There are only so many gorgeous white sand beaches and seafood buffets a guy/girl can take before he/she feels ready for the next mystical adventure, so we made an executive decision (can you have an executive with two people?) to cut our time in El Nido short by a day and make a head start on our next destination, Coron Town on Basuanga Island - the hub of the Calamians, the group of islands north of mainland Palawan. However, a small bangka-shaped spanner was thrown in the works when we discovered that the only boat traveling to Coron on the relevant date was the 'Jessabel,' which we had previously done some online research about only to discover that it SANK in 2011. Admittedly nobody died from this little incident and we thought that one sinkage amongst an entire history of successful voyages was good odds, and went off to book our seats. However the first travel agent refused to sell us tickets, and the second one agreed to do so but gave the ominous suggestion we wait another day because the Jessabel was recently experiencing "engine troubles" and "could not be recommended." We decided that was enough of a warning and held off. In hindsight this was definitely a good idea for my poor nerves, because the safe (er) boat was quite small and there were some incredibly rough patches on the nine hour journey, where water poured into the back of the boat and many people turned green and scrambled for their life vests (we had been playing a game during the trip where we would pick the nicest looking close-by island and fantasise about catching fish and eating coconuts there for a few days until we were rescued...this game abruptly stopped when the swell started, because it only occurred either in open ocean or near perilous-looking rocky outcrops).
The setting for Basuanga was quite similar to El Nido but more rugged and with many fewer people (perhaps the necessary bangka ride is to answer?) What it is really famous for, however, are the 24 sunken Japanese WW2 warships that are littered around it and the surrounding islands. Following one day of rest, Jack was keen to get down there, and after some internal debates (no, swimming under 20+ metres of water in dark enclosed spaces is not what springs to mind when I hear the word 'fun') I decided to go along for the ride. We dusted off our PADI cards and signed up with Coron Divers (self-claimed as the cheapest dive shop in Coron - teamed with a photo of the staff using their snorkels as beer bongs, how could we go past such advertising?) and scored a whole boat to ourselves for the day. I was feeling more than a little nervous - especially considering we had not been diving for almost exactly two years. These fears were not quite allayed when I jumped off the side of the boat for our first descent: my BCD had a hole in it and deflated itself into the water, my flipper fell off, and then I got bitten by a fish...thanks universe, that helped! However I felt infinitely better after a shallow and low-key 'skill refresher' reef dive with our extremely competent and helpful divemaster, the aptly-named Ariel (get it? Like the Little Mermaid, except he was a guy). Afterwards he told us we were "very good divers" (and also "a very good-looking couple...good-looking person deserve other attractive person"...must have been the wetsuit look) and ready to take on the wrecks.
The first ship we explored was the Olympia Maru, an 120 metre long(not sure why I was surprised about this...but it was one friggin huge boat) cargo ship at 25 metres' depth. This was decidedly the more startling/beautiful?/amazing (the words evade me - one of those things you really have to see to believe - but 'awe-inspiring' hits somewhere close to the mark) of the two wrecks. Swimming through the dark cargo hold, touching the furry bricks in the engine room and seeing the light stream through the enormous hole in the ship's side (Filipino divers long ago looted the engine) made me feel like I was in the movie 'Titanic,' and I was spending so much time being fascinated I hardly had any time to be scared. The whole experience was made even better by the fact that we were the first divers at the site that morning, which meant that we got the eery feeling of being totally alone plus good visibility (because the sediment hadn't been kicked up yet).
After fish (the kind we had just been swimming with...yes I felt a little bad) and pork for lunch, and a relaxing surface interval, we dived to the East Tangat Gunboat, which was much smaller/shallower at 35 m long/20 m depth. It was unsurprisingly somewhat less dramatic than the Olympia, plus there were quite a few divers around which made for very poor visibility, but was made more fun by the fact that Ariel gave us his dive computer and let us plan/navigate/carry out the dive on our own (with his distant supervision). We enjoyed our half hour of wriggling through portals etc. together, and our independent dive went off without a hitch except a slightly botched safety stop (we were busy doing 'funny' underwater hand signals to one another and started unintentionally rising towards the surface before our three minutes was up - luckily the shape of the wreck means we had come up very slowly from the bottom and were in absolutely no danger of the dreaded bends!)
The next day was our last in Coron so we decided to make the most of it and booked in with the same operator for a day of diving and island hopping. This time we were in a group with three others (2 Japanese girls and a Filipino guy from Cebu) who were all extremely friendly which made for a really fun day. The first stop was Barracuda Lake, which is on the ruggedly beautiful Coron Island (about 20 mins from Basuanga). Although there was not much to see at the bottom of the lake, the dive (30 metres) lets you experience its changing thermoclines - the surface was ocean temperature, the next layer was bathwater (40 degrees c), then it gradually got warmer, and really freezing cold at one point. The water looks really strange as the temperatures change - best described as the haze you see on the road when it's really hot. After a relaxing swim at the island's other inland lake and another meal of fish and pork, we wound up the afternoon with a pleasant reef wall dive.
After all this excitement we felt that it was time for a few quiet, well-earned San Migs watching the sunset over the harbour. However Joe (the Filipino guy in our group) asked us if we would mind stopping off at a nearby island resort to have "one drink" (the famous last words) with some old friends who happened to be staying there at that time. There was not a beer in sight - the only option was vodka and tonic (my favourite...) - and unsurprisingly the afternoon soon degraded into a very fun and drunken evening making new, very rich, Filipino friends (including the famous Mike Kiong, who is apparently kinda a big thing in Manila and owns six nightclubs there), sampling delicious (but as I found out later, gut-liquifying) beer snacks which were all variations on 'fried pork fat', and learning a smattering of tagalog (we now know how to say "thankyou," "recharge your phone credit here," "the time is now" and "you are my only one"...you know, just the bare essentials) - see pics!
After a huge travel leg we are safe and content if a little waterlogged in rainy Southeastern Luzon. Our plans for beach camping are off and we plan to go further south to Legaspi tomorrow.
Lots of love,
T & J xoxox