Atlantis Dumaguete Scuba Diving Trip - March 2015
In December of 2014, during a conversation with my good friend Glen, I was asked if an opportunity to travel to the Philippines presented itself in a very short period of time, would I be able to move my plans around quick enough to make it happen. I told him YES! Not only did that opportunity happen, it also happened for Vicki. A double opening to one of the best dive trips had come up and we had the chance of a lifetime to travel to and dive the Philippines Islands. The next two months Vic and I updated passports, gathered, prepared and packed for our two-week trip literally half way across the planet. The hardest part of the trip was leaving the kids for those two-weeks which involved some serious planning and help from family and friends. That and the promises of a Disney trip later in the year for all four of us.
February 22nd through 24th - Getting There
On Sunday, February 22, Vic and I loaded our carefully weighed and organized luggage into the car for our trip to the Crowne Plaza hotel just off the St. Louis Airport property. There we met and had dinner with our 12 other traveling companions. Our adventure was about to begin. Waking at 3AM the morning of the 24th was a very early start to a very, very long day. Our first of five flights would leave STL at 6AM for Houston, TX, the two hour flight would be our shortest of the five flights. Our second flight on-board a Boeing 767 left Houston at 9:20AM and arrived in Honolulu at 1:56PM local time; an 8:36-hour flight of 3901miles. We had no time for rest in Hawaii as we walked right onto our third leg of the trip, Guam. A 7:50-hour flight on-board another older Boeing 767 on which we officially crossed the date line. At this point, we were starting to feel the time and while our iPhones couldn't figure out what the hell we were doing. We stumbled to our next gate for the forth flight to Manila, Philippians. The 3:50-hour flight went quick knowing we were getting close to the end. We arrived late evening in a dark but very busy Manila. Here we checked into a local hotel close to the airport for the evening as our next flight didn't leave till the next day. Our group traveled by van pickup to the Midus Hotel which was a very fancy and secure hotel with high ceilings and guard dogs in the lobby. We quickly checked in and crashed-out for six hours or so. Wake-up came early again in Manila as we woke at 5AM for our 7AM flight to Dumaguete, arrival at 8:15AM. We had made it. A total flight-time of almost 17 hours, total travel-time of 30 hours with13 time-zone changes and crossing the date line.
What we didn't realize was our travel adventures would continue! Once we had our luggage loaded into our taxi/vans we enjoyed a 30 minute, eye-opening, gut-tightening ride through Dumaguete to the Resort. It was a hard smack of reality...we wen't in Illinois anymore. The primary form of transportation in the Philippians is a "Tricycle" which were motorcycles with a sidecar attached and motor-taxis which are motorcycles used as a taxi. Both used for short trips which often held entire families. Also, "Jeepneys", a Frankenstein-type creation of old WW2 Jeeps and any other type of "Mad Max" style vehicle welded together also joined us on the road. In addition to them were the few sub-compacts and airport shuttles along with thick bicycles and foot traffic. Road equate was well...non-existent. A typical two lane road in the US served as a six lane road with little or no coordination. Intersections were a "first-come first-serve" / "I dare you" kind of interactions. With all of our group's internal clocks being totally out-of-wack, this short drive almost pushed a couple of us over the edge of sanity. But it was fun...I caught myself laughing at the absolute absurdity and chaos of it all. It kinda reminded me of running full-speed with a shopping cart in a Walmart at the height of Black Friday; except with cars..or jeeps or motorcycles. Yea, really it was fun.
We pulled off the road onto what I can only describe as a rutted trail that weaved around houses at 90 degree turns and trees at times only an inch away from us. Passing through a gated security check-point we officially arrived at the Atlantis Resort. Walking into the resort was kind of 180 from what we had all just experienced. This was paradise. Carefully manicured trees, plants and grass surrounded us. Flowers and fruits hung from the trees. And a smiling Philippine man was sweeping leaves off the path in front of us with a palm fern. Atlantis isn't a big Resort with a total of twenty or so rooms in a variety of huts and villas. The focal point is the open-air restaurant / bar called Tokos. A large chalk board welcomed us with the day's menu displayed upon it. It was here where we were all introduced to the property by the owner who gushed over our arrival. As we listened to his welcome we were feed fresh local fruit, a mixed drink and a complementary massage. After two days of hard travel, I'm not sure which of those three things I enjoyed the most. Vic and I checked into our "honeymoon hut" and started to decompress. We had the rest of the day to do with as we wished so we toured the resort taking in all the views and sights including a walk down the almost black colored sand beach. Vic and I also scheduled a late afternoon "couples massage" which was an hour and a half of total relaxation to a point I had to be woken up more than once. We all then met up again at Tokos for an amazing dinner together. By the end of desert, half of our group was nodding off in our seats. Sleep came very quickly that night for all.
