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Postcards from the Philippines

Postcards from the Philippines - copyright Susan Young, Island Dreams

Copyright Island Dreams

"I love writing, always have. Often I do not know what precisely I will write, the words just flow out of my fingertips and appear on the page or screen. I jot perhaps one or two word remembrances I want to include but the structure of the journal is not yet formed. So it is with these 'postcards'." Susan Young

Susan Young is a well-traveled and highly experienced Dive Travel Specialist with Island Dreams. She is also a long-time scuba instructor and holds her 100-ton Ship Captain's License. To add to her scuba travel knowledge, Susan recently participated in a familiarization trip (fam) to the Philippines. She lodged and dived at Atlantis Resort Dumaguete and then sailed aboard the Atlantis Azores liveaboard. Island Dreams then extended her Philippines adventures so that she could also experience El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera, and visit Crystal Blue Resort in Anilao. The following Postcards from the Philippines are drawn from the exuberant messages Susan sent back to us along the way.

Editor's note: Susan's visit occurred just prior to Typhoon Haiyan. We are happy to report that this powerful storm had absolutely no effect on the resorts or dive sites depicted in Susan's travels.

Table of Contents
  • #1 - Journey to Atlantis
  • #2 - Atlantis Resort Dumaguete
  • #3 - Apo Island Adventure
  • #4 - Swimming with Whale Sharks
  • #5 - M/V Atlantis Azores
  • #6 - El Galleon Resort

  • #1 - Journey to Atlantis
    Greetings! After two eight-hour flights on a new Boing 777 ** squeal! ** followed by a 3-1/2 hour flight on a dumpy ole 737, I arrived Manila last night about 9 PM. Stayed in a very comfy and spacious room at a hotel close to the airport and met the other fam trippers in the lobby this morning at 4:45 AM; heading back to the airport for a one-hour flight on Cebu Pacific Airlines to Dumaguete (Airbus 320, if you were wondering).

    Delightful/fascinating ride in the van to Atlantis Dumaguete Resort where we were treated to neck and shoulder massages while relaxing with a great glass of a lime and fruit juice concoction. We will meet for lunch, and then heading out for our first dive. We're probably doing two dives today; going to Apo Island tomorrow, diving on Sunday and whale shark snorkeling on Monday. Tuesday we board the Atlantis Azores liveaboard for a four-night cruise.

    It's Friday the 13th now.... will send another 'postcard' when I can! Susan

    Atlantis Resort Jeepney - copyright Atlantis Resort

    #2 - Atlantis Resort Dumaguete
    After a dee-lish lunch of Thai curried fish and rice, our divemaster Marco gave us a very thorough briefing about dive etiquette, do's and don'ts, etc. There are 13 participants on the fam ~ we're divided between two boats because they don't really like to put more than six divers on a boat (listen up, you big cattle-boat operations). Tomorrow will be an exception ~ we'll all be on one boat, as we're making an all day trip to Apo Island, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

    Marco and Brenda -- both Filipino -- are our divemasters and we have a third Filipino fellow as the boat operator. We're all diving nitrox, analyzed tanks at the shop, put our BCs and regs on the tanks and left them. Get on the boat and our tanks were magically transported in the meantime! Our first dive site was all of a two-minute boat ride away ~ we don't even take any dry bags, etc., on the boat because the boat rides are so short, the boats return to the resort between dives.

    We zipped out to San Miguel Reef, and left Jun, our boat operator, a lonely fellow, in our excitement and hurriedness to get in the water. Mooring line is attached to a large concrete block ~ immediately we were treated to not one but two ornate ghost pipefish. Sa-WEET !!

    Our dive was 56 minutes total time ~ I think with travel & time changes, we were all ready to return to the resort, take a shower, have dinner and sleep ... with nocturnal visions of blue ribbon eels, a juvenile blue ribbon eel (which is black and gold rather than blue and yellow), anemones with resident clownfish, blue starfish, jawfish, Moorish Idols, an "unidentified" brilliant yellow nudibranch about 1/2-inch long, a day-glow yellow mantis shrimp, black, yellow, red and orange crinoids, and beautiful luminous beige-gold soft corals. Sweet dreams indeed.

