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Consider My Mind Blown: Diving in Donsol

So far, Donsol had been a bit of a bust. It had been a mission to get there, and thus far the fireflies and whale sharks had been a disappointment. But we had one more creature left on our list to see — manta rays. We had arrived in the middle of peak season for the Manta Bowl, a famous bay for spotting those majestic pelagics that both Heather and I were lucky enough to swim with back in Hawaii in September.

The Manta Bowl is an advanced dive — divers descend to the bottom of a 60 foot underwater valley, tether themselves to the ocean floor using metal hooks to resist the strong currents, and watch in awe as mantas queue up for a spot at the cleaning station, where cleaner wrasse remove parasites from their skin. As if the mantas weren’t enough, whale sharks and thresher sharks have also been known to make appearances. The catch, aside from the inherent difficulty in such an advanced dive, is the distance from Donsol. We would be spending the entire day, from 8am to 5pm, on the boat — so as you can imagine, we were doing some serious finger crossing for good weather.

Wish granted.

Scuba Diving San Miguel Island

We boarded the traditional style bangka that would function as our dive boat for the day and watched as the tiny dots on the horizon slowly became idyllic tropical islands so close we could swim to them. Along the coastlines, toddlers ran out of thatch roof huts to wave hello to us as our divemaster explained that these islands had no electricity, no phone service, and limited contact to the outside world. At one point, two local fisherman paddled by and proudly held up their latest catch — an octopus half the size of me.

Now this was what I had come to the Philippines for.

 Scuba Diving in Philippines

Diving in DonsolPhotos by Heather Holt

Note: I get tons of comments and emails every time I post a picture of my Swish Suit. I have a full post about what’s in my gear bag coming up, but in the meantime the lovely ladies at Swish have extended a 10% off discount to my readers — just enter the code “Wanderland” at checkout!

San Miguel Boat Trip

San Miguel Boat Trip

We were warned that the first dive would be a simple refresher — just a shallow reef dive off the shores of San Miguel island. As experienced scuba buddies good on our air — Heather is an instructor, and I’m now a divemaster — we asked if we could stay down should anyone in the group ascend for any reason. Normally, the rule is that groups all go up together, but we got the okay to basically do as we pleased. Just another reason Heather is my favorite dive buddy of all times.

We geared in, rolled backward off the side of the boat, and descended.

Diving in the Philippines

I’ve thought long and hard about how to say this more poetically, but I think it stands as is — these were the best dives of my life. And while it might have been more suspenseful to reveal that later, I realized it moments into the dive, so this is kind of appropriate.

Never before have I seen such endless field of thriving hard and soft corals, such exotic and colorful creatures, and such warm and clear waters to boot. There were moments in this dive that I actually felt like I was on some sort of psychotropic drug — I’ve just never seen a reef so teeming with life and color. Sometimes there was so much to see I didn’t know where to look next.

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhotos by Heather Holt

That’s not to say that this day of diving wasn’t without heartbreak. Ten minutes into the first dive, my underwater camera housing started fogging uncontrollably. I was sick to my stomach — here I was at the most vibrant and beautiful dive site I’d been to in my four years of diving, and I couldn’t capture any of it! My only solace was knowing that Heather was there — and let’s be honest, she’s a better photographer than I anyway.

I did get a few photos before I gave up entirely, like of this tiny nudibranch — Heather’s photo of me taking the photo really shows the scale.

Diving in San Miguel, Philippines

Underwater PhotographyPhoto by Heather Holt

There were nudibranches everywhere. For those of you not familiar with nudibranches, here’s a true scientific definition: they are tiny underwater aliens.

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in San Miguel, Philippines

Even the simple starfish impressed me with the many forms it took in the waters off San Miguel.

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

We came up from the first dive on a high, and in good spirits. On the boat ride to the Manta Bowl shoal, we wondered if our luck would hold steady and translate into the manta sightings we were dreaming about. Chances were slim — despite the effusive claims in our guidebook, there hadn’t been a single manta sighted in four days.

We dropped into the bowl and immediately I could understand why the divemaster delivered the briefing with such gravity. This truly was an advanced dive thanks to the deep current ripping through the open plateau we were on. In spite of that, Heather and I hesitated to use the metal hooks that were tied to us when we saw there was not rocks on the ocean floor but live coral. As a group, we alternated between being carried along the ocean floor by the current and hooking in (or in Heather and I’s case, swimming against the current) whenever the divemaster banged his tank. All the while we looked towards the blue for mantas — but we came up empty.

