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A potential 40 dives in one of the tropical fish-worlds favourite stamping grounds, all on offer for under a grand As it turned out, there were enough topside diversions to prevent Mark Ellyatt testing his dive computer too far, when he paid a visit to Puerto Galera

THE PHILIPPINES ARCHIPELAGO is the United Nations of the ocean, with almost two-thirds of all the worlds fish species represented in its waters. If you are looking for a diving holiday that features warm water, exotic fish life, value for money and limited chances of running into trouble, the Philippines can, believe it or not, offer all four attractions. The kidnappings that have grabbed the headlines in recent years are a good 1000 miles from the tranquil shores of Puerto Galera, 120 miles south of the capital Manila.
     The Garden of Eden Resort in Puerto Galera seems as far from the worlds political troubles as you could reasonably wish to be. You might say its well off the beaten track, but if you want wilderness-quality diving only five minutes out from shore, and to stay in a cool room that doesnt roll about like a liveaboard cabin, it should be high on any short list. Even better, the locals arent all clamouring to have a go at you the moment you arrive.
     My package trip offered unlimited diving on day boats from the 26-bungalow resort. Computer allowing, I reckoned I could manage almost 40 dives over the 10 days for which tour operator Wet Expeditions charges£999, flights and accommodation included!
     The transfers from Manila airport were by car and boat, a 35-minute ride in a fast cruiser down to Sabang Beach. This journey can be made rufty-tufty style on public transport. I did it once, and still have the nightmares! This time, after a beer or two and a good nights sleep in cool-air luxury, it was time to see what the reef zone had to offer.
    
My first dive was at Wreck Point which, to my surprise, offered no wrecks whatsoever, although there was some wreckage was on the nearby beach. Dropping onto the reef in 24m I found that the visibility was down to about 10m, a recent tropical storm having left its mark.
     The fish life would have been hard to avoid, however. I took my video camera down, and within moments had seen frogfish looking like Bagpuss dolls, some miniscule dwarf seahorses and striped catfish grazing in their thousands.
     My guide, whose name was Lito, certainly had an eye for the unusual. As we drifted along, he pointed out the weird and the alien from four times the distance I would have needed to spot them.
     Later, a two-minute boat-hop to the house reef revealed an artists palette of colour, featuring huge orange gorgonians and blue barrel sponges. Two rare pink anglerfish were hiding among the plentiful soft corals. We spent a happy 90 minutes swimming about in the 28 South China seas.
     A trip to Verde Island proved a bit more challenging. The weather had changed, the sea was lumpy and eight of us rode the banca (a wooden longboat with outriggers) as if it was a funfair ride. Some looked more worried than others.
     I sat there with my wetsuit and fins on, ready for anything. I was happy enough exchanging sarcastic remarks with the four English divers on board, but after an hour or so of this, the boat was awash, and the skipper and crew getting rather animated.
     We turned back. Even in the tropics a dive trip can be blown out, though its the exception rather than the rule.

The following day, some better weather had been organised, and the Verde trip was on again. There were no dramas today, and we reached the pinnacle that rose from 90m to a metre or so above the surface. Over the side we went, to find visibility good and the fish population out and about.
     The first bit of action occurred when a German guy decided that he fancied his chances with a banded sea snake.
     There he was, grabbing it, poking it, trying to get a response. A few divers gathered round to witness his demise, at which point Hans let go of the snake.
     It eyed him sternly, swam towards one of the startled audience, returned to buzz around its tormentors face for effect, then scurried off.
     I watched the group swim off, chasing the guide, and hung back with my buddy to video some enormous nudibranchs, schools of jacks and a pair of large starry pufferfish. Looking up at the surface, where the swells were breaking over the pinnacle, the sea was alive with colour. Shoals of anthias, orange, green, blue, danced as the waves broke.

