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.
I’d chosen this itinerary because of the promise it held
to see lots of big stuff. There wasn’t 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, “it’s a check-out dive, so chalk it up.”
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
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 I’d expected. I posed next to
a few sponges for staff photographer Randy, but
because I’d taken plenty of sponge and fan shots
already and there was not a single anemone fish
to capture on my Nikon, I was frustrated.
Dive 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, I’m 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. It’s spotless; every inch of carpeting looks brand new and covers not
only the floors but also the walls of the cabins and the salon. There’s 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. Norman’s 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 they’re 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 everyone’s gear on board the
mother ship only for tank filling, then immediately returned it to the skiff until
each diver’s 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. (It’s 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.
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.
The 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
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 I’ve 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 resort’s
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 fetishist’s 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 Trek’s “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 I’ve dived in the world. It’s actually two seamounts off the coast
of the eponymous island, each topping out about 35 feet below the surface. It’s 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 Cobra’s 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 I’ve 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. I’ll certainly consider
a return trip there.
Diver’s 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 agency’s 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 . . . It’s 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 there’s better food on the a la carte menu, and it’s 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