I couldn’t get too disappointed. I had just had the best dive of my life that morning, and getting whipped around by the current was actually pretty fun once I felt safe. For our third dive, we had a choice between doing the Manta Bowl a second time or heading back to San Miguel — we voted overwhelmingly for the ladder.

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Back at our new favorite reef, I was having more technical issues. This time, my mask wouldn’t stop fogging! I was frustrated to the brink of calling the dive several times, but each time I reached a near-tipping point I’d spot something so fascinating it would give me the energy to clear my mask every ten seconds (not an exaggeration) for another few minutes.

I see so much artistic inspiration in diving, I often wish I had discovered it earlier in my fine arts studies. Who knows where I might have gone — or still could go — with inspiration like this for patterns, color palettes, and textures?

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in San Miguel, Philippines

Diving in Donsol, Philippines

Coral really does it for me, when it comes to diving. But I know for most, it’s all about the underwater creatures. And we spotted some truly amazing ones at this dive site — several of them new to me!

Diving in Donsol, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto on left by Heather Holt

It’s always lucky to spot a frogfish — these guys are masters of camouflage! Immense size aside, they blend into the coral really well, and generally do a pretty great blob impression.

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Diving in Donsol, Philippines

If forced to pick, I think my favorite new discovery of the day were mandarin fish — the little guys below left. These tiny little rainbow patterned beauties were hiding just inside a cave. I was so grateful my camera cleared long enough for me to snap this photo!

Diving in Donsol, Philippines

And we ended the dive spending some time with a harlequin sweetlips juvenile. Watching the way these little guys move is reason enough to sign up for your dive certification right now, if you haven’t already. They really know how to salsa.

Diving in San Miguel, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt

Had we not already booked out flights to our next destination I just might have been tempted to sign up for another day of diving in Donsol. I’ve often worried that the golden days of scuba are over — that we’ve over-dived and over-fished and generally destroyed our oceans to the point that places like this no longer existed. This day renewed my faith in diving. It also inspired and energized me — I can’t wait to find more pockets of beauty like this around the world, and to commit myself to protecting coral reefs so that they may continue to exist. This is what diving is all about.

Where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen underwater?

Diving in Donsol, Philippines

Practical Info: There are just a handful of dive shops in Donsol — I think I spotted four in total — and all have similar prices. Between Heather getting a professional discount and me having my own gear, we each paid 3,500 pesos (around $85 USD), for a full day trip including three dives and lunch. Be prepared for a long day. We were gone for almost a full ten hours.

65 Responses to “Consider My Mind Blown: Diving in Donsol”

  1. The Guy says:

    Amazing pictures from both of you on an amazing dive, that is deep guys! How long did it take you to ascend and how long did your air last whilst you got down so deep.

    I’ve only scuba dived at Langkawi and Cairns. I took my training and advanced course at The Great Barrier Reef. Taking the advance course to night swim with sharks and go deeper was great fun. But wow this looks like a great trip. I’m very jealous.
    The Guy recently posted..Is This Really The Most Famous Beach In The World?

    • Alex says:

      Unfortunately I’m not very good about logging my dives, so I don’t have the depth or dive time recorded for these! The first and third dives were fairly shallow though, maybe a 15 meters max? I rarely last less than an hour with my air, though often decompression limits on a deep dive force me to come up before that :)

  2. Kristen Wiggins says:

    Magnificent pictures… The abundance of life, bright colors, and a completely different world underwater always amaze me. I’ve been wanting to dive for the first time ever since I became a reader; your dive posts never fail to disappoint! Wonderful to discover hidden jewels around the earth, isn’t it?

  3. David says:

    Beautiful photos!
    Really gorgeous.
    D.

  4. Bonnie Toth says:

    Wow! Great photos – we leave tomorrow for Dumaguete. Can’t wait!!!! This just got me MORE excited! Sorry for all your camera/mask problems… every diver has days like that. Luckily there’s always the next dive.

  5. Ashley says:

    Awesome photos!
    The most beautiful place I’ve seen underwater is Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. It was more impressive than the Great Barrier Reef (in my opinion!).

  6. wes says:

    That spanish dancer is not. It’s a harlequin sweetlips juvenile. Didn’t we do this ID on facebook? A spanish dancer is a flatworm.

    This has completely ruined Donsol for me*

    *implied wink.

    • Alex says:

      *Sound of head crashing into keyboard*

      This is why I need a PADI Fish Identification Specialist to proofread all my diving posts.

