Drifting slowly along the wall we were having a great time admiring all the colourful corals, invertebrates and reef fishes. The fishes were particularly abundant, a great assortment of small reef fish, however they were all quite familiar to us. But then we saw a fish we had never seen before, a beautiful black striped angelfish with yellow dots on its fins. It was a male swallowtail angelfish, a species we have wanted to see for years and here it was sitting right in front of our cameras. And this wasn’t the only unique fish we saw on a recent trip to Puerto Galera.
Puerto Galera was one of the first places we dived in the Philippines sixteen years ago. From the very first dive we were impressed with the reef, muck and wreck dives at this wonderful spot, and also the great variety of marine life. We vowed to return and it may have taken sixteen years, but we recently did for two days of diving bliss.
Located at the northern tip of Mindoro, about four hours south of Manila by car and ferry, Puerto Galera was once a safe anchorage for Spanish galleons with the name meaning ‘Port of the Galleons’. The coral reefs in this area have always been popular and were protected as a marine reserve in 1973. Being so close to Manila the area is overloaded with dive resorts, which crowd the beaches at Sabang, Small La Laguna and Big La Laguna. For our return visit we went back to the resort we first stayed at, La Laguna Beach Club and Dive Centre (LLBC), which is one of the oldest dive operations in the area and owned by Aussies, Frank Doyle and Michael ‘Donno’ Donaldson.
LLBC is located at the less crowded Big La Laguna Beach, situated on a white sandy beach with clear blue water lapping the shore. The resort has 45 rooms, a restaurant, pool, bar and large dive centre, and run several dive boats to the 50 odd dive sites in the area. Arriving late in the afternoon, and with the dive centre already closed, we relaxed in the Gecko Bar, overlooking the water and enjoyed a few beers with Frank, Donno and a number of other expats, before the first of many wonderful meals in the restaurant.
The service at LLBC is simply wonderful. Your dive gear is carried to the boat for you and off loaded after each dive. There are large fresh water tubs to wash your gear and plenty of racks to hang the gear to dry. They offer a wide range of dive courses, including Tech diving. Dive groups are kept small, in fact a group had just departed so we had the resort, and our wonderful guide Bern, all to ourselves for two days. They also have no set dive times, so you just organise when and where you want to dive with your guide.
Our plan was to revisit some of our favourite sites, and also visit a few new ones, especially the muck sites that had been discovered since our last visit. Bern suggested Secret Bay for our first dive, a great new muck site only minutes from the resort.
IMAGE BELOW - A RARE PHYLLODESMIUM KABIRANUM NUDIBRANCH.
Looking over the side of the boat the water looked a little green, but once on the sandy bottom at 18m the visibility was a lovely 20m. Bern quickly showed us he had a very sharp eye for critters, finding a small stumpy-spined cuttlefish, several thorny seahorses and a robust ghostpipefish. He then found a real prize, a small rarely seen ocellated frogfish tucked up next to a sponge. We were having a ball, with our cameras working overtime photographing shrimp gobies, sleeper gobies, mantis shrimps, emperor shrimps on a sea cucumber, a flamboyant cuttlefish and a longarm octopus. However, Helen found the best critter, two very rare Phyllodesmium kabiranum nudibranchs, a species we had never seen before. Even Bern got excited by this find.
For our second dive we revisited an old favourite, the Sabang Wrecks. Descending on the first wreck, a small yacht, it looked exactly as we remembered it, a compact little yacht covered in corals and fish. A yellow-lipped sea krait welcomed us to the bottom, and next to the wreck was another reptile, a resting green turtle. Hanging around the wreck were also batfish and a large map puffer.
Heading across the sand to the next wreck we could see it was very different, as the timber hull of this ship has completely disappeared. The ballast and engine were still there and provide a home for dense schools of cardinalfish, basslets and other reef fish. The next wreck was similar. The last time we dived these wrecks there were six giant frogfish living on them, no frogfish today, but we did instead find peacock mantis shrimps, morays, boxfish and a flamboyant cuttlefish.
After lunch we were keen to see frogfish, so Bern suggested Monkey Beach, a site we hadn’t dived before. At this site we descended a pretty coral wall to find another yacht wreck at 24m. And sitting on the wreck was a black painted frogfish and the prettiest warty frogfish we have seen. We then had a cruisy drift dive along the reef wall, admiring all the lovely soft corals, sponges and featherstars. We spotted garden eels and a school of mouth mackerel, but it was the wonderful reef fish that were the highlight, a great assortment of angelfish, basslets, rock cods, surgeonfish, triggerfish and many more. We even photographed several species of butterflyfish we hadn’t seen before – the spot-tail, crosshatch and spotbanded butterflyfish.
IMAGE BELOW - WARTY FROGFISH.
For our final dive on the first day we had a twilight/night dive at Montani Bay, another new muck site. The sandy bottom at this site is only 4m to 12m deep, and is overloaded with critters. Between the three of us we found thorny seahorses, marble snake eels, flamboyant cuttlefish, cockatoo waspfish, fingered dragonets, bentstick pipefish, mantis shrimps and lots of small broadclub cuttlefish. We also spotted garden eels, lionfish, scorpionfish, hermit crabs, upside-down jellies and some large helmet shells. But the highlight was another unique fish we had never seen before, a hedgehog seahorse.
Still hoping to see a giant frogfish, Bern suggest the Alma Jane Wreck for our first dive the next morning. This 35m long cargo ship was scuttled in March 2003 and now sits in 30m. The wreck looked pretty much as we remembered it as we descended, but Bern warned us not to penetrate as the interior is collapsing. We were happy to stay on the outside and admire the corals and fish life. Swarming at the bow were batfish and sweetlips, while on other parts of ship we saw rabbitfish, mangrove jacks and coral snappers.
After two laps of the ship we couldn’t find the giant frogfish, but just as we were about to head into the shallows we noticed it sitting on a piece of wreckage beside the ship. After several photos of this colourful frogfish we started swimming across the sand when Bern called us over as he had found a rare reptilian snake eel. We then explored the coral gardens off Sabang Beach, seeing mantis shrimps, morays and a good variety of angelfish, including some rarely seen Herald’s angelfish.
Bern obviously saw how much we enjoy fish photography as he next suggested we dive the reef wall at West Escarceo. He also said this is a good spot for nudibranchs, which proved to be true. This lovely reef wall is covered in barrel sponges, sea whips, soft corals and masses of featherstars. With a swift current all the fish were out feeding, including schools of triggerfish, snapper and basslets, and attempting to feed on these smaller fish were trevally and sweetlips. While watching the bigger fish a large mobula ray cruised by in the blue.
IMAGE BELOW - THE MALE SWALLOWTAIL ANGELFISH.
The reef fish at this site were very impressive. We found three species of moray, jawfish, goatfish, butterflyfish, tobies and a good variety of angelfish. However, one fish took our breath way when we saw it, a species we have dearly wanted to see and photograph, a rare and spectacular male swallowtail angelfish. Unlike most other angelfish, the male and female of this species are very different, with the female a plain grey colour and the male having stunning black stripes and yellow spots. We had once seen a female of this species on the Great Barrier Reef, but had never seen a male.
Desperate for a photo of this beautiful fish, we slowly creeped towards it. We expected it to swim away at the sight of us, instead it casually swam up and looked at us, allowing for a few quick photos before this dazzling fish swam off.
The next site was just as good for fish and nudibranchs, the lovely Sinandigan Wall. We had dived this pretty wall before, mainly to see pygmy seahorses. The seahorses have moved onto other sites, but we instead saw a white-coloured warty frogfish. Following the success of the swallowtail angelfish, we knew there were another six rare species of angelfish in the Philippines we had never seen. We crossed our fingers and hoped we would find one, but only spotted common angelfish species – bicolor, keyhole, pearlscale and Lamarcks angelfish.
Then we spotted something different, a pair of grey and black angelfish with yellow tips on their fins. It was a pair of rarely seen black velvet angelfish. When the angelfish noticed us they split, one went deep, but the other headed shallow. We followed the shallow one to a cleaning station and were rewarded with a few quick photos before this lovely fish departed.
IMAGE BELOW - HELEN WITH GIANT FROGFISH.
For our finally dive of this brief stay we returned to another part of Secret Bay to look for muck critters in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the tide had turned, reducing the visibility to only 4m, but it was still good enough for Bern to find us some fabulous critters. We saw Napolean snake eels, thorny seahorses, pipefish, lionfish, decorator crabs, box crabs, fingered dragonets and nudibranchs. However, the highlights were two Pegasus sea moths, a shortpouch pygmy pipehorse and a very well camouflaged Ambon scorpionfish.
Two days was not nearly enough the enjoy the delights of Puerto Galera, but it reminded us how good this dive destination is and the next time we return we will have to stay for a week, or maybe two.