Coron Sangat Island + Cashew Grove, Busuanga, Phillippines
The Philippines had suffered heavily in last years taifun, so I thought it a good idea to support the tourism with a diving vacation this year. The “other Truk” = Coron had for a while already been on my mind, as I love wreck diving and a bit of penetration there, plus Apo Reef is not too far away, another tempting spot. On the dive show “Boot” in Duesseldorf Germany I met Dugong Divers, who talked me into one week at Sangat Island near Coron for the wrecks, one week on the other side of Busuanga for the chance to see Dungongs and trips to Apo. I couldn´t find direct flights to Manila from Europe, so for the first time I went with China Southern via Guangzhou near Honkong. The domestic flight I chose with Cebu Pacific. I learned later, this airline in Europe is on a black list and not allowed to fly into, as the maintenance of their planes could not meet European standards. Paris – Guangzhow took aproximatlly 11 h, another 2.5 h got me into Manila. From international I had to take a shuttle to the domestic airport, which is no fun at all. Manila airport is hell, organization and management nil. A whole group of tourist were waiting for ¾ h for the shuttle bus. Some employees directing traffic definitely saw us waiting, I guess no one decided to do something . A small bus came, everyone had huge luggage, we tried to squeeze in but not all managed to join that trip. Why not send a bigger bus?! At the domestic airport it got worse, crowds everywhere, the flight was ½ h delayed, another ½ h we spent with running engines on the taxiway. We couldn´t take off due to “traffic congestion” they told us. From Coron Airport it took another ½ h to reach the harbor of the town, plus ½ h to reach Sangat Island Resort by boat. It was a wouh moment to see the place for the first time. Bungalows right next to the beach, lush tropical jungle steeply rising behind. Had a lovely beach cottage all for myself. Diving in warm 28 to 30 degrees of water was like siting in your tub at home. Sometimes I felt, a bit of a refreshment in a bit colder water would have been good, as it was hot and humid every day. Visibility was not that good, the first few days only 5 to 10 meter, inside the wrecks a bit better. However during my stay it slowly improved. They offer a dive at 9, 11, 2 o´clock and more if you wish for. Nitrox is available. Most dive sites are wrecks which you reach in between 10 to 30 minutes by boat. My stay of a bit more than one whole week got me most of the wrecks and even some of the reef dives Some wrecks like the Iroko Maru I dove 3 times on, every time visiting new places inside, the last dive the guide took me through the propeller shaft, which was a bit narrow. They swim and guide you through nearly all accessible parts of the whole boat, sometimes tight space, often a wide corridor. For me compared to Truk I felt, there is less coral growth on the wrecks here, I thought most places however showed less silt inside and for me it was less adventurous with no ammunition or parts of planes or tanks to find. Compared to the few reefs I saw around Coron, on the wrecks you found much more fish life, it looked like a huge kindergarten for many species and offering shelter from predators and man, we sometimes found 6 lion fish around one Gorgonia and were happy to spot 3 crocodile fish in one place together, catfish and razor fish groups you could find again and again. The reef had a good number and quality of hard coral, soft coral seemed to have been wiped out after the taifun, fish life around rather poor. We were a small group of 5 divers, I buddied up with a Canadian couple with the same experience and exercise level, so most times we could use all our air and time to make the most of it, which was fun. We talked about the way some dive centers buddy you up with someone, who is just not that experienced and fit as you are. Then you play some sort of watchdog or part time dive guide , which often brings you to the surface much sooner than you yourself would have done because of the air consumption of the other guy. This is not fair as it does not give you the pleasure you expected to have and is not value for the money you pay. Sometimes I even took buddies onto my octopus to make sure I can at least stay in the water for 40 min. Some dare to ask the dive center for a different buddy. Often from them you will hear, well it´s a group thing we do, so the weakest linkin the chain is the one we have to follow observe and consider on the whole. This is a difficult issue sometimes when you have to surface with the group far too early with still 110 bar in your tank. One day when we just swam out of the wreck, I heard a noise behind my back. I turned around looked up