October 6, 2014
The Calamian Archipelago: the final Philippine frontier. Like a newborn sea turtle, Merritt Gurley conquers her fear of the inky unknown to explore Palawan's untouched corners. Photographed by Francisco Guerrero.
Published on Oct 6, 2014
"I was 200 years late for the Wild West, but I found the Wild East," says my dive instructor Gunter Bernert. "Look at the dimensions, so much to travel, "he says making a sweeping gesture across the vista. We're the only boat on the water, our banca chugging its way towards this isolated sprawl of sand on the Calamian archipelago, in the heart of the Philippines. It is vast and empty, and out here you still feel like an explorer.
Banol beach, Coron Island
The coasts look like they're cast of alabaster, but this is wilderness—rough around the edges. Strong. Enduring. In November 2014, the region was ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda, one of the most powerful tropical storms ever. Now the only evidence I see is a severe coconut shortage. "It came in so fast," Gunter tells me. "Yolanda destroyed so much, but a month later everyone outside the Philippines had forgotten about it." I give a knowing nod, as if I'm not a guilty party, but Gunter's not easily offended—he's as thick-skinned as the hard land he's called home for more than 20 years. "When I first got here there were only flights every five days in a 16-seater plane that landed in grasslands, scaring away the cows. Totally wild," he says. "I fell in love with it instantly." Over the course of this affair, some of the wilderness seems to have rubbed off on him: in the thick of the typhoon, this modern-day German daredevil went out into the bay to save one of his boats. "Wasn't that dangerous?" I ask him. He laughs. "Yes, but life is dangerous."
LIFE IN THE CALAMIAN ISLANDS, JUST ONE SECTION of Palawan province, scattered between the South China Sea and the Mindoro Strait, does hold a touch of danger, along with a healthy helping of bizarre history. Take Culion Island—for most of the 20th century, it was a leper colony run by the department of health. Nearby Calauit Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary and game reserve in 1977 to protect the zebras, giraffes and antelopes brought from Kenya. Yes, it's an African safari with a seafront setting. I spend most of my time in the Calamian in Coron and Busuanga, two neighboring multi-island municipalities with such nebulous boundaries that they are often lumped together in guidebooks. This swath of territory is famous for its freshwater lakes and lagoons—Kayangan Lake is known as the cleanest in Asia, and Barracuda Lake thrills divers with its dramatic underwater cliffs. There's a 210-meter climb to the summit of Mt. Tapyas; a wealth of marine life, including bizarre creatures like the dugong, or sea cow; and, of course, sublime beaches. We set sail from the Huma Island Resort & Spa and we're in Busuanga waters. "We call this area Pearl Bay," Gunter says, "because it is something rare, something special."
Bird's-eye view of Huma Island
On this cloudless morning, it's also something creepy. One island, alone and far off on the horizon, appears cast in shadow. Black Island. "It's the limestone that reflects the darkness," Gunter tells me, but that's science and I'm sensing spirits, for the place has the eerie prehistoric vibe of Skull Island from King Kong. I start to get the heebie-jeebies as it looms larger on our approach. "This is the end of the world," he says. Behind me the sea is turbulent topography of islands layered into the distance, but ahead Black Island is solitary, foreboding. I gulp. "Or at least it's the end of the Philippines," he hedges. "After this is Vietnam."
As I try to tell myself this is tropical bliss instead of the premise of a horror flick, Gunter goes another way, regaling me with tales of all the brave men who have died in these waters. "This area is all about the wrecks," he tells me. Of course, as an instructor at D'Divers, he loves all the sunken skeletons of Japanese ships left over from World War II. While I'm ringing up a mental tally of the ghosts below us in watery graves, a shark fin knifes out of the brine. "Stop the boat! Stop the boat!" Gunter yells. He is hopping around in excitement, eyes blazing. "It is a whale shark—the biggest fish in the ocean."
To me, "whale shark" sounds like a made-up creature invented by combining two terrifying words, so when Gunter follows up with, "Grab your snorkel, let's go," I wince. We jump into the sea and I learn that it is possible to break out in a cold sweat while under in water. I'm trembling as I paddle closer and catch site of its powerful spotted tail whipping past. I only see him for a moment before he slips into the darkness below, but it is a spectacular scene, and my fear adds to the gratifying sense of adventure. I pop my head above water to powwow with Gunter, who is distraught. "It is a young one and he has a rope around his tail, probably from swimming through a pearl farm," he says. "Poor guy. Poor, poor guy. I want to relieve him if I can get close enough." He dives down after the gentle giant, but the whale shark is already gone, dragging the tattered rope into the abyss.
A whale shark—the biggest fish in the sea
THE ADRENALINE RUSH FROM SWIMMING WITH A shark has quelled some my fears. By the time we arrive at Black Island, I am clearheaded enough to recognize that the beach is one of the most beautiful I've ever sullied with my stubby footprints. Past its bank, there's a cave to explore, complete with a pool, dripstone and Swiflets birds' nests. Only the local Tagbanua tribe can collect this prized delicacy, which they then sell for export throughout Asia as a curative elixir with a price tag of up to US$2,000 per kilo, making it one of the most expensive animal products on the market.
But, I'm here to dive not climb. So, bellies full after a picnic, we wade from the sandy shores into the drink, and swim down to the remains of the Nanshin-Maru tanker. This is actually most likely an American vessel that went down in bad weather, but was long ago mistaken for a Japanese casualty and the name stuck. The ship is lodged on a sandy slope at an angle, so the stern is visible at around 20 meters and the bow rests at 34 meters. It is 45 meters top to tip, covered in variegated coral, and populated by a colorful community of scorpion fish, lionfish, trumpetfish, groupers and batfish. We're the only divers here, so we take our time slowly surveying the pageantry. One poisonously barbed lionfish floats square in the center of the stern, eyeing me suspiciously. I should be scared. But the site is awesome. I feel like a treasure hunter, rogue pirate and daring archaeologist. I realize it has taken at least 70 years, but the ocean seems to be turning this old hump of metal into an underwater arcadia before my eyes in real time.
World War II sunken shipwrecks lure divers to Coron
That's the thing about this particularly pretty stretch of the South China Sea: it's sea life in surround sound, even from the sky. "This part is just like a speed boat," says the captain of a four-seater seaplane I take sightseeing one day. His name is Bob, "kind of like we're doing now…bobbing," he says. As we speed up and prepare to take off, Bob lays down the rules. "No dancing in the aisles and if I don't like you, I'll just undo your seatbelt." A death threat before lift-off? Nice cockpit manner, Bob. But once we're at cruising altitude, about 200 meters above sea level, looking down on Diciligan Island, home to Huma Island Resort, and all the atolls that surround it, I feel downright calm. Pearl farm nets bead the water and smoke rises from an unseen distance. The ocean is a tapestry of peaks and dips, dotted in lonely sweeps of beach, mottled in blue and green coral. The water is so clear I can see the dots on a grouper swimming below—call it aerial snorkeling.
Back on land, I'm lost in yet another version of sea-gazing. A small cattleya fish meanders through a pale cluster of coral. It's sunset so the tide is changing and the light is playing on the crystalline water, laying down patterns in diamonds and gold. Maybe the fish finds it as mesmerizing as I do. "Is this pressure good?" my masseuse asks me. "Mmmm," I murmur in reply. Glass-bottom spas are the best.
HUMA ENCIRCLES DICILIGAN ISLAND, with restaurants, pools and sporting facilities peppered along the beaches and overwater villas strung out to sea. Inside, it is still all jungle. It has the flash you'd expect from a brand new resort, with clever touches like a terraced herb garden. Between diving, flying and many a candlelit-dinner by the pool, I've had a blast here, but it's time to move on, so I hop a speedboat to Coron Town, a sleepy fishing village on a harbor. As dusk nears, I take an overwater seat among the topless mermaids of La Sirenetta, order the kinilaw, a sour raw fish salad, and a calamansi lime shake and watch as the sun does its thing.
Kinilaw fish salad at La Sirenetta
Next stop: Dimakya Island. There I brave a pathway through the 17-hectare cay, leading up to Eagle's Point for a 360-degree view of ocean etched in a silhouette of jagged islands. Then I head down to a secluded cove called Hidden Beach for a quick splash.
After an afternoon spent sea frolicking and sun lazing, I sit down to dinner at Club Paradise, the hotel that lays claim to this private island, with the resort's manager, Joegil Magtanggol M. Escobar. He's seen interest in this area boom over the past five years. "Coron is a growing tourism destination. It is the next Boracay," he exclaims. He notices my raised eyebrow. "No, but the development is spread over many islands, not just one," he adds. "It is good for tourists because they can experience different things—not just one trip, one island."
We're just about to tuck into our main course when a ruckus breaks out down the beach. "Baby turtles!" one of the staff alerts us. I'm on my feet in an instant, rushing to the patch of shore that's erupting in new life. Tiny jasper flippers flail out of the sand followed by little leathery bodies. Empty eggshells begin piling up and a pit starts to form as dozens march to the sea. Innumerable terrors await these hatchlings in the inky indigo. Still, they head into the depths of their own uncharted frontiers. "Won't they be eaten if you let them loose when they are this little?" one onlooker asks. "Isn't it dangerous?" Yes, but life's dangerous.
Club Paradise beach
There are daily flights from Manila to Francisco B. Reyes Airport, servicing Busuanga and Coron, on Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) and Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com). Skyjet Airlines (skyjetair.com) flies three times a week. It is about a 30-minute van ride from the airport to Coron Town, where you can arrange speedboat transfer from the Harbor Center. Check with your resort to see if airport pick-up is included in your rate.
Huma Island Resort & Spa This private island retreat is bold and modern. There are activities galore, but the laidback atmosphere is also ideal for just kicking back and catching rays. Diciligan Island, Busuanga, Palawan; +63 2 553 0119; humaisland.com.
Club Paradise Acquired by Discovery World, this property is set on a picture-perfect private island that oozes potential. Dimakya Island, Coron, Northern Palawan; +63 2 719 6971; clubparadisepalawan.com.
Gateway Hotel The exterior could do with a revamp but the rooms are well-lit and spacious with great harbor views—one of the higher end options in Coron Town. Poblacion 3, Coron; +63 2 404 4784; corongatewayresort.com.
Two Seasons Sandbars, mangroves, turtles, giant clams, and world-class snorkeling entice travelers to visit this eco-edged luxury resort. Malaroyroy, Bulalacao Island, Coron; +63 917 566 5820; twoseasonsresorts.com.
El Rio Y Mar Resort Cute cabanas on a private bay with sunset facing views. Brgy. San Jose, Coron, Northern Palawan; +63 928 500 6015; elrioymar.com.
Huma Island Resort & Spa
EAT AND DRINK
La Sirenetta Restaurant and Bar Let the colorful mermaid columns lure you to this simple overwater restaurant for some kinilaw, cocktails and a game of pool. Great Reef Pier, Near Central Market, Coron Town; +63 918 903 7063.
SeaDive Seafront Restaurant The Sea Dive Resort is budget, but the in-house restaurant on the water is quite charming. Stick to fruit shakes and local favorites, as the international menu is hit or miss. Brgy. 3 Don Pedro St., Coron; +63 920 945 8714; seadiveresort.com.
Waves All-day dining at Huma Island Resort. The food is a nice collection of international favorites served poolside, which is also oceanfront.
Coffee Kong Enjoy a hot coffee in the cool air-con of this quiet café. Bonus: Free Wi-Fi and homebaked pastries. Brgy. 5, National Highway Coron.
D'Divers Dive the 12 shipwrecks of Coron or get PADI certified under the expert guidance of Gunter Bernert. +63 920 901 2414; ddivers.com.
Maquinit Hot Springs Take a salubrious soak in these natural saltwater hot springs. Roundtrip tuk-tuk from Coron Town. +63 918 344 4633.
A day with D'Divers
While your resort will accept your credit card, most restaurants in Coron Town will not, so be sure to withdraw enough cash from the ATM at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport.