Sunday, December 25, 2016

Vance and Bobbi Holiday diving in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

My logged dives #1512-1523

Bobbi and I have long wanted to visit El Nido. We were also considering Coron but Bobbi's research suggested that El Nido had more varied diving and nicer scenery (plus I don't think she really likes diving wrecks :-).

It also seemed to have lots of cheap accommodation but as we saw on Trip Adviser, much of it was flagged as noisy or tawdry. Also as Christmas holidays had started it was filling up. El Nido turns out to be a small town on a picturesque bay. Limited beach space concentrated a lot of the action in a small strip where loud music was hard to avoid. In fact, even if you're willing to pay for it, there is really no western standard accommodation there, it seems. There are other areas outside of town but these appeared to be their own tourist ghettos. Some of the islands had resorts on them, but we like to be able to get out at night.

We originally booked at Residencia Katrina, in town a few blocks off the beach for $35 a night, but motorcycles and thin-walled rooms made us want to move once our original booking expired. On a walk down the beach, we found the eastern corner to be quietest and farthest from the music, and we got a much more expensive room at Lally and Abet right on the beach but reasonably reinforced from the world at large. The food options at that end of the beach were quiet and pleasant as well (quiet dining al fresco at the restaurants that way). Happy hours with gin and tonics for only a dollar and a half gave us good reason to sit and enjoy the sky changing colors against the mountains ringing the west of the bay, and stay for dinner, usually pizza or something similar, since lunches on the dive boats were rice, chicken, beef, vegetables, all you can eat and very filling.

The dive sites we went to around El Nido with Submariner Diving Center were shown in a chart on their wall, available on line as well, Unfortunately I was not scrupulous about getting the name of the sites the 4 days we dived with them, and I’m piecing this together weeks after the fact, so I can't say for certain which sites each of these videos is from.

Day 1 - Miniloc Island (dives 1512-1514)

The first day we were pleasantly surprised to find that there were only half a dozen divers on our boat and we were given our own dive guide, a charming divemaster named Freddy, who accompanied us on all our dives this trip. He was professionally careful, but flexible with us, allowing us freedom to move around and prolong bottom time as long as we didn't go radical.

We were taken straight away to the most popular dive site on the island, south Miniloc (above, a great schooling fish dive) and for our second dive that day, a trip around the island to the North Miniloc side (below).

Our third dive that day must have been at North Rock, judging from the briefing we see in our videos. Here you can also see a pair of nudibranchs wafting on a leaf of coral in the surge, a colorful devil scorpion fish, a psychodelic clam, a rather ordinary snail (which Bobbi pointed out :-), lots of reef fishes like bannerfish and butterfly fish, and a couple of cuttlefish.

Day 2 (dives 1515-1517)

We saw a pair of devil scorpionfish, Inimicus filamentosus, the next day as well. Curious fish, they have bright yellow wing tops and they walk on little legs, like crabs. Like their relatives, stonefish and other scorpions, they are toxic. Here's more about them:

The boat on this day was full of beginners, and we had a lady photographer with us to record the experience. The lady was notable in our videos for intruding constantly on our shots. Our first dive on this day was again somewhere near Miniloc, not sure where exactly, but it was the home of an old turtle, colorful devil scorpionfish, elusive jawfish, and a great place to chase barracudas (above).

On our second dive (below) we saw more turtles, more barracudas, and ribbon eels ... accompanied as always by the photo-bombing professional photographer.

Our third dive that day was Nat Nat, named for the coconut trees on shore. As you can see, we started in the rain. We were eager to get down, as we were getting wet ...

Day 3 (dives 1518-1520)

The third day we had another large group and were assigned a German diver to accompany us and I think we went to South Miniloc again and Popolcan and Helicopter island.

Dive 1, day 3, no telling where we were actually, but we started with a blue spotted ray, a friendly remorah, barracudas, yellow tails, cuttlefish, an alligator fish on an alcove CEILING! and a crab and clown fish in the anemone (above).

Dive 2, not exactly sure where we were, but I think it was Popolcan; relaxing dive with various cornet fishes, clown fishes in the anemones, reef fishes like jacks, titan triggerfish, yellow tails, big eyes, broomtail wrasse, batfish, cuttlefish, writhing moray, and capricious mantis shrimps (below).

Our last dive of the day was on Helicopter Island. I have no idea why it was called that. On this dive we found nice coral, turtle, cuttlefish, reef fish, and egg cowries

It was time we started making plans to move on. One option was to catch a boat to Coron, but we let the opportunity slip. We decided the diving was good so far, why not stay at least one more day in El Nido.

Day 4 (dives 1521-1523)

The last day we were supposed to go to Abdeems, and I thought that's where we had dived (above), but Bobbi understood we were taken elsewhere because there was such a strong surge at Abdeems. Wherever it was, it was difficult diving. The boat anchored, forcing us to make a round trip dive, the first leg upcurrent, so it was like finning in molasses. The terrain was interesting with towering coral bommies, but not much to see in the way of fish life, just a crayfish and one cuttlefish for entertainment, difficult surge / current. It was a saga getting everyone back to the anchor line and up it in the tugging current.

