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Puerto Galera: Are You For Scuba?

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It briefly crossed my mind that my title was stupid (except for the Puerto Galera part) but, as usual, I figured I’d stick with it anyway, even if, by my estimates, only 25% of people get the movie reference. I also figure that another 25% will think it sounds familiar even if they aren’t able to place it, another 25% will not get it and will simply think my grammar is awful, and a final 25% don’t know what the hell I’m going on about since it sounds fine to them. Hint: who would have imagined the voice of Professor Frink on the Simpsons would have a chest like that?

El Nido

Anyway, sandwiched around our Tao boat trip were two separate visits to the lovely, charming and tranquil city of Manila, along with some time in Palawan, lots of showering in Coron, snorkelling with whale sharks (finally!) in Donsol, chicken and donuts in Legazpi, and scuba diving and copious sweating in Puerto Galera. Who says it’s easy to plan a trip to the Philippines? We spent a single night in Manila, where we were able to leave half the contents of our backpacks behind in storage, all the hiking and cold weather gear we had needed in New Zealand (toques, gloves, merino wool, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, wool socks, my fleece toothbrush) which had suddenly been rendered completely redundant in an unnecessarily humid country with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-30’s.

Then we flew to El Nido, Palawan on what we assumed was a cheap bare-bones discount airline, but actually turned out to be an adorable little boutique airline (think sandwiches and fruit in the air-conditioned lounge, wooden boarding passes which we had to return, and the fact we literally booked by sending an email), enjoying one of the more spectacular runway approaches we’ve ever seen (right up there with Ushuaia’s mountainous “southern-most city in the world” and Madeira’s runway that crosses above a highway and sticks out over the ocean).

The jeepney ride from the plane to the thatch-roofed “terminal”, the five women serenading us and playing ukeleles upon arrival and the motorized tricycle that whisked us off to town were simply quaint added touches. There we spent a few days relaxing, most of the time simply enjoying views of the beautiful bay studded with colourful little outrigger boats and surrounded by stunning limestone islands, with just a couple hours of kayaking along some scenic cliffs and a few brief forays into “town” braving the heat to provision ourselves for our Tao boat journey.

Incidentally, messily popular El Nido’s ugly jumble of shops and crowded dirt streets were eerily reminiscent of Thai boomtowns we’ve seen in the past, unfortunately not in the “pad thai”, “land of smiles” sort of way, but more of the “boy, they are determined to really mess this up” sort of way. But mostly we just spent time enjoying our waterfront cabin and hammocks, mentally preparing to do more or less the exact same thing for 5 days, except on a boat.

El Nido airport

After our epic Tao boat trip, which I already discussed at (great) length in my last entry, we found ourselves “disgorged, drunk and disoriented, into the dark chaos of Coron” where we somehow managed to actually track down our hotel out in some rough side street up a hill out of town then, eventually, find a place to eat and, maybe, just a couple of slowing down beers to ease the transition back into relatively civilized life. I.e. internet, mattresses, running water, being more or less sand-free, bathrooms with walls, and even laundry (oh, the things those swimming trunks had seen).

Our one full day in Coron involved a lot of talking about doing things but never actually doing them (such as scuba diving, boat tours, lagoon visits, blog writing), then we met up with Costa and Renata (from the Tao trip) for dinner and drinks, said our sentimental goodbyes, then naturally ran into them again in the airport the next morning (the kind of airport where you can just be sitting there, minding your own business, and a cat will wander past), by group agreement eschewing any embarrassing histrionics, at least until we were passing through our gate to board the plane, when Costa suddenly appeared, appearing for all the world desperate and deranged, to implore “Dean, don’t go! Don’t go, Dean!” to the shock and awkward confusion of the bewildered airline security officer.

My wry half-smile and self-conscious shrug was intended to set his racing mind at ease and assure him that it was all just a joke, but I’m fairly certain he remained unconvinced, and had no intention of letting me use the urinal next to him.