to the surface and saw a bigger amount of bubbles passing by my head. This I pointed out to the dive guide, it must have been a leaky o ring. I expected him to give me the signal for a controlled emergency ascent. He however felt, the air I lost was not that much, maybe only double the amount I normally breath, so we continued our dive all over the deck part but he kept his octopus ready just in case. The Canadians had been to Tubbatha Reef on a live aboard before coming to Sangat. They still missed the whale shark and we hoped for the best. One day 6 juvenile little yellow striped trevally followed me for a while. These guys you often find on pictures of whale sharks, which they use as some kind of carrier and host swimming around their mouth. We looked around all the time but the big guy never came close if ever he or she was around. They ask you to stay inside the limits of no decompression time and not go deeper than 40 m, as it´s a long way to the next decompression chamber. One afternoon we went to Barrakuda Lake, a freshwater dive near Coron. The dive guide told us to dive without wetsuit, as it is a warm former volcano crater. The lake is surrounded by steep rock formation which seems to have been cut into vertical slices and glued together again which gives an eerie weird and awesome picture continuing under water with single rock needles pointing up to the surface, vis is endless. The guide watched me, when I passed fifteen meter. Above my computer showed 30 degrees C. Then I guess my eyes nearly popped out of it sockets, when I noticed, I´m diving through thermoclines into a hot tub, the computer went up to 38 C, woouuh. Some tiny fish + shrimps hurried along the sandy bottom and algae packages floated around us. It was a picture out of some science fiction scenery on some far away planet, what we saw here. There is a wooden walkway and some steps and ladders to climb to reach the lake on sea level behind boulders, easy to reach with gear in less than 3 minutes. All together I did 15 dives for which they charged 600 € including park fee nitrox and boat, which I found a bit steep and proved to be one of the more costly dive vacations. Meals on Sangat were buffet style. I enjoyed the fresh fruit each morning especially the mango which I can´t get enough of. Most times it was a mixture of fish meat vegies always served with rice, where I just need a bit of sauce coming with it to help it going down. Once in a while we got fresh sushi and some typical not too spicy Philippine dishes. In the middle of the afternoon Sangat sits in shadow as the sun is going behind the bay around a smaller hill. Then you find nature showing an amazing display of colours, where the sea in front of you is darkish already, the surrounding jungle still being illuminated by the sun. The rainy season seems to come, the place was not fully booked.
Next stop then was Cashew Grove on the other side of Busuanga. From the airport it´s a 1 h drive on bumpy dirt roads, where you pass by small villages, see water oxen standing up to their chest in mud with a heron on their back and a beautiful country side with banana cultures, Papaya and rice fields and sometimes catch a view across the smaller islands offshore. Cashew is smaller than Sangat, has some beach cottages of which I got one equipped with AC this time, which I prefer to the fan on the ceiling in such alike climate. There is a small pool, cause at low tide you can´t swim in the sea or you have to walk 50 m through some sea grass and coral field to reach deep water . Again it was the one bigger wreck of the Kyokuzu Maru which brought me here and naturally the Dugongs they promise you to find for you. Dugong Divers has it´s main center on Paradise Island, 30 min away from Cashew but there was a small dive center at my place too. They told me in a short dive briefing right away, maximum depth would be 40 m and I ought to make sure not to get into deco. Most days I was picked up after breakfast for a short ride to Paradise Resort where we took a bigger boat and some more divers hopped on. The first day brought us to the big wreck. Vis was much better here the first day compared to Coron Bay, later it got worse with lots of plankton in the water. Coral growth on the wreck was beautiful, plenty of fish life around, a bunch of bat fish welcomed us on the buoy rope down to the ship. We did some penetration, saw an old car with headlights, wheels, motor still in rather good shape. We swam down into the engine room and found a place with a lot of cups and plates all broken. For this dive I had asked for Nitrox (EAN 32) to give me a bit more bottom time. We did 2 dives on the wreck and a shallow afternoon dive on a lovely reef coral garden with lots of makro stuff around which the guide had to point out for me, as I´m not that good in spotting nudibranchs yellow ribbon eel or others. Next day we dove at Dimipac Island where I enjoyed a coral field with some soft pinkish coral in between a field of table coral. A big turtle cruised by. In the afternoon we tried our luck with the Dugongs close to the shoreline. They gave us a solid briefing how to best approach them. I expected to find them in some sea grass field feeding, however they were swimming along the shore. When you think these animals are fat and therefore slow moving you are wrong. When the captain saw the first dugong he pointed out the direction, we immediately glided into the water and looked for it. I really had to crawl hard to stay next to the animal, I just could not believe it moves that fast. Serveral times it surfaced for air and opened it´s mouth wide. The first dugong we found had a lot of scars on it´s back, due to maybe some collision with smaller boats and propellers. These animals seem to be rather shy, each time I tried to get closer it moved away or turned round or accelerated so that I could not follow. This was my first impressive encounter with such animals. Next we motored to Diboyuyen Island where I spotted a cuddle fish which stayed quite some time and showed us all it´s tricks with color change and camouflage in a nice coral field, above us some squids were rushing past. Apo Reef was on the agenda for the next day. Wake up call came at 5, as it takes 3 hours to reach in a bigger Bangka. In the boat to Paradise we had a stunning sunrise. On the long ride to the reef we several times met schools of dolphins and two times had a group of melon head whales in front of us. On a dive show in Germany Duesseldorf the “Boot” Dugong divers had told me they offer trips to Apo three times a week. What they however did not tell me is, it requires a minimum of 5 divers to go there. This they did not manage, as there weren´t that many divers on both resorts. So I only once had the chance to go there, a real shame. Apo proved to be everything you wish for. It is a wall dive and marine sanctuary at the same time. Breathtaking was the fish life all. Hundreds of various colorful small fish around us, barracudas in the deep blue, angelfish, trevallies, tuna, trigger fish, sweetlips and a bunch of humphead parrot fish on the first dive already. It was the same again on the second with a few sharks shyly circling below. The dive guide gave us a maximum of 25 m for the third dive. My buddy was a Switzerland guy – we looked at each other and went down to 37 m, to make the most out of this spectacular and maybe once on a lifetime dive site. We lost our dive guide or he lost us, we met again and he pointed on his slate on which he had: “you are to follow me not the other way round”. Later on deck he was seriously pissed off, told us not to repeat that, asked why we gave our o.k. to the briefing but then did not follow the profile he explained, accused us of reverse profile diving which we had not done. Later the brother of the owner said, we were lucky to continue diving, the boss would have taken us off after such an incident. I told him and the guide that this was the one chance in years to do such a dive, it cost a hell of a lot of money, he just could not ask us to follow his briefing. I normally have no problem following the briefing advice of dive guides for example not to touch anything under water which I anyway wouldn´t do. But to obey that would have been similar to asking for a 15 m maximum at Blue Corner in Palau of Blue Hole Belize, which is absolutely preposterous. For the Apo trip I had asked to dive Nitrox which they could not obtain, they said. I guess they just wanted to keep the dive as short as possible, try to stay real conservative in all. Later I told the instructor what happened, she supported the dive guide with a “ it is a safety issue which we should listen to and keep in mind”. On our way back again dolphins and a sunset which left you breathless in awe. The whole trip lasts from dawn to dusk, I´m not sure I would have done the same again. Diving Apo was spectacular but a hell of a long trip. A live aboard would be the better choice there, they offer 2 or 3 night stays. For the 13 dives I paid 726 US $ which again is extremely expensive. They charge extra for everything, torch , nitrox, fuel, marine park fees, where the last two are the biggest parts. Coming home Paris CDG couldn´t cope with the many international flights which arrived that morning. They had no better idea than to send all arrivals to the same customs check. So more than two football fields of tourists were standing in line at far to few custom checks, a disgrace and far worse than what you experience at customs and immigration even in US.