Adrift with sweetlips in Puerto Galera

Now this is traffic you can appreciate. I’m not referring to the notorious Filipino gridlock, but rather the spectacular marine version. To watch a morning rush hour flow seamlessly together, I clung to hard coral 30m deep in the Canyons — one of the world’s premier drift dive sites. Watching schools of sweetlips and batfish swim against the strong current and a backdrop of colorful coral reef was simply mesmerizing. After a few blissful minutes, the divemaster gave the signal to slowly ascend, and my most exhilarating dive came to a close.

On the short boat ride back, I related to the much more experienced divers how my dive almost failed. I was separated from my group on the initial descent due to the strong current, but was fortunately found. I also cut my hand on sharp coral (blood looks green at 30m under!). It was only minor so it didn’t stop me from doing a wreck dive later; blood-sensing sharks aren’t a concern here. Just another day at Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera — a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — on the island of Mindoro, about 130km south of Manila.

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I came to the Philippines to scuba dive, and Puerto Galera has some of the most diverse coral reef diving in Asia. You can’t go wrong by snorkeling, either. The sheer number of fish and plant life will make your head spin. To get here from Batangas, take a Starlite car ferry (P180) to Baletero or Puerto Galera, and then a tricycle taxi or Jeepney to Sabang. Most foreigners come to this developed beach for the diving (I counted close to 20 dive shops) and/or girlie bars, not the beach, which is sub-par by Filipino standards.  For better scenery and sand, head to White Beach or numerous pocket beaches a short hop away by tricycle (or you could rent a scooter for P300 for the day).

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When I arrived at Sabang with Fabian and Luca, the two Swiss guys I befriended at Taal Volcano, we ignored the tourist touts and walked away from the pricey main drag to find budget accommodation. Sergio, a local who runs Beatrice Lodge, spotted our bags and showed us the way to his family-owned hotel, restaurant, and dive shop at the eastern end of the boardwalk. I don’t think you can beat his family’s prices in Sabang — P400 for a very basic fan room, and P1,000 for a fun dive (I paid for six dives and got the seventh for free). Or beat the knowledgable and fun company of Oman, Jay, Sam and Darel at Tina’s Reef Divers. I spent five nights here and could easily stay longer.

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