Diving Roatan – the view from the other side…

I’ve done a fair amount of diving in Roatan, all of it pretty good diving.  I took a group of divers back there in February this year.  There were two things I did different this time.  First was the time of year, February instead of November or May as my previous trips and second I went to the opposite side of the island.  Both of my first two dive trips, I was on the south side of the island at Cocoview and Fantasy Island.  They both offer fantastic diving but also offer the exact same dive sites.  If I was going back, I wanted to try something new.

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We stayed at Turquoise Bay Resort and went diving with Subway Water Sports, directly across the island from where I had  been before.  The resort is lovely and situated on a beautiful beach.  The food was varied and very good and the rooms were really nice.  Above was the view from my balcony!!  The diving is definitely different on this side but it is still very good.  The first thing I noticed was the topography is totally different.  Not the shallow reef to the edge of a sheer or sloping wall like the south side.  This side had a lot of structure to swim through – everywhere!

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It was really beautiful to swim into a canyon and look up.  The next thing I really noticed is -no crowds!!  That is my main gripe with the south side.  It has become so overcrowded sometimes you can’t even get close to the iconic dive sites like Mary’s Place.  We were the only divers here!!

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Next thing I really loved was the free-swimming eels.  I have never seen so many as on the north side of Roatan.  Above are just a sample of two we dove with.  The last photo is of a green moray that’s blind in one eye and very friendly with divers.  He swam between me and the videographer for the resort and just posed!!  I had a lot of fun with him!!

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Beyond the usual cast of characters, there were tons of lobster like the one above.  The other photo above was my first toad fish!   What a face!!  There were a lot of the same critters too.  Always happy to see a turtle and love fairy basslets!

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We actually did go diving on the South side for two days when the weather got too windy on our side.  That gave us a chance for the divers that had never been to Roatan to see what the difference was.  We were finally able to get into Mary’s Place, the second day, with only a couple of other boats already there.  The first day we tried, there were 5 boats there!!

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Both days, there was an abundance of critters.  I love to see them and especially to show them to new divers.  If you’ve ever been to Roatan, you know that finding a juvenile spotted drum, like the one above, is a quest.  Along with the banded coral shrimp above and the beautiful squid and seahorse below, you can see why the south is popular for diving!  To me, you really should try to dive both sides of the island if you get the chance.  There aren’t any seahorses on the north side that the dive guides knew about so by diving both sides, you get all of the best Roatan has to offer!!

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Not to say that the diving on the North side isn’t fantastic, it is!!  The weather can and does affect whether you can do all of your dives there.  I just think it’s a nice change of pace to visit both sides.  Just the structural differences, alone, make it worth diving both!!  As you can see below, there is no shortage of strange little creatures on the north side too!!

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For me it was a great trip.  I wanted to try a different area and see if I still liked the diving.  I definitely did!!  The resort, Turquoise Bay, is just beautiful and in such a peaceful setting, I would definitely go back!!

Capetown, South Africa – much to do, much to do!

When we began our adventure to South Africa, we flew into Capetown. Our first stop was Simonstown for what was planned to be some diving.  However, mother nature had other plans for us.  The weather turned cold and windy so instead of cage diving with great whites and sealion diving in the kelp, we went sightseeing. Turns out there is a lot to see & do there!!

 

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Near Simonstown, is Boulders Beach, home to the African Penguin.  I didn’t ever expect to see penguins outside of Antarctica but they have them here!

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We also visited the Cape of Hope & the Cape Point Lighthouse.  The views are spectacular.  Just thinking about the next land across that water being Antarctica.  Wow!!

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When we arrived back in Capetown, the weather was beautiful so we decided to take the tram up Table Mountain.  Again, the views are stunning.  There is much more on top than I was expecting.  The area is huge!  There is also a snack bar so you can have lunch.  We couldn’t have had a more perfect day!!

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There were these little critters up there too.  The topography was much more rugged than I would have imagined and there were some impressive canyons.  You can hike up there instead of taking the tram if you prefer.  It would be quite a hike but the view would be inspiring!

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One other drive we took was up Chapman’s Peak.  Here is where I finally learned to use the pano feature on my phone!!  Thank you Cari!

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Needless to say, it was a beautiful view.  If you visit Capetown, it would be worth your time to stay a couple of days.  There were things we simply didn’t have time to do. We did make it to the V&A Waterfront to look at the shops and have dinner but we didn’t even scrape the surface of what there is to do there.  Our dinner was excellent, by the way, at Belthazar’s.  Try the Game Kabob!  You get to sample Kudu, Gemsbok, Springbok and Ostrich.  Other to do’s include visiting one or more of the fantastic wineries in South Africa and a visit to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.  The Capetown area of South Africa definitely has a lot to offer and let’s not forget, you can go diving in a cage with great white’s if the weather cooperates with you!!

