Hundreds of years ago, this natural harbour was a safe haven for Spanish galleonstransporting gold to the Americas. Now, Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island, the Philippines, is attracting divers, writes MICHAEL D’OLIVEIRO.
At first glance, I thought coming to Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera might have been a mistake. Brown beach sand. Narrow footpaths. Constant drizzle. It just didn’t seem like the diving haven I had read so much about. And, to top it all off, I had just endured the legendary Puerto Galera Massage – a bone-jarring jeepney (native taxi) ride across a bumpy dirt road from town to the hotel.
At the resort, a divemaster notices the unimpressed look on my face as we suit up for the first dive. “Everything you’re looking for is underneath,” he smiles.
I’m at Atlantis Beach Resort, a charming, white-washed, Mediterranean-styled property which lies smack in the middle of Sabang.
A multitude of dive sites are located along Sabang, making it easily the busiest of beaches surrounding Puerto Galera.
In the 16th century, Spanish colonisation brought about increasing trade to the Philippines. The former’s fearsome galleons regularly brought supplies from Mexico’s east coast and from the mother country herself. Seeking refuge from powerful storms, the sleepy northeast cove of Mindoro island became their haven and thus, the Port of Galleons, or Puerto Galera, was born.
The galleons may be gone, but during typhoon season, its reputation as a shelter hasn’t.
“Even today, when there’s a typhoon coming you’ll see a host of small ships and ferries coming in. They’ll literally fill up the whole harbour as they wait the typhoon out,” explains Andy Pope, the resort’s co-owner.
The first morning is dark and drizzly as we board our boats from a shoreline that’s barely three metres wide. Our first destination: Monkey Beach.
It’s evident Puerto Galera’s treasures are truly underwater, and they aren’t old Spanish galleons either. They are soft corals.
Growing in such profusion, these varieties include mushroom leather corals, flower soft corals and leak flower soft corals, sprouting in tightly bunched-up pastel-coloured bouquets, seemingly ready for the picking at a florist.
At Monkey Beach, corals aren’t the only underwater stars – nudibranchs, lionfish, clown triggerfish and trumpetfish line up for the marine parade. A healthy school of damselfish and antheas keep things busy all around too.
Ever sharp-eyed, our divemaster points out a black frogfish perched in between two small corals. Look carefully between the rocks here and you just might find what I did: mantis shrimps and a host of other camouflaged crinoids.
Kilima Steps also boasts a great profusion of soft corals. But once again, we spot lots of critters on the ledges and under the rocks. Several moray eels and a pomelo crab shy away from our prying eyes.
At Dungun Wall, banded trevaillies cross our paths unwittingly. A banded sea snake does the same, testing our maximum ascent speed as we give it a wide berth. Unique to Sabang Beach, this dive site has a sizeable wall mid-way through the journey and is well-worth the short trip.
Due to currents, our boatman had to drop us off a fair distance from Shark’s Cave. This is easily one of Puerto Galera’s signature dive sites and well-worth the extra swim time. Swimming past a huge hill on our left, we spot several small coral bommies and a few large pufferfish.
We push the limits of our available bottom time but we finally arrive. Nothing much can be seen until a torch reveals several reef sharks prowling around the back. A horizontal ledge, Shark’s Cave is barely a few feet high. As we stare inside, many more sharks come into view, sending shivers up my spine.
The downside of Puerto Galera is that it lacks good public infrastructure. The surrounding roads are seldom paved and Sabang Beach poses an often cloistered feeling with its slim footpaths and narrow beaches. Shopping is the order of the day at the many souvenir stalls dotted around the place.
Laid-back in the day, Puerto Galera transforms itself at night with divers coming out to enjoy a drink with the locals. There are even a few nightclubs to keep revellers satisfied.
Puerto Galera proves that one doesn’t need picture postcard views to get my approval. What it lacks on land is certainly more than made up for underwater, prompting many foreign divers to regret their return home.
Hollywood-based entertainment lawyer ‘Mike’ was one of them.
“I just need to go back and get a job for two months. Then I’ll come back again for more diving,” he promises. “It’s better than that superficial life I’m living in L.A.”
I even bump into one Malaysian-based Dutch couple at Atlantis: “We’ve been here five times,” they tell me as we suit up for our last dive. “We’re just addicted to it.”
After four days of superb diving, there’s little for me to disagree about. W
Note: Upon return, have 350 pesos (RM24) spare for the terminal fees at the airport.
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