Diving in Coron

As Kelsi wrote in her last post, learning to dive was a challenge for both of us. For me the requirement of staying calm and breathing slowly underwater was something that took almost 100% of my focus the first two days of diving. Our instructor Thomas was a top notch professional, so I never felt in danger, just kind of a little bit in danger...

Box fish

Lion fish

One thing we saw on the first day stuck out as an example of the reason that we were diving. On our very first open water dive, at about 10 meters deep, we saw a sea turtle as large as a Thanksgiving dinner platter floating in the coral, peering out at us. Even in my hyper breathing aware state, seeing a sea turtle less than 3 meters away in the wild was an exhilarating moment. Sights like that brought us underwater.

By the end of our second of three days, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves as we became a little more comfortable in the water and no longer spent every moment diving focused on keeping ourselves calm. For our final day of diving, we rented an underwater camera from the dive shop. While not quite the quality of the camera that takes the other photos you see on this blog, it does show you a glimpse of what we saw that third day. Bear with us a little bit on the photo quality - taking pictures underwater feels a bit like trying to perform surgery with oven mitts on. 

The islands surrounding Coron were used by the Japanese Navy to hide ships near the end of World War II. As the American Navy began moving closer and closer to the Philippines, they began bombing Japanese ships in Manila Bay. The Japanese relocated many ships from Manila Bay to other parts of the Philippines in an attempt to put them out range of American aircraft. In all, 15 ships were moved to Coron Harbor and the surrounding area. The Americans found the ships, however, and on September 24, 1944, they raided the ships while they laid at anchor. The attack lasted only about 15 minutes, but resulted in 10 sunken Japanese ships. The relatively shallow depths and close concentration of these ships makes it a fine diving area. There are few other places in the world that feature such a concentration of sunken vessels.

These wrecks have sat under the ocean for 70 years. At this point they are both well explored and covered in coral and fish that call the ship their home. Diving around and inside the ships, sometimes with clear blast holes from the bombs that sank them, was a surreal experience. As we peered into the ships, I thought about the Japanese sailors that manned them and the American pilots that sank them. I wondered what life was for sailors as I swam through their ship's decks and what it was like the day their ship was bombed. I've visited battle sites before, but seeing a sunken ship as a hard artifact physically marking the former battle brought a level of reality to this site that I don't always feel at other ones.

Normally diving inside a wreck requires special training (there is an entire PADI course devoted to it). Since we were still in our course with our dive master trainer, however, he took us through the ships. The coral covered ships had a movie-like ghostly glow in the beam of our flashlight. The last part of the video below was taken one of the times we swam through a wreck. While you can't see much in the video, it does demonstrate how dark it was in there. Swimming underwater in the dark with the only sound you can hear being your own breathing was probably the most challenging moment for me on this trip. The feeling was simultaneously thrilling to be underwater diving inside a ship as well as frightening from the small, dark spaces. I've worked very hard to push myself in water activities to become more comfortable and for me diving through the wreck was one of the most extreme things I could do. To be clear, though, going through the boat was an amazing experience and we felt super proud of ourselves for doing it. (How many people get to scuba dive through a sunken ship?!) Kelsi and I both felt like real adventurers after coming out of the ship.

We dove through two Japanese wrecks that day before journeying to Barracuda Lake for a much different experience. The lake is full of brackish water that is fed by a hot spring. At diving depths, the water is almost uncomfortably warm and is the only dive that we did without a wetsuit. The lake also features a welcome sign created by divers at the bottom of the lake with coconuts (see video) as well as limestone cliffs. One of our favorite diving moments was at these cliffs, where we were able to remove our fins and scale the tall stone cliffs while almost weightless- it felt almost as if we were on the surface of the moon. Thomas told us that it is one of the most unique dives you can do and, after doing it, I believe him.

A cleaner shrimp checks out my hand in Barracudda Lake

After three days of diving we were exhausted, but confident in our ability to dive and encouraged by our great experience the third day. We are looking forward to more diving in Thailand and Malaysia.