Ahead of me I see the outline of a hammerhead shark. I switch my video on and start swimming out the 10 metres or so off the shear wall to intercept the path of the lone shark. Within a few seconds I spy another hammerhead, and another, and another. Soon my entire vision is totally taken up by an enormous school of hammerheads. I keep videoing as I swim amongst the sharks, my heart beating so rapidly, not from fright but from excitement. This is the dive of a lifetime.
The Philippines are a very popular dive destination with Europeans and Asians, but not really very well known to Australians. Australian visitors to this country are normally more interested in other, less savory features of the Philippines. On a recent trip to the Philippines, I travelled to the main island group of the country, the Visayas. Located to the south of the capital Manila, the main islands in the group are Cebu, Panay, Negros, Samar, Leyte and Bohol. There are numerous locations in this area that provide excellent diving opportunities, especially Macatan Island in Cebu and Panglao Island in Bohol.
One of the better dive locations in the Philippines is the small island of Cabilao. Cabilao is located about 60 kilometres south from Macatan Island and five or so kilometres off Bohol Island. It is a similar distance from the resorts on Panglao Island as from Macatan. The banca dive boats (large versions of the dugout canoe with huge diesel engine) take about 95 minutes to travel the distance from either place.
My first dive at Cabilao was Lighthouse Wall, which is on the far southern end of the island. The reef has a shear drop to about 55 metres and there is some spectacular hard and soft coral all along the wall and on the gently sloping bottom. However, this is not the reason why divers come to this location. The great attraction here is hammerhead sharks. Before we enter the water, our divemasters tell us that hammerhead sharks are regularly seen here, but as we enter the water, we are a bit sceptical of their claims.
A slight current is running to the south and I quickly drop to the bottom of the wall where I find some very large gorgonias. The fishlife is quite good and as I gradually ascend I am lucky to see a group of 20 or so barracudas.
Suddenly, I hear yelling. The divemaster is pointing out off the wall, what at I cannot yet determine. I swim as quickly as I can towards where he is pointing. I soon see what has him so excited, a hammerhead shark is slowly swimming towards us. I start my video and through the view-finder I see a second shark. What a dive! The sharks soon disappear from sight and I return back to the wall. A few minutes later I see another hammerhead. This is already a magical day's diving, as I have never before seen a hammerhead shark underwater.
We continue our dive but nothing else can possibly top the hammerheads we have already seen. We all emerge from the water excited. There are a dozen divers on the boat and it is all our encounter with first hammerhead sharks. What a dive, but the best is still to come.
After lunch on Cabilao Island, we travel about a kilometre to the north of the first dive site at a location called Talisey or Hammerhead Point. The divemasters tell us that they regularly see small schools of about 30 hammerhead sharks at this location.
This site has a current as well and we begin our drift dive, this time in the opposite direction to the previous dive. The dive site is similar to the previous site, but the wall is not as high, dropping to only 30 metres or so. We drift along, seeing some very good and large gorgonias on the wall and sea floor. Up ahead I spy a huge gorgonia and I start descending the 10 metres so I can video it.
Some of the hundreds of hammerhead sharks Photo from hi-8 video
There are at least 22 hammerhead sharks in this photo Photo from hi-8 video
All of a sudden I hear some shouting. I look up and see the dive master gesticulating out to the open sea. I quickly swim up and there, just in front of me is the dim silhouette of another hammerhead shark. As I swim a bit further I see more sharks. The further I go off the wall the more hammerheads I see until there are well over a hundred sharks located all around me. No matter which way I look there are hammerhead sharks.
One of the sharks breaks away from the group and comes towards me before turning. I am pretty close to it, perhaps 10 metres, when it turns. See the photograph below right (taken with a avery wide angle dome port). There are more sharks than I can count. On my video I have tried to count them and figure that there were well over 200 sharks.
I start swimming and filming back towards the wall (and my fellow divers) and a single shark breaks away from the school and slowly lumbers (or so it seems to me) towards the divers and at the last moment turns and swims away. Magnificent! See the photograph below left.
All the time this has been happening, I have been aware of my fellow divers whooping yelling from excitement. The hammerheads are swimming into the current and after swimming after them for the past few minutes, I am beginning to realise that I am breathing quite heavily, probably not just from the exertion, but from the thrill of the dive. Soon, the vast majority of the sharks have disappeared from my view and I can only see a dozen or so stragglers. Ten seconds later even they have departed and all I can see is the blue water.
One of the hammerhead sharks approaches the divers Photo from hi-8 video
A close up of one of the hammerhead sharks Photo from hi-8 video
I scan the water all around me and can only just see a couple of divers. I swim towards them and find everyone huddled close together, carrying on like a bunch of schoolkids who have just finished school for the year. I have resisted joining while I was videoing but I too have been greatly affected by this encounter and join in with some verbal "high-fiving".