The Islander Girl goes to the DRT Expo Philippines 2016

Despite waking up at 5:30am (after falling asleep at 2am after a pool party), I managed to keep my mind in a coherent state and drag myself to the Diving Resort Travel (DRT) Expo Philippines held in SM Megamall last September 9 to 11 (I went on September 11). I couldn’t miss it as my friends scored great deals on dive gear last year and I really wanted to get a bigger mesh bag for my stuff. I’d also like to thank Jem and Bryan for dropping me off at Megamall and Starbucks for being my workplace from 8 to 11:30am as I waited for the mall to open.

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Entrance was originally pegged at Php 200 PER DAY but was lowered to Php 50 during the event itself. I have no idea what possessed them to think that Php 200 entrance was acceptable.

I was only supposed to stay for an hour – look around, buy my bag, and get out – but ended up staying for almost four hours because there were a lot of things to see and do. Which, according to my friends, was quite a departure from last year’s event.

The Philippine Department of Tourism had a pretty swanky booth to promote diving in the Philippines. Their canvas swag bag included a magazine featuring the country’s best dive spots, a bag tag (mine featured Siargao, which I hope to visit during the off-season), and a lanyard. There were also a lot of resorts offering special rate for those who booked onsite.

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There were talks on marine conservation. The one I managed to attend was on the promotion of shark tourism as a means to get fishers to stop hunting them, given by Steven Surina of Shark Education. Shark Education is a company that specializes in shark diving tours. The marine biologist in me couldn’t help but speak out at the end of his talk, reminding him (and everyone in the audience) that while tourist dollars are good, the tourism development has to be done in partnership with the local community so that they can benefit from the tourist dollars as well. It’s not uncommon in the Philippines for the local community to resent tourism because the developers and the tourists are foreigners and the locals themselves don’t earn that much from the industry. Steven talked to me afterwards (me speaking was a last-minute decision and so I wasn’t prepared and my brain and remarks were all over the place) so I had to clarify that I wasn’t attacking him or anything and was just saying that shark tourism (or any tourism) has to be developed properly. I also met Polly, Su, and Lynn: really nice guys from Taiwan who shared with me that they had the same issues in Taiwan.

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Video of the talk by Lynn (my comments are at the very end):

Talks on underwater photography that were useful. I was only able to attend the talk by Penn de los Santos entitled From Ordinary to Extraordinary but I really enjoyed it. He focused on the basics: know your equipment before you dive, there’s always something nice to photograph, and look for that angle that will turn the ordinary shot into an extraordinary one. Great reminders for a newbie like me. His suggested cameras for beginners were the Olympus TG-4 and the Canon S series (I own an S95 that still holds up after 6 years).

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There were NGOs promoting the environmental conservation and responsible tourism. I only spent a significant amount of time at the Green Fins booth – one of the staff chatted me up and I told her that I used to work for El Nido Resorts. Other NGOs were WWF, Greenpeace, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, and Dolphins Love Freedom.

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And lastly: So. Many. Things. To. Buy. GYAHHHH! I was really only there to buy a new dive bag but UGH! Even if you gave me Php 50,000, it wouldn’t have been enough to buy everything that I wanted to buy. I finally got my bag from Aquaventure Whitetip, which had an Aqualung 80 liter mesh bag (it’s big enough to fit the standard plastic dive crate) for only Php 1,215 (40% off!).

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Yes, I stuffed a Superman pillow in the bag for this photo.

Another company I liked was Scuba System: a Hong-Kong based company who had cute AF dive gear under their Oceanarium brand. The whale shark and mola are regulator bags (!!!) and those gorgeous animal prints are on quick-dry microfiber towels. They also had nudibranch tissue holders (the tissues come out among the gills!) and mask straps. I was thisclose to buying the whale and dolphin-print towel but it was sold out by the time I went back to the booth to buy it (my wallet rejoiced). Fortunately or unfortunately Scuba System found a Philippine distributor at the DRT so it should be available locally in about two months (my wallet is bracing itself). Mares also had their Puck Pro dive computer on sale for around Php 12,000, which I would have bought if I had the money. Then there was Scubapro selling a mask and snorkel combo for Php 1,200, when a mask alone would have been around Php 2k. Gah.

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Bonus: I saw some friends there! Shoutout to Mavic and Gage, and a big HUHU to Jamie who went on Friday and didn’t tell me.

