After returning to the Philippines from my trip to Chuuk in Micronesia I started thinking about my next trip. I knew I would be headed back to the US on July 12th so I decided I would pick a destination in the Philippines. I’d been thinking about going to El Nido again ever since my buddy Ron from California had told me what a good time he had there. I had not been there since 2009 so I decided another trip was in order!
After a web search, I emailed three different dive operations to ask about rates. One criteria of course will be price, but I also want to see how responsive they are to email. This can be an indication about the service that I will receive. If I don’t have a personal recommendation then I will just pick and hope for the best. Normally it works out! Oliver Bachmann, one of the owners of Tabanka Divers, got back to me the same afternoon and offered me a great off-season rate! For diving I paid 3000 pesos a day for 3 dives a day, tanks, weights, boat, and a guide, and including lunch! At current exchange rates that’s less than $20 bucks a dive! I was also able to get a fan room in OG’s Pension House, which is above the dive shop. That was 800 pesos a night, which equates to around $16 dollars. I bought tickets for my flight through Cebu Pacific which is usually the cheapest way to fly in the Philippines.
I traveled by bus to Manila and as I normally do, stayed in a hotel overnight in Cubao. The next morning I took a cab to the airport. At 6:30 AM on Wednesday, June 21st the traffic was relatively light for Manila. Checking in online is the only way to go. Although I had my boarding pass on my phone, they still printed a boarding pass for me when I checked my bag.
The flight to Puerto Princesa was routine arriving at 11:45 AM. Transportation from the airport to El Nido was offered by the flight crew during the flight for 600 pesos. I along with other passengers opted to take advantage. We waited just outside the terminal for about 30 minutes before boarding a van to leave the airport. We were then taken to a parking lot just off the airport property where we boarded a different van. From there we went to the transportation terminal. There we waited another half hour for other passengers to join us before finally heading to El Nido shortly after 1 PM. Late June is the beginning of rainy season and we would have rain off and on on the road north to El Nido. We arrived around 7 PM, so about 6 hours for the trip.
It was rainy and already getting dark when the van arrived in El Nido at the transportation terminal where a trike took me too Tabanka Divers. Joy and Chris were waiting. Joy is the secretary and her husband Chris is one of the divemasters and guides. I got my gear unpacked and then checked in to my room upstairs.
After a good nights sleep (it rained off and on) I went downstairs to the shop. I was assigned a mesh gear bag for my gear. Each day the shop would load tanks and everyone’s gear on the boat. I opted to setup and break down my own gear. This was done on the boat. The shop would wash it and hang it up each day. Each day we went out in the morning and did 3 dives, breaking for lunch after the second dive. The boat usually left around 8:30 or so and we were usually making the first dive before 9:30 but it depended on how long it took to get Coast Guard clearance to depart and how far the first dive site was. The first dive of the day was always the deepest dive followed by more moderate depths. Every dive except one though was more than 60 feet deep.
One thing that was a bit annoying was that boats in El Nido are not allowed to go out until they are given clearance by the Coast Guard. Someone actually comes through each day and clears them. They also require all passengers to be in life vests before they can depart (of course the vests came off pretty quickly once we were out). I’ve not run in too this anywhere else in the Philippines! This was relatively minor though in the overall scheme of things.
I stayed for 5 dive days and did 15 dives at 11 different dive sites. Visibility was very good all five days, averaging 50 feet or more.
South Entalula- This was my first dive on Thursday, June 22nd. My dive started at 9:48 AM. This is a flat reef that begins in about 12-13 feet of water and drops to over 90 feet. Corals were in good shape. I spotted schools of fusilier’s, batfish, nudibranchs, angelfish, lionfish, lizardfish, anemonefish, parrotfish, and gobies. My dive time was 50 minutes and maximum depth was 94 feet.