    Atlantis Resort Dumaguete - copyright Atlantis Resort

    #2 - Apo Island Adventure
    Saturday our group was treated to a three-tank trip to Apo Island, a boat ride -- depending on the seas -- of about 45 minutes. The boat we're on is a traditional Filipino design called a bangka ~ central V-hull, one engine, and outriggers on both sides of the vessel. Very comfy to ride on and work from; giant stride into the water, easy ladder to return to the deck. The boatmen pick up the mooring line and ready the boat for diving. Marco gave us a briefing on the topography of Chapel Point, our first dive site, with teasers of what we might see. We drop into a very slight current, descend to about 70 feet and swim lazily along, with the wall on our left side, deeper water and sand flats to the right. Dang, I'm squealing already and we're only two minutes into the dive ~ light bulb tunicates EVERYwhere: singles, pairs and clusters. Bubble coral, anemones, blue starfish, cushion starfish. A small yellow jewelry-pouch size tunicate with brilliant lemon-pie-filling colored interior. About 30 minutes into the dive, our pied piper leads his followers to the top of the wall ~ YOWZERS! The hard corals are beyond words ~ staghorn, mounds of star coral, and other hard corals the names of which I do not know. All pristine, huge, whole, healthy, colorful. Do you remember seeing light blue tips on staghorn coral or in the cup of starlet coral? I asked Marco about the coloring -- he has a degree in marine biology -- he explained that is the newest growth on the coral. There was hardly a barren spot on which to cautiously place your finger or pointer stick if you wanted to really stop and examine the coral more closely, it's that healthy and abundant. A 'hidden' sea cucumber ... Marco signaled us over, using his pointer stick to trace the outline of a rectangle in the sand. Gently 'sweeping' away the sand left a sea cucumber exposed and quite shy ~ it started slowly moving from side to side as if shy and indicating to please be covered again. Marco obliged, just as gently covering it as when he exposed it. After 65 minutes in the water, we returned to the boat; when everyone was aboard, we moved to the leeward side of the island so we could dive...

    Cogon Point. Oh. my. gosh!!! Swift moving current ~ we hang onto a line secured to an outrigger support, wait for Marco, then let go of the line and start our ride. And ride we did! I would not venture to guess the swiftness of the current but the crinoids were either horizontal or all balled up into themselves. Our group fooled around, mimicking Superman's flying posture or sometimes turned horizontal to the current if we wanted to slightly slow down to look at something ~ there was no going back on this dive. It was exhilarating, gorgeous and over all too soon. Banded sea krait! Swollen Phyllidia nudibranch x 2, orange tipped Flabellina nudis x 2, huge school of horse-eye jacks that let me swim almost into the center of their midst. Lone remora, black with white longitudinal stripes, swimming effortlessly into the current ~ I thought of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, going into the wind with ease ~ the remora made it look easy. Of course, remoras are quite streamlined and I've got this tank and appendages to create resistance ... hey, that's my take on it and I'm sticking to it. I don't know the distance we flew along, but it was perhaps a quarter of a mile. We rounded a bommie, the current dropped off immediately and our nautical chariot was waiting for us, having moved from the mooring where we entered the water. Boarding the boat, the intoxicating smells of food wafted into our noses ... the crew had prepared lunch while we were diving and commenced to set out a groaning board of delights ~ potato salad, green salad, pasta salad, rice, grilled fish and chicken -- cooked minutes earlier on the charcoal grill at the stern of the boat. It was delicious and there was little chatter as everyone ate. After our meal was finished, Audrey whips out two dishes of flan, which she'd hidden away in a cooler ~ it was creamy and caramel-ly and the portion size was juuust right to end a wonderful lunch.

    And the band! I'd seen a cymbal and tambourine in the helm area earlier and thought it a bit odd. Three of the crew set about to thoroughly entertain us with music ~ a drum made of an overturned container, the said cymbal topped with the tambourine, the drummer's right foot stomping on the deck serving as the bass drum; a second fellow playing a guitar and a third fellow playing an instrument that almost looked like a child's toy ~ cross between an accordion and flute. I still have REM's "Losing my Religion" in my head ~ they were playful, happy and loved making us smile and sing. I'm in one of those times in my life when my eyes are filling with tears frequently, especially underwater. Gratitude overwhelms me frequently and my heart and soul skip and dance.

