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Diver's Journal: Philippines / Puerto Galera dive trip report
By: Lee

Short Summary
Water temp high 70s; waves relatively calm; current varied from none to moderate (though much stronger currents were nearby); little surge. Air temp high 70s-high 80s; 90%+ humidity. Some showers, but mainly sunny or mixed clouds & sun. Land-based diving off local bancas: 14 dives on sites mainly between La Laguna Point and Escarceo Point, plus two on nearby Verde Island’s East Point. Dives included walls, slopes, coral gardens. Dove with Action Divers (http://www.actiondivers.com/), owner Roscoe Thompson — who answers email to his shop personally. Stayed at Portofino resort 50 yards away. The writer reached around 200 dives on this trip.

The Place
Welcome to the region with the greatest species diversity on this planet. Add to this the low prices of everything, safe food and water, welcoming locals, beautiful island landscapes, and the ease of getting around for English speakers, and you’ve got one of the all-round best dive destinations for Americans.

Getting There
So where are they? Well, it did take us about 30 hours’ travel door to door to get there. Airfare ain’t cheap unless you get in on a group fare as we did. Then there’s the rep for violence. Plus blast fishing, flouting of national underwater park no-take rules, tropical diseases, less than great viz, and the lack of promotion in scuba diving magazines.

This is our second trip to Puerto Galera, and our reasons for returning may address those objections. I’ll tackle time and cost first. Timewise it simply takes that long to get to the best diving on this planet ("best" if you value species diversity). Cost was comparable to a typical Caribbean dive vacation. For this 10 day trip we only shelled out $2,170 each (including the $950 airfare, 16 dives, transfers, hotels, meals, tips, trinkets, an all-day excursion, water taxis—the works) because we did it as a group under the auspices of Chris Bradford, a Sacramento-based diver/photographer who’s taken dive groups to Asia many times. That cost is cheaper than many Caribbean dive vacations of equal length. And the airfare included flying from SFO to Taipei in EVA’s Evergreen class, a big cut above coach. We were in the nose of our 747, which even has a little area where you can stretch and not be in anyone’s way. Taipei to Manila was coach, but that only lasted a few hours.

What to Expect
The violence is like here. Go to the bad part of any big town and you’re in danger. Go to the nice tourist resorts and you’re not, generally. The nice thing about using Action Divers is that their agent meets you just outside customs and puts you on a van that takes you straight to the boat in Batangas that takes you straight to the Portofino hotel, a few doors north of Action Divers. All you have to do is enjoy the ride. The boats are open but quite stable—they all have wide dual outriggers. Still, the crossing takes up to an hour and if you get seasick easily you might take some Dramamine beforehand. No one in our group had a problem. No docks on either side—the boats run up the beach and you get on & off via gangplank. Crewmen help wobbly passengers. The buses and boats are all regular subcontractors of Action Divers. We always felt like we were in good hands.

The Puerto Galera/Sabang dive resort region is on a small peninsula on the north end of eastern Mindoro Island, which is otherwise mostly rural, with jungle occupying the middle of the island. The Puerto Galera area functions a lot like a small island. The main source of income is divers. So they like us a lot—and they don’t cotton to outsiders from other parts of the Philippines coming in to mess with their source of income. Likewise the dive operators and locals cooperate to police the nearby waters and prevent poaching and blast fishing at the dive sites. We wandered all over this area and never felt the least sense of danger, day or night. The danger of malaria in the resort area is almost nonexistent. We only got a handful of mosquito bites over the time we were there, and no other kinds of insects bothered us. No no-see-ums, no gnats, no biting flies. Our suite had screens but we kept the doors to the patio open most of the time. It was a remarkably benign environment. Even during the day trip we took to Tamaraw Falls in the interior we didn’t get any bites. And the fresh water was safe to swim in.

The Diving
As for the diving…it was simply wonderful overall. The viz is generally 40-80 ft. or thereabouts. Hardly the eye-popping vistas of Cozumel or Molokini Crater or even Little Cayman, but plenty for seeing the vast array of living creatures around you. We didn’t see many pelagics, nor many big fish in general, nor many sharks (I didn’t see any). But the abundance and variety of smaller critters more than made up for that.