      • wes says:

        I have that which would explain some of my enthusiasm, except that Neil taught it. It went: fish, fish, fish, rock, NEMO, fish, fish, attractive diver, NEMO.

  7. Edward says:

    Wow, beautiful place. There are more Brits now starting to explore the Philippines. I have already seen Thailand, Malaysia and Hongkong and I heard the Philippines 7,000 islands have so many things to offer. I have now booked for my holiday in the Philippines next month and I will definitely visit this paradise you have shown us. Thanks for all the info. I can’t wait for my visit!!!

  8. You know I always love your diving posts, but the photos in this one are absolutely jaw-dropping! WOW!!! The colors!! And I love your definition of nudibranchs hehe…they’re SO weird, aren’t they?

    • Alex says:

      Ha, well Heather is to thank for many of them! And yes, I’m a nudi addict! …Which sounds pretty funny in any other circumstance.

  9. Lindsey says:

    Damn, make me regret not being certified when I was in Donsol even more why don’t you! ;) From my experience in Donsol, I was really not expecting to see such gorgeous photos in this post – I’ll have to go back now…
    Lindsey recently posted..A Year Without Makeup

    • Alex says:

      Well, where we were was quite a far boat ride from Donsol. I was worried as well after our experience in the bay with the whale sharks — the visibility was terrible — but clearly, this blew me away!

  10. This is such a beautiful dive site! I’m convinced that nature is truly the greatest artist there is – the colors of the reef are amazing!
    xx
    Melanie Fontaine recently posted..A Day at Schloss Wolfsgarten

    • Alex says:

      And not just colors…. the patterns! They amaze me. I am always so inspired after I dive, I wish I could travel with paints and a canvas!

  11. Sam says:

    Amazing photos! I’ve never been scuba diving before, but your blog is inspiring me to check it out. I’m off to Australia in December, which should be the perfect place to give it a go!
    Sam recently posted..Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

    • Alex says:

      Hey Sam, that’s such a fantastic compliment… I love to think I’m inspiring new divers! Australia sounds like an amazing place to give it a try… good luck!

  12. Kristen says:

    Just wanted to jump on and say how fantastic your site is. I’ve followed a lot of travel blogs over the past few years and while most have devolved into coverage of press trips, yours maintains its personality and I absolutely love reading every post. And even though I could never scuba-dive due to an ear thing, I love being able to dive vicariously through you!

    • Alex says:

      Hey Kristen, thank you so much for this lovely comment! It really means a lot to me. I’m sorry to hear about your ear troubles… but I’ll keep bringing you on virtual dives for as long as you like :)

  13. Sam says:

    Ahhh I haven’t stopped by for so long and I wish I didn’t! This magical water is far to much for me to process right now, Sydney is chilly ! xx

    • Alex says:

      Oh yes POOR YOU and your cold AUSTRALIAN weather! No sympathy for a girl who grew up in a place where three feet of snow wasn’t uncommon :)

  14. This looks utterly INCREDIBLE! You know that Tony & I learned to dive in the Philippines, but unfortunately we weren’t able to make it to Donsol—we weren’t there during the right season to see whale sharks (if there even is a right season for Donsol anymore…) and I didn’t realize it was such an awesome diving destination apart from that. I love how colorful the reef there appears to be and as fellow coral (and nudibranch!) fans, I think diving there would be paradise for us.

    And the list of things that we have to do on our 2nd (and 3rd… and 4th…) trip the Philippines grows even more! :D
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Coming Home in Taipei

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, one of the downsides of Donsol is how isolated it is! And then unfortunately even from Donsol to these dive sites is quite a mission. Ah well, nothing worth getting to is easy in the Philippines :)

  15. The pictures are so mindblowingly beautiful. I can’t believe how colourful things are so deep in the ocean. Those hooks sound scary though.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Behind the Berlin Wall – Life in Communist Germany

    • Alex says:

      In some of Heather’s photos, she used her flash, which can bring back in a lot of the color. Personally I don’t use mine very often, which is why you quite often see me editing them into black and white :)

  16. MY MIND IS TOTALLY BLOWN! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m so jealous I have no words. Wow! I can’t believe your underwater housing failed on you. I would have been heartbroken, but Heather got some AWESOME shots!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Turks And Caicos: Day 2

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, between the mask and the camera fogging I was pretty close to tears! Weirdly that was the ONLY time I’ve ever had that problem with my housing…. as soon as I got to Nusa Lembongan, it was working just fine! Argh!

