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!