Singapore, 28 October 2010. Diving experience in the Philippines ranks high when compared to top dive destinations as it sits within the Coral Triangle, or the heart of the world’s richest marine biodiversity that can ever be realized. And there are plenty of places in which to take the plunge, considering there are 7,107 islands to choose from, mostly fringed by delightful beaches and reefs.
Vertical reefs, wrecks, caves, bommies... Puerto Galera. Pic by Herald Kruger.
Puerto Galera is just one of those many islands drenched in the sun, sheltered in part by waving palms, that offer top underwater scuba diving and land-based attractions. It has been estimated that there are 3,000 marine species alone in this Southern spot, but don’t hold your breath for the big stuff. Sweetlips, humphead parrots, barracudas, jacks and puffers are huge, and there’s healthy and dazzling coral cover even in the midst of bleaching due to high temperatures this year. And there are loads of macro critters to scout for.
Puerto Galera, a reservation area under the Man and Biosphere Program of the UNESCO, is located in the Mindoro province of the Philippines, about a three-hour drive south from Manila City to Batangas Port, and an hour’s boat ride from there to El Galleon jetty.
When reaching Puerto Galera, the number of dive centres fronting the coastline can be mind-boggling. A number of them appear small, ill equipped or out for quick bucks. I was wary, and chose to dive with Asia Divers that was tucked away just around the corner that opens up into a bay, away from the bustle of the sea taxis and knick-knack peddlers.
The reasons to choose to dive with Asia Divers in Puerto Galera are plentiful: an established dive outfit, professional diving instruction and services, fully equipped dive centre, well-stocked technical dive store with gear and gadgets for those who need to be constantly challenged, and no surprises – very friendly staff. Not to mention a continuous stream of amazing underwater experience to put that grin on your face as you emerge from the wet.
Cuttlefish in camouflage. Pic by Akiko Tada.
But let’s begin with the beginning.
Asia Divers is a PADI 5 Star Career Development Center (CDC) that was founded in 1987 by Allan Nash who heads up Asia Divers and El Galleon Beach Resort, both located next to each other. And the infamous Point Bar sits directly above the dive centre, a refuge for many in need of a good drop to drink, which happens all too often!
Mandarins play at dusk. Pic by Akiko Tada.
Asia Divers CDC is a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center (IDC). That means that it meets all of PADI 5 Star IDC requirements and is committed to greater professional training and development. I was also told that Asia Divers is the first and only PADI CDC 5 Star Career Development Center in Puerto Galera and one of the three in the whole of Philippines.
Asia Diver Gets Technical
Allan is no stranger to many; he was Philippines’ third course director and has invested significant time and resources to build scuba diving capabilities in the country. He became a founder of Instructor Development Asia Pacific (iDAP) in 2001. With the help of course director Warren Dixon, they push the boundaries of instructor training.
Frog fish hardly wrecked. Pic by Herald Kruger.
“We created iDAP as a division of Asia Divers to take care of all aspects of instructor development,” said Allan, adding that a dedicated course director oversees the training. This includes “development and fine tuning our instructor training schedule to best suit our students and to develop stand alone courses that deal with management within the dive center and resort, compressor operations, maintenance, and more.”
Allan and his partners Tommy Soderstrom and Andy Norman can be classified as veterans, averaging more than 20 years each in the running of this business Far East.
Besides them a squad of five full time instructors and two dive masters await. “All our staff have been with us for a long time, not just the cooks and table help but also the instructors,” said Allan.
Indeed, everybody seems comfortable doing what they do at the dive center. Allison Manis has been with Asia Divers for 13 years. She is just ahead of Pete Eaton, a jolly guy whose humour belies his technical expertise – he has struck the bell at The Point Bar for the last 10 years.
The professional bunch also come in handy for training and support for technical diving at all levels, including instructor programme. Tech Asia, a subsidiary of Asia Divers, is the only comprehensive tech diving instruction that can be had on this island together with the tech store. That includes Nitrox, Rebreather, full Trimix, and Technical Wreck.
A frequent technical diver here is Jascha Ortmanns, a Hong Kong-based Philips senior executive who has lived in Asia for many years. Having dived and checked out various shops in the region, he has the impression that Asia Divers "is one of the - if not the - most professional run and operating Tech facilities in Asia," adding that the shop is well equipped, or can arrange for speedy delivery for items needed. The equipment, he finds, are always in excellent condition.
"They have a number of instructors, mostly focused on IANTD (and crossover from others to IANTD); they also run PADI TecRec and DSAT courses and also the famous GUE courses through local and international instructors," said Jascha, who explores the depth between 45m to more than 100m.
