After a year in the planning and an ear injury that almost prevented me from going, we were all finally off to the Philippines to dive the Wrecks of Coron Bay. The trip report has been written by a different person each day to get a different perspective of the trip. During the trip, various nicknames were earned/given; these will neither be discussed nor explained.
Mike ‘Passion Fingers’ Whitworth, Rob ‘Two Breakfasts’ Larisch, Sprocket ‘Crotch Nutter’ Coghlan, Michelle ‘Soapy’ Buttfield, Rhodri ‘Tummy Rub’ McDougall-Brown, Ben ‘Bog Brush’ Crossett, Ross ‘VC’ Coleman, Gary ‘TSB’ Meakin, Rick ‘Fluffer’ Grundy
Sprocket was the first to arrive in the Philippines. He undertook a GUI Fundamentals course followed by the full Trimix course with Tech Asia in Puerto Galera. Sprocket passed both courses just in time for the trip.
Meanwhile Robert arrives at Kingsford Smith airport to begin his journey to Puerto Galera. First stop Qantas lounge to have breakfast and several bourbons. Then onto Brisbane for an inconvenient little stop. Finally onto Manila, picked up at the airport and delivered to the hotel. Early rise in the morning to catch the Sikat coach to Batangas and then the Sikat ferry to Puerto Galera all for the princely sum of 700 peso (approx. $15…Tight arse!)
Met at PG by Lorraine who was to be my hostess for the next week while I underwent Normoxic and full Trimix rebreather training with the eminent Paul Neilsen (http://www.tech-divers.com) (who I recommend to anyone whatever the course). Then followed 7 days of good old hard work skills training, course work and exams, which thankfully I passed. I again have to mention that Paul and Lorraine along with Olive (the dog) were perfect hosts.
The next cab off the rank was Gary 'n Rhodri. Following a smooth flight over to Manilla in my business class bed (Rob did you fly in business class too?) Qantas lounge etc…blah blah blah we stayed the night in a nice hotel in Makati. On the way over I was chatting to an old guy next to me and he said we should check out P Burgos Street for some nightlife. So after dodging all the ladyboys on the way P Burgos, we stopped in a Cuban bar for a few beers. It was pretty relaxed, however, it was only after a few hours when the bar got busy did we realise we were pretty much in the middle of the red light district! The dirty old Git!
Like clockwork the following day we were picked up and taken to our private boat transfer to Puerto Galera. We stayed at El Galleon which is part owned by Tech Asia. We had an awesome room right at the top overlooking the bay, although you did almost have a heart attack making the 50 odd steps up there!
Originally Rhodri and myself were heading over there early to do the IANTD Technical Wreck course with Tech Asia in preparation for the forthcoming trip, but due to my ear issues, I’d decide not to do the course so we just did some local dives instead. The first dive was on the Alma Jane wreck (30m depth) in the Bay. It’s a great little wreck dive, loads of life on it and it gave Rhodri some good experience laying lines etc ready for the wrecks ahead. After such a strenuous day, we went and got an hours massage each all for the price of $8. This became a bit of a ritual, getting a massage every other day.
The following day we dived a deep reef enabling me to sign off Rhodri’s 45m depth progression for his DL. The dive was a bit average, but we did get to play with underwater scooters which were awesome! I think Rhodri is already planning on buying one! Unfortunately my luck with my ears struck again and I got an ear infection, so I had the next three days off diving. So what’s there to do in Puerto Galera when you’re not diving…that’s right people shooting guns!
So the next day we got a motorbike sidecar taxi to the shooting range, an experience in itself. After some deliberation on what to shoot, we settled on the classic handgun of choice, the 357 magnum to be swiftly followed by an assault rifle of course. A 100 bullets later, we were quite content ‘that we’d shot some shit up’. Again after another stressful day it was only fair that we got another massage on the way back.
For the next few days we we had a gay old time out round the pool, had a few more massages etc, while back in Sydney the rest of the crew were preparing to depart.
Saving the best to last, Ross, Michelle, Mike and Ben flew out to Manilla, stopping as the flight does for a cheeky wine in Brisbane Airport’s Qantas lounge. The bags came through quickly, almost no queue at the taxi rank for the 30 min (~$7) ride to the hotel. Upon check-in, it turned out we had 5 monstrous suits, which even taking into account Ricks arrival from Singapore a couple of hours later, as a tad generous! We celebrated our good fortune in the hotel bar, with ‘one’ San Miguel.
