Unsolicited Testimony from a Happy Diver who loved Dive Right - Coron and Kalamayan Inn

From: roach@portalinc.com (Stephen Roach)
To: htaylor@epic.net, info@diveright-coron.com, web@web-presence.demon.co.uk
Newsgroups: rec.scuba.locations, rec.travel.asia
Subject: Coron, Philippines dive trip report
Date: Wed, 06 Jan 1999 00:46:03 GMT
Reply-To: roach@portalinc.com

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[Disclaimer: I have no official connection to any of the businesses mentioned below. This is my opinion as a tourist and I have nothing to gain or lose by posting this. My own business as an expat living in Manila has no connection to the tourist industry. So there.]

It wasn't supposed to be this exciting. The Pacific Air twin otter got out of NAIA no problem. The route taken gave us spectacular views over Tagaytay, Batangas, Puerto Galera and Apo Reef before making the final descent into Coron Town airport. The landing procedure reads something like this:

Fly at mountain A until all 20 passengers are screaming.
Turn right.
Full flaps, reduce power, wings vertical, squeeze between mountain A & B.
The bit of grass to your left is the airstrip.
Dump the plane on it.
Hope they move the Cessna out of the way before you stop.
Send in the cabin cleanup staff wearing biohazard suits.

Personally, I enjoyed it.

Josie of the Kalamayan Inn met us at the airport in an air-con L300 and sorted out the baggage. Pacific Air, for this flight, only gives a 10-kilo baggage allowance so there is little room for full scuba equipment. I took a mask, computer and torch and hoped to hell that the rental equipment in the resort was up to the job. My girlfriend, Rosie, handled the rest of the packing and, given that she has the taste of Imelda Marcos, I was dreading the fashion disaster that might ensue during evening activities. All that's needed is tee-shirts and shorts. The transfer to the Kalamayan Inn takes about 10 minutes. Check-in procedures are simple and quick and a message was sent down to Dive Right for a guide to come up and meet me.

This is where you get the first taste of the full service on offer and the first time you hear the oft-repeated sentiment that you are on holiday and should not, therefore, be doing any work. Dive Right's Dennis had a quick chat and we decided on a shake down reef dive for the first out. 30 minutes later I was on the banca heading out to Twin Peaks for a quick one around a couple of islets. Nothing spectacular but I got rid of 6 months of sloth and found that my racial memory could still grasp the opposing thumb concept.

I've got to say that any fears over the quality of equipment are far from founded. It is excellent. The BCDs are of the wings type with all the buoyancy on your back and included integral weights. I love my Buddy Commando, although it is a bit heavy duty for the tropics, but the comfort of these jackets is amazing. Regulators are octopus rigged and included good gauges. A far cry from the sad specimens I've seen in some places.

The next day was designated relaxation. Look, I know. One reef dive and I need a day off. Fear not, intrepid diver, I'm not letting BSAC down in the rufty-tufty department but I had Rosie to think about and she is no diver (avoiding the obvious jokes). Again, all this was sorted out at the Kalamayan. Lunch was packed, boats organized and porters whipped. We took off to one of the deserted beaches around the many islands. After a quick climb up to have a look at an inland lake we settled into some serious beach bumming. The lake itself is interesting. It is fresh water, incredibly hot (40'C) due to some chemical reaction and at sea level accessed by a short climb over a hill. Swimming and diving are possible by arrangement. It is also connected to the sea and is tidal so there is a massive temperature drop over a thermocline and, apparently, there are barracuda to be found at the bottom. I didn't get around to diving the site on this trip but I hope to be back in a few weeks. There is also a cave at the top of the climb and you can walk in if you have torches. Anyhow, after lunch we strolled over to the Hot Springs nearby and hung out in the healing waters (if the locals are to be believed). Here, there is a man-made wall to form a pool from a mountain stream. The water, again, is hot at about 40'C and, unusual for a hot spring, saline. Thus ended Christmas Day.