The Critters
In this paragraph I’ll list the more notable critters I saw on my16 dives (many of which I saw in quantity): Starry Eel, schools of Juvenile Striped Catfish, Striped Anglerfish (i.e. Frogfish)(the black variety), Painted Flutemouth (i.e.Trumpetfish)(yellow variety), Pygmy Seahorse, Red Firefish (i.e. Lionfish), Common Lionfish, Smallscale or Tassled Scorpionfish, Half-Spotted Gurnard (walks on sea floor with free pectoral fin spines), Coral Cod (i.e. Coral Trout or Coral Grouper or Red Grouper), Scalefin Anthias (clouds of them), Bicolor (also Yellowsaddle) Goatfish, Moorish Idol, Clown Triggerfish, Ornate Butterflyfish, Common Clownfish, Pink (i.e. Spinecheek) Anemonefish, various other anemonefish & clownfish, Jacks, possibly Bigeye Trevally, Royal Angelfish, jewel-like little gobies, Threadfin Hawkfish, Longnose Hawkfish, moray eels, Reef Lizardfish, Pinnate (or Long-Finned) Batfish (yard-high paper-thin juvenile as well as adult), Coral (or Pajama) Cardinalfish, Two-Lined (or Bridled) Monocle Bream, Humphead Bannerfish, Bird Wrasse, Cleaner Wrasse, Bicolor Parrotfish, Bicolor Blenny (out of its burrow!), Yellow Boxfish, Blotcheye Soldierfish, Blue Sea Squirt, soft tree corals, Blue Linckia Sea Star, large barrel sponges, gorgonian sea fans, Alabaster Sea Cucumber, Bohadschia graeffei (another kind of sea cucumber, observed with feather face extended), feather stars (i.e. crinoids)—black, red, dark red, green and black, several kinds of shrimp, a spectacular sea urchin—possibly Asthenosma varium, numerous nudibranchs including Chromodoris, Phyllidia, & Nembrotha species, including a pair of Chromodoris mating, big hermit crab (Dardanus species), cleaner shrimp, some other kind of shrimp (Altheus sp.?), Mantis Shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus I think), Sea Pen (Pteroeides sp.), soft coral (Dendronephythia sp.), huge variety of hard & soft corals, Banded Sea Snake (juvenile and five foot long adult), a pod of dolphins (which the boat didn’t stop for). And a ctenophore during a safety stop in open water. Others in the group also saw several kinds of cuttlefish and a turtle. I should mention that I saw one jack hit the afterburner and vanish like he’d teleported. I knew they were fast but this one made my eyes pop.

Dive Sites
The very best diving was off Verde Island’s east end, which took us about an hour to reach from Sabang. Action Divers contracted for a somewhat larger boat to go there. The crossing was smooth. Sometimes it’s too rough to go. But my wife’s and my biggest regret was only going here once. If we’d realized how fantastic it was we would have tried to arrange for at least one more trip there during our stay. I saw more nudibranchs on our two dives there than in fifty other dives I’d done elsewhere.
This was wall diving and you did have to exercise some common sense about not getting into strong current areas—you watch the fish ahead of you and see how they’re swimming, a little trick we learned in Bali some years ago. But my wife’s not a strong swimmer and she had no trouble, though she is an experienced diver with over 150 dives under her weightbelt.

We love walls, and our standard of excellence is Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall that starts at 16 ft. and goes down for thousands of feet. This wasn’t quite as steep but it started at 10 ft. and went into the abyss—even from 120 ft. down I couldn’t see anything like a bottom. It was a lovely wall. I could have spent several days just going back to the same dive site. Between dives we had lunch on the beach on Verde Island. White sand, very bright—bring shades. Important side note: every boat we were on had awnings for shade. I noticed quite a few other dive operators just had bare open boats. My pale skin objects strongly to this in the tropics, so that’s a reason to use Action Divers.

There is another dive site on Verde Island called the Washing Machine. We didn’t do that and don’t plan to—it’s well-named.

Back in the Sabang area we dove on some wrecks—one is right off Sabang and has a permanent mooring buoy, making it a snap for night diving even when the viz isn’t great. The wrecks themselves were unspectacular but had lots of interesting creatures and some swimthroughs. Nothing like, say, the HMS Tibbets off Cayman Brac or the RMS Rhone in the BVI or the amazing Liberty Ship off Tulamben in Bali, but fine for naturalist divers. Mainly you’ll be doing coral reefs and the sandy flats around them (that’s where I saw that Gunard and some sea pens on our night dives). Night diving is good here—seemed safe, and I recommend it, though we didn’t see quite as much as I’d hoped for.

