For Frank Van Der Linde, founder of luxury liveaboard company, Worldwide Dive & Sail, the dive shows must be like living in a goldfish bowl. People hover, waiting their turn. Some approach with a spurious question, merely an excuse for them to gush about the incredible time they've had diving from his fleet, and how they've just booked to go again. And cannot wait.
Frank takes it all in his stride with a relaxed personable approach as his staff frenetically field enquiries from those keen to get their first taste of the Worldwide Dive & Sail experience. They should really talk to Glen and Karen, who've completed no less than six trips on his South East Asian routes and have happily signed up for a seventh. That is some recommendation, especially at a dive show where the competition compete with tempting offers everywhere. Needless to say it takes a while before I get to meet the man before the mast.
Frank grew up on a house boat on the canals of Amsterdam, before wandering off to become a dive instructor in the early Nineties in Koh Tao, Thailand. A decade later, he was organising liveaboard trips throughout the Similans, when it occurred to him that, "What they can do, I can do. Only better."
Recruiting his dad, a boat builder by trade, they set about refitting a second hand ketch, the S/Y Sampai Jumpa ("See You"), in South Sulawesi in 2003, which led to Frank designing the second boat from scratch in 2007.
The company's latest addition, the Palau Siren, built in conjunction with Sam Scott of the legendary 'Sam's Tours', was built on the beach from keel to completion in 13 months with a team of 50 Indonesians, following the successful template of Siren predecessors.
"The beauty for the guest is they come aboard one boat, and the next boat is exactly the same. The fridge is in the same place, the espresso machine is right there."
They mix the crews, so the chances are, even if you are diving a new destination with the company, there'll be familiar faces. One thing is for sure, Sam's Tours have pulled off a coup, and Palau's now even better.
"Our philosophy is the same as Sam's. We're taking friends diving. From the moment there is an enquiry we take care. I started writing replies myself, but in a different way. In a personal way."
Sounds good. Add free Nitrox and free beer? A heady mix. I can't wait.
Having spent a week rediscovering my skills with Asia Divers in Puerto Galera, the banca outrigger deposited me at Anilao early. I was met by Chris, the cruise director, who's one of those people you feel you've known forever, not just for five minutes. Over the next hour the rest of our party arrived. Three Sammarinese plus Paulo made up 'Team Italy', we had Swiss, Dutch and Germans too, plus Mik, a friendly Yorkshireman with killer sideburns, released from the Worldwide Dive & Sail office to gain first hand experience of what the company actually delivers.
The standard of service is, of course off, the scale. It starts when I look for my bags before boarding the tender to take us to the waiting Philippine Siren, 40 metres long, ironwood and teak, sleek and white against the blue. My kit, along with everyone else's has already been transferred and is onboard waiting for me.
It's a little disconcerting at first. If it's not chained to you, and you are going to require it, like your fins for example, then someone has put them by the dinghy deck five minutes before you had even considered doing it. I resign myself to not even having to think, just letting go, and to trust the crew.
The first afternoon is spent with a briefing of what-is-where. Naturally as the owner is Dutch, there are recycling facilities aboard, including a can crusher to minimise space in the appropriate receptacle. Even the the ring pulls of the soda cans are collected to be reconstituted as wheelchairs.
There's also an overview of our impending underwater safari, before we settle into our superbly appointed cabins and prepare our equipment on the spacious, orderly diving deck. Everyone has a drawer for small items, there's large bins for the cameras, and Chris points out how much time we'd spend rinsing our wet suits after 40 odd dives. So there's a waiting crew member to do that for you.
After the sun sets we're introduced to the crew and instant cult hero Chef Jimmy produces dish after dish from his tiny galley, presenting the first of many meals with gusto and aplomb. He's increasingly cheered to the rafters as we strike an immediate rapport with the man who will ensure we won't go hungry.
Everyone retires early, but I'm drawn to the front of the boat where Jimmy - free of his chef's hat and apron - has stuck a plastic bottle onto a broom handle to make an improvised 'microphone' and is singing along with the rest of the crew, accompanied by the Chief Engineer on guitar. They've just been bought a new song book and are practising their repertoire under a full moon. With a wig and leopard skin pants, Jimmy would be Rod Stewart.
The bell tinkles a little too early, because during the night my cabin has become a womb, and the first dive isn't quite as appealing when you're that snug. Cat's lick in the en suite and I join everyone aft for tea, toast and the briefing.
