In three of my dive trips to the Philippines, everyone have always included at a week in Anilao. Those familiar with the Philippines diving scene are likely very familiar with this region, as the waters of Balayan Bay are home to one of the planet’s most extensive and diverse collection of marine macro fauna. The last two visits of course have been with an operation that knows how to speak my language – underwater photography. That place is Crystal Blue Resort.
Now, you might ask why Crystal Blue. There are three reasons: Location, amenities and Mike Bartick. Before I explain about Mike, let’s discuss the other two factors. Of all the diving destinations in the Philippines, Anilao is perhaps the most convent and easiest to reach. No connecting flights are required once you have arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in Manila. Instead it’s just a 2-1/2 hour drive to the resort, and ground transportation can be arranged to meet you right after clearing immigration and customs.
Anilao occupies a large part of the Calumpan Peninsula adjacent the Verde Island Passage. Between the Calumpan Peninsula and neighboring Maricaban Island is region steeped in a variety of underwater ecosystems ranging from soft sandy substrates with rubble zones and debris to dense coral reefs. One the most spectator reefs in the region is Beatrice Rock, off Sombrero Island.
And where is Crystal Blue Resort in all this? Right at the end of the Calumpan Peninsula overlooking Balayan Bay, and providing one the most convenient vantage points one could ask for to access every known dive site Anilao has to offer. The house reef out front of the resort provides productive diving, and the topside view takes in the ocean and the Sombrero, Caban and Maricaban Island in the distance. The sunsets are especially good.
Like most of the resorts in Anilao, Crystal Blue is built into a hillside facing the shore, with guest accommodations occupying the upper portion of the property; and the dive operation below at beach level. In between are the resort’s front desk, lounge and restaurant, with the camera room and photo center one flight of stairs below.
Guest accommodations include Superior rooms with two queen beds, Deluxe A rooms with a single queen, and Deluxe B rooms with two single beds.
Both the ups stairs Superior and Deluxe (both A and B) model rooms occupy the highest point on the property, and feature individual balconies and spectacular views of ocean and sunsets.
There is also a Family Villa option which features two bedroom suites with queen sized beds.
All rooms are air-conditioned and have private baths with showers. Furnishings are clean and functional, with pleasant decor that is well maintained, clean and comfortable. Just don’t expect bed turn down service when you return after dinner.
The open-air dining room, known as Gil’s Place, overlooks the water. It opens each morning at 6:30 am with brewed coffee, fresh fruit, and smiling faces. In my travels through the Philippines I have yet to encounter any resort staff that was not highly cordial and accommodating when asked, and this is certainly the case at Crystal Blue. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are presented buffet style with two to three choices that include seafood, chicken and pork prepared continental, oriental or Filipino style. I am a very big fan of Filipino style roast pork. The kitchen can also accommodate those with dietary restrictions or preferences such as vegetarian and vegan.
The restaurant’s ocean side atmosphere, with overhead ceiling fans moving the air, makes for a a casual and relaxing social area. Even when the restaurant has shut down after 9:30 pm, I have lingered with others, conversing about the days activities while poring through the images download from our cameras. The restaurant and adjacent lounge are covered by complementary WiFi service,
The Crystal Blue property includes a spa, with services such as traditional Filipino massage therapy. But diving remains the primary focus, and there is especially good support for photographers.
When you come down the stairs to the dive center, the first place you will pass is CBR’s camera room. Inside, the camera room is very intelligently laid out and able to host up to 25 photographers with individual stations, each equipped with lighting and charging stations fitted with dual-socket 220v power receptacles. Above each station’s primary work surface is a two-tier shelf for an assortment of lens, ports and other accessories, while below is ample storage space for camera cases and bags.
Most underwater photographers that I know or have met met take their vocation quite seriously. To us, having access to a dedicated, climate-controlled camera room like this is sacred ground. And it would most likely not been built if not for Mike Bartick.