Logistics of a Day Diving
Action Divers is one of dozens of dive operators here. They go out at 9am, noon, and 3pm, returning to shore between each dive (they’re nearly all nearby), so you tend to get good safe surface intervals. They’ll also do night dives at 6pm if they have four divers. List price for dives is $20/dive and $25 for night dives. Verde Island days are two dives, though a night dive off Sabang on such days is possible. I think Verde Island was around $60 (including lunch) for the two dives. The boat for Verde Island was bigger and even had a head in the stern (an open-topped plywood outhouse with a straight shot into the sea from your toilet seat).
The normal drill is you go over around 8am and rig your own BC/regulator/tank. They put it on the boat. When you get back they unload the boat, you rinse your stuff in the two rinse tanks on the premises, use their fresh water shower, and put on a new tank for the next dive. For the Verde Island trip they changed tanks for us. You can leave all your dive gear, including wetsuits, at Action Divers for the duration of your stay. All of us did.

I know in a lot of places they do all this for you. But in fact my wife and I prefer to rig our own setups, and we prefer to do our own rinsing, because we’re likely to be more thorough than anyone else.

We had an Action Divers divemaster with us on all dives. His main role was safety and overall guidance. They did some naturalist stuff but not much. But there’s so much there it’s not as important as it is in, say, Hawaii. The boats lacked oxygen or radios, but they rarely went very far. I believe the nearest compression chamber is in Manila, so don’t get bent! The last time we were here a couple of Korean divers got caught in the serious channel currents and went back to Batangas the hard way—one died. If you stay with the divemaster the diving here is generally quite safe (as long as you don’t mess with the critters—local stonefish, cone shells, and sea snakes all are potentially fatal if you force them to defend themselves, but they’ll leave you alone if you do likewise).

The one problem my wife and I had is that we tend to drop down slowly—otherwise we have equalization problems. On two dives in fairly strong currents and middling viz this led to us getting separated from the group. One time we headed for the shallows and had a great just-the-two-of-dive, but the divemaster was quite worried because if we’d headed the other way the Batangas Express current would have whipped us away. The other was on a deep dive, again in strong current and weak viz, and we wound up keeping each other company for about twenty minutes on the surface waving our safety sausages until another diver operator’s boat picked us up and delivered us to our boat, which had apparently gone the wrong way to try to find us. We’d told the divemaster we dropped down slowly, but I don’t think it ever quite sank in. This is always a challenge for drift diving, but most of the dives weren’t drift dives, though nearly all did involve open water ascents and descents. In most dives, though, you worked your way upslope during the dive and so you didn’t have to spend much time in the water column without a lot to look at.

Note: you absolutely positively must bring safety sausages when you dive here, and I think you should have air horns and whistles too. In some areas the boat traffic—apart from the dive boats—is none too careful about divers, so you must be sure you can get their attention. At least we didn’t see any jetskis in the area, gracias a dios.

I also strongly recommend wearing a full wetsuit. Certainly all the local divemasters did, as did most of our group. The one person who rented a shorty from Action got jellyfish burns up and down one arm on a dive where the rest of us didn’t even notice any jellyfish. In general Action’s rental wetsuits were pretty marginal. Didn’t bother my wife and I because we brought our own.

The other challenge is mixed competencies. I can’t complain too much because our own group of seven ranged from an occasional diver who still flaps his hands underwater constantly to a skilled divemaster, with my wife and I in between (great buoyancy/air consumption, slow descenders, not great with a compass). For a number of dives we got combined with a group of competent UW photographers from Arizona and an old retiree who knew his way around an anchor line. For some other dives we went out with two couples from Hong Kong who were nice people but new to the fine points of buoyancy control and air consumption. So the lesson here is: the bigger the group you can go with, the more you can control the skill level of who you’re diving with. On our previous trip to Puerto Galera our group numbered around 20 so we didn’t have any problems. Seven was good but not enough to fill the boats. And since these are all led dives, having mixed-competency groups mean the experienced divers are going to be coming up with a lot of air in their tanks. So get a big group together if you can. It led to most of our dives being a little shorter than my wife & I would have preferred.

While I was there I had a problem with my AirII (caused by my not having had my Stage I reg serviced before the trip, actually) and Action Divers loaned me an octopus to use. That was helpful. They’re not a full service facility, but they could certainly do adjustments and swap high pressure hoses around and the like.

Basically the dive operators are in a row from Sabang to La Laguna point, with two more dive resorts around the point on the way to Puerto Galera proper. If you want action and nightlife, use a dive operator in Sabang. If you like a quiet, relaxed resort and make your own fun, the farther east you are from Sabang the quieter it gets. Action Divers and the Portofino resort are some of the farthest east. At the same time it only took us 10 minutes or so to walk from the Portofino to Sabang, so it’s not like we were out in the boonies. There was also a small convenience store nearby where we could get bottled water and goodies. The resorts’ tapwater is safe to drink—just not tasty.

