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September 2006 Vol. 21, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Atlantis Dive Resorts, Philippines

wild reefs, tame diving

from the September, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader,

A dive that begins with sharks and ends with pygmy seahorses has a lot going for it. The dive started with a blue-water descent to 85 fsw. Hovering just above the bottom, I peered into a low-ceilinged cave to watch sixfoot white-tipped reef sharks pacing back and forth in the gloom. A silver sweetlips hung with the sharks and a smaller red striped sweetlips swam upside down under the overhang. I ascended to the Pink Wall, named for the profuse soft corals that are trademarks of Philippines diving. My guide pointed out five pygmy seahorses roosting in an undulating sea fan, claiming that one of these tiny creatures, less than 3 mm long, was pregnant. I viewed it through a magnifying glass and whatever he purported to see, I didnt.

I was diving at Atlantis Puerto Galera, on the eastern shore of the island of Mindoro, south of Manila. The 40-room resort meanders uphill from crowded Sabang Beach, which is chockablock with resorts, dive operations, restaurants, trinket vendors, honky-tonks and hookers.

The diving outrigger

The diving outrigger

One reason I selected the Philippines is that the air/land price can be comparable to many Caribbean destinations and with far better diving. But getting there included a 90- minute bus trip from Manila to the coast and a one-hour ride in an open boat. However, the resort staff handled each transfer crisply. Upon arrival, my bags were taken to our room while I enjoyed a buffet lunch. Now Im accustomed to complimentary welcome drinks . . . but complimentary massages? A bevy of women poured into the room and gave us -- well, a few guests hesitated -- a head and neck massage at the table. These were hotel masseuses recruiting business for inroom massages.

With several boats each making four one-tank trips per day, dive sites and departure times are listed on a white board. Since I had traveled with five other divers, they assigned us a guide and boat. Crew members toted our gear to the bangka (an outrigger skiff with partial sun cover, powered by a diesel engine). After checking c-cards and collecting wads of waivers, Bala, our boyish- looking but professional divemaster, laid out the max bottom time and depth (50 minutes and 60 fsw on this first dive). We were to stay together, begin our safety stop when the first diver hit 750 psi, and surface together.

After Balas briefing, I carried my personal gear to the beach and waded out to the anchored Jim Jim. I teetered up a rickety gangplank with a hand from the boat driver. Ernies Point was just minutes away, as were most dives, so it did not matter that the Jim Jim had no head, snacks or drinks. Most days, the boat returned to the resort after each dive.

Although the air was in the low 80s, the water during my March trip ranged from 7579F. Having been forewarned, I added a vest to my 3-mil suit. But, I hadnt planned for the extra buoyancy, so Bala held up the other divers while I sheepishly went back to the boat for more lead.

Atlantis Dive Resorts, PhilippinesGently drifting past Ernies Point, I saw a huge puffer, two big black frogfish, several lionfish, and nudibranchs among profuse hard and soft corals in 70- foot visibility. As we ascended to our safety stop, Bala deployed a surface buoy so the boat -- which doesnt anchor on dive sites -- could find us. At the swim ladder, I handed up my tank, weight belt and fins before climbing aboard. The stay together rule had been loosely enforced, and later, two divers wandered away from the group. One was picked up by a boat from another resort. His divemaster failed to search for him and the boat driver never noticed him on the surface. Not good, so we six vowed to watch out for one another.

Guest rooms are reached via landscaped rock pathways and flagstone steps. Mine was bright and airy, with white stucco walls molded into storage cubbies, vents and lighting sconces, giving the place a Flintstones feel. I appreciated the refrigerated honor bar (a can of San Miguel Pilsen cost about $1.10), complimentary daily fruit, cable TV, and a small desk. Outside, next to a plastic table and chairs, I hung my swimsuit on a drying rack. The room had no phone, so I had to walk to the front desk to ask questions. They urged us to stay hydrated - several divers cramped on the first dive after the long plane ride -- but the running water in my room was unpotable, and bottled water was 75 cents. I found cheaper water in a nearby store.

Other dives near Sabang Beach featured different fauna. At Kilima Steps, I encountered a murderers row of venomous critters. Bala pointed out porcupinefish in their tube-sponge docking stations and a well-camouflaged raggy scorpionfish. An oversized star puffer hovered above the reef, while Moorish idols, triggers and parrots devoured coral. At the Canyons, I dropped in on king-sized oriental, diagonal- banded, and dotted sweetlips.

On many safety stops I drifted over reef tops, blown away by the rainbow of anthias, basslets, cardinalfish, damsels, and wrasses sparkling in brilliant sunlight. Like denizens of the girlie bars of Sabang Beach, I mused, the reef crowd looks good at closing time.

Atlantis Dive Resorts, PhilippinesI plunked down $37.50 for a dusk dive to ogle mating mandarin fish. Based on my unscientific survey of T-shirt designs, these brilliant fish are the signature critters of Puerto Galera. At dusk, pairs rise from dead fire coral, swimming upward in a sinuous spiral, then release their sperm and eggs before falling back to their lairs. Beams from our lights or strobes spooked the little lovers, so we viewed and filmed them in relative darkness, losing the beauty of their elaborate coloration. With nine divers jostling for position, it wasnt fun. My advice: Buy the T-shirt, skip the dive.

But dont skip the day trip to Verde Island, 90 minutes away. Drifting along the drop off in 150-foot visibility, I felt that if Yosemite Park were a reef, it would look like this. Speckled puffers wove their way between enormous sea fans. A four-foot octopus and an eight-foot swimming sea snake added more drama. I gawked at thousands of batfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish, angels, surgeonfish, clown triggers and other beauties sashaying among the jumble of corals, sponges and tunicates. Two great dives!

