Me and my Philippines: Gutsy Tuason, underwater photographer

Tuason, winner of the Palme d'Or Award for underwater photography, shares his top dive spots in the Philippines and the best places to stay

My idea of paradise is being underwater.
I feel more comfortable underwater than on land. There’s a certain freedom.

Peacock Garden resort in Bohol. By Jocas See
My favorite resorts are El Nido ResortsBacon Beach Resort and Dive Center in Bacon, Sorsogon, Peacock Garden in Bohol, Rock Inn and Café in Sagada, and Mount Data Hotel in Banaue.

Snorkeling at Miniloc resort's house reef. By El Nido Resorts
At El Nido’s Miniloc resort, there are lots of activities even if I’m not diving like kayaking, rock climbing and snorkeling in the lagoons.
Bacons is a little gem. It’s a place for chilling, but it’s also less than two hours away from the whale sharks in Donsol. At Peacock Garden, they have good German beer and the food is excellent. I like Mount Data Hotel because first of all it is not crowded, and second it’s twice as high as Baguio and twice as cold. I think it’s the only hotel in the Philippines where they ask if you want a heated room. I usually go there on the way to Sagada, where I stay at Rock Inn. The first time I went to Rock Inn I didn’t have enough money to pay the bill and they said I could stay anyway.

Pinched from @GutsyTuason on Instagram

If I’m not flying I take my dogs so the place where I stay always has to accept them.

Thresher shark in Malapascua, Cebu. By Gutsy Tuason
My greatest dive was in May 2010 at Monad Shoal near Malapascua, an island off the northern tip of Cebu.
I saw four mantas, five thresher sharks and three devil rays, all one after the other. And all the sharks were coming close over my head. You don’t get that all the time.

My nightmare dive was when I was 12 years old at Cathedral Rock in Anilao. I ran out of air at 20m deep. I panicked and it was pretty scary. My dad was with me. He put the regulator in my mouth, then accidentally dropped his camera. We went up really fast and my dad was coughing up blood.

Fairy basslets in Beatriz off Anilao. By Gutsy Tuason
My favorite places to dive in the Philippines are Tubbataha, Anilao and Malapascua.
I went to Tubbataha for the first time in 1983 and I have been there almost every year since. It’s just a reef in the middle of nowhere and so you live on a boat. The first time I went changed my life because before then I had always been diving in Anilao. Since I first went, Tubbataha has improved. It’s been taken care of and there’s more stuff to see. Just last week, we saw a shark-ray [half shark, half sting-ray], a very odd looking creature. I still enjoy Anilao because I get to do a lot of macro work. And in Malapascua, I like the thresher sharks and the giant mantas.

I learned to dive in Anilao when I was eight years old and used to ride on my dad’s back with the other regulator.

Salp, a barrel-shaped planktonic tunicate, taken on one of Gutsy's night dives in Tubbataha
I’ve been doing a lot of night dives in the middle of nowhere with the water below me up to 4,000 meters deep.
I put a line down and hang there. I get to see really strange stuff that you don’t normally see. There’s a lot of preparation. We secure the lines and the lights and then we wait about 20 minutes because we want the marine creatures to get attracted to the lights. Usually I go with a safety diver just in case something big shows up and we’ve got to get out of the water.

The most famous person I’ve met on a dive is Peter Benchley. I met him on a Mexico trip in 2004 when we were looking for great white sharks. He’s the author of Jaws – the book that scared everybody out of the water.

Before diving I check all my gear and make sure all batteries are charged, my memory cards are okay, and all rings on cameras and other equipment are lubricated. I do these things while having my morning coffee. I get up a bit earlier than everybody else, like five in the morning. The first dive is usually at seven.

I never travel without my camera, my iPhone, my headphones and my laptop.

It takes me two days to pack.  I am a slow packer and I don’t have a checklist. I’m quite disorganized. There are times when I forgot equipment. Back in the day when I used to shoot film I used to forget my film because I kept it in the fridge. One time I called a friend and said ‘my film’s in the fridge; go to the airport and try to get on the last flight.’

I’m not much of an underwater gadget guy; just bare essentials to get the job done. I usually buy my dive gear in my own store, Squires Bingham. I get also little bits and pieces from the two dive shows I attend every year. I go to ADEX Asia Dive Expo in Singapore and to DEMA Show.

My favorite beach is near Bacon in Sorsogon. I forgot the name, but it’s about 10 kilometers from Bacon. There’s a rock formation that forms a natural pool. I also love the beaches around Coron, Busuanga Island, in northern Palawan.

My advice to travellers is to keep away from organized tours. I like to explore places on my own. Always take your camera, take lots of pictures. I keep a very detailed journal jotting down even the food and people that I saw and met.

About Gutsy Tuason
Gutsy Tuason is winner of the Palme d’Or award at the 27th World Festival of Underwater images in Antibes, France for his portrait of Anilao, Batangas. Tuason has some 4,000+ dives to his name. “The Philippines is one of the best dive destinations in the world. It is part of the coral triangle, which means it has one of the most bio-diverse marine ecosystems on the planet,” he said. View Tuason’s work on the Squires Bingham Sports Facebook page

-By Cielo Flores

Originally published in InFlight Traveller August to September 2013. Updated February 25, 2016

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