Bucket List: Shipwreck Diving in the Philippines
Solo traveler gets PADI certified while diving Palawan’s coral reefs, a geothermal lake and sunken WWII naval vessels
Brian Falcon—a marketing coordinator from Houston, Texas–is the type of guy who is always up for an adventure. In fact, he’s currently hanging with sea lions and marine lizards in the Galapagos Islands as I type this. Without a doubt, when it comes to using his 11 days of vacation, Brian is all in. Last year, he used up his vacation days on an idyllic island in the Philippines while getting PADI scuba diving certified. How’s that for multi-tasking?
What inspired you to travel to the Philippines?
The Philippines has been on my bucket list for quite a while. My grandfather served in Army near Luzon, and my father served in the Navy, sailing to/from several ports near Manila. Their stories have piqued my curiosity for quite some time. For me, there has always been a sentimentality that has motivated me to explore these islands.
I have always loved Asia for its exotic atmosphere, tropical climate, amazing food, generous people and affordable prices. I narrowed my decision down to one country, with the hard part of deciding where to go, out of the way … well, that’s what I thought until I Googled the Philippines and learned it is comprised of some 7,500 islands. In the end, I decided to center my vacation around Coron Island in the province of Palawan.
Why did you pick one destination, Coron Island in Palawan, specifically?
I felt it was more valuable to spend my time fully in one place rather than bounce around, rush, stress about boat transports and waste precious time in airports. Break out your calculators: 11 days of vacation time minus four travel days equals seven full days of actual vacation. Do I regret putting all my eggs in one basket and not exploring more regions of the area? NEWP. Not one bit.
Coron is home to one of the biggest collections of underwater Naval fleets and is among the best ship wreck diving spots in the world. During my week stay on Sangat Island, which is very near the larger island of Coron, I became PADI certified and dove one geothermal lake, two coral reefs, and four sunken WWII Japanese naval vessels.
The geothermal lake is called Barracuda Lake. And guess what? You swim face to face with live freaking barracudas. The entire experience was pretty fascinating. You arrive on a fast boat to ominous jagged rock faces that tower above. After working your way through a maze of rickety wooden walkways, through these intimidating rocks, you arrive at the lake. There are underwater pockets, or layers of geothermal activity, so you are constantly diving through a contrast of cool and warm water.
As cool as that experience was at Barracuda Lake, it doesn't even scratch the surface of bad-assery of shipwreck diving. Imagine diving 20 meters below the surface into a deep, dark abyss, squeezing through tight passageways, and floating weightless through a wreckage of twisted metal. These once commanding Japanese Naval ships from WWII now quietly lay at the bottom of the sea. Being able to see them up close was an achievement and experience of a lifetime. For a full description of each vessel and artist renderings, click here.
What was the standout highlight of your Philippines vacation?
The absolute highlight of my trip was learning to scuba dive. I had reservations about whether I should get diving certified in Texas or while vacationing in the Philippines, but I am very happy I decided to get certified at Sangat Island Dive Resort.
First, most dive resorts will expedite your certification training. In other words, you can get the exact same PADI certification in the fraction of the time. And second, the dives you take as part of your certification are in insanely beautiful—not in some muddy lake in Texas. I literally dove twice a day, every day.
Then there were daily hikes on the island, kayaking until my arms fell off and the opportunity to drink local beer every chance I got. I would buy rounds of drinks for everyone on the island. And they, in turn, bought rounds of drinks for me. I drank for seven days (don’t judge me), and I was happily surprised for two reasons:
1. I didn't have liver failure.
2. My bar tab was only $40 for the entire week.
What were the locals like?
Everywhere I went I was greeted with smiles. Overall, I found that my Filipino hosts were honest people that genuinely wanted to help guests. I also befriended an island pig farmer. From his tattered shorts and golden sun-kissed skin to his unimaginable stories, I knew right from the start he was my kind of guy. On one of my last nights on the island, he generously offered two of his prized pigs. I graciously accepted his gift and we dined like kings on delicious lechon baboy (roasted suckling pig). That is just one small example of the type of hospitality I was greeted with during my stay.
With so many options in the area, how did you narrow down your accommodations?
After a lot of research, I found that even though there was an abundance of hostels, hotels and dive shops on Coron Island, there were no beaches. Also, most of the shipwrecks were about 30-minutes away from the island.
After reading tons of reviews about Coron Island, I increased my search radius. I found several alternative candidates for accommodations and finally decided on Sangat Island Dive Resort. Sangat Island is about 30 minutes, by fast boat, from the main island of Coron. It had everything I wanted: a private beach, beach-side bungalows, an incredible dive center, shipwrecks that were only a 10-minute boat ride away and it offered many other activities that would keep me busy throughout the week.
And a plus for all you eco-conscious travelers, the entire island is powered by solar energy. Solar cells soak up that hot sun all day and power the entire island, and back-up generators are in place as an emergency precaution.
What was it like getting to the Philippines? Was transportation within the country fairly standard?
When you are so close to paradise, the last thing you want is to waste your precious time in an airport. I was completely surprised and shocked by the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and other types of transportation while in the Philippines. How many of my flights were delayed or missed while in The Philippines? ALL OF THEM. I will not lie, the Manila airport sucks. By no means is this a reflection of the people or culture … it just is, what it is. Manila is a major international city with major international air traffic. So be sure to give yourself plenty of time between your arriving flight and your ongoing departing flight.
The Coron Island airport, Francisco B. Reyes, is not much better. One unusual thing about the airport that will put things into perspective is that after they weighed my luggage, I was asked to step onto the scale to be weighed as well.
My advice is to try to be patient and remember it is all part of the adventures-of-traveling experience. Don't lose sight of the bigger picture, and don't forget why you are traveling in the first place.
Brian’s love for travel began while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity Global Village in Bali, Indonesia. He loves helping others and making new connections in lands near and far, from Iceland and Peru to San Diego, Calif. Follow his latest journeys in Ecuador, the Galapagos and beyond on his Wanderlust travel blog.