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Back to Anilao, Part II


Just a couple hours away from Metro Manila, the dive hotspot of Anilao is ready to welcome visitors.

Story by
Nina Unlay
Photography by
Story by
Sonny Thakur
Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
Header Photo by

Francisco Guerrero

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Anilao’s water is its lifeblood. Diving is the main source of livelihood in the town of Mabini, which is sandwiched by Balayan Bay to the west and Batangas Bay to the right.

Resorts began popping up in Anilao as early as the 1980s, according to a case study by the WWF. It took decades to bring dive tourism to what it is today (it now employs roughly 2,000 residents), a sustainable source of living that provides full-time wages to former fishermen.

At the southern tip of Anilao sits the Verde Island Passage, a strait that has been called the “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world,” with more than 300 coral species. These waters demand protection, a call echoed by the people who find themselves returning to them over and over, including the many international and local divers who travel to Anilao. 

The Ford Raptor parked on a cement path lined with trees

Ordinarily, they are the people keeping freedive instructor Carlo Navarro busy at work. On weekends, his ManuMano Freedive House—affectionately called The Blue House, because it is literally blue—is usually full of what Carlo calls “the weekend warriors." On this day in November, a month after Anilao’s reopening, there are only the three figures crouched over in the garage, paving the ground with cement. Carlo has been coming back with some of his staff for maintenance work, but not yet for freediving courses.

“If the guests come to Anilao, they need to have a resort booking, and we aborted the idea to register the Blue House to accept guests because it was too confusing and too much work," Carlo says.

Right now, Carlo is working with resorts that have sorted out their permits so that his guests have a place to stay, then coming to him for their freediving sessions. That changes things, he says, since the whole point of ManuMano was that you always had a group of freedivers and all the gear together for one weekend in one house: a place where you always know there will be people like you. But the complications of registering ManuMano were barriers, along with the way freediving—or skin diving, which happens without the equipment associated with scuba diving—was being discussed by those making the new protocols.

These waters demand protection, a call echoed by the people who find themselves returning to them over and over.

Anilao was a dive destination first and foremost. And so when it reopened to tourists, the big question was: Would diving be allowed?

Scuba diving had resumed in resorts that had been issued the crucial Certificate of Authority to Operate (CAO) by the Department of Tourism (DOT)—until September 20, anyway, as a letter from mayor’s office reports. That was when General Guillermo Eleazar, deputy chief for administration of the Philippine National Police, ordered the local police chief to shut down diving operations in Anilao for “violations” and having “no basis of operation.” Guests were ordered to pack up and go home the very same day. A few days later, the mayor appealed to DOT Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat to reverse this order, citing IATF guidelines that allowed “outdoor non-contact sports.”

A dog peers between a line of posts
A breakfast spread of pancakes, eggs, and bananas
Exterior photo of Lilom Resort in Batangas
A hammock for guests at Lilom Resort in Batangas

Fortunately, on October 08, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) issued a resolution declaring diving was in fact an outdoor non-contact sport. The next day, the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD), an agency under the DOT, released its guidelines.

This was great news for Anilao. But these guidelines still left some things up to interpretation. For one, it addressed scuba diving specifically, and left freediving in a weird place. Freediving, like snorkeling, is an outdoor non-contact sport that allows for social distancing. But unlike scuba diving, there are no official guidelines.

“Diving pwede, snorkeling pwede, freediving… saan ka pupunta?” Carlo asked. “The main thing here is that the guidelines are being made but they haven’t been released.”

Carlo Navarro in a wetsuit poses outside of the ManuMano freedive house
Jake Calangi of Resort Owners Association of Mabini
From left: Carlo Navarro at the ManuMano Freedive House. Jake Calangi, president of the Resort Owners Association of Mabini (ROAM).

A little way from The Blue House, in his resort Saltitude, President of the Resort Owners Association of Mabini (ROAM) Jake Calangi wants more scuba divers to come. He runs a free scuba certification program for locals. “I keep on telling people that this is the best opportunity we have now, we need to take care of all of this. Especially now. Para makita nila kung gaano kaganda yung binigay ng environment sa Mabini,” he says.

One-hundred percent a local of Anilao (“born and raised, baby!” were his exact words) Jake says he’s just never seen the town go through anything like the year 2020 before. “Sobrang sakit. Inunahan kami ng Taal Volcano eruption, then African swine flu in the middle of February, then Covid-19, tapos may typhoon pa! Can you imagine what our small resorts are going through?”

I had had a small glimpse: I remembered the four landslides we passed on our way into town, each one a little scarier than the last. Batangas took a beating from the recent Typhoon Ulysses, but it was really Typhoon Quinta, from back in October, that put the province in a state of calamity, the second time this year after Taal erupted. Dive boats were destroyed, and fishing boats were destroyed. Both provided Anilao’s locals their livelihood.

