Weekend in Puerto Galera-Part Two

On Saturday morning my friend and I met at 8 AM to go look for a place to eat breakfast. I grabbed my gear and we went to Frontier first to drop that off. We ended up at the breakfast buffet at El Galleon. Only 350 pesos. I had an omelet made to order, along with the usual complements… After breakfast we walked back to Frontier Scuba. ( http://www.frontierscuba.com/ )

At Frontier we completed the normal paperwork. I confirmed with Rick that my cardiologist had cleared me to dive. He wasn’t concerned. Knowing me he knew I wouldn’t be there if my doctor hadn’t give me the OK.

I got my dive gear set up and my camera equipment assembled. Much quicker than the day before! Frontier does the heavy lifting for all their guests. Once my tank was set up it was taken to the boat. I took my mask, fins, and camera equipment, along with a dry bag for a towel, drinking water, and my cell phone. My friend was set up with rental gear. By 9:15 AM we were all on the boat and on our way. The boat ride to Verde Island is usually around 30-45 minutes depending on weather.

Upon arrival we geared up and then entered the water. Harry was our guide on this trip. We were first in. It was myself, my friend from Mermaids, and another photographer who turned out to be a retired US Navy Captain. The other group (of 3) was from the US Embassy and were being guided by Rick. My dive started at 9:51 AM.

We were diving the Pinnacle at Verde Island which is one of my favorite dives anywhere in the Philippines. There wasn’t much current this first dive. In September when I’d dived Verde Island for the first time, the first dive was into a ripping current… I had to swim so hard to make it over to the pinnacle that I thought I was going to suck all the air out of my tank before the dive even got started! During that dive we finally made it around to the backside and out of the current and we actually ended up with a 45 minute dive with a maximum depth of 106 feet.

As it had been the day before at Monkey Beach, the water temperature was a bit cooler than it’d been in August and September. About 5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Technically it is winter in the Philippines which means water temperature can drop into the high 70’s. My friends who dive in California are laughing at this I’m sure! (when I lived in California I wore a dry suit whether it was summer or winter as temperatures seemed to always be in the 50’s no matter what time of year it was!)

Drifting down over the edge at the Pinnacle at Verde Island.

Since it’s a pinnacle, we’re basically talking about a wall dive. One of the things I love about Verde is that it’s always swarming with fish! Anthia’s, butterfly fish, schools of jacks, snapper, angelfish, cardinalfish, soldierfish, grouper… all the usual suspects! Also the visibility tends to be better as well. On this day visibility was easily 50-60 feet. The corals are in great shape here. Here and there were anemones with their accompanying clownfish. Moray eels peeking out from small crevices. Nudibranchs in various places. It really is one of my favorite places to dive! The first dive ended up being 45 minutes with a maximum depth of 89 feet.

Nudibranch (Glossodoris atromarginata) photographed at Verde Island.

When we popped up at the end of the dive the seas had gotten a bit rougher. The boat came to us. The method is for the group to line up behind the dive guide making it easier and safer for the boat to approach. No one wants to bonked on the head by the outrigger on a bangka boat! When we are close enough we grab onto a line that is rigged alongside to hold on too while waiting to get back on the boat. The usual procedure is to hand up cameras first. Then fins. When it’s your turn pull yourself to the ladder and climb out. Once you’re back on the boat, the boatman assists with removing the rest of your gear.

Group waiting in the water at Verde Island as the boat maneuvers for pickup

Once all the divers were retrieved, we approached Verde Island and anchored in a small cove for our surface interval. We spent an hour relaxing, then pulled anchor and went back out to the pinnacle. This time we approached it from the other side.

We felt a bit of current at the beginning of the 2nd dive, which started at 12:09 PM. I spotted some really large sweetlips and a big grouper below and drifted down to try and get a shot. The dive was going well, then we made the turn and the current picked up considerably! I was kicking hard and thinking to myself that this was perhaps not the best situation for my second day back in the water! I knew I’d lost a fair amount of conditioning over the previous months. In the back of mind was a small doubt that in spite of passing my exercise stress test with flying colors, the strain was going to be too much.

