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Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony 24 June 2015
Trip to the Philippines, 22 March to 2 April 2011
This was my first trip to the Philippines with my nephew Paul who’d been previously. The trip was for 11 nights.
My nephew had briefed me that the hotels were expensive by Asian standards and not to expect too much from the food.
My initial impression of the Philippines was that it was more third worldly than I’d expected about halfway between Thailand and India. (I’m talking about the poor parts in India).
I do remember arriving at our hotel in Malate opposite the casino thinking that Manila seemed quite seedy and being surprised at the sign that asked me to check my weapons at the desk outside. But, even on the first night I found the food was better than I’d expected partly because of my nephew’s knowledge of Japanese food and the places we found to eat. My other early impression was that you wouldn’t tend to visit the Philippines unless you had a purpose, for example an adventure holiday, and that the general ambience of the towns was fairly drab.
These first impressions haven’t changed much but I began to like the Philippine people almost immediately and to enjoy the natural environment. It is an amazing country with a sad history, especially since independence with the dominance of elite families and endemic corruption. The US dollar dominates tourist prices like in Vietnam. Outside of Manila the economy seems very fragile.
We flew from Manila after spending one night to Cebu City (the second largest City in the Philippines) for 2 nights, and then to Dumaguete also in central Visayas province, but on another large island at the bottom of Cebu Island.
After arriving in Dumaguete we went straight to Apo Island on the same day to scuba dive and stayed for 3 nights. We stayed in Dumaguete for 1 night, then flew via Manila to Busuanga Island in northern Palawan province. The airport is in the middle of a cattle property, but we were picked up and shuttled to Coron Town some kilometres away for 4 nights, again for scuba diving. We left Coron for Manila and flew home the same evening, Paul to Thailand and me to Australia.
Cebu City, which is actually an urban agglomeration of several once separate cities, has a population of around 2.5 million people. It is relatively quiet and laid-back with a small metropolitan area. It is here that Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 and was subsequently killed at the battle of Mactan against a neighbouring island minor chief who refused to send him tribute.
Where we stayed near the airport was on Mactan Island. We visited one huge and rather amazing high quality resort on the island primarily geared to the Japanese. It had an acre or so of swimming pool, one part with an artificial coral reef, and chalets surrounding it. The Japanese and Koreans are important to Philippine tourism.
I’d first been enthused about learning to scuba by visiting the pier in Thailand, which was the stepping off point for diving in the Similan Islands.I said to myself I must do that someday. Both my nephews had learned to dive and inspired me to try. After doing my PADI open water course in Australia, my first pleasure diving was on Phi Phi Island in Thailand about two months before the Philippines trip.
We did two dives a day on Apo Island for three days and one on the morning of our last day (my 10th to 16th dives) at around $30 per dive including equipment (AUD and USD were about the same at this time).
Apo Island is a very small island reached from the mainland by a lovely hour’s trip on a powered outrigger with interesting sea life, including flying fish, encountered on the way. It is a fishing community of about 300 people, who inspired by a German could see the potential of tourism. They declared a sea sanctuary on one side of the island and are very careful of the environment.
Paul had dived here previously with a girlfriend. We stayed at the Apo Island Resort the smaller of two alternatives. The two of us were the only divers, with a dive master between us. He was very competent, knowledgeable and a nice person, as were the staff and the islanders in general. It was a really special experience. The relatively shallow coral reef diving here was superb and as good as anywhere, including The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The dives were 18-24m and as the dive master said, no dive on the island was more than 7-min away in a powered outrigger. Entering the water on these boats was quite interesting as you had to go in on an angle to avoid hitting your head on the outriggers.
The dives were through extremely pretty coral gardens, over sand and along walls with deep water below and the big blue beyond. Our dive master was an expert spotter and extremely knowledgeable.
I was a beginner and theoretically only certified to 18m. I also was not really in control of my buoyancy or my breathing and used too much air on my dives. This is important many people do dive deeper than they are certified but it is not advisable. Diving can be dangerous and safety should be paramount. The maximum advisable depth for recreational diving is 40m. I don’t think going down to 24m was a big issue. Read on!
Coron Wreck Diving
On 24 September 1944 a US Navy strike force of fighters and dive bombers attacked a Japanese supply fleet of up to 24 ships anchored in Coron Bay and around Busuanga Island. The apocryphal story is that a reconnaissance aircraft noted that islands in the bay had moved, but this may not be true.
We dived for two days with Coron Sea Dive Centre, which was on the pier in town. We thought it excellent, though Tripadvisor touts Corto Divers. The equipment was good and the dive masters all Philippino had around 10,000 hours experience each, which is extraordinary.
The trip out to the wreck sites by boat (large and comfortable) took about an hour-and-a-half. We did three dives a day for two days at a cost of about $70 per day.
30 March 2011 was close to the scariest day of my life.
The first dive into the Akitsushima, a Japanese Seaplane tender, 118m long lying on its side (Max depth 36m) took me to 33 metres, and a long traverse through the ship along a narrow corridor of great height (the width of the ship) for 80m.
