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It was time to move on from Palawan Island. It was also time to do some LIVING…
I had done a 1 Day Island Hopping Trip in Honda Bay near Puerto Princesa. I had done another 1 Day Island Hopping Trip in Port Barton. I had also tried a 2 Day 1 Night Island Hopping Trip in El Nido – which was abandoned on the 2nd day. This was a little bit of LIVING but not enough. I was in search of something more…
In El Nido, the SCUBA Diving wasn’t good. The corals aren’t very good (on the day trips anyway), the trips were comparably expensive, and the visibility (when I was there) was only 5 metres.
I made my way from El Nido to Coron. Coron is famous for its wreck dives. In the 2nd World War there was the ‘Great Turkey Shoot’ where the USA sunk the Japanese fleet that was hiding in and around Coron.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE:
You have been in Palawan Island for 2 months now: 4 weeks in Puerto Princesa, 2 in Sabang, 2 in Port Barton, and 2 in Nacpan Beach (El Nido). You have saved up 50% of your available LIVING funds in each:
- 50% x PHP1000 / day x 30 days in Puerto Princesa = PHP15,000
- 50% x PHP500 / day x 14 days in Sabang = PHP3,750
- 50% x PHP500 / day in Port Barton = PHP3,750
- 50% x PHP500 in Nacpan Beach = PHP3,750
So, you have saved a total of PHP26,000. You top this up with another PHP24,000 that you have either saved elsewhere or plan to save in the near future. You have PHP50,000 for a LIVING Trip. You make your way to Coron.
BOOKING THE TRIP:
Due to my El Nido ferry being cancelled on the Saturday and me arriving on the rescheduled ferry on Sunday, I only had 1 night left on my hotel booking. I checked in at 4:00pm, unpacked, and hit the streets by 4:30pm. My mission was to check out Coron Town for somewhere nice to stay for the next 7-10 days.
As I walked back into town I went into some SCUBA Dive shops to check out some LIVING options. I wanted to dive some of the WW2 wrecks. I wanted about 3 days of diving of 3 dives per day (9 dives in total). I enquired at a few but they only did day trips out from Coron Town. I wanted to find a Liveaboard or someone who camped nearer to the dive sites.
I found one agent who did a camping option with a mix of reef and wreck diving. The all inclusive cost was PHP4000 / day. I was interested but asked what the visibility was. The visibility was only 5-7 metres; and this was confirmed in other agencies. In my opinion, 5-7 metres is not good enough when you are paying that price to wreck dive for the first time. If you don’t have a wreck diving qualification, you cannot dive inside the wrecks where visibility is better.
However, I walked into another dive shop (which shall remain nameless – I will call it ‘DIVESHOP’). They do a liveaboard to Apo Reef. They were leaving at 7:00am the next morning and still had a place left on the boat. They were offering a 4 Night / 3 Day liveaboard with 9 dives for PHP28,500.
Night 1 was on the boat docked in Coron Harbour. Nights 2 and 3 were out at sea. Night 4 was on the boat docked at Coron Harbour. I already had Night 1 booked at Jims, so I was only getting 2 Nights / 3 Days – with Night 4 saving me the cost of an hotel on the night that we return (a value of only PHP500).
I asked for their best price. She said PHP25,000 (about US550). I said that I would think about it.
I had been spoilt with my Liveaboard in the Similan Islands, Thailand. There I paid about US$800 for a 6 Night / 6 Day trip with 19 x 15L Nitrox dives. So PHP25,000 sounded expensive in comparison.
I walked around a bit more to confirm that there were no other Liveaboard options; there were none. I also checked the visibility on the wreck dives; it was 5-7 metres. I decided to return to the DIVESHOP and do a deal.
By now, it was 6:00pm. I offered them PHP20000 (about US$435); they didn’t want to take it. I said ‘OK, you can have PHP20000 or an empty bed tomorrow – make your choice’ – I always say these things ‘cheekily’ with a smile on my face… but it lets them know that I am serious about my offer and it is my price (not theirs) that is ‘on the table’.
The agent spoke to the boss and the deal was done. I was to be at their office by 6:30am the next morning. I promised them that I wouldn’t tell anyone else on the boat about how much I paid; it was between them and I – and they didn’t want other people from the boat going back to them afterwards asking for refunds just because of me.
We spent about 15 minutes collating and fitting my SCUBA equipment and filling in the ‘they have no liability’ paperwork. I left a PHP2000 deposit and promised to return the next morning with the remaining PHP18000 and my SCUBA Diving License.
I was quickly back to my hotel. I had some things to organise. I had to eat dinner, pack my bags for the trip, find somewhere to store my excess luggage, and book a hotel for when I returned (the on-line Coron hotels are generally full). And, I had to do all of this before the Arsenal vs Leicester match that started at 8:00pm!
I decided that I wanted 4 nights more in Coron on my return (which spanned the weekend and had me leaving Coron on the Monday). I asked Jims for their price: it was PHP1200 / night (PHP200 more than I paid online using AGODA). I offered them PHP1000, told them to think about it for 1 hour, and went to dinner.
When I returned, they could only give me a Fan Room with shared bathroom for PHP500 / night – and, I could leave my luggage with them whilst I was on my Apo Reef Trip. I took it.
It was all a bit rushed that evening between 4:30pm and 8:00pm, but it was done. I was off to Apo Reef the next morning…
And, I got back to my room for the start of the game. I packed whilst watching the football. 2-1 to Arsenal and a good game!
You get to Coron and do the same deal. This means that you have already recouped 3 daily allowances of PHP2400. Your PHP24000 investment has already come down to PHP17000. Things are looking better already!
I set my alarm for 5:30am. But I awoke at 4:00am. Bugger it.
Brainwave!… I had time to watch the Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur replay before I left – so I did. 2-1 to Spurs!
I was out of my room by 6:00am and at their office by 6:15am. I was scootered to our boat and on board by 6:30am.
Our Coron boat was a traditional bankha with an 8 birth cabin. One small toilet. No shower. No sink. No tables. No common area. Rustic.
There were 6 of us on the trip (excluding our Dive Instructor and the boat crew):
- Pierre & Dolphine (late 20s) from Switzerland who were non-divers and there for the snorkelling (they got their trip discounted down from PHP15000 to PHP13500 each); Her name wasn’t actually Dolphine – but that’s what I called her
- Nicole from Switzerland with 500 dives (41)
- Tadius from Switzerland with 300 dives (67)
- Randal from Canada with 200 dives (60)
- And me with 30 dives
Oh dear! I’m the ‘novice diver’ in the group! I find it a bit embarrassing being the first one to run out of air on every dive and to be the one forcing people (who still have plenty of air left) back to the surface before they need to. I hope that I don’t let them down! I felt a personal responsibility to dive the best that I could on this trip.
Just before we set sail, the Captain brought a chicken on board and tied it to the deck. We assumed that it was for later eating… on our last day we found out the truth: we had 3 women on the boat and an odd number of females is bad luck… the chicken was brought on board to make the female numbers even! It was still there and alive at the end of the trip.
THE TRIP – DAY 1 – 3 DIVES:
One of the reasons for the Apo Reef being one of the best dive sites left in the world is that it is so remote and, therefore, has been naturally protected from man.
It takes 5-6 hours to get there from Coron (and 3-4 from Mindoro Island).
Breakfast of fried eggs, fried ham, bread, and mango was served at about 8am.
We passed a few islands before hitting open water. We made good headway.
Good hard corals and good fish but nothing spectacular. My dive partner was Nicole – the most experienced diver amongst us. I had problems with my kit. Firstly, my reserve respirator was leaking so I lost some air before getting in the water and we had to replace it. Then, once in the water, my diving weights were wrong and I was struggling to get to depth. Nicole kept an eye on me and looked after me. She gave me one of her 1Kg weights and helped me adjust the air in my BCD. What a darling. Later, the diving instructor had to come and give me a 2nd extra 1Kg weight. I started with 8Kg and ended with 10Kgs! Over the next 2 days, as my diving improved, I managed to shed those 2 extra Kgs.
