WHERE ON EARTH IS SOUTHERN LEYTE? Lying almost at the heart of the Philippines, Leyte is one of the larger of the 7106 islands that make up the nation. The province of Southern Leyte is home to Sogod Bay and some of the Philippines finest reefs. The seabed descends rapidly to 800m in the centre of the bay, and provides homes for animals from pygmy seahorses to whale sharks, known locally as Tiki tiki.
Surrounded by mountains and hills, Sogod Bay provides a wonderful panoramic vista from the municipality of Padre Burgos. The main dive centres are based here, as well as the expedition base of the UK non-governmental organisation Coral Cay Conservation.
Much of the low-lying forest areas has been converted to palm plantations, but any lack of biodiversity above the waves is more than compensated for when you don your BC and regs and get under water.
What opens up before you within seconds is awe-inspiring. Leyte lies within a region of the Philippines called the eastern Visayas, and recent scientific research suggests that it is the centre of global marine biodiversity.
The sheer number of shapes, sizes and colours of fish, corals and sponges is mind-boggling.

DIVING IS POSSIBLE ALL AROUND the shores of Padre Burgos, but certain sites are favoured over others, each offering something quite different to the one next door.
Several Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been established in recent years. These are off-limits to fishermen, but divers are permitted to enter for a small fee of about £1. The MPAs are managed on the same principle as the better-known Apo Island to the west.
Sogod Bay is diveable at any state of tide, though if you do choose to dive at full rip, be prepared for some fast rides.
A drift dive at the site Buluarte will see you covering a lot of ground, passing two dive centres and half a village in as little as 10 minutes.
Buluarte buzzes with marine life and never disappoints. This is the realm of the pygmy seahorse and colourful mantis shrimp, although there is more chance of seeing these cryptic critters if you dive at slack water (no tide tables exist, so this has to be guessed).
The sponges are particularly good here, with large barrels providing homes for many different hawkfish. Blue, green, orange and yellow rope sponges cover the seabed in the shallows, and featherstars feed in the current on top of sponges and corals.
The first of the MPAs, at Lungsodaan, is home to a wall dive called Max Climax. The wall descends past 30m and big fish are common here.
Large, menacing black and white snapper cruise the depths together with harlequin sweetlips, trevallies, steephead parrotfish and various unicornfish.
Halfway along the wall is a bite into the rock. Hang out here for a few minutes and watch an endless torrent of fusiliers streaming over the corals and around the barrel sponges.
Visibility is generally excellent in Sogod Bay, though after heavy rains it can feel a bit like UK diving.
Max Climax is excellent for soft and hard corals, and the shallows provide a sandy bottom with coral bommies heaving with damselfish, anthias and nudibranchs. A careful look around the soft corals and overhangs might just reveal the well-camouflaged but beautiful ornate ghost pipefish.
A short distance south lie two more MPAs. Dive inside or outside the reserve at Sta Sofia and you will notice particularly good soft coral cover. Look out for shrimpfish, pipefish, frogfish, batfish, turtles, loads of lionfish and the charismatic signal (or twinspot) gobies.
These live on sandy seabeds, and their patterns mimic the eyespots and claws of a crab to deter predators.
At 30m you are likely to see plenty of large ribbon sweetlips queuing at cleaning stations where diligent cleaner wrasse go about their work. In the shallower water inside the reserve, its common to see schools of 20 or so graceful juvenile batfish at the top of the wall.
On one dive at Sonok Point I surfaced to the sound of crazed shouts from our cox: Tiki tiki! Tiki tiki! My buddy and I turned to the incredible sight of a small 5m beast cruising at the surface.
If you dive Sta Sofia from the shore, expect to find a small gang of kids waiting for you back at the beach. Dont worry, they must be among the friendliest kids on the planet.
They are likely to jump in wanting nothing more than to carry your fins back to shore for you.
Adjoining this reserve is the Tangkaan Cliffs MPA. The sandy seabed drops steeply away from 6m to around 30m. This amazing wall dive provides a huge variety of fish species, large barrel sponges and a good mix of soft and hard corals, including chunky fans of Tubastrea micrantha. Despite their green colour, these beautiful corals lack the photosynthetic algae characteristic of most hard corals, and must catch all their food from the water.
Large schools of fusilier and snapper race along the reef together with the odd dogtooth tuna and great barracuda.
The keen-eyed may spot frogfish and scorpionfish waiting in ambush, and blue-spotted ribbontail rays.
Around Tangkaan Point lies the jewel in the Padre Burgos crown - Ampo,
a reef with well over 80% hard coral cover. Thats a lot, and divers should be careful not to touch it, to ensure that it stays this way.
Of the 500 or so corals recorded in the Philippines, nearly 300 have been documented on Ampo Reef.
The colours and textures are incredible to behold, from the smooth, dull brown Porites (often taken for rocks!) through knobbly bright green or orange Diploastrea heliopora to the spiky pink and blue Acropora that hide thousands of crabs and gobies.
I have dived this spectacular reef well over 50 times, and there is always something new to see. Look out for the most colourful tiny animals such as rubble dwarf gobies, mandarinfish, a plethora of nudibranchs and anemonefish and the ridiculous, flapping swimming motion of juvenile harlequin sweetlips. They may seem to thrash around aimlessly, but they are thought to be mimicking poisonous flatworms to deter predators.
Angelfish abound here too, with regal, emperor and six-bar angels seen regularly. And schools of hundreds of parrotfish often rush past, bullying their way along the reef in search of food.
You wont miss the big fish either. Napoleon wrasse have been regular visitors, and even cobias have been seen. These are often mistaken by divers for sharks, though they lack gill slits. Shark sightings are however rare in Sogod Bay.
The wall at Ampo has numerous large gullies, with interesting niches to explore for snapper, octopuses and moray eels.
A safety stop in the shallows is the perfect way to end a dive here. Even in
as little as 4m of water, long-faced emperors up to 1m long will pass by, and sand perches and radial leatherjackets, experts at camouflage, flit around the reef. The colours of the corals, sponges and Christmas tree worms verge on the hallucinogenic.

THE DIVING IN SOGOD BAY may be world class in terms of corals, but the area has been overfished in the past, and very big fish are rare. The establishment of the MPAs has led to increased fish numbers, however, and divers can easily see the differences inside and outside the reserves.
Night diving at Burgos Pier is a must-do. The first 20 minutes of my first night dive verged on stressful. I moved between old tyres, discarded fish-nets and broken bottles to see everything from seahorses to dwarf lionfish to nudibranchs, hermit crabs, basketstars and waspfish, and didnt know where to point my camera next.
The highlight of the dive was our hunt for a stargazer. We saw blue-spotted rays out hunting and pufferfish asleep on the reef before locating our quarry, buried beneath the sand in ambush for an unwary victim.

DIVERS IN SEARCH OF BIG FISH have another option, in the shape of trips run by the local dive centres across the bay to Napantao and Sonok Point.
Napantao marine sanctuary has been described as one of the finest wall dives in the Philippines. Two sheer walls covered in soft and hard corals drop to more than 40m, separated by a steep bank. Its easy to lose track of your depth as you descend among tens of thousands of anthias, damselfish and wrasse.
Turtles are frequently seen as well as lionfish, large six-bar and emperor angelfish and grouper. Further out into the blue, tuna, jack and barracuda patrol the wall, and at the right time of year whale sharks pass close by.
Once hunted in the Philippines, whale sharks are now protected. To see them, head for Sonok Point from November to February, looking out for dolphins and pilot whales on the way.
The boat journey from Padre Burgos takes around two hours. November and December bring more rainfall, which may not be good for water clarity in the bay but heralds the start of plankton blooms and the whale shark season.
Local spotters will come out to meet you and increase your chances of seeing a shark ten-fold. These massive yet graceful beasts are shy, and observers should stay at least 3m from them and refrain from flash photography, to which they are extremely sensitive.
Snorkelling allowed me to spend far longer with the whale sharks than any of the scuba divers around our group.

ITS A WONDER THAT SOGOD Bay is not busier with divers. Perhaps its distance from major airports and the relatively poor quality of roads and transport have something to do with it. Padre Burgos is a bumpy 4- to 6-hour drive in a cramped jeepney or taxi from the domestic airport in Tacloban. It takes as long using ferries and buses from Cebu City.
Door to door from the UK can take up to 48 hours if you stop over en route, so Sogod Bay is not the place to visit for just one week.
Tourism is slowly gathering pace in Southern Leyte, but its far behind resorts on other Philippine islands. Padre Burgos still has the charm of a small, rural town, without trendy bars or big clubs. Small karaoke bars and the occasional fiesta - thats the nightlife.
With luck the region will avoid the gross over-development that has diminished the quality of diving in areas such as Boracay.
By learning the management of locations such as Apo Island, in time Sogod Bay has potential to become another Philippines success story.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Cebu and take a ferry to Hilongos or Maasin, then a taxi or bus to Padre Burgos. Or fly to Tacloban and take a taxi or bus to Padre Burgos.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sogod Bay Scuba Resort, www.sogodbayscubaresort.com; Peters Dive Resort www.whaleofadive.com; Southern Leyte Divers, www.leyte-divers.com. Get more out of your trip and spend two or more weeks learning about marine biology from the experts and help protect the reefs, www.coralcay.org.
WHEN TO GO: Year round, but for the best chance to see whale sharks, November to March is advised.
PRICES: Flights from London to Manila cost from £440 or to Cebu £480. Internal flights from Manila to Tacloban cost £15 with Cebu Pacific. Diving costs around US $24 per boat dive but each resort has variable rates for different dive packages.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.wowphilippines.com - though information on Leyte is limited at present.