Published: February 17th 2012February 18th 2012
It is a flight day. I woke up to take a flight to Manila and then after a 4 hour wait, take a connecting flight to Coron City on Busuanga Island. There were regular boats between El Nido and Coron, but I had already bought flight tickets.
The hotel I was at drove me to the airport. We boarded and left the airport about 30 minutes early, thus arriving at Manila 30 minutes ahead of schedule (the wonders of a small airport). I was in Manila for several hours, picked up a new set of headphones to replace the ones that stopped working the day before. My flight to Coron was delayed by 1.5 hours.
I arrived in the small airport and found Vicky who ran the guesthouse I was going to. They drove me in a minivan for about 50 minutes outside the city to the northeast side of the island to the end of a little fishing village. The guesthouse was in the village, and the dive resort was attached to a real resort on a private island, a 30 minute boat ride away.
I arranged the next day of diving via phone
with one of the managers (never met any of them). Vicky’s daughter was turning 11 so there was a little birthday party for her. They sung Happy Birthday in a mix of English and Tagalog.
I woke up had breakfast, and was picked up by the dive boat at 8am. They drove out from the little inlet of the village towards the open ocean and to an isolated island off the coast. It was a relatively small island (walk able in 15 min) with a nice pristine (groomed) beach facing the main island and some jungle and a little hill. One thing I was not impressed with was that as I was not a guest of the Club Paradise resort, I was not allowed to go onto the island, even just to the dive resort, without paying a fair chunk of money. So for the 2 boat trips I took with them, I would have to wait on the boat for 1-2 hours before and after every trip while they sorted stuff out on the island. It was excessive.
So after we docked, the crew took to a jetty to the island. After some
time, they came back with a few divers and we were off for a 1.5 hour ride to try to find dugongs. We wove through many islands; a few of them were the dramatic karst formations similar to Halong Bay and El Nido.
We eventually arrived at a long island that was said to have a possibility of a dugong sighting in the reef. With our scuba gear on we jumped into the water and descended down into the reef.
It was a gentle sloping sandy coral reef with a small current. We drifted with the current along the reef. One of the first things I saw was a fairly large school of angelfish that were eating a floating jelly. We descended down into the reef and swam for 50 minutes along the reef. The coral was bland and mediocre, but the animal life was amazing. It was full of various types of fish, big and small. Batfish, lionfish, many types of angelfish, cleaner fish, trumpet fish, an eel, 2 large turtles, 3 small sting rays and a giant clam.
We ascended to the boat, had lunch and then drove up the island slightly to another site
along the same stretch of beach and reef. We dove in. It was about the same type of location. This time there were less types of fish, but I saw 10 sting rays at the bottom hovering over the sand. I can’t ever take a picture of the sting rays because I always find them on sandy bottoms at about 18-25m depth – below what my camera can handle. I also saw another 2 smaller turtles swimming by and lots of clams and oysters. After another 50 minutes we ascended and were back in the boat.
We then took the boat to a bay, to do a concentrated search for dugongs. For about 2 hours the boat paced back and forth from one end of the bay to the next, to no avail. The ocean was too dark to see anything below so they were relying on it to surface in order to see it. We did see a grey shape surface above the waves a couple of times, which we were told was the dugongs, but they subsequently submerged and we never saw them again. It was starting to get late so we drove back to the resort.
The resort guests were dropped off while I stayed in the boat for some time before getting driven back to the guesthouse for the night.
This day I woke up and there was no diving boat going out, so I paid to go to the resort and dive the reefs on site. It was not cheap but I had no other options.
I took a little bangka to the resort and as they dropped me off I was ambushed by the security on the island who escorted me to the front desk to pay their expensive ‘visiting fee’. After paying I went to the dive shop to arrange the dives. None of the managing staff were there. In fact I never met any of them.
I took to a beach chair and relaxed while waiting for my dive. When it was time, I got ready, threw on my gear, checked everything, and walked with my divemaster down the beach into the water. We descended right away and swam out as the sand gently sloped downward. It was just sandy at first. The divemaster found a small stonefish hiding in the sand. Stonefish are very
well camouflaged as rocks as their features look broken and rocky. They are also the most poisonous fish in the world as they have little spines on the top of their body that will secrete the poison into a hapless human or animal that runs into them. They, like most potentially dangerous marine life, are not aggressive in the slightest. We headed down and there were a few small patches of coral, primarily around the mooring points. Around these were many lionfish that were basically attached to the side, along with some very cleverly disguised ghost pipefish, which looked exactly like the seaweed they were hiding in until the guide teased them out. We continued on, and a few times there were these jaw fish which were distinctive because they had their heads popping out of a tunnel in the sand with littered dead coral around the entrance. They had large eyes and watched us warily as we passed. Eventually we found a main patch of coral. At the bottom were many sting rays along the sandy floor. I was able to get about 0.5m above some of them before they took off and resettled several meters away. I also
saw another 2 turtles, one on the sand munching away at some seaweed, and another resting on the coral. As we ascended to the top of the coral we saw some harlequin fish with eggs in their mouths, and then about 8 different cuttlefish swimming about. Cuttlefish aren’t actually fish; they are a mollusk – related to octopuses. They have a hard carapace-like head similar in shape to a giant squid, but with octopus-like but short tentacles at the bottom. For fine motor control they have a wavy protrusion that rings their head that waves for small fine adjustments. This way they moved tentacles first. When they wanted to move faster they swam like an octopus going headfirst using their tentacles to propel themselves. The cuttlefish were wandering about, almost checking us out to see what we were about before fleeing and then coming back to repeat. While this was happening I noticed an enormous school of silvery fish which I presume to be snappers. The fish themselves were about 30 cm long each, and there were easily thousands of them. I was able to swim between them and there was a point where I could not see outside the
fish because there were so many in every direction. (I have pictures and hopefully a video up later).
