September 1944 and a fleet of Japanese warships lies quietly sheltering within a broken circle of Philippine islands. From the air, small patches of foliage speckle the blue-green sea while jagged limestone cliffs rise sharply into the azure skies, soaring upwards through the dense greenery of the jungle. American reconnaissance aircraft buzz overhead photographing the sea and land below, they are searching for the enemy. The Japanese hold on the Philippines is soon to reach its two-year conclusion at the hands of the USA. Back at HQ the surveillance photographs are developed and studied for signs of hidden warships, but there is only sea sprinkled with islands. Eventually someone thinks to compare these pictures with those taken over the last few days. It appears that the islands have moved. This is just what had been hoped for, the position of the Japanese has been located and the order is given to begin the attack.
Under their disguise of netting and palm leaves lie some twenty four ships; warships, flying boat tenders, supply vessels, oil tankers, anti submarine craft and tugboats, some over 150m in length, others a mere 5 m or so, their hiding place amid the beautiful island coves has been revealed, and within a matter of hours many of these vessels will be lying at the bottom of the sea.
Small boys sitting in the shade of the palm trees which fringe the narrow white beaches screw up their eyes against the glare of the sun in the cloudless skies to watch the bombing raids with a mixture of terror and excitement, but when they see men jump from the ships into the water, swimming to the safety of the shore, they disappear back into the jungle in fear. The sights they have witnessed etched into their memories to be passed on to future generations of fishermen, their children and grandchildren and also to the visiting scuba divers who fifty years from now, will come from far and wide to explore the wrecks of Coron Bay.
Today, scuba divers from around the world make their way to this beautiful corner of the Philippines with one purpose in mind, to dive the wrecks and witness these monuments to World War 2 at first hand. The diving is not for the faint hearted, a good deal of it requires experience, some of the wrecks are deep and wreck diving needs special training and skills, but there are also some shallow wrecks such as the Tangat gunboat which can be enjoyed by snorkellers.
To get to Coron Bay from Manila involves a short one-hour flight to Busuanga, a forty-five minute road journey to Coron Town, followed by a Banca ride into the bay. There are any number of places to stay in and around the town itself, and daily dive trips run regularly from reputable dive operators. Staying close to town allows you to luxuriate on the dive boat, an early start for a morning dive, followed by an idle lunch on board or moored in a white sandy cove, a second and even a third dive follow later in the afternoon, and as you settle into the sunset cruise back to town, crack open a bottle or two of San Miguel and savour the gentle rocking of the boat and the hum of the engine as you compare notes with your buddies.
But for total relaxation and idle luxury, there lies Sangat Island Reserve, unspoilt and within a ten minute boat trip of many of the wrecks. The resort, which lies a further forty five minutes by banca from Coron Town, is small and built to harmonise with it’s environment, causing minimal impact on the surroundings, the cottages built on stilts to deter termites, and with palm thatch are without electricity, telephone or hot water, and nestle around the cove, the sea lapping gently onto the white sand practically at your doorstep. In contrast to the rustic charm of bamboo furniture, slatted floors and palm weave walls, each of the cottages, is equipped with a fully modern tiled bathroom albeit with slightly brackish unheated water. Your veranda may sport a hammock under the trees, or a sofa to lounge on in the shade, but the design of these native huts has, not surprisingly through thousands of years, been perfected for maximum breeze and comfort in the local climate. The only additional items necessary, being a mosquito net and plenty of insect repellant. Monkeys and enormous monitor lizards, some of the islands original inhabitants, seem not to have noticed this influx of visitors, and continue to scavenge for scraps behind the kitchens to the delight of both resident and visiting children. The more adventurous visitor can choose to stay next door in a secluded bay accessible only by Kayak, here the accommodation is literally at one with the island, being built into the cliff itself, the living rock forming floors and walls, the bathroom open to the sky. Perhaps not for those with younger children, but ideal for a romantic get away. Meals are served in the central restaurant, home cooked, fresh food, which may include something from the daily catch, a simple buffet style menu of traditional Filipino dishes. Next door is the small bar, amply stocked with drinks, and where in the evening, the generator powers the DVD player until the last drinker returns to their cottage, an oil lantern lighting their way.
If you don’t dive there is still plenty for you to do here once the novelty of lying in your hammock or snorkelling in the tepid water wears off. Kayaks are available to explore more remote coves and beaches, you may even discover the hot springs or spot cashew nuts growing nearby, and behind the resort you can trek into the jungle itself along rocky paths that lead upwards to the top of the cliff, keeping an eye open for the enormous variety of wildlife as well as the rare and interesting birds that both nest here and visit the island.
A trip across the water to nearby Culion town is also well worth a visit if you have time on your hands. Once home to a leper colony, there is a small museum which will give you some of the towns history, and at the top of the hill, commanding spectacular views over the surrounding islands, is a stone church built in 1683. A tricycle tour of the town is a great insight into everyday life in a small town and an interesting way to spend an hour before returning across the water in time for dinner.
So for a divers paradise, it has to be said that Sangat Island Reserve comes pretty close, especially if you like to escape from the crowds and relax. There are no telelphones here, only radio communications but you can contact the owners of the resort, Andy and Edith Pownall via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org but remember their satellite connection is costly so keep messages to a minimum. Visit their website at www.sangat.com.ph , it will be a visit you remember.