As I always do in situations of stress, I focused on my breathing and keeping it under control. Probably this is just a combination of my military and martial arts training and experience. I switched from the frog kick that I normally use to a flutter kick. The frog kick is good for conserving energy. Kick and coast, kick and coast… but in a heavy current there is no “coast”! If you aren’t kicking constantly you aren’t making headway! I was breathing very deeply and was very aware of my heart pounding in my chest! Then we made the turn and we were out of the current. I continued to breath deeply and gradually felt my heartbeat returning to normal. The telltale chest pain I was waiting for, never materialized. I would later joke on the boat that if I were going to have another heart attack, that would have been the time!

We continued on with the dive and as in the previous dive, I was again impressed with the numbers of fish, the beautiful corals, and the visibility that easily exceeded over 60 feet! I found numerous subjects to photograph, including scorpionfish, nudibranchs, and a white-eyed moray. Another beautiful dive at what is probably one of the top dive spots in the Philippines!

Tasseled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala) photographed during a dive at Verde Island.

Upon our return to Sabang we waded ashore with our fins, masks, and camera’s (if we’re photographers). If it were high tide, the boats would come all the way in to the shore in front of the dive operation, but we often had to wade out and back to embark and disembark the boat. As I mentioned earlier, the staff took care of the heavy lifting (as they do pretty much everywhere I’ve dived in the Philippines) and would bring the tanks in later. Leaving the BCD’s on the tanks allowed them to wear one tank on their back while leaving the hands free. Years ago, while shore diving in Japan, we were surveying a new spot that had a very steep and rocky entry to get down to the water. As we were hiking down with our gear from where we’d left the truck, I jokingly had said, “If we were in the Philippines we could get someone to carry our tanks down for 20 pesos!” Which got a laugh from everyone in the group who had been to the Philippines. A tip of 20 pesos or so for a porter to carry your gear or bags is pretty common at airports and ferry terminals. I’m not quite as young as I used to be, so I really appreciate these guys who do the heavy lifting and go out of their way to make sure everyone is enjoying their vacation. I know they really appreciate a guest who leave money in the tip box for them!

We went back to our hotel room at Mermaids and got cleaned up. I downloaded photos and then took a nap. I met my friend later for dinner and we opted for Hemingway’s. I had the chicken curry which was quite good and my friend had a steak. Hemingway’s is on the quite end of Sabang, just 15 yards or so past Frontier Scuba. We had a nice view of the water. I was beat and we made it an early night.

The next morning we met again for breakfast and decided on the breakfast buffet at El Galleon again. The food really was quite good there! After breakfast we walked to Frontier to get ready for our first dive of the day which turned out to be the Alma Jane wreck and one of my favorite dives in Puerto Galera! Its a former Filipino freighter and was intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. It’s very open and all the doors and hatches have been removed making it a very safe wreck to enter.

The Alma Jane is so close to the dive operations on Sabang, that you start gearing up as soon as the boat leaves. There was a Japanese photographer in the group and we were the first ones over the side. There was some mild current so we went straight down to the wreck which sits in about a 100 feet of water. We were joined by the rest of the group which included the same 3 divers from the US Embassy that had dived Verde Island with us the day before.

This is really a nice dive with schools of batfish hovering around the wreck, large sweetlips, schools of snapper, cardinalfish, and soldierfish. I spotted a nice nudibranch right on the gunwales of the ship and a couple more inside. At one point I switched to video and got some nice footage of divers in our group entering the hold of the ship (the video is posted on Instagram @underwater.adventures). Towards the end of the dive we discovered, not one, but two painted frogfishes! That was a really nice way to end the dive. My computer started flashing at me and it was time to go up. My maximum depth was 95 feet and I ended with a 35 minute dive. I had just over 70 bar still in my tank, a bit over a 1000 psi.

Nudibranch (Nembrotha chamberlaini) photographed during a dive on the Alma Jane wreck at Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines.

