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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Magic Oceans; Bohol Island, Philippines

another great Philippines bargain

from the March, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Magic Oceans outrigger or bangkaThe sun was setting behind the island as the outrigger motored slowly toward Secret Corner. Short stretches of powder-white sand interrupted the lush limestone coast, covered by lush tropical foliage. We anchored off Anda's main township, four miles east of Magic Oceans, where a few locals were bathing off the beach. Only four of us dove that night, my buddy and I and our two local dive guides, Lee Ann and Irish, a local PADI instructor trainer. The sandy bottom with its occasional tufts of grass at first didn't seem promising, but having been there the night before, I knew it was full of curiosities.

First to appear was an inquisitive snake eel (Brachysomophis crocodilinus), poking its head from the sand. Next, what looked like a floating blade of grass, perhaps 6" long, upon close inspection revealed tiny pulsating gills and fluttering pectoral fins: a short-tailed pipefish (Trachyrhamphus bicoarctatus). I rudely interrupted two hermit crabs' conjugal intimacy, and they scurried away from my light. A mantis shrimp briefly poked its head from the sand. A six-foot holothurian sea cucumber (Synapta Maculata) fed in the sand, its thin body marked by evenly spaced rings. When I poked it gently, a porcupine boxfish, witnessing my transgression, was alarmed enough to spike its body. A few yards away, a trio of three-inch scorpion fish waited patiently for their prey. A box crab scuttled away as a couple of coconut octopuses drew my attention. The star of the evening was a tiny, beet-red flamboyant cuttlefish dancing on Lee Ann's pointer. It was my last night dive, and I was not disappointed.

Philippines MapHaving read Undercurrent's excellent undercover review on Magic Oceans' sister resort, Magic Island in Moalboal, Cebu (Undercurrent, April 2015), I combined a trip to both, only to be grounded most of my time in Moalboal by a severe cold. Although the resorts are less than 200km apart on opposite sides of the islands of Cebu and Bohol, the transfer took most of a day, with long drives and a two-hour ferry crossing.

Opened just two years ago, the Dutch-owned Magic Oceans has 20 units set back from the ocean, tightly compacted in beautifully manicured gardens with a swimming pool. The 370-square-foot cottages are larger and more luxuriously appointed than those at Magic Island, and each comes with both a queen and single bed. During January, I didn't need the air conditioning.

Upon arrival, the well-trained and friendly local and expat staff introduced themselves and always helped us whenever asked. We took meals family-style at one table with Eef, the resort director, and Peter, a German expat who had been dive center manager for but a week, often joining us. Our predinner cocktail hour at the bar and lively meal conversations included the other guests, all experienced, well-traveled divers (American, Australian, German, and French), half of whom were traveling alone. Eef, a Dutchman probably in his late thirties who helped build the resort, said they recruit guests from dive markets where English is widely spoken (which, of course, is where the money is).

Magic Oceans pool areaThey served breakfast in their open air, thatched-roof restaurant from 7a.m., which included a la carte choices of eggs prepared your way, bacon, toast, preserves, cereal, fruit, French toast, and pancakes. The extensive lunch menu offered both western and local choices. Chef Laurel was more accomplished than his colleagues at Magic Island, and modified any dish to my liking. For dinner, many folks chose the $23 three-course menu (e.g., a spring roll starter, then stir-fried beef or chicken adobo with vegetables and rice, and some concoction with ice cream), but I went for one of the excellent a la carte Filipino choices such as pancit canton. After one taste of the white wine, I reverted to the San Miguel beer at $2.

Our last night we dined at the swanky Amun Ini Restaurant at a neighboring resort, where we shared aubergine and bean hummus as a starter. For main, I had a pleasantly spicy blackened chicken breast, and my companion tried local clams with chorizo, which he found underwhelming. Desserts were a bread pudding and a chocolate soufflé. With a couple of beers each, the bill came to $65.

The small dive shop was clean and well organized, with a substantial area where the crew nightly hung gear to dry. Before each trip, the staff checked my Nitrox mix and then loaded my equipment into the boat. From the dive center, a few steps led down to the water, and I had to brave the sea urchins -- better wear hard-soled booties or sandals -- in the shallows until I reached the boat to climb the substantial steps -- not a ladder -- lowered from the boat. When the construction of their jetty is complete, this inconvenience should be eliminated. Their beautiful outrigger left at 8:30 each morning for two morning dives, from 5 to 20 minutes away. Fruit, tea, and coffee were offered during the hour-long interval, and we returned to the resort for lunch. They offered a third dive at 2:30 and an evening dive trip on demand at 5:30. As on Magic Island, I could strap on a tank any time and dive the house reef, guided or unguided. With the water a balmy 82°F (28°C), and plenty of action in the shallows and a substantial drop off a short kick away, it was possible to make several dives a day.

