February 25, 2012

El Nido

To get from Coron Town, on Basuanga Island in the Philippines, to El Nido, on the main Palawan Island, there are two options. First is to fly all the way back to Manila and then down to El Nido: not long flights, but seemingly an awful lot of backtracking. Second is to take a pump boat for eight hours (if you’re lucky) and thread between uninhabited islands in the sapphire sea while perched on a hard, wooden bench in a slightly too small and (probably) radio-less vessle, getting pummeled by waves that come right over the side of the boat.
Not such a Superferry.

Obviously we chose option two. If you do, make sure your passports are somewhere waterproof and consider wearing your raincoat. On the way, we saw a breached passenger ferry - oops? 

The beach in El Nido is crowded with guesthouses and battered day and night by the ferocious waves that roar in from the South China Sea. The town itself is basically a long strip with a small cross-street, full of guesthouses and restaurants, set at the mouth of a bowl-shaped bay.

All of the tour operators in town sell the same beach-hopping/snorkeling packages for the same prices - basically, you are loaded into a pump boat with some other tourists and shown the sights of an area in the Bacuit Archipelago, the marine park surrounding El Nido. We took tour ‘C,’ which takes you to some of the sites farther from town, the day after we arrived, and we took tour ‘A’ a few days later, which hits some of the lagoons and beaches closer in.

 This whole area is stunning: limestone karst islands jutting up from impossibly clear water, white sandy beaches littered with coral (ouch), and lots and lots of marine life. This is now a protected area, so there’s no longer the cyanide fishing or dynamite fishing that blights the seascapes of many other regions of the Philippines. The snorkeling we did here was the best I’ve ever seen.

Highlights on our tours were:  

The ‘Secret Beach’ featured on the C tour. Here, the boat stops alongside a cliff, in water that is roughly seven metres deep and full of beautifully coloured fish and bright corals. The water is absolutely clear - like being in a massive fishbowl.
The entrance to Secret Beach

From here, we swam through a small opening in the cliffside (below the water, it looks like a purpose built laneway, while above it’s barely more than a crack) into a hidden lagoon where the corals look like crimson brains, and the shallow water is calm and serene. We sat on this beach for a half hour before leaving to play in the fishbowl a while longer.

Big Lagoon

On the ‘A’ tour, both the Big and Small lagoons were gorgeous - deep green water with big limestone walls and stubborn trees at the tops. The boats go right into the Big Lagoon, where we snorkeled despite some pesky little jellyfish. The Small Lagoon is another swim-through. Both delightfully calm after an afternoon on the waves.

For a break from the crowds, we also spent a day in a two-person kayak. We didn’t go very far, but fortunately just around the headland from El Nido’s bay is a string of gorgeous beaches, all of which are untouristed apart from the famous “Seven Commandos Beach” that all of the ‘A’ tours visit. We spent our day paddling from beach to beach, snorkeling where the water was clear. Slipping along the shoreline away from the noise of the boat motors, we could hear the waves break on the cliffs, the hiss as the water tried to escape from the holes in the limestone.

Late in the afternoon, we could see storm clouds rolling over the islands, obscuring them one by one. We took shelter on an empty beach and huddled under a rock overhang as the rain pounded the beach. I fell asleep with my head on my knees, while watching the little ghost crabs scuttle over the tide line again and again, searching for tasty treats in the sand.


February 17, 2012

Journey to Basuanga Island, and the Coron Bay Wrecks

Warning: in a few paragraphs, this will turn into another dive nerd post.

Our journey from the Gili Islands, Indonesia, to Palawan province in the Philippines was, to put it politely, hellish.

Our transport company put the wrong airport code on our ticket, so we nearly ended up stranded at the Lombok airport (not useful when your tickets are for Bali Denpasar!). We lost a SECOND bank card to a hungry ATM (and have been forced to rely on credit advances ever since). We spent the night on a blanket on the Kuala Lumpur airport floor (to be woken up by the guy who collects the carts... we were in his space. He did not look impressed. As we shuffled off, I suppose neither did we). We had a moment of horrible clarity in which we put the facts together and figured out that our flight was landing at the Clarke Airfield, which is sixty kilometres north of Manila... and our connecting flight was out of Manila's city airport because we'd each booked one flight (and so we stayed in a massively overpriced hotel in dirty, dirty Manila).