A male diver wearing a wetsuit waits outside the ManuMano freedive house
Details of freediving gear

“We need what we can get from the LGU. And we’re not getting it right now,” he says. Jake says that the health and safety protocols were implemented very strictly in the beginning, but that implementation, particularly of the tourist checkpoint, has become lax over time. “We want business, but we also want our business to be safe. Our staff is our family—would you wish [Covid-19] on your family? I don’t think so,” he says. “Sabi ko nga, isa lang mahawa, and the transmission will be very fast. One way out, one way in nga tayo. Doon kami nahihirapan, kulang kami sa pagpapatupad ng batas.” He’s already turned away many guests, asking them to return to the checkpoint and have themselves tested. Some don’t return. 

“We need the support, with the proper implementation. Support for the locals, especially the staff and the bangkeros,” he says. “If you still have money for your comforts, just give it to them. They need all the help they can get.”

Exterior of the ManuMano freedive house

Just last November, the Philippines won the title of World’s Leading Dive Destination 2020 at the 27th World Travel Awards. And at least underwater, Anilao may be more beautiful than it has been in years: there are rumors of whale sharks where they haven’t been seen before, or turtles and dolphins returning to areas that used to be overrun by divers and fishermen. But there is also a lot of damage. 

“We have a very beloved dive site, and it has been closed for nearly 20 years,” Robert “Bobbit” Suntay had said to me before I left for Anilao. “It’s a case study to show people if you want to rehabilitate a reef you don't need to do anything artificial, you don't need to plant or electrocute or farm, you just need to close it and give it time to rehabilitate. Every few years a group of divers go to take videos and when you put the footage side by side experts cannot believe how the reef has grown so quickly in 20 years.”

He was talking about one of the country’s first marine sanctuaries, Batalang Bato, in Tingloy, Batangas. But during Typhoon Quinta, it was struck by a cargo ship. “It’s so heartbreaking. And it all could have been avoided.”

He continued, “There was a sense of returning normalcy, and then all that was smashed to smithereens by the typhoons that hit us consecutively. They destroyed homes, resorts, fishing boats, and talagang set back all the progress that was made [...] and I don't need to tell you what a dismal failure our government's response has been.”

Getting There (map) Presented by Clean Fuel

I had this conversation with Bobbit before we had left for Anilao. Other things he had said came to mind when we were there—like when he said that diving was what made Anilao. And diving needed its dive boats, diving needed the boatmen who operate the dive boats to feel safe and secure, not worried about their next meal or their homes.

We need the support, with the proper implementation. Support for the locals, especially the staff and the bangkeros. If you still have money for your comforts, just give it to them. They need all the help they can get. <callout-alt-author>Jake Calangi<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

During the past few months, there were those for whom traveling was a necessity—like Carlo, leading the upkeep at ManuMano, making sure that his community of freedivers would still have a place to come back to. Meanwhile, Jake jokes that with all the traveling he does between Manila and Batangas, all the antigen tests are giving him bodily anxiety (“like a mammogram for my nose”) but he knows there is no other option, if he wants to keep seeing his family and running his resort, his second family.

A man in a wetsuit holds a red rope

There were also other visitors to Anilao for whom travel was not only essential, it was an act of kindness. Bobbit, for one, had made the back-and-forth trip between Anilao and Manila a few times over the past two months to help out with relief operations in Batangas. Gela Petines, from the NGO Reef Nomads, had been traveling from Manila to Isla Verde south of Anilao, taking car and then bangka to deliver relief goods and pick up wares that she can help her partner barangay sell in Metro Manila.

It looks like travel, once again, just might be the thing that will bring places like Anilao back to life. The idea comforts—particularly in a country with so many other tourism-driven towns just like Anilao. And yet, even with all these people doing all these amazing things, travel might also not be enough.

Anilao was a dive destination first and foremost. And so when it reopened to tourists, the big question was: Would diving be allowed?

The tourism industry suffered one of the biggest blows from Covid-19. A report released in December by the World Tourism Organization said that 152 destinations have eased restrictions on international tourism, while 59 have kept their borders shut, like the Philippines; it also said that the Asian Pacific region had more border closures and the least travel restrictions eased.

All over the world, the tourism industry is fragile, just like the start-and-stop opening Anilao experienced in September. And whether tourist destinations survive will be determined by the policies put in place, and the people implementing them.

The experts agree that domestic travel will lead the way forward. And so the ways Filipinos will be allowed to travel in the Philippines (from travel bubbles, like the one between El Nido and Metro Manila; to road travel marked by checkpoints like the one in Anilao) are incredibly important. A checkpoint, and how well it is managed, might spell out the difference between life and death. It’s what will, hopefully, let the help in and escort the risks out.

We ended our trip on a late Sunday morning. On our way home, around 11:00AM, we passed by Saltitude Resort, where Jake was likely prepping for another dive, and the Blue House, where Carlo and his staff continued to clean house for the freedivers that they hoped would eventually come. The checkpoint, the same way we came in, was empty.

  • This is the second half of a two-part story on GRID's trip to Anilao after its official reopening as a tourist destination. Read the first part of the story here.

The Ford Raptor parked on a cement path lined with trees