A Filipino Degustation with Atlantis Dive Resorts
The Philippines has been high on my list of places to visit for a long time, but until now it had somehow eluded me. I have spent plenty of time diving its southern neighbour, Indonesia, but for some reason I had always had difficulty getting my head around the geography of the Philippines. When the opportunity arose to visit the Atlantis Resorts it was the perfect solution to my problem!
Atlantis Resorts have been in operation since 1998 and are arguably the biggest name in Filipino diving. They have two resorts and a live-aboard, which allow either the uninitiated diver, such as myself, the chance to sample a little of what the Philippines has to offer. Otherwise the more advanced aficionado can spend time really getting to grips with some of the best diving in the Philippines at their Dumaguete or Puerto Galera resorts. The live-aboard, Azores, has four different itineraries should you want to try the next level of diving here too.
I visited the Philippines with a group of primarily American dive industry folks, from dive travel specialists to dive shop owners. Firstly, we had the chance to spend five days at the Dumaguete resort and then moved for four days to the Azores’ Bohol itinerary. Ultimately, the rest of the group left and I headed north to Puerto Galera for another five days of amazing diving.
After an hour flight direct from Manila, where exceptionally able Atlantis staff facilitated the transfer process from international to domestic airlines, we found ourselves at the tiny regional airport of Dumaguete. This was our gateway to Atlantis’ most southerly land-based operations on the island of Negros Oriental. We were met by the friendly staff and ushered onto a couple of waiting jeepneys, a brilliantly colourful and ornamented bus. Unlike the usual versions, the resorts own buses have windows to keep the readily welcomed air conditioning contained, but riding them is a fun adventure none-the-less.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at the resort, which is situated in a quiet area with verdant, tropical plant life you might expect from this remote spot. Upon our arrival we were led past the Spa, swimming pool and forty guest rooms to the beach front bar and restaurant where our arrival briefing took place. This is no ordinary arrival briefing, as we were quickly descended upon by a horde of nimble fingered masseuses to work out those tight muscles from the day’s travel. I was enjoying it so much I didn’t pay a great deal to the briefing, but I soon got to grips with the daily routine at the resort anyway.
I had been at the resort no less than ten minutes when I was already greeted by chants of “Hi Rich!” from everyone I met. I’m pretty sure the staff undergoes some FBI training in facial recognition on their initial employment. It was amazing how they learned everyone’s name so quickly. I need some tips, it takes me a good few days and even then I’m still nervous I’ve got it wrong!
Since we had come in on an early flight from Manila we had lunch and then were immediately offered our first dives of the trip. A sloping reef, only minutes by boat from the resort, yielded two blue-ringed octopuses!! Not a bad start! To put this into perspective it had taken eight years and 1000 dives before I saw my first one of these deadly little creatures, but I had just seen two on my first dive!! The diving over the coming days produced many more amazing critters (please follow the link at the bottom of the page to image galleries) including numerous ghost pipefishes, frogfishes and an abundance of different anemonefish species. One of my highlights, since I often get excited by the random fishes in the sea, were the many radial filefish found perfectly camouflaged amongst the beige Xenia coral polyps. These are generally rare but seemed almost abundant here!
The same dive schedule is shared by the two resorts and five dives are offered per day. Two morning dives are available, followed by either two afternoon and a night or one afternoon and a dusk dive with mandarinfish. This many dives per day is almost unheard of for a land-based resort but brilliant if you are a hardcore diver that just wants to be underwater. I can totally relate to this, but I’m not an overly avid night diver so I tended to stick with four dives per day. This is when Nitrox comes into its own!!
One of my favourite sites in the area was Apo Island, only a 45 minute boat ride from the resort. It is a small island surrounded by stunning reefs. Actually, some of the shallow hard coral gardens easily rivalled those of Raja Ampat. We saw a massive school of big eye trevally off the reefs there and apparently it’s the time of year they get a little frisky! Pairs were beginning to peel off the larger school ready for mating time. It was nearing new moon at that time too so we had a bit of current on one or two of the dives: nothing unmanageable for most, but just enough to carry us along without having to fin at all. Although, probably my favourite time was spent pottering about in 10 metres or shallower searching among the corals and bommies for critters. We saw a naughty hawksbill turtle tearing the reef apart with his beak, a pair of comet fish in a high-speed pursuit and a large stonefish hidden beneath the sand.
Azores Live-aboard – Bohol Itinerary
After three full days, and a couple either side, the diving at Dumaguete was at an end. Luckily our next adventure was on the resort’s own stunning live-aboard, Azores, and she was moored just offshore from the resort. There we sampled three days of the Bohol itinerary taking in the Whale sharks at Oslob followed by Sumilon, Cabilao and Balicasag Islands.
Waking up on your first day of a trip with mentions of whale sharks definitely grabs your attention. During the briefing, our captain, Scott, explained that they have only started to do the whale shark experience again recently, after a fairly long hiatus. They are closely monitoring the situation at Oslob, as there were terrible reports of harassment of the sharks from the site, which led to the Azores removing it from their itinerary. There is now greater regulation by local officials and whilst we were there it appeared that some NGOs were also present.
