Okay, sing along with us now:
Come with me...
And you will see...
The beauty of...
The Philippine Sea!
How does one get to a remote dive resort in the Philippines, you ask? Get on a plane in Orlando, bounce to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Guam, Manila, and end up in Dumaguete on the southern island of Negros. After a twenty minute ride through Dumaguete and a couple of smaller "suburbs", we turned down a very rough dirt driveway that wound through what could only be described as the backyards of a half dozen shacks. Each of us was silently wondering what we had gotten into when the trip leader, apparently reading our minds, said, "...I know. Trust me, it's about to get a whole lot better!" Just then we rattled to a stop in a small parking lot and saw for the first time the Atlantis Dive Resort, our home for the next week.
The Philippines is a chain of 7000 islands loaded with diversity. There are major cities choked with people and pollution and there are tiny little burgs where, at night, about a bazillion stars are visible. The same street might have gorgeous estates and pods of squatters just trying to survive. The local currency is the Peso, which was trading at about 50 per US dollar during our recent visit. The best deal is to exchange money at the booth in the Manila airport; hotels and local vendors tack on a little surcharge.
Steering wheels are on the left side of the vehicle and traffic flows on the right side of the road so getting around should be pretty familiar to most people. However, hiring a driver will save your sanity, possibly your life, and do so without lightening your wallet too terribly much. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the traffic patterns. A two lane road could have one vehicle going in each direction. It could just as easily have three vehicles in each lane, all honking their horns to pass at the same time. The word "congested" comes to mind... but it really doesn't do it justice.
Private or rental mopeds and small motorcycles are everywhere but public transportation takes the form of "jeepneys" and trikes. They're fun and colorful.
Since we're on the subject of airports: The Manila airport really needs to install a couple of escalators. Most travelers have carry-on luggage and the majority of those bags are the kind with pull out handles and wheels. Arriving passengers enter the airport terminal on the second floor but baggage claim is on the first floor. Everyone has to walk down two flights of stairs, dragging or hauling their carry-on luggage. Escalators, people!
THOUGHTS ON THE AIRLINES:
Philippine Airlines has been in business 40+ years. They have the overnight flights from LAX to Manila down to a science. That being said, the planes seemed old and in need of both repair and a thorough cleaning. By and large, the flight was smooth and the ample food was served often enough to be impressive. However, the individual spotlights for each seat either didn't work or were disabled and the sound didn't work for the five movies they showed. The flight attendants were friendly and helpful, every seat had a blanket, a pillow, an eyemask to help with sleeping, a pair of socks to keep your feet warm, and a small travel toothbrush and toothpaste. This was all very similar to the flight on Air Fiji last April (Click here to read about that trip).
What the Fiji flight lacked was the in-flight entertainment. Seriously, folks... Though Air Fiji does offer several movie channels to choose from, you haven't lived until you've seen dozens and dozens of elderly Philippinos jostling and pushing, trying to squeeze into the restrooms all at the same time!!! Totally hysterical. When we were originally boarding this flight in Los Angeles, they announced that they had 36 wheelchair-bound passengers. Thirty-six? The plane only holds 220 passengers. Conservative estimates put the ratio of over-60 to under-60 at about 12 to 1!
Cebu Pacific Airlines must be experienced to be believed. The short flight includes beverage service consisting of warm green tea in a bottle and, believe it or not, a live game show contest where the flight crew uses the PA system to invite passengers to guess the answers to Cebu Pacific trivia questions in exchange for prizes that have the company logo on them. No, really... I'm not kidding.
SIDE NOTE: Philippine Airlines was disappointing in that the audio system was broken on both legs of the trip... and these were two different planes. They featured some terrific movie choices. Unfortunately, we were unable to enjoy any of them.
Things You Should Know:
Electricity is 220 volt but the majority of the wall outlets accept American-style plugs. If you're hooking up a laptop or some other similar electronics, check the adapter's voltage rating. Many, today, are manufactured to be universal (110/220v) so you may be able to just plug it in. If it is only designed to be a 110v power adapter or appliance, it will blow out as soon as you plug it in and turn it on so be careful. There are so many topside events and attractions, including golf courses, that they are too numerous to list. Searching the internet for Philippines and activities should yield a veritable cornucopia of info. There are many Philippino dialects but English is widely spoken so getting around is no problem. Due to the international date line, the Philippines is 12 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time and 15 hours ahead of California.
Most of the diving is done from speedboats or from these comfortable and stable outrigger boats
When To Go:
October and November are usually the driest and offer good water visibility. ...though it rained for a while every day we were there.
Now, THIS is how a resort should be run! Atlantis Resort staff members met our incoming plane and tagged all of the bags with our room numbers. Within the first day, employees knew us by name (everyone is addressed as "Sir John" or "Ma'am Sara") and were cordial and accommodating to the nth degree, the food was plentiful and delicious, and the dive staff bent over backwards to help in every way they could. The rooms were tile-floored, as is typical at dive resorts, with Asian-inspired furnishings, minimal decorations, and ample space. Each room had a programmable safe, satellite TV, air conditioning, a mini refrigerator full of drinks, a shelfful of snacks and, believe it or not... a small pack of condoms. Fortunately, there wasn't a telephone in sight.
The front desk staff greets new arrivals with individual fresh coconuts, picked from the tree outside, complete with straw and paper umbrella. They will also cheerfully arrange any topside excursions or transportation desired, exchange traveler's checks, and provide clean beach towels daily.
The grounds of the Atlantis Resort are beautiful and very well maintained. Dozens of attendants groomed the facility on a seemingly constant basis. An attractive waterfall feeds the freshwater swimming pool.
Advanced communication with the resort confirmed wireless internet is available in the rooms. However, they failed to inform us the access was not free. In fact, it is $12.00 US per day and it doesn't work in every room. We had to walk down to the open-air restaurant to be able to connect while others in our party were able to reliably connect to the internet from the air-conditioned comfort of their rooms.
The restaurant has three chalkboards that are changed daily. The first posts the lunch menu: Your choice of two appetizers or "entrees"; a variety of four main dishes (one beef or pork, one chicken, one fish, one vegetarian). At least one was always a local favorite, which gave us an opportunity to broaden our appreciation of area flavors. Desserts ran the gamut from grilled pineapple with ice cream to chocolate soufflé. A second chalkboard announced the drink of the day while the final board detailed the dinner choices in a manner similar to the lunch menu.
During mid-October, the spa was still under construction. Once completed, it should be a beautiful facility. Any spa treatments were provided in the privacy of your hotel room. Be sure to get the one hour massage, which is a combo of Swedish/Shiatzu/Thai techniques. It's a great value at only $13.00 US. (No, that's not a typo!) If you really want to pamper yourself, go for "Package C": The same type of massage plus a full body scrub plus facial plus manicure and pedicure. (Sara did this; I didn't.) Complete pampering for two and a half hours for $33.00 US. The spa staff is very friendly and can work with any pre-existing injuries you might have.
The Philippines is sometimes referred to as the undiscovered diving capitol of Asia and it's easy to see why. Most of the dives around Negros island are considered "muck" diving. This does not imply the visibility is low, quite the contrary. It just means most of the critters are small and well-concealed. With some patience, though, and the help of Atlantis' expert dive guides, all will be revealed.
The dive schedule is very relaxed. All most all sites are within a fifteen minute ride so the boat returns to the resort after each dive. A usual day starts off with a single tank dive about 8:30-ish AM. There is another single tank trip at about 10:30 or 11:00 AM, another at 1:00 and one about 3:00. Night dives on the house reef can be arranged for the same day. This kind of flexible, ala carte diving is perfect for groups that contain some early birds and some people that prefer to sleep in. Most of the sites are in the 60 feet range and Nitrox (32%) is available.
Their dive shop is only a few yards from the water, making beach entries as easy as catching a beautiful sunrise at breakfast. A freshwater shower is thoughtfully placed at the edge of the beach to rinse off the sand, afterward. The house reef is respectable and houses some interesting creatures, including a colony of Mandarin Fish. Regrettably, the shy little buggers managed to avoid every shot opportunity.
The huge soft corals around neighboring Apo Island are well-worth the 45+ minute trip. At $22 US dollars, this "three tank and lunch" deal is a good bargain. Another spectacular dive is Ducomi Pier. This is a private pier in front of an industrial plant and dive access is only gained by applying for a permit. If granted, it's good for three days. We went twice and... wow! The second dive there was so good that we decided to make it the final dive of the trip just to ensure it would end on a high note.
