My torch’s narrow beam found the edges of the rusted doorway. In I gingerly went, joining my group in a small, jail-like compartment. Ding! My air tank bumped against the low ceiling. We exited through a window and glided over the Olympia Maru, a 128m-long WWII Japanese supply ship that was sunk by American bombing in a 1944 raid. It now rests 30 meters underwater, along with nine other vessels that followed the same fate, off the coast of Busuanga Island on the northern tip of Palawan.
Due to being submerged for 70-plus years, a motley crew of colorful, hard and soft coral, and marine life call the wrecks home. I spotted a majestic lion fish coasting on the deck, a scorpion fish hiding by the buoy line, and schools of smaller fish darting by, just to name a few. Not a bad way to spend a birthday. All told, I explored five underwater wrecks over two days with Sanho, a Korean-owned dive shop in the town of Coron on Busuanga Island.
The one-hour boat ride back to Coron, where most divers stay, gave me a chance to bask in the exhilarating dives, and relate what I saw with husband & wife instructors, Jay and Tabby. The Korean couple shared their knowledge about the dive sites in decent English (communicating in English is generally not a problem in the Philippines), and offered a tasty Korean lunch during a full day on their dive boat (three dives for P2,800, two dives for P2,500). I timed my dives perfectly as the rainy season is beginning.
Sea Dive Resort, owned by an American, was recommended to me by a divemaster in Puerto Galera. I decided not to dive with the most experienced outfit because I was told I couldn’t dive the deeper wrecks (I’m an experienced OW diver, but I lack the advanced certification). So I went with Sanho — it was recommended by a French couple I befriended on the 7-hour boat from San Jose to Coron — and stayed at one of Sea Dive’s P450 fan rooms. It’s very basic with traditional bamboo latticework, but has no sea view.
A nice sunset view of Coron Bay and the surrounding karst islands can be had for free on the rooftop. The small town is geared towards tourists so a handful of bars (No Name Bar is popular with divers, as is Sea Dive’s Helldivers) and western-style restaurants are located on the main drag. For superb, reasonably-priced Filipino and Western fare, head to La Sirenetta, at the end of the pier beside Sea Dive, and owned by a Hawaiian/Englishman named Mico. I had my best chicken adobo to date there. He also owns Puerto Del Sol Resort, 36km west of town, which is a quiet and serene alternative (and much closer to the wrecks) as Coron can be a little noisy and busy at times.
After diving, I explored Busuanga for two days with a rented motorbike from Angel Motorcycle (P300 for five hours). I enjoyed a late lunch and sunset at Puerto Del Sol, followed by Bali Beach and a small village called Bayo Bayo that overlooks Siete Pescados, the next day. Pass on Bali (it’s the closest beach, but it’s small and littered with trash and debris), and join an island-hopping tour (P750-P1,500 per person) that takes you to Coron Island, Layangan Lake, and Siete Pescados. Better yet, try to rent a boat yourself and go snorkeling at Siete Pescados, a cluster of islets surrounded by shallow coral. I tried, but was told it was recently forbidden to swim in the surrounding waters because an unfortunate tourist last year tried to stand on the coral, coming in contact with a lethal stone fish, and later died. (ADVICE: never touch coral.)
Most travelers come to this isolated part of the Philippines to wreck dive. You could fly to Busuanga Airport or do it the hard way, like me, and take a long boat from San Jose (P800, seven hours). You could also take a six-hour boat from El Nido. I happened to arrive during a full moon so, naturally, I went to a Full Moon party at Bali Beach. I accompanied an entertaining group of Filipinos and Americans I met beforehand at Sea Dive. The DJ played mostly Western music, which is what usually blares from Videoke joints (the Filipino version of Karaoke) and passing tricycles. Of course, I haven’t visited all 7,000-plus islands, but of the five I have, American Pop and Hip-Hop reign supreme. (American-style junk food is also ubiquitous at convenience shacks that you can find anywhere there’s a road.)
Next up: a 15-hour, overnight 2GO ferry (P2,200) from Coron to Manila to catch my flight to Bali. More scuba diving awaits.