Much of the shore is so-called ironshore, though there are sandy beaches here and there. When the tide’s out you can go tidepooling. Just wear appropriate beach shoes/sandals. I asked Roscoe about shore diving, and he said it was a little problematic because of all the boats coming in to unload construction materials for a building that was going up next door. Roscoe added that these boats’ drivers don’t know from divers and didn’t even know what dive floats are, so you had to be careful. He required a divemaster accompanying you if you wanted to do a shore dive. At other times or perhaps at other locations in the Sabang area it would probably be easy, and I can vouch for the abundant sea life, as I’ve said.

Other Dive Operators We Checked Out
The other dive operator you might check out is Asia Divers, in cahoots with the El Galleon resort (http://www.asiadivers.com/). They’re a lot bigger than Action Divers and even have a quay built out into the bay. With Action Divers you wade out into the shallows to board the boats if it’s low tide (they do carry out your BC/tank/reg for you). I don’t know if Asia Divers’ size means you’re in more of a cattleboat deal or not. El Galleon is bigger than Portofino, which does however have several dozen rooms/suites.

The Portofino was very nice. No elevator, so we did have to hoof it up & down to/from our third floor suite. But we had satellite TV, AC in the bedroom, western toilet, decent shower, nice view from the patio, tile floors and lots of places to hang stuff to dry—quite diver-friendly. The restaurant area overlooks the beach. Look up the resort at http://www.portofino.com.ph/. They work hand in hand with Action Divers, each referencing the other from their websites.

Accomodation
There’s no standard room at the Portofino—they’re all different. One member of our dive party got a single room with a bathroom, but all the couples got suites. Ours had a living room, kitchen, breakfast nook, TV room, bedroom, bathroom, patio—spacious by any standards, with a nice view north towards Batangas from the patio. We got our lodgings as part of a package deal but I’m guessing that we paid about $35/night for this. Our total cost included eating out nearly every meal BTW.

One other note: no road goes to the Portofino. There’s a road into from Puerto Galera that goes to Sabang, then heads off for points southeast—that’s the nearest to the Portofino, which like other buildings along the beach was built mainly from materials unloaded from boats. We had electricity most of the time, but there were a few failures. Welcome to the tropics. Outlets are non-polarized two prong outlets, some 110v, others 220v. I recommend bringing battery chargers and other devices that automatically work with either voltage. Otherwise be careful or you run the risk of frying your 110v goodies.


So what did we spend...
Our total expenditure included a day trip to Tamaraw Falls and the Ponderosa Golf Course vista (at 1,800 feet elevation). This trip cost us $18 each including lunch and soft drinks, and it’s a great way to spend your outgassing day. You leave from Sabang. The Ponderosa is north and the Falls south. The falls themselves are a little touristy (though we did spy some monkeys far off in the trees up the hill), but after the falls you drive a little farther, then do an easy mile or two hike to the Hidden Paradise swimming hole. To get there you ford five streams, so choose your footwear accordingly. This place was deep enough for diving and also had a natural waterslide.

Note that we encountered not one mosquito or other biting critter during this day trip. Locals Noel and Marc were our guides and we recommend them highly. You’ll get to know what travel in a Jeepney is like—that’s the closest thing to a bus on Mindoro Island. Sort of like a stretch pickup with a roof over the bed and parallel bench seats. I’m 6 ft. 1 in. tall and couldn’t see out properly unless I sat on the floor. The rear is open. Each Jeepney is extravagantly and uniquely decorated. To arrange for a tour contact Noel and Marc at sherryl_ds@hotmail.com. Tell them Lee and Phyl sent you.

Final Thoughts...
We’ve tended not to return to anywhere we’ve been before in our quest for variety and adventure. But we’re looking forward to returning to Puerto Galera and diving again with Action Divers and staying at the Portofino. Note that American divers are a small minority here—quite different from our experiences diving around North America and Hawaii. But they like us, because unlike some other nationalities which shall remain nameless, we’re amiable, follow orders, speak English…and tip. And at 55 pesos to the dollar, you can afford to be nice tipwise.

Here’s one last secret: the local food is quite palatable to American tastes—too much so, I discovered. I thought it was bland until I discovered that all the restaurants we ae in automatically tone down the spiciness to accommodate white people’s palates unless you tell them to season things local style. That’ll wake up your tastebuds!

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