I was feeling a bit cold by the end of this dive. The water temperature was 73 degrees Fahrenheit! In the tropics I normally wear my 4th Element farmer john, which is equivalent to 2.5 mm and my Scubapro rash guard which has 0.5 mm neoprene in the chest. I’ve found I can get a bit chilled after a couple of dives in the winter here, especially deeper dives like this one. I was wishing I’d brought my hooded vest! Possibly after spending most of the last 17 months here, my body is “adjusting” to living in the tropics and often living with no air conditioning!

Schools of fish cluster around the wreck of the Alma Jane. The former Filipino freighter was sunk intentionally as an artificial reef in a 100 feet of water, at Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines.

After returning to Frontier we hung out at the dive shop during our surface interval, then loaded back up for the trip over to Manila Channel for our 2nd dive of the day. Our dive started at 11:15 AM. Towards the center of the channel is mainly sandy bottom. Along the sides though were some shallow walls, lots of corals, including some nice table corals. There were a lot of small fish like butterflyfish, bannerfish, lizardfish waiting for their next meal to swim by, and anemones with their clownfish. I ended up photographing 5 different species of nudibranchs on this dive so for me I felt it was quite productive! The water temperature was a little better at 75F. Maximum depth was 68 feet.

Tomato Anemonefish (Amphiprion frenatus) photographed during a dive at Manila Channel, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines.

After we got back we ended up at El Galleon once again for lunch. My friend had the Mongolian BBQ and I had a grilled chicken salad. The food really is quite good there!

I went back to my room and took a shower and a short nap. Then went to the ATM at the local bank to get some cash. Turned out the ATM was only working for “domestic” transactions. It wouldn’t work for foreign transactions. There is another bank in Puerto Galera town so I hired a trike to take me there. They initially wanted 350 pesos to go there and back which I thought was to much. I eventually found someone that would take me for 250. That’s still a bit high. I’d asked and the locals only pay 100 pesos each way so I knew I had some room to haggle. I’ve discovered that in a lot of places in the Philippines who get a large number of tourists, that foreigners will be charged more. I’m willing to pay a little more, but not when it’s approaching double! Reality is that I live here because the cost of living is low. For a tourist on vacation it doesn’t seem like much, but for me transportation costs add up. Out in the “provinces” where they don’t see many foreigners I never really run into this. Everyone pays the same. A jeepney would have been 20 pesos, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking for the bank once I got there so I opted to have someone take me straight there.

After I got back I stopped in at the Sabang Sports Bar and had a beer and watched some UFC for a while. Then I went to Vesuvio’s which is my favorite pizza place in the Philippines! They have a wood-fired brick oven and you can really taste the difference in their pizza’s! I ate there quite a bit when I was in Puerto Galera last year. A really great place to eat and it’s also great for people-watching as it’s on the main road going into Sabang that dead-ends at the pier.

Monday morning after waking up, I had breakfast at Captain Gregg’s. It’s a nice view and the ham and cheese omelet I had for breakfast was really good! After that I packed my clothes and headed to the dive shop to pack my gear. From there I went to the pier and caught the ferry back to Batangas. There I caught a bus to Cubao. After I got off the bus, I took a short taxi ride to Victory Terminal and caught a bus for Olongapo City and Subic Bay.

I’m a bit behind in my blog.. I left Puerto Galera 2 1/2 weeks ago! Since then I’ve done a bit of traveling and scuba diving around the Philippines. I’ll be writing about Subic Bay next so stay tuned!

Weekend in Puerto Galera-Part One

I decided I’d go ahead and do one dive with Mermaids since I was staying there. Mermaids is a full-service operation. They essentially do everything for you and for people who want that degree of service they would be a good operation.

They price in US dollars which for me was a bit annoying since I’ve been in the Philippines for months and had no dollars. For me it doesn’t make much sense to price in dollars. They purchase their supplies in pesos and pay their employees in pesos. I ended up with an odd number of pesos since they converted from the dollar rate and it wasn’t cheap since the dollar is very strong right now. The girl in the dive shop had to call the manager to ask if I could get any type of discount since I was staying there. The answer was no, that they didn’t give discounts. I went ahead and did one dive with them since I was there.