I was pleased with myself though… even with these troubles I managed to keep my breathing under control and returned to the surface with the same amount of air left as the other 2 more experienced guys. I wasn’t going to let anyone down. That was nice.
Lunch was ready for us soon after we returned. A simple lunch of rice, marinated beef steaks, and mixed vegetables.
We were back in the water for our second dive at 3:30: Apo Minor. Again, this was a drift dive. Good fish, good hard corals, and one 3.5 metre reef shark. Otherwise, nothing spectacular.
Nicole and Randal went in for a night dive. I am not a fan of night dives so I did not join them. The rest of us stayed on board and cracked open a beer.
The night divers returned and soon after we were served dinner: a big grilled Jack Fish, fried chicken drumsticks, rice, sauce and melon.
After dinner it was ‘unwind’ time sitting around with a couple of beers. Pierre had brought a few 1L bottles of Red Horse with him and he was digging into them.
THE TRIP – NIGHT 1:
I was the first to bed – I had been up since 4:00am, 5:30am the morning before, and 5:30am the morning before that, and my sleepless night on a desert island before that – I was tired. Tadius was not long behind. I found out why later.
I had just drifted off to sleep when I was awoken by load snoring. It was Pierre below me snoring like a Trojan. Life was getting me back for all of the times that I was the snorer.
After a long time of trying to get back to sleep, I got up and walked out on deck to see if there were any sleeping spots. Randal was already out there with his bedding from the cabin. Good idea! I went back inside, grabbed my bedding and laid it out on the deck.
It was a mild night and I drifted in and out of sleep until 5am. The Captain had chosen his favourite spot for the night – a place where the waters and currents were mild.
THE TRIP – DAY 2 – 4 DIVES:
The captain started the engine at 6:00am. This was our alarm clock. Everyone started to emerge from their beds as the crew brought hot water with tea and coffee. Needless to say, there were some tired looking people.
We enjoyed sunrise as we drank our teas and coffees. There was white sliced bread and jam for those that needed a snack.
By 7:10am we were in the water for the first dive of the day: Ego Wall. Another drift dive. Again, there were good fields of hard corals and good fish. We saw a school of Tuna the size of Dolphins. However, Randal had trouble with his mask so it was short dive of only 36 minutes.
We got back on the boat and de-kitted. Breakfast followed shortly after: vegetable and macaroni soup, rice, fried dry beef, pineapple, and mango.
Breakfast was followed by a ‘quiet’ time with several people trying to take a power nap to catch up on missed sleep. Pierre’s snoring had kept everyone awake. Everyone except Tadius – he was so tired from being kept awake the night before that he managed to sleep through it.
We were kitted up again and back in the water by 10:15am for our 2nd dive of the day: Coral Garden. This was another drift dive past an unending wall of coral about 40 metres high. I just got lost in the coral landscape. This time, the hard corals were enhanced by soft corals. A wonderful dive.
Lunch was served: a tasty beef stew with rice and vegetables followed by bananas and pineapple.
At 1:00pm we were back in for our 3rd dive of the day: South West Apo. Another gentle drift dive along another coral wall. This had even more soft corals with big patches that looked like fields of cotton wool and others that looked like white and purple tentacles waving in the breeze. Some of the best corals that I have ever seen.
We had our best dive yet: 50 minutes. The dive master is very conservative on this boat… we all came up with a minimum of 75 bars of pressure left in our tanks. We could have easily done 60 minutes – the point at which we can call it a ‘professional dive’.
Back in the water at 4:00pm for our 4th and last dive of the day: Aladin Manta Point. Another drift dive along another coral wall. Nice, but not as good as the South West dive.
THE TRIP – NIGHT 2:
By 5:15pm we were changed into warm clothes and looking forward to another sunset… and, for me, a decent night’s sleep.
The plan was going well… I had a rum & coke in hand as dinner was served: a whole grilled fish each, chicken in a spicy coconut sauce, rice, cucumber, and melon. Everyone enjoyed the dinner and there were beers in hand.
Nobody wanted my rum, so I shared it with our 2 dive instructors and a couple of crew; which they really appreciated. We all talked and joked for a while and at about 10:00pm I made my move and relocated my bedding to the top deck. Nicole joined me. Five minutes later, so did Pierre & Dolphine! After joking with Pierre and telling him to be on his best behaviour, we settled in under the stars and put on some music. Stargazing.
This night wasn’t as calm as our first. The wind was up. I tried to sleep but it was too cold and windy. If I had someone to cuddle, it wouldn’t have been a problem… but I didn’t and it was… at some stage in the middle of the night, I abandoned the top deck and took my bedding back to my cabin. At least Pierre was still upstairs. 🙂
The only person left in the cabin was Tadius. Isn’t life funny. He was having the best sleep out of all of us.
I awoke at 5:30am. Nicole was in the bunk bed beside me. She had abandoned too. Perhaps Nicole and I should have cuddled up and shared our body heat… upstairs under the stars was so much nicer than the cabin.
THE TRIP – DAY 3 – 3 DIVES:
At 6:00am the captain started the engine and everyone started emerging from their beds. Everyone had had a better sleep than the night before.
We all poured ourselves a hot coffee; some took a slice of bread and marmalade.
By 7:00am we were in the water for our 1st dive of the day: Apo Minor Airports. Another reef wall drift dive. This wasn’t on the board the night before… they had added it in the morning… perhaps as a ‘thank you’ for us sharing our rum and making them part of our evening.
It is called ‘airports’ because there are long lines of sand between the rocks / coral that look like runways; this is where the sharks like to sleep. We spotted over 10 reef sharks. The biggest was about 2 metres. One big one was sleeping deep in a cave. We saw one big (1 metre) turtle; Tadius swam down next to it and stayed with it a while – face to face.
Back on the boat, breakfast was served: some more of that delicious macaroni soup, baked potatoes, boiled eggs, and sausages.
We were back in the water for our 2nd dive: North Point. Another reef wall drift dive. Here we saw 4 Hammerhead Sharks swimming together; the largest was about 4 metres long. We saw a 1 metre long (tail to feeler) lobster. 1 small turtle feeding on the coral.
We were back in the water again at 11:30am for our final dive: Sanctuary. Another coral wall drift dive.
The sanctuary is where you find the most sharks. We saw many sleeping / resting sharks – mostly white-tips of about 1.5-2.0 metres in length. I was ‘coraled out’ by now, so I spent most of the dive trying to swim with sharks, get into schools of fish, trying to get close to big Sweet Lips, and chasing Baracuda.
As we completed lunch we sadly said goodbye to Apo Reef and started to sail for home.
THE TRIP – NIGHT 3:
I had planned to stay the last night on the boat in Coron Town harbour.
As we left the boat, Pierre and & Dolphine ‘cordially invited’ everyone to join them at their place at 8:00pm for drinks.
They had this lovely place over the water at the Krystal Lodge (not on the internet). They had their own ‘suite’ with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen / bar, and a living area. I say ‘suite’ tongue in cheek. As Randal said, it was like ‘living in a ratan chair’… a Filipino style building of bamboo and ratan… atmospheric.
We met there that evening and sat and talked over a few 1L bottles of Red Horse and some kebabs that we bought down at a nearby BBQ stall.
You should put an Apo Reef Liveaboard on your bucket list. Even if you are not a SCUBA Diver, go snorkelling.
There is something special about just 6 people being on a boat chilling out and sharing such an experience. It was so natural and so relaxing… but also quite tiring… diving so many times over such a short period of time takes a lot of energy out of you.
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