Diving in the Philippines
Coron Bay, Subic Bay
If you would prefer to view a selection of our Coron Bay diving photos on their own without any pre-amble (that's Coron only, NOT Subic Bay or Malapascua) then you can click the link button to the left and go straight to a slide show. However if you do want to hear a little about what we got up to and the history of the area and of the wrecks we dived then simply read on...
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During the summer of 2006 we went on the trip of a wreck junkie's life time to Truk Lagoon and straight on from there to Bikini Atoll. As we arrived at Chuuk International (!!!) Airport we were surprised to find Simon from Ribble Valley SAC hiding away at the front of the plane... it's a very small world Simon! He told us he had spent a few days diving in the Philippines on the way out to break up his journey and how good it had been. He also mentioned something about several ladies in sensible shoes wrestling naked in a paddling pool full of jelly but we won't go there... after a visit to Asda and Toys-R-Us we fired up the computer to search for the cheapest flights out at Christmas but alas it was not to be due to the inflated prices at that time. So instead we flew out in the company of our vet and dive buddy Mike Holroyd on January 16th. for three weeks diving, first in Coron and then up north in Subic Bay.
We began our trip with an overnight in the frantic, noisy, polluted capital city Manila where Martin threw away his socks and had to dobie his trainers for more than an hour after attempting to carry out his first dive of the trip down an open sewer! Not nice - perhaps we should have learnt the lyrics to Frank Zappa's "Stinkfoot" and serenaded him because Karaoke is certainly a Philippino pastime!!!
From Manila we flew south the following day to Coron on a tiny 19 seat Dornier prop jet for nine days diving. On the face of it Coron appears to have many of the same types of wreck we had dived previously in Truk, principally freighters, however the place itself is totally different - much friendlier, much cheaper and far, far nicer. And although there are not many artefacts left on the wrecks now after 60 some years they are still quite superb dives with amazing penetration possibilities. It's interesting to note that there are at least a further two un-accounted for wrecks waiting to be found in Coron Bay!
Our local guide Tantan (A.K.A. Tan Squared or Tan Two Times) took us on many deep penetrations into the wrecks... some of our swim throughs were literally from bow to stern before coming back out. On one memorable penetration on the oiler Taiei Maru we dropped down through a hole in the floor into a rust and silt brown-out then swam through a passageway between two of the oil storage tanks - simply super scary stuff!
We also carried out deep penetrations into the only fighting ship at Coron, the Akitsushima. This is a huge seaplane tender which carried a flying boat very similar in size and design to the British Short Sunderland, so you can perhaps imagine the size of the ship - vast! She is quite similar in shape to a type of fighting ship known as a destroyer - long and thin with a knife edged bow - but much larger. She was powered with enormous diesel engines and clearly built for speed. Having been bombed once already at Truk she had managed to escape, only to be bombed again as she arrived at Coron, and this time she sank. There is no trace now of the flying boat apart from one small piece of engine cowling as the bomb hit the ship close by the aeroplane and ripped her apart. The huge crane used for recovering the flying boat is still very obvious and although most of the guns have been removed the barrels of a triple AA installation can be seen close to the entrance we went in by just forward of the crane. Sadly the visibility on the Akitsushima was never good enough to get many usable photographs so we have had to create stills from the video we shot on our second visit in July.
Perhaps the clearest and most intact wreck in this area is the Kyokuzan Maru and she is also the best for viewing a few remaining artefacts. This ship is not shown on the map above, neither is the so called "Black Island Wreck, because they are both a jeepney ride away across the island - an experience in itself! Kyokuzan is in much clearer water, mainly because there are few, if any pearl farms close by unlike on the south side of the island where the bulk of the wrecks rest. She carried a general cargo including pottery and asbestos and whilst we are unsure as to the wisdom of diving in a cloud of asbestos dust it must be said that it creates an interesting and eerie effect - the white cloud in the bottom of the hold is practically identical to dry ice!
Perhaps the scariest dives we completed were within the wreck of the IJNS Irako. This was a naval supply ship which carried and prepared food for soldiers on the beach head. Inside her we saw vast freezers and a huge kitchen area with food mixers that have more in common with cement mixers than your average Moulinex or Robo-chef! We also visited a laundry within the ship and saw the huge wash tuns and an industrial strength mangle. The crowning glory of this ship is the engine room where spanners still hang in a rack on the wall, and the adjacent workshop where there is a lathe and pillar drill. Eerily, what looks like an engineer's mug still sits on a bench in the workshop 60 plus years after the ship sank. The problem with the Irako is that she is deep and rather dark and almost your entire dive is carried out below the decks where there is a large amount of silt reducing the between decks headroom to only a few feet in places. The roof above you is covered with "rusticles". The slightest knock - and sometimes even your exhaust bubbles - will dislodge them and immediately you find yourself in a cloud of particles which rapidly reduce the visibility to zero. In addition to that the depth at around 40 meters plus means you suffer nitrogen narcosis - now throw darkness into the equation along with the immediate hazard of potential brown-outs and tangled metal everywhere - well it is easy to see why your narcosis quotient ramps up exponentially inside this wreck! Not surprisingly we were unable to get many decent photographs on the Irako, even after several dives, however the two above should give you an initial idea of what she's like! On our most recent trip however we took a video in on our dive and we have at last been able to cull some stills from the film.
Other highlights in this area are incredibly hard to chose from as just about every dive we carried out on the wrecks there had it's own certain something. Notable was the night dive in a marine reserve where we managed to get literally covered in tiny shrimps - not nice when they are wiggling about in your ear canal! It should also be said that there are two dives here which are not wreck orientated but still come highly recommended - Cathedral Cave and Barracuda Lake. Being serious wreck-heads we didn't bother with either as we feel a fish, whilst often quite pretty, does tend rather to interfere with a good bit of metal!
All in all then Coron Bay is an amazingly beautiful place with superb dives on brilliant wrecks and we simply couldn't wait to go back. And what better excuse than a birthday! So with the big 5-0 approaching for Martin Tracy booked us both onto KLM and off we went for summer seconds.
But more of that later...
Our special thanks to everyone at Seadive for two great visits in 2007, especially our guides Tantan and Jaime and of course Jim Goll.
The problem though was the appalling visibility - at times it was actually as bad as some very murky UK dives I have done in the past - think Anglesey on a good day or the Breda with four or five boats full of divers moored over her and a summer plankton bloom thrown in for good measure, then you'll not be far out. Neither was our sense of humour helped out by the fact that we were barred from diving the New York and the big Maru for the first three days due to the presence of a small American naval vessel in port - Uncle Sam's paranoia is really getting rather OTT these days - oh how we cheered when it finally upped anchor and left.
To cap it all during our penultimate day's diving in Subic Bay our guide decided to remove his scuba underwater and swim over to Tracy signalling out of air! Cool as a cucumber on ice in a freezer she took control and carried out an assisted ascent up to 9 metres donating air with her octopus, whereupon he decided he was OK, pushed her away and spat out the octo, only to plummet back down to 15 metres before he could get his set back on again!!!
To say we were less than impressed with Master Dive at Subic is something of an understatement - it's not the dive centre staff or the owner, they were fine - they were friendly, helpful and pleasant, if a little bit hit and miss. No, it's the organisation of the dive facility. I'll not mention the home made anchor or finning along at about 20 knots trying to keep up with the dive guide whilst he frantically tries to find a wreck. I won't mention the PADI (blooargh!) dive master having to use my Analox because they didn't have one themselves or him giving us a cylinder with 100% O2 in it when it was supposed to be a 50% deco mix. Or the O ring which went missing meaning that the second compressor charging whip could not be used because they had no spares. No, I won't mention any of those things. So if you read this and you are a diver then I won't suggest to you that perhaps you might chose a different dive outfit at Subic Bay... no. And I won't suggest that you don't bother going there at all and move your diving to Coron instead - I mean why would you want to do that anyway aside from the fact that it's cheaper and friendlier in Coron and the diving is awesome? But no, that's not a good reason is it? But I suppose in Coron you won't get an early morning wake up call at 4 AM when a Fed-Ex jet takes off from your balcony... then again ten minutes later by another... then another, and another and another. Did I mention the Subic Seaplane carrying out it's engine run up and taking off at 6.45 AM daily from right under your window? I thought not.
No... in Coron it's just pig-sticking and Karaoke!
But I digress... with the Subic Bay wreck sites dived and some dived more than once, there was nothing else for it but to pack our bags early and de-fizz by the pool at the Hotel Hanah back in Angeles for an extra day before departing for Manila airport and ultimately home.