As resort photo pros go, Mike is in a league all of his own. In addition to being a highly talented and experienced underwater photographer, he is a bit of a pioneer in Anilao, working endlessly to open up and promote to region to fellow photographers. A good deal of that comes in the form organizing, promoting and running multiple workshops through Anilao’s prime dive season, from January to May. In addition to Mike’s own comprehensive blend of instruction on macro to super macro techniques and wide-angle photography, other pros are invited to run their own group seminars. Thanks to the success of his partnership with Crystal Blue Resort, Mike has a major say in the way dive operations are run.
A few steps down the hill from the camera room, the dive center features a large covered staging area protected from rain and the tropical sun. While the dive center may not be fancy, it does have what matters in the form of a large number of simple but effective racks for hanging wetsuits, BCDs and regulators, with individual storage basket for masks, fins, and accessories. There are three huge gear rinse tanks, freshwater showers, and for photographers, two large dedicated camera rinse tanks along with a shelf system to allow them to drip-dry.
The compressor room adjacent to the staging area turns out both Nitrox and air fills in a choice of 80 or 100 cu.ft. aluminum tanks. The most unexpected twist here is that Nitrox 32 is the standard fill here, and air is available on request should you not have a Nitrox certification. Considering the kind of diving CBR likes to provide, if you don’t have nitrox training, I strongly recommend getting it through TDI or PADI before the trip.
Diving begins early. Following breakfast, departures begin around 8:00 am with a two-tank itinerary; followed after lunch by a single-tank afternoon dive, with the option of moving to a night dive instead. Dives are conducted from the resort’s three Filipino-style bancas, which are loaded from the beach. Once your gear is set the crew will handle loading and unloading, including cameras, spare tanks and anything else needed to make the dives complete,
With non-photographic groups, the ratio of divers to guide is 6 to 1 per boat. When groups are comprised primarily of photographers, Crystal Blue changes the ratio to insure everyone has plenty of elbowroom, limiting groups to four divers and a guide per boat. When there are groups larger than 12, additional bancas are brought in from local operators to ensure the ratio remains the same.
Most resort dive operations I have visited around the world like to have their divers follow specific maximum depth/time profiles of 50 to 60 minutes, with everyone following the guide as a group. While this is often fine for non-photographers, it seldom works for those who have more specific interests in imaging. This is where Crystal Blue differs. Dive guides, while not instructors, are trained to current PADI Divemaster standards and are handpicked and trained by Mike. As a result, they become partners rather than chaperones, working to hunt up the really cool stuff instead of hovering over you like an overprotective parent. In addition to critter spotting, guides make it a point to assist photographers where needed, which includes the coordination of which sites to visit throughout the day.
More often than not I have heard Crystal Blue’s senior guide Edger give pre-dive briefings that bordered on the comical; “Here we have a sandy slope with scattered rocks. We often find hairy frogfish and Ambon scorpionfish, maybe some robust pipefish. Bottom time, 65 -75 minutes, maybe 85 or 90… ah, just make sure come up before you get too low.” And he’s not kidding. The vast majority of photo dives I have made at the resort exceeded 70 minutes bottom time.
Given that nearly all of Anilao’s dive sites run adjacent to the shoreline, bottom contours follow a sloping profile from 10 feet on down to 80 or 90 feet with some going well on past 150 feet. Divers with good air consumption and a solid grasp on multi-level diving techniques can easily stretch a dive past the 80-minute mark. I can recall one dive where, at the 85-minute point, Mike, Edger and myself came across some hairy shrimp in 15 feet of water, and were in no hurry to surface. And why not.
Anilao is well known for excellent scuba diving opportunities. If you are an underwater photographer going for unique subjects in the macro world, it could seem like the Seventh Heaven. There are a number of dive resorts in the area, some of which I am sure are fancier looking than Crystal Blue. But few if any can match the level of service and professionalism that this resort provides for divers, and especially underwater photographer.
For more information on pricing and availability visit www.divecbr.com or e-mail Mike Bartick directly at Mike@DiveCBR.com with any questions about the resort, photography workshops, as well as getting there.