Chris makes the valid point that is often forgotten with regards to diving etiquette; photographers don't have first crack at the critters simply because they have a camera. There are divers who see the presence of twin strobes as ruining a dive before it's even started, and underwater photographers, passionate about their black art, sometimes lack the self awareness to fully appreciate this. The nature is there for everyone equally, although you suspect on this trip there will be so much to see there'll be no need to form an orderly queue.
We divide into three groups, and are helped into the shuttle tenders by the crew for the sprint from our mooring to Secret Bay. At first, it seems nondescript. A few deserted bancas line the shore a stone's throw away as we roll in, to the bottom at 6m, sloping down to around 20m. The sand looks like dirty demerara sugar, with just a few isolated anemones. But the seabed is packed with critter action, especially around 8-12m. I've never muck dived before to tell the truth, but I'm won over instantly by the curios on show. It's a dive where I discover a facet of the sport that many people rave about. But I never really appreciated the buzz of muck - until I tried it for myself.
We zigzag back and forth and life just seems to appear. There's a frog fish. There's another right behind, the pair 'walking' along the bottom in slo-mo, like pensioners 'racing' to the shops. Lion fish, sure. But brilliant blue behind their spines? Then Filipino guide Philip uses his nudibranch pointer to draw my attention to a clump of emerald algae. There appears to be a piece detached, about 5 cm long, hanging motionless. Then I see it has an eye and a bristly snout. The guide fins off to find more goodies, as the creature and I stare at each other for a long time. As a wreck diver I can probably tell you the best two dozen rust buckets round the world within recreational limits. But I'm acutely aware I'm now looking at a species that until this moment I never knew existed...
published in Sport Diving Magazine
alternative published in Sport Diving Magazine
"What was the little green floating thingy?! How cool was that?!"
An unseen hand unzips my wet suit, a tray of drinks appears magically in front of me, my tank and kit is whisked back to its station - there goes my camera, into the soak bin for me...
"Halimeda ghostpipefish", replies Chris, who turns out to be an enthusiastic self taught marine biologist in his spare time.
My wet suit is taken from me the second I bother to get myself out of it to be rinsed. I can't abide servility, which embarrasses everyone, but here service is carried out with sincerity and a genuine smile. Showered and changed I hit the reference books in the salon to gen up on Solenostomus halimeda, before Chef Jimmy stuffs us full of breakfast.
The day's other dives take us to healthy shallow reef packed with morays, painted frog fish, flamboyant cuttlefish, which I swear have arrived from another planet; (we'll discover their sunken spaceship one day to prove it), and an all to brief encounter with a dazzling mantis shrimp posing on the open sand, before it senses the impending arrival of 'Team Italy' and scurries away under a rock. If you've watched 'Crustacean Wars' on YouTube, you'll appreciate these critters don't retreat, but on this occasion, common sense prevails.
As night falls I kit up for the fourth and final dive of the day. Most are sitting this out in preparation for dinner, but no one's eating until we get back, so it seems a good opportunity to have a look at life down there after lights out. And 'Team Italy' are bound to ensure there's plenty of action. Besides, the dive briefing shows a discarded tyre lying in the mud at 6m, and that constitutes a wreck in my book.
Night diving is still one of the most thrilling experiences, even in such shallow water, and whilst Secret Bay affords unlimited dive time, there's a dinner bell pending, so we have an hour. But what a sixty minutes it is. Please, please, please, just leave me behind. Pick me up in a fortnight. Chris tells me later that the site is nothing in daylight, but under the Filipino stars everything comes out to play.
The bottom is silty, with patches of sea grass, so particles float in the torch beams stirred by inevitable fin cycles, but the bottom crawls with puffers and porcupines - one a perfect steampunk golf ball. Another first for me. A small coconut octopus, a patterned hem
of neon blue and black rolls past, scouring the seabed, another 'feels' around outside their 'Des Res', a broken upturned rice bowl. A small clown fish flits in and out of a tin can home, the still attached lid providing a secure door. At least some of the rubbish we carelessly chuck in the sea is much appreciated, although I decide to snag a plastic bag in mid water which is unlikely to benefit any lifeform here.
Philip guides us to seemingly invisible stargazers, who spring to life under the shifting sand, their huge topside bucket mouths gulping mechanically for any passing morsel.
It is worth drawing attention to the cabin notes for guests, where we are reminded that most aquatic critters are completely defenceless against divers, so although it is wonderful to see stargazers in action, to fully appreciate their camouflage and ambush feeding habits, stimulating their behaviour should be done just the once.
Then, as we are about to end the dive, we come upon something quite capable of taking care of itself. The head protrudes from the bottom, looking like a moray, just not quite as comical. Mean eyes, sharp teeth, suddenly there's an explosion of muck and the serpentine 'thing', well over a meter long, torpedoes through the light beams towards me.
