The weird, the beautiful & the Zen of underwater photography

O - NUD1 64 Cem Gazivekili
Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, nudibranch category, open class, at the 5th Anilao Underwater Shootout in Batangas, Philippines.
O - CEP2 97 Yen Wen Chih
Photo by Wen Chih Yen (Taiwan), 2nd place, cephalopod category, open class

National Geographic photographer David Doubilet waited 40 years to shoot his dream picture: a clownfish. A male clownfish that was aerating its eggs just before they hatched in the waters of Anilao, Batangas.

That was eight years ago and it almost didn’t happen. David was literally on the way to the airport with his wife Jennifer Hayes, a marine biologist, when fellow underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason called him up and told him he was going to Anilao.

“Jennifer told me, ‘Get out and see Gutsy,” David says.

And a magazine cover was made.

One of the questions underwater photographers are always asked — especially those who shoot macro or species the size of your fingernail — is about the wait.

“People ask me, how long did it take you to make that picture? I say 40 years,” he says.

O - CEP1 90 Lilian Koh
Photo by Lilian Koh (Singapore), 1st place, cephalopod category, open class.
O - MAC1 95 Wu Yung Sen
Photo by Wu Yung Sen (Taiwan), 1st place, macro/supermacro category, open class.

Last week, David and Gutsy — both authors and award-winning underwater photographers — were back in Anilao, home to the rarest species in the world and a famous dive town three hours from Manila. They joined other judges of the 5th Anilao Underwater Shootout, a contest organized by the Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines. PAL also kicked off its campaign Dive Philippines, which would give international travelers/divers extra luggage allowance on their domestic flights in the Philippines.

Dubbed the “World Cup of Photo Competitions,” the Anilao Underwater Shootout brought together 173 divers and underwater photographers from all over Asia, Europe and North America to compete in Open and Compact Classes (cameras with interchangeable lenses and without, respectively) with five different categories — Macro/Supermacro, Marine Behavior, Nudibranch, Fish Portrait and Cephalopod.

Among underwater photographers, David Doubilet is a legend. Many of them grew up seeing his photos in the pages of National Geographic magazine. He’s a rock star to divers and underwater photographers.

When we sit down for an interview, David reveals a life made peaceful by diving and shaped early in a lake in upstate New York, when he was an asthmatic boy of eight.

David Doubilet, journaist Tanya Lara
National Geographic photographer and Anilao Underwater Shootout judge David Doubilet and author Tanya Lara


Which came first for you, diving or photography?
DAVID DOUBILET: It started all about the same time. I was snorkeling earlier and at 12, I started diving and taking pictures.

Where was this?
In New Jersey, but my first dive was in a lake in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains, not far from where we live now. I went to summer camp and didn’t like it very much. I didn’t like the mountains, I didn’t like the horses or baseball. The counselors gave me a mask and told me to clean out the dock of branches and trees in the lake. And my life changed. Eight years old.

What did you see underwater? 
I can still remember, there were sunfish and other freshwater fish. It was great. We had a summer home in New Jersey and I started diving there. Things were pretty simple, it was the mid 1950s. We didn’t have wetsuits until about 1960. Back then you made them yourself.

C - CEP2 105 PJ Aristorenas
Photo by PJ Aristorenas (Philippines), 2nd place, cephalopod category, compact class

How did your career with National Geographic start?
I came to Geographic when I was still in university, in my second year at Boston University. I had just won a big international competition in Italy, Mondo Sommerso Prize. I had a friend working for Geographic and went to see the director of photography. He told me they had nothing for me but to come back next year. So I started to work on other kinds of photography.

I was shooting with fairly primitive equipment compared to what we have now, but back then it was pretty sophisticated. I shot a lot of black and white and I learned how to print. That was sort of the basis, the bones of how to see underwater, how to shoot pictures.

C - MAC2 114 Penn De Los Santos
Photo by Penn De Los Santos (Philippines), 2nd place, macro/super macro category, compact class.

What has diving taught you about life?
That’s a very good question. What divers have, unlike the rest of the world — except for astronauts and mountaineers to a certain extent — is the ability to have a perspective of the rest of the planet. You go underwater and you come up out of the water and you see the planet in a whole new, complex light.

