Sunday, September 26, 2021

Adventures in Samar - Caving, Canyoning, and Sightseeing

Sep 2021, Samar Island, Philippines

We actually made 3 short visits to Catbalogan, the capital of Samar Island, Philippines in September 2021. The initial reason was to go caving with Joni Bonifacio of Trexplorers. Dave loves caves, and Joni is THE caving expert in the Philippines. I am not a big fan of caves unless it is a big lighted cave with handrails and a nice walkway (ie Luray Caverns in the USA). So, with the cat off to the vet for emergency surgery, I took advantage of the situation and stayed onboard to "wait for the cat". Dave went caving with our friend Paul from s/v Ttaack, and Paul's girlfriend.

Joni Bonifacio's Trexplorer Shop

They had a blast--hiking to 2 different caves and then exploring each cave. But it was a strenuous day, and Dave's shoes were not up to the slippery cave floors. He came home with a fairly significant gash in his forehead from a slip and fall. Joni arranged everything, including motorcycle transportation to the starting point, porters to carry gear and food, and proper helmets and good headlamps. Joni carries an iPhone in a waterproof box and takes prolific pictures. At the end of each adventure, he put together a short video about the adventure. There are a few pics here you can scroll through (and click on each picture for a bigger version if you want), but if you're into video, here's the Youtube link for Dave and Paul's Trexplorer caving adventure:

Transport to the Start of the Hike

Kids in the Village Where the Hike Started

Hiking in to the First Cave

The Entrance to the Lobo Cave Complex

All Properly Kitted for Our First Cave

Some Serious Cave Exploration!

Cave Pearls!

So we hiked in to the first cave, then came out, had lunch and hiked to the second cave.

A well-deserved lunch before our next hike!

And Onward and Upward to the Second Cave

This Cave Is Even Bigger!

At least it's bigger in some places!

Whew! Finally done and resting before hiking out!

This was really an exhausting trip--way more strenuous than they had imagined. (I was really glad I had opted out for this one).

On a second visit to Catbalogan, Dave and I went "Canyoning" with Joni. We only had a vague idea of what this was, but it sounded like fun--rappelling down into a river canyon and walking down the river. What it actually turned out to be was a series of 7 waterfalls as the river descends into the valley, and we rappelled down some of them and jumped down others. And waded and swam down to the next one. It was a fun trip--a little physically challenging, but not too bad. Besides the actual rappelling, there was a 2 hour hike up along the river bank to the top of the canyon. (This part Joni never mentioned in his description of "canyoning").

Starting Our Hike With the Porters Who Carried all the Gear

Getting Kitted Out with all the Gear

We Practice Rappeling On a Tree

Our First Rappel Looks Pretty Scary!

Dave Sez "Ladies First!"

Joni Requires a Thumbs Up (Dave not so sure!)

We Made It! Only 6 More to Go...

In Some Places There Was a Lot of Rock-Scrambling

More Rappelling--This One With a Jump at the End

And Jump!

In Other Places We Did Some Serious Swimming

Joni Had Packed in a Nice Lunch for Us!

We did a total of 7 descents, and a lot of rock scrambling and/or swimming in between each one. Lots of fun, but we were glad to finally reach the bottom. I kept wondering... what if there's a heavy rainfall? But I'm sure Joni had that figured out. We felth very safe with him. He has led a number of international caving, mountain biking, and canyoning expeditions. And his gear was top notch.

If you want to see a play-by-play of our canyoning trip with more detail, Joni made a 30 minute Youtube of our day of canyoning adventure.

On another day, our new friend Gary invited us to go hiking over on Daram Island nearby (SW of Buri). We went in his speedboat. On arriving in the little town at the base of the hill, we asked for a guide to show us the way. We ended up with 4 nice young men.

Gary's Speedboat

The Town at the Base of the Hill

Narrow Streets Along the Waterfront

Someone's "Car" Parked by their House

We Go Searching for a Guide

Our Guides

It was a nice day, but hot up on the hill with no trees. Great views, though!

