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Scenery and service in El Nido and Coron

I visited The Philippines with my friend Pablo during one Chinese New Year holiday in Hong Kong. Trips to the Philippines, as with some other South East Asian countries, are usually a mixed bag. One can expect breathtaking scenery along with various bizarre disappointments in how travel arrangements are conducted. This trip was no exception.

After an overnight in and around Manila Airport, we took a morning flight on a propeller plane to El Nido, a destination known for island-hopping. We queued for a tricycle to take us to the town. A tricycle, it must be pointed out, is just a motorbike. These do not appear to have any sort of engine modification that might help with their loads. And yet, they are fitted with a tuk-tuk like superstructure / exoskeleton for passenger seating that adds weight to them. This includes completely unnecessary fittings such as non-functioning brake lights and indicators. Further, the structure means that two to five additional passengers may now board the tricycle, sometimes with their luggage. I estimated that myself and Pablo, with our luggage, added about 180Kg of weight. That is a lot, in addition to the tricycle exoskeleton for a tiny motorbike. It made a horrible growl and sounded like it was in its death throes as it ascended a hill. Fortunately it arrived at the top before it had come to a dead stop. I was relieved that there were no more hills. The tricycle dropped us off at our stop, Shipwrecked Guesthouse.

Tricycles

The guesthouse had a massive fin whale skull right at the lobby. Ribs and vertebrae were also arranged along one wall for display.

Fin whale skull
Fin whale skull

We walked around, visiting dive shops and tour agents to plan the following days. The woman at Aquanaut dive centre seemed the most competent and provided us the best information. The next day we went out to dive with them. We went to the beach and waded to our boat. The water was surprisingly high and we found ourselves rolling up our t-shirts in order to not get them wet. The boats were catamarans with horizontal wooden bars touching the water on each side, providing a considerable amount of protection against tipping and perhaps allowing them to carry more cargo than an equivalent boat without the catamaran structure.

The kind of boats we used

Pablo took his Discovery Dive with an instructor working with Aquanaut. I joined them for my second and third dives of the day, after Pablo finished his training dive. We saw a turtle, stingrays and nudibranch, among other things. The most interesting sight for me was a fire sea urchin with Coleman shrimp riding on it.

Coleman shrimp on fire sea urchin

We had already had some unexpected customer service experiences. The night shift at our guesthouse made small talk with Pablo and said she would stay with him when she visited Hong Kong (without any prompting from him). She then promised to try her best to get the chef to come in at 7 AM so we could have breakfast before we went off early for our dives. At 7 AM, it was clear that she had made no such effort. Then she told us that she had warned us that the chef normally came at 7.30 AM. We found breakfast elsewhere.

Another time, Pablo asked for warm water at a restaurant. We both got cold water. We both got very burnt pork sisig dishes at the same place (burnt food was another thing we came to expect). I had changed an order from Coke Zero to Coca Cola. The bill showed the much-higher-priced Coke Zero. At a second restaurant, we had ordered beef and seafood souvlaki (Greek skewers). We identified the beef, but were confused by the other skewers. Upon checking they said it was tuna – “seafood”. That was odd. We inspected it carefully and decided it was chicken. The waitress told us that it was indeed seafood. We pulled at the last piece, looked at its texture and gave it to her to inspect. She admitted it was indeed chicken after seemingly consulting with the chef. They billed us for the more expensive seafood souvlaki instead. At a third restaurant, I had to ask three waiters and wait ten minutes for a glass for my beer. They also did not have warm water for Pablo.

The day after the dives, we took an island-hopping tour (Tour D). We congregated on the beach and again waded in chest-high water to get to our boat. The Small Lagoon on Miniloc Island was the first stop. We arrived at the spot with karst forms surrounding a pool of green water. It was nice, but a bit small, I felt. Then we saw a kayak emerging from an otherwise invisible spot in the rock. We rented a kayak and headed in. The entry was a narrow slit of perhaps two metres width and slightly shorter in height. I got the feeling that the hole had been man-made to let kayaks through. We spent about half an hour paddling in the lagoon. The waters were calm. We inspected the rocks closely – they were made of corals and the remains of other sea creatures, their shapes very clearly visible.

Kayaking at Small Lagoon
Kayaking at Small Lagoon

Next stop was Cadlao Lagoon on the island of Cadlao. The boat docked some way from the beach. It was more a snorkelling area than a beach. The guide advised us to wear water shoes on account of the sharpness of the coral. He made such a big deal of it that I thought it was possible to rent them on the spot. It wasn’t. I went unshod and swam all the way to the beach. Pablo took his slippers. There was good coral. Big damselfish, about 20 cm long, postured at us threateningly. There were a decent number of colourful clams and Christmas tree worms. Pablo and I were among the few to make it to the beach. Pablo lost one of his slippers on the way. We had lunch at a small beach. The guide brought out a table which they’d managed to store on the boat. They then brought out an impressive array of food for lunch, a better feast than any we’d had at a restaurant so far (and considerably better service than we could hope for at a restaurant). We had stops at Nat Nat Beach, Pasandigan Cove and finally Paradise Beach.

Cadlao Lagoon
Cadlao Lagoon

I went back to Aquanaut, where we had been impressed with the customer service. They had an interesting dive called a “fluo dive”, which involved taking ultraviolet light into the water at night and viewing it through a yellow visor. This would provide a strong visual of fluorescence in the sea. The boat had already left for the day, so I made a reservation for the next evening.

We spent the following day chilling at a long beach called Nacpan.

Nat Nat Beach
Nacpan Beach

I headed to Aquanaut. The staff smiled at me and asked me how they could help. The competent woman had marked the wrong day for my dive, and their boat had already departed for the day. I missed the fluo dive.

The next morning, we took a 3 ½ hour ferry ride to Coron. It took 5 hours.

I decided to go scuba diving by myself the next day as Pablo was not up for it. The dive trip was poorly planned by Dive Center Coron (DCC) with only one dive guide for an eclectic group involving four experienced divers and two beginners doing their Discovery Dives. Dive guide Marlon had to do separate dives with all of us. It did not help that the two Chinese girls doing the Discovery Dives spoke English very poorly and did not understand everything that Marlon said. DCC had not planned for an instructor who knew Mandarin before taking them on. The experienced bunch observed with amusement as the girls struggled with very basic tasks such as mask clearing and regaining control of the air after losing the mouthpiece – while training in 1 metre deep water.

Coron is famous for wreck diving, on account of Japanese ships destroyed there by the Americans during World War 2. We dived at and into Tangat AKA Olympia Maru, a big freighter, and East Tangat, a submarine hunter. Occasionally items such as ladders and oil drums were clearly visible to us. The fish that we saw included rabbit fish, fusiliers, black spotted puffers and the occasional pipefish. I had some difficulty popping my ears in the first two dives and had some pain in my ears afterward. I decided against the third dive.

On the third dive, Marlon went down with the experienced divers, then emerged after a very short time with just one of the three divers. He then went down with the Chinese girls, who wore no fins. Marlon held on to one with each hand and controlled their motion. They seemed to remain at the surface for about five minutes, then descended. Not long after, the experienced divers returned; then Marlon with the Chinese. One of the girls came out and held her palms to her ears as though they hurt. She said later that she had bleeding out of her ear.

I intended to go to the hospital on account of some jellyfish stings, one of which looked infected. I asked the girls to join me. The hospital had sick children with their mothers lying in beds in the hall. We went to emergency where our blood oxygen content was measured, among other things and a doctor checked us. The girl with the hurting ears was OK and needed no medication and had no flying restrictions. I got antibiotics and a cream. No doctor’s notes or receipts could be issued past 5 PM, the hospital staff told us. We would have to come the next day if we needed those. The odd thing: it was only 4.45 PM.

Knowing that Coron island-hopping tours were crowded, we booked a private tour for the next day. A guy came to pick us up and brought us to a van that already contained two people. It slowly made its way around town, picking up people, losing us precious time as we had wanted to be early to the first stop, Kayangan Lake, before the horde of tourists arrived.
I was black with rage first thing in the morning. We eventually made it to a pier where the other tourists were sent to another boat. We were asked to climb over the protective barrier, step on the steep, sloping side of the pier and onto a boat. The guide tried to rent us snorkelling equipment despite the fact that our tour was all inclusive. More than an hour and three quarters after our pickup time, we finally left land.

Kayangan Lake was filled with tourists in yellow vests, completely ruining the experience. I handed my life vest to our guide, John, as I did not want to swim with it. He threw it in after me and I swam holding on to it. The rock formations extended underwater. The lake had a lot of little needlefish swimming around. Beautiful scenery. Terrible ambience. Our purpose in getting the private tour was not met, at least with Kayangan Lake.

Needlefish at Kayangan Lake

Next stop was Siete Pecados – a spot with seven little islands. The islands looked like small clumps of coral elevated above sea level, with trees growing on them. I jumped in and found the best corals of the trip so far in there. There were areas with brightly-coloured corals. I do not recall seeing this quantity of purple-coloured staghorn corals elsewhere. Of further interest was the number of sea urchin “farms” – urchin after urchin forming a spiky bed of needles on the floor. I saw a school of squid – black coloured with white spots on them. There may have been about 50 squid, the largest at 30-40 cm length while the smallest were under 10 cm. Finally there was the big black nudibranch, at least 15×15 cm that seemed to sleep, wrapped around a coral. Siete Pecados was a very impressive snorkelling site.

A school of squid that I came across at Siete Pecados

Barracuda Lake was also good. It was also an enclosure like Kayangan, but there were considerably fewer people there. The lake also has a sloping bottom. I freedived down and touched the bottom at 9.3 metres. The lake had a lot of catfish, shrimp with 10 cm long bodies that were daring enough to walk on to our fingers and snails with conical shells. Twin Lagoon was the final stop. We got directly off the boat into the water here. Just metres away there was a barracuda close to the surface. The lagoon’s entrance was through an opening in the rock which was at the right height to swim through. If it had been high tide, we would have needed to submerge ourselves to swim through – or use the ladder to go above the rock. A small school of cardinal fish hung around at the entrance.

For the last two days, we had a stay at an island resort, Iris. A driver arranged from the resort picked us up from our guesthouse. After a hour’s car ride, we had another half hour on a boat to the island. The rooms and buildings looked like their foundation and walls were of concrete. The tops were of bamboo and straw. Pieces of coarse rock were used to line the sides of support beams to make it more earthy. There were water filters everywhere. We had no shortage of electricity or power sockets. A meter connected to the electricity levels showed how much power was available. This would jump to 100.0 early in the day and stay there and slowly decline based on night time usage.

Entry to Iris resort

We had breakfast the next day, then went snorkelling. A school of long thin fish hung around at the pier. I also observed a big black nudibranch. I decided on a circuit of the island while Pablo decided to hang around. There were more clingfish, starfish, feather stars, beautiful coloured coral, puffer fish, plenty of sand dwellers, sea urchins, among others. The tide was low, so parts of the circuit was difficult. I had to swim through 50 cm shallow water between Darab and Lajo Islands – an area that contained coral and sea urchins. Then there was a bit of current against me in the final stretch, also in fractionally deeper water. Eventually I climbed back to the pier after a 1 ½ hour circuit of the island.

Corals around Iris resort
Corals around Iris resort

It had not been an easy trip, with a lot of unnecessary frustration. But we had seen some beautiful sights on the surface, by drone and underwater. The last two days were spent at a resort with excellent customer service. That made it special.

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