Next up, 2 days wrecking. Mans stuff. There are 6 wrecks easily accessable from Coron Town on a day trip. The boat leaves about 9:30 am and goes out for the day. Lunch is provided, as are a couple of eskys of drinks. If you ask nicely, a fishing hand line can be put on and snorkeling equipment is available. Non-divers are welcome. Dive Right will put on as many guides as are necessary and will judge this on ability. Given the numbers, they will try to separate the novices from the experienced so that everyone gets the type of diving they like and can deal with. The wrecks formed part of a Japanese auxiliary fleet. They were camouflaged as islets but were spotted when two sets of reconnaissance photographs didn't match (i.e. the islands had moved). In what was the largest carrier attack of its day, all but one of the 20 strong fleet was sunk. The local Filipinos who know an unarmed man when they see one, quickly chopped up any seamen who survived the raid. Today, coral growth has left then in perfect diving condition (the wrecks that is, not the chopped up seamen).

The boat trip takes about 1 1/2 hours and takes you through a series of bays and passages. Strangely for a tropical environment, there are few palm trees. Something to do with the soil and availability of water. You'll be seeing a lot of pearl farms, though.

The briefing, Rive Right style, is short, dull and by the numbers. The nearest chamber is in Manila and that is not a trip you'll want to take so it's conservative diving on conservative tables. Buddies are paired up, they have an excellent set of drawings of each wreck and the emphasis is on safety. All the wrecks have shot-lines, sometimes two so deployment is from a tethered banca, a swim to the shot-line, quick check and down. Depth varies. Some are 45 metres to the bottom and some are as shallow as 10m on the deck. Although I did most of my early days on the wrecks of the English Channel, lumps of rusty metal have never really done it for me. My weight belt is all lead. Not a club-hammer, chisel or crowbar to be seen. What pulls my ding is the life. All of the wrecks have prolific sea life. Bat fish, barracuda, jacks, lionfish, nudibranches, it's all here. No sharks because the water is a little too warm but everything else. In spite of my aversion to beating the hell out of a porthole for the duration of my bottom time, the wrecks themselves do hold some interest. They include an oil tanker (clean now), refrigerator ship and general cargo. On one, one hold contains cement bags, a bulldozer and cement mixer, while the other has rolls of chain link fencing (this lot obviously meant to be an airfield). There are opportunities for deep penetration but Dive Right will need very strong proof of your abilities, and for the rest of us there are clear, bright swim throughs. There are plenty of photo opportunities if you have the right equipment. Visibility varies as does tidal conditions. However, even when the vis is down on the top of the wreck, you can usually drop into the lee of the current and the vis goes up again.

The Kalamayan Inn itself has not been open very long (about 6 months). The rooms are fine with air-con and fans. Nothing fancy but clean and functional. Some have en-suite bathrooms. The food is not bad and improving. It is not easy to get a provincial Filipino whose only culinary skill lies in cooking rice and dried fish and chopping up mangoes to cook food palatable to Westerners. However, they seem to be coming along well and my fish and chip Christmas dinner (fried Lapu-lapu and proper English chips) was good. The burgers are pretty good, too. This is also one of the few bars in town for foreigners and the beer (the excellent San Miguel) is seriously cold. They also have a limited amount of generator set power to deal with the worst of any brownouts.

Coron is not a party town. It consists of a central market, a few dive centres and not much else. There is little of historical interest here (except the wrecks) and it has suffered the same fate of similar towns in being subject to one of the ugliest buildings ever conceived by man. I'm talking, of course, about the Iglesia ni Kristo church whose style has been described as 'Disney Gothic', an apt name for a truly awful architectural style. There is a disco somewhere, a family affair, and you should brush up on your ballroom dancing before entering. The emphasis is on diving and relaxation. However, this is deepest province. For a couple of days while I was there they had 12 hour scheduled brownouts (they ran out of fuel, can you believe) and everything is generally slow. Flights are the biggest problem in getting there. However, if you like you paradise undeveloped, this is a good thing in that it restricts the number of tourists and you get to see the 'Last Frontier' in all its glory. Coron Town airport is not the only option and some flights go to Busuanga which is a far less hair-raising experience. It will depend of the carrier.

Some things which you should consider before coming to Coron. There are mosquitos everywhere and they just love white flesh. As I live in the Philippines and taking any drug over a long period is not recommended, I don't have any malaria protection.
(Editor: Not required for Northern Palawan)
Dengue fever can be contracted, too.
(Editor: One or two cases a year from some poor fishermen whose houses are built on stilts over the bay in the middle of a mangrove swamp.)
You should discuss this with your doctor before leaving but I am of the 'don't get bitten' school. To this end, it is a good idea to burn coils in your room at night and use a repellent, especially after 4:00pm. The best one I have found so far is 'Off' which comes in a spray. I just squirt some around my exposed bits and have never been bitten yet. Depending on the time of the year, there are thousands of the buggers around the lake.
(Editor: Cayangan and Barracuda lake on Coron Island)
The sun here is fierce, especially for an Englishman who also happens to be an office rat. Factor 8 and above is called for, especially on the boat where the reflection from the water can do almost as much damage as direct sunlight. A big floppy hat helps no matter how stupid you look in it (and you will).

I chanced upon this set up one evening last year when I met Harry Taylor, the owner of the Kalamayan Inn, in a resort close to Manila. I have had an interest in diving the Coron wrecks since being posted in the RP and his offer was too good to refuse. Harry's interest is in getting bums in rooms and on restaurant seats, but he recognizes that, in order to do this, he has to build relationships with some of the other businesses, especially the dive centres. To this end, he has checked them out and will recommend only the best and safest. He also provides something of a packaging service. I contacted Harry about mid-November with the words 'I suppose this is a long shot but how about...' and a few emails later had an itinerary that looked like this:

- Return flight NAIA - Coron including airport transfers.
- 6 nights accommodation inc. breakfast and dinner.
- 4 days diving including lunch and space on the boat for Rosie to snorkel.
- 2 days on a banca to go wherever I wanted with packed lunch.

This was a full package and it can be as flexible as you need. One of the benefits of living in the Philippines, especially in the province, is the flexibility of the people. You do whatever you want to do and if you change your mind at the last minute, there is a good chance you can be accommodated. Harry gave me a timetable and, as it happened, I stuck to it, but I could have changed any of the activities on site. The message is, by all means rough out an itinery but don't worry that, if your expectations are not realized, you cannot change it. Harry can give you a list of all the available options and because his interest is exclusively his hotel, any discounts that he gets are passed on to you.

I won't give the price of this trip here. Prices in the Philippines can change at a moments notice and it would be unfair to suggest a number. Harry will quote on the day. Suffice to say that I believe it to be extremely good value.

This trip comes highly recommended by me (whoever the hell I am) for wreck diving. The other main wreck diving centre of the Philippines is Subic Bay and there is no doubt that these are pretty good too. It is, however, an expensive place to dive, not least because the one dive centre allowed into the bay is a de-facto monopoly. The vis is not nearly as good either, Subic being a harbour. Unless you were going on a major safari in the region, Coron is probably not the only centre you would wish to visit on an extended vacation. Fairly good reef diving and a full-on night life can be found at Puerto Galera, Boracay is not bad and also has a social aspect and there are other places to go for exceptional reefs like Moalboal and Bohol. However, for outstanding wreck diving in a safe environment a stone's throw away from a tropical paradise, Coron, in my opinion is a difficult act to follow. Its biggest rival of the region is probably Truk Lagoon.

Harry Taylor can be reached on: htaylor@epic.net

Dive Right has a web site with pictures of the rooms and pictures of the wrecks at: http://www2.mozcom.com/~diving and can be emailed at: info@diveright-coron.com

An excellent source about the Philippines in general is the Lonely Planet guide (they also have a web site) and the Philippine Tourist Board. There are numerous Philippine diving resources available through any web search engine ( http://www.yahoo.com/ ).

For other travel arrangements, I would recommend the Travellers Club. Contact Alex on: travellersclub@skyinet.net. The markup on accommodation can be pretty steep so only use them for transport, etc.

Steve Roach: roach@portalinc.com

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