After coming from the tourist centric El Nido it was refreshing to arrive in an actual settlement. Coron is a popular travel destination in its own right, perhaps more popular than El Nido, but the local people still go about their lives with little regard for their snap-happy visitors.
Coron’s biggest draw card is shipwreck diving. During World War II the Japanese used convoluted bays and inlets here to hide supply ships and gun boats from American reconnaissance flights. This didn’t work planned and a surprise US air raid sunk more than a dozen ships in a single morning. Conveniently most of these ships now rest at recreational diving depths. To make things even better calm sea conditions have kept the ships incredibly intact. Coron is a wreck diver’s dream and we began vetting the dive shops as soon as we arrived.
Despite our penchant for underdog dive shop we signed up with the big guys, Sea Dive, mostly because they were willing to throw in Nitrox (tanks filled with a higher percentage of oxygen) and our new friend Tanner was jazzed to go with them.
Our first dive was unlike anything we expected. We dived the famous Barracuda Lake. There is no mangled wreckage to be found here. Instead a mix of salt, fresh, and brackish water creates Haloclines which cast visual distortions like a liquid mirror. As you go deeper the temperature rises until it’s almost uncomfortable. Our divemaster surprised us by head-planting into the soft silty bottom, disappearing up to mid-chest. Tanner, less gracefully, followed his lead and re-emerged looking like an incarnate mummy angrily escaping his sarcophagus.
A large Japanese cargo vessel was next on the menu. Seventy years in one of the most corrosive environments known to man, salt water, will destroy almost anything. Somehow all the ships in this area are amazingly preserved. In many places you can still read engraved markings on the walls. The highlight of this dive came when I looked up and realized a fully intact tractor was suspended from the ceiling above me. Another amazing wreck penetration dive followed. It was a hell of a first day.
Day two was exciting. We dived the formidable Irako wreck. At a staggering 45m (150ft) below the surface we entered ship through the propeller shaft. The tube is barely wide enough for a single diver and 10m (33ft) long. It would be impossible to turn around inside the shaft, once you go in you are fully committed. Divers use more are the deeper they are and after 10 minutes Tanner and another diver in our group needed to start moving to shallower depths. That left us with another divemaster who proceeded to take us through the wreck for another 15 minutes before moving to the outside deck. The sheer size of the Irako was staggering. It is also leaning to the side about the 30+ degrees, which gave us the feeling that the circus flooded and we’d entered the fun house. Thanks to a 28% oxygen mixture our decompression stop (waiting at shallow depths to avoid “the bends”) wasn’t too outrageous and we climbed aboard hooting and hollering with joy.
Our next dive, though easier and shallower, was a bit much for Tanner who very effectively communicated, “I’m f#%$*ng FREAKING out man!” in sign language to me before boltinng out of the wreck. The divemaster chased after him, leaving Val and I to chuckle at how our lives’ decisions had left us lost in a seventy year Japanese boat at the bottom of the ocean. As expected, our divemaster soon returned and we proceeded on a private tour of the Okikawa Maru. Our final dive was on the easy but still impressive Kogyo Maru wreck.
Day three was the most impressive. The guys at Sea Dive had taken a liking to us and told us they had something special for us today. We were given 32% oxygen tanks and our own guide. We were set to dive the Akitsushima. Our briefing was pretty simple, “If we do well with our air we can probably stay inside 30 or 35 minutes,” instead we made an incredible 50 minute exploration inside. This is the most intricate and well preserved ship in the area and also the only gunship we visited. The entire crew of this vessel perished when it sunk and a 15ft wide hole stands testament to how fast and violently it must have happened. I was able to enter the control room to marvel at the myriad of levers and knobs. The dive must be executed precisely and delicately as in a few spot a miskick could eliminate all visibility orr worse dislodge one of the precarious beams or ladders. Towards the end of our dive our divemaster pointed to a human skull in the wreckage, a reminder of the human toll of war. It was an absolutely spectacular dive that lasted just over 100 minutes.
The next ship was the Tei Maru, a large cargo vessel. This was the strangest wreck we dived. The boiler room was gigantic, light funneled from all directions through circular holes, it made our heads spin. The cargo holds were equally massive, big enough to build a house inside. We were in awe. What must this ship have carried? Despite the gargantuan chambers the passages between them were precariously narrow and required all of our buoyancy and finning skills to navigate.
Our last dive in Coron was also our last in the Philippines. The boat moored above a shallow wreck and we were allowed to dive on our own. We spent our time finding crazy nudibranchs (the marine equivalent slugs), octopuses and other eccentric marine life. Val and I explored deep into the hull where the noise of our bubbles on the metalwork sounded like eerie horror film music.
In general the wrecks gave a profound sense of doom. There was a palpable feeling that we were in the presence of death. They are spectacular, but humbling, living graves on the ocean floor, a reminder that life is a privilege that not everyone shares.