South Miniloc-Lot’s of corals. It’s a flat reef with sloping sides. The top of the reef is around 15 feet. It slopes off to over a 140 feet. I did 2 dives here. The first dive was my second dive on the first day. That dive was 38 minutes (a beginner in the group) and had a maximum depth of 55 feet. Again the corals here were in good shape. I spotted, parrotfish, damselfish, cleaner wrasse, angelfish, blue-ribbon eel’s, bream, and the highlight of the dive was the large schools of snapper. Water temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
This was the third dive on Saturday, June 24th. This dive started at 1:44 PM and lasted 63 minutes. Blue-ribbon eel, butterflyfish, groupers, and moorish idol’s were all spotted during this dive. More of the same from the previous dive including a large school of snapper. There was also a large school of sweepers and small schools of fusiliers on this dive. Trumpetfish, a boxfish, and a few nudibranchs of course! Towards the end of the dive we spotted a turtle and I got some shots along with about a minute of video. Maximum depth was 64 feet and water temperature 84F.
Twin Rocks-This dive site is on the north side of Miniloc. It slopes from about 40 feet to around 70 feet with a sandy bottom. Large number of table corals and sponges. Lot’s of groupers on this dive. This was the third dive on the first day. The dive started at 3:36 PM and lasted 58 minutes. Maximum depth was 63 feet and water temperature was 81F. I spotted a snub-nose grouper near the beginning of the dive. Then a blacktip grouper and a coral grouper. There were schools of fusiliers flitting around. Another blacktip grouper. A variety of bream, and a leopard coral grouper. A small group of 3 nudibranchs, Chromodoris willani. Another coral grouper hiding under a table coral. Two nudibranchs near each other, Chromodoris annae. Damselfish, lionfish, anemonefish, and another nudibranch, Phyllidiella nigra. A Titan triggerfish with two cleaner wrasse working him over, damselfish, and more anemonefish. My maximum depth was 63 feet. Water temperature was 81 Fahrenheit.
Dilumacad Island AKA Helicopter Island-. My first dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 9:40 AM and was 49 minutes with a maximum depth of 97 feet. Water temperature was 83 Fahrenheit. Right at the beginning I saw a school of catfish, a fairly common sight. There was a nice anemone out in the sand with saddleback anemonefish and a porcelain crab. I saw a couple of blue-spotted rays during the dive. Nice corals, including a lot of lettuce corals. Schools of fusiliers that seemed to be everywhere in El Nido. Nudibranchs, whip corals, squirrelfish, blacktip grouper, moorish idol’s, emperor’s, and damselfish were all spotted on this dive.
It also turned out to be my last dive in El Nido as it was the third dive of the day on Monday, June 26th. The dive started at 1:47 PM and lasted 63 minutes. As before there were schools of fusiliers flitting around, anemones with anemonefish, and lot’s of nice hard corals. I spotted a blue-spotted ray, lots of damselfish, a trumpetfish, grouper, and more anemones and anemonefish. There was a snake eel buried in the sand with just it’s head sticking out, wrasse, juvenile sweetlips, and a really nice scorpionfish. Maximum depth was 76 feet and water temperature was 84F.
North Rock-Depths from 40-100 feet. This was my second dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 11:43 AM and lasted 43 minutes. Maximum depth was 85 feet and water temperature was 83F. There are some beautiful table corals here. Lot’s of damselfish, anemonefish, grouper, and schools of yellow-tailed fusilier’s were all spotted on this dive. Also cardinalfish, squirrelfish, and some really nice soft corals. There were nudibranchs, lionfish, decorator crabs, and ambon shrimp. Some nice swim-throughs that were huge rocks set close together and covered in corals. Right at the end a yellow boxfish. I really enjoyed this dive!
NatNat-Sloping reef to a sandy bottom with beautiful corals and plenty of fish. This was my third dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 1:57 PM and lasted 61 minutes. Right at the beginning we saw a Dendritic Jawfish-Opistognathus dendriticus. Commensal shrimp perched on an anemone followed by a devil scorpionfish. Out on the sand we found a nudibranch Chromodoris geometrica and a number of pipefish. There were grouper and schools of fusiliers. I spotted another nudibranch, Thorunna halourga. Next was a tiny Harlequin crab Lissocarcinus orbicularis on a sea cucumber. More commensal shrimp, this time on soft corals. Then a banded boxer coral shrimp hiding underneath a table coral along with cardinalfish. In a sandy patch I spotted a shrimpgoby with an alpheid shrimp. There were small schools of bream, various anemones with anemonefish, and at the end a trumpetfish. Maximum depth was 74 feet and water temperature was 85F.
It was also my third dive on Sunday, June 25th. The dive started at 1:50 PM and lasted 55 minutes. Damselfish, two nudibranchs, Risbecia tryoni a chocolate grouper, another nudibranch, Phyllidiella pustulosa, a small blue-ribbon eel, lionfish, commensal shrimp, goatfish, and yet another nudibranch, Phyllidia ocellata. Then two more nudibranchs, a Phyllidiella pustulosa and a Hypselodoris bullockii. Filefish, butterlyfish, damselfish, wrasse, and ending with a scorpionfish. A very enjoyable dive! Maximum depth was 67 feet and water temperature was 87F.
Popolcan-Sloping reef from 15 to over a 100 feet. This was my first dive on Saturday, June 24th. My dive started at 9:32 AM for 56 minutes. Nice corals here. Lot’s of wrasse and damselfish. I spotted a toby near the beginning of the dive. Clams here and there, grouper, and a nudibranch, followed by a pufferfish. Snapper, lionfish, and anemonefish. Schools of bream, a filefish, more anemonefish, and near the end of the dive a beautiful nudibranch, Ardeadoris egretta, one of my favorite nudibranchs. White with a yellow edge on the margin of the mantle.
This was the nudibranch I’d pointed at a picture in the shop when I made my first trip to El Nido and said, “I want a photo of that one”! I did spot just one during that trip and was told how lucky I was, as they’re not common. It was the only one I saw on that trip and this turned out to be the only time on this trip that I saw one too, so I feel pretty lucky! 🙂 My maximum depth was 105 feet and water temperature was 85F.
Paglugaban-Sloping reef with rocks. The top of the reef is in about 25 feet of water and slopes to over 95 feet. The corals were in nice shape, as they were everywhere I dived in El Nido. There were damselfish, and I would spot 4 different species of nudibranchs during the dive. Lionfish and pufferfish, all the usual suspects were around! There were some nice swim-throughs as well. This was my second dive on Saturday, June 24th. The dive started at 11:36 AM and lasted 55 minutes. My maximum depth was 69 feet and water temperature was 84F.
Dilumacad Island/Tunnel-The island has a tunnel on the north side at a depth of about 30-40 feet. This was the first dive on Sunday, June 25th. We were in the water at 9:21 AM and had a 54 minute dive. We did a dive on a wall outside the tunnel to a depth of 105 feet first and then worked our way back to shallower depths. There were large rock formations underwater with gave a few mini-walls to explore. Three different species of nudibranchs, Hypselodoris bullockii, Phyllidia elegans, and Chromodoris annae were spotted along with an octopus, a peacock mantis shrimp, and a juvenile sweetlips. We also saw banded pipefish, grouper, and a decorator crab. After exploring the area outside it was time for the tunnel.
The tunnel qualifies as a cavern dive as surface light is not completely lost, but you do need a light! There are openings in the middle that let light in to a fairly large cavern there. Lot’s of fish inside. A school of sweepers. Soldierfish and squirrelfish and even a couple of sweetlips. There was a lionfish loitering around the exit on the other side. Just outside was a cowrie with the mantle extruded and covering the shell. On the way back through we found an electric clam. A nudibranch up on the ceiling, a Chromodoris fidelis near the exit, and crawling along the bottom along the wall was a devil scorpionfish. Just outside another nudibranch, a Halgerda batangas. A very nice dive!