    The boat moved back to the windward side for our third dive at Katipanan ~ dive profile to be 60 fsw maximum, about an hour bottom time. We were gifted with a turtle just moments into the dive, who graciously swam slowly for the photographers in the group ~ saw another larger turtle toward the end of the dive. Anemones anemones! Huge ones, small ones, bubble anems, the traditional longer tentacle anems with resident clowns ... Brooke, tell the kids that Nemo sends his love! Tomato clowns, orange clowns, pink clowns -- all defiantly defending their homes. There was an enormous red/day-glow orange anemone ~ it was magnificent! You could hardly see the tomato clowns hiding inside the tentacles until they charged you. Marco had cautioned us to be watchful of triggerfish and give them a wide berth ~ divers have been bitten, with blood drawn, by triggers defending their territory.

    So we think we're having another fabulous dive until ... we ascend to about 30 feet to begin the 2nd half of the dive, swimming back to the boat. The soft corals ...!! More knock-your-socks-off beauty ~ leather corals all convoluted, looking like loosely folded golden suede; dining-room table size unidentified soft corals, gently swaying to and fro with the water movement ~ golds, beiges, soft greens, pinks. Plus ... bonus! Another sea krait, many long-snout butterfly fish, puffers of every pattern & colour, emperor angelfish. It occurred to me that I'm probably missing seeing many indigenous Pacific fish because I'm looking for nudibranchs so exclusively.

    Boarding the boat, we're greeted with sliced mango and hot tea ~ a couple of divers passed on the tea and went for the cold San Miguel beers the crew had thoughtfully stashed at the bottom of the cooler. They know this gang after only two days. Back at the resort, we had time for showers and chat before dinner. The resort faces southwest, so we're treated to brilliant pink streaked evening skies as the sun disappears. Perfect way to draw the silk curtains on a great day of diving.

    Apo Island Clownfish - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

    Apo Island Frofish - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

    Apo Island Nudibranch - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

    Apo Island Trumpetfish - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

    #4 - Whale Shark!
    Yesterday, Monday, we drove to the ferry dock in Dumaguete, enjoyed a 45-minute ferry ride to the island of Cebu, then our jeepney delivered us to a beautiful stretch of beach for snorkeling.

    "Snorkeling?!?" you say ...??

    Four whale sharks, ranging in length from about 15-feet to 25 feet. Sharon, Larry and I were close together, just floating around, look down in the water at the same time, and the largest of the gentle giants was slowly swimming absolutely right. under. us.

    Sharon and I kicked to stay with the animal, totally enchanted by its beauty, strength and total ease in the water.


    Atlantis Resort Dumaguete - copyright Atlantis Resort

    #5 - Atlantis Azores Liveaboard
    So when we last heard from Susan, she had snorkeled with the whale sharks. Lots to catch you up on since then!

    The following day, everyone did 2 morning dives from the resort, packed their bags and boarded the Atlantis Azores. I'll tell you the details in a moment but suffice to say ... it was AWWE-some !!

    Our dive schedule was perfect: 7 AM, 930 AM, 12 PM, 330 PM, and 6 PM. The diving is done from 2 RIBS (rigid inflatable boats) named Poseidon (starboard side divers) and Neptune (port side divers). The crew loaded the geared up tanks into the appropriate RIB, the wetsuit clad divers boarded with mask, and fins in hand and cameras were handled with TLC, stowed at the back of the RIB behind the driver. Once at the site - usually only 1-3 minutes away - we donned the BCs, masks & fins and backwards rolled into the sea. The dives off the Azores were reef and wall dives ~ the walls are spectacular, often beginning in as shallow as 30 feet and dropping away to that deep marine blue. Huge trees of black coral, gorgonians, sponges, and fish fish fish ... oh, and nudibranchs. Frogfish, Moorish idols, horse-eye jacks in schools, schools of anthias, turtles. There is an interesting fish called an eel catfish ~ about 2-3 inches long, black and white horizontal stripes with typical catfish barbels on the mouth. Their behavior is similar to a school of goatfish in the Caribbean ~ swimming as a mass, then someone calls out "food!" and they descend to the bottom, poking , exploring and kicking up the sand in search of crustaceans, mollusks and worms. They are a delight to watch.

