I have never found sardines in a tin to be a particularly inspiring sight. But being spiraled by hundreds of thousands of them in a three dimensional tornado changed my view of this little fish.
I came to Cebu with a plan of four objectives. The first was to visit Moalboal, which has been a fire-engine-red blip on the diving radar for longer than I have been alive. It is one of the few places on earth where divers can easily access schooling sardines. The site itself is close to shore, less than a stone’s throw from the decking of the beachside restaurant where I had wolfed down a chicken curry the night before. Once in the water, there was no need to go looking for them, they found us. The approaching school starts as an indistinct, turbid smudge at the limit of visibility. As it gets closer, it swells to a blurring, billowing cloud of black and silver, completely enveloping the dive teams and cutting them off from each other. It is more than just a school – it is a writhing nebulus of fish, dense enough to block out the sun and to turn the muted colours of the underwater world into shadows. Patrolling schools of trevally take turns hunting through them, causing them to twist and turn collectively in flashes of silver. Although immense in number, they move like a single organism, as mesmerising to watch as it is disorienting. From within, it really is like being inside a stormcloud, dark and ominous, rolling upon itself, and occasionally lit up by flashes of lightning. It is a difficult thing to imagine without seeing first hand, and my muted, blurring pictures pay a disappointing tribute to this force of the animal world.
Second on my bucket list was a date with the devil. Whale sharks have eluded me for my entire life, but Oslob offers a 95% guarantee of seeing them. The catch is that they are fed by local fishermen to keep them close to shore; a contrived and unnatural environment that is contra to all of my beliefs about eco-tourism and animal welfare. But, it was an opportunity that I had to take advantage of, so under the guise of a reconnaissance mission I sold my soul, hired a motorbike, and headed for south to Oslob. The experience really was as distasteful as I had feared. It is commercialism at its ugliest, and is geared heavily towards the less discerning package-deal tourists. They seem more than happy to pull on a generic orange life jacket, bob around on the water surface like a crouton, snap of some quick photos, and then get hauled back onto their tourist bus via the cashier. All to the blaring background soundtrack of top 40 pop music. Ignoring the gross, conscienceless exploitation, the whale sharks themselves are incredible. As big as a bus, but as graceful and dignified as a leaf on a stream. Four of them swam around my feet in an immense gentle tangle, occasionally brushing against me with a tail or a fin which despite their tonnage, was nothing more than a whisper of a touch. As much as I hated the idea of them being fed, watching them suspended angled with their mouths at the surface, draughting massive mouthfuls of water, was an amazing sight.
The ride to Oslob was a 160km round trip along an eye-popping ocean road, and the hard braking, u-turns and photo taking made it a longer trip than the prescribed four hours. The road led me past the Kawasan waterfalls, the topic of a viral youtube video that my intrepid cousin had sent me, so with time up my sleeve I decided to check them out. The path leading to the falls follows the Kawasan river. The water is powder blue, tumbling over rocks from the verdant green forest canopy. Stepping away from the noise of the road, it feels like entering a lost world. But the illusion is shattered at the falls themselves. They are stunning, or at least they would be if it weren’t for the development right up to the water’s edge. The pool beneath the falls was teeming with people on bamboo rafts, all being worked around a well-practiced rope circuit on the pool for the obligatory selfie under the falls. The tour operators were rubbing their bulging pockets. Similar to Oslob, an amazing natural resource was ruined by vulgar over-commercialisation. I shouldered past all of the money collectors to dive in and swim for a half hour, doing my best to enjoy the environment despite the incessant squealing, selfie sticks, and the risk of being garrotted by a rope.
The third ticket on the list was the closest to its natural state, and therefore the best. Malapascua is a small island off the north point of Cebu. It is difficult to get to, a position that keeps it quiet and only draws determined people. The little bangka ferry connecting Malapascua to the mainland only leaves when it is full, so after sweltering on the pier for a few hours waiting for other die-hards, I arrived at one of the world’s only few reliable sites for thresher sharks. The sharks are deep dwellers, but most days at the crack of dawn they rise to the surface of Monad shoal to make use of the cleaning station. There they cruise for a few minutes getting debugged by cleaner fish before dropping back to their regular levels to get on with their day. Whatever that entails. It took two attempts at kneeling quietly, 30m down at 6am, before one came close enough to catch a blurry photo. Grinning like an imbecile lets a lot of water around a regulator, but there is something about diving with sharks in their natural environment that makes it hard not to smile, especially for a such an unusual example as this one.
Cebu is considered to be the flagship tourism island of the Philippines. I left it to the very end of my Philippines odyssey partly for this reason. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that it quite lived up to the hype. Its attractions are undeniable, but the shine is taken off these by gross over-development and relentless commercialism. Overall, the Philippines had been a good mistress, and I loved her in return. But over two months had passed, and the time had come to fly away from her white beaches, blue waters and volcanic sunsets. So, my fourth and final job in Cebu was to get on a plane, thereby avoiding a revisit to the over-populated insanity of Manila. Sadly I left, aiming myself for a few days in Singapore, en route to Vietnam.