A strange phenomenon lurks just metres off the shore of this Cebu town

SINGAPORE (Feb 6): If you cannot wait for the Malaysian east coast diving season to begin in April, consider an underwater haven in Cebu, which holds a hidden surprise just metres from Panagsama Beach.

I knew the exact distance to the diving haven of Moalboal, thanks to McDonald’s. There were signs along the road counting down the distance to the McDonald’s in the town, presumably the only one for miles around on the western coast of Cebu.

The country was scrubby with low, knobbly limestone hills running along the spine of the island in a north-south orientation. The rocky nature of Cebu Island precluded the lush tropical growth I had expected except for the magnificent rain trees, planted perhaps over a century or more ago, lining the main road.

When we stopped at some roadworks near Carcar city on the east coast, before the hills began, vendors approached the car with packets of puffed rice crackers and chicharron — deep-fried pork skin crisps, a local favourite to be savoured with a cold beer.

Over on the west coast, there were glimpses of the sea as the road wound along the thinly populated coastline, past small, dimly lit villages. McDonald’s informed me that I was just a few kilometres away from burger heaven. We rolled into Moalboal, a relatively large, busy town, and there it was, the Golden Arches in all its yellow-and-red glory, occupying pride of place in a small shopping mall, which must have made Moalboal the place to be for the young and restless in this part of the world. Several bake shops lined the road, selling local pastries with a variety of sweet fillings, and there were small stalls with chicken slowly roasting on automated rotisseries for takeaway.

A small side road branched off the main one and ran, for another 4km, towards the coastline and the beach. At the end of the road was Panagsama, an untidy straggle of low buildings on either side of a narrow road that petered out into a lane and eventually a walking path beside the beach. There were gaudy restaurants, dive shops, small homely hotels, bars, cafés, tour agents, and bicycle and motorcycle rental shops. A cluster of pedi-cabs waited for customers under a tree, and visitors in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops wandered around.

Just beyond the row of buildings was the expanse of the sea, serene and blue, and the vastness of open sky. It is this, and what lies below the surface of the sea, that draws visitors to Moalboal.

Ten minutes away by motorised boat from the rocky shoreline was the flat, vege tation-covered island of Pescador. There was no beach around it, only limestone undercut by the action of the sea. The vegetation was scrubby and you could swim around the island; it was that small. But the island, with boats bobbing along its shore, was not the attraction... scuba diving was.

The water was pale blue with broken bracelets of shifting and shimmering light, and when I rolled over the side of our boat, I was in a different world of silence, broken only by the sound of my own breathing. This is one of the top diving sites at Moalboal, which makes it, consequently, one of the best diving destinations in Cebu.

At Pescador, it is a wall dive, an easy, lazy drift around the vertical walls of the island, overgrown in a frenzy of hard and soft coral in a multitude of colours. The water was warm, there was barely a current, and the visibility was excellent. Swarms of small fish, like coloured confetti, congregated around clusters of coral, and if you were patient and sharpeyed enough, you could see the wonders of the macro world living within the folds of the coral: transparent shrimp, hairy miniature crabs, remarkable fish cunningly camouflaged to appear like a part of the coral itself, and the pygmy seahorse, configured to look exactly like the coral it inhabited, right down to the bumps and irregularities.

Each of these creatures inhabited a unique biological niche that might be very small — moved a few inches away from its habitat, it would not survive, seen and snapped up by a predator. Within the intricate ecosystem were many strange and symbiotic relationships. Aggressive but cute clownfish lived unharmed in otherwise stinging anemone, certain gobies and shrimp depended on each other, one warning of danger while the other provided the safety of a burrow in the sand.

What was missing were the large pelagic predators that inhabit and subtly alter healthy coral reef systems. A rich ecosystem such as this should have had schools of large predatory fish but I saw no sharks, only a large trevally, and the reason was apparent: Up on the surface, fishermen bobbed up and down in their small rowboats with baited fishing lines hung over the sides.

These were subsistence fishermen who fished to feed their families, as generations of fishermen before them had, harvesting the bounty of the generous sea with excess catch sold at the local markets. And so, the diving was excellent but incomplete.

The diving was characteristic of the coastal area around Panagsama, with shallow waters, healthy, vibrant coral and an ecosystem altered by human intervention fishing out all the top predators.

There was a remarkable exception to this observation, however, with the relative absence of predators contributing to it. Just a few metres from Panagsama Beach, and the restaurants and shops that ran along it, was a phenomenon hidden in plain sight until you ducked your head or dived underwater.

When I first dived in, the water was dark and seething, but it was not water — it was fish, an enormous, amorphous, shapeless blob of small fish, moving and constantly shifting. It was a huge school of sardines, moving like fluid metal, glinting silver in the sun. It was an incredible sight, made all the more remarkable by its proximity to the shore, for when I looked up, there were the outlines of boats against the sun and excited snorkellers at the surface, looking down at the mass of moving silver.

I could not begin to estimate the number of fish for it was a shape-shifting mass, self-adjusting to any threat, whether a stream of bubbles from a scuba diver below or other fish. There was frenetic energy in the massed, darting fish. When a few changed direction, the entire mass followed, like a giant connected creature of indeterminate shape.

There were a few other types of fish as well, perhaps sheltering in the great mass for safety in numbers, and if I was quiet, I could approach the moving wall of fish without spooking the entire school.

All this occurred just a short distance from the shore with all its activities: boats rowing by overhead, a weighted rope with free-divers practising diving on a single breath, fishermen on the shore casting their lines.

There was a government-imposed ban on net fishing, for a few scoops of a fishing net would have made the fishermen wealthy and decimated the great fish ball. The absence of predator fish also played a part in keeping the fish ball intact; in the open ocean, such an enormous mass of food would attract sharks, whales, dolphins and all other manner of predators.

My dive master told me that the great sardine mass had been resident at Pescador island until a few years ago when they migrated to Panagsama, and “it’s been getting bigger and bigger ever since”.

There is a well-known annual sardine run off South Africa, which attracts a train of predators, from sharks, dolphins, seals and whales to fishermen, divers and spectators in boats, as well as dive-bombing sea birds. Yet, in Panagsama, the great mass of fish is resident all year round, making for an easy and rewarding dive. There are no ghostly sharks lurking in the shadows, no opportunistic trevallies and barracudas lunging into that great ball, no dolphins herding the fish into smaller schools to be attacked by other dolphins — just that surreal, shape-shifting mass of fish darkening the surface of the sea.

In the evenings, visitors sit at beachside cafés and restaurants, watching the light ebb from the sky, reflected in the shimmering surface of the restless sea. Below the surface of the water were the bountiful coral gardens teeming with minute life, a drama played endlessly on the watery stage, and just metres away was that moving mass of fish, the hidden treasure of Panagsama, epitomising the promise and paradox of the constant life and death struggle at sea.

Diving in Panagsama is generally good all year round but the best time to catch its famous Sardine Run is from July to October.

Lee Yu Kit is a (very) occasional cook who finds inspiration in others’ cooking.

This article appeared in Issue 765 (Feb 6) of The Edge Singapore