The Verde trip involves two dives around the pinnacle followed by a barbecue lunch, kinda cowboy-style. We parked the banca on the beach, and within minutes the inhabitants of this uninhabited island showed up, eager to get us to ride their donkeys! It was a comical scene - immediately the rain started falling and the wind stiffened and we all agreed about what this scene reminded us of - Blackpool!
     There was a difference, however. Everywhere we looked, broken fragments of Ming Dynasty pottery were strewn along the beach. I picked up a handful. They could come in handy for bar stories, with a bit of elaboration!
     Puerto Galera translates to port of galleons because over the ages ships have taken refuge here when the winds blew. Those that failed to do so litter the seabed, and some fantastic finds have come to the surface, with far more waiting, though the average 2500m depth is something of a stumbling block.
     Resident British diver John Bennett chose the beach here for his 1000ft record dive, though he did say he didnt see any treasure ships down there. I think he was lying, of course !

Of the dozens of dive operators on Sabang Beach most cater for fish-spotters but some offer more technical excursions. If you dont fancy a deep dive but like challenging conditions, the currents here are as strong and unpredictable as you could want.
     A spectacular dive site just 10 minutes from the beach is the Canyons, a series of deep channels carved over time by the currents, and ranging from 20-35 m. A strong tide was present when I dived there, and I hoped for some good video moments.
     Following my guide Randy (his name, I wasnt!), we dropped into huge ravines in slack water, where schools of batfish floated about aimlessly, triggerfish darted about and small moray eels looked out of their terrace windows.
     The group headed up over this ravine into the brunt of about 3 knots of current. Groups of feeding fish steered into the flow and trevallies swam straight into it oblivious to its force, but some of our dive group could have benefited from a step class, their air consumption increasing as their fin kicks quadrupled.
     My Force fins would be of some help here, I thought. I powered past the bloaters, and ducked into the next canyon to find slack water again. I then watched my bubbles ascend to the top of the ridge, turn through 90, and go spiralling back down into the darkness below! This dive was called an advanced dive on the dive menu. I would agree.

But for the most part the diving in Puerto Galera is open to everyone, the reefs quite shallow and their quality outstanding. The photographer or video fan could easily blow multiple films on every dive. Marine guidebooks feature the species found only in the Philippines, and you can easily find most of these off Sabang Beach.

Next day we made a trip to one of the half-dozen or so deliberately sunk wrecks in the area, the Dungan. English Steve was our guide, not noted for his wreck-finding ability apparently, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. In his briefing he informed us that every missed wreck is a macro opportunity. Hmmm!
     We found what we wanted, however. I swam fast to get some good footage of the hulls of a catamaran in 27m. Visibility was 20m and the wreck was covered in fish life and soft corals. Steve showed us his secret spot, where a clown anglerfish, in bright yellow and red, was holed up in a corner of the wreck, inverted.
     It was a tight shot, slightly shadowed. I thought about illuminating the whole wreck with HID light, then decided against it. The anglerfish had no sun block on, and looked to be tiring of the paparazzi parade.
     We moved on later that day to the Sinandigan Wall, about ten minutes away. This wall is renowned for its varieties of nudibranchs, which look like the carnival cousins of the slugs back home. We stop descending at about 24m to find literally dozens of nudibranchs more or less on top of each other.
     The colours reminded me of the pick n mix selection in a sweetshop, especially the bright pinks mixed with exotic blues. The nudibranchs were dazzled by the massed flashguns but seemed used to it, some showing their best sides to the camera and seeming to swell in size to look more fearsome.
     After the dive, a diver who was actually counting said that he had seen at least 100 different species of nudibranch. I decided to check my video later, if I had a dull moment, to see whether he was exaggerating.

Later, on the boat, we spotted some dolphins not far off. Water drops clouded my camera lens, and by the time I had wiped it the jumps and stunts had stopped. Next time I would be ready.
     The Garden of Eden Resort is beachfront and a 30 second walk from the dozens of restaurants that crowd the busy fishing village of Puerto Galera. These cater to European tastes and offer everything from Thai to Italian cuisine.
     The pricing has yet to catch up with Western budgets, however, and a three-course meal could cost as little as three quid, and a round of drinks perhaps half that. The beach has a dozen or so bars, so you wont feel stranded in paradise, as at some other exotic destinations.

