Journal archives for June 2018

June 01, 2018

Scuba Diving in the Philippines

I’ve completed my second dive trip of 2018, my first time to the Philippines. The trip was with Undersea Productions. We stayed at two different land based resorts.

For the first part of the trip, 17 of us came to Crystal Blue Dive Resort in Anilao. The resort is a 2.5 hour drive from Manila, and people arrived on various days to spend seven to eleven days there. The resort is on a steep hill over the water, with dive shop, camera room, restaurant, office, and two floors of rooms each on a different level. The rooms were nice with working air conditioning and views of the water. Meals were all buffet style. The camera room is the nicest I have encountered, with about 20 separate work spaces sort of like library carrels. They also have a spa on premises with an excellent (and cheap) masseuse. We were lucky to be in the Philippines during the mango season and had fresh mangos every day!

All diving in the area is from bangkas, small flat-bottomed wooden boats with dual outriggers. This design allows them to get into very shallow areas and easily pull onto beaches, though they cannot tie up to a dock and almost always have wet landings. Crystal Blue puts no more than four divers in a group with a guide, so we weren’t crowded and had good personal attention from the guides. They are all native Filipinos and great critter spotters. We usually went out for two morning dives with the surface interval spent on the boat, and again for two afternoon dives. The afternoon schedule was flexible, with some groups doing only one dive. My group usually took a long lunch break, then did a mid-afternoon dive and then a dusk dive that would turn completely dark before we surfaced. During the surface intervals on the boat they provided coffee, tea, or milo, and cookies or crackers.

Dive sites ranged from just a couple of minutes away to 25 minutes for the furthest sites. They have about 30 sites to choose from, though we repeated some of our favorites several times. About half of them are along the coast where we were staying. Others were across the channel on a few small islands. The area is known for muck diving—on sand or mud bottoms where strange and wonderful creatures hang out. At least half our dives were muck dives, though we also dived patch reefs, larger reefs, one wreck, and a couple of pinnacle-like volcanic formations. Visibility ranged from 20 to 60 feet—not great, but that’s the price of diving there in the warmer months and what I expect in muck areas. The area has been compared to Lembeh, but with less trash.

On our muck dives we say many frogfish and scorpionfish, snake eels, dragonets and other sand-dwelling fish. Occasional seahorses were seen. Cephalopods were common. We had mimic octopus, coconut octopus, and several other octopods, a variety of cuttlefish including the charismatic flamboyant cuttlefishes, and reef squid. And many different shrimps and crabs, both large and small. It wasn’t hard to find flashy species like coleman’s shrimp and zebra crabs on the fire urchins, and emperor shrimps on sea cucumbers. Nudibranchs were also common, both brightly colored and cryptic.

In the coral reef areas, a rich diversity of small reef fish lived. Groups of orange and purple anthias swam above the reef, while many damselfishes swam among the corals. Occasional angelfishes and butterflyfishes flashed by. Peeking under ledges revealed banded pipefish, cardinalfishes mouth-brooding eggs, and other interesting finds. What was missing were any larger fish. We saw no sharks or tunas, very few jacks, and no larger snapper. Basically, anything edible had been fished out. This does not bode well for the long term viability of these reefs.

Crystal Blue is one of the few places in the world that does blackwater dives. That is night diving over deep water to see the small pelagic creatures that migrate up from the deep. These dives were offered most nights, and several of us did one of them. They started with a detailed briefing, as there are procedures and safety concerns different from regular diving. Then a boat took us way out where the water is a thousand feet deep, they drop a down-line festooned with lights into the water, and we drift with it looking for interesting critters. The holy grail of these dives are Nautiluses, and none turned up the night I did the dive. Photography is quite difficult and I wasn’t well prepared, though I did get a few mediocre shots of crab larvae, shrimps, and a young snake blenny.