South Africa – to dive or not to dive

I was fortunate enough recently to be able to visit South Africa on an educational tour for the purpose of being able to sell it as a destination.  I was to do 7 dives but in reality only did 2.  Part of that was the time of the year, part was the Great Whites left early (so no cage dive with them) and part was due to a very cold & windy weather front that followed us up the coast.  The weather cost us our other dive in Simonstown with sealions and kelp.  Most of that can’t be controlled but it did make me really question whether I would recommend South Africa as a dive destination.

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For anyone that’s looking for something that is unique to South Africa, then yes!!  They have a sardine run in their winter that is well known for incredible big animal action and they have the Great White Shark cage dives, also better in winter.  We were there in very late winter, nearly spring.  For someone who gets seasick, like me, there can be some rough conditions here that time of year.  That said, I did have a couple of very enjoyable dives (once I was under water).  Above is a Dusky Shark.  That was a variety I had never seen and the shark dive at Aliwal Shoal was a very good shark dive.  There were at least a dozen sharks at any one time.  Besides the Dusky’s you can get Tigers and reef shark.  Probably more varieties at times.  It was very worthwhile to do that dive!!  That is also where the sardine run is.

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Besides the shark diving, we went farther north to Rocktail Bay for some reef diving.  You are nearly to the Mozambique border and the beaches are deserted, unspoiled and beautiful.  All the dives are from zodiacs and all launches at both places we dove were beach launches through the surf. That was an interesting experience itself.  Those guys really know how to read the surf.  The reef was nice but there was surge to make picture taking a challenge.  That was again due to the cold weather front dogging us.

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With perseverance, I was able to get some really nice photos.  On a calmer day, this would be a very nice dive.  There was a lot of structure for the many critters to hide and the dive guides were fantastic at spotting things.  All in all, it depends on what you are looking for.  If you have always wanted to go diving with Great Whites or see the sardine run, this is the place!!  What adds to the excitement of those dives is when you’re done diving, you can go on safari and see elephants, lions, rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, etc, etc, etc!!  Could it get any better than that???  I guarantee you will have a memorable trip if you decide to visit South Africa!!

Diving in the Jardines De La Reina in Cuba! Shark diving in Cuba at it’s best!!

On my trip to Cuba in August 2015, I was able to visit the Jardines De La Reina (Gardens of the Queen) for a week of diving aboard the Avalon II.  I’ve gone diving in some pretty sharky places but this was really something to behold!!

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It was refreshing to dive in a protected area that the marine animals and shark are totally at ease with the divers.  You can really see what protection does for the coral and fish life, too.   It was stunningly beautiful!  The Avalon II is a really nice liveaboard dive boat.  All diving is done from a skiff and there is a permanent installation in the mangroves there.  It includes a floating hotel called the Tortuga, a dive shop where the tanks are filled, a research station and staff quarters.

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The dive masters are great.  You see shark on nearly every dive.  They feed on some if you like or not if you don’t like that.  You see several shark on all dives whether they feed them or not.  You see mainly reef shark but there are a couple of areas that have a large number of silky sharks too.  On those dives you go to the bottom & see the grey reef shark, fish and other creatures of the reef and when you ascend for your safety stop, there are dozens of silky sharks waiting for you to come play.  As you can see from the photo above, you literally ascend through to sharks to the skiff.  It was a really fun adventure!!

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There are huge schools of fish and more grouper than I have ever seen in one place.  We even got to see a goliath grouper that weighed in a about 250 lbs.  If you take the time to look, you can also see some little critters.

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This dive trip will be one I remember forever!!  I felt very lucky to be there before the masses arrive.  That said, we were the only boat of divers and there were only a few people at Tortuga.  Mostly fishermen but a couple of divers joined us for our dives.  Avalon has several liveaboards so we were fortunate that we were the only boat there.   It was low season because of hurricane season.  Since then, the Aggressor Fleet has begun service to the Gardens.  There is only one license for diving in the Jardines De La Reina so they have partnered with the owner of Avalon to make it possible.  It gives Americans a familiar name to go diving with but the Avalon boats and crew were as good as any I have gone diving with!!  I would highly recommend them.

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Meet one of the famous crocs that are in the mangroves here.  The more friendly local croc “Nino” was not in residence while we were there.  He was off looking for love…  Too bad, I really wanted to snorkel with him!!

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The Avalon II had a feature I’ve never seen before on a liveaboard dive boat.  It had a slide!!  As you can see, we had to try it…totally a kick in the butt!  The food was fabulous too.  After the days diving you are met with a Cubra Libra or a Mojito & fresh baked pizza for a snack.  The food was varied and delish!  You are allotted a number of drinks per day included in the price and wine with dinner.  If you exceed that, there was a charge but I never got close.  The rooms were the pretty standard bunk with a double bottom and twin top and there was an ensuite in each room.  It was a very comfortable boat layout with an open top deck including a hot tub.  There was a lounge area inside with a media library and a seating area outside in the rear of the middle deck.  That is the same deck as the galley and dining area.  The dive deck was roomy and had benches to suit up.  There was a camera area.  It was adequate but not huge.  I never had a problem with finding room.

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The sunsets were spectacular over the mangroves.  I believe the prices for this type of trip will eventually come down but if you want to beat the masses, you will pay a premium price because of the novelty surrounding a trip to Cuba!!  If you would like more information on diving in Cuba, contact me at sunkeytravel@gmail.com.

 

 

Traveling to Cuba, finally!! It’s legal but there are hoops to jump through!

In August 2015, I was fortunate enough to be invited on an experimental visit to Cuba for a people to people trip that included diving!!  What an experience, to say the least!!  Travel restrictions have been relaxed but not lifted entirely so you really have to jump through a few hoops to qualify for legal travel.  Luckily, there are some bills in Congress to remove the travel restrictions.  Fingers crossed!!  However, as of today, you still can’t go as a tourist.  As a travel agent in a country that is free to travel to nearly any country, that is very hard to explain.  Everyone heard that you can go to Cuba but they don’t realize how many restrictions there are to do that.  You have to qualify under one of 12 types of trips and the people to people type is the easiest.  I will be doing a few posts about traveling to this historic and beautiful country.

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I have traveled to a lot of countries but this one of the most unusual.  First, your credit cards & debits are no good there so you have to bring cash and convert it to Cuban Cuc’s when you get there.  There is a 10% penalty on American Dollars but you have to have local currency and as of now, you can’t convert it before you leave.  We tried an experiment by changing some to Euro’s before leaving and then exchanging it in Cuba without the penalty, it ended up almost exactly the same after you pay two exchange fees.  One update, Florida’s Stonegate Bank recently became the first US bank to issue a credit card to use in Cuba.

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Next is a large language barrier.  English is not widely spoken so it would be very good to have someone with you that speaks Spanish.  Our tour guides spoke English but the language problem is really was more pronounced here than in say Mexico.  Havana is a busy, beautiful, historic city.  There are incredible old buildings dating from as early as the 1700’s! (and probably earlier)  We’ve all heard about the old cars, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer number of them and the variety.  It was simply amazing!!  The above two were our taxi’s on a tour of the city.

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There are many buildings that were associated with Hemmingway.  Many others were in the process of being restored and many more were waiting.  Old Havana is a tour that is a must do when you go to Cuba.

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The above building is a mission dedicated to St Francis of Asisi.  Incredible history.  Below is a monastery complete with bronze monks.

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One of the most interesting things to see in Havana is Revolution Square where Fidel made most of his speeches.  The statue & tower above are at the top of the platform where the speeches were made and the metal sculptures below are on the buildings nearby.

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All in all, visiting Havana was like entering a time warp and it was an experience I highly recommend.  Hopefully, Congress will do the right thing and finally remove all travel restrictions so Americans can freely travel to this beautiful and friendly country.

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Muck diving & other dive adventures in Dumaguete, the Philippines

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The Philippines is truly one of my favorite dive destinations, ever!  From the beautiful reefs at Puerto Galera to the pristine pelagic diving in Tubataha and now the fabulous muck diving in Dumaguete, the diving here is so varied that every diver will find something they like.

Seahorses are always a favorite with divers.  The Thorny Seahorse above is one of about a dozen to be found on the house reef at Atlantis, Dumaguete.  That’s crazy!  The views from the resort aren’t too bad either.

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The “muck” diving is world class.  Muck diving is diving on a black sand bottom instead of a beautiful coral reef.  You find some of the most unique critters when muck diving.  I missed out by a few minutes of seeing one of my most sought after critters – the Blue Ring Octopus!  However, about half of my group did get to see it.  I was bummed but… oh well, that’s diving!!

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I got a nice shot of the Mandarin fish mating and a couple of white eyed moray eels were clowning for me.  Maybe they were mating too.  I mean, what do I know about eels mating???  There was a fabulous variety of critters in Dumaguete.  You can also take a day trip to snorkel with Whalesharks.  If you’ve never seen one, you should definitely do that.  For little critters, check out the tiny frogfish below with a friends thumb nail to show it’s true size!!  How do the dive guides find this stuff???  I’m loving my Olympus TG-3 camera.  It takes wonderful underwater photos!

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There are unique sights everywhere.  The motorcycle taxi above cracked me up.  Note the signs on the back.  Across the top it says “Keep me safe oh god” and down at the bottom it says “Bang me nicely”  Like I said, you see some unique things!  I would highly recommend the Philippines as a dive destination.  There is something for everyone and you can combine multiple destinations into one trip.  Thanks Atlantis Resorts for another great time diving.  So worth the trip!!

New Camera for Diving Palau

It felt like I said goodbye to an old friend last week when I sold my camera.  I don’t use the big, fancy ones with the double strobes that cost big $$$, I use a point & shoot with underwater modes from Olympus.  I have been using the same one since 2008 which is an eternity for a camera.  I have taken literally thousands of pictures with it, maybe even 10’s of thousands.  All of my photos from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia, Borneo, Maldives, Bonaire, Belize & other odd & end dives are all with this camera.  It was a SW1030 in a housing and I loved it.  It felt like it was time to upgrade so last week, I did.P5170124Puerto Galera Day 1 084 sm

Like I said, it was like an old friend.  I decided I still don’t want the big & expensive, hard to handle, large camera so I went with another Olympus point & shoot.  I love the brand & it hasn’t disappointed me yet.  I decided to get a TG-3 with a housing.  I also added a strobe & small arm that go directly on top of the housing.  This will be my first experience with a strobe & I may well decide that I need the cradle & long arm that most setups use.  We will see.  I like to keep it as small as possible and as simple as possible.  I also added a big eye lens and red filter to make it possible to take wider angle shots.

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For me this feels like a big (HUGE) step.  For a serious underwater photographer, they are still laughing at this post.  But for me, this feels right.  I have always been proud of the photos I have accomplished with my little camera so I am confident that I can do even better with this new setup.  I will have the perfect test area with a 10 day live-aboard trip to Palau next month.  Palau has lots of big critters to try out the wide angle shots and lots of little stuff to test out the macro & see if it is still as good with this new camera.  It does have a couple of new modes that I am excited about & a better lens.Puerto Galera Day 1 179a sm

Of course, you know I will be posting pictures on my return but I felt like I needed to give my old friend one more showcase in my blog and bid a fitting goodbye!

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Where to plan the next dive adventure? Always the big question – this time Roatan!

As the owner of my own small travel agency and it’s sole travel agent, I plan travel for myself and others to many different travel destinations around the world.  For myself, that usually involves diving.  I always have at least one group dive trip in the works for the future but this is always the big question.  Where to next?  Where is the next big dive adventure to be?  It’s part of the fun!

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Many of you don’t know how I came up with the name of my company, Sun Key Travel.  It’s very simple.  When I was planning a vacation, both before I started diving and after, a sunny warm location was a must.  You see, the sun was the key to where I wanted to go – so Sun Key Travel was born.  Above is a picture from my winter home in Lake Havasu City, AZ and one from Long Caye in Belize.  Totally different, but the sun is huge in both places.  Thus, a place I want to be!

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For a dive destination, fun critters to see is also of great importance.  I love the life underwater, both big and small.  I feel blessed to have been able to visit some of the spectacular places where these pictures were taken such as Bonaire and Oahu in the above photos.  I also, occasionally, revisit a destination with a group of divers that maybe hasn’t been to that destination or, like me, would like to go back.  I am in the planning stages of one of those now.  Roatan, Honduras will be the first place I return to for a third time.  It is beautiful, the diving is great and it is still a very affordable trip.  Sometimes that combination is hard to find.

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Roatan has is own specialness!  Creatures large and small underwater and on land.  Beautiful sunsets like the above picture, white sand beaches and warm water.  What’s not to like?  Depending on where you are, you may see monkeys, iguanas or blue crabs.  You will likely hear some pretty noisy birds too.   Roatan is one of the Bay Islands, off shore from the mainland of Honduras and it’s like you’re in another world.  There are other Bay Islands, like Utila, Guanaja and Cayos Cochinos that also have a diving story to tell.  For February, 2016, however, it will be all about revisiting Roatan!