Atlantis Puerto Galera was pleasant and the friendly staff seemed to know my name by the second day. But, I didnt spend all my time here and occasionally meandered into the nearby business district where one traveling companion got into a few serious pool games. Several single male divers - some make annual trips -- were seriously scouting. One said -- and he was sober -- that he wasnt going home until he found a wife.

My big gripe was the food. Breakfasts were fine, but lunches and dinners were fat and carbo-loaded with dishes like spaghetti, potatoes au gratin, fried sweet potatoes and calamari tempura. They did their best to honor dietary requests, but only for those squeaky wheels who said they didnt want the grease. When large groups hit the buffet, food frequently ran out, and the kitchen replenished it too slowly. When I booked this trip six months in advance, I was told to expect gourmet cuisine but the chef had transferred to the sister resort. At least that gave me something to look forward to on the second leg of my trip: Atlantis Dumaguete.

Its about 250 miles as the crow flies from Puerto Galera to Dumaguete. Unfortunately, the crow doesnt carry passengers or luggage, so I had to return to Manila, then take a one-hour hop on Cebu Pacific and a 40-minute van ride.

Atlantis Dumaguete is a 37-room boutique resort, designed with Asian motifs and constructed from indigenous Filipino materials. My ground-floor room was trimmed in native woods and floral-patterned bedspreads, which gave it a much warmer feel than the cavelike rooms at Puerto Galera. Dumaguete has a tropical garden setting on an expansive beach sprinkled with modest resorts, private homes, and primitive fishing camps. Its without nightlife other than the resorts openair bar. The meals were well-balanced with fresh local seafood, sometimes grilled on the outdoor barbecue.

The bangkas and dive procedures were similar to those at PG. Nearly all the nearby diving was conducted in small, patchy marine preserves, which were more lush than the surrounding terrain -- though I spotted several fish traps. At least I saw no signs of dynamite fishing, which has devastated too many Filipino reefs.

Two nearby coastal sites qualified as world-class muck dives. After bouncing down to the 105-foot-deep Bangka Wreck, I returned to the shallows, where six-inch white thorny seahorses clung to shoots of sea grass in 11 fsw. They posed patiently for photos, but the paparazzi left when someone discovered a two-foot anemone that housed clownfish, small crabs and banded coral shrimp. For 10 minutes, I hung out with a pair of black ornate ghost pipefish drifting vertically side by side. Below Coconut Mill pier, divemaster Marco, a trained marine biologist, picked through the rubble to point out a starry moray in the mud, pincushion starfish, boxy cowfish, an anglerfish, and an armor-plated broadclub cuttlefish. Finning around the pilings, I saw a two-inch crystal neon slug, vertical shrimpfishes and a black, blue and white juvenile emperor.

I also took a full-day trip to Apo Island. In visibility that deteriorated from 80 to 40 feet, we made three dives with hawksbill and green turtles, sea squirts, unicorn fish, blue spotted puffers, triangle butterflyfish and soft corals in an array of pastel tints I wouldnt believe in an aquarium. There was so much to see, I found it hard to concentrate on any one critter. While we were anchored offshore during our lunch break, kids came out to dive for coins.

The larger bangkas, used by both resorts for long trips, were outfitted with rudimentary comfort stations and radios. All boats have oxygen and first aid kits, according to Atlantis management, but we had no safety briefings at either location. Unlike Puerto Galera, which is on a busy harbor with a featureless sand bottom, Dumaguete offers snorkeling and beach diving. Only one couple in my group tried it, making another dusk dive to photograph mandarin fish.

So, should you go? Well, the diving at Puerto Galera and Dumaguete was hardly high-voltage. The biggest critters we saw were reclusive white-tipped reef sharks, king-sized sweetlips, and turtles. While currents were ripping at a couple of sites, most of our dives were airport-walkway smooth.

However, the underwater scenery was kaleidoscopic in its intensity, with small exotic creatures Id never encountered before. A month after we departed, one of our leaders went to Grand Cayman and afterward told me that he was bored by his second dive. And, what he paid for a week there wasnt much less than a week in the Philippines. Make it a two-week trip, and you have comparable prices and a new world of diving.

- D.L.

Atlantis Dive Resorts, PhilippinesDivers Compass Airfare starts at $1100rt from the West Coast. My Sausalito dive shop arranged the first week for $2,150, including airfare, four dives a day, and meals. Dumaguete was $1,250 (pp/do) for meals and four dives/day . . . Rental equipment and instruction are available at either location, with tech courses at PG. Nitrox is $132 unlimited . . . Biggest bargain: one-hour massages at $12 . . . Inoculations for hepatitis A, typhoid, polio and tetanus are recommended. There were few insects . . . The closest hyperbaric chambers are in Batangas (19 miles from PG) and Cebu City (68 miles from Dumaguete). . . Each resort has Internet. PG has multimedia computers for manipulating digital images. . . Power is 220V, with 110V transformers available . . . The Cebu Air excess baggage charge is 50/kg over 60 lbs . . . The best diving is at the outer islands. Atlantis offers liveaboard trips between its two resorts (www.atlantishotel.com). The Oceanic Explorer is a popular liveaboard with a different itinerary (www.amrnour.com/philippines.htm). There are also modest dive resorts on Verde Island you can find at www.travelsmart.net and on Apo Island (www.apoisland.com) . . . Visit Undercurrent for full reviews of other Philippine resorts.

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