MY TWO WEEK TRIP OF ISLAND HOPPING AND DIVING: ITINERARY and BUDGET
The ‘Butanding’, commonly known as the whale shark, is native to the crystal clear waters of the Philippines, south-east Asia’s natural gem, and with only two weeks to explore this postcard perfect destination, I was on the hunt for my first ever sighting of these majestic creatures. The whale shark is a large filter-feeding shark found in tropical waters and can grow up to 18 metres in length. Although the Philippines is known for it’s whale shark swimming, it was a matter of finding a more ethical way of sighting the shark in their natural habitat…this proved a little more difficult than first anticipated.
The Philippines is located on the outer-most part of south-east Asia, and with it’s tourist destinations still not yet a victim to the full wrath of south-east Asia’s booming tourism industry, it is a far cry from the beaches of the Thai islands. Being my tenth Asian destination, I have become very familiar with Asian culture, however the Filipino people are by far the kindest and most welcoming of all. With over 7,000 palm tree lined islands making up this paradise, the Philippines is a beach bums haven. With islands to suit all tastes, you can immerse yourself in real isolated island living or while away the hours at vibrant beach bars, which feel like Thailand’s yesteryears. It’s hard not to fall for the soft sands and clear waters of Visayas, or fresh-fish lunches aboard island hopping tours in Palawan. The Philippines is not only geographically miles apart from the rest of south-east Asia, but also culturally. Over 350 years of Spanish reign has imprinted a strong Catholicism and Spanish culture on island life. Colonial architecture, old catholic churches and the remnants of the spanish language, are unusual sight in this Asian environment. With all 7,000 of these islands at your fingertips, the only way to experience Filipino life is island hopping, however in two weeks I was struggling to fit in all of the desirable destinations with difficult modes of transportation to conquer. Travel is the most challenging and expensive part about discovering the Philippines, and with that said it is worth planning your trip in advance.
DIVING BALICASAG REEF IN PANGLAO, BOHOL
Balicasag reef, a short boat ride from Panglao in western Visayas, lives and breaths a diverse range of coral and tropical marine life, a refreshing thought in sight of climate change. With countless anenome fish, shoals of jackfish, huge green sea turtles, lion-fish and the occasional ‘butanding’ sighting, it was a feast for the eyes and great start to diving, Filipino style. As we had heard that it was a less touristy version of Boracay, we decided to stay on Alona Beach, which turned from a quieter beach resort to my least favourite area by the time Easter Sunday had arrived. To fuel the fire even more, we were slightly shocked to hear the news that there was a current terrorist attack going on on the other side of Bohol island. I had been aware that the Philippines had kidnappings and terrorist threats in the south, and decided to intentionally leave that out, however this was the first attack on a tourist destination. Not letting this phase us, and leaving the clear presence of military forces to take control, we ventured out with Tropical Divers (highly recommended) to Balicasag Island. With only four of us on the traditional wooden bangka boat, we made our way out to the reef with hope in our hearts that the whale sharks that had been sighted the day before, were still lingering. Much to our dismay we had no luck…(they were spotted the day after also).
The following morning we decided to finally take up an offer of the 400 peso island hopping boat trips that many of the beach touts were adamant you joined. What a mistake that was….! Beginning the trip at 6am we were one of many boats to hunt down the poor pod of dolphins that obviously feed in a certain area every morning. Although we did sight the largest pod of bottle nose dolphins I have ever clapped eyes on, I wasn’t so fond on how we had gone about it. From experience I have realised never to go on these cheap local trips that hoard tourists around to catch a view of creatures in the wild. The only interesting and incredibly breathtaking spot we did visit, albeit touristy, was Virgin Island sand spit, which ironically was not a sand spit anymore as the boat trip decided not to take the tide into consideration. Saying this, it was fascinating to see the food stands stood on the sand spit immersed in water, and the locals going about their day to day business. If you took away the hoards of Asian tourists that flocked to this place, it is something you would see in a travel magazine; aquamarine waters and white sand…..a lot like my local Whitehaven beach now I come to think of it!
Although I really enjoyed my day of diving, I would not highly recommend Alona Beach on the top places to go in the Philippines. This may have been effected by holy week tourism, and we were also unfortunate enough not to have time to visit other places before flying over to Palawan. Next time I would like to discover more areas in Cebu like Kawasan waterfalls, MoalBoal and Malapascua island for the once in a lifetime opportunity to dive with thresher sharks.
