Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wreck-Diving in Coron

An 8 hour journey in a small boat sat on hard wooden benches benches wasn't the ideal way to spend the majority of my birthday but we were both relieved to be moving again after spending far too long in El Nido and the scenery wasn't too shabby.

Our arrival in Coron wasn't ideal either. The first guesthouse we checked into, which was highly recommended, turned out to have bed-bugs; fortunately we found our more-or-less immediately and left before we were bitten and our clothes contaminated. We then wandered around the town for a while trying to find somewhere suitable to stay; however everywhere we looked at was far too expensive. We resorted to enlisting the help of a tricycle driver, but that only resulted in an argument after he took us to a guesthouse which was full and they tried to charge us twice the price we had agreed for the journey. Just as we were about to give up and pay well over the odds we came across a brand new guesthouse that was still unfinished, but which was friendly, sparklingly clean, and cheap as chips. The day was rescued by a really nice meal and a well needed beer at a restaurant with a sea view and decorated with mermaids, rounded off by a birthday crepe and a rendition of Happy Birthday by the waitresses.

We spent a day exploring the town which was pretty nice without being especially interesting. Coron is pretty small and quiet, but after Sabang and El Nido it was actually really nice to be in a real town with proper roads again. It has a busy market and an even busier harbour which is mostly used by tourist boats running day trips and diving tours. It looks like the Coron tourism board have taken a few tips from some other major cities (either that or they've played too much Sim City). Firstly Coron has its own Hollywood-style sign on the side of one of the town's hills.

Secondly the huge cross on top of the largest peak which overlooks the town, Mount Tapyas, must be the Coron equivalent of Rio's Christ the Redeemer. We made short walk up to the top of Mount Tapyas that evening to enjoy the views just before sunset and were fortunate enough to see a gorgeous double rainbow while we were up there.

The following day was the main purpose for our visit to Coron. From 21st to 24th September 1944 15 Japanese were ships were sunk by a series of US airstrikes whilst at anchor in Coron Bay and around the nearby Busuanga Island (anyone interested in a brief history lesson can look here). The most significant result of this was its contribution to the liberation of the Philippines from the Japanese, but for our purposes the result was that a number of the shipwrecks are accessible to scuba divers. The combination of scuba diving with WWII shipwrecks sounded almost too good to be true, but turned out to be even better than we had expected.

The diving experience was hugely different to what we had experienced in Gili Air. For starters, we were kitted out in thick full-body suits rather than the short sleeved/legged suits we had worn before. More importantly instead of sharing a boat with 15+ other divers we had an entire boat to ourselves (well, ourselves, the boat crew, an instructor for Monique and a local guide for me). It felt completely indulgent. They had obviously heard that I had recently turned 32 as they had prepared a seat especially for me.

I was already excited enough, but my excitement went up a notch when my guide showed me a plan of the first wreck we were going to explore – the East Tungat anti-submarine boat - and informed me that we were actually going to swim through the wreck. I headed straight down to the wreck while Monique first did some training. Fortunately Monique's instructor was a really chilled out and patient guy so this time around Monique had no problems whatsoever and was able to dive down to the wreck shortly afterwards. It was an incredible experience! The visibility wasn't great so the ship appeared mysteriously once we got a few metres away. The East Tungat is 35m in length, completely covered in coral, plants and algae and surrounded by fantastic tropical fish – I've never seen anything like it. We were able to swim right into the ship and, with a little assistance from our guides, could see a few details including where the kitchen and sleeping quarters were. It was much more technical diving than I had done before because it was essential to control your depth in order to move through the wreck without hitting the ship, and made me a little nervous at first, but it didn't prevent either of us from enjoying the unique sight around us.

The next wreck was the Olympia Maru – a much larger 127m long cargo ship. Because of the depth of this wreck Monique wasn't able to dive down to it, and I could only go down to the level of the deck and couldn't go inside it. It was one of the single most amazing things I've ever seen! The ship was absolutely huge and was covered in so much coral that it was easy to temporarily forget that I was looking at a man-made object rather than the sea floor when swimming over flat areas of the deck. The ship has eight huge chimneys which towered spectacularly above me and made me feel tiny. One of the downsides of travelling for an extended period of time is that you see and experience so many amazing things that you start to take them in your stride and maybe don't appreciate them as much as you should at the time. Periodically, however, I have memorable moments where I take a step back and the reality of what I'm doing hits me; this was very much one of those moments. The combination of scuba diving (which I wasn't really sure I'd ever do and which is a fantastic experience in of itself), amongst fantastic sealife and around a genuine World War II shipwreck was an unforgettable experience. As fantastic as the ship itself was, the highlight of the Olympia Maru was probably when I was checking out the gun turret at the front of the ship and saw a huge lionfish swimming not far below me.  I descended a few metres (probably going a bit deeper than I was strictly allowed to) to find that the side of the ship was covered in dense hard coral, and that in and around the coral there must have been about 30 lionfish plus an awesome crocodile fish who were all happy to continue relaxing despite my presence.  It was a truly amazing sight!

The final stop was the Lusong Gunboat which we were both able to explore. The Gunboat was much smaller and shallower than the others, which meant that it had the advantage of it being lighter.  It was therefore easier to spot some of the smaller and more stationary sealife such as urchins, sponges and sea cucumbers, as well as the creatures which tend to hide from plain view including the comical jawfish whose bulbous eyes tend to give it away. Monique was even able to let a shrimp clean her fingers until it started to tickle too much for her to be able to keep still. Due to the shallow depth we were able to explore all around and through the boat, which involved squeezing through some pretty tight spaces (and resulted in a grazed ear for me). It was another fantastic experience.

It's really impossible to put into words how great the day was. There are loads of videos online of wreckdiving around Coron, but I have yet to find a one that gives a good idea of what we saw. However, these two short promotional videos do give a decent idea of the experience generally.

This video does a great job of showing the type of sealife we saw around the wrecks, although we weren't lucky enough to see a turtle or a squid:

It was pretty much impossible to top our day of wreckdiving, but before we left Coron we took great boat trip. The weather wasn't great, but that didn't stop us from having a good time.  First we stopped at a beautiful fresh water lagoon high up on an island where we swam, explored the caves and played with the needle fish (who, rather grossly, enjoyed eating my skin that was peeling after getting sunburned).

After that we did some fantastic snorkelling with some of the most impressive coral to date and a huge range of tropical fish. We then stopped at a beach for lunch cooked by our guides, before another lagoon and another snorkelling stop. It was yet another fantastic day.

We also took an evening trip out to the natural springs just outside of Coron. The journey was not very relaxing as it involved incredibly bumpy “roads” and we had to get out on more than one occasion to enable our tricycle to get up some steep slopes. However, that made our soak in the hot spring all the more relaxing.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and the time came to leave Coron and the Palawan area. As with any flight we were anxious to get to the airport in a timely manner, and were aware of potential delays. We were relieved then to discover that the only “traffic” which slowed down our bus journey to the airport was a herd of goats, and that the airport itself is little more than a barn with a handful of security personnel (who appeared most concerned with preventing people from taking shells with them) and a field behind it with an area of tarmac which sufficed for a runway. In hindsight, after spending quite a while in this sleepy part of the world I'm not sure why I expected anything else.

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