The jetty was under constructionThe resort's three spacious and comfortable outriggers -- 48 feet (15m), 73 feet (23m) or 86 feet (27m) with inboard engines -- were outfitted with shaded benches and ladders. We spent most dives drifting slowly past walls at 65 feet (20m) or less, with my maximum depth being 100 feet (30m), when I dropped to check out a pygmy seahorse. I saw some bleached tips of the staghorn coral, but other varieties seemed unaffected by warm waters. I admired how the symbiotic creatures were aesthetically matched to each other. On one gorgonian, I saw five pygmy seahorses, barely distinguishable from their host. A shrimp on a feather star looked like it was knotted in the crinoid's feeding arms. The colors of many varieties of clownfish complemented their anemone hosts. One guest counted 25 varieties of nudibranchs during his five-night stay. There were many small schools of colorful reef fish: catfish, fusiliers, sergeant majors and batfish. I saw an occasional jack or tuna in the distance, and a single sea snake, although the staff claimed they were common here. Notwithstanding, I found the wall dives, which lasted one hour, a little repetitive and not as interesting as the night dives.

I was disturbed by the sight of the large bamboo fish traps suspended by thick rubber cables over most walls, even at Snappers' Cave, a seamount that is supposedly a marine sanctuary. Tight webbing ensured than nothing wider than a centimeter could escape. I dread to think of the coral damage each time these heavy contraptions are dragged up -- all for the sake of capturing a few small reef fish; a poignant reminder of the poverty of many locals.

Magic Oceans RatingMagic Oceans does have some shortcomings. Unlike its neighbors, its beach is pebbly and uncomfortable, with lots of sea urchins lurking beneath the surface. The towels were tired, and there could have been more of them. Some equipment we rented was faulty -- one regulator free-flowed and on a night dive their dive light failed. (We had a similar problem at the sister resort.) On the other hand, I liked their focus on the needs of divers, both in the water and topside. Small, thoughtful touches abounded. As I was writing these words at dusk in the outdoor bar, someone discreetly placed a mosquito coil below my stool to ward them off.

Eef told me he plans to build a spa, but in the meantime, one can arrange a room massage. One afternoon, we took a motorized tricycle to town to visit its market and the 19th-century church with its fresco-painted ceiling. Bohol's more famous attractions are the chocolate hills and the Tarsier conservation area, home of the world's smallest primate, and the resort offers a one-day trip to visit both.

The jetty was under constructionFor my last dive, it was a bright, sunny day, the first on this trip, with visibility double the average 15m, which had been the norm. Turtle Point lived up to its name, with many green sea turtles visiting its pretty coral garden, most accompanied by matching green remoras. A four-foot turtle kept a weary eye on me, but rested motionless on the sand as I remained close. Our communion was interrupted when Lee Ann pointed out a school of squid nearby. With her pointer, she parted a plume of soft coral to reveal white translucent eggs. Nearby, about 30 brown squid jealously eyed one couple, bodies shimmering white as they engaged in a mating ritual. When the others tried to approach the female, her mate would angrily repel them with his tentacles. Occasionally the female would dip into the coral to lay her eggs while the male shielded her from behind. As I slowly inched my way toward them, he flashed his tentacles in my direction -- warning me not to come any closer. I remained transfixed until Lee Ann motioned for us to ascend. It was a great finale.

While I was at Turtle Point, a blue ring octopus visited the resort's jetty construction site a few hundred yards away. Eef told me that the kids had played with it before they released it back into the sea. While it wouldn't take much to get me back to Magic Oceans, the thought of seeing that blue ring octopus will do it.

-- DTV

Our undercover diver's bio: DTV has been lucky to dive since 2001, mostly in the Indo-Pacific: Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Philippines, Palau, Chuuk, and the Maldives. He has also dived at the Cocos and Malpelo Islands, the Galapagos, French Polynesia, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the UK, and the Azores. He swam with humpback whales in Rurutu and with Orcas in Norway. He doesn't bother with a camera, preferring to capture memories in his mind's eye.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: My five-night stay, double occupancy, at Magic Oceans cost $830 including breakfast ... Dives were $32 plus $8 for Nitrox ... You can fly from Manila to Tagbilaran (TAG) airport, then be driven ($90) two hours to Magic Ocean or take the five-hour transfer by car and ferry from Cebu (CBU), which has direct flights to Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo ... If you stay in Magic Island first, you may be able to incorporate a whale shark dive at Oslob on the day you transfer between the two resorts ... February through May are said to be the best months to visit.

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