Monday, November 29, 2010

El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago

We left Coron and embarked on a 6 hour ferry ride through stunning seascapes to the fabled land of the Bacuit Archipelago and the northern Palawan paradise of El Nido. I was endeared by El Nido almost immediately; the friendly locals, the beachfront restaurants, the trendy backpacker cafes, the random disco clubs, not to mention the seemingly endless host of uninhabited islands with private beaches.

The main attraction of El Nido is, in fact, island hopping. There are so many islands worth visiting, you need four days to cover them all. There's big lagoon, small lagoon, twin lagoon and secret lagoon; there's sunset beach, seven commando beach, and secret beach. All promise fantastic snorkeling as well, and while Therese is a qualified snorkeler, i'm not built for it. I've suffered debilitating ear infections since i was a child, and pouring sea water into my ears is not my idea of awesome. Diving, on the other hand, rarely gives me the same problem. Equalizing the pressure underwater generally keeps water from entering your ears, resulting in a happy Kev.

We got lucky on our first night there. We were staying at Greenviews Resort, about 5 minutes outside of El Nido. Highly recommended. Great staff, bungalow's and very reasonable prices. Right outside the front gate is Plankton Divers, a brand new dive shop. We chatted with the owner a bit and she gave us a deal we couldn't refuse: private boat with two divemasters, three dives, brand new equipment, lunch and drinks, AND island hopping during our surface intervals, for about $60 per day. That's a steal folks. Our divemaster turned out to be an old Ultimate player in Manila too, we had a lot of the same friends. Look up Jeff Panelo if you need to do some El Nido Diving.

We did two days of diving, 6 dives total, and made it to many of the most interesting lagoons and beaches in the process. Imagine taking your surface interval between dives here:

Or here...


And as is the custom now on this blog, i present for your consideration, "Scuba Diving in El Nido". Notable highlights include the awesome color-changing cuttlefish, the blue-spotted stingray, and the playful anemone fish. True fact: Therese has decided all anemone fish actually want to be petted, they just don't know how it works yet.

And a few stills... three nudibranchs and some awesome anemone fish.

Other than that, we mainly just relaxed in the town, ate good food, and randomly bumped into friends from Beijing. As if the world isn't already small enough, therese and i were hanging out in Small Lagoon, where there were only two other snorkelers at the time, and they happen to be marc and veronica from beijing's ultimate frisbee scene. The next day, we found jim and nina sitting at a restaurant having dinner in a remote beachfront restaurant. What are the odds?

Tragically, it wasn't all Nudibranches and Remote Beach Happy Fun Time. It was also Jellyfish Terror Hell Time. Poor therese got stung when we were playing frisbee in the shallow water in front of our resort. For the next two hours, her life would consist of agonizing pain. Imagine taking your lower lip and pulling it up over your head, and then being stung by some jellyfish. That's pretty much what it looked like. Some dude from the resort heard her and administered immediate first aid, which consisted of nescafe and hot water followed by vinegar. I'm not sure if it worked or not, because therese never really stopped weeping terror-filled pain-tears-of-agony, but maybe it would have been worse with it. Who knows? Hopefully we never have to find out.

The next day, i had the pleasure of sitting on a crown of thorns starfish that our dive master had taken from the dive and left on the stern (i'm so nautical) of our boat, with the purpose of killing it later. Wikipedia says:
The thorns are very sharp and are capable of piercing through standard wetsuits and other clothing. They are also venomous. The crown-of-thorns produces a neurotoxin which can be released through its spines. Not only are the wounds themselves serious, but the neurotoxin can cause a sharp stinging pain that can last for hours, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Painful, certainly, but also only a small fraction of the misery therese felt.

A few more random shots from our three days there, and that will wrap up El Nido in a nice little blogable package.

Spell check doesn't know what to do with "blogable" and i'm fine with that.


p.s. Two more posts to go! Up next: Port Barton and Sabang. You know you can't wait! No more diving videos, i promise.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Barracuda Lake and Island Hopping

Wreck diving was awesome. However, the most unique dive was at Barracuda Lake, which is called "The craziest dive site in the Philippines." It's located on Coron Island proper, whose only inhabitants are the indigenous Tagbanua people, one of the original inhabitants of the Philippines. The island is protected as sacred land, and only a few locations are even open to tourists. We were actually staying in Coron City, which is not on Coron Island, but on the main island of Busuanga.