Diving teaches you, to a certain extent, about trying to be calm. The biggest enemy of diving is over-exertion. You have to be as calm as you possibly can. Even free divers have to be calm no matter how hard they’re working; they have to remain at a simple, single level of strength. It’s also a great escape. You leave this planet through another place. Not a lot of divers do, but I tend to think a lot underwater.

About what?
Everything. Especially when I’m shooting, I get very intense, I get very direct. Both Jennifer and I will go to a reef system and we’re very direct in our approach. That’s what you see in this competition in Anilao. People are very intense and literally focused. They are so excited about what they’re doing — and what they’re doing is making art. But it’s an art that involves some of the smallest and arcane parts of the ocean. And yet when they bring it back up, it opens people’s eyes. The competition does a lot of things in terms of self-fulfillment, but it also tells people what the ocean is about.

O - MBE1 64 Cem Gazivekili
Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, marine behavior category, open class.
O - MAC2 119 Yao Hong Chao
Photo by Hongchao Yao (China), 2nd place, macro/supermacro category, open class

Is there a different kind of satisfaction between photographing critters and bigger species?
Some people live and die for the smaller creatures. I like them very much, but I like a lot of different things under the water. I’ll be photographing very small things, but also shipwrecks, aircraft, larger things.

A ship that ran aground in Malapascua, right next to where the thresher shark reef is, nearly wiped it out and that would have caused the jobs of 5,000 people. The thresher sharks would have just gone away.

Anilao is one of the success stories in the Philippines. Decades ago fishermen were doing dynamite and cyanide fishing, but the NGOs managed to convince them that there’s more money in tourism especially when it involves diving.
These guides whom everyone depends on, they work very hard and they’re geniuses. If they were fishermen they would just bang their heads against the wall and come up with almost nothing and families would be in trouble.

Diving tourists coming here bring five times, six times the amount of money than somebody coming here to play golf or people backpacking or whatever. Diving is a labor-intensive business.

C - MBE3 12 Virginie Barfuss-Goffart
Photo by Virginie Barfuss-Gofart (France), 3rd place, marine behavior category, compact class
Photo by Ronald Dalawampu (Philippines), 1st place, nudibranch category, compact class

The marine-protected areas around the Philippines are very successful because you have a no-take zone which will in time supply the take zone, and that will increase the number of fish that people can take out of the water. That’s working in many places in the Philippines like Apo Island.

So there’s a tourism angle and the fact that people should be well aware of how important the ocean is to the average Filipino. This is a coral nation. No one lives more than 75 miles from the ocean.

Do you have a favorite dive site?
The next one.

What kind of dangerous situations have you been into underwater?
Well, the most dangerous that Jennifer and I get into are situations that photographers tend to get into. And it’s based upon photographic greed — one more picture, one more story, spend some more time underwater — and all of a sudden you’re pushing your time. There’s always currents and weather that change.

I’ve had experiences with all sorts of sharks. Jennifer and I work back to back so we see 360 degrees and we shoot like that. Obviously white sharks are difficult to work with outside a cage because for the most part you see many shark species and you bring them a little bait.

O - NUD3 24 Hakan Basar
Photo by Hakan Basar (Turkey), 3rd place, nudibranch category, open class.
O - NUD2 70 Cai Song Da
Photo by Cai Song Da (China), 2nd place, nudibranch category, open class.

We’ve photographed tiger sharks feeding on the remains of a dead sperm whale in the Great Barrier Reef, and then more and more sharks came in because of the oil from the sperm whale’s flesh. It’s a delicious smell for the sharks; they love the smell of turtles and marine mammals, and so they got very aggressive with us.

I think the most dangerous thing we’ve done is not in the ocean at all but working on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. There were all sorts of crocodiles and hippos. Every dive, even at night, which was a crazy thing to do there, you could see the crocodiles’ eyes as they came closer and then we’d get out of the water. It was frightening.

What was the longest time you’ve had to wait to photograph a certain species?
It took me 40 years to get a picture of a clownfish and it happened here in Anilao. I was blown away.

What for you is the most beautiful species in the ocean?
Everybody loves different things. For Jennifer, it would be a harp seal or a sturgeon. For me, strangely enough, I do like clownfish. In South Australia, there are sea dragons  and in the Gulf of St Lawrence there’s the Atlantic wolffish. It’s like being asked who’s your favorite child.

