Coron, Philippines: Beauty Beyond Words.

After spending 6 weeks in the Philippines I went to Coron to dive the WWII wrecks.  If you’ve dived in the Philippines, and/or plan your holidays around diving you probably know the story of these wrecks.  But here is what I know:

Coron Bay Wrecks
Coron Bay Wrecks

On 24 September 1944 the US Navy sent a strike force of fighters and dive bombers to destroy an Japanese fleet laying low in Coron Bay, off the island of Busuanga in the Philippines.  The Japanese fleet had been stationed near Minila, but after the heavy airstrikes in Manila on 21 September they were forced to move.  They traveled about 170 nautical miles southwest of Manila to Busuanga, Coron Bay, arriving on the 23rd.  The US Navy’s strike forse was launched from the USS Lexington.  The strike was a long-range one, thought to be the longest at that time, so the fighters would have very little time to attack.  Despite this, they managed to sink about 24 ships.  Only 2 (I think) escape.

The bay is relatively shallow, yet visibility can be poor.  Despite this, WOW, what an amazing diving experience.  Something about wreck diving makes you feel like you are the only person in the world.  Its both terrorizing and exhilarating.  I highly recommend it.  That being said, much of my energy on wreck and cave dives is spent managing anxiety.  It is, as I said exhilarating, but not my preference.  Still, Coron is a must if you love diving.

Ferry to Coron from El Nido
Ferry to Coron from El Nido

I stayed here, at Sangat Island Resort.  I took a ferry from El Nido to Busuanga.  Well, maybe not exactly a ferry, it was a large banka- these are the wooden boats common in the Philippines with distinctive side stabilizers.  It was quite rustic, with bench seating only.  A very long, and uncomfortable journey.  People tend to have concerns about the safety of traveling in blue water with a boat like this, but we were never horribly far from land.  And there appeared to be enough life vests on board.  The ferry is 8 hours, but from El Nido in 2015, pretty much any major port was 6 hours.  (That’s changing as I write).

But back to Sangat Island Resort.  We made our war from the port where the ferry dropped us off, to the marina where we wuld be picked up by the resort.

  A 15 minute walk.  We were picked up by a 20 foot boston whaler.  Hadn’t seen one of those in a while!  it was a fun 20 minute ride to the resort.  By this time we were exhausted.  The resort was like something out of a movie.  Not in terms of luxury, definitely not that, but it was so remote.  Only way to get to it was by boat.  and it was surrounded by little mountains.  Imagine a small cove with a white sand beach.  Nothing but a few bungalows, a restaurant, bar and dive shop.  That is the stuff on my dreams.  Unfortunately it was shockingly expensive for the quality of accommodation.  But again, no regrets.  More about Sangat Island Resort Here.

Wreck Diving from Sangat
Wreck Diving from Sangat

Here is what I didn’t know when I arrived in Coron:  Basuanga has some of the best diving in the Philippines, and it’s not wreck diving.  Firstly you can access Apo Reef from Busuanga.  I believe they have day boats that head out to the most beautiful dive site.  I was there a few months prior so didn’t go out there, but it’s well worth the trip.  Apo is one of my Top 10 dive sites.  If possible spend a few days on a live aboard.

At Sangat, we met a man who told us of his diving on the other side of the Island.  There is a natural sanctuary protecting Dugongs off the coast of San Jose, on the NW coast of Busuanga.  Dugongs or Sea Cows are nearing extinction, they are curious little creatures.  A rare and beautiful sight, gentle and shy and unlike any other sea creature.  Afer 2 nights at Sangat diving the Japanese wrecks we decided to head to see the Dugongs.  This was easier said than done. First we had to get back to the main island via Sangat Resort transport.  Back on the Boston Whaler again.  By the time we arrived back at the marina it was too late to get to San Jose, and Accommodation on that side of the island was proving a bit more difficult to secure.  We stayed at Sophia’s Garden Resort   for one night while we arranged transportation to San Jose and diving with Dugong Diver Center.  Sophia’s was quite nice, and the staff was very accommodating.

 

The next morning we were picked up by a van arranged through Sophia’s which would take us to the only airport of Busuanga, from there we would be picked up by transport arranged by our accommodation outside of San Jose.  We stayed at a little hotel in the hills overlooking the river that empied out into the straight on Mindoro.  The hotel was called The Riverhouse Boutique Hotel.  It was an odd little out of the way place, but the views wee spectacular – overlooking the mangrove lined river and the surrounding hills.  The landscape was so different.  just stunning.

River near San Jose, Busuanga
River near San Jose, Busuanga

The next morning we wandered down a trail past our bungalow to the river where we were picked up by boat and taken to the Dugon Dive Center’s boat waiting for us anchored in the river just off the coast of San Jose at the mouth of the river.  The journey from The Riverhouse to the dive boat was an almost as spectacular as what we would see later that day.  Not another soul was on the river, water like class, flourishing mangroves as far as the eye could see.

We boarded and set off to pick up one other guest from an nearby resort called El Rio y Mar Resort.  We didn’t stay there, but did pick up our dive gear there.  El Roi looked really nice.  Based on appearances and the professionalism we experienced at the dive shop I would highly recommend this place.  Granted, I only spent about 45 minutes there, but it’s grounds looked splendid.

Mangroves, Busuanga
Mangroves, Busuanga

Once outfitted with our dive gear we set off for the Dugong Sanctuary and surrounding dive sites.  We arrived at one of the areas where dugongs are frequently spotted, did several passes, but didn’t spot anything.  Then we left for a nice dive about 20 minutes away.  We saw only one other dive boat the entire day.  I’m a selfish tourist.  I want wherever I am to feel like it’s all mine, so this was my idea of a perfect day diving.

We did 3 dives with lunch in between.  Our guide was great.  Lots of macro life, and and some beautiful rock and coral formations.  On one of our dives we were followed almost the entire time by 4′ cleaner fish.  He really wanted to lock onto my tank.  Initially I was uncomfortable with this, but we became friends eventually.

Then back to search for Dugongs.  We weren’t hopeful at this point, but we’d already had a wonderful day of diving so we weren’t feeling disappointing either.  Just then the captain and spotters got very excited.  They had a manta in their sights.  The threw some snorkeling gear at us and told us to stand on the out riggers (bagka stabilizers) quietly slip in the water when the boat slowed. When we spotted the huge white mass just below the surface we did as instructed.  then, my idiot (now ex) boyfriend took off towards the poor thing.  Exactly what you’re not supposed to do if you want to get anywhere near the thing.  As he approached the Manta, he startled it, or maybe just annoyed it because it didn’t take off.  the manta turned back around swimming away from  him and right towards me.  They are gentle creatures, but i couldn’t help but be startled as it looked right at me, mouth gaping.  My fright was overcome be a feeling of awe.  It was beautiful.

Dugongs
Dugongs

Back on the boat we decided to do one more pass to look for dugongs.  I think the crew was just about to throw in the towel when they spotted something.  The dugongs are exceedingly shy so it is imperative to approach quietly and gently.  We slipped in the water about 30 meters from where it was spotted, and quietly swam in that direction.  Then, there it was.  Huge and beautiful, like a whitish walrus, whale, seal, cuddly thing.  2 adults and a baby.  We were so lucky, a rare sighting indeed.  Unfortunately the water was murky so visibility wasn’t the best but we were able to get pretty close and swim behind them for a bit observing there activity.  Just the sweetest things.

Then back to the Riverhouse for a wonderful meal and early to bed after a perfect day.

 

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