06 June 2011


Our Philippines trip was a long time in the making. When our friends, Seon and Ki, returned from their trip last April, they immediately started planning a group trip to return. Traveling with a group of (mostly) easy-going, fun divers definitely has its perks. As groups go, this was a good one!

We arrived in the Philippines after flying from Seattle to Vancouver to Hong Kong to Manila. Once we arrived at our hotel, I stayed in its glorious air conditioning, ate sushi, and spent a couple hours at the spa. Now that is how to beat jet lag. :-)

The next morning, we headed back to the airport for our brief flight to Puerto Princesa. I'll never forget the flight because it's the first time I've ever seen flight attendants coordinate trivia games for passengers. When we landed, it was clear that we were in the tropics. Any products I had on my face instantly melted; my deodorant went into overdrive; and my hair tripled in size. Before I knew it, we were aboard the boat that would be our home for the next week. A couple of hours later, we were steaming toward the Tubbataha reef for a fantastic week of diving.

Most of the days we were on the boat, we did four dives. It's a hard life. Most days looked something like this:
5 or 6am: wake up and grab quick snack
6 or 6:45am: first dive
8:00am: breakfast
9:30am: second dive
11:00am: sit in the sun and read
12:00pm: lunch
1:30pm: third dive
3:00pm: sit in the sun and read
4:30pm: fourth dive
6:00pm: dinner
9:00pm: retire

The diving at Tubbataha was spectacular. The reef is in excellent condition (despite the number of plastic bags we saw floating and picked up when possible), so the coral, sponges, and sea anemones were beautiful in their color, quantity, size, and diversity. In particular, the fan coral and barrel sponges were enormous (like 2-3 meters wide and a meter wide and deep, respectively).
I could have crawled inside a lot of the barrel sponges. The anemones provide homes to lots of critters, and I was particularly taken with all of the anemone and clown fish (think Nemo) playing in and around the anemones. Despite Tubbataha being an attraction for big life, I often found really interesting small life whenever I got frustrated looking for octopus (my favorite, anywhere in the world) and decided to check out the reef at close proximity.

As far as the big stuff, the highlight was definitely the 20' long whale shark that came out of the blue at 80'. George spotted it and called me out to join him. It took a while for the rest of the group to notice, and I was able to swim about 50 meters with the shark.
Apparently I didn't get quite close enough to get in George's video, so I'll have to remember that for next time. We also saw a sole manta ray, though I have a hard time getting excited about one manta when we were able to spend whole dives in the Maldives with 10 or more mantas at once. There were also some turtles, cool lobster with purple antennae, lots of moray eels, tons and tons of reef sharks, a handful of octopus, and a wide variety of somewhat ordinary fish, including schooling jacks, large tuna, bat fish, puffer fish, and many, many more.

By far the most memorable dive aboard the Siren was wormageddon. On a night dive, our lights attracted the worms out of the deep. Within minutes of our lights being turned on, we were surrounded by worms of varying lengths, colors, girths, and shapes. I lasted 25 minutes before I reached my creepy limit. This was about the same time that most others did the same. When it was all done, we were completely grossed out and even had worms in our hair. Interestingly, this is something that the dive masters on the boat had not seen before. Needless to say, that was the only night dive at Tubbataha.

It seemed like our time on the Philippines Siren flew by, and we were soon bound for Manila again. From Manila, we took a bus and a boat to get to Puerto Galera, where we stayed at the Atlantis. The staff at the hotel included some of the nicest strangers-turned-friends I've ever met, and we were lucky to have been assigned some truly excellent dive masters to show us the waters around Puerto Galera.

The diving in Puerto Galera was completely different than Tubbataha. While some dive sites had beautiful coral, many were muck or wrecks. And rather than look for big life, we were looking for tiny things. It's truly amazing how many complex and interesting critters are the size of a fingernail or smaller. We saw things like pygmy seahorses (which is on most diving bucket lists), regular seahorses, many varieties of shrimp (including mantis shrimp), and a whole host of other interesting things, including lots of variety of nudibranch (sea slugs). We also quite a few octopus, which made me very happy. I was also happy to do my very first wreck penetration.

In the evenings, after the diving was done, we spent most nights celebrating at the hotel's ocean-front bar. Sadly, we also spent a lot of our non-diving time talking about the sex tourism that was quite obvious around Puerto Galera (hopefully none of it went beyond that into human trafficking). At our hotel, for example, there was a group of British men who had, quite obviously, hired young girls for the week. It was sad, sickening, and frustrating to observe and made it more difficult to let the mind rest and truly be on vacation.

All-in-all, it was a good trip, though, and I'm glad that George and I were able to spend it with some great friends. I think I speak for both of us when I say that the trip made me realize why I love diving and inspired me to splash in the Puget Sound a little more often.

More photos are here and here.

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