For the last dive of the trip, we went with Lito to try to spot some ornate ghost pipefish, very elusive guys.
     Lito knew a spot about 25 minutes away from the resort, called Oddies Ding Ding for some reason. This reef is not dived too often and starts at around 24m, going down to 45m.
     Even if we didnt spot anything interesting, I thought it would be fun to have a logbook entry saying Oddies Ding Ding - you cant make that stuff up.
     We arrived on site to find a group of tekkie types descending, guys in rebreathers and stage bottles, or big twinsets with two deco bottles. My single 12 litre looked a bit wimpy in comparison.
     Its my stealth rig! I shouted over, good for tracking shy fish, also deep air.
     I said Id see them at a 100m - in their dreams. I dropped down with Lito to find a reef teeming with colour, and huge basket sponges and green sea ferns gently bending in the current.
     In the shadows Lito spotted some coral shrimpfish drifting upside-down in the breeze. They looked strange but didnt mind the camera light.
     A banded something-or-other swam into the camera dome. Is it a snake or an eel I wondered. It darted at my face and wrapped itself round my arm. I was thinking: TourniquetÉ tourniquetÉ LitoÉ Mum!
     I looked death in the face, and it was an eel. No problem. Well, they do look very similar to sea snakes.
     Lito was gesturing - he had seen something. Would it be the fishy pipe-cleaner thing I swam up to a sand patch to see a good-sized ray. I had seen a lot of rays on this trip, and all the turtles I could want. He would have to do better.
     I showed him my slate - RAY was ticked. I grinned, pointed to MANTA next down the list, and he OKd and finned off, mumbling something I couldnt quite catch.
     I didnt do 40 dives, of course - in two weeks of diving I notched up 22. That was partly because Sabang Beach on Puerto Galera has more than pristine reefs to offer. One day was spent in the jungle, we took a Jeepney ride to a waterfall and there is a lighthouse walk, monkeys to see, waterskiing and para-sailing. So theres plenty to keep even non-divers occupied.

Besides fun-diving, many centres here offer tuition to every level, and some of the experts really are.
     Our resort had extensive orchid gardens and a palm-tree backdrop. Im not much of a gardener, but lying in the pool here, sipping a cola, did make for a pleasant surface interval.
     Finally, I packed my bags for the few hours travel back to Manila and the 11 hour flight home. The prospect wasnt too bad - the airline knew how to pamper, and even economy-class passengers like me would find a TV, video selection, Nintendo and telephone in the seatback.
     The flight was half-full, possibly a sign of the times - or could it be that at least some of the people who had come had decided to stay on

dont
dont mess with a banded sea snake!
a
a frogfish shows its best side
anthias
anthias over soft and cup corals
A
A moray eel works upcurrent across a dense bed of soft corals
children
children play on the outriggers of a banca
three
three of the many species of nudibranch to be found
Divernet Divernet
a
a beachfront bar
A
A barrel sponge in one of the canyons
hanging
hanging on the reef

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Mark Ellyatt flew with Malaysia Airlines, but a number of airlines fly from the UK to Manila. No visa is required for UK passport-holders
DIVING & ACCOMODATION: The Garden of Eden resort at Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera has its own Cocktail Divers dive centre attached. It has 26 bungalows with fan-cooling or air-conditioning.
WHEN TO GO: The climate is tropical. The cooler dry season runs from November to February and air temperatures average 23°C, while the warmer monsoon season is from June to October. Winds are strongest during the dry season, with April and May the calmest months. Water temperatures vary from 25-32°C.
MONEY: The Philippines peso, credit cards widely accepted.
COST: The package as experienced by Mark Ellyatt was put together by UK-based tour operator Wet Expeditions (01282 690003, www.wetexpedition.co.uk). It includes flights and transfers, 12 nights double-occupancy accommodation at its Garden of Eden Resort and 10 days unlimited diving, at a cost of£999.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Philippines Department of Tourism, 0207 835 1100, www.dotpcvc.gov.ph




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