By: Bob Manas
May 8, 1999
It was 7 am on April 26 when Randy and I checked-in at the Pacific “Scare” airline terminal. Our dive gears alone weighed 50 kgs. each. We knew we were allowed 10 kgs. but excess baggage would cost P50/kg. Damn! There goes four thousand bucks – the cost of our return flight. We weren’t wet yet and “old Murphy” was already behind our backs! Bahala Na! We’ll just take the Ferry back sometime, someday! The plane was an 8-seater Piper Cub which looked like a relic from some bygone era, and Randy mistook the pilot for the hangar janitor! Yep, we were flying into the horizons of adventure, alright! After an hour and a half of day dreamy island skies, our small plane shuddered along a dusty runway in the middle of nowhere, known as King’s Ranch Airfield, nestled in the middle of Busuanga Island, Northern Palawan. I couldn’t help but notice the lush greenery and how fresh everything was (including the cow dung). No pollution, No traffic! Then it started to rain cats & dogs! Shit! Its still rainy season out here! I noticed the pilots moving our gears to a bigger plane.
“Hey, we’re going to Coron, not back to Manila!”, I yelled. “Ya, we bring you to Coron, no jeep come to fetch you!”, shouted the pilot.
So we skidded up into the mountain pass that would lead us to the town of Coron. Three minutes up and three minutes down!
“Hey Randy, do you see the runway yet?” I hollered as we sat by the tail seat.
“Nope, just a mountain!” Randy casually replied.
Suddenly, the plane veered down to the right into a narrow pass and this Japanese lady, seated near the front, threw her arms up in the air, and screamed her guts out like she was riding a rollercoaster! We were cracking up! After that frightful pass was the airfield. We were down at last! If this was flying in Coron, I wondered what our diving would be like.
After tinkering with twin-tank configurations for several hours, with tourist divers and divemasters gaping and giving you that “you’re nuts” look, we finally got wet. It struck me to do the skill/exercise dive in this lagoon near “Cayangan” Lake in Coron Island. I also wanted to show Randy this cave that I last visited 2 years ago. The entrance started by the cliffwall and widened as you went in to about 20ft. Following the path to the right, it led us to a magnificent dry cave with colorful stalactite formations. We were in awe! With the line we traced our way back to the entrance and decided to explore some more. Down to only 30 ft. but turning like a maze, we ended up on another air dome which was a different part of the cave. More stalactites! Fantastic!
“Hey, let’s do this again!” said Randy, as we surfaced into the lagoon. I said, “maybe, but after the wrecks”.
“Fuck the Wrecks, this is great!” said Randy. This was dive # 1.
The following days were spent diving wrecks specifically the Tangat Wreck, Kogyu Maru, Olympia Maru, Irako, and the Akitsushima. They have various lengths of about 100 ft to about 500 ft. Most of them are diveable to depths of a shallow 60 ft/ 18 m. to max of 150 ft./ 45m. Composed of Gunboats, Freighters, Auxiliary Ships, and Refrigerator Supply Ship, they were bombed during that fateful day, nearly 55 years ago during WW2, which set Coron Bay ablaze for 3 days. One of my favorites is the “Irako”, a refrigerator ship with its intricate mazes and intriguing compartments, still keeping secrets in its dark silty chambers for more than half a century. Brass portholes, porcelain bowls, old wine bottles, and ammunition can still be found inside but souvenir hunting is strongly discouraged and not allowed by dive operators. Schools of big Jacks play around the ship and swim straight to your face! We attacked the wreck from a gaping hole by its stern at 120 ft. A huge, black grouper swam away, startled by our presence. Inside we went down to the engine room at 135 ft. then worked our way to the bow from the inside. More than 500 ft. of penetration! What a beautiful wreck! Inside the Akitsushima, a huge freighter, my primary lights conked out at 125ft. while laying line inside a corridor. Both of Randy’s Bulb Tubes leaked and exploded on ascent. He also lost an exhaust to his 2nd Stg. Reg. Aside from such equipment wear and tear, all our 8 wreck dives turned out great!
After 4 days of diving, we decided to take a break and Randy had this wild idea of renting dirt bikes and riding all day. So that’s what we did! For P600 each we both got 125cc Suzuki’s and followed the mountain roads north just wearing caps, T-shirts, and shorts. We must’a rode 170 km. all the way beyond New Busuanga and back, then went beyond Coron and straight into the Hot Springs! My stiff aching muscles succumbed to the delightful touch of the pool’s warm waters! We were going nuts! Already a week in a town that knows no nightlife, what do you expect? I’m glad we had separate rooms!
So what do you do when insanity creeps in? We go cave diving! The island of Coron, looming across the channel from the town that carries the same name, looks like a setting straight from “Paleoworld”. All along its coast, jagged limestone fangs seem to snarl at would-be invaders, mocking their presence with impunity. It’s sheer cliff walls would plunge into numerous lagoons of “fairy-like” wonder. This island of pristine beauty is ancestral land to the “Tagbanua” people, a semi-nomadic tribe that live on fishing and collecting bird’s nest. They consider the caves & lakes of Coron to be sacred and treated with respect. With Gunter Bernert of Discovery Divers, a long time friend & buddy and a team of Japanese photo and videographers, we set out for what is known as “Gunter’s Cathedral”. Pass Calis Pt. and along the northeast side of the island, we entered a hole just beneath a wall where it led to a passage which opened up to a cavern inside the mountain. Sunlight penetrated the cavern through a big gaping hole on its ceiling where once a tree stood but collapsed many, many years ago. It gave the cavern a magical effect! The tree can still be found underwater, decorating the very clear waters of the pool. I found another cave entrance, which Gunter mentioned beforehand, on the dark side of the cavern. Securing a tie-off with my reel, I proceeded to penetrate cautiously with Gunter following right behind. It opened up into a dome-like cave that had clearer visibility. It was fantastic! We saw seasnakes, pincher shrimps, and a fish with “Felix-the-Cat Eyes” that glowed blue in the dark! The dome had weird stalactite formations on some its sides and small cubicles of air pockets on top sections. I definitely give this site definitely a 5 star rating.
We circumnavigated Coron Island with a slow steady pace while beautiful white beaches are set like pearls against a very rugged limestone backdrop. We headed for “Barracuda Lake”, one of the only two accessible lakes on the island. During the dive planning and briefing, I expressed my desire to sit this dive out. I wasn’t keen at all with the idea of carrying twin tanks up and down the limestone barrier that separate the lake from the ocean. I told them I was serious and refuse to carry tanks.
“You’re just fuckin’ gettin old, Bob!”, snorted Randy gleefully.
“Yeh, you can also be a nice old buddy and bring some cameras, too!”, said Gunter, quick on the adlib.
“Oh no!”, I said, “As the senior diver on this boat, it is my privilege to refuse to carry any of this shit!”
Finally, the issue was resolved when our good boatman, Diosdado, volunteered porter service. The day was saved! Diving in Barracuda Lake is difficult to describe because the terrain is different. It’s like going to another planet! You have to dive it, to believe it!
“We should have listened to you, Bob. That’s the first and last time I’ll carry tanks here!”, commented Randy, back on the boat.
“I think I should re-evaluate my limitations”, said Gunter, still smiling with bruises and gash wounds on his arms and legs, after a nasty spill. I gave them my old “I told you so” look and just grinned.
Randy and I had aircon cabin tickets on the ferry back to Manila. We were sharing this 4-berth aircon cabin with two other Pinoys. One of them had a box with a Rooster! And this stupid rooster would go Cock-a-doodle-doo every hour. I frequently thought of my “gator” knife in my toolbox lying close beside me.
“Only in the Philippines, Randy, only in the Philippines!” I said.