Diving in the Philippines
ã Walter Marti
walter @ diver . net
Linda and I just completed our dive trip to the Philippines. One of my videos (Life and Love’s of the Opisthobranch) won me a 4 day liveaboard package on the Oceanic Explorer out of Puerto Princessa, on the island of Palawan. Going all that way, we extended our trip to include a 4 day landbased trip to Anilao. The liveaboard took us to Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage site and a Philippine National Underwater Park. This place is renowned for wide angle photography of beautiful walls and pelagic fish. Anilao is known for macro photography of nudibranchs and an myriad of smaller creatures
April 1 - The Flight
When we make long flights with all our dive and camera gear, we like to get to the airport early. For LAX, way early. Plenty of time for traffic and security delays. For this trip the strategy paid off. We were departing with Philippine Airlines. Upon arrival at the check in counter, an airline employee with a weight scale, asked us to weigh our carry on baggage. A first for us. Their maximum carry on weight was 20 pounds. My PorterCase with video housing, two video cameras, etc., came in at 38 pounds. Similarly for Linda. We were told that over weight carry ons would be taken from us at the gate and we would be a charged $150.00 for excess baggage. We had to reclaim out TSA screened bags and do some repacking and put them through TSA screening once again. Lucky something was wrong at LAX, all lines were minimal. The flight to Manila, with a fuel stop in Guam was suppose to be 16 hours 55 minutes. I checked the storm outlook for the area on internet prior to arrival and found Category 1 Typhoon Kong-Rey was on her way to Guam to greet us. Lucky the Airline did a similar check and decided to get gas in Honolulu instead. The change of fueling stop and giving Kong-Rey a wide berth, added almost 2 hours to the trip. There is nothing like getting on an airplane at 8:30 pm, in the dark, flying for 19 hours and then seeing the sunrise for the first time. A couple of hits of Simply Sleep and I was able to miss a lot of the 19 hours.
April 2 - The Missing Day
Due to the international date line, this day never happened for us. It was just part of a long plane ride.
April 3 - Manila
6:30 am arrival. All bags arrived safely and a frantic search for the guy holding a sign with our names on it. The travel agent booked us into the Dusit Manila Nikko Hotel. They wouldn’t give us an early checking, with the assumption that we were to arrive at 4:30 am, so we had to book two nights. This is a wonderful five star Hotel at $150 per night. I think the travel agent could have knocked us down a half a star and we would have still enjoyed it.
We had some sleep over the last 19 hours and decided to immerse ourselves into the new time zone. A quick shower, breakfast and off we went to Linda’s main tourist stop. The Greenhill Mall for some pearl shopping. The cab from the hotel $19.00. This is a discount mall. Acres of small kiosks neatly arranged for handbags, cell phones and phony Rolexs (I may have prejudged that, they may have just gotten an incredible wholesale discount price). The pearl shopping was interesting. You could get a string of pearls for a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. You didn’t need a magnifying glass to tell why.
Shopping done. Still the entire day to kill, we decided to visit the historic St. Agustin Church. A mall security guard hailed us a cab and wrote the cab numbers down and gave us a receipt. For our safety, the guard said. A $6.00 cab ride (cabs seem to be way cheaper when not associated with the hotel). The cab driver wasn’t sure where the church was. Once we got close, he asked for directions. When we got to the Manila Cathedral, he got it wrong, the church was around the corner. I was approached by a someone offering to give us a guided tour of the church and the area of Intermuros. This is the historical section of the city, a walled city. His name was Mario and the mode of transport would be using was a horse drawn carriage. I jumped at this, I thought it would be fun and definitely different. Mario turned out to be a walking Wikipidea. We started with a tour of the St. Agustin Church. Lavishly decorated. He gave us a behind the scene tour of the church, and blurted out more dates and information than I needed to know. He directed us across the street to a tour of the first Governor’s mansion, Casa Manila. A docent gave us the tour and explained how the Spanish lived and enslaved his people.
After we met up with Mario and his trusted steed Rambo, we were off to view the ramparts that surrounded the city. Built by the Spanish and used by subsequent conquerors. He talked at length about the WWII Battle for Manila. Showed where locals were executed and buried in mass graves, and where the Americans where held poisoner. A sobering site to see the holes where Americans were held captive for years, catching rainwater to drink. In keeping with this upbeat tour, we went to Fort Santiageo. There he showed us the brass footprints following the last steps of Dr. Rizal, from his cell to where he was shot. He was the first local martyr and hero of the Philippines. Across the river, he pointed out one of the slums.
Back to Rambo, he drove us not a trail, but in regular city traffic. Manila city traffic. I would never rent a car here. Driving is crazy. Lanes are more of a ‘guideline’, and merging is an art form. But merging in insane traffic with a horse drawn carriage, is an experience not to be missed. From the Fort we went over the river and through the slums. Through China Town and onward to the Chinese Cemetery. The tenants are predominately Chinese Catholics and the tombs are fit for pharaohs. Some are two stories with air conditioning and bathrooms. On occasions the family would come and spend the day with the deceased. The cemetery is on 56 hectares and you gotta see it to believe. We were getting tired, it was now 4 hours into the tour. But I wanted to see this and made we a short visit.
We gave Mario, Rambo and his driver $120 for our adventure. Well worth every penny. If, as I should have, prearranged the finances first, I wouldn’t have done this. We did it on an impulse. Linda was unsure of it on the onset. But, the horse drawn carriage ride, through busy city traffic, was alone worth the price of admission. It beats any ride Magic Mountain has. I felt quite safe with Mario (he was in a Times Magazine article in 2001, so he said). When we wanted to purchase drinking water, he wouldn’t let us use the street vendors (upon close inspection I noticed that all the seals were broken on the bottles, it seemed that they were just refilled and cooled). Where the bottles or water came from, is anyone’s guess. As he was hailing a cab for our ride back to the hotel, he wouldn’t let us out of the carriage. ‘Please, you’re safer in the carriage’ he told us.
There was security wherever we went in Manila. Later in talking with a ex-pat local, she explained that it keeps up employment. ‘There is a lot of security in the US as well, but most is hidden, viewed with cameras’, she mused.
April 4 - Puerto Princessa
At the they airport, they wanted our prior boarding pass, so we could get a weight exemption on our checked bags. Only 50 lbs for domestic flights. I didn’t have them anymore. Good thing Linda didn’t remove her last airline flight tag. That was all that was needed. The carry on weight issue came into play again. But this time, they just asked what was in Linda’s large PorterCase. Did a quick hand weighing and wished us a good flight. Uneventful trip to the city Puerto Princessa, a one hour flight south. Short ride to the dive boat, Ocean Explorer. We got moved in and made a check out dive in the bay. Visibility was 20', seen two different Nudibranchs, soft corals, cucumbers. It was okay, I could easily make a few more dives here looking for the macro stuff.
April 5 - Tubbataha Reef
We had a 6 hour night crossing to Tubbathaha. Our first dive was at the north reef. Rough seas, Kong-Rey just keeps giving. Beautiful wall diving, drifting along with the current. 100' plus visibility, 83 degree water, large fans sponges, school of small fish. After the dive the wind and current was picking even more. We moved to the southern reef, by the light house. First dive at staghorn point, near Delson’s wreck. As I hit bottom at 25' deep, a hawksbill turtle was munching on coral. I had to get a video of this. Afterwards, I slowly proceeded to the drop off with the rest of the gang, when I heard the Divemaster banging his tank fiercely. 25' Whale Shark!! In over 100' visibility. He was slowly cruising along the reef at 60 foot depth. I kicked down like mad and followed him as he descended. I was followed him nicely and realized that I wasn’t hearing anyone else’s bubbles. I checked my depth gauge, 110'. Time to stop descending and let him just swim away. When I stopped, he made a U-turn right towards my camera. He proceeded to swim up and by all the divers in our group one last time and then he headed out to sea. The remaining dives of the day, just couldn’t measure up to this one. With the moderate to heavy currents, the divemaster wanted to keep everyone in a group. With choppy seas and only a spit of land, at low tide, that was probably wise. This was a bit of a problem for me. Whenever I would stop to take a video shot, afterwards I have to do like Mark Spitz to catch up with the group. Thus, I was sucking up air like crazy. The usual suspects at this location include: Corals, sponges, clouds of reef fish and turtles. In the blue we saw tuna, jacks, white tip sharks, grey reef sharks and did I mention a whale shark. We did a total of 5 dives including a night dive.
April 6 - South reef of Tubbataha Reef
We started to catch up to the jetlag and settle into the Oceanic Explorer’s time table of diving, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat... I think you get the picture. Weather conditions are the same; windy, choppy current. The dives are still beautiful wall dives. Wall dives are a problem for me and my video. It’s hard to keep the camera still on a vertical. Highlight of this day was dive #4, again at Delson’s Wreck. Clear blue water and a ripping current. We were ‘flying’ along with the rest of the group, seeing the odd sharks, turtles, eagle ray and schools of fish. For the night dive, no one in our group, except me, wanted to make the dive. I ended up with my own personal divemaster and could finally float along at my pace. I saw lots of lionfish, surgeon fish and of course turtles. We’re the only Americans aboard. Three Europeans on vacation, the rest were Philippine residents. A few being European expatriates that now live in the Philippines, working for a European Corporations. As one said, ‘with an average Western salary, you can live quite well here’.
April 7 - South reef of Tubbataha Reef and Northward
This morning greeted us with smaller swells and less wind. The boat headed north to black rock for the first dive. Per usual the group floats out in the blue looking for the occasional pelagic sighting. I prefer to hug the wall a for video. I came across a few sweetlip cleaning stations. They were very cooperative in letting me get close. Highlight of the first dive was the end, Linda was engrossed in taking pictures under a large fan, the rest of the group moved up to do their safety stops. When she finished taking pictures, she looked around, but not up, and started swimming like made in the direction we were heading. The divemaster had to chase her down to stop her. After breakfast, we traveled farther north. There were lots of large triggerfish, one was guarding a nest and didn’t like me getting too close. She charged my camera twice, when that didn’t work she tried to get behind me. Now, I finally got the message to leave her alone. White tip reef sharks sleeping in the sand. After the second dive we took a quick trip to the ranger station. A quiet outpost where seven men have three month shifts. They talked about the three local fishing boats, and men, they had just captured illegally fishing the reef. They’re awaiting a larger boat to come escort them away. This makes me feel my $64.00 park entrance fee was well spent. The weather is finally calming down. The third dive’s highlight was seeing a large barracuda being cleaned in the shallows. I could slowly creep up with my camera and video the very attentive detail job he was getting. On the forth dive we were treated to four large barracudas hanging in 40 feet. They let me get pretty close. The night dive began with a false start for me. I rolled in and descended, only to discover that my light batteries were not plugged in correctly and my external monitor also was not pluged in correctly. A quick ascent to correct my problems. The boatman, Richie, took off his shirt for me to dry my hands. The dive was spectacular. Lionfish, moray eels, lobster, the largest nudibranch I’ve ever seen, huge basket stars and a large fringed snapper.
I was starting to feel like a fashion model. Put on wetsuit, take off wetsuit, put on dry clothes, take off dry clothes and repeat five times each day. The boatman, Richie, is wonderful. He doesn’t speak much, if any, English. I’m impressed with the way he attends to all the gear, covers the gear up with a tarp between dives to protect them from the sun, and is there at the end of the dive to pick us up. But, what really impresses me is the way he takes care of Linda’s and my cameras. We have the only large cameras on the boat. They go in a special spot on his boat and he covers them with a towel. He mounts my tank mounted battery pack for my video lights. He seems to be a little put off when I try to do it.
April 8 - Last day at Tubbataha
The weather is now perfect. Calm flat seas, just a small breeze. Down side is all the other boats are now hitting the same spots we are. They were undiveable a few days ago. The first dive had us looking for hammerheads. None found. I decided to go with the flow and do the blue with the rest. Seen lots of sharks, a school of barracuda and more tuna. The second dive brought us a school of jacks and lots of large bumphead wrasses. They were flitting around in the blue. We’re flying tomorrow and my computer told me I should soak out for 24 hours. I dove with Nitrox today, seems like I shouldn’t have went so deep after the sharks, bumpheads and tuna. Linda’s computer wants her to soak out for only 8 hours. She decided to make one more dive. This will be all the diving of this leg of trip. Time to dry gear, pack and review videos/images, as others rush to get in the last dive or two depending on what their computer says. One question people invariably ask me, ‘How was the food?” I don’t go I dive trips for the food. If I wanted a vacation with great food I’d go to France. But, I do have to say that the food was stellar. The soup and deserts were top notch.
April 9- Flying again
The boat prepared a nice breakfast for everyone. The boat was nice and comfortable, all the staff was overly polite and helpful. The boat was fuller than usual due to his being a holiday weekend. But, we never felt crowed at all. Out room was spacious with it’s own bathroom. Per my usual restlessness, all was packed early. The cruise director, seeing all the luggage we had, sent us on our way to the airport early. Again the LA boarding pass would have come in handy. But, a little pleading and they once again gave us a weight exemption. Scuba World had a sign with my name on it once we arrived in Manila and we were off for a 2 ½ hour ride south to Anilao. Our ETA was 2:30 pm, traffic was fine, Linda and I were making plans on doing a night dive that evening. Until we hit the little town of Lipa. They were beginning a large festival. Which caused us to have a two hour crawl through town. This frazzled our nerves, let alone the driver who had to pick up someone at 3:30 and drive them back to Manila. We blew off the night dive and just relaxed at the Outrigger Resort. The Outrigger, like most of the resorts in the area, are built next to steep rocky hills. No sandy beach. Charming place, very diver friendly and caters primarily to the locals.
