!

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

I was photographing something on the seabed at Anilao when I noticed this cuttlefish less than a meter away, making like a rock by bringing its eight arms and two tentacles in close to its body and taking on a dark color.   Cuttlefish are the source of the cuttlebone given to caged birds, and their ink was the source of the dye called sepia, hence the family name Sepiadariidae.

This is the same individual a few moments later.   Cuttlefish and other cephalopods have up to 200 cells called chromatophores per square millimeter of skin surface, which they can use to change color nearly instantly, producing red, brown, yellow, black and a range of metallic blues, greens, golds and silvers.   Ironically, cuttlefish have excellent eyesight except that they're color blind, so they're not good at matching the actual color of the background, but they're still so good at what they do that if placed on a submerged chessboard, they assume a pattern of squares on their own body.

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In the last 6 or 7 years my animal photography has taken a more nocturnal bent, both in forests and jungles on land, and underwater.   It's a very unnerving thing when you first take the plunge at night, but it's well worth doing, since the wildlife you see at nighttime is often quite different than what you see during the day.   I did my first underwater scuba dive at Alona beach off Panglao Island, then several more at Anilao - in fact the first dive I did at Anilao was a night dive.   It was rather a depressing experience, since the "house reef" off the resort looked like a wasteground, with only a few anemones like this one providing any interest.   Thankfully my daytime dives showed that the area around Anilao has large areas of very healthy reef.

Things did improve on that first night dive when I came across this sub-adult many-spotted sweetlips; it looks quite different from the adult many-spotted sweetlips I photographed on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.   This one is well on its way in the transformation from the juvenile coloration of white spots on a brown background to the adult coloration of brown spots on a white background.

Here's one thing you'll never see in the daytime, a male yellowfin parrotfish asleep within a protective mucus bag.   It's thought that this bag might hide the scent of the fish from predators like moray eels roaming the reef at night.   Parrotfish create a lot of the sand in tropical areas by crunching away the coral with their beaks - a large specimen can create a hundred kilograms or more each year.

If the "house reef" at Anilao was disappointing, then what would you expect for the nearby dive site called Basura, which in Spanish means "rubbish dump"?   I dived on this site one night, and was very impressed by the number of creatures making their homes amongst the castaway trash.   This banded pipefish was one of several spending the night near a discarded oil drum, and in that same little area there were also cleaner shrimps, a whole school of juvenile bannerfish,  and several other species.   Take a close look at the middle of the right-hand edge of this photo and you'll see another small fish, and just a couple of centimeters away from it a snail with antennae outstretched.

These two warty frogfishes were another highlight of the Basura dive.   I've never seen frogfish before, but on this trip I also encountered a large black frogfish in Bohol.

They hardly look like fish at all with their strange shape, foot-like fins and warty skin.   They lie in wait pretending to be sponges and then pounce on any fish which come too close.   They can even change their colors to match their environment better.

To improve their hunting odds, frogfish are equipped with a small lure which they twitch above their mouth to entice their prey to come closer, which is why they've also been given the name "anglerfish".  You can just make out the lure folded back between the eyes of the frogfish at the front of this photo.   If the lure is lost then it can be regrown over the space of a few months.

Frogfishes don't just eat small prey, their mouths and stomachs can expand to accomodate a meal larger than the size of their own body.   They're also cannibals, so other frogfish need to keep a cautious eye out for their friends!   To avoid being eaten they can rapidly swallow lots of water to swell their bodies up in exactly the same way as some pufferfish do.

I took all of the photos on this page using a Sigma 50mm macro lens, which gave me a capability which I've never had underwater before - to make closeup images of very small critters so that they fill the entire photograph.   I've done this for many years with insects and spiders, so I was very eager to do this same type of photography underwater.   Sea slugs, also called nudibranchs, are one of the underwater macro photographer's favorite subjects because of their beautiful patterns and colors,  like this one with the scientific name Chromodoris coi.   Anilao is considered one of the best spots in the Philippines for nudibranchs, so together with the ones I saw in Bohol I've put together an entire page of sea slugs of the Philippines.

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I started my trip free diving, and that's the way I ended it, swimming with the whale sharks at Donsol, about 12 hours drive east of Manila.   Donsol is one of only two places in the world where whale sharks can reliably be encountered, the other being Ningaloo Reef off the western coast of Australia.   This opportunity was the main reason I decided to travel to the Philippines, rather than somewhere else.  I was in Donsol for two days and saw 5 or 6 sharks each day, even though the weather was cloudy, making it difficult to spot the dark shape of the shark swimming just below the surface.   The visibility at Donsol is much lower than at Ningaloo, but the prices are much cheaper and it's still a real thrill to get this close to such an extraordinary animal.