    Our dives are at least 55-60 minutes each, with a 5 minute safety-stop at 15 feet. When back on the Azores, we're treated to warm cookies, fruit, muffins and the dining salon Keurig machine stayed busy warming divers up with coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Breakfast was fruit, pancakes, waffles, eggs to order, bacon, bread for toasting, fresh juices plus coffee, tea, iced tea and hot chocolate. We had soup to begin each lunch and dinner and the soups that came out of that galley ~ whoa! They were fabulous! Pumpkin soup, French onion soup, cream of tomato soup, a bowl of hot apple soup with a touch of cinnamon ~ each made from scratch and each left you wanting more. Lunch and dinner offered choices of 4 entrees and a dessert ~ my favorite lunch was when Filipino dishes were on the table. Pancit, egg rolls, spring rolls, there was roast pork, fried rice and veggies. Mmmm! Beer and red and white wine are available for après-dive and dinner enjoyment.

    Much thought and work has gone into the transforming a former Aggressor Fleet vessel into the Atlantis Azores. The boat welcomes 16 passengers in eight cabins, and has a crew of ten. Woodwork is gorgeous ~ stain and varnish, beautiful, small wood plugs over nails or screws, the entire boat kept in terrific shape. In the salon, there is a large flat-screen TV with many movies available plus iPod for music. There's a lending library and fabulous reference books for fish, critters and corals. My cabin had a queen bed on the bottom with a twin over top, sink with great storage space in the vanity below [with a hair dryer in the vanity], three drawers for clothes, and a relatively spacious area containing the shower and toilet. The showers are quite roomy for a liveaboard; soap, shampoo and conditioner are provided for guests, as are thick, fluffy towels. On the dive deck, there is a large Igloo cooler on the port and starboard side, filled with towels kept warm by heating pads in the container ~ what a treat!

    We returned to the resort on Saturday morning. Some of our fam trippers left on the early Cebu Pacific flight back to Manila, others are leaving on the late afternoon flight and some lucky divers are staying on a few more days. My travel plans changed three times, due to the cyclone and the seas ~ ultimately, I stayed in Manila Saturday night, was picked up at 7 AM Sunday morning and made a 3-1/2 hour trip by van and bangka to El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera ~ where I am writing from at the moment. More after I've slept!

    M/V Atlantis Azores - copyright Atlantis Resort

    M/V Atlantis Azores - copyright Atlantis Resort

    M/V Atlantis Azores - copyright Atlantis Resort

    #6 - El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera

    On arrival at Puerto Galera, I was warmly greeted by the manager Rhuby, as I disembarked from the bangka and we walked a few steps to the open air dining area and reception desk of El Galleon Resort. Gratefully accepting a large bottle of water, she introduced me to several staff members as we sat at a table and chatted. She then invited me to freshen up in my room, change into a swimsuit and shorts, and rejoin her for lunch before heading out on the 1 PM dive. Don't have to tell me twice!

    I was treated to the best of the rooms at El Galleon ~ the penthouse has a living room with cable TV, a small refrigerator, a separate bedroom with queen size bed and terrific storage space, bathroom with a semi-open tiled shower ... . and the most delightful balcony a girl could wish for, with expansive views of the sea, four large comfy chairs with a table in between, plus and outdoor kitchen and dining table for six. Walking up the hillside to the room I enjoyed blooming hibiscus, a miniature gardenia, multi-color crotons, lizards, and birds welcoming me with their songs ~ loved it all.

    Changing into a swimsuit, I gathered my dive equipment and headed back to the restaurant for a quick lunch. They have pancit on the menu!! While growing up, my father was an Air Force pilot, and we lived on Guam for 2 years ~ there is a large Filipino community on Guam and pancit became one of my favorite dishes. I'd not thought about it in years, and was delighted to see it listed as a lunch choice ~ it was every bit as good as I remember it. Pancit is the Filipino version of a noodle stir-fry: rice stick noodles are cooked in water, drained and combined with seafood, chicken, traditionally pork is added, shredded cabbage, matchstick carrots, onions, garlic, and a flavoring sauce of soy sauce, broth, perhaps a shot of sambal, and maybe a dash of oyster sauce.

    Next I met Allan Nash, owner of El Galleon and Asia Divers ~ another very warm welcome and nice chat. Allan introduced me to Allison, the lead staff instructor who would be guiding the 1 PM dive. Allison, or Allie, got weights for me, showed me to my storage bin for mask, fins & odds and ends, and shared the 'routine' for divers ~ your BC & regulator are tagged with your bin number, the staff sets up your equipment on an air or nitrox tank and delivers it to the boat for you. If diving nitrox, the diver analyzes the cylinder before the tank goes to your boat and logs the information on the daily sheet. When the boats return, guests need not worry about the tanks, BCs and regs ~ they're well taken care of by the Asia Divers staff, rinsed, hung on an outdoor rack to dry and bit, and hung above your storage bin for the night, with the equipment area securely locked.