Vitton Beach Resort

Which takes us to Donsol which is one of the two best places in the Philippines to see whale sharks. The other is to go from Cebu to Oslob, a couple islands to the south. These are exactly the types of places in the Philippines where a person – say the type of person who has travelled to many places around the world, often with vague but optimistic hopes of lucking into a whale shark sighting but never, ever having that seemingly modest dream come to fruition – is almost guaranteed the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks. And, wouldn’t you know it, we did.

Although, in fairness, I would probably describe it less as snorkelling with whale sharks as snorkelling slowly in place, intently watching our guide and waiting for the signal to look down, hopefully timing it just right to catch a good look at one of these 10-metre long monsters as it bore down on us with its huge gaping maw vacuuming up plankton at a stunning rate, testing our agility and overall finning ability to quickly turn and swim alongside, marvelling at its majesty while desperately trying to suppress the urge to hyperventilate as our mind processes the fact that we are voluntarily putting ourselves as close as possible to the biggest fish in the world who, with a casual flick of its massive tail, could easily reduce us to a bobbing mess of bones, blood and lycra.

Of course, they generally don’t do anything of the sort, rarely even noticing our puny existence from what I could tell, except to dive a little deeper whenever the quarters got a little too cramped with swimmers, snorkellers and ineffectually flailing “lifejackets” (the term used for those unable to swim or even really work out the complicated intricacies of a snorkel, yet still feel it makes good sense for them to use the technology of a lifejacket to participate in the experience, and even if they are highly unlikely to see anything more than a shadow, and the flailing limbs of their boatmates).

Whale shark!

Boats were sent out with groups of 6 snorkellers, after we had all watched an appropriately stern and solemn instructional video outlining all the do’s and don’ts of whale shark interaction (do: remain a safe distance from the shark; don’t: poke it in the face), and we were lucky to be joined up with a friendly, courteous group including a Dutch couple and a couple from Calgary we had shared a taxi with from the airport, whose main source of stress at that point was not the prospect of swimming with giant sharks, or even hoping to, but where and how they were going to find internet access capable of powering a radio broadcast of the Flames-Canucks game.

We were the first boat out and, although we were soon joined by many more, all slowly cruising in circles in the bay with a young Filipino with presumably sharp eyes perched high up on the post at the front of the boat, diligently on the lookout for large dark shadows in the vicinity, we ended up getting in the water with no less than 4 whale sharks, a couple of which we even had to ourselves for the brief 10-20 seconds we would have before they would either easily outswim us or gracefully dive down beyond our sight.

Despite the mild chaos of the system, it was an awesome experience, awesome enough that we immediately booked again for the following morning. With the Dutch couple moving on we chose to hire the entire boat for just the 4 of us (with John and Lesley, the Cgy couple), partially to minimize the competition in the water, partially to protect against getting stuck babysitting a couple “lifejackets”, but mainly because to hire the entire boat, with a guide, spotter and driver, for 3 hours, still only cost $Cdn 100 in total, less than you’d pay for 6 hours of adult beginner swimming lessons at your local public pool.

Run away!!

Once or twice we ended up battling for space with a group of “lifejackets”, emerging from our brief dive into a sea of flailing arms and legs which Laynni described as feeling like a clumsy winter fisherman trapped below the ice frantically searching for an opening to the surface. Incidentally, by the end of the two days I boasted a tally of 5 separate fin cuts on my hands and knees.

But most of the time we were more or less by ourselves, learning increasingly advanced techniques as we went along, such as jettisoning ourselves from the moving boat then ducking under the outrigger as it sped dangerously past our heads, to timing it just right to float in awe of one of the oncoming juggernauts of ridged and spotted darkness appearing through the murk led by a gaping mouth over a metre across, each time causing a sudden moment of panic followed by stunned immobility as all 10 metres glided past seemingly oblivious to our tiny fragility. 

We were lucky enough to each get at least one sighting where we were able to swim alongside one of these gentle monsters, getting a full minute or two of calm to view the whole thing in one go and truly appreciate their sheer size and grandeur. In a related note, our resort was quite nice, featuring good views, a nice restaurant, a bar, a great pool, and life-size plastic replica of a whale shark, just in case.

Mt Mayon

After a night in busy Legazpi, a relatively unremarkable place save for the perfectly conical volcano standing sentinel over the city, where our personal highlights were visiting yet another Rizal Street (one in every town, like empty lots with discarded couches or chubby parking metre attendants), our very first visit to the popular Jollibee’s fried chicken chain and some late night Dunkin Donuts, then riding in a tiny moto-tricycle to the airport in the morning, we undertook the long, complex journey to Puerto Galera, one of the top scuba destinations for beginner divers in Southeast Asia.

It was our final anticipated destination before returning home (wording chosen to specifically exclude a final planned night in Manila). Moto-tricycle, plane, taxi, bus, ferry, and suddenly there was Paul, a friend, originally from Montreal, whom we had met waaaay back in 2000 in Indonesia. Paul has been involved with South Sea Divers in Sabang (the diving epicentre of the Puerto Galera area) on and off since the 90’s, and after 15 years (since we met Paul on the side of remote road in Sulawesi) and 14 years since, on his recommendation, we completed our Advanced Open Water courses (under the regimented tutelage of a grim German in Koh Tao) we decided it was high time we paid him (Paul, not the German) a visit and went in for a little scuba in his neck of the woods.

The most unique feature of the diving in Sabang is the fact there are around 30 dive sites in the area, most of which are less than 10 minutes away by boat, which means that, unlike so many impressive but less convenient dive areas around the world, scuba diving there doesn’t have to be an exhausting all-day venture involving multiple dives, dull surface intervals spent in clammy wetsuits and hours spent in transit to and from distant sites.

Once we had our gear sorted out we were able to just roll up 10 minutes before departure time each morning, be in the water 20 minutes later, and back on shore reminiscing in comfortable dryness an hour after that. Which is important because, you know, we have such a tight schedule to follow, what with this blog, staying on top of the whole sunscreen situation, and changing underwear occasionally. All in all, a great diving experience, very laid back, knowledgeable group, and Paul swung us a much-appreciated insider deal, proving that not even 15 years or the increasingly irrelevant Leafs-Canadians rivalry is a match for good old-fashioned Canadian nepotism.

Sabang beach

The hotel Paul set us up in was also pleasant surprise, a pretty big room with tv, a/c and fridge, not to mention an amazing terrace perfect for having breakfast (mmm, bacon), drinking beer, watching the sunset and hanging wet clothes on re-bar to dry if need be. Probably the best thing about it, though, was that it was down at the far end of the beach as far as possible from the tiny but hectic jumble of restaurants, bars, dive shops and knock-off flip flop shops, and therefore much quieter than most.

Sure, it had its quirks, like the three different staircases all leading up to a confusing heap of rooms that meant that the most efficient route from our terrace to the main terrace was to leap/step from our railing across a small, yet theoretically death-defying, drop to the floor below. It was like the coyote and the roadrunner, as long as you don’t acknowledge the drop you’re fine.

View from Reynaldo's Upstairs

The diving was predictably good and surprisingly varied. Our first dive featured a wreck, some spectacular coral, a feeding turtle and a ton of fish, the second a slow detailed examination of a creature-filled sandy bottom where the highlights were a “flamboyant cuttlefish” (think a cross between a huge snail and a tiny Liberace), plenty of colourful nudibranchs, an hangnail-coloured octopus out and on the move (much more exciting than in their usual stance backed tightly and concealingly into a hole like a cautious gopher or curious mole) and, drum roll, a pair of seahorses, fairly large in seahorse terms (roughly the size of a vegetable peeler or well-fed gerbil), also out and swimming around as casual as you please, and something that has been at the top of Laynni’s scuba hit list for years now.

The only catch – Laynni wasn’t there, after putting some serious thought into it and weighing all the various pros and cons having opted to not move her ass off the couch after all. She’s still angry about it, and will almost certainly be even angrier after she reads this. Prudently moving on, therefore, day three featured drift diving, more incredible coral, a number of hypnotically mesmerizing schools of fish, all interspersed with old divers using their cleverly protective gloves and specialized metal pointers to grab, jab and more or less make nature their bitch in as many ways as possible. So that was fun to watch.

But for now it was all quite impressive down there, and we did come across a massive grouper mottled brown and beige in a way that camouflaged it so well that by the time my pointing got specific enough for Laynni to catch on I had come dangerously close to administering my first ever grouper prostate exam (that’s “grouper”, not “group”, that I’ve done, obviously). Luckily he backed out at the last minute, probably worried about whether his health care would cover being probed by a foreigner and all, not to mention one who is only a doctor when playing “Operation” or trying to make his hotel check-in form look more impressive.

Camo Grouper

If the days were all about diving, and napping, and staring blankly at things, then our nights were all about eating, drinking and sampling Sabang’s rather notorious nightlife with Paul and a couple vacationing English guys we hung out with. Well, at least 2 of the 4 nights were all about that, or leaving the room at least, which isn’t bad for people of a certain age like us, and on those 2 nights it really amounted more to a big meal, some groaning, half a dozen drinks (mainly chosen from a wide array of 5 different types of San Miguel products), plenty of yawning, and us still in bed by 10 (although I certainly can’t promise the same for the others).

So, while maybe we didn’t actually sample the nightlife that much, I can assure you we spent more than enough time talking about the nightlife, which while admittedly less exciting, also seems far less likely to end in another troublesome bout of genital warts (although I certainly can’t promise the same for the others). Discussing all the social niceties and intricate approaches with regard to go-go bars, working girls, bar fees, standard all-night fees, hourly premiums, reverse drink specials, the unique challenges of sex with Koreans and, ultimately, the captivating glamour of intriguing mixed race couples separated by at least 35 years, and including at least one paunchy white male with relatively new tattoos wholly inappropriate for their age. Capitalism in its purest form – supply, demand, mutually acceptable price points and cheap black market Cialis.

Dabbling in the bar scene

Which leaves us with Manila, oh, Manila. We didn’t see much of you, but what we did see was just as nasty, noisy and noxious as we had been so eagerly anticipating. Crowded and loud, with snarling, impassable traffic and a thick, frightening layer of smog that blurred out everything outside a 6 block radius in a hazy shade of grey – and just the choking, disgusting leave-a-visible-film-on-your-skin sort of way, too, not even the violently abusive sexy sort of way that middle-aged mothers seem to love so much in their literature.

Sure, the famous “jeepneys” were pretty fun, extravagantly decorated as though in gaudy appreciation of chrome fixtures and strings of coloured balls, and who doesn’t love a motorized tricycle with a frame the size of a standard mountain bike yet room for 6+ passengers in three unrelated groups (sidecar, rear perch, stuffed tight on the tiny seat rubbing thighs with the sweaty, hard-working driver)?

Throw in some exotic Filipino street food, plus a very Filipino KFC combo meal that includes donut holes, chocolate sauce, gravy on everything plus all-you-can-eat access to the communal gravy station, and the free breakfast at our hotel – i.e. a coupon for the Kenny Roger’s Roastery next door where I enjoyed a splendid kickstart to my day of spam, eggs and garlic rice. Breakfast of champions, not to mention Filipino tax drivers, grumpily groggy Chinese families and road-weary, unshaven foreigners beyond caring about their breath.

And then we were home.

Other posts you might be interested in:

Dhigurah Maldives: The Ultimate Visitor’s Guide

Fuvahmulah Maldives: Things to Do in the Tiger Shark Capital of the World