Christmas in The Philippines

Author: Rachel Lee Horsfield

So long have I been fascinated by Indonesia, that for a number of years I shunned other locations in favour of this remarkable archipelago. But something was stirring inside me to visit its neighbour, and after sending a steady stream of clients to Atlantis Resorts in The Philippines, and receiving outstanding feedback I took the decision to get away from Christmas and all its associated awfulness and jetted off to Puerto Galera and Dumaguete for two weeks of friendly hospitality and wonderful diving.

The flights to Manila with Singapore Airlines were flawless as ever, and once at Manila airport I was greeted by two very jolly girls with a bottle of cold water. They took no time at all carrying my bags to the air-conditioned van, which was ready and waiting to whisk me off to the coastal town of Batangas. Two hours later I was overjoyed to discover that the final stage of the journey would take place in a traditional Filipino outrigger boat. Sailing in one of these had been on my wish list for a while, and as the sun set over the calm sea, off we stole for a one hour boat ride to the pier in the town of Sabang Beach. The name ‘Atlantis Resort Puerto Galera’ is somewhat misleading, as although quite close to the town of Puerto Galera, the resort itself is slap bang in the middle of the lively town of Sabang Beach, comprising a stretch of beach replete with bars and hotels of varying quality and a maze of back streets, cafes, clubs and yet more bars. These I would discover later…

After an overnight flight and many hours of travelling, as well as a particularly gruelling gym session before I left the UK, my body was feeling especially stiff, so I was very happy to sit down in the restaurant of the resort and be given a shoulder and neck massage by the resort masseuse! After a cold beer and my first taste of Filipino cooking it was very early to bed. I was pleased to hear I would be resident in the Executive Suite, a very spacious and pleasant room. The resort is built into a hillside with a series of steps leading to the top, which was exactly where my room was. The sea views more than made up for the climb and a nightly sea and star gazing session from my balcony was always a treat!

All I had to do the next morning was put all my dive gear outside my door, eat breakfast and analyse my nitrox cylinder – my equipment was all set up on the boat for me. Briefings are held in the dive shop with thorough explanations of the sites and several colour photographs of potential highlights and creatures to look out for. All dive sites (with the exception of Verde Island) are between 30 seconds and 10 minutes from the dive shop. Divers walk across the beach and after a little paddling (or wading depending on the tide) jump into a small boat whisks you to the relevant dive site. Sun cream is a must for those susceptible to burning as there is no shade on the boat!

The first dive was at Coral Cove, a sloping patch reef leading to a wall and several coral bommies. My dive guide Chris was under instruction to find me a pygmy seahorse and he delivered! I was very happy to be rattling off photographs of these tiny purple blobs and for once not being pushed along by a current! Another highlight was the electric clam which under the light of my strobe was quite something to behold as it pulsed a fabulous bolt of blue through its ruby red lips. It was at this point (I discovered later) that one member of the dive group was convinced he saw a Thresher Shark! They apparently do pay occasional visits to these waters though it is a rare occasion indeed.

The diving at Puerto Galera is relatively varied. Most of the sites taper into sloping walls and patch reefs rich with small creatures and nudibranchs galore. There are drift dives over coral plateaus and a wreck or two! A dive at Canyons was definitely one of the highlights with a descent to around 26 metres to inspect the wall, before drifting over shelves of hard corals to a gap in the wall packed with Diagonal Banded Sweetlips who were quite content to hang around for me, until I was distracted by the Yellow Leaf fish wedged in a narrow crack in the wall. As I made my way out of the gap in the wall two Giant Trevally shot over my head at quite a pace. The current had picked up somewhat now and I flew towards an intact anchor sitting at about 15 metres before hitting the blue and making my way up.

Dives at Sabang Point and Fantasea were over an hour each as I rummaged around the shelves and bommies ticking off Winged Pipehorse, Harlequin Mantis Shrimp and Fimbriated Moray Eel. Not to mention several of my favourite Orangutan Crabs! How can a crab be hairy and orange AND have glowy red eyes?! Kilima Steps yielded yet more opportunities to photograph the Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse as well Pallette Surgeonfish. The usual colourful reef fish were ever present including some very friendly anemonefish in multiple varieties such as Tomato Anemonefish, False Clown Anemonefish and Clark’s Anemonefish. A night dive at Sabang Wrecks gifted me my first ever Stargazer and what a peculiar creature it is! Seemingly pancake flat until it shoots out of the sand to reveal a cylindrical body, before burying itself at lightening speed several metres further along the sea floor.

The wreck of the Alma Jane sits right in the harbour outside the resort. A freighter sunk in 2003, Alma Jane sits upright on the sand at about 30 metres. The superstructure is intact and is fun to circumnavigate a couple of times before penetrating the hold. Longfin Spadefish mill about the top deck, allowing divers in very close. I am always astounded at how these fish swim sideways and upside down and never seem too bothered at the proximity of the divers! Dipping in and out of the lower deck is very safe and the wreck is easy to navigate. Banded Sea Kraits are occasionally found lurking in the darker recesses of the wreck.

About a forty minute boat ride from the resort is Verde Island and Atlantis operate three tank day trips here regularly. There are few pleasures in life more satisfying than sitting on a beach in the sunshine drinking tea, after a particularly wonderful dive, staring at the ocean and thinking only about your next dive. Perhaps the picture could be made perfect if the tea was replaced by a cold beer at the end of a diving day. This is exactly what one can expect with a day trip to Verde Island. Verde Island is a small island in the middle of the channel between Luzon to the north and Mindoro to the south. It looks a bit like the head of a bull but with one horn missing and is the postcard photograph of blue sea, white sand and palm trees. The rocks and pinnacles just off the island make for some fantastic diving, and quite different dives to those found back at Sabang Beach. Currents can be strong and usually a negative entry is required. My first dive at Drop Off began by dropping straight to 25 metres and whizzing along a steep wall, that I barely had chance to inspect as I shot past. As the wall rounded a corner the current slackened and I was able to enjoy the colourful wall in all its glory. Hard and soft corals dripped off ledges and overhangs and all the while orange, purple and pink anthias danced around. As with most wall dives, the best part tends to be at the end between 10 metres and the surface, where I witnessed a butterflyfish feeding frenzy. The second dive at Drop Off was even more exhilarating as this time I began on a shallow coral slope and worked down to 21 metres, pausing to observe Hawksbill turtles and Tomato Anemonefish. As I descended I could feel the current picking up all the time and my guide Chris indicated to me that around the corner we would really fly. Indeed we did! The current cannoned me through curtains of anthias and spat me out into the blue bang smack into the middle of a stack of Bigeye Jacks who scattered like the shells from a Roman candle on fireworks night.

Divers are accompanied by a chef from the kitchen at the resort, who spends most of his morning cooking a hot, fresh lunch for hungry divers. After two great dives, it was such a treat to tuck into spicy pork, chicken wings, coleslaw, potato salad, roasted vegetables and fruit salad, eaten at the top of a small rocky outcrop over the ocean! I even managed the obligatory inter-dive snooze in a shaded area before heading out for the third and final dive at Verde Island. Number One or Washing Machine, (named after number one spin cycle as Chris called it) was a very shallow mooch around barrel sponges and small coral heads. About thirty minutes into the dive we came across a series of channels covered in hard and soft corals, with various fish flitting about the top of the channel. The current was such that one could shoot down through the canyon, then claw back to the start of the next one for several rows until at the very end of the series of channels the reef stopped and after holding on for several minutes we let fly over the sea floor and slowly ascended. If I hadn’t planned a night dive that same evening I would happily have swigged the San Miguel on offer!

The town of Sabang Beach is definitely worth an exploration. A series of lively bars dot the seafront and if you take a while to wend your way through the maze of back streets, numerous cafes and shops are dotted around the place. There was however, no better place than the bar at the resort, 50 Bar. Tonto the barman delighted in checking your order before your final dive of the day and would, with great pleasure present you with whatever it was right after your dive! He took great pleasure in making his bar the first place to go and the last place to leave of an evening and the beach front location means other tourists can wander in as well.

After 6 nights at Atlantis Resort Puerto Galera it was time to head south to Atlantis Resort Dumaguete, nestled on the beach on the southern end of the island of Negros, a one and a half hour flight from Manila. It was all very straight forwards to get from one resort to the other. I reversed my journey to Manila airport with an obligatory stop en route at KFC, and later that same evening was receiving yet another welcome massage from the spa staff at Dumaguete! Dumaguete is far quieter than Sabang Beach and I was thrilled to discover my room had expansive sea views, a balcony and a hammock!

My first diving day involved a full day trip to Apo Island. Titan the large outrigger used for day trips powered out for the forty minute journey to Apo Island, complete with barbeque! The trip is conducted much like the Verde Island trip, though divers remain on the boat to enjoy the refreshments, although lunch is just as impressive! The diving at Apo Island is characterised by plunging walls and hard coral gardens, interspersed with sandy slopes and coral bommies. The wall at Chapel has numerous overhangs and shelves but divers probably don’t go much deeper than 25 metres here. The wall is home to a multitude of nudibranchs including a mixture of chromodoris and nembortha species and Dark Margin Glossodoris to name a few. The end of the dive is usually spent rummaging around amongst the shallow hard corals where turtles are frequently found.

Atlantis Resorts are some of the very few resorts in the whole world that offer fluoro night diving. Divers carry a UV light and there are a variety of corals, critters and creatures that fluoresce under such conditions. Creatures that fluoresce under the water absorb the blue light and reflect with fluorescence and it makes for a truly remarkable experience! Divers also wear a yellow filter over their masks. Eeels were one of the highlights as they glowed a golden yellow, save for the dark dot where their eye was. My personal favourite was the baby Lionfish which looked exactly like a miniature dragon and was the most incredible neon green. I was transfixed! Various invertebrates also fluoresced as did a number of the hard corals. This was the reef as never seen before, purple, blue, green, orange, yellow and pink glowed fabulously against a backdrop of pitch black. I would recommend this to anyone who already enjoyed night diving!

Dives just minutes away from the resort were mostly macro dives on the black sandy slopes. Car Wreck is a great mixture of macro and coral gardens, where anemonefish mingle with nudibranchs, shrimps and colourful reef fish. At Tyres a flamboyant cuttlefish showed off its colourful skirt and giant frogfish lurked amongst the objects giving this site its name. There was also the chance to look for Mandarinfish at Bahura, where divers kneel at less than 10 metres in front of a large pile of rocks and coral rubble for that magical moment when those skittish fish shoot out of their hiding places to find their mates.

Atlantis Resort Dumaguete offer day trips to Oslob, off Cebu to visit the Whale Sharks which are permanently resident in the bay as they are hand fed by local fishermen. The experience is a little zoo like, with numbers of other snorkelers in the water. Nevertheless it is always a treat to see these beguiling creatures and a great photographic opportunity. Mostly the sharks face the surface in anticipation of the food but occasionally they change position and enjoy a good swim around, pursued by avid snorkelers. An early start from the resort is followed by about a one hour van ride to the ferry terminal outside Dumaguete. The ferry ride over to Cebu is approximately 30 minutes, followed by another 20 minute van ride to reach Oslob. Snorkelers can kit up in some rather basic shower/toilet cubicles before being rowed out to the Whale Sharks. Up to one hour can be spent with the sharks and those that need a break from snorkelling and free diving are able to hang on to the small outriggers of the local wardens that ensure the sharks are not touched or harmed in any way.

The two resorts are alike in many ways. The level of service is second to none and the staff really do feel like friends after a few days; always interested and extremely helpful. The food is quite something with a mix of Filipino dishes, Italian favourites, fresh meats, salads and soups all expertly prepared. I was happy not to see a Club Sandwich or a burger during my whole two weeks there! The staff at both resorts had me sussed in no time flat and pretty soon after every dive there would be somebody waiting with a cup of hot milky tea, a dry towel and a big smile! Great care is taken to cater for special dietary requirements, likes and dislikes. In other ways the two resorts are quite different. The resort at Puerto Galera is a lively, happening party town with plenty going on at all hours. If the dive staff ask you out of an evening, do so at your peril! The beach is not a sunbathing beach, but a busy stretch of sand attracting locals and tourists meandering aimlessly or going about their daily business. Dumaguete however is a very quiet, peaceful place with a delightful garden. The beach is much quieter though the black sand isn’t the best for sunbathing!

Staying at Atlantis resorts was the most liveaboard-like experience I ever had from a land based resort. The chance to do up to 5 dives a day, the way in which you and your gear are cared for at all times and the ease with which one can just jump on a boat and dive is remarkable. Not least the fact that you are very well fed and watered throughout!

Rachel stayed at Atlantis Resort Puerto Galera for 6 nights followed by a 7 nights stay at Atlantis Resort Dumaguete.

Giant Frogfish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse on seafan (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Whitemargin Stargazer (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Willan's Chromodoris (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Clark's Anemonefish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Chris and the Tomato Anemonefish at Verde Island (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

In the shallows at Verde Island (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Verde Island Drop Off (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Butterflyfish go wild at Verde Island! (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Clark's Anemonefish (orange) (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

The wreck of the Alma Jane (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Inside the wreck of the Alma Jane (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Mandarinfish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Flamboyant cuttlefish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

A blenny peeps from a pipe outside Atlantis Dumaguete (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

False Clown Anemonefish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Leopard Chromodoris (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Looking out from inside an overhang at Apo Island (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Night dives were great for spotting hermit crabs (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Orangutan crab on bubble coral (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Vernie and the Whale Shark (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

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