Just a few years ago, no one except the hardcore diving enthusiasts would know about Ticao, one of the three main islands in the province of Masbate. Even the 1995 edition of Jack Jackson’s The Dive Sites of the Philippines (for years the only readily available, internationally published diving guidebook about the Philippines), skipped over the entire Bicol region entirely. But having found its way to mainstream guidebooks, and enjoying some spillover popularity from nearby Donsol, it’s not uncommon to have boatloads of dive tourists vying to see Ticao’s main underwater draw: manta rays.
Though Donsol is known for its whale sharks, diving Ticao to see the other gentle behemoth is an entirely different game.
The Manta Bowl
Ticao Pass is home to a number of dive sites collectively nicknamed “the Manta Bowl,” owing to plentiful sightings of the giant. It’s worth the trouble to dive the relatively difficult waters of Ticao Pass, with its strong currents, to find these awe-inspiring creatures with “wings” that can span up to 10m tip to tip. Sleek, dark, and graceful, they remind one of stealth bombers, and of ballet dancers, and of pterodactyls…all at the same time. Like the whale shark, though, it is a filter-feeder and a bottom feeder that lives on plankton.
Manta rays are usually found in deep waters, so places like the Manta Bowl—a shoal that levels off at about 15m in the middle of the Ticao Pass—where the animals can be sighted fairly reliably, are prized by divers.
But, as any dive guide worth his salt will remind you, this is still the wild, and not an aquarium, and mantas are even more shy than whale sharks. You must be willing to take the chance that you might not see any manta rays at all in a few days’ worth of diving.
But what an experience it can be. The vicious currents themselves are worth experiencing, if you’re somewhat of an adrenaline junkie. And if mantas are not your thing, you can always go for a sardine run.
There are always surprises
Sardines may not sound as sexy to the landlubber, but to divers, finding themselves in the middle of thousands upon thousands of these quicksilver creatures is an indelible experience. Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll also find underwater predators just as thrilled as you are to be there: sharks, barracuda, even sea turtles and tuna, all waiting to gorge themselves on sardines.
And there are always surprises. Wait for that elusive manta, and you can just as easily find yourself looking at hammerhead sharks, or even the magnificently long-tailed threshers. At least once I looked up and saw the blimplike shadow of a whale shark glide over my head.
No man lives on adrenaline alone (and no woman either), and thankfully, Ticao topside is as calm and restful as the underwater is adventure-filled. Where else can you spend the day diving with sharks, and then head out on a solitary kayak ride after dinner to ride through the mangroves lit by hundreds of fireflies? Back in time for bed before too long, to read myself to a worn-out sleep by ten, and then up at dawn for another full day of sharks, mantas, and fireflies.