    We gather about 15 minutes before the dive departure time to have a briefing on the dock ~ today Allie shares that due to the lingering effects of cyclone Usagi, the visibility is likely to be quite reduced and we may encounter stronger than normal current. No one in the group of eight bails, and with the understanding of conditions, we head off for a 10 minute ride to the dive site. Allie was spot-on with her prediction of the visibility ~ it was about 15 feet at best; there was current sporadically but not continually. The nudibranchs! Juvenile spadefish! And even in the low visibility, rendering a dusk-like 6 PM feeling to our 1 o'clock dive, the crinoids were beacons of color and brightness with their orange, yellow, neon green and white arms. My maximum depth was 68 feet, with a total time of 46 minutes with our safety stop ~ it was a great dive.

    Returning to the pier, everyone rinsed their faces and hair, fresh nitrox tanks were analyzed, tanks were loaded onto the boat and we zipped off for another macro delight. Allie pointed out a pair of mushroom coral pipefish, dark green nudibranchs with neon green dashes [Kubaryana's Nembrotha according to the Pacific Reef Creatures book], the ever-present blue starfish of which I never tire, a moving cloud of striped catfish, and more nudibranchs.

    Next morning, after a yummy breakfast of a cheese and veggie omelet, I met with my dive buddies on the pier for the first dive of the day. A delightful unaccompanied physician named Steve and I met and hit it off right away ~ we buddied on the dives today and tomorrow. Mazi was our divemaster today, showing us nudibranchs, frogfish, seahorses, and all manner of Pacific tropical fish. We did two morning dives, had lunch and returning to the pier ~ turns out we were the only ones for the 1 PM dive. Mazi asked us what we wanted to see ~ we in turn, asked what he would recommend. He mentioned giant clams and we stopped him there ~ let's go!

    The boat took us to the harbour area of Puerto Galera proper, about 15 minutes away. The bottom topography is a sandy bottom, with a coral head here, rubble there ... and oh, so much life! Giant clams, a frogfish trundling across the sand, a flamboyant cuttlefish, purple seahorse, jawfish, brilliant multi-colored mantis shrimp and nudibranchs. With just the two of us, both having good air consumption, we had a 70 minute fun dive just poking and puttering around.

    Tuesday, my last full day at El Galleon, has a trip to Verde Island on the schedule! Verde Island is about a 30 minute boat ride from the pier at Asia Divers, and is well known for sheer underwater walls, macro life, larger marine life and rugged underwater topography. Swift currents are common when diving Verde Island, bringing a continual rich flow of nutrients to feed the sea life. Troy, our guide for the day, gave us specific instructions to stay behind him and to his side, as the current will move us along swiftly. The sea is so bountiful around Verde! Outcroppings covered with crinoids of all color combinations, schools of horse eye jack swimming effortlessly in the current, turtles motoring by, eels, nudibranchs if you were lucky enough to spot them as you zoomed by, lobster, a blue spot ribbon tail ray ~ it was spectacular.

    Back at the resort, I sadly asked for my gear so I may take it to my room for packing and departing tomorrow. After showering, I returned to the restaurant where Steve, my dive buddy, and I shared dinner, red wine and great conversation. He was at El Galleon for a day or two more, then was heading to the Atlantis Dumaguete Resort and a week on the Atlantis Azores ~ we shared diving stories, stories about our homes, families and other interests. It's so fun to connect on more than a glancing level with divers you meet.

    Wednesday morning, a strong fellow came to my room to fetch my dive bag and I descended the stone stairs for the final time on this visit. Expressing gratitude to Allie, Anie - the reservations manager - and other staff, with a 'see you next time' the bangka departed for the trip to drop me off at Crystal Blue Resort in Anilao, for a quick walkabout and tour. What a wonderful trip to the Philippines!

    El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera, Philippines - copyright Ken Knezick

    El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera, Philippines - copyright Ken Knezick

    El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera, Philippines - copyright Ken Knezick

    El Galleon Resort, Puerto Galera, Philippines - copyright Ken Knezick

    Susan Young- Island Dreams Travel

    Report and photos copyrighted

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    Dive the Philippines - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams