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Underwater world of Pescador Island

Listed under Diving in Philippines.

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I wipe the bubbles from the front of my camera and check my depth for the umpteenth time. Sixteen metres exactly. Perfect, just where I was told to be. The gently shelving coral garden gives way to a sheer wall and the turquoise water deepens to navy then black more than fifty metres below. The current wafts me gently along a reef crammed with the very best that tropical diving has to offer. I’m at Pescador Island, described in the guides as one of the top dive spots in the Philippines. Orange, purple and yellow fan corals reach out into the tide along with the green and black spirals of wire coral. Luminous pink soft corals erupt from every ledge and patches of rock in-between are smothered with sponges, coral and sea squirts in all the colours of the rainbow. You might imagine that such fabulous scenery would have me clicking away furiously but no, I’m on a mission and it doesn’t involve coral.

Fish in every conceivable shape and colour shimmer around the reef. Iridescent damsels flicker among the coral branches and big eye lurk beneath overhangs. Lionfish float by with fins and frilly bits outstretched and fabulously decorated angels and butterflyfish weave through the reef. Orange and white clown fish keep house in their big fat purple anemones and box fish peer squarely from gaps in the coral. But I’m not interested in these painted beauties, as gorgeous as they are. My sights are set on a far less flamboyant target and, for fear of wasting batteries, I haven’t even switched on my strobe yet. A turtle drifts down towards me, silhouetted perfectly against the sunburst. My shutter finger twitches and my resolve nearly weakens but the turtle wafts by un-recorded.

The animal I’m looking for lives among the grey, leathery tubes of vase sponges and now I’m reaching the section of reef where these bizarre growths are protruding rather rudely from the wall. I zigzag between them scrutinising each cluster for the superbly camouflaged creature I’ve travelled thousands of miles to see. Time and again I’m disappointed and images of long check-in queues, airline food and the dent in my bank account pass before my eyes uncalled for. I spot a likely looking collection of sponges beneath me and drop down. Nothing there either. I think of lugging my camera gear half way round the world and the frustrating week of diving here without it while the combined expertise of the dive centre and my long suffering buddy worked out how to repair the strobe damaged en route. By this time I’ve dropped to more than twenty metres and peer miserably up the wall. The dive guide said they were defiantly here. A few metres above a group of vase sponges sprout from the reef, gently backlit by diffused tropical sunlight. Bridging a couple of the tubes is a lumpy grey shape, exactly the colour and texture of the sponge. My pulse quickens and I reach for the camera, flicking on the strobe and rejoicing in the gentle whine as it charges up. I swim up to my holy grail. There are no fancy patterns or ornate fins, no shiny teeth or intriguing behaviour but I’m in heaven. I’ve found my first frogfish and turn somersaults in celebration. I point it out to my buddy who appears to be in remarkably firm control of his excitement.

I gaze reverently into the tiny pink eyes and wonder at the jowly, downturned mouth. I photograph my star from all directions and the frogfish doesn’t move a flabby muscle. It’s pectoral and pelvic fins, for all the world like little webbed hands, stay motionless and it’s fleshy fishing lure remains stowed against its warty head. Famed for its ability to eat creatures almost as large as itself, the frogfish relies on the lightening speed of its jaw movement to gulp down animals attracted to its twitching bait. But this one isn’t fishing, in fact it isn’t even moving. I look closer, worried that my beautiful fish may be dead, an understandable mistake considering its somewhat bloated appearance. Eventually I notice a flap behind each ‘elbow’ barely perceptively open and close, the fish’s gills. I take yet more photographs and wonder why I find such a bizarre and, some might say, rather ugly fish, so appealing. Yet every diver you ask has a favourite creature, and it’s not always the cute ones. Every day at the dive centre someone would sing the praises of some curious marinelife or another. One was thrilled by a ghost pipefish and for another his whole trip was made worthwhile by a dusk dive watching mandarin fish flirt and mate. The smaller the critter, the greater the fascination as I realised watching others go to literally any depths in search of pygmy seahorses on fan corals. My favourite find so far had been a glorious red and white striped sea cucumber festooned with horns and spikes on a patch of rubble. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a scene from Star Wars yet my buddy, instructed to pose by this fabulous creature, failed to look impressed.

Some underwater obsessions are more universal. Clownfish are always popular, even more so since Nemo hit the silver screen. Dolphins and turtles are on most hit lists and earlier that day I’d watched in amazement as a boat load of divers took it in turn to flash frantically beneath a table coral at a group of baby whitetips smaller than my local dogfish. The whale shark which swept past the whole group one day was undeniably stunning but still didn’t rate with my frogfish fetish. Every few days a seahorse would be found in the shallows by the dive centre and the place would empty in a stampede for masks and snorkels. Black and covered with rather un-pleasant looking fuzzy stuff, the seahorse did the usual manoeuvre of its kind and turned away from every camera. All the same, food was left un-eaten, beers went warm and log books were abandoned even though there were many, far more colourful, camera friendly pipefish on the reef. Aren’t they, after all, just unrolled seahorses?

And it’s not just tropical waters which trigger these strange fixations. Our Great British seas are fabulous hunting grounds for those who go nuts over nudibranchs or are potty about tompot blennies. I was once kissed by a marine biologist thirty metres down on my favourite reef at home in Sark after showing him a wall of sunset cup corals. Apparently he’d been looking for them for all his diving life.

Back in the warm water of the Philippines I consider the frogfish, motionless and oblivious to my adoration. Is it perhaps the challenge of finding a creature so well camouflaged or the fascination of a fish which looks so un-fishlike? Could it be a perverse attraction to the plain and lumpy in a realm where exquisite beauty is the norm? Whatever the reason, it’s made my long journey more than worthwhile.

I reluctantly leave the frogfish behind but worship two more before the end of the dive, both of which I photograph from every possible angle. Back at the dive centre I proudly display my portfolio of blobby grey fish on a spongy grey background. My fellow divers glaze over as I enthuse about my best dive ever and one is rude enough to say my beautiful frogfish has the face of a politician. Heathen! At the end of the holiday I ask my buddy which of the fabulous marine life we’d seen was his favourite. The whale shark or turtles maybe? Without hesitation he declares his love for batfish. Batfish, I ask you?

For me, I’ve discovered that there are more than forty species of frogfish worldwide including those with intriguing words like ‘hairy’ and ‘warty’ in their titles. Then there’s the added challenge of seeing one feed, or even just move. I think this could be the start of a very expensive obsession.

Essential Info for Frog Hunters

The Philippines are an archipelago of over seven thousand islands in the heart of Southeast Asia’s ‘coral triangle’, the most biologically diverse underwater ecosystem in the world. It’s a year round destination with water temperatures between 26 and 29°C and visibility up to thirty metres. I dived with Magic Island Dive Resort at Moalboal on the West coast of Cebu Island. There are direct flights to Cebu City from several international airports including Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Magic Island Dive Resort offers excellent value full board deals with superb food, the longest cocktail menu I’ve ever seen and ‘dive all you can’ packages. They run two purpose built dive boats which visit sites along the coast and nearby Pescador Island. The boats use only mooring buoys rather than anchoring and a small fee for every dive goes towards the protection of the reef. The house reef is an excellent shore dive but don’t tread on the seahorses! Most importantly, the team at Magic Island are exceptionally tolerant of underwater photographers and those with bizarre tastes in marine life.

Written by  Sue Daly.

Other expert and press reviews

“Dugong spotting, The Philippines”

By Charlotte Boan and Tim Ecott for The Guardian First published Saturday 13 December 2008 Dugongs - aka sea cows - are increasingly rare. At Dimakya Island in the remote Palawan archipelago of the Philippines, they are attracted to the verdant beds o… Read more...

Written by press. Continue reading on guardian.co.uk

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

The Apo Reef and Pescador Island

At 34km the Apo Reef is this areas largest and home to over 500 species of marine life, including turtles and sharks. The reef is famous for its drop offs, vertical reef walls which plummet down to 80m deep.

Another interesting site in the region is Pescador Island, a mushroom shaped island home to a vast diversity of hard and soft corals and marine life, including lionfish, puffer fish and blue ribbon eels.

Typhoons are common in the Philippines, so the best time to dive is between December and May.

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