The following day we got the minibus down to just south of Batangas for the 50 min boat ride over to Sabang were they were greeted by Gary 'n Rhodri, had an excellent Thai lunch at the Blue Moon before getting in essential supplies for the trip to Coron bay, namely tonic water & a $4 bottle of gin/paint stripper. Once back at the wharf Sprocket and Robert arrived completing the dream team and we were shuttled out to Rags Two which would be our home for the next week.
The boat itself although looking a bit odd, was ideally set up for diving with a spacious kitting up area, large platforms to stride off and decent ladders for getting back on board. Not to mention the 'a la carte' menu and all-inclusive beer! We made our final gear checks and then the team was ready for the shake down dive the follwoing morning to iron out the kinks. At the briefing it was explained with germanic precision we were expected to enter the water, group ourselves together and descend as a group at 08.15.
The Nanshin Maru is a small tanker at a Max depth 32m just off Black island. Things of note were the two sets of three lion fish swimming in formation on separate parts of the wreck. Nice little super structure and that’s about all folks.
Once all the little dive buddy spats were resolved from the previous dive, the Okikawa Maru was to be the second and third dive of the day: a much larger oil tanker (160m long) with a max depth of 26m. Rick off like the racing snake he is and Robert second into the water. What a fantastic dive, plenty of sections and places to explore. My personal favourite being the swim through the prop shaft into what was the engine room. Around the rudder hanging with the amazing fish life, schools of Bat fish, striped sweetlips and a couple of large grouper. Not to mention the beautiful shafts of light shining down into the engine room. What a fantastic start to the trip.
The day started early as the ship rumbled into life and moved to the Akitsushima at a little after 6am. The rebeather crew got their tinkering out of the way early while others had a light breakfast. At 7:30 we were briefed on what is the only warship in Coron Bay, and an unusual one at that. There is an enormous crane at the stern which was used to launch and recover a large seaplane (which got away before the attack). Splitting into two main groups we set off exploring, once down and out of the current, a fun dive was had by all, with the possible exception of Mike who’s rebearther was giving him gip. Once back on board, after pronouncing mikes rebreather as ‘dead on arrival’, it was time for breakfast with Mango pancakes being the flavour of the day.
In the surface interval, before our second dive on the Akitsushima, Mike managed to build a twinset out of bits of his rebeather, and other spares people had brought along. The second dive enabled everyone to catch up on parts they had missed during the first dive such as the paternoster shell hoist, the bathrooms, twin diesel engine room, large radio mast, gun positions etc.
Following an excellent lunch of freshly caught fish cooked however people desired and a nana-nap for some it was onto the Olympia Maru, a Japanese freighter which will be familiar to anyone who has dived in Chuuk. Sitting upright at 30m, it is encrusted in sea life, which makes up for the salvaged engine & prop.
For the hard core (Ross, Michelle, Rick, and Mike) there was a night dive on the East Tangat wreck, while the gin crew tucked into an aperitif. The East Tangat wreck is one of the smaller wrecks in Coron Bay at only 40m long. It sits on a slope from 22m to 3m at the stern. A great night dive wreck with huge amounts of micro life and soft coral on it.
After waking up bright and early in my penthouse suite with amazing ocean views we all gathered in my lounge for some light refreshments and a briefing for the wrecks of the day ahead. For some it was also an opportunity to get breakfast No. 1 polished away!
The first and second dives of the day were on the Irako Maru, a large Japanese refrigerated supply ship sitting in 43m of water. Described as one of the best wreck dives in the Philippines, we all had great expectations, and we weren’t to be let down.
On the first dive the 5 open circuit guys dived as one group. After dropping onto the top deck, we made our way over the starboard side and down to the rudder. I took the lead as we made our way through the prop shaft (about 40m long) all the way into the transmission room. After a quick look around, Ben and myself entered the workshop room just off the main room. Just inside the doorway was an intact lathe followed by a drill press, both in great condition considering how long they’ve been down there for (hopefully the pictures will do it justice). After regrouping we headed through an opening in the roof back onto the top deck.
After breakfast (and a second breakfast for someone who shall remain nameless) and another brief to plan the attack for the second dive, we split up into buddies. Ben and myself did the reverse of what Rick, Rob and Ralph (The boat manager) had done on their first dive. After Ralph showed us where he’d hidden the line entering the superstructure, Ben led the way following the previously laid line, while I reeled in behind him. The penetration was pretty tricky in places with lots of snag hazards. After a few turns along a main corridor, we entered the main galley area. The vis was great inside, well done Rick and Rob for not kicking it up earlier. The huge cooking pots were still evident (again hopefully the pictures will do them justice). From there we made our way through another corridor, stopping to look at some Japanese baths before exiting through the cargo hold in front of the bridge. Definitely the highlight of the dives so far.
Buddying with Ben, we dropped onto the stern of the wreck. Lying on her starboard side, we dropped into the aft cargo hold. Nothing of note to see in here except for entry into the prop shaft. Making our way through the prop shaft we entered the boiler room. Two huge boilers presented themselves. Behind the boilers were the brick furnaces. Somehow Ben managed to miss a huge lobster that was sitting in the opening. We carried on into the forward holds, and finally into the chain locker. Heading back to the stern we re-entered the wreck through the accommodation quarters finding some nice tight areas to squeeze through. Nice to finally find an area that Rick hadn’t beaten us too! We finished the dive on the top (port) side of the wreck looking at all the soft corals and fish life. It was quite funny watching Ben chasing this one fish trying to get a perfect picture!
Whilst the others were getting stuck into the beers, Ben, Ross and Myself opted for another night dive on the East Tangat Wreck. Having skipped the first one, I was eager to see what was so impressive about the first night dive.
Even on the way down the phosphorescence was amazing. After playing around inside the wreck for a good 10 min or so, seeing how smaller gaps I could fit myself through I joined the others looking for all the micro stuff along the top of the wreck. Loads to see from nudibranch and flat worms to hermit crabs and cowry shells. Not to mention the amazing colours in the soft corals. It really was an excellent night dive.
Apparently I’m meant to say something here about Michelle, in the shower, soaping up, without locking the door and flashing Ralph (poor Ralph)…but I wouldn’t be that cruel!
Three people dragged themselves out of bed at the sound of the early dive bell and voted to spend our spare diving day exploring more of the Irako Maru. Rick followed Ralph’s vaguely remembered instructions and ran a line into the 3rd hold in search of a bank of thermo-meters controlling the vast refrigerated food storage chambers. As they were tying off, Rob and Tony (The on-board camera guy) decided it would be more fun to do things the hard way and enter via one of the tight staircases instead of the enormous gash next door. Down in the muddy bowels we passed through a low doorway into a gas storage locker. The wall on the other side of the room was filled for several metres by dozens of coolant pipes, each with a thermometer to monitor the fluid and a control valve near the floor to fine-tune the iciness of the officer’s Cornettos. A very interesting dive into one of the most ‘wrecky’ environments of the trip.
The Kogyo Maru was a 120m freighter carrying the construction materials for an intended landing strip in the area. Lying on her starboard side in 35m with four cavernous cargo holds and an impressive boiler room, the prevailing currents have allowed expansive hard coral growth on the exposed hull. The 2nd hold is filled by hardened cement bags supporting an intact if rusty tractor and a heavily corroded bulldozer. Eager to regain face after a catastrophic loss in the first annual underwater limbo championships, Gary ran an expertly placed line down the prop-shaft from the boiler room into hold number 2 and on towards the stern.
The rain set in around the middle of the trip and we were advised against the 10 minute scramble over slippery ground to Barracuda Lake. So the final dive of the day was therefore a live-boat drop outside Cathedral Cave on the Southern tip of Coron Bay. A tight entrance dropped through the reef and under the cliff into an underground lake beneath flitting bats and impressive stalactites. The bamboo scaling poles used by local swallow’s nest collectors stretched towards the ceiling 30m overhead in the gloomy light entering from a forested gully on one side of the cavern. A meticulous dive plan was abandoned in favour of an underwater conga line complete with wild flailing of limbs into the sandy bottom and head-banging on the low roof. We extracted ‘just a buoyancy wibble’ Buttfield out of the final hole she got stuck in and headed for the exit, pausing only to untangle her from the line on the way out.
There’s also a note here about Michelle’s discarded knickers being found by Sprocket. Again nothing will be mentioned on the matter!
After a few days of rainy mornings, & Malou the masseuse on board getting sea-sick from the rocky evening trip to the next stop, Wednesday started with a beautiful bright glistening morning. Everyone was up on time for once for Ralph’s 7am briefing for the ”Kyokyzan Maru” wreck.
Kyokyzan Maru, an army cargo ship 160-180m long, 20-40m deep. After Gaz did some minor repairs to Michelle’s rebreather casing, we were all ready to jump in. Wreck ferret Gaz then led Mike & Myself (Rhodri) over the bridge and a quick look around the engine room, Japanese squatting style bathrooms and then onto the final cargo hold. From there we dropped into the prop-shaft and continued along to the rudder. Back up to the top deck and a quick look at the emergency steering mechanism, which looked like a miniature model of a battleship. At the end of the dive Ben’s 1st stage of his deco tank was f**ked so some quick coordination from Gaz meant that Ben had Gaz’s stage tank, Rhodri finished his deco 1st & so Gaz had Rhodri’s stage tank. Long deco wait in the water for Ben averted!
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Pairing up with Mike and Ben for this dive, we made our way to the stern. After showing Ross and Michelle the entrance to the prop shaft, we dropped into hold three to look at the leftovers of a jeep. The shell was gone but the chassis and engine block was still clearly visible. From there we headed forward into the superstructure, making our way into one of the storage rooms with thousands of broken cups of China. We headed into the accommodation quarters, did my modelling duties in one of the Japanese baths before exiting through a side door. From there we moved into hold No. 2, to where the other jeep chassis were. Hardly anything left of these ones, but could still make out about 5 of them. Then as we were coming out of the hold onto the top deck a turtle was just sitting on the deck looking at me. It swam off when Mike appeared, it must have smelt the piss from his suit! ;-) We ended the dive with a quick look around the chain locker.
Cocototo Cave goes down to a max depth of 60m, but due to the limited space in the cavern, the group split in two. Ralph set the DSMB to mark the narrow entry gap in the reef at 6m, then group one jumped in led by Rick, Gaz, Rhodri, Rob then finally Ben. The leading 3 dropped down into the blackness to 50m, so Rhodri got his 50m Dive Leader Post-Qual ticked off. The cavern opened up around the 25m mark with huge limestone formations. After a good look around in the gin clear water the group spiralled upwards back to the narrow slither of light revealing the exit point, allowing the second group to enter.
The day dawned crystal clear with seas so flat that there was no danger of tea spillage. We gathered, perhaps bleary-eyed, for an early morning dive brief. WTF, 4 dives! Never mind, the men (and woman) of steel were ready for a day of hard diving... twinsets prepped, sling cylinders full, main and back-up computers readied. Unfortunately, there was a slight flaw in the plan; there was not a wreck in sight and we were off for a set of shallow reef dives feeling somewhat overdressed.
The first dive off Apo Island was generously termed New Year’s Reef, perhaps because like many actual New Year’s Days, not a lot actually happened. Since the tides were wrong, there were no beasts of wonder and the best thing to come out of the dive was that it was warm. This slight set-back was not enough to dampen our spirits and once we had partaken of Sonny’s finest breakfast offerings and consumed our body weight in tea, we were off again. This time we went not as a gaggle, but as two separate groups.
The rebreather dudes were one set and the lesser mortals went their separate ways. Michelle had decided to sit out the rest of the day, and having fully taken in the idea that this was not technical diving, broke out the snorkel and watched the events from above. Within 20 seconds the excited, if unintelligible to any but Ross, squeals indicated a turtle nearby. Apo Island SW Wall was billed as a great drift dive along a wall, and it didn’t fail to deliver. We saw Eagle Rays, turtles, sharks and moray eels in addition to an eyeball to eyeball with a substantial tuna. It’s so good to see sashimi ready and waiting. The rebreather people lost some kudos via a navigational error which meant we ended up trying to swim a couple of km against the current. Luckily Rick had a sanity attack and we went out to deep water, a smooth pickup and lunch.
Dive No. 3 of the day was an after lunch bimble along the north part of Apo Island. It was just as good as the second dive, perhaps better. Warm water (30+ deg C), great viz (30m) and lots of stuff to see. All the usual suspects were there plus the largest nudibranch I have seen. The flag was raised for the Invertebrate. Back on board, we had enough time for more tea and a quick brief before dive No. 4.
This time it was back to the SW wall for a proper drift dive as by this time the tide had turned and we were told to expect big stuff. I saw a large shark, probably a silver-tip, but since there is no photographic evidence, it probably didn’t happen. The group then split with me heading out to the blue and an ascent after a safety stop as I was running out of scrubber time (read into that what you will). The others must have entered a pocket of very high density nitrogen as they reported flashes and bangs, scared fish and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We did though, have confirmed sightings of eagle rays, turtles and lots of reef sharks. A great time was had by all, a really good days diving followed by some well earned beerage and enlivened by the entertainment of the open-circuit guys planning for the next day’s diving.
After a night of meticulous planning by the open circuit guys while the rebreather mob just drank gin and heckled…’ this is where our rebreathers pay for themselves’ and ‘I only need 2L of helium’ etc. We all rose early for the briefing eager for the diving activities ahead. However, things weren’t quite going to be that smooth. The sounder wasn’t working on the boat, so although they knew the GPS coordinates, they had no way of knowing if we were exactly on the wreck. So after dragging an anchor around the GPS coordinate position for an hour or so trying to hook the wreck (and losing one in the process) it was decided that dropping a shot line in and doing an underwater 360 degrees search would be the best option. So as a day of reef diving on helium was looming, Ralph jumped in with Tony four torches to see what they could find. After 20min they surface to the jubilation of the boat…the Holy Grail was found. We would be diving the MV Coral Island after all.
The MV Coral Island was a Japanese built 73m long freighter. At the time of her sinking in 1982, she was carrying medical supplies around the country for a government agency. Bound for Manila from Batangas she suffered an engine room explosion, with the blast and ensuing fire killing 21 of the 95 people aboard. She’s now sitting upright in 70m of water between Fortune Island and Nasugbu on the Batangas Coast.
After analysing our mixes, myself, Mike and Ben kitted up and waddled our way with two stages each to the side platforms. Racing snake ‘Fluffer’ and ‘Two breakfasts’ were already in the water and probably on the wreck at this point. After dropping down the 60 meters to the top deck we did a quick check before proceeding into the forward hold. Rick and Rob as expected were already in the hold. After a quick look around, seeing a chassis of some sort and what looked like generators (Rick later said that he also spotted a huge anchor), we headed back onto the top deck towards the stern. We entered the structure through a large gash, probably caused by the explosion. Passing three big lion fish on the way in, there was a big shoal of trevally in there hunting. We exited through another gash further stern. From here we dropped down to the rudder almost at the 70m mark, before heading back up to the top deck and gradually moving forward along the wreck. On the way back to the line we had a quick look at what was left of the bridge, passing the collapsed funnel on the way and funnily enough the first anchor that was lost initially trying to find the wreck earlier in the day, before starting our 45 minutes of deco! Great last wreck dive in the Philippines. Well worth all the palaver in finding it!
As a second dive on the MV Coral Island wasn’t practical, especially for the OC guys, for those that still wanted to do a second dive, an ‘unknown reef’ was on offer. I think about 6 of us took up the offer, with most of us doing the dive in just our boardies, as everyone was drying out their suits ready for the trip home, except Mike of course who was planning a Viking style burial at sea for his piss ridden wet suit. The dive itself wasn’t the best, most of the area had been dynamite fished in the past so coral life was virtually none existent. Nevertheless a pleasant last dive in 30 degrees water and 20m vis. Making our way back to the boat the guys who didn’t dive chucked some beers down to Christen the end of a very good, successful dive trip. :-)
After a big night of drinking, jumping off the boat and reminiscing of the dives completed. It was time to go home. One last hearty breakfast, we said our goodbyes (including to Mike's suit, although he did make some stubby holders out of the sleeves!). The first step was a relaxing boat transfer to the mainland folowed by a hair raising 2hr minibus ride (Larisch are your knuckles still white?) to the Airport. After stashing all our first stages in our pockets before check-in, we all descended upon the Qantas business lounge to stock up on some well needed food and alcohol. Personally the night flight back was great from my business bed…!
Finally, a big thank you to everyone who went on the trip it really was a pleasure to organise. The diving was great, the boat and the food were excellent and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to go with. Also a big thank you to Dave at Tech Asia and Ralph from Rags II for putting together a great trip.