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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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.