It's more fun in the Philippines
Diving has been on top of my to-do list for a long time, so for the spring semester break this year I thought it high time to finally check it off. I love snorkeling and was always fascinated by the idea of going deeper underwater.
There aren’t many people I know that have much diving experience, after all Switzerland is far away from good diving sites. For that reason most of my research was based off articles I found on various websites (the notorious “Top 10 best …” kind of websites). Many of these articles claim different places to be the best in the world, but they usually list countries in either the Caribbean (Belize and Honduras) or Southeast Asia (Indonesia and the Philippines) as the top ranks.
At first Belize was the first choice, but after looking at the flight connections, my girlfriend and I settled for the second but not less exciting choice of the Philippines, or Coron Island to be exact. Coron Island is a small island in northern Palawan only a few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Manila. It is well known for sunken shipwrecks from the second world war but is not yet a major tourist destination.
Our way from Switzerland to Coron Island led through Manila, the Philippine capital and most densely populated city in the world with almost 43’000 inhabitants per square kilometre. The major transportation system in Manila are taxis, though there are some metro lines (LRT and MRT). But even the local people we met there were using taxis all the time, so I safely assume that the metro is not the most reliable option. Well, there’s also a catch with taxis, as the drivers sometimes try to rip you off, especially if you’re an obvious tourist. Which you are in no way when you get out of the airport with luggage and a confused look on your face.
We arrived shortly before midnight and around that time there is hardly any traffic (unlike rush hour between 16:00 and 22:00) so a taxi from the airport to our accommodation should cost around 350 PHP with a metered taxi. Fixed rate taxis are considered safer but also charge up to four or five times as much as a normal taxi. When taking a taxi, ask them to use the meter before you get in and keep an eye on the counter. They have a standard flag down rate between 40 and 70 PHP and then it adds 4 PHP for every 300m distance or two minutes of waiting time. One time I noticed the meter going up more than 10 PHP every few seconds, so I pointed it out to the driver and he pressed a few buttons to “fix” it and claimed it was because of an empty paper slot.
Thanks to Airbnb we had an apartment on the 43th floor at Birch Tower in Malate with a great view over Manila Bay and the Makati skyline. In the morning we could see the sun rise behind the skyscrapers, casting a cool shadow onto the smog.
After two nights we continued our journey and once again found ourselves at the chaotic Manila Airport. Unfortunately, what should have been an easy one hour flight turned out to be almost three times as long due to “air traffic congestion” above Manila, a problem that probably is a permanent condition there.
Shipwrecks and reefs
The best place to stay when visiting Coron Island is Coron City, located on Busuanga Island just a few minutes away with the boat. There are dozens of other small islands scattered in the near surrounding, some of them uninhabited and some of them with island resorts, such as the Coron Underwater Garden Resort we were staying at. Retrospectively, this wasn’t our best decision. The resort itself is built on a small island to the south, away from the noise and the rush of the city, but required taking a ten minute boat ride every time we wanted to leave or return to the resort. It’s cool for people who just want to lie in the sun and enjoy the sound of the sea without any other distractions. But for us it was kind of an unnecessary nuisance since we spent every day somewhere else, on dive or island hopping tours.
The good thing about Coron is, that there are dozens of tour operators close by so you can just go and choose the one you like best, as the offers are mostly the same anyway, especially for (wreck) diving.
There are 12 japanese shipwrecks strewn around the entire bay, some of them so shallow you can already see them standing on deck and others as deep as 45m on the ocean floor.
These wrecks were sunk in the second world war, during American bombing raids or even by the Japanese themselves to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
For the past 70 years, corals and fish had time to take over the metal hulls and now entirely cover the ships making them a world class diving spot.
Diving was a new experience for me, I had never done it before but always wanted to. That’s why I had no idea what to expect from it, even after reading other blogs or seeing underwater photos from around the world. But even if I had had any expectations beforehand, floating in and around a sunken warship would definitely have blown my mind.
But first things first. We came there to become certified divers, so learning to dive was the top priority in the course. We had booked the three day PADI Open Water Diver course at Corto Divers whom I can highly recommend.
The first day of diving was dedicated to learning and practicing the essentials and doing short dives in a shallow coral reef. More or less fun, depending on how many times our instructor wanted us to take off our masks underwater and empty them.
Then on the next day we did a dive in Barracuda Lake on the interior of Coron Island. The special thing about this lake is that it is composed of fresh and saltwater, so at some point there is a threshold where it changes between the cold fresh water on top and hot warm water at the bottom. It is easily possible to “freeze” the back of your head in 28° water while your face melts in 37°.
Finally on the third day of the course we progressed to more difficult dives around our first shipwreck, the Olympia Maru, a 122 metre long japanese freighter between 18 and 30 metres deep. This colossus of a ship is home to many species of marine life, both harmless and venomous. We were lucky enough to witness a sea snake swimming around the wreck, a highly venomous but usually passive relative to terrestrial snakes.
Of all the six shipwrecks we went diving, the Morazan Maru was definitely my favorite. Lying on its side at a relatively easy 25 metres, this freighter’s interior can be accessed by four cargo holds. The inside is obviously rather dark, but holes in the hull provide enough light to see the surrounding. Knowing that this ship sunk during wartime and people probably died aboard is a really uncanny feeling when you float seemingly weightlessly through the hallways and cargo holds.
There’s more than diving
As predestined as Coron might be for diving, there’s definitely more to it than just that. On the interior of Coron Island are dozens of lakes for swimming, snorkeling or as already mentioned, diving. Likely the most popular one is Kayangan Lake, not only for its picturesque way there, but also because of the crystal clear water with a visibility of more than twenty metres. The obvious drawback to this is that almost every tour operator goes there several times a week and at most times it is flooded with tourists. A private tour to off peak hours would be the best, though costly option to visit this lake.
For people that want to take a break from all the water activities there aren’t that many alternatives around. There are guided city tours or you can walk up to Mount Tapyas, the rather hill-like local mountain from where you have an almost 360° view of the city and its surrounding islands.
Either that or you can indulge in the culinary aspects of Coron. Along the main road are countless restaurants and bars with delicious seafood dishes on offer. Try out the Sweet Chili Prawns at Le Bistro or enjoy a cocktail at the No Name Bar, which got its name literally from not having a name. By far the best place to savor a drink while watching the sunset is La Sirenetta, built on stilts out in the sea. Just be sure to get there early enough, or all the good seats will already be taken.
All in all is Coron one of my favorite places I have ever travelled to, especially now that I’ve taken up diving. Combining spectacular landscapes both underwater and above, this is an amazing place for people seeking a balance of activity driven and relaxing vacation. I’ve certainly had plenty of both.