All in all, I had a great time. The DRT was a great place to be that afternoon 🙂

Traversing Tawi-tawi

Doing research on the field isn’t easy, but one of the things that make up for it is being able to travel all over the Philippines. There’s something about being able to peek inside the nooks and crannies that most Filipinos don’t get to see that sometimes makes all the effort and exhaustion worth it. I got to tick a major milestone off my travel bucket list when we surveyed the islands of Tawi-tawi last October.

06 Panglima Sugala

The houses of Panglima Sugala

10 SHINE 3 in Simunul

The seagrass and mangrove team in Simunul

This wasn’t my first trip to the southernmost province of the Philippines (that happened last year) but it was my first time to go beyond the main municipality of Bongao and visit the outer municipalities: Simunul, Sibutu, Panglima Sugala, and Sapa-sapa.

tawi-tawi map regular See the map? That’s how close Tawi-tawi is to Sabah.

It was also my first time to do a research cruise. Since the islands are pretty far from the mainland, the only practical way to move four research teams around was to base out of a liveaboard ship, the Sea Glory. It was also my first time working with such a big team! The NACRE program is composed of five projects, and four out of the five were present in Tawi-tawi: the corals and seagrass and mangroves teams from DLSU and the fish and physical oceanography teams from UP MSI. All in all, there were about 50 people onboard, including the lantsa crew. It was a tight fit but we managed to make it work.

00 our home outside

Our home for a week

11 the team

The research teams that managed to fit in it

01 SHINE 3

Off to do some research!

A research cruise was definitely something to remember. First, I had to share a small boat with 50 other people. I’m not the most sociable person so having to share my space (or the lack of “my” space) for days on end weird but workable. Most of us shared the top deck area but over the next few days, we realized that it was breezier outside. Some of my labmates brought their sleeping bags outside and slept under the stars.

00 our home inside

Then there’s the issue of water. Small boat = small water tanks (around 400 gallons for everything: bathing, cooking, washing plates, washing equipment, etc.) but 50 people = lots of water. We’d initially hoped to stretch the 400 gallons for the whole trip but it just wasn’t possible. We emptied the tanks after only 3 days then refilled them when we went back to Bongao to pick up the oceanography team. We also relied on the generosity of the island barangays, who let us take a bath using water from their common wells.

It was also a bit strange to have Marines and the Maritime Police escorting us. I felt a bit awkward having them around because I thought that they were making us even more conspicuous but with such a small community, we were going to stand out no matter what. So yes, better to have the extra layer of security. And they were really nice too 🙂

05 leaving for Panglima Sugala

This is PO1 Ali of the Philippine Maritime Police. He was our escort when we went diving around Bongao. Absentminded me had forgotten my booties at the inn *facepalm*. I was fully prepared to stick my bare feet and slippers into my open heel fins but he so generously offered to lend me the socks off his feet so that my feet wouldn’t get scratched up by the fins’ rubber straps. Call it a small gesture, but it really mattered to me.

15 diving without booties Bongao

We also got a closeup look at seaweed farming. The Kappaphycus seaweed is tied to rope lines using plastic straw, with Styrofoam or empty plastic bottles as floaters, and grown in very shallow water. The Philippines exported Php 4.7 billion worth of seaweed in 2009, with Mindanao accounting for 64% of the production, with Tawi-tawi as the main producer. Unfortunately, the seaweed farmers – majority of whom are small-scale – receive only a tiny portion of the profits. There’s no seaweed processing plant in Tawi-tawi, so the farmers have to sell their product to local buyers, who then send the seaweed to Zamboanga and Cebu.

04 lines and floaters Sibutu

02 seaweed in sibutu

Spending an extended amount of time in Tawi-tawi was definitely an eye-opening experience. All of the members of the local community that we met said that Tawi-tawi was safe and that it was a source of frustration that Jolo’s reputation affected Tawi-tawi as well.

Musings in Masbate

This past weekend marked my first visit to Masbate province. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about the province aside from the rodeos it hosts.

Masbate province is composed of three major islands: Masbate, Burias, and Ticao. The provincial capital is Masbate City, located in Masbate island. Our assessment site is Cawayan (the blue marker), about an hour and a half south of Masbate City.

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How you get to Masbate province depends on your time, budget, and which island you want to land on.