After a few months of the wonderful UK spring weather and with an imminent landmark birthday approaching - how many years was it M? - we found ourselves on the way back out there again. Foolishly however we decided to add Malapascua Island to our itinerary having seen Monty Halls documentary on the goggle box. Phrases such as "virgin jungle" and "subsistence living" slipped glibly from El Montola's lips along with claims that it is a "never fail" site renowned worldwide for viewing the ultra-rare thresher shark along with regular appearances of manta rays most afternoons. Well you simply can't pass up an opportunity like that can you especially as we've never personally seen a manta ray on a dive to date! But you know, I think that we really do need to discuss these claims with the illustrious Mr. Halls if we ever have the pleasure of meeting him because it's not the norm to find hotels dotted about in "virgin jungle" and the erm... natives there were most certainly not "subsisting"! To be quite frank we felt that Malapascua was a bit of a waste of time and money too as we saw not a single thresher, nor any other big pelagics for that matter, despite Monty and Thresher Divers' claims. The viz was appalling and the house reef was crappieus in excelsis maxima, as were most of the other reefs, due to the excessive dynamite fishing that goes on in the area. Even the life on the protected marine reserve of Gato Island was relatively sparse and we had the misfortune to end up in the water there with the original diver from hell, a fat Australian misogynistic dag of gargantuan girth! You know who you are buster - and quite frankly you're lucky no one pulled your reg out of your mouth to get rid of you. There are a few of our Malapascua photographs to be seen here, just click on the wiggly white eel link to the right. Whilst at Malapascua we also dived the Tapilon and Dona Marilyn wrecks. The Dona Marilyn is a ferry which sank in tragic circumstances taking all onboard down with her in a major typhoon. She lies on her side now in about 35 metres and the guides are most reluctant to penetrate within the wreck for nothing other than superstitious reasons. The current was so strong on one of our dives on the wreck that our video light was torn clean off the camera housing, never to be seen again - at least not by us! If anyone has found it we'll be happy to sell you the charger.
From Malapascua we moved on to Coron and there's really not too much more that we can tell you about the wrecks there because we've enthused most comprehensively already! We had a wonderful trip despite monsoon rain and food poisoning, so we returned to the UK but thankfully not to wintery weather this time!
Eighteen months on and another UK winter to escape - 'twas time for Coron again! The old team of Mike, Martin and Tracy was supplemented this time by Andy, Claire, Mark and Matthew. We had heard alarming stories on the grapevine of a major decline in standards at Seadive following the arrival there of a new American dive operations manager and a consequential change in priorities from that of inexpensive and friendly service to an attitude of lets make pots of money by cramming as many people onto a boat as possible.
So this time we opted to use Gerd and Karin's new dive outfit, Rock Steady Divers. They really pulled the stops out and made our diving superbly enjoyable with a totally "can do" attitude and A1 service throughout our visit - Karin, you need to stop worrying so much! We used Nitrox and twinsets on the wrecks and had our old friend Tan Tan to guide us along with Helen, a lovely Brummie lass, and a crazy Aussie called Adrian. No disrespect to Ade, he's a really great guide and he gave us the dive of a lifetime on the Irako. But don't get near the resident ladyboy in "Hardrock", the local girlie bar when Ade's around folks or then it gets interesting to say the least as he persuades her... erm.. him... erm... whatever... to get his boobies out. You're a very naughty boy Adrian and when you get to Heaven Saint finger will wag his Peter at you! Rock Steady laid on a superb roast pig and their dive boat cook Mama Noi Noi worked her culinary magic for our final evening... great stuff! All hail the might Lumpia!
And now at long last, with Adrian's expert guiding and a decent video light, we have managed to shoot some superb film inside the Irako from which we have culled some stills. Additionally on this trip we also dived another of the wrecks which we had not visited previously, the so called Black Island Wreck or Nanshin Maru. Although it is quite a sod to find the wreck is never the less well worth the effort. She sits in around 26 metres only a few yards off the shore of the Black Island, a tiny uninhabited rock covered in dense jungle. It is thought she is not a war wreck but a small Chinese fishing vessel and we have no idea what caused her to sink so close to shore on a sandy seabed with no visible hazards anywhere close by to damage her! One of the many mysteries of the sea I suppose!
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