Like most visitors to Coron, the main reason that I wanted to go to there was to do a wreck dive. During World War 2 the Japanese Navy, battling against the Americans, occupied the waters around the Philippines. The Americans bombed 24 of theses ships on 24th September 1944, and the story goes that some of the pilots ran out of fuel on the way back, crashing into the mountains. It was a brutal battleground for the Japanese and in total it is estimated that 500 000 Japanese servicemen died in fighting in The Philippines.
I have a morbid fascination with both World Wars and whenever I have visited places that played a major part in them I try to visualise what happened during those wars in places that are now so peaceful or nondescript. Whilst sailing through the clear tropical seas of Coron it was hard to imagine that 70 years ago American bombers were flying overhead searching for Japanese targets to destroy.
As we approached the first wreck I tried to picture in my mind what it was like when it was hit and what happened to the people on board. We were given a description of the boats and shown a drawing of the wreck and told what rooms we will be diving into and where the bombs hit - actually we entered both boats through holes created by the bomb explosions.
I am qualified as an open water diver, and haven’t dived for 14 years, so I had to do a short ‘refresher’ course which involved kit assembly and going over a few basic techniques in the water. If you choose this option, you get to do the same 3 dives as everyone else in your assigned group, though you pay an extra 1000 pesos for the refresher, so the total cost for one day, with 3 dives and lunch, was 4500 pesos (about 90 US dollars). The dives were well worth the 4500 pesos and 8 hour vomit inducing boat journey to Coron and no lie...I would go back to the Philippines just to do it again.
The first dive took us to Barracuda Lake. I wanted to see wrecks, and wasn’t convinced by the enthusiastic staff member in the dive shop when she explained the lake’s USP – that the water temperature changes suddenly about halfway down to the bottom. I didn’t believe the hype, but it was actually more impressive than her enthusiasm suggested I would be.
You don’t even have to go into the lake to be impressed, it is a crater full of clear emerald green water surrounded by limestone casts which act as a defence barrier against the sea. The water is crystal clear and as it is a lake it’s easy to enter with all your diving gear and great for someone inexperienced like me.
After going through the refresher, which took about 10 minutes, it was time to dive. Whilst my mind was a distracted by how much air I should be letting out of my jacket, I was suddenly slapped around the face by a wall of heat. It wasn’t until I saw the heat waves that I remembered what was special about this place. It is basically an underground hot spring which fills up the bottom half of the lake. The surface is regular water temperature water and when you reach about 10m it suddenly turns into a hot bath.
After Barracuda Lake, it was time to go wreck diving. Most of the wrecks are deeper than 18m and there are only 3 which you can enter within that depth. My dive took us to the Gunboat – Teru Kaze and Taiei Maru (though there is some discrepency over names) – both were sunk by American bombers on 24th September 1944.
I rented out an underwater camera for 500 pesos from the diving company. If there was ever a situation where I could say the photos don’t do it justice, this is it. More than the wreck itself, the sealife that has built up around and inside is what I was most captivated by.
The gunboat is about 40 metres long and there are only a couple of rooms so we managed to do a couple of circuits and check out some of the sealife that had built up on the outside of the ship.
The Taiei Maru was considerably bigger at 137 metres long and would’ve been a bit easier to get lost in without an instructor. On more than one occasion I was fiddling about with the knobs on the camera casing and on looking up would see my instructor’s fin disappearing through a gap or round a wall, and just managed to catch up with him.
There was only one quite tight hole to squeeze through, which even as a bit of a claustrophobe myself, I didn’t really have a problem with, the only thing I was a bit concerned about was that I would fit through but my oxygen tank wouldn’t.
We entered the Taiei Maru through the hole in the port side, which was caused by the bomb that sunk it. We swam through a couple of boiler rooms, which are lit up with long shards of light which reveal shoals of multi-coloured fish swimming around lazily. We then passed the periscope room, where the base of the periscope is still intact, then came up through the bow.
The dives go so quickly and once you get off you want to do it all over again. I would be happy to go back and do the same dives again as you move through the boats quite quickly and occasionally you will see something and just want to take a bit of time to look around and take it in, but you’re pretty much constantly moving through the boat. There’s a lot to take in and I’m sure that coming here has been the catalyst for many beginner divers to get their more advanced certificates just so they can explore the other wrecks – if money and time on this trip weren’t an issue I would be one of them.