Conditions were not good for diving far afield, so for our next two dives we repeated Helicopter and Nat Nat, where conditions were more favorable.

The next dive was at Helicopter island. We dove reef on right this time, and it was much different than before. We found an animal that vanished into sand and then two stonefish right at the beginning of the dive. We move on to find a lion fish in a barrel coral, batfish, a sting ray, and a turtle.

We'd been to Nat Nat before, diving reef on the left, but this time was better, with titan trigger, egg cowrie, lion fish, several turtles, cuttlefish, clownfish, nudibranch, barracudas, and other reef and spikey critters. I found the second turtle when I was a little lower than the other divers and came out right on top of him, having trouble avoiding him in the current. It was odd that all those other divers, usually sharp eyed for anything that moves, missed it.

Getting there, Cebu Pacific ok if all goes well, but you're on your own if not

The trip started inauspiciously with a delayed Cebu Pacific flight from Dubai to Manila with a subsequent lost connection to El Nido. The flight was scheduled to take off from Dubai before midnight Wednesday, which meant we had to get a taxi from our home in Al Ain around 7 pm to get us to the airport by 9. There at check-in we were prevented from boarding the flight because we had bought one-way tickets to Puerto Princesa online and because we wanted to be flexible we had not yet planned our journey onward from the Philippines. In order to be given a boarding card we had to go onto airport wifi and purchase an onward ticket even though our plans for return via Kuala Lumpur were uncertain. We did this, noting we could cancel the purchase within 24 hours of making the booking, which we did later. But this hiccup meant we were challenged to reach the departure hall within an hour of boarding time. 

That hour passed, and then another, with no movement on the part of Cebu Pacific, whose staff had in fact walked off from their positions without a word to the passengers. Finally at around 1 a.m. they announced the flight was canceled, though later they said it was delayed, and they said passengers with visas for UAE would be accommodated in hotels. But there were 400 passengers and only 1 or 2 CP staff on hand to manage this, so eventually we were told we would all be allowed into the airport lounge, where we went and ate and drank at will until finally it was announced on airport departure displays at around 3 a.m. that the flight was "delayed" until 1:30 the following afternoon. So Bobbi and I went across the street to Premier Inns where we took a room for $100 and got a few hours sleep, with still no word from anyone at CP to any of the passengers who were mostly crammed into limited lounge space, some sleeping on floors, no one knowing what was actually planned for the next day, and no one on hand to inform the passengers, let alone help with onward bookings in case anyone had an urgent need to continue their journey asap.

Late morning we returned to the airport and went up to CP offices and found a lady just reporting to work who told us the flight was now due to depart at 3:30 pm and who assured us we would be reimbursed for the hotel we had just left and looked after on eventual arrival in Manila. She said we could go up to the lounge and have brunch but once there we were asked to report to the departure gate. To make a long story much shorter than the eternal wait it was, the plane finally took off at 6:30, about 18 hours after it was supposed to leave the night before. CP had made almost no effort to inform passengers of what was going on, or to provide any kind of assistance. Their staff were notable throughout the ordeal only by their absence, and their offices were unreachable by phone.

The situation was no better in Manila, where we had missed our onward connections and forfeited out hotel bookings in Pto. Princesa. They had check in counters at the airport there but no meet or greet staff and in the end we managed to get a stand-by counter agent to put us on a plane to Pto. Princesa, where we landed almost a full day after we had planned to. Rather than resting there from the overnight flight, we managed to get transport the few hours van ride to El Nido where we were at least able to reach the hotel Residencia Katrina we had booked that night. There had been no one in Manila to discuss, let alone provide compensation for losses, and the only compensation was in fact a voucher which said we could have a free leg on CP during the next 6 months, but it was for flight only, not taxes or airport fees, so not of much value, and to top it off, to get it you had to call a number in Manila since t CP appears to have agents, but no offices, in Palawan). Predictably, no one answers at that number while your money evaporates from being kept on infinite hold, until you finally realize you might as well just give up.

Despite the 3 hour sleep in Dubai our first night there, we had missed two nights sleep by the time we arrived by van in El Nido at dusk Friday, exhausted from the journey. To make matters worse the hotel we checked into put us in a room off the breakfast / check-in area, where we were disturbed by travelers arriving at 3 a.m. and again by a group of Israelis who are left for somewhere before dawn next morning with no consideration for anyone sleeping at that hotel.

The dive center was at least expecting us Saturday morning, so we had our own plans for 8:45 when, after our own breakfast, we reported to Submariner dive center,
We were planning to be with them 3 days but added the 4th because every day produced some new underwater delight, and the diving was decent and easy with them.

We considered moving on to Coron from there but in the end opted for a side-trip to Port Barton because the boat timings to and from Coron were uncertain (they were not daily), and internet was very poor in El Nido, free wifi everywhere, but actual Internet intermittent due to signal difficulties with the provider in the province. So it was difficult to get information on travel, impossible to make bookings, and a brief success in reaching Wikitravel suggested a side trip to Port Barton, which it said had lovely reefs. It wasn’t the first time we had been misinformed on our trip, but we understood where we were and we rolled with it.

Port Barton:

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