Beneath the Blanket - Puerto Galera

Looking ahead up the canyons at Puerto Galera, I can actually see up- and down-currents, back-eddies and slack areas. Being able to plan my route visually to make use of the current is a habit to which I could easily become addicted.
    Its all based on good visibility and millions of anthias, small orange fish that maintain position above their favourite coral heads while facing into the current.
    Observe the direction in which they are swimming, and you know the direction of the current. How frantically they swim provides a guide to the strength of the current.
    I drift fins-first, following Pete, my dive guide and buddy, from in front, while trying to photograph him flying past the vibrant corals and sponges. Over my shoulder I spot an outcrop with anthias swimming gently the other way behind it, and kick hard cross-current to enter the slack area, aiming the camera and zapping Pete as he screams past.
    As he passes, he gestures down and to the right, indicating how I should kick out of the current and into the more sheltered water of the first canyon.
    Sheltered is a relative term. There is still current in the canyon, but as it stretches across the main current at an angle the water tumbles, and there are plenty of back-eddies.
    I use these to work my way up-current, then pop up and drift through the shoal of snapper patrolling above before diving hard to return to the canyon.
    The sessile life is spectacular. Although crops of hard corals and large barrel sponges are plentiful, it is the density of bright orange and purple soft corals that dominates the scene. Even so, what marks the dive is the feeling that every fish for miles around has come here to enjoy the current.
    Along the sides of the canyon, the less-energetic flit about in the back-eddies. Butterflyfish peck at the reef between the soft corals. A lionfish hovers perfectly in slack water behind a barrel sponge, no doubt keeping a hungry eye on the anthias swimming like hyperactive goldfish to either side.
    Pete gestures up and over and we snap up and back down again into the next canyon. The scene is similar, if not better.
    By the time we reach the third canyon, my air is getting low. Pete has been letting the current do the work, while Ive been swimming hard to get good camera angles.
    Up and over again and 30m down-current we come to an old anchor embedded in the reef - our ascent point. We make a bluewater ascent to 3m, and Pete pops a delayed SMB for our safety stop.
    Delayed SMBs are in standard use here, with the strong currents and large amount of boat traffic, but because of the mixed currents, no one sets them off from a tie-in on the bottom.
    Out of the main current in Sabang Bay, local dive centres have sunk a couple of small boats as artificial reefs. They arent much as wrecks; their big attractions are frogfish, ghost pipefish and a shoal of batfish. These are subjects all photographers dream of capturing, but require different lenses and, using a housed camera system, different dives.
    My recce dive with a wide-angle lens for wreck shots works well, but the second with a macro lens for the ghost pipefish sees the camera jam.
    I rarely dive with two cameras, but on the next dive I take my spare as well as the suspect jamming camera with a medium lens to catch frogfish.
    Ghost pipefish in the bag, the nightmare continues as I find that the well-camouflaged frogfish has left her usual place and cannot be found. Another day, another dive - eventually we catch the frogfish at home. Like many celebrities, I guess she wearies of the paparazzi and needs some peace and quiet.
    Deep water and a well-established diving infrastructure makes Puerto Galera the deep-diving capital of the Philippines. Mark Andrews set his deep air record of 156m here in 1999 and John Bennett his 254m trimix record last year.
    Big depths, small world. Daran, who will be my guide when I reach Subic Bay, was a deep safety diver on Marks dive, and Pete, my guide here, was a support diver on John Bennetts.
    Im not up for either record, but with Action Divers well supplied with technical kit we plan a 55m air dive at a site called Sweetlips Cave. Pete and Simon warn me that with spring tides and the current sweeping off the wall and into deeper water we have only a 50/50 chance of hitting the right stretch of wall, but we go for it anyway.
    Descending fast, but at different rates, shearing currents split us up, and no one hits the wall. At 55m I can just about see the bottom, flat sand a good 15m below. I swim cross-current for five minutes before ascending.
    Only then do I realise that, although I have a nice technical wing BC and twin-set with lots of air, my usual extras such as delayed SMB, compass and surface location aids are all in the pockets of my lightweight travel BC.
    So I limit my bluewater decompression to a few minutes compulsory stops and a short additional safety stop. I dont want to drift too far. When I surface, the boat is a couple of hundred metres away and it seems the others have made similar dives.
    Most of the sites are within five minutes boat ride of the beach. Its amazing how much good diving there is in such a small area.
    Verde is a smaller island to the other side of the Verde Island Passage, the channel that separates Puerto Galera from Batangas. It is just visible 6 miles away in the early-morning haze as our banca passes the canyon dive site. To the south, the top of Mt Halcon pokes out from a ring of clouds.
    Forty minutes later we make a crash dive, regrouping at 15m below the surface current that whips across the reef-top. Here the diving is excellent but more conventional: coral-encrusted wall, sponges, gorgonians and black corals projecting into the current. But the memorable part comes at the end of the dive, just below the surface.
    Constrained by the reef, a sheet of water only a metre or so deep is rocketing across the corals. Hiding just below the moving water, I look up and see anthias swirling round inside standing waves.
    A little way along, a shallow cut in the reef has created a spiralling current. A living helix of anthias swirls along the cut to illustrate a ballet of physics.
    The name Puerto Galera comes from the Philippines Spanish past and means port of galleons. Significant archaeological finds have been made in these waters, and shards of ancient pottery occasionally wash up on beaches.
    The town is tucked away at the back of a large, sheltered inlet, with the dive centres and resort accommodation a few miles away at Sabang and Laguna beaches. Sabang is busiest, with shops, bars and loud nightlife. The atmosphere gets more peaceful as you walk a few minutes to the west along Small Laguna and Large Laguna beaches.
    Staying on Small Laguna suits me well. I can enjoy a quiet dinner and drink at the Full Moon bar next door, or walk into downtown Sabang.
    A bar crawl taking in every place on the way would leave you unfit to dive for a month.
Hash House Harriers means nothing to me until I arrive at Puerto Galera. These social running clubs are located all over the world. A hash is a mystery route marked with chalk that the hashers have to follow.
    You wouldnt catch me running more than a few hundred metres in a tropical location, but the PG hashers are a sociable bunch who lay on a shorter walking route. For a few pesos you can join in, wear a T-shirt, drink lots of beer, sing rugby songs and make many new friends. It isnt just bawdy expats, there are quite a few Filipinos in the group.
    I normally like to walk about and get away from the beach areas, but would never have ventured as far into the forest if not for the hash. The route takes in roads, tracks and jungle paths, hills and villages quite unlike downtown Sabang beach.

a pair of ghost pipefish on one of the Sabang Bay wrecks at Puerto Galera
drifting through the canyons at Puerto Galera
Hole in the Wall, Puerto Galera
a lionfish tucks into the back eddy behind a barrel sponge at Puerto Galera
the elusive frogfish at puerto Galera


GETTING THEREA 2-3 hour drive south from Manila to Batangas by minibus, then ferry to Puerto Galera and Sabang on Mindoro or pick-up by Action Divers supply banca. If combining Puerto Galera with Subic Bay, you can charter a seaplane to fly at low altitude between the two and miss the Manila traffic.

DIVING:Action Divers has shops on Small Laguna and Sabang beaches and charges $18 per dive on a multi-dive package, 0063 973751968,

ACCOMODATION:Deep Blue Sea Hotel, 50m along the beach from Action Divers, offers clean rooms with fans or air conditioning, cable and balcony with sea view. Nightly rates range from $10-$19. You can book the hotel through Action Divers.

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