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October 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Atlantis Azores, Philippines

fantastic liveaboard but only fair diving at Tubbataha Reef, El Galleon good

from the October, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

When the captain opened the dive deck of the 107-footlong Atlantis Azores, it was time to see whether diving on the remote Tubbataha Reef would live up to its billing. After our 12-hour, open ocean steam from Puerto Princesa, we had anchored for the night on the southern end of the North atoll. Scott, our boyish, stocky American captain, explained that this would provide more shelter than the South atoll from the prevailing winds and chop. It was time to dive.

Id chosen this itinerary because of the promise it held to see lots of big stuff. There wasnt a lot of information to be found on Tubbataha before I booked the trip. No entries in Undercurrent(I should have seen that as a warning), but glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.com, in Asian Diver and a website called Dive Happy described squadrons of sharks, jacks and possibly manta rays. So after backrolling off the skiff with the five other divers on board, I descended down the steep wall known as Amos (AH-moce) looking for that big stuff. Well, there was big stuff all right, but not what I was hoping for. Huge sea fans and even larger barrel sponges sprang from the wall but their effect was diminished by the sparseness of healthy corals and large fields of dead, broken, branching coral. It looked like a monochrome beige ghost town. Well, I thought, its a check-out dive, so chalk it up.

Atlantis Azores, Philippines

Atlantis Azores

But dive two, on another section of Amos, was much the same: big sponges and coral, with the addition of small numbers of typical Pacific denizens like Moorish Idols, butterflyfish and triggerfish, and more fields of broken corals. By the time I surfaced after our third dive (we did four to five dives a day), from a site called Wall Street, I was concerned. You guessed it: fields of dead corals. I did spot a couple of small white-tip sharks but not the thriving schools Id expected. I posed next to a few sponges for staff photographer Randy, but because Id taken plenty of sponge and fan shots already and there was not a single anemone fish to capture on my Nikon, I was frustrated.

Atlantis Azores, PhilippinesDive four, at Southpark, sent me into near depression. The only diversion was an eagle ray off in the blue. Back on the skiff, when our divemaster, Jess, asked the typical Good dive? I answered, Nope. I have to be honest, Im pretty disappointed. Jess just looked down at his feet.

But I certainly had no complaints about the boat. The Atlantis Azores, built in 1989 and refitted in 2005, is operated by the folks who run the two Atlantis resorts in the Philippines, at Puerto Galera and Dumaguete. This was my eighth liveaboard trip, and I found the Atlantis to be among the best. Its spotless; every inch of carpeting looks brand new and covers not only the floors but also the walls of the cabins and the salon. Theres abundant oak wood paneling, window trim and balustrades.

My cabin, #6, is a bit tight for double occupancy but plenty roomy for me. Beautifully appointed with flawless wood trim, a double lower and single upper bunk with good reading lights and a large vanity that housed a sink, it provided plenty of storage in three large drawers, a lower storage cabinet and plenty of under-bunk space. No closet, but I used a spare towel bar near the cabin door to hang clothes. There was a large medicine cabinet above with a mirrored door. The air conditioning was easily adjustable. The ensuite head had a full-size marine commode and separate shower stall.

And the food? Worthy of a four-star restaurant. Chef Norman, in toque and checkered pants, made multiple main courses, each a special creation with elegant presentation. Each day began with rolls, fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals, etc. Full breakfast followed the first dive, with plates of French toast, potatoes, rolls, bacon, sausages, and eggs with a choice of preparation. Lunches were multi-course hot meals, with all manner of meats, fish, pastas and salads. Juices, iced tea and coffee were always available. There was also a never-ending variety of hearty snacks, ranging from just-baked cookies to barbecued chicken wings or shrimp. Dinners ranged from the Philippines ubiquitous pork to beef to pasta and piles of skewered, barbecued shrimp. Bowls of rice accompanied lunch and dinner, along with delicious soups, wildly varied in ingredients and flavors. Local vegetables made an appearance at most meals, and some form of salad appeared at every repast. A number of dishes had some heat, and there were always bland choices to be had. Normans desserts were religious experiences, like an incredible chocolate mousse with a gelled mango topping. The portions served were often enough for twice the number of us guests.

The staff balanced the formality and grace of a Michelin Guide server with the friendliness of your local bartender. At least two crew members were always ready to help make the meal pleasurable, offering drinks or picking up a dropped napkin. With only six of us onboard, personal attention was exceptional.

