The Caves of Coron – The Philippines

I went to Coron again and stayed at Discovery Divers resort run by Gunter, a German guy who ended up in Coron 10 years ago while randomly travelling Asia, found great diving, a local wife and built the resort. He was the pioneer of diving in this amazing place of wrecks, caves, reefs and stone-age tribes but others have since followed and there are now quite a few resorts catering for various budgets. Some are built on stilts scattered along the town foreshore and others in the small sandy bays between towering limestone cliffs on the surrounding islands.

I spent most of my weekend on boats. It takes 12 hours each way to get from Manila to Coron on Our Lady of Lipa, a giant ship owned by the WGA Superferry company and doing the route from Manila to Puerto Princessa twice a week. The rest of the weekend was spent diving off the local boats called bancas. These trimarans are of varying sizes from 3 meters to 30 meters and built largely on original native designs, with the main hull of plywood construction and the outrigger and cross supports made of bamboo lashed together with fishing line. All the dive boats are motorized and they cruise along at a fairly high speed with their truck engines spewing diesel fumes out the back and sending a comforting low frequency vibration through the boat and the passengers. Rope nets are strung taught between the cross supports and it’s quite comfortable to lie on these nets and look up at the clouds until the tropical sun starts toasting you, but usually they are used for drying gear between dives.

The ferry from Manila left at 7pm on Friday night and arrived in Coron at 7am, on time for a change. The dive resort had a banca waiting, so I just had to walk down the gang plank from the ferry, across the wharf and jump down to the banca and was on my way to the resort in time for a great pancake breakfast. I then slipped into the wetsuit, back onto the banca and off to the first of three wreck dives for the day. I was the only foreigner, but got along with the other divers who were keen to experience wreck diving.

I had already done those three wrecks in my previous visit to Coron, and don’t get too excited about rusty metal so while the others explored the dark holes I hung around the outside of the wrecks and just watched the fish and corals encrusting the upper structures. I am constantly amused by the antics of clown fish and cleaner fish and spent all three dives de-stressing with these creatures entertaining me while the others squeezed through holes in the wrecks in claustrophobia inducing spaces full of sharp metal. A few of the cleaner fish on one of the wrecks have lost their fear of divers to the extent that they are annoying, constantly sticking their heads in your ears and biting at whatever they find of interest there, so it’s not surprising to see divers swimming around with a finger in each ear.

Saturday night after a hard day watching the fish and lazing on the deck of the banca we had dinner at the resort and then took a boat into town to tie up at the new piano bar just opened by Gunter’s wife. We arrived at the bar just in time for the power on the island to fail and the town to be plunged into darkness. The regularity of blackouts in this part of the world can be worked out by the fact that lit candles appeared on the bar tables even before our eyes had adjusted to the blackness. We had a few beers, a lot of laughs and headed back to the resort at midnight, the outboard boat skimming across the glassy water under a starry sky, lightning flashes from distant tropical storms bouncing off the cliffs of Coron Island, and a phosphorescent trail streaming out behind us.

Sunday was the best diving of the weekend.

We started the day with a 2-hour banca ride around the rugged limestone coast of Coron Island and dropped anchor on a fairly lifeless coral reef at the base of the cliffs. Passing by these sheer cliffs with a hint of tangled tropical green above you really get the feeling that you are on the edge of a lost world, and this is true to an extent as the natives of Coron Island shun the modern world and I have been told still live as they did thousands of years ago.

We got geared up, splashed into the water and swam after the guide to a small hole leading down into the coral just big enough to swim through. The guide went ahead, tying a string line to a coral outcrop near the hole and trailing it out behind him into the darkness. After a 5 minute wait watching the fish the guide came out again, waved to us to follow and headed back into the darkness.

I was the only diver without a torch and was somewhat hesitant following, but built up enough courage and followed another diver into the hole leaving enough distance between us not to get a flipper in the face, but close enough to just get some reflection of his light back off the cave walls. I held onto the string for direction and after about 15 meters I could see a reflection from the top of the water above me, indicating that there was air above. I let go of the line and swam upwards to surface in the middle of a large cavern. Sunlight spilled into the cavern from a hole in the roof and water dripped off rock and tree roots at the sides of the hole and overhanging vegetation visible above the hole indicating a dense forest.

The natives of Coron Island still practice the ancient tradition of collecting the dried-spittle nests of the swifts that live in the caves and selling them to Chinese traders to be made into bird’s nest soup. Up in the high ceiling of the cavern bats were huddling together on the wall, and around the walls long bamboo poles were jammed in to assist the natives when they climb for the nests. From water level, looking up past the stalactites hanging from the ceiling in the high roof, and looking at the skinny bamboo poles I certainly would not like to risk my life to gather the nests to trade for rice while the traders sell them in China for up to US$80 per gram.

We spent about 10 minutes looking around on the surface before submerging into a deeper part of the cave, the guide pointing out the entrance of a small passage under the water but indicating it was too dangerous for us. We explored the cavern floor, devoid of feature except for sunken bamboo poles and the occasional big-eyed fish at home in the darkness before reversing our tracks along the stringline out into bright light. The rest of our air was used up exploring the drop-off under the boat before we ascended to the surface and climbed the ladder onto the boat.

As soon as we were all aboard the anchor was raised and we headed back around the cliffs towards Coron town, but continued past it and pulled into a narrow fjord in the cliffs. The boat tied up to a rocky outcrop at the base of the cliff and we again entered the water near a hole in the ocean floor. The string line was laid out into the cave and we again followed single file into the hole, but this time the darkness was complete and I could see nothing until I surfaced and the others flashed their torches across the crystal encrusted stalactites. It is possible to swim around the outer walls of the cavern but at some point in the past the ceiling has fallen in, forming an island of broken limestone formations in the middle of the cave.

We swam a while exploring the walls before stopping on a rock ledge on the edge of the island, taking our tanks, fins and masks off and climbing up the limestone. The top of the island was the perfect place to stand to view the wonderful sparkling formations on the cavern walls and we sat for about 10 minutes with the others flashing their torches around and taking photos. We jumped off the highest point of the island into the deep water and swam back around to the ledge and got geared up again. With a last look at the walls and a burbling sound we followed the stringline back out into the fjord and clambered onto the boat to head around the coast a few hundred meters to another fjord to dive Barracuda Lake.

I think Barracuda Lake is the strangest dive I’ve done. The banca tied up at the bottom of a broken cliff at the end of the fjord. We all geared up in full scuba gear, with wetsuits, tanks, weights, booties and gloves and climbed down the ladder into the shallow water. The only way to get to the lake was to climb the broken cliff, up the jagged limestone, over the first knife edged ridge, down into the water, up a second ridge and down into a shallow bay on the football field sized lake. This would require caution in trekking boots, but weighed down with heavy dive gear and wearing only rubber booties it took a long time to drag ourselves the 50 meters across to the lake. Some of the girls on the boat opted to let the boatman carry their tanks rather than risk a nasty fall and a few decided it was beyond them and stayed at the boat.

Thick limestone cliffs separate the lake from the ocean and the surface water down to 12 meters is fresh water at 31 degrees Celsius and supports a reasonable variety of fresh water aquatic life. Descending beyond 12 meters you pass through an inversion layer into very dense salty water at 44 degrees Celsius which supports marine life. Below about 32 meters is another inversion layer leading to cooler water again. At the meeting point between the salt and fresh water is a 5-cm thick mixing layer where the hot and cold waters of different density and salinity meet. Objects in the water often are dense enough to sink through the fresh water, but light enough to float on the salt water layer, so hang in this 5cm mixing layer, forming a visible barrier between the fresh and salt water which to a diver either appears as a false bottom to the lake or a false surface depending on your depth.

The marine life in the salt water is generally composed of small fish, muscles and shrimp, but the lone ruler of the lake is a 90cm long barracuda after which the lake is named. Being a salt water fish the barracuda is confined to the waters below 12 meters in the long term, but is able to take quick ventures into the upper layers to hunt before returning to the depths. The lack of vertical mixing in the lake must mean an extremely low oxygen content in the depths so it is amazing that the barracuda is able to live, let along grow to such a size. How he got there is a mystery but it is likely that a fertile egg was carried in on an unsuspecting sea bird. The cliff walls surrounding the lake give a good clue as to the depth of the inversion layer as the salt-water supports thick algal growth which feeds snails and shrimp on the walls whereas the fresh water does not. The heat in the middle salt layer comes from volcanic activity and the water is sulphurous below 12 meters as well as having an above normal salt content.

It was strange to dive in the lake, swimming up and down through the inversion layer from hot to cold to hot water and taking the regulator out of my mouth to taste the difference. It was also strange that we searched for the barracuda unsuccessfully until the guide started calling to it underwater.

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