NOT JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
Most of the time, when you hear somebody use the phrase “another day in paradise”, they’re trying to be funny or ironic. But Dive With Frank (DWF) just got back from an amazing week in a literal scuba diver’s paradise. More specifically, I did a familiarization trip to the Marco Vincent Dive Resort (MVDR) in Puerto Galera, Philippines. The point of this trip was to experience scuba diving in the Philippines for myself as well as to sample all that the MVDR had to offer and see if it would make a good trip for me to run for my local dive shop (spoiler alert: it sure is!)
The amount of biodiversity I saw during this trip was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Puerto Galera falls within an area called ‘the coral triangle’ which is more specifically known as “the Center of the Center of the Marine Biodiversity of the World”. I went on dives where I wanted to try and capture what I was seeing, but my camera just seemed so inadequate to the task.
I’ve done a lot of diving in a lot of places since I first got my Open Water certification almost 10 years ago, including the Pacific Coast off Southern California, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Roatan (Honduras). But until this trip, I had never done any diving (or anything else for that matter) in Asia. The vibrancy, the diversity of life, the sheer spectacle of undersea activity that I observed while diving in the Philippines is in a league of its own.
Over the week DWF was in Puerto Galera, I did 16 dives (3 per day + 1 night dive) off the coast of Oriental Mindoro Island, diving sites within the Verde Island Passage, and of course diving off Verde Island itself. I saw not just tens or dozens of animals, but hundreds of different species of corals and fish. To be truthful, it was a little overwhelming at first. I have done most of my blue water vacation diving in the waters of the Atlantic, and I am familiar with a lot of the fish and coral species there. I know what to look for and I recognize most of what I see. That simply was not the case once I hit the waters of the coral triangle.
DWF Trying To Pay Attention To Everything While Diving In The Coral Triangle:
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My personal bucket list included seeing seahorses. Our guides had no way of knowing this, but they helped me check that off within a few minutes of my very first dive! I also bought myself a super macro lens for my camera before leaving for this trip, hoping to capture just a few great images and I am so happy and lucky that I did. Over the course of this trip I shot something like 750 photos. Luckily, a couple of those were pretty decent.
WHAT DID I SEE?
Other amazing sites from the week include the aforementioned seahorses, disco clams, many many different nudibranchs, a variety of eels, squid, octopus, peacock mantis shrimp, turtles, puffer fish, porcupine fish, sea krait (snakes), trumpetfish, frog fish, clown fish, porcelain crabs, beautiful feeding soft corals, and tons of other creatures that were new to me.
Each day of diving included a deep dive (60+ feet), a shallower reef dive (~50 feet), and then a muck dive (perfect for busting out that super macro lens). Even though I was on a wall every morning I didn’t go below 100 feet all week. There was so much to see that I never felt the need to explore any deeper. We also visited a couple of wrecks during the week.
For the most part, this was easy diving too. The water temperature was 84 degrees F. For DWF, that means that I only wore a dive skin and swim trunks all week. For others on the boat a 3mm was in order, but cold water diving this was not. The worst visibility I can recall was about 50 feet, and most times the crystal clear water let us see hundreds of feet. I recall two dives of the 16 where current made taking photos difficult, but they made great drift dives. Overall these were some really relaxing and relatively easy dives.
Marco Vincent Dive Resort’s flagship dive boat is “Big Beth”, an 83 foot long traditional Banca Boat with outriggers, big enough to accommodate 20 divers very comfortably. On days with a full boat Big Beth also carried 12 MVDR staff to support, but it never felt crowded. This is a far cry from the much smaller boats I am used to riding in the Carolinas or Florida.
Most days the ride out to the dive site was a half an hour or less. On the days that we traveled out to Verde Island, the ride was about an hour. The stability provided by the outriggers meant that I didn’t even bother with sea sickness medication most days. I did on the days we went to Verde Island, but I never felt like it was a necessity (just insurance).
Enriched Air Nitrox was available for those of us who wanted it (I was one of them). Surface entries could be either giant strides off either front gates of the boat or surface gear assembly and entries down the ladder for those with any issues. Either way, the MVDR folks were right there assisting divers to make our preparations and entries and as safe and easy as possible.
Each group of 4 divers (or so) had their own divemaster. These DMs were very knowledgeable about the dive sites and even better at finding and pointing out things to see. Our divemaster was amazing, keeping us far away from the other divers so that it didn’t even seem like we had just come off a boat of 20 people. It felt like we had the place (mostly) to ourselves.
At the end of each dive, the divemasters assisted divers in taking off their fins and in some cases stripping off their BCDs for the trip up the ladder. Once we got back onto the boat we were presented with a hot towel and a cup of ginger tea. You have no idea how great this is until you try it.
After we finished dive #2 each day the team made preparations for lunch. One of the cooks from the MVDR accompanied the boat each day to prepare lunch for everyone. On days with the whole group aboard, tables were set up in multiple places on the boat. Usually a post-dive nap also ensued. Upon our arrival back to port each day the crew disassembled and rinsed our gear.
MAKING THE TRIP
If there is a down side to diving in the Philippines, it is getting there. There really is no shortcut around the (at least) 16 hour flight. My entire journey from Ellicott City, MD to the Marco Vincent Dive Resort took about 26 hours in travel time one way (not counting staying over at a hotel). It is a long trip, but once you reach Manila, MVDR personnel are there to facilitate transfers from the airport to the port to the resort, which really takes the sting out of all that additional shuffling to get your vacation started.
The Marco Vincent Dive Resort is nestled in a residential area a couple of hundred yards off White
Beach, Puerto Galera. Upon arrival at the Marco Vincent Dive Resort I was able to check in and was greeted with a cucumber drink (delicious), several smiles, and my itinerary. And by itinerary, I mean the resort had done an extensive write-up of what each day entailed, briefing times, mealtimes, dive sites and what times to be where. The resort has a courtyard with both a swimming pool and hot tub and many chairs for socializing after a nice long day of scuba diving.
If you wonder what the resort brought to the table? Three things… service, service, service. I have never experienced the level of customer service that I received from the staff of the Marco Vincent Dive Resort. Seriously… and I’ve been to Disneyworld, so that’s some stiff competition!
The all-encompassing service continued as I entered the resort. My bags were taken to my room, and a blue bin was placed in front of my door. All I had to do was put my dive gear into that bin, and it was taken to the boat for me (and assembled if I so desired). The resort’s dive shop had their dive briefing later that day.
The rooms were spacious and comfortable. Rooms come with a single king or two queens (I had two queen size beds). As this is a dive resort (and crazy hot most of the year) everything was tiled. The room had a TV although I didn’t really watch much all week. The bathrooms were clean, but with two notable differences from US bathrooms. First, the water from the faucets was not potable. I was told that not even the locals drink the water out of the faucet. The resort provided plenty of water for both drinking and things like brushing teeth. The restroom had a bidet which I had not previously used. It was interesting and I adjusted just fine. The restroom also had a huge shower, plenty of hot water, and great water pressure.
The resort provided WiFi which was a bit spotty. It worked better in the courtyard than in the room. I had purchased an international data plan so when I really “needed” data sometimes I would just switch to the local (3G) network. Plans are in the works for an upgrade, so by the time I return, the situation should be much improved.
After getting comfortable in my room, I wanted to head down to the beach. The MVDR offered me an escort to show me how to get there. The beach was only a couple of hundred yards away, but it would have been somewhat confusing to get there without a little help. The surrounding neighborhood isn’t nearly as nice as the resort itself. The independent street merchants hawking anything from sunglasses, necklaces, bracelets, and even tattoos are pretty persistent. My escort was far more effective in waving them off in their native Tagalog than I was in English.
I found the prices to be super reasonable. Bringing small bills will make your life easier and draw much less attention from determined merchants. Bartering is possible, but when something is only a buck I feel like a jerk trying to lowball the merchant. Once you were off the “boardwalk”, the beach itself was immaculate and beautiful.
As coincidence would have it, a relatively large dive club from the US was also staying at the MVDR that week, so I was able to experience group activities all week. As part of the festivities for the group, the MVDR has several theme nights complete with different authentic Filipino food. The MVDR has 4 different restaurants and that first evening we all went down to their restaurant on White Beach. When I say the restaurant was on the beach, I mean tables were literally set up on the sand that evening.
Each morning breakfast was served (buffet style) in one of the downstairs restaurants. Breakfast included coffee, tea, juices, garlic rice, a couple of kinds of pork (bacon and something else), cereals, toast, pastries, fruits, and of course and egg/omelette bar. I never left breakfast hungry.
A DAY WITHOUT DIVING
Since this was a familiarization trip and I was there to see all that the Marco Vincent Dive Resort and Mindoro had to offer, I actually took a day off diving and accompanied the group on a day of shore excursions. It was a full day of non-diving fun.
Our day off diving included
- A trip to the Mangrove Conservation Center & Eco-Tourism Park. A trip over an elevated walkway through the mangrove
conservation area. Beautiful views, and lots of infographics along the trail to inform you of just how special the Puerto Galera area really is.
- Tamaraw Falls – A quick stop to view these 423 ft tall falls, easily seen from the main road.
- Infinity Farm – We attended a “soft opening” of this beautiful water park/picnic area. They have big plans for the future, but for right now it’s just a gorgeous place to relax, take a swim, and have lunch.
- Traditional Lunch
- Mangyan Village – A village of (protected) indigenous people of Mindoro island. A tour guide told us a little bit about these people and their income is mainly derived from the hand-crafted items they make and sell in the village.
Upon checkout the MVDR continued to blow me away by taking care of pretty much every aspect of my checkout. Remember that itinerary they provided me at the beginning of the week? Since plans change due to weather or currents or whatever, on my last day they presented me with an adjusted itinerary, which will just be perfect for helping me enter into my dive log. The crew disassembled and rinsed my dive gear and delivered it to my resort room in that same blue bin on the morning of my departure.
On my last day there the resort provided me with an itemized bill with the add-ons I had gotten during the trip, which included daily massages @ $20 each, a couple of trips to the dive shop, the extra night dive, enriched air nitrox add-ons, and my bar tab. I was able to provide a single tip which the resort assured me would be distributed in an equitable fashion among all of the folks who provided such great service during the week (I had been told during the week that this was the case, so I wasn’t making myself crazy tipping all week). Transfers back to the airport in Manila made getting back just as easy as the initial trip to MVDR.
I simply can not overstate how much I enjoyed this trip, how amazing the scuba diving was, and how happy I was with the stay and the service provided by the Marco Vincent Dive Resort. I can only assume that the only reason that the MVDR isn’t wall-to-wall busy every single week of the year is that people just don’t know how amazing they are. Well, let me shout it from the rooftops! This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and thankfully, I will be making this trip many, many times!
I got home last week and I’m still having a little trouble overcoming 12 hours of jet lag, but I will definitely be diving in the Philippines again and when I do, I’ll be staying at the Marco Vincent Dive Resort. I am working with Columbia Scuba right now to plan a 9-day trip in late October, 2021. Perhaps if my inbox blows up I’ll see about scheduling another trip to the Philippines a whole lot sooner.