The easiest and fastest way to get to Masbate island is by taking the only Manila-Masbate City flight, operated by Philippine Airlines. Of course, since it’s the only flight and the plane is small (a Bombardier turbo prop with 81 passengers capacity), a last-minute one-way ticket can cost upwards of Php 7,000. Other options include taking a Roro (roll on, roll off) ferry from Cebu City (more on that later) or a Roro or regular boat ferry from Pilar, Sorsogon.

How you get to Burias also depends on where in Burias you want to go. If you want to go to San Pascual (the northern municipality), then you fly to Naga City (Camarines Sur), travel to Pasacao, then ride a boat to San Pascual. If you want to go to Claveria (the southern municipality), then you fly to Legazpi City (Albay), travel to Ligao City, then Pio Duran, then ride a boat to Claveria.

Ticao Island is accessible by flying to Legazpi City, taking a bus to either Pilar or Bulan (in Sorsogon), then taking a ferry to Monreal (if from Pilar) or San Jacinto (if from Bulan) municipalities.

As I mentioned earlier, our assessment site is in Cawayan in Masbate island. What little tourism there is in Masbate is concentrated in Burias, Ticao, and Masbate City. Also, we needed to find a route via Cebu because we’d be bringing in dive tanks and vans and our supplier is in Cebu. As such, majority of the information I got from scouring travel blogs was inapplicable. Add that to the outdated Roro barge information I found online and you’ve got a recipe for a logistics headache.

My main source of frustration was the conflicting details on the existence of the Roro route between Bogo City, Cebu and Cawayan. All the websites I found said that Asian Marine Transport plied the route, but their office said that they stopped that route two years ago. Okay, the websites are outdated then. However, Mr. Butchoy Presado of Masbate provincial tourism said that the route was still running. Fine, I’ll take the provincial tourism officer’s word for it. As it turns out, the route still exists but is run by a different company. Argh. Thanks Sir Butchoy for the information!

Pro tip #1: List of functional Roro barges operating between Masbate and Cebu (schedule as of September 13, 2015):

ROUTESCHEDULEDEPARTURE TIMEDURATIONCOMPANY
Bogo City, Cebu to Cawayan, Masbatedaily12 midnight5.5 hoursD. Olmilla Shipping Corp. (used to be run by Asian Marine)
Cawayan, Masbate to Bogo City, Cebudaily12 noon5.5 hoursD. Olmilla Shipping Corp. (used to be run by Asian Marine)
Bogo City, Cebu to Cataingan, Masbatedaily12 midnight4 hoursMontenegro Lines
Cataingan, Masbate to Bogo City, Cebudaily12 noon4 hoursMontenegro Lines
Cebu City, Cebu to Masbate City, MasbateSunday only12 noon10 hoursAsian Marine Transport Corp
Masbate City, Masbate to Cebu City, CebuWednesday only12 noon10 hoursAsian Marine Transport Corp

After meeting with the Mayor and the Municipal Agriculturist, we went around to our target barangays to introduce ourselves and the PEARRL project. The ride to and from Naro Island was on the rough side. I wasn’t afraid – I’d dealt with similar waves in El Nido – but fieldwork veteran me was cursing myself for not bringing a waterproof bag. What kind of noob marine biologist goes to fieldwork knowing that she’s going to visit island barangays and doesn’t bring a waterproof bag? @_@ Luckily, our boatman said that the waves will be calmer when we return in November because it will be amihan season (northwest monsoon) by then.

01 boat from Naro

We exited Cawayan via Roro at 12nn and landed in Polambato, Bogo City at 5:30 pm. Pro tip #2: if you want to rest, the ticket for the airconditioned cabin is worth it. At least you get a semi-comfortable bunk and you can sleep. Unfortunately for me, I spent extra for the bunk because I needed to work and I didn’t want salt spray on my laptop. Special mention for the aircon cabin having a working outlet so I could charge my laptop! I finally stopped working when we neared Bogo.

02 roro to Bogo

Polambato is three hours away from Cebu City via bus. We were told that the trip takes two hours. Lies! 😛 We grabbed snacks from the terminal stores and settled in. Both ordinary and aircon buses make the trip so you can choose.

We left Polambato at 6pm and arrived in Cebu City at 9pm. Add travel time to Mactan so we’d be nearer to the airport so we finally settled in at around 10pm. And our Cebu-Manila flight was the next day at 5:05 am. Cheers!

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Around the Philippines in 7 months

Our fieldwork for Year 1 of our research project started in earnest last January then proceeded nonstop until July. In those seven months, I’ve been to 11 municipalities in nine provinces all over the country. My Philippine map is looking pretty good!

It’s been an exhausting seven months, filled with interviews, focus group discussions, market surveys, fish landing surveys, fishery intercepts, fish visual census, and benthic cover surveys. Oh, and report writing. Can’t forget the dreaded report writing.

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How the BIR drove me insane during my 2014 income tax filing

Last week marked the most aggravating income tax filing I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) implemented an electronic filing system supposedly to streamline services. Good in theory. Too bad it sucks.

I was done with my income tax return (Form 1701 for professionals and self-employed individuals) since mid-March. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I hate rushing.
  2. I only have two steady clients.
  3. I take the 40% optional standard deduction over the itemized deductions.

All this adds up to a really simple income tax return. But because of the rushed roll-out and the lousy infrastructure, the BIR’s eBIRForms  setup resulted in even MORE wasted time and effort. But how much time and effort?

NO, it is NOT that simple
NO, it is NOT that simple

I completed my tax return using the offline eBIRForms software package and printed three copies for manual filing. This is what I did for my previous 2251M (monthly percentage tax) and 1701Q (quarterly income tax) forms. The messenger for our family business was going to file my return along with my February 2015 2251M in RDO 52, except that the BIR refused to accept my tax return because it was a manual filing. I was supposed to register with the online eBIRForms website and file the return online. Okay, fair enough.

  1. Register with the online eBIRForms – done!
  2. Use the offline eBIRForms software to export my tax return to an XML file for upload to the online portal – done!
  3. Upload the XML file to the online portal – WAIT!

No matter how many re-export + uninstall-reinstall combos I did, the exported XML file was corrupt. No, the irony was not lost on me.

I had to wait until the second week of April to do the filing myself because you know, I was busy doing my job. A pro tip when visiting your RDO: get queue numbers for the line you think you should be in and for the Officer of the Day. The line to talk to the Officer of the Day usually goes fast – or at least faster than the lines for actual transactions – so you’ll get to double-check your documents with the OD before you get to the head of the transaction line.

I was ready to duke it out with the OD using non-stop arguments that they HAD to let me file my return manually because their software was buggy. Instead, my consultation with the OD left me speechless for several seconds. The BIR staff, or at least the ones in RDO 52, knew that the software was busted! As per the OD, the exported XML file for Form 1701 is corrupt because they “hadn’t finished” the form in the software. AND YOU DID NOT TELL PEOPLE THIS WHY?!?! They told me to print out the confirmation email from registering to the online eBIRForms site and attach it to my documents so that they’ll accept my manual filing.

Keeping frustration on the outside
How I felt like on the inside. Photo used under a CC-Attribution license.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a copy of that confirmation email on hand so I had to hunt for a nearby internet cafe. Thank you BIR security guard and the guard at the nearby pawnshop! When I went back to file at 12:15pm, the staff in the ITR receiving section were out to lunch! When I caught someone about to leave, he told me to wait for them to come back at 1pm.

Me: “Di ba may ‘No Noon Break’ policy?” [Isn’t there a ‘no noon break’ policy?]
BIR Employee With No Respect for Taxpayers: “Sa States lang yan kasi mga robot sila. Di pwedeng ganyan sa Pilipinas.” [That (policy) only applies to the United States because they’re robots. That can’t be done in the Philippines.]

WTF WAS THAT?!?! The “No Noon Break” policy means that you guys take turns eating lunch so that your desks are never unmanned! The guy had the gall to tell me to go out and eat lunch and come back later. Aww hell no! I skipped my lunch so that I could be the first to file when they came back.

I breathed a sigh of relief when another BIR employee finally accepted my manual filing. I found out much later that I breathed too soon. When I submitted my returns, the BIR guy removed the attached 2307 (certificate of tax withheld) forms, saying that they “weren’t needed”. I found that really weird because you attach the 2307 forms to all of the tax returns you submit as proof that you’ve already paid tax on your income. What the guy didn’t say was that the hardcopies of the 2307s weren’t needed because you are required to submit scanned softcopies on DVD! *headdesk headdesk headdesk*

I want to be a good citizen and pay the “correct” taxes as mandated by the law (whether the existing tax rate is fair is another topic entirely). I really, really, REALLY do. But how the heck am I supposed to do that when the BIR makes it so damned hard?! And bonus: the March 2551M, 2551Q, and 1st quarter 1701Q are due on April 20.

NexCon Manila – the ultimate science fiction and fantasy party!

The thing that I’ve been helping out with since graduation is finally happening this weekend! Welcome NexCon Manila, the biggest science fiction and fantasy event of the year! It’s on May 31-June 1, 2014 at the Bayanihan Center in Ortigas. What a way to cap off your summer 😀
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What makes NexCon different from other local conventions is that we focus on science fiction and fantasy content from the Philippines and the West. The biggest activities are the film, comics, and literature panels featuring genre entertainment leaders – groundbreakers here in the Philippines and abroad. Where else can you sit down and discuss film with Erik Matti (Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, On the Job) and Louie Suarez (RPG: Metanoia),
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comics with Leinil Yu (Superman: Birthright, Avengers), Danny Acuna (veteran komiks artist), and Carlo Vergara (Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah),
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and horror literature with Karl de Mesa (Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic Punk) and Yvette Tan (Walking the Dead and Other Horror Stories)?
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And the fun doesn’t stop there! GeekFight Trivia Night is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary at NexCon Manila with GeekFight Battle Royale! They’ve planned eight kick-ass rounds of all things sci-fi and fantasy, including rounds that are freaking genius. One of the rounds started out as a joke but they ran with it anyway, so be prepared! I would so join if I weren’t a co-organizer 😛
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And last but not least, we have the contests! There are three contests for the event: Cosplay Masquerade, Cosplay Rumble, and Take Cover. What’s the difference between Masquerade and Rumble? Check out the infographic below:
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For hardcore competitive cosplay, I recommend joining the Rumble. Best in Show receives a 7″ tablet from our sponsors!
Take Cover is a photo competition, where you edit your awesomesauce cosplay photos into even more awesomesauce NexCon Manila comic book covers!
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Did I mention that we’re ending NexCon with a (Big) bang? Because we are! Indie bands Peso Movement, Stereodeal, and Paranoid City – all fantastic bands and Converse endorsers – will get you dancing, singing, head-bobbing, and geeking out, all at once 😀
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Interested in going? Buy your tickets now! There are different ticket tiers to suit everyone’s interest level and budget. I highly recommend that you get the Gold ticket for maximum enjoyment, as it includes access to all the panels and contests for two days, access to NexCon Rocks (the closing concert), AND a free limited edition NexCon shirt if you’re among the first 200 ticket buyers 😀
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Diving Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte

Last October 24-26, 2013 marked the Philippine Association of Marine Science 12th National Symposium on Marine Science in Tacloban City, Leyte and the first time I’d presented (part of) the results of my graduate thesis. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. After the conference, I marked another milestone with my first visit to Southern Leyte. I spent four days (well, really three days) in the quiet and no-stress Padre Burgos, about 3.5 hours from Tacloban City.

I decided to stay in Sogod Bay Scuba Resort because a friend recommended it and because they offered a slightly lower van hire cost to and from Tacloban (P7,000 instead P8,000 from Peter’s Dive Resort). The van hire was the most expensive part of the trip so hopefully you’re in a big group and can split the cost. Another friend who traveled to Padre Burgos the day before was able to get a round-trip van for P6000. Despite the cost, I think it was worth it because the commuting alternative sounded daunting: jeep from Tacloban airport to the terminal, shared van ride to Maasin City (the capital of Southern Leyte), a jeepney ride to Padre Burgos, then a tricycle ride to the resort in Brgy Lungsodaan.

Brgy Lungsodaan is pretty small. There are only two dive resorts (Sogod Bay Scuba Resort and Peter’s Dive Resort) and three restaurants (the resorts’ restaurants plus Moose and Squirrel). We only spotted one sari-sari store and the bakery was a tricycle ride away. TIP: if you’re eating at Moose and Squirrel (and you should!), better to order beforehand then come back later. E.g if you’re eating lunch there, place your order before you go diving to cut down on the waiting time.

padre burgos map

Continue reading “Diving Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte”