I found him (or her) early in the dive. The dive master was off pointing at a myriad of other fascinating animals for other photographers when the small but vibrant creature caught my attention from the corner of my eye. About the size of a small kiwi fruit, it pulsed and waved with colors and stripes. Now this was eye candy — and camera fodder. It was a flamboyant cuttlefish, a cephalopod related to the squid and octopus. This was the first I’d ever seen. I took a lot of photos but mostly just observed the whimsical creature as it cruised the bottom. This alone was worth the trip… but of course there would be many more spectacular encounters. We were, after all, diving the Philippines.

The 7,000+ islands that make up the Philippine archipelago are on the northern end of what is known as the “Coral Triangle” of the tropical Western Pacific. In this area, which includes sections of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, has the largest marine biodiversity in the world. With excellent diving resorts, easy and affordable access, and an excellent diving value, the Philippines are quickly being rediscovered as a top diving destination for the 21st century.

We were with a group exploring major highlights of two major dive destinations in the Philippines in the period of 10 days. The first location we visited was the Atlantis Dumaguete dive resort on the east coast of Negros Island. Dumaguete is just a short airline hop south from Manila.

Spread before the delightful resort is a dozen excellent dive sites, many in marine reserves and most just a 5-to 10-minute boat ride away. Our encounter with the flamboyant cuttlefish was at a dive site known as Sahara. Hardly true to its name, it was one of several muck dives that would blow the mind of any photographer or creature fan. As one prominent and well-traveled underwater photojournalist put it, “This is some of the best muck diving in the world.”

But muck was not the main reason I was here. I wanted to see some spectacular coral reefs and I was not disappointed. Within these marine preserves were large sections of fringing reefs made up of just about every kind of hard coral imaginable. There was a lot of leather and soft coral too, but what sticks out in my mind was the numerous gigantic anemones always infested with several varieties of clownfish. Some of them were quite aggressive in protecting their brood of eggs and confronting divers. One even drew blood from my knuckle with a particularly vicious nip.

A dive not to be missed is the Ducomi Pier. The pilings are covered in wild and spectacular color to the point of being garish. Soft coral is dominant. Lionfish seem to be everywhere. The angles of the pilings give great imaging opportunities to the wide-angle photographer.

Every few days the resort runs a trip over to nearby Apo Island. This is where super clear water fans and coral wall junkies get their fix. Hundreds of species of coral inhabit the fringing reef around this small island. While the wall was, of course, spectacular, I found myself enthralled with the sparkling waters of the shallows where species of reef fish too numerous to count danced among the coral crevices and branches in the bright tropical sunshine. I became dizzy with the kaleidoscope of colors. Atop the reef are great baskets of leather coral and sponges. Along the walls brightly colored soft corals branch out into the current. Huge schools of jacks pass by and mantas, and turtles have been known to frequent these walls.

Our second destination was Atlantis Puerto Galera on the northern end of Mindoro Island. After a short plane ride back to Manila from Dumaguete, Puerto Galera was three-hour trip southward consisting of a two-hour bus ride and a one-hour boat ride.

A good night’s rest and we were off diving again the next morning. We were told at the pre-dive briefing that our first dive site was known as Sinandigan Wall, a steep coral drop off around the point to the east of Atlantis Dive Resort in Sabang near Puerto Galera. Just as we were about to hit the water, the dive master told those carrying cameras to keep our eyes out for one particular section near the top of the wall he affectionately calls “Nudibranch City.”  Camera operators quickly checked and rechecked their cameras. We were about to be amazed.

We dropped right down on top of it. In the first 10 minutes I saw over a dozen different types of nudibranchs! Every few feet was another of these striking creatures crawling the reef. With bright neon colors, sometimes in groups of three or four, were several varieties of Chromodoris, Nembrotha and Flabellina. Some were mating, others laying eggs but most just cruising and eating. On dives at Dumaguete I had already been impressed with the number, variety and colors of the nudibranchs and other critters, but this just blew me away.

Other great dives just a few minutes boat ride from the resort include Sabang Wrecks (an almost guarantee of a frogfish sighting), Hole In The Wall (a fun swim-through), and Giant Clam (a great muck dive as well as the giant clams). There are a total of 35 dive sites within a 10-minute boat ride from the resort.

Verde Island is a “must-do” dive excursion. A bit further out across the channel is this large island with even more dive sites. Most popular, understandably so, is the Drop-Off. A rocky pinnacle about 300 yards from shore drops precipitously to the depths in a series of dizzying ledges. Every inch is covered with life, and fish are everywhere.

It was far too little time. With the exception of travel days, we dived every day, each three times a day and we could have dived more (up to four dives a day plus a night dive option). Diving services include full training all the way to tech diving. Nitrox is available. Other diving amenities include a camera room, full rentals, and rinse tanks. I was very impressed with the attention to detail of the diving services.

We could have dived more, but we wanted to enjoy the resort’s services of gourmet food, massages, good drinks and just laying around the garden surroundings. Both of the resorts are big enough to give you just about everything you could get at a large hotel but with intensely personalized service beyond compare. All rooms are sparkling clean, well decorated and feature air conditioning.

We could spend months diving and exploring each one of these destinations. There is ATV driving and hiking into the rainforest (some great waterfalls) and exploring and shopping amongst the locals in the town markets (a favorite activity of mine).

We will return, eager to spend more time among the friendly Philippine people, exploring the azure life-filled waters and to just lie around and relax.

You are strongly encouraged to visit the website for the Atlantis Hotels at www.AtlantisHotel.com for full and complete information.