So, lessons: 1) Pay very close attention to your tickets. We normally would have caught this one, but the writing was so scribbled I had no idea what it said to begin with. 2) Hold on to your bank cards!! You can get them back, but you have to wait until the bank is open, and at 8 pm at the Bali airport waiting for an outbound flight, that isn't an option. 3) Don't mess with the cart guy's cart system. 4) CHECK THE AIRPORT CODES.


But finally, finally, we landed on Basuanga Island in the west of the Philippines, just north of the long, ocean-bound finger that is Palawan. Coron Town is the biggest population centre. It's a dirty, compact little town on a bay that was once lined of mangrove trees.
We ended up at the Krystal Lodge, a little guesthouse that, like the surrounding neighbourhood, is to be found down a narrow, rickety pier, perched on stilts some six feet above the bay, which serves as both garbage disposal and sewage repository (The locals poop right into the water. I don't know exactly what was happening with our sewage, but I hope it wasn't going into the ocean. I am not sure I want to know the truth).
Beyond the sludgy waters (teeming with little fishies), our pier-hotel had a glorious view of Coron Bay and its mountainous islands, especially at sunset. One evening, in an unusual moment of motivation, Dan convinced me to climb the 720 steps up to the top of the local hill, to see the sunset.
I was glad once we'd reached the summit and watched the blazing sun sink into the distant limestone cliffs. But we definitely haven't been keeping in shape lately and it hurt my thighs!

The whole reason we'd started our Palawan adventure in Coron was to try out some wreck diving. In September of 1944, the US launched an air attack on a Japanese fleet that was sheltering in the bay, sinking a number of them. Today the site is known to be some of the best wreck diving in the world - the sites are both historically interesting and beautiful, covered in coral growth and home to millions of fish. And it is just the coolest thing to be descending into the murky depths when suddenly, you're confronted by the spectral silhouette of a smokestack and the enormous curve of a ship's bow, covered with waving sea fans and bobbing lion fish.

We did six dives in the bay about an hour's boat ride from Coron Town, three a day for two days, with a newer company called Amphibiko. The dive master, Christian, was professional and helpful. The crew were fantastic, equipment was new and worked perfectly. On the first day, we dove the wrecks of two auxiliary cargo ships, the Olympia Maru and a wreck now known as 'Tangat,' and one small gunboat, known as 'East Tangat.' On the second day, we dove on Irako, a refrigerator ship, and another auxiliary cargo ship, the Kogyo Maru, and finished up with a dive in nearby Barracuda Lake, a volcanic lake that grows hotter in distinct levels as you venture deeper. The hottest temperature registered by Christian's dive computer was 37 degrees Celsius!

After discussing the options, we decided to take Christian up on his offer to enter the wrecks. Before anyone leaves a lecturing comment - besides of course my mother, who is entitled - I know we aren't supposed to go in without specific training, but we decided that as we're both comfortable with our buoyancy (that is, staying level and swimming straight) and we wouldn't really be going beyond the open cargo holds, that the small risk was worth the chance to see these incredible wrecks. We're not likely to be back in Palawan anytime soon. We peeked into Irako, but didn't go beyond the first hold - it's known as a highly advanced, dangerous wreck, deeper than we'd been before and full of intact corridors to explore. Probably extremely cool, but certainly beyond our skill level to go inside.

The decks of the ships were truly as interesting as the interiors. Nearly seventy years of coral growth has transformed these man-made monsters into thriving ecosystems. We saw some enormous fish, and big shoals of smaller ones, circling the smokestacks and slipping in and out of the holds.

And for $25 a dive each, they give you lunch halfway through the day, and then beers on the return journey to Coron... it must be some of the cheapest diving in the world. Well worth a visit!