I won’t say that I didn’t have a very small bit of apprehension leading up to that first dive. Only natural after everything I’d been through. I’d not been in the water for 5 1/2 months, 3 1/2 months longer than it would have been if I’d not had the heart attack. I was lucky though… had I not needed to return to the US for a couple of months, I would have been diving in the Visaya’s. They estimate that 20-30% of all diving fatalities are the result of myocardial infarction (medical speak for heart attack). I very easily could have ended up a statistic! It’s a reminder that no matter how good you think your health is, those of us who are a bit older and plan to dive remote areas, should have a thorough medical exam before we go.

When setting up the gear in the shop I discovered I was a bit rusty. I’d completely taken everything apart when I packed it away after returning from my last dive trip. Now I had to show the boatman how to set up my equipment and it took me a minute to remember how to thread the tank straps! It came back to me though!

I’d gotten in late the night before and had not set up my camera ahead of time as I normally would have. I was feeling a bit rushed and couldn’t locate the screw that attached the joint adapter to the strobe head! Without that I couldn’t attach the strobe to the arm! I was feeling rushed and decided I would just do the dive with no camera (I did find the screw later).

We got on the boat and headed to Monkey Beach which is only a few minutes from the dive op. At 9:18 AM, Thursday, March 10th I back-rolled into the water. It had been exactly 170 days since my last dive… not that I was counting!

It was a nice dive, but most dives are for me. Puerto Galera really is a great dive destination for a variety of reasons which I outline in my eBook (“Underwater Adventures-The Ultimate Guide to Diving the World: Book One-Puerto Galera, Philippines” available on Amazon). I rarely dive without a camera but when I do it seems that I always end up seeing plenty of things to photograph! This dive was no exception. I spied a nudibranch right at the beginning and would see a few more before the end of the dive. Triggerfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, rainbow runners, moray eel, all the “usual suspects” were in abundance! Also saw a really big turtle and a nice size grouper that was probably over 3 feet long! There was a mild current that we initially swam against. There is a wrecked sailboat there. After making a circuit around that we drifted. We ended up with a 51 minute dive. Maximum depth was 72 feet and water temperature was 77 Fahrenheit.

There was only me and one other person diving at Mermaids. He was paying even more than me as he was renting equipment also. I told him we could do better! We walked around that afternoon and every dive shop we checked was cheaper. In the end I went back to Frontier Scuba ( http://www.frontierscuba.com/ ), whom I’d dived with last time I was in Puerto Galera, and he came with me. I was given their best rate because I was a returning guest and my friend was also given a very good rate saving several hundred pesos a dive over what he’d been paying! I saved over 500 pesos per dive. At the current exchange rate thats around $10 bucks so not an inconsequential amount!

One of the things I stress throughout my eBook and that I also have pointed out here in my blog in the past is the importance of shopping around and negotiating. This is a prime example. If you really want the “full” service with the fancy boats, like new equipment, towels, hot coffee, after your dive, and never lifting a finger, etc… and don’t mind paying for it, then there is nothing wrong with that. Even the less expensive shops though will do the heavy lifting for you. They will setup your tank and carry it to the boat. You will carry your other gear which probably consists of mask, fins, (snorkel if you dive with one), and your camera if you’re into that. That saves the shop a bit on manpower costs which translates into a less expensive dive for you. You’re still going to get tanks, weights, the boat, and a guide no matter who you dive with or how much or how little it costs.

We stayed at Mermaids over the weekend checking out Monday. I couldn’t help but think, “what a waste” as they do have a very nice dive shop, but they had no divers! My opinion is that it’s better to be getting some income than no income. They’re investment is higher perhaps in equipment, but it’s not making them any money when it just sits there!