The Long Hot Hike Up the Hill

Friendly Fellow

At the Top we Find a Big Monument

And a GREAT View

We loved hanging out at Buri Beach and Catbalogan Town. Sorry we didn't have more time to hang there. For those of you who want to know where it is... here's a Google Maps Link

Next... some of our "inland adventures" touring around Samar and Tacloban.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Exploring N Central Visayas - Camotes to Malapascua and Catbalogan, Samar

August 2021

I am not sure exactly what encompasses "The Visayas" technically. But we finally broke loose from the Carmen/Camotes shuffle on August 12, and headed a bit further north.

Our Cruising Track for August

Our first stop north of Camotes was Calangaman Island, in the middle of the Camotes Sea. This is a pretty island that is now a park and has an access fee. We could anchor without paying a fee, but could not go ashore. We spent 2 nights here, and snorkeled the whole north coast, looking for an appropriate anchor spot. We also snorkled on a couple of the moorings. These were not really intended for cruising sailboats to stay on overnight, but for dive boats that are attended by crew and don't stay more than a few hours. But the setups looked hefty enough to hold a cruising boat in moderate weather. We anchored carefully in a sand patch on the south side. For the 2 nights we were there, there was virtually no wind, so we were OK on the S side. Our sand patch: 11°06.71'N / 124°15.03'E

The Sand Spit at Calangaman Island
(Photo courtesy of

From Calangaman, we made a quick trip back to Carmen, as we'd finally gotten notification that the Moderna vaccine we'd been waiting on was going to be available for only one day in Cebu City. So we hustled back, spent a day in Cebu City getting vaxxed, and hustled back out to do some more cruising.

The next stop was famed Malapascua Island, one of the most recommended diving locations in the Philippines. We had stopped here overnight in 2018 on our way to Puerto Galera, but didn't have time then to stay and dive. So we anchored in the same general area, near our friends on Meikyo and Wind Hog, on the south coast. This isn't a great anchorage in southerly winds! After a couple of choppy nights, we moved around to the SW corner, and it was much better.

Dive Bangkas Laid Up on the Beach at Malapascua

It was really sad to see Malapascua during the COVID lockdown of 2020/2021. On our previous stop there were over 50 dive boats, and hundreds of divers--boats full of divers coming and going from dawn to dusk. The Malapascua shoreline is lined with dive resorts big and small, and the beach was crowded with people and bangkas of every size. Sadly in August 2021, all but 2 resorts were closed, and those 2 resorts were barely hanging on, with minimal staff and only one boat active for each resort. Many many boats were stored up on the beach, decaying, even the really big bangkas.

The Evolution Dive Boat--typical of Filipino Dive Boats

Our friends had already hooked up with Evolution Dive Center, because they have tech diving support, and our friends wanted to use their rebreathers. So we did a few days of diving with Evolution. We did the iconic Thresher Shark dive, and actually saw a Thresher Shark and got a fairly decent picture of it. On this dive, you basically go down at the Thresher Shark area (a submerged reef in the Camotes Sea), and sit and wait at about 90 ft deep for the sharks to appear. They normally appear right around dawn, so the meeting time for the dive is at 4:30 am at Evolution!

Sherry Trying to be Inconspicuous
While Waiting for the Sharks

A Big Thresher in Profile--see the tail?

And This Friendly Guy Came a Little Closer

Our Friend Mike with his Rebreather Setup

We also did a couple of very nice "critter dives" in two good spots on the north side of Malapascua.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp

A Pair of Curious Cuttlefish

A Halgerda Batangas Nudibranch

A Nembrotha Nudibranch Feeding on Soft Coral

Our final day of diving was at Gato Island (about an hour's motor north of Malapascua). The Gato Island dive starts with a neat swim through a natural cave/tunnel in the island.

On the Bow of the Dive Boat
Cave/Tunnel through Gato Island Behind Us

In the Cave

Beautiful Iridescent Anemone

Fire Urchin

One of the last things we'd done in Carmen before we left was to get our kitten, Charlie, spayed. This turned out to be a real disaster--after 3 hours on the operating table, the "vet" declared she couldn't find Charlie's uterus, and so was just going to sew her back up and hand her back to us, unspayed. How traumatic for both us and Charlie! But it's my own fault--the vet hadn't wanted to do the surgery until Charlie was older. But after researching on the internet "Best time to get kitten spayed", I had pressed her to take care of Charlie then (at about 6 months). Little did I know that she was not competent to do so, no matter what age Charlie was.