ONE MORE CHANCE IN PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN
Oslob in Cebu and Donsol are the common tourist locations where the whale sharks are found in unnatural feeding environments. This is not only a horrific tourist cesspit of screaming wannabe instagram sensations, but it’s also detrimental to the lives of the whale sharks in the area who rely on this feeding. Having said that, unfortunately this is a better alternative to the local Filipino’s previously hunting the beautiful sharks, before realising they could make a lot more money from tourists interest in the aquatic creature. These places were top on the list of where to avoid. Much to my excitement, whilst trawling the internet in search of where you can spot the whale shark in the wild, I came across a whale shark ecotourism trip that does exactly that, and fortunately it was in a place I had intended to visit…Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. After flying over from Cebu and staying the night in the quaint and very pleasant D’Lucky Guesthouse, we had one opportunity until we moved swiftly on to our next destination. Highly professional and with a lot of effort, the ‘Dolphin and Whale Tours and Travel’ trip left Puerto Princesa into the stunning Honda Bay, a collection of islands where we set out on the hunt for the whale shark. Earlier that morning local fishermen spotters had been scouting the waters of the bay for fish and bird action, leading us to the feeding whale sharks. Again, days previous to my trip there had been a lot of activity, but yet again we were unsuccessful. My chance of seeing the ‘Butanding’ was wearing very thin. Regardless of the anti-climax that came along with the mornings trip, we had a wonderful time on the water and ate a stunning local fresh-fish and vegetable lunch hanging off the side of the boat. Other than this, I cannot see why you would stay long in Puerto Princesa itself, a lot of travellers move straight on to El Nido in the north. The only other thing I would have loved to do if I had more time and more money, is a live aboard to Tubbataha UNESCO world heritage reef.
ISLAND HOPPING IN EL NIDO, PALAWAN
The 45 islands of the Bacuit Archipalago, El Nido, lie in the north of Palawan island. Meaning ‘the nest gathering’, nothing quite prepares you for the sheer beauty of El Nido as you approach lagoons of turquoise water and perfect palm tree lined beaches in the shadows of huge rock formations, very much like that of Halong Bay Vietnam. I have seen my fair share of paradise but this rates very highly. El Nido town itself is a bubbling tourist hotspot, but in an inviting and pleasant way. El Nido town beach is anchorage to the hundred local wooden boats that leave early every morning to catch a glimpse of heaven, and although the route is all the same, you can’t help be wooed by its beauty regardless of everyone else’s presence. Having heard that Palawan was a highlight of the Philippines, we ventured out on the lagoon tour of the islands on a local bangka boat to see what all the fuss was about. It did not fail to impress. During our tour we visited shimizu beach, small lagoon, big lagoon, 7 commando beach, and my favourite location of secret lagoon which you climb through an opening in the caves to find. Travel agencies advertise multiple tours to visit the islands, with the most recommended being Tour A for the lagoons and Tour C for the beaches. On our second and last day in the area, we decided to rent a moped to explore the area and visit the two well-known beaches of the mainland. After a half an hour cruise inland we arrived at Nacpan twin beach which has 2 beaches on either side of a peninsula, one with calm turquoise waters and the other with rougher crashing waves. Although the beach is subject to a lot of tourists, it is big enough not to feel crowded. Later on in the day we decided to head over to the other side of El Nido to Las Cabanas beach which had an amazing atmosphere of beach bars and restaurants overlooking the stunning rock-formations of Bacuit Archipalago. Watching the sun go down drinking our mai-tai’s was a perfect end to our short trip to this stunning part of the world.
DIVING THE JAPANESE WRECKS OF CORON, BUSUANGA
Busuanga island, my final destination in the Philippines, is home to Coron bay and the fascinating history of 8 world war 2 Japanese shipwrecks lying on it’s sea-bed. In 1944, after the Japanese had invaded Pearl Harbour, they made their way to the Philippines to reinforce their forces. Taking anchorage in Coron bay of Busuanga island, a fleet of 12 Japanese military ships found refuge in the bays of pristine beaches and coconut palm trees, under camouflage netting. It was the detection of a moving ship by the US dive bombers, that became the death of them. It was because of this dramatic point in history that Coron bay is now a haven for scuba divers all over the world.