He enjoys wreck diving specially, citing the Mactan Ferry wreck just under five hours by boat from Puerto Galera. The 83m MV Mactan was built in 1961 and sank on 15 July 1973 while carrying goods. The vessel remains largely intact, resting on the starboard side on a reef slope with bow pointing towards the shore. Divers can explore the open cargo holds, the engine and machine rooms.
"Apart from that, there are great rock formations (Verde Islands), great drift dives, and scooters are available for rent or BYO. There is a cool Mapating Cave about an hour by boat towards Batangas too," Jascha enthused.
3D glasses not required. Pic by Herald Kruger.
A centre catered for technical divers' demands and fancies, this sets Asia Divers apart from the numerous dive centres dotting the coastline and back alleys of Puerto Galera.
But not being a techy, all this doesn’t quite interest me as much as the diving itself!
A good introduction to the dive sites around Puerto Galera can be found on Asia Divers website, so you can decide before where you’d like to explore. There are more than 30 dive sites within reach by boat in 15 minutes, and you can dive 5 times a day if you like, including a dusk or night dive.
Having been to Puerto Galera only once and logged just 13 dives in 6 days however, I have not scoured all the choice spots. But being rather picky, I already have my favourites.
Hole in the Wall
Snapping morays. Pic by Jascha Ortmanns.
Easy and nice, perfect for Open Water divers at clear 18m depth. Take a boat out and dive at about 9m depth and fin towards coral crusted boulders standing about 4 m hig. They offer pretty views until you reach a hole that’s wide enough for just one to swim through at a time. As you emerge from the other side, a hard coral garden greets you where you may chance upon yapping moray eels, puffer, porcupine fish and even a 3-metre long banded sea snake. Don’t worry it won’t bite. It is scared of you and will swim away.
Depending whether you are lucky, you may spot a 1.3m long white tip snoozing in one of the three caves at 26m depth. Be careful not to kick up sand as you gently lower your body towards the ground for a better look. Photographers - try not to spook it by going too close as these sharks are sensitive to human presence. Having had your fill of the shark (not shark’s fin soup), feast on the pink wall of soft corals that harbour regal looking lionfish.
Snaking wonder. Pic by Herald Kruger.
Now this is a tricky one depending on how the tides flow and where the currents dictate. Like a wild horse it needs taming, but life can be a lot easier if you just entered at the right conditions and with Nitrox. Diving at 28-30m depth you come across three beautiful walls set apart by plunging ravines. Currents can be pretty swift so grabbing on to a rock while ogling at the extra large sweetlips and snappers isn’t a bad idea. You end the dive by posing next to a relic – a nearly 2m big anchor camouflaged by coral that once served a proud Spanish Galleon well.
At nearly 21m depth you come across a cave and then another at 27m depth; between those, you sweep past a seabed covered with lovely soft and hard corals that’s home to surgeonfish, fusiliers, cuttlefish and more. The variety of coral cover is astounding with large table corals, bommies, and soft corals, even lacy gorgonians. Take with you a magnifying glass if you don’t have a trained eye, or you might miss the tiny pygmy seahorse on the yellow fan coral.
Now the boat tide to Verde Island takes about 45 minutes, but it’s a fun ride especially when Allan at the wheel decides to give it a bit of a spin. Gear up at leisure and drop off on the east side of the island where the pinnacles peer above the water surface. Here you can go deep, but don’t get carried away by the amazing lofty formations covered with myriads of sponges, crinoids and corals. For certain do not get swept away by the outrageous currents.
Off to Verde Islands!
Two dives at Verde aren’t enough to satisfy the thirst of diehard divers but still they will show up lots of pelagics, jacks, barracudas, corals (some staghorn bleaching is underway) and Kodak moments like a rock jumping out of the way when a sea snake approach it. The rock was a devious scorpionfish in camouflage! And there were two banded sea snakes teasing each other. Parrotfish and angelfish eye each other as they chomp on algae. Welcome to nature’s playground!
As you return back after two magnificent dives, you might find your boat escorted by a pod of dolphins.
Life can't get any better than this.
Reaching El Galleon, tuck into some exquisite cuisine at Arthur’s Restaurant, tease your palate with Chef Antoine’s famous chocolate mousse, and watch the sun set slowly as you lie sprawled on the new pine fragrant jetty with a chilled Chardonnay in hand.
It might just dawn on you that you’ve just spent another day very easily in paradise.
Photographs courtesy of Herald Kruger, Akiko Tada and Jascha Ortmanns.
Visit Asia Divers and El Galleon website at www.asiadivers.com.
Location and Instructions on Getting To Asia Divers/El Galleon
El Galleon Beach Resort / Asia Divers
Small La Laguna Beach, Puerto Galera,
Oriental Mindoro, 5203 Philippines
General enquiry: admin AT asiadivers DOT com
Contact Allan Nash at allan AT asiadivers DOT com