To be continued…

Cleared to dive! Travel to Puerto Galera…

On Wednesday, March 8th I met with my cardiologist at Medical City-Clark here in the Philippines. Doctor Payumo confirmed that I’d done very well on the exercise stress test which was good news! I had achieved 15.1 MET’s well above the 13 MET’s minimum, recommended by DAN. Additionally all my labs were within normal range. She gave me a clearance to dive and recommended I have a followup in 4 months.

The following day I left for Puerto Galera!

I took a bus from San Fernando, Pampanga to Cubao in Metro-Manila. From there I took a JAM Bus to Batangas Pier (175 pesos). We left around 3:45 PM and arrived at the pier 2 1/2 hours later. I expected to miss the last ferry and planned to either spend the night at a hotel near the pier or see if a private boat might be available. As it turned out, a private boat was available.

This was my first time taking a private boat and it turned out to be a learning experience. I was approached near the terminal and told I could hire a boat to go across for 5000 pesos. My reaction was to laugh! Then they said they could take me for 1500 if they could find 2 other people. I agreed, reasoning that would spend a good percentage of that amount to get a room for the night. Two other people did show up, a guy from Ireland and his Filipina girlfriend, but did not want to go for 1500 pesos stating they would just get a hotel room instead. After further negotiation, an agreement was reached that they would take us for 3000 pesos, so a 1000 pesos each. Even better I thought!

We were led to another area of the piers. I paid 50 pesos for a port fee. The guy who was organizing the crossing said he needed the money before we got on the boat as he needed to pay the people who pointed us to him. As I had entered the terminal area there were men standing near the entrance who were asking everyone coming in if they were going to Puerto Galera. I admitted that I was and someone walked with me to the terminal and pointed me out to the guy coordinating. I didn’t ask him to walk with me and certainly didn’t need him to show me to anyone, but I’m sure he got a few pesos for walking with me.

Without giving it much thought I handed a 1000 pesos (around $20 bucks at the current exchange rate) to the coordinator. The Irish guy said he would give half and give the rest in Puerto Galera which the coordinator agreed too. We got on the boat and then sat a few minutes waiting to leave. After we were on the boat 3 more people came and got on the boat (locals). My Tagalog is somewhat limited. I understand a lot, but I’m far from conversational. The Irishman’s girlfriend didn’t have that problem and overheard everything being said. It turned out the 3 locals had only paid 500 pesos each! Then the Irish guy was told he had to pay the balance of another 1000 pesos before the boat would leave!

He said no! We had been told that the 3 of us were hiring the boat for 3000 pesos. Now they had 3 more people who are paying half what we were! He told them flat out that he’d already paid the same amount that the 3 late arrivals had paid and as far as he was concerned that our agreement had been broken. If it were a problem, then they could give him his money back and he and his girlfriend would just spend the night in Batangas. Of course the coordinator didn’t want to do that. The boatman wouldn’t leave because he’s not gotten his money yet. Everyone is pretty calm but now we are at an impasse.

I’m on the Irish guys side, but other than offer verbal and moral support, there isn’t much leverage on my side as I’ve already paid in full. We saw it as being scammed. I couldn’t do much beyond laugh! They went back and forth for a good 30 minutes (the coordinator left a couple of times and came back). Finally an agreement was made that they would pay another 600 pesos (not 1000) and we could go! It was a small moral victory at least. What I learned from it was that someone can get a small bangka boat to make the crossing for 4100 pesos minimum. No one is going to be happy though! 4500-5000 pesos is reasonable to hire the boat, but not if they are going to put extra passengers on the boat. Then they are just making extra profit at your expense.

We finally got underway around 7PM. The crossing was pretty nice. A little slower of course than on the ferry, but weather was good (else the Coast Guard would not have allowed us to go) and the moon was almost full and visibility was good. We arrived around 9 PM at Sabang. I was able to get a room at Mermaids Resort and Dive Center. The main resort is up the hill on the main road from the pier, but they also have rooms over the dive shop. I was able to get a room for 1450 pesos a night. I got checked in, went and grabbed a bite to eat, then went back to my room to get some rest.

