PHILIPPINES (Puerto Galera & Dumaguete) - JANUARY 23-31, 2020

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

This was not a typical Reef Seekers trip but what’s known in the dive industry as a FAM trip. FAM stands for “familiarization” and basically, dive destinations around the world invite shops, clubs, instructors, etc. to be their guest and sample their facility in the hopes that these people will then book a group for a full return visit.

In this case, we were the guest of Atlantis, which runs resorts in both Puerto Galera and Dumaguete, and also has a liveaboard, the Atlantis Azores. We spent the first four days at Atlantis Puerto Galera, and then three days at Atlantis Dumaguete with a travel day in-between.

One caveat about any FAM trip is that you have to assume that the resort will put their best foot forward, since they’re catering to people who can collectively bring them a lot of business. So problems that might normally crop up might not be in evidence once the FAM group arrives. In other words, your results may vary.

Getting here is a bit of a schlep. I chose to fly United which meant LAX-HNL-GUM-MNL. (It felt weird being in Guam and not going down to Yap.) Laurie Kasper went with me but flew China Eastern LAX-Shanghai-MNL. Others took a Philippine Airways non-stop from LAX. The point is, there are plenty of ways to get to Manila, which is a major Asian destination and airport hub. Once in Manila though, there’s still more work to do.

To get to Puerto Galera requires an additional van ride of 2-3 hours south to Batangas, then a 30-minute ferry ride over to Puerto Galera (which is more like an hour because it takes time for them to load all of our bags on the speedy boat), and then it’s about a three-minute walk from the ferry dock to Atlantis Puerto Galera.

One thing that amazed me when we got there was how many dive operators there were. Pulling into Puerto Galera is similar to pulling into Avalon in terms of the look of the place. It’s a curved bay and everything butts up against the water. But it seemed like EVERY storefront along the shore was a different dive operation. Atlantis is certainly the biggest, but by no means the only option.

The resort itself is quite nice. What’s weird about Puerto Galera is that the main “street” is really a narrow path that runs all along the bay and cuts right through Atlantis. The dive shop and assembly area are below the path, and the dining area, pool, and all the rooms are above the path. So if you wanted to, you can just sit there and watch what passes for activity in Puerto Galera walk on by.

Since the resort is built into a hillside, one feature is that there are a fair amount of stairs as you move level to level (five levels in all). This is a not a place for anyone who’s disabled or who might have knee or back issues that stairs might aggravate.

But the rooms are very nice although Laurie dubbed them “Flintstones” when we first walked in because there’s a lot of rock and shale and plaster walls that remind fans of Bedrock of that look. In fact, one of the resort workers who gave us a group tour of everything referred to the design as “Flintstones.” (Fortunately, no one in the FAM group started yelling “Yabba-dabba-do!!!”) But the rooms are comfortable and a couple of their upgraded (Penthouse) rooms are downright fancy.

They’ve got a large locker/cubicle area right above the central path where your dive gear lives, and then you cross over the path to the dive assembly area where you can analyze your nitrox tanks for the dives and get ready to go. You walk out from there to the beach and one of the five small but efficient dive boats that Atlantis has. But the walk could be tricky.

When we arrived late afternoon, the boats were snugged almost right up to the dive shop. But by the next morning, it was low tide and it was amazing to see how far out the water was. Because the bay has barely any slope to it, even the tide only dropping a foot or so causes the water’s edge to recede greatly.
So when we boarded the boats each morning, we probably walked out 50 yards or so through ankle-deep water to where it was deep enough for the anchored boats to float. And this doesn’t just affect the Atlantis boats. There are probably 75 or more boats in this bay that every day are getting moved in and out. Quite a sight to see.

By the way, we were warned repeatedly NOT to drink the local water at any time on any part of the trip. Don’t even brush your teeth with it or swallow any when you shower. So we relied on bottled and filtered water and Atlantis was REALLY good about not only providing water at every meal and before every dive (stay hydrated) but also left a big glass bottle of water in your room and were happy to fill up personal portable bottles as well. As far as I know, no one had any problems due to drinking local water.

The diving was OK but not as spectacular as I had hoped. Some of this may be seasonal. The reefs are in pretty good shape but the conditions were less than optimal. Water temp was a little cool at 77-78 degrees and visibility was sort of stinky at 20-40 feet with a fair amount of particulate in the water. We did some local dives and spent a day at Verde Island (3 dives) but overall I thought these dives were a bit ho-hum, maybe a 6 on a scale of 10.

The general plan each day was for dives at 8:30, 10:30, 2:00, and 4:00 with a possible night dive at 6:00. Because all the dives sites are so close – no more than 15 minutes away and some as little as 2 minutes away – you come back to Atlantis after each dive. This means if you want to skip a dive, it doesn’t cost you multiple dives. Or if you only want to do a couple of dives, you can pick and choose.

Their general policy is (1) Dives are always guided, (2) No more than six divers per guide, (3) Generally limited to an hour for the dive with a specified max depth, (4) Let guide know where you’re at 1500psi and 750psi, and (5) Everyone comes up together so when the first person runs low on air, the dive’s over for everyone. This last policy didn’t affect us since our group were all pretty good on air consumption, but others who have been here before have complained on-line about this policy as being too punitive. (The same policy applies in Dumaguete as well.) Given the volume of boat traffic in both areas, I understand why they want everyone up at once, but be aware that it could significantly shorten your dives if you’re in a group with an A.S.P. (Air-Sucking Pig – a term used only lovingly).

The other reason for this policy is that some of the boats in Puerto Galera (and many of their boats in Dumaguete) are Bangka-style boats. These are boats with huge outriggers on each side of the boat which means they’re not very maneuverable. So you don’t want two divers coming up here, two divers there, and the final two divers and guide over there.

Speaking of the Bangka boats, they were very interesting. In general, I liked them but they’re definitely a change from a typical resort dive boat. (And I have a few pictures of them on the SmugMug page but nothing detailed so hopefully my descriptive text will help.)

First of all, they’re really roomy and big. Overall, they’re roughly (with outriggers, which also act as stabilizers) as much as 40 feet wide and maybe 50 feet long. When you look at the head-on, the outriggers are the bulk of that with the actual boat part being maybe 15 feet wide. But they’ve also got a rudimentary head (bring toilet paper with you) and even a rudimentary kitchen on board (for the trips to Verde and Apo Islands). They can carry multiple tanks so for the island trips (3-tank dives) so you’ve got everything you need right there.

Getting on and off is interesting. The entry was generally a backroll through a gap in the outriggers. But because the boats sit up high (due to the outriggers), it’s a good 6-8 foot drop to the water. Not a problem, just a little further than your typical backroll distance.

Getting back on was quite easy. You drift under the outriggers which are all equipped with lines and handhold straps (like you’d find on a subway) and hold position near an angled ladder. You then slide over to the ladder (the guide is usually there to assist – one advantage of everyone coming up together), remove weights, then tank, then fins, and up you go. It’s all pretty easy and the boat crews were always there to lend many helping hands.

The other boats Atlantis has in both locations are more traditional resort boats were you sit on the gunnel – which is wide and flat – and backroll off. You do the gear handoff when the dive ends. The ladders on these boats were a little flimsier and hang straight down or even curved slightly under the boat, which can put a strain on your back when coming back up. (I speak from personal experience.) It would be better if these ladders were modified with a relatively easy fix so they angled slightly away from the boat.

One thing a number of us liked and commented on about all of the boats is that all surfaces are covered with a blue rubberized tile that’s quite comfortable to walk on and sit on. Good traction when walking and just a wee bit of give when sitting so it made it fairly comfortable. And – with the exception of the runs out to Verde and Apo which are each about 40 minutes long – you’re not sitting very long.

Back to the Puerto Galera diving, even though the conditions weren’t very good, there were definitely interesting things to see and some new things for me personally.

There are Clownfish/Anemonefish everywhere including (in Dumaguete) a species I’d never seen before, the Saddleback. But there were Clark’s, Pinks, Orangefins, Spinecheek, Tomatoes (lots of them – and BIG ones), Skunks, Orange, False, and probably a couple I’m forgetting. What a couple of people commented on (remember that this was a group of fish geeks) is that normally you’d find only one species of clownfish and usually in a specific species of anemone. Not so here. Some anemones had two or even three species sharing, and each species didn’t seem to have a favorite anemone type. It seems like they just took whatever was available.

We dove a close-in wreck, the Alma Jane, with a screaming current which made the dive somewhat difficult. But there was a resident school of Golden Spadefish there with a lone Longfin hanging out as well. Maybe species inter-mingling wasn’t limited to just clownfish.

The other thing I loved about this dive was that the very first thing I saw, on the sand, was a really cool-looking and colorful urchin, the Magnificent Fire Urchin. There’s an iridescent blue tinge to the urchin that immediately catches your eye, and there are radiating grooved all around. And it seems like there are three different types of spines that the urchin has developed which give it a really unique and colorful look. You can see pix on the SmugMug page.

As I mentioned earlier, we did a day at Verde Island as well. Definitely better conditions here and I could see where cleaner water could make a huge difference for your perception of the dive. We dove two sites here, The Drop-Off and Coral Gardens. There’s a third site called Washing Machine which apparently frequently earns its name and was undiveable for us.

We got a lot of nudibranchs at Verde but one really cool thing our guide (Norm – very good to dive with) found for us was a HUGE Frogfish. And when I saw huge, I mean the size of your hand with out-stretched fingers. Normally in Indonesia, I’m used to seeing Frogfish that are only a few inches long. This one (and two we saw at Dumaguete) were more like the big female ones you tend to find in Hawaii.

So overall I thought the Puerto Galera diving was good, maybe even at times very good, but not great. My gauge on this is that after dives we’d all come up and compare notes and the consensus was “Yeah, that was nice and this was cool,” as opposed to “Oh wow!!!It was so cool when we saw that.”

The other thing I’ll use as a barometer is how many images I shoot on a given dive. It’s generally around 150 images/60-minute dive. For the Puerto Galera dives, even the Verde Island ones, I was shooting around 100 images on each dive. Dumaguete, however, was a different story.

Before I get to that, a quick word about the food in Puerto Galera: Wonderful.

All meals are included. Breakfast started out each day at 6:30AM, so in plenty of time for the first dive. This was all made-to-order so you told your server what you wanted and they were certainly willing to modify things for you. They had a really novel way to presenting the lunch and dinner options. There was a large chalkboard and by the time you ambled down for breakfast, it listed four choices for lunch (usually a chicken, a beef, a pork, and a veggie option) as well as four choices for dinner. So you could get some idea at breakfast what you might want for the rest of the day. When that mealtime rolled around, you simply told them either soup or salad to start, told them the main dish you wanted, and later on, if you wanted dessert. We all thought the food was quite tasty and nicely presented (the chefs at both resorts went to culinary school, and it shows) and everyone’s afraid to step on their scale when they get home for fear of having gained weight on the trip instead of losing some.

Transferring from Puerto Galera to Dumaguete was a bit of a schlep and eats up a full day. But it was all arranged by Atlantis and really ran smoothly, especially given all the moving parts. We had to have our bags packed and ready to be loaded around 7AM, then left at 8AM to get the TaxSea ferry (that’s really its name) back over to Batangas. You board the TaxSea via a very narrow wooden ramp stretched from the bow of the TaxSea to the shore but before we could get on, all bags had to be loaded by their porters/crew. That took a good 30-45 minutes. (Bear in mind there were 22 of us in our FAM group, and no one travels light.)

Then it’s a half-hour ride across and reverse the process. But when we got to Batangas, it was a REALLY low tide which meant the boat couldn’t pull close enough for their ramp to reach. So we had to go down one steep ramp, walk five feet through thigh-deep water, and then go up a second very steep ramp (roughly a 45-degree angle) to get on shore. No one fell, but it’s a dicey move. Then, their porters on the Batangas side had to unload all the bags up and down both ramps and into vans. That whole process ate up close to another hour.

After that, we drove up to Manila with a stop at a gas/food joint for lunch (they even had a McDonalds and a Starbucks), arriving at the Manila Airport around 12:30 for our 4:15PM flight to Dumaguete. Atlantis had checked us all in and gotten boarding passes so that was pretty smooth but now we had almost three hours to kill before the 90-minute flight.

Once in Dumaguete (shortly before 6PM), we grabbed our bags, had them loaded into vans, then we all boarded one of two mini-busses for the drive to Atlantis Dumaguete, which took about another 45 minutes. So we started the day effectively at 7AM, and arrived at our destination around 7PM. Like I said, a bit of a schlep. If you were going only to Dumaguete (or doing Dumaguete first), you’d simply connect in the Manila Airport and fly down. Much easier that way than making Puerto Galera your first stop.

That all being said, Atlantis Dumaguete is gorgeous. It’s set in a tropical area, much of the property has recently been refurbished/rebuilt/upgraded (and even the older stuff looks pretty good), so Dumaguete really makes the Puerto Galera property look like the poor step-cousin. To put it in L.A. terms (and at the risk of offending someone), it’s the difference between Beverly Hills and Culver City. Both functional, but wholly different styles and perception of quality.

The meal setup in Dumaguete is the same as in Puerto Galera. But they did breakfast as a buffet which was really nice, especially if you were running late or leaving early, and two nights they did dinner as a buffet as well.

The rooms are gorgeous and – especially the Suites – much more luxurious than Puerto Galera. Our suite/room had a king bed (queen in PG), a small table area that functioned as desk, a decent couch, small refrigerator, a really huge bathroom, an OK-sized closet, excellent air-conditioning, and a nice patio area with a couple of padded chairs. Really pleasant room.

Although the Dumaguete resort is only slightly bigger than the Puerto Galera one (in terms of diver capacity), Dumaguete feels much larger due to being more spread out. The dive area consists of numbered cubicles for each diver plus places to hang stuff, tank filling and analyzing area, as well as a dive board outlining the entire day, and a briefing area. So definitely efficient, although we felt with the number of divers there – 75 all told including non-FAM people at the resort – that two nitrox analyzers wasn’t enough. Four would have been nice and made for less-crowded/hectic pre-dive times.

I need to throw in another caveat before I get to the diving and that is that I don’t know that what we experienced and which I will relay is representative or not. We had only three dive days in Dumaguete and the first one took us over to Apo Island, which is totally different, the second day was Dumaguete proper, and the third day was going to Oslob to experience the Whale Shark encounter there. So with only one day at each place, you might take some of my perceptions with a grain of salt.

That being said, I really liked the Dumaguete dives. Again if you measure my enthusiasm by how many frames I shoot, I was generally in the 150-ish range for each of these dives.

I’d call the three dives we did (I skipped the fourth) muck-ish. In other words, not true Lembeh-style muck dives where you’re on dark sand hunting for things, but a combination of white sand and scattered reef (and sometimes actual fairly large reef). I liked that because it gives you a little of both.

And even if you found nothing else in the sand, we were all amazed by the proliferation of Garden Eels. HUGE Garden Eels, and there must have been ten thousand of them. They were everywhere there was sand. And, like most Garden Eels, as you got closer they got lower until they finally disappeared, but if you stopped moving and just hovered, eventually the ones surrounding you would come out again, extend themselves much of the way (though not fully), and continue feeding on whatever the mild currents would bring near them.

We also found two of the calmest turtles I’ve ever seen. Both nestled into a spot on the reef while large remoras clung to their backs. The turtles just chilled while we snapped photos but the remoras seemed to be a bit jumpy and moved around a bit while we photo’d them.

I also saw some sort of a snake eel that I’ve yet to identify, a Napoleon Snake Eel (two of them), lots and lots of clownfish including the aforementioned not-previously-seen Saddleback clown, we found a Wunderpus as well as a Coconut Octopus, a Pink Mantis Shrimp and a bright orange one, a number of schools of Stinging (aka Striped) Catfish, a juvy Peacock Razorfish (which I proudly found on my own), numerous nudibranchs, and two large Frogfish (one black, one yellow). The yellow one managed to give a huge yawn while I was set up in front of him. (Pix on the SmugMug page.) So I liked the Dumaguete proper diving a lot. And post-dive, we were all prattling about what we saw instead of just going, “Yeah, that was nice.”

We did a day to Apo Island, which can best be described as perhaps the best-managed coral sanctuary I’ve ever seen. It’s an MPA (Marine Protected Area) and basically, every inch is covered by some species of hard coral. We dove three different sites and each one was extremely healthy with nary a piece of broken coral in sight. And this is despite the fact that there were numerous boats there disgorging divers. I freely admit to being a fish guy as opposed to a coral guy, but it was still all pretty impressive to see.