Our tims in Anilao was very enjoyable, and we are talking about planning a return trip and would stay at Crystal Blue again. The rural location was nice, the food excellent, the service and accommodations great, and the diving definitely worth another visit. In my ten days there, I did nearly every dive offered, completing 35 of them while taking over 3,000 photos. I logged 434 species there, getting great coverage of muck habitats but missing out on exposed outer reefs entirely.

At the end of our stay at Anilao, most of the group transferred to Puerto Galera to stay at El Galleon and do another week of diving. Puerto Galera is across a straight, about 12 miles away on the island of Mindoro. This resort sent their boats to get us. They brought gear baskets so we could transfer our set-up wet dive gear without having to pack it. We went in the speed boat, a conventional day boat with dual outboards, while the luggage and gear went in a slower bangka. An hour later, we were there for lunch and orientation, and got in two dives that afternoon.

Puerto Galera is more of a party town, with bars, shops, entertainment, and bustle that was jarring after the quiet of Anilao. It reminded me a bit of Cozumel. Our resort was right on Sabang Beach, with three bars and just a ten minute walk to the center of town. My room was at the top of a ridge over a hundred feet above the restaurant and pool, accessed by a path of tall, irregular steps. I was careful to minimize the number of times I went back to the room during my stay. It should have had a nice ocean view, but trees had grown up to block any sight lines. The furnishings were OK, but the air conditioner struggled trying to keep up, even though I ran it on maximum around the clock. It did mask any sounds from the bars below. They ran a full-service restaurant with walk-in customers as well as those staying at the resort. We were on a full-board plan and they had buffet lunch and dinner set up for us, though we could order off the menu as well. I found this resort, OK, but not great. A couple who joined us just for that part of the trip seemed to take offense at every little thing, and ended up leaving early, but their issues had more to do with them than the resort or diving.

Dive operations at El Galleon are run by Asia Divers, a larger organization with a strict schedule and one hour dive time limits. Some of their dive guides were natives, and some were ex-pats. Our big group was all on the speed boat most days, diving as two smaller groups each with a guide, but still twice as large as we had just a few days previously. Besides hosting our group and a daily-changing roster of other hotel guests, they do a lot of training there, both beginning and IDCs for dive instructors. And they did not show any flexibility when we wanted to change the schedule. We returned to the resort after each of the four dives each day. During the shorter surface intervals between the two morning or afternoon dives, we came back to the restaurant for drinks and cookies.

They had a variety of dive sites to choose from, some very close and others up to 25 minutes away. They have a couple of muck sites there too, and we visited each twice, seeing a few things that we had missed in Anilao like Blue-ring Octopus and Weedy Scorpionfish. Many of their sites are coral reefs, again coral growing on volcanic formations rather than all-coral reef structures. Visibility was poor to fair, even on the reefs. We also visited several wrecks in their harbors which had interesting accumulations of fish and encrusting creatures. Here I found many of the same fish as in Anilao, but a bit better diversity with a few more species.

Twice we opted to take the hour-long cruise each way for two dives at Isla Verde, a small island nearby with clear waters and nice reef structure. Here I finally had 100 foot visibility and large clouds of reef fish. But still only a few larger fish, and no sharks. It was pretty, but without as much diversity as I expected. We were warned of strong currents here, but did not really encounter them. The first time we went to Isla Verde, our departure was delayed and we ended up diving while there were 15 other dive boats on the site. We moved up our departure a bit the second time, and largely had the place to ourselves. The surface interval there was spent on a beach at “Starbucks”, a primitive convenience-store shack that served instant coffee and various other stuff. The beach there has bits of broken blue and white pottery, the remains of a 400 year old shipwreck full of Ming-dynasty china.

So our time in Puerto Galera was mixed: not as nice above water, but underwater we got into some additional habitats and had a bit more diversity. I logged 449 fish species in that half of the trip, a few more than in Anilao, while doing 24 dives and taking almost 1,000 photos.

I’ve posted some of my favorite photos from the trip at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157695790575511

Posted on June 01, 2018 21:33 by maractwin maractwin | 3 comments | Leave a comment

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