Photo by Ian Amboy (Philippines), 1st place, cephalopod category, compact class

How different are the challenges between island and ice diving apart from the temperatures?
Diving here is easy, simple — you wear a suit, you go on a boat. In the Antarctic and the Arctic, you wear extremely thick dry suits, waterproof dry suits. We use the most sophisticated dry suits manufactured in Sweden. You have to know the paramaters of little things, like if your hand gets cold you can be in very serious trouble because you can’t get your equipment off.

Obviously, polar diving is far more intensive but on the other hand it’s far shorter. A safe scuba dive is about an hour, you can do another hour after that and another one. But to stay in longer than an hour you lose feelings in your fingertips, so you have to balance that out and also be aware of your core temperature.

What is the biggest mistake that underwater photographers make and what is your advice for beginners?
For divers who want to be underwater photographers, I tell them, “Don’t.” I’m very serious.  Don’t do it until you’ve had about a hundred dives. You’re not going to enjoy it, you won’t be happy.

You have to look and see and do… I’d recommend to shoot in black and white, but here in Anilao you have wonderful colors. Start with a simple camera, even the camera phones are good. Then you begin to build up things. I think the problem with many photographers is they become very repetitive, so they have to find something they’re very comfortable with and have a look at other people’s pictures.

O - MBE2 84 Yang Seung Chul
Photo by Seungchul Yang (South Korea), 2nd place, marine behavior category, open class.
C - FSH2 94 Nancy Berg
Photo by Nancy Berg (US), 2nd place, fish portrait category, compact class.

I was talking to photographer Jun de Leon earlier and he said shooting macro made him “realize that there are no accidents, and there is a creator of all of this. Something that small cannot be an accident.” Is diving a religious experience for you as well? 
In many ways, yes it is. Because you look at something and say, is this the end of evolution or has it taken one more path it’s such a surprise? It’s the force of life on earth. I’m not religious at all — a lot of people are and diving reinforces their beliefs. But it certainly is an evolutionary experience. I think for people who are creationists, it’s not exactly the place to be because everything changes all the time. God didn’t create the leafy sea dragon, something evolved.

And then which God created the leafy sea dragon? Was it Jewish, was it Catholic, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu? It’s this constant evolution of this planet and the absolute force of biology to change. But the thing is, no matter how scientific you are, you’ll get to an end point. And after that, that’s when you have the unanswered question, that’s the religious question: How did it all come about? That happens in diving a lot — the constant surprise. And you’re right, it is a very religious moment.

O - FSH1 97 Yen Wen Chih
Photo by Wen Chih Yen (Taiwan), 1st place, fish portrait category, open class.

Diving with the turtles of Apo Island

Apo Island has one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the country. It is also home to green and hawksbill turtles.  Photos and videos by TANYA LARA

Let me begin by saying that the turtles of Apo Island are as awesome as you’ve seen in pictures and the experience of swimming with them a thousand times more.

The question I’ve been asked a lot is: Where is Apo Island and how do you get there?

Apo Island is located in Negros Oriental province with the airport in the capital Dumaguete City, about an hour away. Both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Dumaguete.

You can go to Apo from the city, but I stayed in Dauin, a town 40 minutes from Dumaguete by land and another 30 minutes by boat to Apo.

Why Dauin? Because it’s nearer and the town is lined with dive resorts that do trips every day to Apo. By “dive resorts,” I mean they have swimming pools deep enough for a diving course whereas the city hotels don’t. Plus, they have all the equipment you need and are staffed by experienced instructors and dive masters.

The accommodations in Dauin range from cheap to expensive; from boring concrete hotels to native shacks and high-end resorts with manicured gardens.

I stayed at Atmosphere Resort, which is on the high end of the scale (hey, it was my birthday!), and very nice. When I was filling out the check-in form, the staff noticed it was my birthday and everybody was extra nice to me. Maybe they also thought it was weird (or sad) that I was traveling alone (I get that a lot everywhere!).

Even though I was certified by PADI six years ago, I didn’t have my ID and they never allow you to dive without it unless you take an intro course. But I had already done open water in Mactan, Cebu and Governor’s Island in Hundred Islands (literally with the then governor of Pangasinan and I don’t remember how that happened).

Then I stopped diving, then I lost my ID when my wallet was stolen. And I really enjoy snorkeling, so I never bothered renewing the license.