  17. Heather says:

    I’m pretty attached to the first place I learned to dive: The Philippines! I will always have a soft spot in my heart for where I first saw fish, coral, and reefs while underwater. Your experience and photos makes me want to go back sooooo bad! I don’t have my own equipment, but I really like the Swish Suit (avoid rash, protect against sunburn, and look great? Uh, yes please!) Looking forward to your post about your gear next. :)
    Heather recently posted..Why I Won’t Visit a Salon in Calgary Again

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, when I went to Hawaii I left all my gear behind for weight restriction reasons, except for two things — my mask and my Swish! Also, I’ve seen a few woman wearing them and it’s like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — thy look amazing on EVERYONE!

  18. Erika says:

    Wow, I have never been into diving or really wanted to go, ever, but your posts — and especially this one — make me think about changing my mind!

    How fantastically beautiful? Oh, I’m in awe of nature and I’m only seeing it through your (and Heather’s) lens! SO COOL
    Erika recently posted..It’s Up to You

    • Alex says:

      Thanks Erika! It gives me great joy when readers tell me I’ve inspired them to start diving — maybe you’ll join the ranks someday!

  19. memographer says:

    Alex, if I don’t post any comments anytime soon, please consider my mind blown.
    memographer recently posted..Easter Island: My New Friends Moai

    • Alex says:

      Ha, hope you can find the pieces and put it together again :) And wow, impressed by your Easter Island travels… it’s a dream destination for me!

  20. Federico says:

    Great shots again Alex, you always take great underwater pics! At least this dive made up (in part) for not seeing the whale sharks!
    Federico recently posted..Flying Business vs Coach: Is it Worth it? My Experience with Finnair

    • Alex says:

      Absolutely it did! Donsol needs to put some muscle behind advertising itself as a diving destination — it will help them diversify their tourism income!

  21. The colors in this are awesome! What an incredible spot.
    Emily in Chile recently posted..El Ateneo

  22. Erica says:

    I’m not normally into coral but these are phenomenal!
    Erica recently posted..OYL Cribs: Southfork Ranch from the Show Dallas

  23. That looks awesome alex. I seriously need to start getting my diving license!
    Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com recently posted..Roadtrip in Deutschland: 6 Stops in 5 Tagen, Norddeutschland Entdecken!

  24. Andy says:

    Nudibranchs are so AWESOME!! Great color in these shots! Glad you’re having such an amazing time!

  25. I have goosebumps looking at those photos. I’d love to visit this place when I go back to my country!
    Alainsojourner recently posted..Toronto Nuit Blanche 2013

  26. Rasmus says:

    It looks amazing! Do you recon Donsol is a good place to take your divemaster? I will say my prorities are similar to yours – a relaxed place with other travelers and nightlife, and of course good diving..

    Cheers
    - Rasmus

    • Alex says:

      Hey Rasmus! While I loved diving in Donsol you will not find many travelers here and there is very little nightlife. If those are your priorities, this isn’t your spot.

  27. Hi Alex! I love this blog! Im travelling to the phils very soon and was wondering what your best diving location there was? I’m going to be spending 3 months there (at least haha)

    Afterwards its Indonesia for at least 6 months!!

    Bring it on!

    • Alex says:

      Donsol was probably my favorite dive spot in the country but the dive sites are hard to access and is expensive. Malapascua was cheaper and the sites easier to get to. In three months you can easily hit both. Happy travels!

  28. Claudia says:

    Hi,

    Love your story! Could you tell me what camera Heather was using to make her underwater photos? Love them! Please :-)

    • Alex says:

      Hey Claudia! Sent her a message — just waiting on the response! I feel like another reader asked this previously though, so do be sure to look through the comments on this and other Philippines diving posts!

      • Claudia says:

        Thanks a lot. I think I checked out every post, but could not find something. I am moving to Singapore next week for the next 1 1/2 years for a graduate program and learning to dive is on my bucket list (+shooting some amazing fish) ;-)

  29. Vicky says:

    I love all of your pictures! What camera do you use to take them?

    • Alex says:

      Hey Vicky, you’ll see a little icon in my sidebar with two cameras on it — that will take you to a whole page about my camera gear! Hope that helps!

  30. Liz says:

    These are the kinds of posts that inspire me so much to continue diving! Thanks for sharing :D
    Liz recently posted..How Wanaka Stole My Heart

    • Alex says:

      Yay for scuba adventures! Congratulations on your open water and I hope you keep the underwater exploring going. [Insert fish emoji here.]

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