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May 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Anilao, Puerto Galera and More: The Philippines

unique critters, easy travel, inexpensive dive resorts

from the May, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The waters of the Philippines are home to some of the more unique and fascinating underwater critters in the world. It has only been a few years that many traveling American divers have gone to the Philippines, perhaps because it seemed a bit too exotic -- read "unsafe" (it's not) -- perhaps we expect a bit more luxury than Europeans, who have established resorts and brought plenty of business. Flying to the Philippines is less expensive and not quite the hassle of flying to Indonesia or Papua New Guinea. One-stop flights from Los Angeles get you to Manila in 18 hours for under $1,000, then it's a quick connect and a short hop to an island, then a shuttle ride to any number of resorts.

In this issue, we're carrying a brief review of two stops from A.E.L., one of our regular writers, supplemented with reviews from a number of trusted readers covering other resorts, providing you the opportunity for a lot of options if you put the Philippines on your wish list.

* * * * *

Eagle Point Resort, Anilao (photo by Cameron Azad)

Eagle Point Resort, Anilao (photo by Cameron Azad)

"I only waited 27 years for this," said diver Jan Hanson, speaking of her extraordinary experience. She's a long-time dive buddy of mine on her first trip to the splendid sites of Anilao and Puerto Galera, and -- heaven forbid, without me -- she saw the deadly blue-ring octopus on the wall of Anilao's Kirby Island. That wasn't all that was sighted on our 10-day trip. There were also the rare wonderpus and mimic octopuses, which imitate lionfish and other critters. Unless you have spent time with your nose in the muck at Raja Ampat, Sulawesi or Papua New Guinea (or in fish ID books), you might not be aware of these critters. Divers rarely see the small blue-ring, the ocean's most dangerous critter, which is usually holed deep into the wall. It only flashes its electric-blue spots defensively, especially if it finds the strobe flash to be threatening.

My first destination was Eagle Point Resort, along the 25-mile coastline known as Anilao in the province of Batangas. After a three-hour shuttle ride, the final mile winds down a narrow, steep road. Divers unload the van to make the journey in the resort's car. Where the resort begins, the road ends. The water's-edge setting of the resort is stunning. The resort is built around two pools, one with a sitting area and bar, while the second, home to a half-dozen small black-tip sharks, is used primarily for dive training. Try that in the U.S.

Anilao, Puerto Galera and More: The PhilippinesWhile Eagle Point is not a dedicated dive resort, its dive center is fully equipped. Each morning, we headed to one of two bancas, the Philippine version of a Mexican panga. We boarded by using a foot-wide "gangplank." Our gear was placed in the middle, and we sat on the gunwales. Bamboo outriggers, extending far enough from the banca for us to make a back roll, stabilized the boat.

While the blue-ring was sighted on Kirby reef near Sombrero Island, Anilao is best known for its muck diving in Secret Bay. Along a rubbled ocean bottom, we watched a rare spiny devilfish bury itself in the sand. That's just the start. While Undercurrent has never been much for providing simple lists of critters cited, I'm going to break the mold so you can judge for yourself. Here, and later at Puerto Galera, our sightings included these -- Shrimp: popcorn, mushroom, egg shell, skeleton, harlequin, Coleman, mantis, tiger/slasher, and imperial; Eel: ribbon (yellow, black, blue), garden, convict snake, reptilian, white eye, fimbriated, barred, and the common moray; Crab: porcelain, hermit, soft coral, peppermint, hairy orangutan; Pipefish: mushroom, guilded, harlequin ghost, halameda and filamented; Octopus: blue ring, wonderpus, mimic, bobtail squid, cuttlefish; Nudibranchs: multiple chromodoris, nembrotha, hypselodoris, reticulidia, phylidia, glossodoris, berthela, flabelina. Then there were thorny and pygmy seahorses, slipper lobster, banded sea krait, giant clams, hawksbill turtles, leaffish, dwarf lionfish, yellow- lipped jawfish, flying gurnard and sea moths. There were painted, striated and warty frogfish. Stargazers peered from the sand as fingered dragonet made their way.

Since my focus was diving, the hotel was fine. The rooms are basic. Some are up steep, uneven stairs, but others are along the coastline on either side of a paved path. My spacious room was above the dive center in a motel-type building, and had a private balcony directly over the water. There were two comfortable beds and a large bathroom, but the shower lacked hot water and a healthy stream. Anilao, Puerto Galera and More: The PhilippinesThe television had some kind of circuit box to turn on. I didn't bother. The dining room and bar have great water views. The food was delicious, but a bit repetetive because we had asked ahead for chicken or fish and no meat. The staff graciously added pizza and pasta. As long as you stayed with the $2 local beer, alcohol was very reasonable. (www.eaglepointresort.com.ph; daily lodging rates range from $120 for a room without a view to $180 for a cottage suite.)

After five days in Anilao, led by divemaster Joey Aristorenas, we took a ferry to Sabang. Located in the small village of Puerto Galera, the Atlantis Resort is an open-air property completely dedicated to divers from around the world. And the food is good. The highlight of the day was the announcement, after two morning dives, that it was "Mongolian" time. A luncheon buffet of vegetables, pork, chicken and raw fish (your selection) was stir-fried with soy or oyster sauce, chili oil, garlic and ginger. (www.atlantishotel.com; the daily rate for two people, including meals and dives, ranges from $209 for a standard room to $264 for a suite.)

A small path separates the dive operator and boats from the resort. Each day, we divided into two groups to board small speed boats for three dives plus a night dive. Once again, in the harbor location of Sabang wreck, some of the group saw a second blue-ring during a night dive. The following night, most of the divers staying at Atlantis were diving the wreck, but this time there was no sighting. While most Anilao and Puerto Galera diving features a rubbly underwater landscape, the area does have some magnificent coral reefs, both hard and soft. One of the more beautiful reefs was Beatrice Rock in Anilao.

My group, the Chicken Divers, was celebrating 10 years of diving together. Founded when a group of like-minded divers put a rubber chicken in a bait ball for a shark feed in Papua New Guinea, the international group has expanded to more than 30 divers. As part of our celebration, with the help of Atlantis Resort, who made "Free Hug" signs, we spent several hours standing on the village path giving free hugs to pedestrians. Some doubted the word "free," others made a sharp detour, but one man expressed his "need" for a hug. The event attracted a big crowd, and was enjoyed by the recipients as well as the huggers.

* * * * *

While "free hugs" are not guaranteed on a Philippines visit, you can expect to find an endless number of unique critters and all sorts of dive operations. In fact, let me add what a few of our readers have reported in past months as further evidence that you can get 80 percent of what Indonesia offers, for half the price and hassle.

Richard R. Kimball (Lake Ozark, MO) went to Magic Island Dive Resort in March and noted that the "two-and-a-half-hour drive to the resort made New York City driving seem tame. The house reef was terrific, with lots of weird critters, from giant frogfish to ghost pipefish. The guides would find the small stuff with ease. The baitball of small fish at Pescador Island was fantastic, despite a ripping current. Water was 80 degrees." Tom Reynolds (Pasadena, CA) was there in January, when water temperatures average 83 degrees, and says, "The macro life is amazing, and the guides are expert at finding macro opportunities, in addition to the typical South Pacific macro-critters. You will see a bait ball at Pescador, potentially with large fish feeding, plus lots of turtles and the possibility of a whale shark. Accommodations are excellent, and everything is convenient at this small resort. The best connections from the western U.S. are via Philippines Airlines. You stop in Manila, then continue to Cebu, where the resort picks you up. Overall, a reasonable cost for an excellent experience." (www.magicisland.nl/en/home; you must e-mail them to get room and diving rates)

John Woolley (Olympia, WA) stayed at Liberty's Lodge in December, and says, "Undercurrent readers are upfront and aware of the sorry state of the world's marine environment. So shout out loud when you find a success story like little Apo Island, a community that recognized the reef is their life and stopped its destruction. Well, yes, there is electricity only three times a day for two-hour spurts. And yes, you have to take bucket baths in the room's bathrooms. Those rooms, however, are clean and comfortable. Might it be inconsistent for us to worry about the destruction of reefs, often brought about by local pollution, and then not stay in a place designed to minimize that destruction because of the lack of amenities? I'll answer that: Yes. So go to Apo Island and stay at Liberty's Lodge. But not just because it is the right thing to do, but because you'll find wonderful corals and really nice drift diving, some of which brings you through large schools of jacks. And you'll find an incredibly friendly staff, very knowledgeable divemasters, a yummy but limited menu, visitors from around the world who are really interesting, and a community that welcomes you to their small village. And don't forget to walk through the village and stop at the open-air billiards pub and shoot some pool. If you are lucky, you'll get to dance to some live music (the drummer was one of the divemasters). There are really nice walks around the island, albeit steep walks. Finally, in the open-air boat that takes you to the island (about 30 minutes), it is quite likely you will get wet, so be prepared. But when you step off the boat in your wet shorts, you'll be welcomed into open, friendly arms." (www.apoisland.com; daily double-occupancy rates, including meals, range from $45 to $77, dives are $26 each, and the marine-conservation tax is $5 per day.)

At Puerto Galera, Ray Villemarette (Vienna, VA), wrote, "El Galleon Resort is one of my favorite places to dive and, except for Australia, sets the standard I use for diving in Asia. It has many opportunities to experience the effects of island tides and covering large distances in a short period of time. It also has 'canyons' where you can sit below the current and watch the sea life above be carried past you. The water clarity can be excellent. The hotel staff is excellent, and while not a five-star hotel, it is more than comfortable. The divemasters try hard to make your dives memorable. The English for some of them can be a bit lacking, but we had no problems communicating. We had one divemaster who decided the dive was his opportunity to take pictures. Since this was a drift dive, my buddy and I were left trying to swim against the current while this guy took pictures. Perhaps because this divemaster was from the U.S., he felt he did not have to provide the same level of service to visiting Americans."

Ken Knezick, who runs the top-notch Island Dreams travel agency (www.islanddream.com), told us he just returned from El Galleon "and their new dive deck is superb, with excellent service all around." (www.asiadivers.com/elgalleon; a seven-night, doubleoccupancy package with unlimited diving, breakfast and transfers is $1,017 per person.)

Dumaguete Resort, the sister of Atlantis Resort in Puerto Galera, gets a thumbs up from Dave Reubush (Toano, VA), who was there in February. "All the staff are great. They aim to please and will know your name within the first day. The food is good and there is always plenty of it. The rooms are comfortable, the air-conditioning works. Not luxury, but more than sufficient. The price is also good. You can do up to five dives a day. The diving just off the resort is mainly muck diving; the bottom is dark brown sand and silt. There had been rainstorms the week before we got there, and as a result, the water was full of silt and visibility was typically about 30 feet. There were a number of critters I had never seen before, like spiny tiger shrimp and halfinch- long frogfish. However, there were not huge numbers, so with only six divers, the bottom got stirred up quickly.

"One day, we motored 45 minutes to Apo Island for three dives (two in the morning, a BBQ lunch on the boat, and one after lunch). Apo has beautiful coral gardens and 60-foot visibility, but we didn't see anything special. Another day, we motored an hour to Siquijor Island, which has the same visibility as Apo, coral gardens, interspersed sand flats and a lot of interesting things to see. (I saw two ribbon eels on each of the three dives.) For Apo and Siquijor, I would recommend gloves, even though they say no gloves, as there are typically mild currents and lots of stinging hydroids. While the resort sets your tank and BC on and off the boats, you have to schlep the rest of your gear from the dive shop, down the beach and through the surf line to the boat. While the beach is brown sand, there are rocks at the surf line you have to negotiate, and at high tide, you will often have to wade through chest-deep water to get to the boat ladder. There may or may not be one of the boat guys to help you. If you only had to do this once a day, it wouldn't be too bad, but at times we would change boats from dive to dive, so on those days, you had to bring your stuff back after each dive." (www.atlantishotel.com; daily rate, double-occupancy, with all meals and dives included, ranges from $227 for a poolside room to $264 for a suite.)

Finally, let us report on Turtle Bay Dive Resort, which Kimberley Fox and Michael O'Reilly (Los Angeles, CA) visited in March. "A three-hour drive from the Cebu airport, Turtle Bay is one of several dive resorts on Moalboal. Owned by a pleasant couple named Chris and Fe, the resort has accommodations for up to 50 people. Standard schedule includes a two-tank morning dive; destination alternates between nearby tiny Pescador Island and multiple sites (mostly wall dives) on Moalboal's coast. Pescador is 30 minutes by boat; the Moalboal sites are all within 15 minutes. Pescador's signature attraction is a large school of swarming sardines, around which barracuda and hunting jacks are often found. Divers can swim through parting clouds of sardines to appreciate the swarm up close. Pescador has an interesting variety of frogfish and scorpionfish, and an occasional octopus. At the Moalboal sites, over the course of a week, we saw 10 orangutan crabs on bubble coral, a variety of scorpionfish including several species of leaf scorpionfish and probably 100 common pipefish (no ghost pipefish). There is a nearby mandarin fish dive, but the site is small and the resort tries to limit the mandarin dives to only two divers. Our best dive may have been a night dive at Moalboal Bay -- very shallow -- where we saw octopus, many species of translucent shrimp, a sargassum file fish, unusual decorator crabs and an eel-tailed catfish. The house reef is not so interesting that you will want to do it every day. The boats are bangkas, with little shade and no space dedicated to cameras. At low tide, divers are shuttled to and from the pier by a smaller motorboat. Although the corals seem healthy, the overall volume and diversity of marine life is much lower than anywhere we've been in the Philippines. This may be due to the abundance of line fishing at many of the dive sites. On the last trip to Pescador, I counted 13 fishermen's bangkas lined up nose to nose with dive boats. The impact on the reefs is clear: we spotted almost none of the larger reef fish during a week of diving." (www.turtlebaydiveresort.com; double-occupancy rates, including all meals, range from $79 per person for a pool-view deluxe to $92 for a sea-view king.)

So, dear readers, the Philippines has a great variety of diving, endless places to choose from, and it's less of a hassle and less expensive to travel to compared to much of Indonesia. Keep it in mind.

-- Ben Davison

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