With Neptune dive centre we first explored Barracuda Lake on Coron island, a hidden lake of limestone cliffs and dramatic thermocline temperatures. After our short climb over limestone rocks fully geared up, we came across our first sight site of this stunning destination. One of the most unusual yet incredible dive sites I have ever experienced, we delved into the layered salt and fresh water to reveal a bizarre world where nothing much other than barracuda can survive. With the thermocline temperatures fluctuating between 27 and 38 degrees, we cruised through the layers down to 30 metres where the fuzzy hot water became almost unbearable to tolerate and navigate through. At around 15 metres, the 38 degree salt water finally meets the cold 27 degree fresh water. With your head in the cool and your body in the hot, you can see the alternative layers, whilst exploring the limestone caves and cliffs dropping into the abyss of the 60 metre deep lake. Other than the unusual catfish lurking around, marine life struggles to survive in this unique setting. What an amazing yet bizarre experience.
To the second dive site of the day, we made the hours journey over to the famous collection of Japanese shipwrecks. The wreck of ‘Olympia Maru’, a 120m cargo ship lies 30m deep in Coron bay. Sitting in a upright position, you approach the Japanese freighter from the surface, and immediately get a sense of a warship lying on its sea-bed. With light pouring in through the large cargo holds and incredible visibility, it is easy to penetrate the wreck and explore. The top deck of the ship is teaming with marine life; soft and hard coral cover it’s decks and countless lion fish mill about. Other fish to be sighted are batfish, crocodile fish, and trigger fish, to name a few.
‘Morazon Maru’, our final dive site, was originally an English freighter 93m in length. Lying on the sea-bed on it’s starboard side. Coral covers the port side of the vessel, with huge schools of baby barracuda and a garden of giant cauliflower coral formations. Scorpion fish, shoals of bizarre razor fish and jackfish join the underwater home. Within the wreck itself, you can enter through the cargo hold on the upper deck of the ship, where you delve into something unknown and eerily dark. Following your torch light, this wreck dive was the most exhilarating. Beams of sunlight pour through the cracks of the boat, and as you rise through the salvage hole that ultimately disabled the ship, you join the marine life that has made this warship their home.
In search of the Butanding … and was I successful? Unfortunately not.
Monday 10th April:
International flight to Manila and domestic flight to Mactan-Cebu 1hr 30m.
Stayed at TR3ATS hostel, Cebu city 380php.
Tuesday 11th April:
Travel to Alona Beach Panglao Island, Bohol. Taxi to Cebu port, 2 hr ferry to Taglibaran Bohol Island 400PHP, tricycle & jeepney to Alona Beach, Panglao Island.
Stayed at John Verhal Guesthouse 500PHP with a/c.
Thursday 13th April:
Diving with Tropical Divers to Balicasag Island. 3,700php for 2 dives including equipment hire.
Friday 14th April:
Boat trip to Balicasag Island, Virgin Island and dolphin watching 350php.
Saturday 15th April:
Domestic flight from Mactan-Cebu to Puerto Princesa 1hr 15m.
Stayed at D’lucky Garden Inn, Puerto Princesa 500php with a/c.
Sunday 16th April:
Dolphin and Whale Tours and Travel – Whale Shark trip 1,000php (normally 1,900php).
Travel to El Nido by Lexxus minibus 600php 6 hours.
Stayed at Raje Residence 1,200 php with a/c.
Monday 17th April:
Tour A boat trip with Lagoon tours 1,200php.
Stayed at Joyful Guesthouse 600php.
Tuesday 18th April:
Rented scooter for the day to Nacpan twin beach and Las Cabañas beach 300php.
Stayed at Amos hostel 500php with a/c.
Wednesday 19th April:
Travel to Busuanga Island (aka Coron) by slow ferry 1,300php 7hrs.
Stayed at Kalachuchi hostel, Coron town 275php.
Thursday 20th April:
Diving with Neptune Dive Centre to Barracuda Lake and Japanese Shipwrecks. 3,500php for 3 dives including lunch and equipment hire.
Stayed at Coron Guapos Guesthouse 300php.
Saturday 22nd April:
Domestic flight from Busuanga to Manila 40m.
Stayed at Hometown Hotel Makati 449php with a/c.
Sunday 23rd April:
International flight home to Australia.
Average price for budget accommodation: 500PHP/14AUD
International Flights: $650 AUD
Domestic Flights x3: $375 AUD
= $1,650 AUD
2 week trip to the Philippines including all flights and diving