My favorite picture because this turtle is so Zen! I named her Julia… you know, “Julia, ocean child…”

This time, when I was asked to sign up for diving, I told them the situation and Mark of the dive center said, “We can just look it up on PADI’s website.”

I said, really? Yes, really!

Dive instructor Lor was assigned to me and he said in Tagalog, “Diving will come back to you, it’s like riding a bike.”

I said, “I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

In the morning, it was only a Japanese couple from Yokohama and I that were going to Apo with a full boat crew and two dive instructors.

We were going to two sites, an hour-long dive each. At the first, “Chapel” (because it’s in front of a church on Apo Island), we saw a giant turtle not too far from the shore. The water wasn’t very clear, perhaps because it had just stopped raining, and also because the turtle was kicking about on the seafloor scattering sand.

Later, we saw two or three other turtles, about two feet long, and swam with them up close.

Amazing markings. Up close, its head resembles a snake’s.

You do NOT need to go diving to swim with the turtles. You can snorkel with them because, whether they stay in shallow or deep waters, they eventually swim to the surface to get air.

The boat crew knows where the turtles hang out and they spot them easily from afar. Lor would tap me on the shoulder and point to a turtle and I’d be like, “Where?” Their green shell (which changes color when you’re up close) really blend with the sometimes-green, sometimes-blue water.

The first turtle I swam with got me so excited that I literally opened my mouth to smile and took in water in my regulator. Towards the end of the first site, I thought, okay, I’m good. But Lor spotted two others and we swam with them till my throat went dry from the filtered oxygen.

Then there was another turtle that we chased…and another. I felt like a child again, like I was opening presents from my grandfather on Christmas morning!

It was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had.

The second dive site, “The Rock,” was even more spectacular and the water was so clear. While we were having coffee and biscuits that the resort had packed for us, we watched several turtles coming  up to the surface for air.

At one point in the water, Lor said I should give him my camera so he could take a picture of me with the turtles. I said okay. But when we were swimming with them again, I didn’t want to stop filming for a selfie.

I was swimming so close I could have touched them but didn’t of course, I didn’t want want to scare them away, but one turtle kept looking over to his side as if knowing he was being stalked!

The thing that struck me most was the color of their shell. From afar, you think it’s just green but it’s actually so colorful. It’s bright red and brown, and their heads look like a snake’s. The markings on their head and fins are so defined underwater it was like watching HD TV.

So, how much does it cost to go to Apo Island? It depends on your resort. The cost of the refresher course, Apo Island tour and two dives was almost P10,000 (US$200) at Atmosphere.

Snorkeling gear is free, you just pay for the boat tour. Like I said, you don’t need to go diving to swim with the turtles, the only advantage is you can swim with them for a long time when they’re about three meters deep or so.

There are many hotels, resorts in Dauin and Dumaguete. At Atmosphere, the cost for two nights was P23,000 (US$450) with airport transfers. I wanted to go to the whale sharks in Oslob but there was no group to join and it was way too expensive to go solo (P13,000 or $260). I literally told the staff, “Nababaliw ka ba?” (Are you crazy?)

Unlike in Coron or Boracay, it’s not as simple as walking to the beach and hiring a boat for island hopping. But I asked around and there are cheaper alternatives from independent tour operators that will collect you from your hotel, take you to Cebu, and then bring you back at the end of the day.

* * *

Second most asked question: Why are there so many sea turtles in Apo Island? It’s because it has one of the most  diverse marine ecosystems in the country, and this allows them to feed there.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium modeled its Wild Reef permanent exhibit after Apo, from the sound of the waves breaking on the beach to the 400,000-gallon tank with sharks. Yes, sharks, too. The Japanese diver said that when he first went to Apo, he saw whale sharks (which normally feed in Donsol or Oslob).

Like many places in the Philippine archipelago, dynamite and cyanide fishing almost wiped out the fish populations in the 1980s — until conservationists, marine biologists and NGOs intervened.

I remember writing a story for a book on marine life in the early 2000s and interviewing experts and photographers that were helping in the early stages of transitioning these islands into tourism destinations.

It wasn’t easy. How were they to convince fishermen who relied on such practices for their livelihood to stop and let the fish population grow because there was more money in tourism — and in the meantime how were they supposed to feed their families?