Paradise Beach-Sloping reef 3-70 feet. Some nice corals patches with large sandy areas. This was my second dive on Sunday, June 25th. The dive started at 11:31 AM and lasted 65 minutes. Shrimpgobies with shrimp, with a pair of sea moths to start out. An anemone with ambon shrimp, clams, more gobies, schools of bream, anemone’s with anemonefish, goatfish sifting through the sand, hermit crabs, and juvenile pufferfish. Lot’s of life! Maximum depth was 62 feet and water temperature was 87F.
It was my first dive of the day on Monday, June 26th, the last dive day. Dive started at 9:12 AM and lasted 54 minutes. Similar to the first dive. On this one spotted a mantis shrimp hiding in it’s hole, anemone’s with anemonefish, moorish idols, cardinalfish, and a nice size flounder. Schools of fusliers, and a sea snake on the hunt. A stingray buried in the sand, and a few nice corals. Maximum depth was 69 feet and water temperature was 87F.
Denise Reef-Beautiful coral garden that slopes down to a sandy bottom. This was my second dive on the last day. The dive started at 11:27 AM and lasted for 58 minutes. Lot’s of nice hard corals, damselfish, yellow boxfish, butterflyfish, a nudibranch, Phyllidia varicosa, schools of fusiliers, a toby, and a pufferfish. A pair of nudibranchs, Risbecia tryoni, engaged in mating, another Phyllidia varicosa, anemone’s with anemonefish, and yet another nudibranch, Phyllidiella nigra. Schools of fusiliers, butterflyfish, lionfish, gobies, and flounder out in the sandy area. Another great dive! Maximum depth was 74 feet and water temperature was 83F.
I think 4-5 days is about right for El Nido and will give you the opportunity to dive all the top dive sites there. Three dives a day also seemed like a good pace.
El Nido seemed drastically different to me from the sleepy little town I remember from my last trip there in 2009. There has been a lot of construction. In 2009 I only remember 3 dive ops. Now there are well over a dozen. Tourism is big business here with lots of tours (island hopping, snorkeling, etc…), souvenir shops, and some really great restaurants.
There were 3 restaurants that stand out in my memory… one because it was so bad and two because they were so good. I ate at Squido’s the first night I was in El Nido. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but the service was terrible and so was the food. I won’t eat there again.
The second night Joy recommended Artcafe which turned out to be really good. Artcafe is really in to locally grown and produced food I had the El Nido Salad which is a combination of fresh greens, mango, and nuts with a homemade dressing. Very tasty! They also have live music in the evening and a great 2nd floor balcony you can sit on. I also had breakfast my last morning. Great omelette and really nice, locally grown, coffee. Also very good.
The other restaurant that stands out is Pinche’s. This is a Mexican restaurant that is right on the beach. The food was so good there that I had dinner there twice while I was in El Nido. Great homemade chips and salsa, excellent fish tacos, and amazing chicken enchilada’s! The service was really good too. It was so good I asked to speak to the manager (turned out to be the owner) the first time I went in. Turned out the owner was from El Paso, Texas which explained everything to me! He was using his grandmother’s recipe’s which also explained the great taste. I’ve been going to the Philippines for 10 years and this is the absolute best Mexican food I’ve had there! I’m from Texas and I know good Mexican food when I taste it. Great food, great service, and great location on the beach!
After breakfast on the 27th I grabbed some cash from the ATM and settled my bill at Tabanka Divers. Then a trike to the transportation terminal, followed by a long (almost 6 hour) ride back to Puerto Princesa. I stayed at Grandma’s Home Bed and Breakfast for 2 nights. Because of the rainy weather my gear wasn’t quite dried out so I hung it on the balcony there. The place was gated and had security cameras and someone awake to watch over everything 24 hours a day so it was a very secure place to stay. Made the trip to the famous Underground River on the 28th and flew back to Manila on the 29th. A very nice trip!
So now I am just over a week behind… amazing I know! 🙂 Next I’ll be writing about my trip to South Padre Island where I dived the Texas Clipper on July 29th. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to head to Florida where I will be diving the worlds largest artificial reef, the USS Oriskany CV-34 on Friday, August 11th. Stay tuned!
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