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 -Cheetahs, Zululand and Zulu Culture

One stop we made while on our educational trip to South Africa was at a Cheetah Recovery and breeding facility.  We were able to learn how Cheetah numbers are dropping and programs such as this one are helping.  They take in Cheetahs that can’t be returned to the wild, for various reasons, and use them for breeding.  The offspring are raised in a wild, people free environment and then released into the wild when they are old enough to sustain themselves.  I found that pretty impressive!!

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Above is one of the males used for the breeding program.  He and his brother live together here.  So beautiful but still so much like a kitty!!

We stayed the night at a place called Dumazulu.  Our rooms were traditional style Zulu round houses.  They believe the round corners keep evil spirits away because they don’t have corners to hide in.  The buildings were stunning and each represented a particular Zulu village’s style & colors.

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The next morning, we were treated to a ceremony showing us their culture and dance.  This is something that young people volunteer for to learn about their cultures and traditions and keep them alive.  They live there in the traditional village for a year.

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Africa has so many tribes, with so many different cultural traditions, it was fun to learn about some of that!!  The Cheetah recovery center is just down the road so it’s a nice combo of things to do while you’re in South Africa!

South Africa – animals, animals and more animals!!

It’s hard to describe how much wildlife you actually on a safari.  You see some or all of the big 5 – Elephants, lions, cape buffalo, rhinos & if you’re extremely lucky, a leopard.  But there are so many other animals to see too.  Besides the Zebra, Cheetahs & Giraffes, there are critters everywhere!!

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Those of us that grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, remember the Impala.  Above is a shot of one eating and one running.  So sleek and beautiful!!

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There are a lot of antelope like critters there.  Above is a male Kudu and below is the Nyala.  The female is reddish brown and the male is darker and shaggy but keeps the reddish brown legs.  There are others of every size that I didn’t manage good enough pictures of.

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One of the fun things about South Africa is you never know what you’re going to see and where.  When we were driving to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, we saw Ostrich and Baboons.  It’s a little surreal.  One minute you’re just looking at the beauty of the ocean and then, here are these animals you’ve only seen on National Geographic!

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South Africa was a real treat for me!!  I loved the scenery & the animals.  You can’t go wrong with this place, there is something for everyone and it will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime – guaranteed!!

 

 

South Africa – So many animals, so little time!!

On my recent trip to South Africa, one of the most impressive things was the sheer variety of animals you see!  We saw our first giraffes right off the freeway!!  You don’t see that in the states.  As an animal lover, I was enthralled with all of the animals we saw!

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One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing both kinds of rhinos.  The black rhino is very rare and you don’t see many of them.  I was pretty proud of myself because I spotted it.  All those years of spotting game while hunting in Idaho, I guess!!  Below is the best picture I could get of him because of the brush.

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Needless to say, it was pretty exciting.  At this point, we had seen lions, elephants and a black rhino.  Then we found the cape buffalo and had a fleeting glimpse of a white rhino.  That was 4 of the big 5!!  Below are a couple of shots of the buffalo.

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We actually had to wait until we were in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park before we got photos of the white rhinos.  They were quite cooperative!  It is really a thrill to see such a majestic animal and so sad to think that both the black and white rhinos are severely threatened from poaching just to take their horn!!  What is wrong with people?  I felt blessed to get an opportunity to see them in the wild!!

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Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is a 96000 hectare (over 237,000 acres) protected preserve in Zululand and is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa.  What a great place to visit!!

South African Safari – Lions & Elephants & Cheetahs, oh my!

I recently spend some time in South Africa to learn about it as a travel destination.  We went sightseeing in Capetown and diving at Aliwal Shoal & Rocktail Bay but for me, the highlight of the trip was the different Safari trips we went on.  From a diehard diver, that says a lot!!  Our first stop for a safari was the Thanda Private Game Reserve near Hluhluwe in Zululand.  I can’t tell you how much this place impressed me.  The staff was very friendly and accommodating, our safari driver & spotter were very knowledgeable and good at finding critters and the whole experience was just incredible!!

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Our first encounter happened when we were getting a tour of the Thanda Main Lodge.  We were all travel professionals on an educational tour to experience South Africa so we can market it as a destination.  As we were walking back to the main building, we were told the elephants were coming and directed to a covered verandah.  Here came a whole herd of elephants.  The pics above are of the huge herd bull who was currently in musk and that made him very unpredictable and potentially dangerous.  We stayed back against the wall but were literally about 15 feet from these elephants.

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This part of South Africa has had a serious drought and the elephants sometimes come to get water from the ponds here.  We were extremely lucky because it’s not a predictable behavior.  After the big bull left, more came including a mom with a tiny new baby.  Even though it was our first encounter, it was a highlight of the trip for everyone.  We were sooooo lucky to see them like this!!

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On our evening safari, we were fortunate enough to come upon 3 lions.  A lioness and her two young adult children (one female & one male).  We were very close & they pretty much ignored us.  We were told to stay inside the vehicle and not stand up.  If you do, it separates you from the herd in their mind &, well, you don’t want to be separated from the herd with a mama lioness watching you!!  It was pretty exciting to see these majestic animals in the wild.

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The following day, we met the dad.  Above top is the young male from the night safari and below is the dominant male for all of Thanda’s lions.  There are two prides and he spreads his time between the two.  He travels constantly so he was pretty thin. They said he would be better to stay with one pride because the lioness’s are the best hunters and providers.  He was so beautiful!!  Thanda is a private game reserve that is 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) so it is big enough for the animals to be able to live, hunt & die free and small enough so you have a real chance of seeing the big 5.  We saw 4, but no leopard.  The big 5 are – Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo.  You see much more than just those 5.  I will be posting more in separate posts.  One more highlight for a Thanda safari is the “bush bar”.  After the evening safari, on the way back to your lodge, they stop to watch the sunset if it’s clear or just for fun if it’s cloudy.

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They open up the back and set up the bar!!  You have wine, beer, mixed drinks, soda, etc.  I must admit, I really enjoyed that very nice glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc in the bush of South Africa!  Even though our weather was cold, it was such a very nice touch…

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!!