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What’s on your scuba diving bucket list? Mine is very long…

I was just sitting here thinking that I have been pretty lucky to visit as many of my bucket list destinations as I have, so far.  Later this year, I will cross off another one.  In November, I will be diving Palau.  I feel really blessed to get to do that one.  There are a lot of sites I will probably not ever make it to that are high on the list.  Galapagos, Australia, Coco’s Island, The Socorros, Raja Ampat, the Solomon Islands,  Wakatobi, the Red Sea & Thailand are all on the list but they are all pretty expensive.  Will I get to all of them?  Not likely, unless the Powerball gods smile on me.  However, I will probably make it to some of them before I have to quit.

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The biggest challenge right now is finding an affordable and reasonable way to get there.  Especially for transpacific & transatlantic flights.  With diving, you have equipment.  With equipment, you have checked bags.  The days of 2 free checked bags are nearly over.  Many airlines charge for all checked bags to some destinations and only for the 2nd bag to others.  Recently, United and some others have raised a second bag fee to $100 each way!  That’s a pretty handsome profit for a small amount of handling.  Another thing I had never even given a thought to when flying, is what countries I am flying over?  After the recent Malaysia Air tragedy, it is certainly something to think about.  I can’t say any of this will ever keep me from going but it’s an eye-opener for sure!

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There are just so many really special places in the world for scuba divers and vacationers, I hope you get to visit many of your bucket list destinations!  I plan to keep at it until something makes me quit.  Diving is the passion of my life and I discovered it when I was already 45.  I love it as much now as I did when I first started.  Now if the airlines would just let us enjoy our sports and our vacations by making their bag fees reasonable and still make a profit without bankrupting its travelers in the process!

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Dive the Philipines – Critter diving at the Atlantis Resort, Puerto Galera

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After a really wonderful week diving the Tubbataha Reef area, I traveled to Puerto Galera for a few days.  There is nothing easy about getting here but it is definitely worth the effort.  We took a short flight back to Manila and Atlantis loaded our luggage in one van and the rest of us in a couple of other vans and we were off.  It is about a 2 hour drive south of Manila to the dock where we caught a boat to Puerto Galera.  A 1 hour ride on a boat and we were there.  Puerto Galera is not what I expected but the diving is great.  There are wall to wall dive shops, resorts and restaurants lining the coast but we never felt crowded on the dive sites.  There is a lot to see here, especially little stuff.  My first dive here was my 500th dive so I really wanted it to be special.  We saw the yellow pygmy seahorse above on that dive.  I think any dive with a pygmy seahorse is very special.  The nudibranch on the right was a later dive but the colors and variety of them in Puerto Galera is amazing.

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The critter life here is really varied and interesting.  Above is a Warty Clown Frogfish and an Ornate Ghost Pipefish.  These are things you don’t see in a lot of places.  I was not there long enough to schedule a full day trip to Verde Island but I am sure I would have enjoyed that as well.  It is highly recommended as a day trip of diving.  Instead we concentrated the 2 days we did have to dive on the best of the local diving and it was very good.  The only down side was a night dive that had very strong current and should have probably been called off.  If you want some adrenalin in your system, go out in heavy current on a night dive!  You can’t see where you are going well enough and always feel like you are going to hit something.  It was crazy.

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Above is one of 3 Fimbriated Moray eels I saw during my stay at Puerto Galera.  There were some other not so usual morays there as well.  I saw a Snowflake and a White-eyed Moray there as well.  I have not seen many of these 3 varieties in the past so it was a thrill.  The yellow thorny seahorse above cracked me up when he rolled his eyes up for this picture.  It was like he was saying “enough with the pictures, already!”  You can do up to 5 dives a day and you choose which ones or all.

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The Atlantis Resort at Puerto Galera was interesting.  It is in the middle of town, basically.  You have the 50 Bar in front near the water, then the dive shop & briefing area, then an alley that the town people & the public walk through, then the rest of the resort.  The restaurant had great food, just like the Azores did.  They really do a fine job on that.  There is a gift shop, a dive storage area with rinse tanks and then the main desk.  The rooms are in back as well as a pool.  The rooms were very nice and had plenty of space for everything.  All in all, a great resort.  If you want to be in town, this is the place for you.  If you are looking for an out of the way place, away from everything, this is not it.  The diving is really good, however.  Above is a pygmy scorpionfish that was about 1/2 inch long.  Pretty cute and a first for me.  The Flambouyant cuttlefish on the right, was one of 3 we saw.  That is incredible.  I had only seen 2 ever, before this.

To recap, the Atlantis Resort in Puerto Galera is a nice resort in a really different location and a good choice for great diving and some extracurricular activities in town.  I wish I could have done Verde Island but there just wasn’t enough time.  This was a short stop so I could experience this area and it’s diving.  The diving in the Philippines has yet to disappoint me!