The second dive was to the Okikawa Maru, an oil tanker upright with the bow broken off, 168m long (Max depth 26m). This dive was even scarier if anything. We went to the bottom to 25m and entered below the huge rudder and up the propeller shaft. We’d been told not to stop on any account, as it would impede the divers behind and be dangerous. It was completely dark with a kink and frankly terrifying. I was so relieved when we emerged into a cathedral with light pillars coming down from gaps above that I didn’t realise for a moment or two that the gaps were much too small to escape through. We were in a large engine room and had to swim through a series of compartments before another narrow and scary entry into a forward compartment with a large exit.
The only life we saw was a huge groper and some large batfish.
The third dive of the day was simple around the Lusong Gunboat, which was a skeleton on a slope from 7 to 22 metres with lovely coral growing over it. I went to 14.6m.
The next day we were told that the first dive was to 40m. I agonised overnight about what to do and decided that I would dive to 40m, but would not enter the ship.
In the event this was unnecessary as Paul and his buddy in our group decided that they only wanted to dive to the deck of the ship. My buddy by the way was always the dive master. The vessel was the Irako, a Japanese refrigeration ship 147m long and sitting upright. We swam around the whole deck where there was a large amount of interesting life and shoals of fish. We dove to 31m. This was an engrossing dive. I ran out of air and had to buddy with the dive master’s tank and also use a tank when ascending for decompression, moored at 20m.
The second dive was to the Olympia Maru a large freighter 122m long sitting upright. We dived to 25m and entered four cargo holds. There were some slightly narrow parts swimming under boilers. We saw a large turtle and disturbed a huge crocodile fish in the sand near the bottom. There was good life inside including large batfish and groper.
At one point a shoal of small fish was emerging from the depths up the side of the hull and onto the deck, where lion and scorpion fish (who usually lie passively in wait) were snapping at them voraciously.
Our last dive was a coral dive to 15m pretty but degraded in parts. We saw large squid, schools of fish and at one point a vibrant royal blue nudibranch on sand moving strangely. It was like an alien creature.
The next day we were invited on a boating frolic by some fellow divers. Scuba divers are usually friendly and often interesting people good to spend time with. We did not have much expectation for the boat trip, as the town of Coron is a typically dusty, not particularly interesting rural town and we did not think that the nearby waters would be that interesting either. We hired some snorkeling equipment for $5 bought some fish and food for the crew to cook us for lunch and headed off. It was a long and magic day. All the places we went to were special and varied, and the lunch of fresh cooked fish fruit and salads was superb. One highlight was barracuda lake with fresh water on top and salt water below. You can scuba dive here and at the bottom is warm rock. There is also a cave dive. The cost of the boat hire and guides was a ridiculous $10 each for six people.
I do not think that I would seek to go wreck diving again, but I suspect that Coron is close to as good as it gets. I’m sure there are better dives onto individual wrecks but I doubt that you’d get this variety anywhere else.
Air-fares in the Philippines also seem ludicrously cheap and transfers from airports to where you want to go even quite long distances also seem cheap. Travelling on the local transport would be cheaper still. The food was much better than I’d expected after the warning and all in all it was a wonderful and special trip.
Airfare (Sydney Manila return) $918
Worldcare travel insurance $75
General Expenses Total $993
Domestic Airfares (5 flights) $271
Accommodation (11 nights; 10 shared) $472
Scuba Diving $350
(Included food, drink, transport, but some food
was also included in accommodation expenses)
Philippines Expenses Total $1448
Total Cost (USD about the same) $2441
Philippine expenses (not including international flight & insurance)
Time spent: 11 nights
Total cost per day all up for 1 person $132
Accommodation cost for 2 persons: $944
Accommodation cost per day for 2 persons $86
Accommodation cost per day for 1 person $43
1 Breakfast normally came as part of the accommodation cost and we had several meals in our accommodation in Cebu and Coron and maybe some on Apo.
2 Taxis, transfers and a day private tour by taxi in Cebu were paid by cash.
This was a really fantastic trip and even a life changing holiday. The diving experience was intense to say the least. It was and seemed a cheap trip for an adventure holiday. Sharing a room for most of the trip cut costs considerably.
However, one looks at this as a cheap holiday in the context of a short tourist trip. In looking at what travel costs one needs to make a distinction between tourist travel and long-term travel. For example, one tends to do tours or adventure sports, as tourist travel and because the trip is for a short-time you tend not to be so cost conscious even about hotel accommodation.
This is somewhat of a revelation to me because in my first post I said our trip to Alice Springs was one of the most expensive trips we’d taken as a couple at $382 per day (not including the airfare to get there). Whereas, travelling with Paul the cost for the two of us was $264 per day and it seemed cheap, perhaps because I wasn’t bearing any of Paul’s costs.
A final point, whereas I probably did when I was younger, I no longer compete for the cheapest travel options and am not phased by people who travel more cheaply than I do. When we went to Nepal for the first time, we met a couple our age who do travel cheaply all the time and I mean really cheaply for long periods. We admire them but there are pros and cons to travelling in that way.
Key words: Scuba diving, wreck diving, Cebu City, Dumaguete, Apo Island, Busuanga Island, Coron, travel costs