The school followed us as we headed back to the beach to resurface. We exited at the beach, got the gear off and cleaned and then I had 3 hours to kill before the next dive. I grabbed a beach chair and relaxed for some time while reading a book. With about an hour left I decided to explore the island a bit. I walked along the beach to one end before it hit a cliff. I walked back along a walking path, passing by the various huts along the way and even a tennis court. I found a path heading into the island and followed it, past a little lagoon and to more huts. Along the way I saw a path heading off to more beaches and away from all buildings, but I was barefoot so made a mental note to try it later with my sandals. I came across another small beach and decided to head back to the dive resort. There was a staircase leading up a small but sharp cliff. There was an old and well-worn sign
that said “Temporarily closed for maintenance”. In my head that read: “Be careful when using”. So I walked up the stairs that were clearly old and rotting. Many steps were missing or were loos and fell apart when I put weight on them. Fortunately I was testing every step so nothing ever happened. I made it down to the other side to the main beach and back to the dive resort.
There were two other divers going with us this time, and a different divemaster but we did the same dive as before. The only real difference was that this divemaster fed the turtles but grabbing some seaweed, shaking out the sand and tossing it up in the water before the turtle snapped it up. The large school of fish also was not there anymore.
Once we finished the dive, I grabbed my sandals and headed up the trail that headed inland up a couple of hills eventually to the very top of the island where there was a concrete lookout tower built. I climbed, took pictures and headed back down to find another “secret” beach taking more pictures before heading back. I found the pool (yes they
have a pool) and there was a monitor lizard walking right by it. I took a brief swim in the pool before taking the bangka back to my guesthouse. This time the waves were a lot higher and I was getting continually splashed by water. I wrapped my bag in my rain jacket to keep it dry and wore sunglasses to keep the water out of my eyes.
Today there was a boat going out to a giant wreck called Kyokuzan Maru, a Japanese WWII wreck sunk on Sept. 1944. The ship was 136m long and was about 40m deep at the very bottom, 26m deep on the deck and 14m at the mast. The visibility was quite poor (about 5-8m). We descended via a buoy line to the mast which was covered in coral, only the general shape was recognizable.
We used the mast to shelter from the current as we descended to the deck of the ship. It was of course covered in coral. There were a few fish lurking about, but not too many. There were lots of oysters and clams however and as you swam over a section your peripheral vision
would pick up the slamming shut of the clams and oysters as they detected your presence.
We swam along the top around and through various structures. After about 30 minutes we headed back up. The second dive was more or less the same, just a different part of the ship as it was fairly big. After both dives we headed back. I got a call later that night saying that there wouldn’t be any diving for a few days because of lack of interest, so I arranged to catch the jeepney into Coron to dive there. The one jeepney per day left at 4am (~1.5 hour ride).
At 3am I was woken up by a knock. It was time to get ready to catch the jeepney. I packed my things and walked out with the staff lady to the ‘bus stop’ (a little bench) and we waited until about 4am until the telltale lights shone around the corner with the public jeepney. I hopped on board and put my bags on top of a box and crammed into a corner. We picked up lots of locals along the way and soon enough we were
crammed like sardines. Despite the bumpy road and uncomfortable seating, I was able to fall asleep and woke up in Coron. When I woke up the jeepney was empty and I couldn’t find the driver to pay: a free ride.
It was 5:45am and I needed to find a hotel. I quickly orientated myself and walked along the main strip until I found the dive resort I wanted to try. The rooms were full. I grabbed my stuff and kept on going until I saw a sign for a backpacker’s guesthouse. Figuring that would be cheap I headed down the wooden stilted walkway over mud (in high tide it is water) to the little guesthouse and got myself a room. I then went back over to the dive shop to arrange diving for the day.
The dive boat was enormous, and could sleep 16 people. There were about 25 divers and 15 staff on board. Suffice to say it was busy. I stayed up top where it was quieter but ended up missing a lot of instruction as they put no effort to make sure everyone was present. The first dive was the largest and deepest wreck. It
was a refrigeration ship about 200m long and 40m deep, called Irako. I ended up hitting 38m for a good chunk. For reference the maximum allowed for any recreation dive is 40m, and technically it should be 18m for people with Open Water diving. But because I had some equipment problems I had to switch groups last minute to a group of young Americans who were not experienced enough to penetrate the wreck. So we swam on top for a good portion of the 200m length. Like all the wrecks visibility was poor and it was difficult to make out structures beyond the obvious ones.