February 25th - Day One
Our first full day in the Philippines. A smaller group of us scheduled a mid-day adventure via "Extreme ATV Adventure Tours". Seated on our imported 250cc quads we started up the Dauin Mountain's hot springs and water falls to see the real Philippines. Vic and I shared a bike as the group went up the gentle-grade trail / road through numerous local villages and neighborhoods. It was real interesting seeing directly how the local people lived. To say it was a culture shock to see would be and understatement. The Philippine people can do so much with so little. And they all seem genuinely happy and more than eager to visit and talk with us. The whole ride up the mountain we were greeted with smiles and waves primarily from children going to and from school. After about and hour or so climb up the mountain we parked our bikes and started to walk down to the hot springs site. The path was an extremely steep but paved and absolutely gorgeous. Think tropical rain-forest on the side of a mountain type hike. At the bottom of the trail was an area of four connected concrete pools that fed into each other. The point was for the water to gradually cool off between the pools. The spring water originated from a steaming hole in the side of the mountain crusted with bright white sulfur rock. The air was heavy with the smell of eggs but we got use to it pretty quickly. I would guess the water temp coming out of the mountain was over 200 degrees. But once the four pools cooled it down, it was a pleasant hot-tub temp of around 110 degrees. I made the mistake of putting my foot into one of the warmer pools and slightly cooked my poor piggies. Along the pools was a cold water creek with plastic pipes taking the water down the mountain and into the villages and schools we had passed. One of the pipes also feed into the cooler of the hot water pool to help lessen the heat of the water. Vic and I decided to take the small hike up stream to where we were told was the "falls". It was an easy hike along the rocky stream but the fun part was dodging the numerous boiling springs along the way feeding into the stream. You could actually see the water boiling and bubbling out of the ground. We reached the falls where we took a few pics and enjoyed the total peacefulness of the place. I think it was at this point it really hit me about where exactly we were...standing in a waterfall on a actively volcanic mountain island in the middle of the Philippines thousands of miles from home. We returned to the group, had some local bananas, water and began our trek back to the quads. The ride back down the mountain was just as enjoyable as the ride up. Vic even scored a couple coconut shells from a farm we passed on the way up. We tried to pay but they just gave it to us with a smile. The adventure was really enjoyable and totally worth it to see the country through the eyes of a local.
We returned back to the resort just in time for me to get my first dive in. It was a rough dive as my weights were way off and I had a hard time dropping in. But once I strapped on a couple more weights I joined my group on the bottom for my first "muck" dive. The point of a muck dive is to get down on the bottom and poke around the "muck" to see the "micro" critters hiding within. You'd be surprised at what you find. A good dive with a medium current. Vic hung out on shore with some of the others with some local drinks and snacks and took pictures of the group coming and going. After the dive I cleaned up just in time for another fabulous dinner and company.
Whale Sharks at Tan-awan
February 26th - Whale Shark Day!
A good day. Whale Shark day! The Philippines Islands are one of the few places on the planet you can see a Whale Shark up close. This was a once in a life time, amazing opportunity for close-up encounters with these gentle giants. Fishermen in the province of Oslob started feeding whale sharks with shrimp they catch at night in late 2011. Since then the sharks have become regular visitors to the area and sightings are almost guaranteed on a daily basis. A total of a dozen "resident" Whale Sharks are here. The municipality of Oslob and the whale shark Watching Committee have implemented strict rules and guidance on whale shark feeding and interactions.