* Atlantis Dive Resort is a good value and a worthwhile destination. We would definitely return but we recommend a stay of a week to ten days. There are plenty of topside excursions, such as a trip into the mountains to see the waterfalls, that we just didn't have time for.
* Plan some sort of alternative in-flight entertainment for yourself... just in case Philippine Airlines has a broken audio system, again... or still.
* Apo Island and the Ducomi Pier are absolute "must do" dives.
* Don't hesitate to ask for a tour guide or escort on the topside excursions, if it makes you feel more comfortable. We never felt unsafe at any time but we did stand out in the crowd a bit.
* Cutter Advanced insect repellant with Picarin does a fine job of keeping mosquitoes at bay and it dries without leaving your skin feeling greasy. Get the spray, not the wipes.
Most of the photos were taken with a Nikon D70 digital SLR. For the topside photos, a Nikon 28-105mm zoom lens was used. Underwater images were taken with the Nikon inside an Ikelite housing. The macro shots were made possible with a Sigma 105mm f2.8 1:1 lens behind a flat port and often augmented with a Woody's Diopter. Apo Island has plenty of small critters but it's really a wide angle opportunity. The lens choice of the day was the Sigma 18-50mm zoom f2.8 behind a dome port. Lighting was supplied by twin Ikelite DS125 strobes.
Hope you enjoy the images, there are a bunch...
See ya 'round and Mabuhay! (pronounced mah-boo-high)
Face of a very large Peacock Flounder
Nembrotha Kubaryana nudibranch
Eastern Triangular Butterflyfish
White flowerlike anemone
Chromodoris Annae nudibranch
Pink Anemonefish - Juvenile
Some kind of small shrimp. We haven't been able to positively identify it.
Brushtail Tang - Juvenile
Loki Whip Goby - Juvenile
False Clown Anemonefish
Bulb Coral polyps, open for feeding.
Falso Clown Anemonefish
White-Eyed Moray Eel
Two False Clown Anemonefish in a partially closed gray anemone
Warty Frogfish - Face
Snowflake Moray Eel
Philippine village marketplace
Taking livestock to the marketplace
The livestock sale is the centerpiece of the market
Philippino fishing boats
Living not so well
Reef scene from Apo Island. Notice the Tomato Anemonefish?
Chromodoris Quadracolor nudibranch
Phyllidia Elegans nudibranch
Silhouette of diver and catamaran
Diver hovers over reef
Diver and soft coral mound
Three blue Longarm Starfish and three Purple Anthias
Banded Snake Eel
Green coral colony and school of orange fish
Very large jellyfish
Very large jellyfish and diver
Chromodoris Coi nudibranch
Juvenile Yellowtail Coris
Risbecia Tryoni nudibranch
Risbecia Tryoni nudibranch face
Backlit pink soft coral
Orodoris Miamirana nudibranch
Center of the tube-dwelling anemone
Nembrotha Lineolata nudibranch
Almost surreal lines on the back of a black longspine sea urchin.
Fingered Dragonet. (About six inches long)
Oshima's Porcelien Crab
Oshima's Porcelien Crab - Close up
Ornate Ghost Pipefish
Ornate Ghost Pipefish camoflauged against a crinoid
Durban Hinge-beak Shrimp
We surfaced from one dive and found ourselves right next to a water buffalo. That's a "first"!
Orange-banded Pipefish, female, with very visible eggs
Longhorn Cowfish face
Yellow Seahorse torso and face
Brown Seahorse torso and face
Phylidiella Pustulosa nudibranch
Mantis Shrimp peeking out of its burrow
Chromodoris Hypselodoris nudibranch - undescribed variation
Phyllidia Varicosa nudibranch
Tambja Morosa nudibranch
Close up of its face. Kinda looks like something out of Star Trek, huh?
Thuridilla Bayeri nudibranch
Sabertooth Blenny. These guys bite, too.
Many-Spotted Sweetlips - late juvenile phase
Demon Stinger - buried in the sand
A different Demon Stinger walking around in the open
Nembrotha Lineolata nudibranch
Nembrotha Lineolata nudibranch - close up on the face
The pattern in the center of the lone anemone sitting out in the sand drew my attention...
...and I found this guy hiding underneath
Every trip must come to an end. Atlantis at night.