The experience with the whale sharks was absolutely amazing: bare in mind, these are the world’s largest fish. Like whales however, these behemoths feed not on tasty snorkelers but some of the smallest inhabitants of the sea, plankton. The three sharks that stayed around us for the hour were around 35 feet in length. They are attracted to the small fishing boats where locals are hand feeding them with krill. The sharks were like literally like puppies, following the boats around as they moved. They seemed indifferent to us, and we strictly followed the no touching rule. I left having had an absolutely once I a life time experience, but with mixed emotions. Hopefully some research will be conducted to evaluate if this interaction is affecting the sharks in an adverse way. There are already signs that it may be disrupting their natural migration patterns since they have been present
non-stop for almost a year now.
The Azores vessel herself has been completely refitted over the last couple of years since Atlantis took her over. She accommodates up to sixteen divers, has a huge dive deck and plenty of luxuries, such as flatscreen TV, a great coffee machine and even a Jacuzzi. The food, much like the food at the resorts, was absolutely out of this world. After reading the menu on the first evening, I didn’t know how I could choose just one of the options. Luckily, I didn’t have to. There were about half a dozen platters of different foods brought out for the main course alone, and there were only eight of us at the table!! They called it family style, whereby we basically helped ourselves to whatever we wanted. Unlike in my family, we didn’t have to share out every morsel exactly, as there was more than enough to go around!
The diving got better day-by-day, with my favourite being the final day at Balicasag. The topography was interesting, with seagrasses working their way all around the hard corals and much deeper than I’ve seen on a true coral reef before. It was quite odd in fact to be diving among corals but instead of them being surrounded by sand, there was a rich green carpet of seagrass. The critters seemed to like this set up and we saw frogfishes, pegasus seamoths, blue ribbon eels and ghost pipefishes. On one of the dives I was really excited to see a huge jellyfish with a caravan of little trevally. I’d never seen a jellyfish larger than about a side plate before, so this was pretty special. I had only my extreme close up macro lens on my camera but I was able to get some interesting shots of the little party none-the-less!
After the Azores my time with the group was at an end. We had an absolutely brilliant time together and celebrated with one or two of the local Red Horse beers on the last night! The next day we were up bright eyed and bushy tailed for our flight back to Manila. After that, most people were back home to the US and I was on to my next adventure to the Puerto Galera resort.
Puerto Galera Resort
I was met at Manila airport and hopped on my little private transfer for the two-hour drive to meet my boat which would take me over to Puerto Galera. Whilst Manila is located on the island of Luzon, Puerto Galera is only an hour away by boat on the island of Mindoro. The resort is in a very different setting compared to the Dumaguete site. There is much more hustle and bustle in the lively little town and many resorts share the beachfront location along Sabang Bay. There is a great buzz and atmosphere about the place, but once in the resort it is like entering an oasis of calm and tranquillity. The rooms are brilliant too and have been ingeniously coined the ‘Flintsone Rooms’ due to their unique shape and feel that would even make Barney Rubble put his feet up and relax.
Continuing the FBI facial recognition training, there had obviously been contact between the two resorts and there were plenty of “Hi Rich” chants before I even introduced myself to anyone! The customer service and friendliness of the staff really are second to none, and not in a contrived way either, these are just genuinely friendly people!
My guide for the week was Rusty, whom I very much enjoyed diving with. I am always immediately won over when my guide doesn’t start the first dive my poking a poor creature to death for my supposed enjoyment! Rusty was brilliant, in fact he rarely even took a poker on a dive and was extremely respectful of the marine life.
Over the five dive days I had in Puerto Galera we did a wide variety of dives from muck dives in not-so-Secret Bay, to sloping reefs in Sabang Bay, the wreck of the Alma Jane and visited the stunning pinnacles of Verde Island. The dives at Verde Island were definitely worth the trip, I’ve never in my life seen so many Anthias! There were currents, but we avoided anything too strong and they were very gentle and beautiful dives. The reefs and muck of Puerto Galera were equally rich and we saw an abundance of interesting critters. Several flamboyant cuttlefish, Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses (as well as their full-sized cousins), rare nudibranchs and even hairy frogfish made appearances. Although I’m not usually a great far of wrecks, the Alma Jane was nice for wide-angle photography too.
Finally, after two weeks in a lovely diving bubble my time at the Atlantis Resorts was at an end. The customer service and food were absolute highlights for me. Next I was off to Anilao….but that’s another story, which I’ll post in a blog soon!
Future trip – Tubbataha 2014
The Atlantis Resort motto, “Arrive as a guest, leave as a friend” takes the words right out of my mouth. I’m certainly eager to get back to see how my mates are getting on!
In fact, I am currently planning a trip to the remote Sulu Sea’s Tubbataha Reef. Here, two atolls rise abruptly out of the abyss affording some amazing and untamed diving. The remote and exposed location of Tubbataha means that access is only possible for a relatively narrow window between March and June each year. These reefs are therefore pristine and untouched by many of the human pressures faced by Southeast Asia’s coral reefs. Plus, Tubbataha is a marine preserve and recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, helping to further protect them from the encroachment of man.
I am planning a full boat seven night charter aboard the Atlantis Azores live-aboard in Spring of 2014, from 29th March to 5th April. Following this we will head to the Dumaguete Resort for another 5 days. If you are interested in joining me on this adventure of a lifetime, please let me know via my contact page or by emailing me at Richard@OceanRealmImages.com. Having experienced Atlantis first hand, I am very keen to get back and explore more of what the Philippines has to offer!