We woke early and finished our espressos and got loaded up into the resort's Jeepneie and drove back into Dumegette's shipping port where a slow-boat ferry would take us to Oslob, Cebu. Once we arrive we continued another couple miles to Tan-awan, which is where local fisherman feed the Whale Sharks and thus draws the tourists. Here we suited & booted up, prep'd our cameras and loaded into a pair of long, skinny canoes with out-riders on either side guided by locals. We were taken about 100 yards off shore and immediately joined a crazy ballet of feeding and tourist boats along with swimmers and snorkelers chasing half a dozen Whale Sharks. Before we even got in the water one swam right under our boat giving us a good view of what we were about to see. Vic then started screaming in excitement which would be fine in any other circumstance, just not around a bunch of feeding sharks. Once we got our fins on, we dropped into the water hand-in-hand and started chasing the closest one. Vic did amazing and looked like a natural in the water. Her one goal this trip was to swim with the Whale Sharks, and she did it with style. Even got a selfie with them. The Whale Sharks we saw varied in size from car-sized to bus-sized. Slow and lazy swimmers with only one thing on their minds...eating the shrimp dropped in front of them by the feeding boats. The feeding boats would go back and forth between the rows of tourist boats while the snorkelers and swimmers did their best to avoid getting run over by the boats and sharks. It was a bit chaotic at times but amazing on a level I can't put into words. After about 20 minutes in the water, Vic made her way back to the long-boat and left me to chase alone and get up-close and personal with the Whale Sharks. How close? Very. Its a big no-no to touch the Whale Sharks intentionally, but when they bump into or smack you because you're too slow to move out of their way, its not my fault. I got some amazing photos and GoPro videos. Way too soon we were called back to our long-boats to return to the beach still shaking from the excitement of just swimming with one of the oceans greatest creatures. Back on shore we had an amazing lunch of BBQ ribs and all the fixings under the palm trees within site of our new big friends. Before we left we visited a row of tourist shops that lined the beach. The typical nic-nacks of any tourist spot: t-shrits, key-chains and stuff animals. The one highlight was a gentlemen who used a machete and prepared fresh coconuts to eat and drink. It was quite the show. Full and exhausted, the ferry ride back to Dumegette was relaxing and our drive back to the resort was less nail-biting as before. Maybe we're getting use to this type of travel?
On our way back to the Resort we stopped at the local Shopping Mall. The only big difference from the outside was the guard gate to get into the parking lot and the armed security detail inside the doors next to the KFC. It really could be any shopping mall in the US by the look of it and the stores within. Nothing out of the ordinary except for the included grocery store which sold some very interesting foods. Here we did the bulk of our goodies shopping for the kids buying sweets, baked goods and some clothing. Nice experience.
February 27th - Azores is Here
Today is the day that Vic and I would split for five days while 3/4 of the group would board the live-aboard yacht "Azores" and the others would stay back at the resort. We wouldn't board until late afternoon so we had the day together. We scheduled another massage for both of us which again was incredibly relaxing. Vic got her toe nails painted "diver-down" style. We walked the beach and relaxed together the bulk of the day.
At 5PM I boarded one of the Azores's zodiac boats from shore. Which was entertaining as the water was getting marginally rough today. A couple of my boat mates made less-than graceful entrances. Once we were shuttled out to the yacht, we took it all in. The Azores dive yacht is a 107' mono-hull, duel deck ship capable of 10 knot cruise travel. It has 8 state rooms and can accommodate 16 passengers and 6 crew. All the amenities were there, AC, TV, WIFi, DVD, and VHS...and a hot tub. The top deck was the wheel house, main lounge and dining areas and the outdoor hot-tube sitting deck. The lower deck was the main dive area and the passenger & crew berths. It was very nice. All drinks and food were provided. And the meals were just as amazing as they were on the Resort. Once we settled into our rooms, the main safety / introduction briefing was given. I won't lie, I was starting to feel a bit sea-sick at this time due to the rough seas, warm boat and flurry of activity. But I pulled it together in time for dinner. During this time, Vic moved rooms to bunk with Terri in one of the villa including a nice open air porch. Later in the evening the Azores pulled anchor and started "The Bohol Route".
The Visayas are one of the three island groups in the Philippines; enjoy six fabulous days diving from the Atlantis Azores around one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse regions in Asia. Easy cruises each evening will take you from one great dive site to another...
DIVE DAY 1: OSLOB & SUMILON - Sunday, March 1
We started the day returning to Oslob since we were in the neighborhood. So gathering our snorkles and fins, we boarded the zodiacs and parked just outside the boundary area for the Whale Shark site. It was a bit of a swim there and back from the boat but again, totally worth it. It was earlier in the day this time too so it wasn't as crazy busy as it was earlier in the week. But by the time we were swimming back to the zodiacs it was hopping again.
The rest of day one is spent diving is around tranquil Sumilon Island, surrounded by crystal clear waters and pristine white sandy beaches. Look out for... Exquisite coral gardens and drop-offs, ‘might sees’ in this area include manta rays and sting rays, barracudas, sea turtles, snakes and very occasionally whale sharks and Hammerheads. Dive sites included "Sanctuary", "Cottage Point".
DIVE DAY 2: CABILAO - Monday, March 2
In a place where time seems to stand still, a true paradise for divers reveals itself. The drop-off which borders the island, gives the opportunity to dive some of the best spots in the Philippines. Look out for... pygmy and the thorny seahorse with occasional sightings of the white and black tipped reef shark, napoleons, and jack fish. Barracudas, turtles, frog fishes and lots of different nudibranches are all common.
DIVE DAY 3: BALICASAG ISLAND - Tuesday, March 3
Balicasag is a flat island four kilometers southwest of the Duljo Point; the sandy coralline beach is a site to behold. Look out for... jacks, mackerel and barracudas often seen in abundance as well as large groupers, napoleon wrasses and snappers hiding in the over hangs of the dramatic multi-hundred foot vertical walls.
This day I did only one dive...and then got sick. Puked in the water just after the first dive. Got back to the boat and crashed. Seems I picked up a bug. After a nap, it was obvious I had a fever. I notified the crew and I was voluntarily quarantined. We were lucky that there was one open room my room-mate could move to. I slept the rest of the day and night. Come the following day I felt tons better and got right back into the water.
DIVE DAY 4: LAND EXCURSION - PANGLAO ISLAND - Wednesday, March 4
Tagbilaranis the "city of friendship" and is the main city on the Panglao Island and is the tenth largest island of the Philippines, and lies in the middle of the Visayas. It is here our eventual stop will be today. A couple dives, were are to look out for... turtles, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, eagle & manta rays, schooling barracuda and trevally, frog fish, ghost pipefish, pygmy and thorny seahorses, plus many different species of nudibranch, among dramatic walls and reefs.
After two morning dives we came into shore on the zodiacs and loaded up in a pair of taxi vans at the port. Here we started our day of some of the best sites of Bohol. About an hour drive into the island we came to a small protected site to see the Tarsiers - the world’s smallest primate who were really tiny and cute in their trees. Afterwards we made a quick stop and a quaint butterfly Habitat at Bohol where we did a tour and took some silly photos. Another quick stop at the local "store" where we were offered a drink of "Tuba" which is an alcoholic drink from coconuts. After being recently ill, I passed on the opportunity. A little bit further into the island we came up on a side-of-the-road blacksmith who was making knives and machetes from scratch. I of course bought one. Our last quick stop was the St. Peter the Apostle Church in Loboc built in the 1700s. In October of 2013 a large earthquake destroyed it. Finally we came to Carmen, Bohol and the "The Chocolate Hills" which are probably Bohol's most famous tourist attraction - they look like giant mole hills; covered with grass, which, at the end of the dry season, turns chocolate brown. Here too the damage from the earthquake was evident with destroyed structures all around the hills.
DIVE DAY 5: PAMILICAN ISLAND
The small island of Pamilacan is nestled in the heart of the Bohol Sea. Look out for... hawksbill and green turtles, whitetip reef sharks, dogtooth tuna, napoleon wrasse, trevally, wahoo, manta rays, eagle rays and numerous banded sea kraits. A stunning variety of hard and soft corals are also visible.
DIVE DAY 6: SIQUIJOR or APO Island
Called Isla del Fuego or the “Island of Fire” by the Spanish; it is considered by many Filipinos to be a mystical island, full of witches and other supernatural phenomena. Look out for... superb hard and soft corals, fusiliers, many nudibranchs, clown fish, parrot fish, schools of juvenile barracuda and razor fish. Super pristine walls abound!
Surrounded by an amazing tropical garden with some of the rarest plants to be found in the Philippines, it is just a short trip to some of the most renowned dive sites in Asia - Apo Island, Siquijor, and of course, the local Dauin Marine Sanctuaries.
The resort restaurants have long been described as "world class" and the "best food we have ever had on a dive vacation"; it's no different on Azores. They proudly adhere to the principle of only serving freshly "a la minute" prepared meals and snacks all day.
The chef will be pleased to look after your personal dietary requirements and to date no one has ever left Azores hungry! Start the day with a light continental breakfast of freshly baked bread, cereals, yogurts and fruit. After the first dive you sit down to a full breakfast – meats, cheeses, sweet selections and of course eggs any way you choose.
Lunches and dinners have been selected from the most popular resort blackboard menu items and are served family style: Fresh seafood, Filipino favorites as well as a selection of pastas, salads and homemade soups.
If the regular selection of snacks, meals and drinks does not satisfy your appetite the boat has a snack and drinks bar open all day – brew your own fresh cup of coffee or tea, enjoy a homemade cookie or other tasty delicacies.
All the drinks on board are complimentary and in addition you may bring your own beverages (there are no corkage fees). Stocked beverages include: Fresh blended juice, Calamansi (local citrus fruit) juice,lime juice, ice tea, coffee, a selection of tea, milk, filtered drinking water, Coke, Coke Zero, Sprite, San Miguel Beer Pale Pilsner, San Miguel Beer Light, Tanduay Rum (one of the best in the world) and red and white wine.
The Azores has set new standards in liveaboard diving in the Philippines and, many of the guests say, in Asia. Azores is the perfect place from which to explore some of the best diving in the world. These high standards include the creature comforts, great food and welcoming crew.