I take evasive action and we call it a night on fifty nine breathtaking minutes from the first to the last. When we return to the deck I want to know what in blue blazes that was? Philip grins;
"Crocodile snake eel."
We gather for dinner. I'm still scratching my head wondering why some wag of a marine biologist would add a crocodile prefix to something that already sounded suitably terrifying.
After three days of fascination in Anilao, we travel overnight. The ship gently rolls and creaks - it's made of wood, what do you expect, but everyone is bright eyed and bushy tailed when we moor up in bright sunshine to start the programme of three days diving Apo reef.
The underwater landscape is beautiful. There's thirty metres plus of clear blue to marvel the panorama. Decorated drop offs adorned by Technicolor reef fish, unfurling like oriental banners to the depths, and the cruising sharks around the 25m mark. Here currents will satisfy the adrenaline junkies and those who enjoy the big fish and shoaling action, but there's always one dinghy on station at all times until everyone is recovered, a practice applauded by experienced divers Angela and Eric, neither of whom are a day over forty ;-)
The crew ensure we leave Apo in style under the cobalt blue sails, spending a leisurely Sunday afternoon serenely lording the sea. The dinghy ferries us round the Siren so we can photograph the vessel in her full splendour, and the only shame is there is not even a supertanker on the horizon to envy us. You want to bribe the captain to take us into Yas Marina or Monte Carlo to deflate the high rollers. Pure unadulterated class.
Coron presents us with the chance to re-stock the bar with Bacardi, signals for our mobiles, and something completely different; the sunken Japanese merchant fleet, casualties of the US dawn air raids of 24th September 1944.
If you don't like wrecks, don't worry. Because of the salvage carried out post-war, the focus of the dives here is on the marine life that inhabits these artificial reefs, rather than the actual steel they adorn, although you will still get to see the bulldozer thrown in the hold of the atmospheric Kyogo Maru.
The wrecks we explore lie within 30 metres, with the Lusong Gunboat resting in just 10m, totally smothered in hard and soft coral, which allows a gentle dive lapping the hull, taking in the assembled aquarium cast, each circuit seeing something we missed last time around, including two blondes, and a pair of purple sea dragon, which Chris tells me is a form of nudibranch. These 'worms' grow to a certain size, then photosynthesise.
For hardened wreckies Coron is still worthwhile, but you might consider extending your stay in the Philippines to include Subic Bay, where not only can you enjoy the mega armoury of the scuttled WWI destroyer, the USS New York, but can take in the waterside museum curated by Brian Homan, which features many artefacts he recovered from the wrecks at Coron during the 1980's.
There's still treats in store for us, with a twilight dive on the 'Twin Peaks' site for the elusive mandarin fish, hidden away inside the areas of broken coral, around 8m, and a live forever moment on the last morning, with the inland Barracuda Lake.
It's an absolute dream of a dive, but it's a nightmare to describe, because I'd never do it justice. So if you ever get the chance, do this, trust me.
The dinghy drops us at the foot of a limestone mountain, where we climb up the wooden stairs, our equipment portaged ahead for us. We pass through the cavity in the stone teeth and descend into Tolkien-world. Barracuda Lake is technically a karst - that's a limestone sinkhole to you and me - the walls run sheer towards jagged battlements piercing the sky, foliage clings on, and for the first time since I stepped aboard the Philippine Siren I can hear birds.
The lake is mirror flat, gin clear visibility from the convenient stage where we suit up, our anticipation echoes round the natural crown. As we descend to the centre of the lake we pass through a visible thermoclime around 8-10m from the fresh water into the blue middle layer, which is considerably warmer, saline, and the best part of forty degrees. My feet are simmering nicely by 18m, but my head is now boil in the bag, as I start to cook in my 3mm wet suit. I signal to Mik, sensibly attired in tee shirt and board shorts, that it's too warm for me, and he heads off to find Team Italy, who are probably looking in vain for the lake's namesake at 40m.
I return to the cooler, clear water and hang alone, gazing up at the surrounding cliffs, the small gobies and catfish suspended in the sky, my thin stream of bubbles merging with the clouds. I take pictures inside this perfect goldfish bowl, then let the camera hang, aware of the futility of trying to capture the magic of the experience. It's my last dive of trip, but it's been brilliant from the moment I leafed through the brochure and smelled the luxury and quality seeping from the pages. Worldwide Dive & Sail have delivered. And then some.
H E Sawyer was a guest of Worldwide Dive & Sail.