So you enter this beautiful bay with jagged limestone cliffs all around, and you swim to a set of stairs, which are really just narrow, unstable 2x2 boards. You then do a fairly strenuous 10 minute hike through sharp limestone formations along a rugged set of "stairs". In full scuba gear. It's not an easy climb, but very worth it.

Barracuda Lake's top 4 meters are cool fresh water, with salt water below. The point where they meet is a thermocline, meaning thin layer where surface and deep water meet, usually with a sharp change in temperature. Passing through this one is like going from the swimming pool at 75F into the hot tub at 105F. It's almost too hot to bear, but fortunately you can keep going deeper and pass into the salt water layer where the temp drops to a more bearable 90F. Amazingly, you can actually see where these layers meet, as they don't mix very well. The layer where the fresh water meets the thermocline is like oil sitting on water, or the meniscus of water on a glass. The deeper layer where the salt water meets the thermocline is eerie and plays tricks with your mind. Sometimes you see ghosts, like wisps of clouds rolling away. Other times the mixing layers turns all the water blurry, so everything is out of focus.

As if the dive wasn't cool enough already, we ended up finding a bunch of little cleaner shrimp and baby catfish that will munch on the dead skin from your hand, if you let them. What a trip.

Video Time! I put together the random few that i took from this dive and added some still shots. Yay!

I ended up with an ear infection after day one, but that didn't stop me from jumping back in on day three. On our day off we did a relaxing island-hopping tour. The highlight, besides the amazing scenery, was Kayangan Lake. Also on the protected Coron Island, it is known as the cleanest lake in the Philippines. A must-see on any trip to Coron.

On the island hopping tour.

Kayangan Lake

Next up: El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Coron Wreck Diving

Spotty internet coverage prevented me from posting much while traveling, but we've returned from another an incredible adventure. I'll do my best to recap it all as quickly and lovingly as i can.

From Puerto Princesa, we flew north about an hour to Coron, a well-known dive spot famous for its wrecks. On September 24th, 1944, US forces sunk a fleet of Japanese Ships during WWII. In total there's about 12 wrecks you can dive in the area.

We did two days of diving with Sea Dive and would highly recommend them to stay and dive with. We had one dive master that we didn't love, but that would be our only dive-related complaint. Their boat was awesome and hospitality at the resort was great with reasonable pricing all around. The food was good, but both Coron Bistro and Out Of Africa are nearby, offering truly great food. Oh, i definitely recommend 2nd or 3rd floor rooms, as the first floor was really noisy. Paper thin walls and a family with little kids next door made for a rough night.

We had 3 full days in Coron, did 5 total dives comprised of 4 different wrecks and the thermal Barracuda lake. I had never been wreck diving before, and these may have spoiled me a bit. It was incredible. The bay itself gets relatively little circulation and currents are low. This makes the diving a little easier and preserves the sunken ships as well, but it also means the water is filthy. All that matter decomposing over the last 70 years doesn't get swept away very often, and the water appears ripe with plankton and moss.

This trip, we were prepared for ample underwater adventures with a new camera/underwater housing combo, the Canon G9. I took dozens of videos on these dives, and rather than post link after link, i actually assembled them into one 8 minute video with some sweet music overdubbed for your viewing and listening pleasure. The four dives in this video are: Kyogo Maru, Tangat Maru, Irako, and Olympia Maru. I'm thinking Maru probably means Tanker, while Irako was a refrigeration ship. The schematics below show the sea floor orientation and rough outline.

Here we go!

And a few random pictures that didn't come out well in the video, or weren't caught at all. First, a cool turtle with some remora's tagging along for the ride.

Next, a few stills of the school of Jackfish we saw on the Irako dive. There were thousands and they let me swim along with them for a while.

Last, a few colorful scorpionfish. These guys are cool because they blend in with the surroundings and you feel awfully proud when you spot one.