So, the morning of our last day at Malapascua, about a week after the "surgery", Charlie started having trouble urinating. She was straining to "go" and only producing a few drops of urine at a time.

Charlie Did Not Like the Oral Antibiotics!

We should have aborted our diving that day and taken care of Charlie. But we'd already signed up for the dive, the dive boat required a minimum of 6 divers, and if we pulled out, our friends wouldn't be able to go. So we went, but I fretted about Charlie the whole day.

On returning from the dive, the dive shop tried to hook us up with a vet on the Cebu Island mainland nearby, but the only vet answering the phone was closing soon (it was already late Friday afternoon), and would not agree to see Charlie on Saturday morning, no matter how much we begged. What to do? We could go all the way back to Carmen (a full day's motor sail), but we'd still be faced with the same problem of getting access to a vet other than the one that butchered Charlie in the first place.

Meanwhile, we'd been talking to a contact at our next planned stop on Samar Island. Dave was looking for adventure, and had heard that Samar had a bunch of caves, and a "Caving" Tour company in Catbalogan City. He contact the famous caver... Joni Bonafacio and had asked him about anchoring in the area. Joni had put us in contact with Gary Munoz who lived at Buri Island near Catbalogan. When we explained to Gary that we might not be coming to Catbalogan because of our cat emergency, he said he knew of a vet in Catbalogan that lived on Buri Island, and he would arrange for that vet to look at Charlie when we arrived. We checked the charts and found that the distance from Malapascua to Catbalogan was far (almost 60 miles), but we could do it in a day if we got started early. So at the crack of dawn the next morning, we set out for Catabalogan and Buri Beach.

It was a long and tiring day. For awhile we were making great time--able to sail and doing 6-7 knots. But after we rounded the northwest tip of Leyte, we encountered a squall and wind on the nose at about 20 knots. Normally in those conditions, we would find an anchorage and just hole up and wait for better wind, but Charlie needed urgent attention, so we HAD to get to Catbalogan. We eventually made it in to the Buri Beach anchorage at around 4pm, wet and salty. Gary had arranged for the vet to meet us on the beach soon after our arrival, and take Charlie back to their office for a look at her incision. Remember, this is Saturday afternoon... the vet was crazy worried about COVID, so they didn't want us to accompany Charlie, but promised to keep her overnight and do what they could for her.

Long story short, it took 2 surgeries and about 2 weeks for this vet to fix the mess that the previous "vet" in Carmen had made. The immediate problem--Charlie's urinary tract being pinched due to a breach in the stitching--was solved on the first surgery.

Charlie Going in to the Vet for a Follow-Up Visit

It turned out that the non-invasive approach the vet took the first time was not enough to repair the total damage. A second, more invasive, surgery was required to open up the abdominal wall, try to properly position the organs that had been floating around in there, and re-stitch the abdominal wall and the outer skin covering. On the second surgery, Charlie's uterous was finally removed. This second surgery took a couple of hours, and the exhausted vet was not sure Charlie would pull through and recover completely. She does have some major scarring in that area, but she did thankfully recover completely.

The Husband and Wife Team at Cinco Family Clinic
(Pets Unlimited)
Treating Charlie on the Beach

These wonderful people literally saved our kitten's life--a husband and wife team who went WAY out of their way to help us out--evenings and weekends--and then refused payment for the second surgery. We are forever grateful!

A Month After the Original Surgery, Our Charlie is OK

Catbalogan and Samar Island are technically on lockdown due to COVID. All the normal tourism routes are shut down. But coming in by private boat and anchoring off a small island away from the city, we were flying under the radar. By this point in time we both had been double-vaxxed and had one of two planned Moderna vaccinations as well. So we didn't feel we were endangering anyone by traveling to Samar. Our mode of travel was very safe--little chance of catching COVID on our private boat vs traveling by crowded bus/ferry, or plane.

Next: Our Samar Adventures