April 10 - Diving Anilao
The Easter, a local holiday and the weekend are over. The resort is populated by a large family get together from San Francisco, and us two. The Frisco group had one diver and a bunch of snorkelers. But, we had our own boat and dive master. The boat is sort of like a huge canoe with outriggers and a Briggs & Stratton motor. Cool looking and very stable. We told the Divemaster that we didn’t want to see any walls, pelagic or rocky formations. We want macro stuff. The routine here is a little different. It’s; eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat. The first dive was nudibranch central. It was like looking at an IndoPacific Nudibranch book. Each one more colorful then the next. For our safety dive they beached the boat next to the boatman’s village, which had a hot spring well. We walked up to it to discover that an unfortunate dog fell into it last night and was par-boiled. The boatman had the lady, who is the keeper of the spring, summoned to clean it up. We did our safety stop watching as she emptied the small well of dog soup and clean it up. Gross, but entertaining. The second dive was Nemo Central. We’ve never seen so many clownfish. The vis is about 30' and chunky. A good day in Laguna with fine chunks of particulate messing up all the video and still images. Highlights of the day; nudi-overload, tons of clownfish, ‘Oh, another ribbon eel’, a large juvenile Pinnate Spadefish (the Moorish Idol just lost my standing as the prettiest fish) and the trigger fish ambush. Swimming back to the boat, five feet off the bottom, minding our own business. Linda to the left, Divemaster to the right. Then, I got smacked on the head. Startled, I looked forward and saw the smackee. The killer triggerfish, making a second run at me. I fend him off with my camera. He goes after Linda. Pandemonium ensues. I’m batting him with the camera. Linda kicks him with her fins. I see the Divemaster thrashing around wildly. Then I see the killer triggerfish’s friend. There are two of them! Linda makes a swim for it. Once safe she starts laughing uncontrollably. The Divemaster and I are finally able to swim free of their territory and also start laughing.
April 11- Diving Anilao
What’s to say...more of the same. Lots of reef fish, nudibranchs, clown fish, juvenile ribbon eel, ringed pipe fish, scorpion fish and ‘not another lionfish, I’ve not seen before”. Highlights: Sombrero Island reef, tons of pretty fish. If the visibility would be have been nice, this reef would make calender shots. Reptilian Snake eel trying to swallow a large fish. I missed the strike, but by all accounts not by much. This has to be the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen. Take the ugliest green morey you’ve seen and dump quick lime on it to bubble it’s skin, that would be close. I spotted it half out of it’s hole and half of a large catfish sticking out of it’s mouth. After a short while, it got the energy to move farther down it’s hole. I have no idea how he plans on swallowing the entire thing. But, it looked like he had food for a month. We went looking for frog fish at a wreck. Perfect habitat for them. If I were a frog fish, I would live there. But, they were somewhere else. Linda and I were starting to get waterlogged and I was starting to get a head cold. Tomorrow will be our last four dives. A trip total of 30. I think I’m ready to stop for a while.
April 12 - Last day of diving
I think the divemaster finally figured out we want strange animals. After mentioning it for three days. How long do you have to sit still at the hole of a shrimp gobie to see the blind shrimp? I caught fleet glimpses. But, sitting for 10 minutes at the hole filming the gobie, wasn’t long enough. Our last three dives were mucky. Okay, enough ghost pipefish!! Tiny clear shrimp, porcelain crabs, mantis shrimps, ringed pipefish and sand eels. There are monsters hiding in the sand. Highlight, mimic octopus. The divemaster found him hiding a hole in the sand. After taking head shots, I was able to coax it out of the hole. I got some great footage of it swimming around and making like a flatfish.
April 13 - Going home
Packing and killing time. Our flight is at 10pm. On our van trip back to Manila, having plenty of time, the driver took an alternate route. He drove us by the Taal volcano which is surrounded by a lake. All of which is inside a huge crater. This is the place for million dollar mansions. Would I come back? Absolutely. The diving and critters were great. We should have done the dive locations in reverse. That way we would have had our fill for reef diving and macro shots, before going to Tubbataha. We probably would have been more receptive to just floating in the blue along a beautiful wall with no bottom. I would come back to Anilao. Anilao is a local getaway, with lots of resorts. Visibility could have been better. When I do another Philippine trip. It would be Anilao and another spot. I’ve been told of many great spots the Philippines has to offer. I would recommend the Philippines as a place to visit. The people are friendly and English is widely spoken. Even the maid at the resort spoke English.