Next up, possibly tomorrow: Barracuda Lake and some incredible island pics!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Puerto Princesa Underground River

It's not every trip, every year, or every lifetime that you get to see one of the wonders of the world. New Seven Wonders launched an online campaign a few years ago to update the list the 7 wonders of the world, both man made and natural. It's a very cool website, and the seven wonders are being decided by online voting open to anyone in the world. Vote now. The finalists for natural wonders (see complete list here) is down to 28 from about 160 choices. Until now, I've personally seen five of them: Komodo, Grand Canyon, Mt. Vesuvius, Jeju Island, and Cliffs of Moher. I can now add the Puerto Princesa Underground River to the list.

From Puerto Princesa (a fairly un-noteworthy town, also the administrative capital of Palawan), you drive about 90 minutes to the national park. Then you take a boat to the lagoon, followed by a short walk to this eerie site, surrounded by mangroves, chirping monkeys, and boats disappearing into, and emerging from, a hole in the mountain.

Eight people and one guide enter the river in a small paddle boat, armed with one flashlight. The lucky guest seated in the front has the honor. I wish i'd known!

Inside the cave, the guide goes on to explain there are some 6 different species of 50,000 bats living in the cave, various species of terribly venomous spiders, snakes, and other amphibians. Did i mention it's also very dark? As we pass a mountain of bat guano, he reminds us that when looking up, be sure to close your mouth. If you feel cool water dripping on you, don't worry; it's just purified water dripping from the mountain. It's the "warm water" you need to worry about. Because you've just been sprayed with bat urine. Possibly in your mouth.

Amazingly, these caves are inhabited. At the south end of the cave dwells an indigenous filipino tribe that regards the cave as sacred, and understandably so. Permits are required to enter and no motorized vehicles are allowed. It's terrifically quiet and peaceful, with the dripping water and the guides commentary occasionally breaking the spell. Photography was difficult and after a dozen or so failed attempts, i decided to just enjoy the ride. Our guide pointed out dozens of rock formations by name: Banana Tree, Giraffe, Head of Dinosaur, as well as christian scenes like the Nativity, the Virgin Mary, and Face of Jesus. Every one of these looked strikingly similar to their names, like someone had carved the stalactites with purpose.

Also amazingly, these caves only get about 10,000 foreign visitors a year, but that number has almost doubled since the announcement of it's potential Seven Wonders status. The caves steadily see over a 100,000 filipino visitors every year. This place is no secret to locals, but i'm glad we were allowed to share in this small piece of national pride.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hong Kong Tournament

I'm way behind on this because i've had two crazy weeks of work and no time to post, but i'd be remiss to not post embarrassing pictures of our costume for the Hong Kong tournament. Big Brother went as My Little Ponies. Therese was Lickety Split and i was Fancy Pants, which i made up but whatever. Any excuse to dress up in a wig and pink clothes, am i right fellas? haha. heh.

We did not win the party which is ok with us. Our theme was thrown together literally 24 hours earlier, as many of us didn't know if the tournament would even happen. Remember hurricane Megi? All week long, she was forecasted to pummel Hong Kong proper with a terrifying display of 100+ mph winds and city-crippling floods. On Friday morning, the day of our flight, all the weather forecasters said Sorry, we were just joking! It's totally gonna hit Taiwan instead!

So yeah... My Little Ponies! It's also becoming an annual event to ride the Hong Kong subway dressed in ridiculous outfits. Nina, Jim, Tao, and Alicia also joined us for the annual event.

Mingling among the random subway-goers.

Special call-out to Tao. Tao either goes all out (see Optimus Prime in above link), or he just doesn't even try. Look at those sad little hooves he's wearing.

Also note-worthy was Matt Mueller, who dressed as the pony's enemy, Hurricane Megi! He took turns attacking various ponies throughout the night.

And then we danced! In a cage!

Since i haven't already mentioned it, and since it's also the title of this post, i should mention Big Brother took 2nd in the finals against United Colorum. The weekend in general was the best i've ever seen Big Brother play. We won all 6 games leading up to the finals, including beating United Colorum on day one, 7-5. We lost the finals 13-11, after leading at 7-6 in one of the most exciting games i've seen in a long time. It was a pleasure to be a part of it, and i was thrilled to have played well for the team.

Tomorrow, therese and i head to the Philippines for two weeks of relaxing and trying to forget about work for a while. After the chaotic and stressful few weeks i've just had, i'm really ready for it. Stay tuned for a post or two while traveling Palawan, and then again for Manila Spirits, one of the best tournaments in asia.