But the conservationists did the impossible! The waters of Nasugbu, Batangas; Coron, Palawan (which became a tourism hot spot only in the early 2000s because of divers); and Apo Island are now protected by the locals themselves.

Atmosphere Resort in Dauin. The town is 30 minutes to Apo Island by boat and 40 minutes by land from Dumaguete Airport.

In the case of Apo Island, it was the marine biologists of Siliman University in Dumaguete that led the conservation movement. Apo was declared a marine sanctuary in the 1990s and for more than 30 years, its marine life has been thriving.

The boat crew told me that a few years ago, the coral reef was much more beautiful but it’s been damaged by relentless typhoons. I heard the same story in Coron.

I was talking to a lady from the UK a few months ago and she mentioned she honeymooned in El Nido and Coron and was blown away when she swam in the latter’s marine sanctuary.

She initially thought “marine sanctuary” meant people cannot go there. Yes, you can — but no one can fish there. And in the case of Coron’s Siete Pecados (a place I love for snorkeling), scuba diving is prohibited because the corals are so shallow you could damage them with your tank.

I’ve seen how locals in Palawan, Bohol, Cebu and Apo Island are so protective and it makes me so happy that they see these waters as their own to protect for today and the future.

* * *

The swimming pool and beyond. The waters of Dauin are rich with corals and fish.
Dauin beach is nothing special, but what’s under is — a colorful, thriving house reef.

Third question: Palawan or Apo Island? That’s a tricky one because they’re two different experiences.

After I posted my turtle videos on Instagram, I got this question from friends and strangers abroad who were planning a trip to the Philippines.

So, here’s the long, logical answer.

The Philippines has 7,107 islands. Palawan alone has 1,780 islands but the province is scattered vertically. Coron is at the northern tip, the nearest to Manila, and El Nido is about six to 10 hours by boat or land and capital Puerto Princesa is even farther. Palawan has three airports, and if you pick the wrong one it’s actually easier (but not cheaper) to fly back to Manila and then fly again to the right airport.

Apo Island, on the other hand, is located in Negros Oriental (not be confused with neighbor Negros Occidental) with the airport in Dumaguete.

From Dumaguete’s port, you can catch ferries to the southern tip of Cebu (for whale sharks in Oslob and thresher sharks in Malapascua), which is a shorter trip than from Cebu City or Mactan Airport itself.

My sad point is that Philippine islands are not well connected — you almost always have to fly back to Manila as starting point.

My sadder point is that domestic flights are not cheap. We locals often rail against this fact because it’s actually cheaper to go to Hong Kong for the weekend than to Boracay or Palawan, unless you plan it months in advance. Flying to Caticlan (Boracay) can cost as much as US$200 (or $300 during high season) and so does Coron or El Nido.

Final answer: If it’s your first time to the Philippines, go to Palawan, specifically Coron (Busuanga airport). It has everything that El Nido has — the limestone cliffs, lagoons, lakes, marine sanctuaries, hot springs and deserted beaches — but El Nido doesn’t have Coron’s World War 2 shipwrecks, 24 of them for diving or snorkeling.

I love El Nido, too, with Nacpan Beach just half an hour away. But Coron has Kayangan Lake, which is the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen, and gorgeous white-sand beaches against the limestone cliffs.

Go to Apo Island if you’ve seen limestone cliffs rising from the waters (in Thailand or Vietnam) because the turtle experience is something you cannot get in Palawan.

Apo’s location also lets you explore other provinces such as Bohol with its gorgeous Chocolate Hills, rivers, tarsier sanctuary and Balicasag, which I really enjoy snorkeling at. Dumaguete is also close to Siquijor, which is famous for its beaches and voodoo witches. And Cebu is accessible by ferry, no need to fly back to Manila.

Apart from the whale sharks, Cebu’s southern tip has Kawasan Falls. I haven’t been there but you’ve probably seen these Gatorade-color falls and people canyoneering or jumping off a series of cliffs to finally arrive at the falls.

So…Coron for first-timers because you can easily spend a week there; and Apo Island if you want to explore nearby islands by ferry.

But if you want nightlife, fiery sunsets, parties and unbelievable powdery white sand, then head to Boracay. It’s the island we locals all adore and hate for what it’s become but we keep coming back to anyway.

But that’s another story.