The second dive I went with my originally slated group which was two older experienced divers. This dive was a cargo ship called Kogyo Maru. This time when we went down we penetrated the wreck, diving into and through various compartments. One funny thing about these kinds of depths is that you can get what is called nitrogen narcosis, which is caused by pressure on nitrogen into your body and is somewhat analogous to being drunk. Poor perception, bad decision making, poor memory, dizziness and the whole bit. I’ve never been terribly affected but
I do notice that my memory is hazier than usual on these deep dives. I quickly lose any clear recollection of what happened in the deeper parts. So on this one all I really remember is that we did go diving through various rooms and compartments, some large and some small. There were many criss-crossing groups and at times it was difficult to figure out who was who.
The third dive was a basic reef wall dive, and wasn’t particularly good. Did not see anything worth noting.
Then we got back to the dive shop I signed up to do my Advanced Open Water for the next day. It included 5 specializations each with a dive to practice. The mandatory two were Deep and Navigation. There were some other ones that I would’ve liked to have done but the dive shop was unable (like Altitude, Dry Suit, and Photography). I ended up settling for Wreck, Buoyancy and ID’ing fish.
I started my Advanced Open Water (AOW) today and was with an American ex-pat named Patrick. We got into the boat which was one of the smaller more common and manageable dive boats.
We set off to do our 3 dives.
The first dive was about going deep. The ‘training’ was incredibly basic. It was just recognizing that red and orange disappear at deep depths and look black. The dive wreck itself was an old Japanese anti-air gun ship called Akitsushima. The guns were detached and placed nearby their original placements for viewing. We penetrated the wreck diving through the levels. For these levels and most other penetrations I did, the size ranged from barely able to squeeze through to enormous chambers. On this site, there were a number of portholes on one side that many were broken, but some with glass were still intact albeit with coral growing on the other side. At the top Patrick spotted two stonefish, the poisonous but camouflaged fish. As we ascended back to head out there was a school of large batfish hanging around. Batfish are fairly narrow but flattened and look quite large from profile. They were about 30cm long.
The second dive was a large Japanese oil tanker called Taiei Maru. We descended down the back to the rudders and penetrated the wreck via a hole near the rudder. The hole itself
was small and tight but it opened up quickly into a large chamber that we cruised through. We swam through various rooms and structures, and eventually into a couple of huge oil drums. We ascended above through a little hole in the structure. At the top we saw some crocodile fish, (related to and looks similar to stonefish but with elongated snout and large protruding crocodile-like eyes). We also saw more of the batfish.
The third dive was a reef dive with a small gunboat wreck (20m long) called Lusong Gunboat. Fairly basic. We swam along the reef for a ways until we saw the tip of the hull. The bottom was of course covered in corals, and the top was heavily disintegrated, largely it is hit by waves every day and is partially submerged in low tide.
The last real day of my trip. The rest is travelling back to China.
I finished with another 3 dives to complete my AOW. First dive was unique. It was a lake called Barracuda Lake, although there are supposedly only 1-2 barracudas in the lake. There was very little life, and no coral. So why was
this a main dive site? Geology. First it is a lake inside a limestone karst mountain (I wish I had pictures but my latch of my camera case broke so I couldn’t take any dive pictures this day). It was a beautiful setting. We swam from the boat to a little wooden plank stairway that lead up a few meters and back down over the sharp limestone into the lake. The second main reason for the lake beyond the beautiful rock formations in and out of the water was that it was a fresh and salt water lake, with a distinct thermocline and halocline. The top freshwater (0-18m) was relatively cool 28 degrees and the bottom salt water was a hot 38 degrees. So you would dive as normal and at 18m you could stick your hand below your body and all of a sudden feel the intense warmth. It’s quite a unique situation.
I can also say that my hands are parasite free. I got a free check-up by a cleaner shrimp that poked and prodded its way around my hand and arm checking for things to eat. I probably wasn’t its favourite customer.
The second dive
was a cargo ship wreck called Tangat. About 140m long and 30m deep. Patrick once again took me through the various nooks and crannies. I definitely benefited from having a guide to myself as it was quite tight in places and would be impossible to safely take a group. We found old rooms and turret placements. At the top there were 2 cuttlefish a crocodile fish and a scorpion fish (this one is very similar to the crocodile fish just without the elongated snout – but doesn’t resemble a scorpion).
The last dive of the trip was another cargo ship called Olympia Maru. This one was also a cargo ship, albeit a bit smaller at 110m length and 26m depth. We entered by the rudder in a hole and swam through several decks and Patrick took me to a shower room. It had the weaving entrance much like a mall or airport bathroom. This wreck was on its side, so we had to enter sideways, ascend straight up, move sideways again and descend straight down. Not for the claustrophobic. There were still lights on the side (ceiling) and faucets and shower heads on the wall. There was a small
hole in the bottom (bottom to us, side of the wall) that we descended out of and to leave the wreck.
On the way back to the town, one of the two engines broke down so we puttered along slowly back to town, 1.5 hours later than normal. It killed my plan of going to a hot springs to end the trip.
Tomorrow I leave to go back to China.
There are more photos below