My fellow passengers were as pleasant and entertaining as the crew, though considerably more varied. A young Englishman was on leave from a research ship taking seismic readings in the North Sea. A friendly duo from New York State was the only couple on board, he a web entrepreneur and she a private jet hostess who once served soup to a grateful Henry Kissinger. The 1968 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team had one of our passengers as a member, now a college gymnastics coach. And there was a weathered, gregarious, 66-year-old Dutchman who spends months each year in the Philippines.

Thankfully, the diving got more interesting as the week progressed, though never near the picture painted in other print and online publications. At the Delsan wreck on the South Atoll spun a vortex of hundreds of small barracuda, amid which a gray reef shark patrolled and even swam right up to my camera. The site was sunlit and thick with healthy branching corals. A gold-spotted eel peeked out of its hole, and a small hawksbill turtle swam by. During the safety stop, a large school of jacks circled. A bumphead wrasse was a highlight of the Malayan wreck site, which also featured a friendly hawksbill and lots of reef fish. Triggerfish City, heavily populated with aggressive titans patrolling the cone of danger above their hollowed-out, circular sand nests, was home to a large gray reef shark lazing under a ledge, and a few juvenile to mid-sized white tips, black tips and grays. A nudibranch drought was broken by a sighting of a gigantic maroon nudi that still remains unidentified. This was also the site of our only night dive, more of a twilight dive. Those titans were especially aggressive. We were told to face our tormentors, who often went well beyond their nests to harass us. As the dusk deepened, an octopus made a grand entrance. At first deep burgundy in color, it quickly transformed to sandy beige, matching the surrounding sea floor. It changed shape from squished ball to fully splayed array of tentacles. Back on the dive deck, we were greeted with steaming mugs of hot chocolate.

On most dives, I spotted turtles, most unafraid of divers, as well as clown triggers and surgeonfish. Among the many butterflyfish, most abundant were pyramids, their glowing yellow bodies marked with the stark white shapes for which theyre named. The corals, when healthy, were all in shades of tan, without the color seen in Fiji, for example. Water hovered around 86 degrees, and on one dive, I saw 90 degrees register on my Suunto. Visibility averaged 75 feet or better. Current varied tremendously. One dive featured two changes of current within the hour. Some were strong, but never fierce; probably around one knot.

Skiff diving was the order of the day. Crew brought everyones gear on board the mother ship only for tank filling, then immediately returned it to the skiff until each divers last dive of the day. A bit off-putting was that Nitrox readings could not be checked by divers; they were taken by crew and then entered into a logbook which each diver had to sign to acknowledge the mixture before diving. (Its ironic that the training video used for Nitrox instruction on board emphasized repeatedly the need for divers to personally check their Nitrox mixes before diving!) But overall, the operation was safety conscious, well organized and well run.

Atlantis Azores, Philippines

But Where Are the Fish?

After a thorough briefing, we carried masks and fins, and boarded the skiff while crew handled the cameras. BCs and tanks were stacked in the front of the skiff, while weight belts and integrated pockets remained on the floor until suiting up. Cameras were kept in the stern, under the watchful eye of the skiff driver. After short rides to sites, we suited up on the gunwales with help from the divemaster and boat driver, then a countdown and a backroll over the side. Descents and ascents were conducted as a group. A sturdy, portable ladder made it easy to ascend, after removing and handing up camera, weights, BC and fins. Dives were limited to 100 feet and lasted one hour on the dot. They were overseen by divemasters, one with the divers who was on constant lookout for exotic marine life, and one on the skiff, watching bubbles. The crew was a delight, almost always genuinely smiling and laughing, with Ambo being the most impish and rambunctious. That all but Captain Scott and Randy, the free-spirited American photo pro, were Filipinos posed no language or other barriers. In fact, a crew member named J.R. was a dead ringer for our current Commander in Chief. Captain Scott, and soon the rest of us, referred to him as Obama.

On the last day of diving before the steam home,a head cold had spread through our group and kept me from diving, so the crew began rinsing my gear for departure. I retired to the salon to watch The Hurt Locker with the crew, many of whom had their first respite in a week of dawn-to-dusk duties.

Atlantis Azores, PhilippinesThe salon holds comfortable couches, an entertainment system with a large flat screen and an assortment of digital audio and video devices, and a comprehensive collection of marine ID books. The lower portion of the salon houses two long tables that seat 10 each. A long, two-tiered charging station is built into one wall, with the top row for 110 volts and the bottom for 220. The covered dive deck is spacious and spotless, with a three-tiered camera table complete with compressed air hoses. The diver stations have large storage bins under the benches. Two large rinse tanks are dedicated to wetsuits and cameras respectively. I found the two strong, hot-water showers, always stocked with soap and shampoo, to be a better venue than my cramped cabin shower. The upper sun deck had under cover a large table with padded benches, a hot tub and an open area with chaise lounges.

