Puerto Princessa – Oct 19th – 21st
I landed on the island of Palawan on the afternoon of the 19th, a narrow razor shaped island in the western side of the Philippines. Time was not on my side as I needed to be out of the country by the 25th. The major attractions of Palawan are the underwater river in Puerto Princessa, the beautiful town of El Nido and wreck diving in Coron. I figured I would not try rush everything and just do the underwater river and the diving, wreck diving was my secret reason for coming over here, Japanese ships from WWII, a mouthwatering prospect!
I stayed in a basic hostel called JB hostel in Puerto Princessa which was run by a kind old couple and I happened to be the only guest there. The city was quite busy but had a nice feel to it and I spent the evening wandering about. I organised a trip to the famous underground river a protected area and actually about 50km from Puerto Princessa, so the name is slightly misleading. The trip took a whole day and as I got into the bus early the next morning I could feel the sense of resentment from my fellow Passengers who were all Filippino, even my guide was like ‘aw shit, a foreigner’, now the tour would have to be in English, sorry guys! To further the resentment we had to stop off at the government offices so I could get a permit to visit the national park, yes everybody needed a permit, ludicious. Because I arrived late the day before, they couldn’t get me a permit in time so I had to make everyone wait for about 20 minutes, again I’m really sorry lads. I did manage to make friends with a young couple on the tour who I hung around with for the day, the same ones who later made me eat Tamilak which is a large tree worm, eaten raw. I did eat it and gagged several times but that’s Tamilak…tick!
The trip was long and essentially boring at times because there was a lot of waiting around, there were hundreds of groups, mostly Filippino here to see the attraction as they would send out only a few boats at a time so I spent a lot of time sitting on my arse thinking about things. We did have a nice buffet lunch thought and that’s when the Tamilak incident occured. We eventually headed out on the boat, landed at a beautiful coastline with spectacular limestone features, like a really nice photo, wait.. So into the forest we went for a short trek, there were monkeys everywhere and some of them were sneaky and looking at my bag and thinking ‘oh I wonder what’s in there, maybe bananas’ but I gave them all evil looks and lucky for them they didn’t try their luck. There was one cheeky monkey who came up behind me when I was sitting on a log and peeped over my shoulder to see what I was holding, it was a phone and not edible so he backed off.
We had to wait more when we got to the entrance to the underground river, it’s 8km long but only navigable for about 4km, I think it get’s too hard to breath or something if you too far in. Anyway it was pretty impressive but the guide was just trying too hard to be funny, it was so rehearsed it was the opposite of funny, not funny. There were many spectacular cave formations inside, all the usual stuff stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, pillars and they were gigantic some of them so while the day was extremely long I still think it was worth it to witness such impressive natural formations. So we made the very same trek back to shore by boat and then a 2 hours journey back in the bus, then collapsed on a heap on my bed. Other things were done in PP like drinking coffee and eating chicken and icecream but I really don’t need to expand on that. I am rushing the blog now because I’ve only 1 week left to complete it, surely I can’t be writing the blog when I’m home that would be silly. Ok so that was Puerto Princessa done, next it’s off to Coron by airplane as time is of the essence.
Coron – Oct 21st – 25th
And so it was up to Coron for the Philippines showdown, time for some wreck diving. I booked some accommodation at Coron backpackers hostel and it was a great place for only 8 euro a night. A simple structure built on wooden stilts with the water beneath you, I could actually see it through the cracks in my floor, and smell it!
I relaxed for the first 2 days, did some wandering about this beautiful coastal town, watched some spectacular sunsets and did a island hopping and snorkelling tour with some girls I met in the hostel. While on that tour I met 2 Polish couples who were also travelling Asia and were big into their diving. They had arranged to go diving the next day to 3 dive sites, 2 wreck and one a lake. They invited me to come along with them so after the tour, I headed to the dive shop and there was a place available for the next day, boom! I was so excited to be heading down to genuine world war wrecks, a window into the past. These 13 famous Japanese wrecks from WWII are dispersed along the coast of Coron and at perfect depths for diving. In September of 1944, the fleet had fled from Manilla in an attempt to avoid detection by the US bombers and were even disguised as small islands as they sat timidly in the bay. Alas the US were one step ahead of them and in foul swoop they annihilated the whole fleet within 15 seconds with an air raid, and so there’s your background story. I sat up late that night reading more about the wrecks and particularly the ones I would be diving to, the Olympia Maru, a large 140 meter freighter and the Tangat a smaller gunship.
So the morning came as expected and I grabbed some breakfast in a local cafe and headed down to the pier. We headed off around 9am, there were the 4 polish, myself and 2 sound English guys and we had a massive boat all to ourselves. The first dive would be to Barracuda lake which would be my first lake dive and what an interesting dive site it was. We docked the boat in a beautiful rocky bay with crystal clear waters. We proceeded to gear up, no buddy checks like in Thailand so you have to pretty much look after yourself in terms of safety. We swam to shore in and then had to climb up a big flight of stairs to get over some rocks, in our extremely heavy scuba gear! That had danger and accident written all over it but we all made it safely. We got to the lake entrance and had a quick briefing where our instructor explained that the first 4 meters were fresh water and then below that is salt water. He also explained it will also get extremely hot once you pass this point, up to 40 degrees celsius yikes! didn’t plan on being cooked today but ok let’s go. The 7 of us descended with 2 instructors, and headed into the abyss of the lake. When we hit the 4 meter mark the transition from cold to warm was swift, but it was really relaxing, like a good hot bath, like very hot. There wasn’t much to see in the lake in terms of marine life bar a few cat fish and shrimp and the resident barracuda didn’t show his face, apparently he’s a bloody giant. We saw some beautiful rock formations and caves and the dive lasted about 40 minutes though as usual my air ran out near the end and I had to once again go up on my instructors air, it’s pretty much a given at this stage but it was a great dive.
We headed back up over the slippery steps again and back to the boat where we sailed for about 1 hour to the next dive site, this would be the Olympia Maru and I was quite nervous. We had our lunch on the boat which the 2 instructors cooked up and it was delicious, then we relaxed and got ready for our first wreck dive. This time we would be splitting the groups up, myself and the 2 English guys were heading with our own instructor and the Polish off with the other guy. We got a briefing on the ship which sits at 30 meters on the seabed and I was quite excited to hear we’d actually be penetrating the wreck. I didn’t have the wreck speciality certification for that but such is the relaxed attitude of the dive shops around here they don’t really care, I was comfortable with it anyway and so were the other guys, though one of them had not even done his deep dive yet.
So into the water we went and slowly we descended down the anchor line, butterflies in my stomach in anticipation. Before I knew it, that familiar ghostly green silhouette of the wreck came slowly into view, this time it was real though unlike my first wreck dive in Koh Tao which was purposely sunk for for divers. This was a real piece of history, untouched for the last 70 years sitting silently in solitude, just amazing. We entered through a cargo hold, the structure still very much identifiable though the locals had obviously made themselves at home with corals and fish in abundance. Once inside, it was quite scary, visibility was not great even with the torch and that feeling of no-turning-back was running through my veins. We headed through the cabins sometimes I wasn’t sure where we were just looking around in awe though I was constantly checking my air and banging into things. I could feel myself breathing quite heavily, a mix of excitement and nerves I’m sure. We got to the centre of the ship where where was a huge gaping hole in the top, of course this must be the impact of the bomb, it was surreal and though I drifted weightlessly and peacefully through the water in silence I couldn’t but think about the panic and horrific scenes that occurred right here where so many people died. At this stage I just felt cumbersome in the water, was constantly thinking about air given the fact I was in a confined space and I really couldn’t relax, enjoy and take in my surroundings. I guess this was due to the fact that this my first time penetrating a wreck and on top of that I really haven’t had that much dive experience, honestly I kind of wanted the dive to end as soon as possible.
While swimming through one of the holds, I suddenly felt myself floating upwards, something was not quite right. I felt a hand grab my leg as my head bumped off the ceiling, my weight belt, it had come loose and fallen off, holy mackerel! Lucky for my it didn’t get lost below the ship and my instructor calmly reattached it, but for that minute I was in a slight state of panic and pretty sure I used about half my air. If I had have been outside the wreck when that happened, it would have been real trouble for Conor as I would have ascended to the surface too quickly and suffered decompression sickness, anyway that didn’t happen so why even mention it. Right after that I had a look at my air and of course it was getting pretty low, only 20 minutes in, what a disaster. We met up with the other group where my instructor passed the 2 English guys onto them and brought me back to the surface before my air got dangerously low. I surfaced and was bitterly disappointed I didn’t get to spend longer down there, pretty shook from the weight belt incident, but slightly relieved to be at the surface. When I got back into the boat I almost didn’t want to do the next dive, an aptly emotional wreck I was.
We had to spend about 2 hours back on the boat before we could safely do our next dive, there are strict regulations regarding surface time in between dives, the interval all depending on a number of factors such as how long you dive, the depth, how many dives you do that day etc. The instructors were doing some calculations and asked me was I flying tomorrow which I was, at 2pm. Another regulation after diving is that you can’t fly within a certain period again depending on the above factors. I was somewhat relieved when they advised against doing the next dive but the other half of my really wanted another go at the wreck dive, it’s what I came here for. I sat down but then half an hour later, the instructor called me over and he said he recalculated and thought I would be safe doing this dive and flying tomorrow so he asked me “Do you want to dive?” I hesitated but it was an easy one, let’s do this and I punched the air*.
So the time passed, we sat and chatted and suddenly it was time. Again I was nervous with anticipation but fully determined to enjoy this one, I had also discussed some breathing techniques with some of the other divers so I felt a little more confident. We organised into the same groups as before, got another briefing about the boat and what areas we would enter and exit and into the water we plunged. Down we descended and I actually felt so comfortable descending this time, breathing was nice and controlled and I made a deal with myself to fully embrace this dive and not to concentrate on my air, just relax and enjoy. That I did. It was by far the best dive I have done of my whole trip, I surfaced on my own air after 45 minutes, absorbed all the beauty around me, the delaying skeletal structure of the rugged Tangat gunboat and the life teeming around it. We weaved in and out of the different rooms, into the boiler room, the control deck, we even saw some granite plaques on the wall with some writing in Japanese inscribed on to it. I wasn’t even worried about my air this time I could just feel myself breathing more naturally, my movements were slow and controlled and sure enough when I did check it periodically it was in line with the rest of them, am I a diver now? who cares, it was just a fantastic experience and spotting 2 white and black scorpionfish while exiting the vessel was just a cherry on the top. I surfaced in a jubilant mood and to think I had thought about not doing this dive, what a difference and my whole trip to the Philippines was justified in that moment.
We scrambled back on board, everybody was excited and in a great mood after that dive, the visibility was much better and we all just agreed it was a better wreck. The instructors (who are brothers) pulled out the cold beers and we had a great journey back to Coron in the evening sun chatting and relaxing with a few San Miguel’s on deck, what a great day.
We arrived back on land at about 6pm and headed straight for the bar by the pier for more drinking, we watched the sunset and talked about the days diving and had a great few hours. That went on until about 10:30 that night and I made the short walk back to the hostel quite wobbly but delighted with my time in Coron. The next day I took a minibus to the airport and boarded a flight to Jakarta, that means I need to write a blog post about that now and quickly! DAM!