I was going to fly straight to El Nido in Palawan, but 6,000 pesos was a little steep – and then someone pointed out that it was only 995 pesos (about 15 quid) to fly to the island of Busuanga, just to the north of Palawan, and that made the decision for me.
I hadn’t planned to stop in Busuanga, but with flights so cheap it made sense, especially as it gave me the chance to try out some of the finest wreck diving in the world. For on one night in 1944, the US Air Force sank a huge fleet of Japanese ships that were sheltering in and around Coron Bay. Sixty years later, many of them are in relatively shallow, diveable water, and they’re the main attraction for those visiting the island.
Some other people I’d met told me that Coron Town was a bit of a dump – but I loved it. It’s certainly not going to win any architectural awards, but I loved its sleepy, ramshackle nature, and in particular the line of wooden shacks on stilts that jut out from the land into the bay. Quite a few of these operate as cheap hotels, and so I found myself sleeping in a hut right over the beautiful bay – for a mere 4 quid a night. Which is a bit of a bargain when you think how much that sort of thing would cost in somewhere like Tahiti (although admittedly with probably a tad more luxury).
The morning after arriving I was up early to head out on a boat to dive two of the wrecks, the East Tangat wreck and the Olympia Maru, both of which were Japanese support ships, in around thirty metres of water. I’d already tried out wreck diving at the USS Liberty in Tulamben, Bali, but the reason I was so excited about these dives was the chance to actually penetrate the interior of the ships themselves.
On going in I was suddenly worried I wouldn’t get to see anything after all – I had a slight cold, and for the first time ever I had difficulty equalising the pressure in my ears – which would rule out going any deeper. For a few minutes I had to hover at around three metres while I tried and tried again, and then finally, luckily, I managed it. Panic over and I soon joined the others on the bottom as we headed towards the wrecks.
The outside of the wrecks were OK – there were a fair few fishes around, and lots of sponges and fans – but it was going inside that was the real fun. It was certainly the trickiest diving I’d ever done, as some of the entrances were pretty narrow, and it’s crucial to maintain good buoyancy control to ensure you don’t end up catching yourself on the edges. This is doubly hard because it’s quite difficult to perceive how much higher the tanks on your back extend – as well as to keep your legs level to stop them from catching at the back. I did OK, although a couple of times I got a little stuck, and I ended up scratching my legs a little on one of the narrower entrances. Luckily there were no deadly sharks in the area as I was slightly worried at the effect even a small amount of blood could have on any in the neighbourhood!
Difficulty aside, it was great fun, a bit like being in an underwater assault course, and it was cool getting to see things like the propeller shafts and the huge old engines. I can’t see myself ever becoming an obsessive wreck diver – I prefer the colours of the reefs and the large numbers of fish, as well as the freedom of movement – but I’m glad I did it and would recommend it to any divers traveling in the Philippines (especially as I understand the only place with a bigger collection of diveable wrecks is Truk in Micronesia, which is much harder to get to.
I would have loved to have spent a little more time in Busuanga, particularly to give the island hopping a go (which is supposed to be pretty spectacular), but sadly the boat schedule to El Nido meant we needed to leave the next day, or risk being stranded for quite a while longer.