It’s also important to understand the significance of “every inch is covered by some species of hard coral.” That’s a great sign of a healthy reef where, if you could speed things up significantly, you’d see that over time, each species of coral is literally battling the other species for space. So the fact that there’s nary a bald spot to be found is actually a very good thing and usually an indication of the vibrancy of the area. There were lots of version of Acropora corals, mainly table and staghorn, but certainly more different coral species than I can likely ID.

Critter-wise, Apo Island was OK but not outstanding. Certainly not a number of large individuals but a good smattering of smaller fish like Anthias and Damselfish, as well as numerous Clownfish, mostly Tomatoes. Some turtles as well. There were a few nudibranchs, a gorgeous flatworm, and some of the cutest little tunicates. So Apo is definitely worth the visit if you’re in the Dumaguete area.


Our third and final day involved a trip across the channel to Cebu Island and to the municipality of Oslob, where we were going to be able to snorkel with Whale Sharks. Bear in mind that I’ve been to Isla Mujeres a number of times and that’s the largest known congregation of whale sharks in the world. Plus the water at Isla is usually pretty clear. So I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to whale sharks.

To get there, we left Atlantis Dumaguete in vans at 6AM (to avoid traffic, they said) and headed for a ferry terminal, where we & the vans loaded up for the 7:30 ferry across. The trip takes about 30 minutes. Then we off-loaded the vans and drove another 15 minutes or so to the Brumini Resort which is adjacent to the whale shark area. We had two private Bangka boats for our group so split up and then headed over to the marked whale shark area, and anchored just outside of it. We got in the water around 9:15AM.

Bear in mind that this whole operation is run as a money-maker by the Municipality of Oslob and they rake in decent money from it. The whale sharks started showing up around 2012 and the town capitalized on their presence. There’s a roped-off area, about the size of a football field, that are the feeding grounds and they have rangers in small kayaks who feed the animals. Not counting groups like us in private boats, they get anywhere from a few hundred to well over a thousand people a day, who either pay to just be in a boat watching (500 Philippines peso, or about USD$10), or snorkel ($20), or even scuba dive with a guide ($30).

On the day we were there, which was part of the Chinese New Year, it seemed like there were a dozen or more boats out on the water, each with 5-10 people in them plus 500 people waiting their turn on shore. All the watchers and snorkelers were wearing life-preservers, so there was a lot of orange to go around.

We entered the water from our Bangka and swam over. The deal Atlantis has is that one of the feeders (members of the local fishing organization TOSWFA – Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden Fishermen’s Association) comes over and leads a whale shark to our group. You’re asked to stay clear of the whale shark and of the warden’s boat which was done with a modicum of success and a smattering of failure and collision. With 30+ people trying to see one whale shark, you won’t be singing “Me & My Whale Shark” to yourself.

But you will definitely get a good view and you’ll get some very close-up views as well. Eventually, you figure out how to maneuver around the people and, for those of us who photo, you can get shots with just the whale shark, or even the whale shark and people behind it, rather than people between your lens and the animal. And – especially if you’ve never seen a whale shark before – even though it’s a bit contrived and crowded, it’s still an interesting experience.

As I mentioned, we were in the water for about an hour and followed that up with lunch on the grounds of the resort, a trip to the souvenir area, and then back to the ferry dock where we just missed the 12:30PM ferry and had to wait an hour for the next one. So we didn’t get back to our resort until around 3PM which made for a pretty full day. But it was also a great way to end since we were flying back to Manila and then home the next morning.

A FAM trip can be like a sampler plate: You can structure it to see only the best stuff but it also means you won’t experience all the stuff. There were pros and cons to each resort, especially when I think of taking a group. I liked the diving better in Dumaguete and the resort facilities were definitely nicer, but I thought that we had more interaction with staff in Puerto Galera and that things felt more intimate there. And again bear in mind that I’ve talked to other friends who have gone there at different times of the year and had much better water conditions so January simply may not be an optimal time to go and had this trip occurred at a different time of the year, my impressions would also be different.

But in general terms, Atlantis does an excellent job at both resorts and the diving is certainly decent enough to be worth the trip. And at some point, the choices boil down to what you’d like to see and experience and how much additional schlepping after the flight to Manila you’re willing to do. No matter what you choose, I think you’ll have a good time if you choose Atlantis.

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