To be continued…

Stress Test

I went in for lab tests and an exercise stress test on Friday, March 3rd. It took about 3 hours for me to get there from where I’m staying on Subic Bay near Olongapo City. The labs had to be done in the morning since they’re doing a blood lipid panel to see where my cholesterol is. I have to have blood drawn between 9 and 12 hours from my last meal. Trying to make it at 9 hours would have given me no sleep! I finished eating around 11 PM the night before so I needed to have blood drawn before 11 AM.

I caught a bus at 7:30 AM that was going all the way to Dau, near Angeles City. 158 pesos. I got to Dau at 9:45 AM. A short walk and I was able to catch a jeepney to Clark Main Gate where there is a jeepney terminal. Less than 10 minutes. From there I caught a second jeepney to Medical City-Clark. After checking in downstairs with TriCare, I arrived at the lab right at 10:30 AM with only 30 minutes to spare!

After getting my blood drawn and providing a urine sample, I caught the shuttle to SM City Mall-Clark and had some lunch. I walked around the mall for a while. I normally would have had coffee, but I wasn’t allowed to have any caffeinated beverages before the stress test. I had a mango shake instead!

When I checked in for my stress test around 2:30 PM they took my height and weight. A little surprisingly I’d gained 10 lbs in the last month! I’d been told to take it easy by my doctor, but perhaps a “little” more exercise might have been good! Probably didn’t help that the local VFW, where I spend a lot of time due to their free WiFi, started serving “apple pie ala mode”! I started having this almost every day… probably not very helpful in keeping weight off!

After taking my height and weight I was escorted to the room with a treadmill and an EKG machine, where the test would be conducted. The tech left the room while I changed into a pair of gym shorts. After I changed she came back in and placed a chair on the treadmill for me to sit on. She then started hooking me up to leads to the EKG machine. They got a “resting” blood pressure and pulse. 110/70 for my blood pressure with a resting pulse around 70. My blood pressure was very good as it has normally been. My resting pulse was a bit higher which I attribute to loss of conditioning over the last few months. A more normal resting pulse rate for me would be a little lower at around 65 bpm.

Sitting and waiting while they take my readings at rest before starting my exercise stress test.

A doctor came in and introduced herself and explained how the test would go. Basically the goal was for me to reach 85% of my maximum heart rate which is calculated as 220-58 (my age) while they monitored my heart. My blood pressure would also be monitored throughout. The doctor explained if it became dangerously high defined as 220/110, the test would be stopped. The treadmill would go through a programmed series of steps where speed and elevation would be gradually increased in order to stress my heart. If I were unable to keep up or began to suffer symptoms such as severe chest pain, extreme shortness of breath, leg pain, weakness, or dizziness, then she would also stop the test. Each stage was 3 minutes and I did a total of 7 stages before going into a cool down.

I showed her a printout of an article from Divers Alert Network website showing that I needed to achieve 13 MET’s at Level 4 of a Bruce Protocol in order to be cleared to dive again. I let her know that my goal was to exceed that level.

As it turned out, I had no problems exceeding it. The test is designed to gradually increase the stress. It took over 18 minutes and Level 6 for me to hit 85% of my maximum heart rate. I still wasn’t working that hard at that point and was at only 10.3 MET’s! As I approached a 100% she slowed things down a bit to keep my heart rate up but so I wouldn’t exceed the maximum. My blood pressure topped out at 140/90 so never even close. I ended up at 15.2 MET’s at level 7 so well above the minimum I needed to meet! (at least as I understand it)

They also measured how long it took my blood pressure and pulse to return to normal. I had 6 minutes of cool down on the treadmill. My pulse had dropped to a 100 by then. In fairly short order I was fully recovered. Truthfully I was surprised at how well the test went and how quickly I’ve seemed to recover, but I’m not going to complain!

I have an appointment with my cardiologist on Wednesday and we’ll go over my test results. I’m only a layman, so possibly there was something in my EKG which will be a contraindication for me to dive, but I’m pretty confident of being cleared to dive!

I’ll keep y’all posted!