On my last night, I retired to my cabin for the overnight steam back to Puerto Princessa. Nestled in my cozy bunk, I thought that the Atlantis Azores is a spectacular liveaboard in every way. I just wished the diving at Tubbataha Reef had lived up to the delights of the boat.

The irony was that my next stop, the El Galleon Resort in Puerto Galera, provided some of the better diving Ive seen in the Pacific. It gives Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and, at times, even Raja Ampat a run for their money, especially for the small stuff. I had been advised by my fellow Dutch diver to put your macro lens on the camera and leave it there. Exactly one minute into my first dive, right off the resorts dock at a site called Small Lalaguna, I was shown a blue ribbon eel waving in the breeze. Five minutes later, an ornate ghost pipefish. Dive #2, at Sinandigan Wall, was a nudibranch fetishists peep show. It seemed as though nudis were crawling along every stretch of this beautiful wall and surrounding coral heads. Just about every kind of Chromidoris and Nembrotha were on display, as well as countless other varieties.

Three huge frogfish stole the show on the decomposing Sabang wrecks, with multiple seahorses, hermit crabs and another ornate ghost pipefish in the seagrass. A night dive on the same site brought us into what I call the Land of the Royal Urchins, where dozens of the spectacular black-spiked and royal purple-patterned creatures scoured the sea floor,reminding me of Star Treks tribbles.

The crowning glory of dive sites, though, at least from the perspective of reef beauty, was Verde Island. This two-tank morning trip, 40 minutes from the resort, ranks among the best sites Ive dived in the world. Its actually two seamounts off the coast of the eponymous island, each topping out about 35 feet below the surface. Its hard to describe the utter riot of corals, fish, invertebrates and colors that blanket every inch of these sites. The first dive turned up every kind of nudibranch in the book, as well as loads of anemone fish, lionfish, scorpionfish, lobsters, an octopus, lots of eels, a barramundi and a beautiful juvenile batfish lazily swimming tight patterns under a coral ledge. There is current to contend with on the narrower of the two pinnacles, including a fairly fierce downcurrent at a point that is the convergence of two streams of water flowing around the seamount. As luck would have it, I had disconnected my autoinflator for this dive because it was leaking air on the boat. As I approached the point, I found my Suunto Cobras depth readings plummeting from 80 feet to 97 feet. Inhaling a gust of gas from my primary, removing it from my mouth, inserting the inflator and exhaling proved to be too lengthy a process to counter the downcurrent. To my amazement, divemaster Larry appeared from above, grabbed my tank yoke and gave me a huge boost upward and out of the current. I was amazed and grateful, to say the least.

I thoroughly enjoyed the diving, the resort and the staff of the El Galleon, one of the most efficiently run operations Ive experienced. Through deft management of their dive boats, they managed to make an overbooked resort of some 60 divers seem like a liveaboard. And the fare was half that of the Atlantis Azores. Ill certainly consider a return trip there.

-- D.L.

Atlantis Azores, PhilippinesDivers Compass: Weather permits diving at Tubbataha from mid-March to mid-June; the Atlantis Azores spends time in other Philippines locales, including the Dumaguete area, described as the new Lembeh for its profusion of exotic critters . . . The seven-night Tubbataha trip runs $2,595, twin share, with additional charges for Nitrox ($125) and marine park fees ($75); juices, sodas, beer and wine are included in the package . . . I booked my trip through Island Dreams travel agencys very knowledgeable Tina Robinette (www.divetrip.com). . . Round-trip airfare from Manila to Puerto Princesa is $125, with baggage charges for weights in excess of 20 kilos; most major Asian airlines fly into Manila . . . Its a 10-hour steam to the nearest working recompression chamber at Cebu; dive profiles are appropriately conservative . . . The El Galleon Resort is easily reached via car and bangka boat from the Manila airport, though the journey can take six hours or more in the unbelievably dense Philippines traffic . . . Rooms range from rustic to deluxe, three-story A-frames with private pool, none overly expensive; they bumped me up to the deluxe A-frame, but it was still only $1,290 for 7 days, all inclusive (three meals and up to five dives a day) . . . The resort has meal plans, but theres better food on the a la carte menu, and its not much more expensive than the buffet . . . I split the $310 transfer charge with four other divers . . . Websites: Atlantic Azores: www.atlantishotel.com/liveaboard; El Galleon Resort: www.asiadivers.com/elgalleon

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