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Sunset in Coron, Philippines, with islands in the background.

5th April

Unfortunately, because it’s been a few weeks since I came back, I have forgotten the girl’s name that i limbed the 700 steps to see the sunset from that evening. It was good that we both had the same idea of what to do. I’ll call her Rachel for now.

Rachel and I left the hotel in plenty of time for the twenty-ish minute walk to the top of the hill, but we wanted to get some food first. Somehow, she managed to order a burger that came with no sauce. It looked like my brother's McDonald's order when he was younger. Then we made for the hill.

It was a steep climb – as I said, 700 steps (they kindly painted indicators onto the steps at 100-step intervals to show you how far you had left. It was reasonably busy on the way up, and almost all tourists, although one mad lad was actually running up the stairs. Certainly not my preferred style of HIIT. At relatively frequent intervals were terraces where people were selling water and jewellery. Some of the sellers were quite young, the same as had come onto the boat on the first trip. Noone was buying anything from them. Also, in case you need reminding, trying to have a conversation whilst walking uphill is really hard!

Oddly, at least for me, more than a few people were coming back down from the top, deliberately missing the sunset. Maybe they figured it wasn’t worth it, or they had a better location in mind, although it was hard to see where in the next few minutes they could go.

At the top was a wide concrete viewing platform in the shadow of a metal crucifix. The sun was starting its terminal descent, casting a dulling yellow light over the landscape. Shallow shadows were already being formed behind the hills and mountains, deepening ever faster. We found a spot on the hillside between the dust and scraps of grass and settled in. We talked about a few things of no consequence as we waited. Rachel offered to take a photograph of an Italian family. Eventually, the sun did set, and suddenly the whole world was in the shade. The islands that stretched out to infinity became ill-defined, and the sea became ink. The lights in the town were as stars in the sky.

When we got back, I went out one last time to say goodbye to Nicole and Mika, after briefly doing so in the back of the van after the morning trip. I still need to pay them back the money I owe them for the expeditions.

All in all, my first trip to the Philippines was quite successful, though that’s entirely thanks to Nicole. If she hadn’t invited me along, or planned the boat trips herself, I would have arrived with no plans and even less prepared. It would've been a whole holiday looking through salt water with no goggles. But the people were friendly (I hope not just because I was a tourist) and I wish I’d had the opportunity to find more Filipino food. What I did have was great (the fish especially). Ultimately, there’s a reason everyone goes there for the ocean. It really was a fantastic weekend of snorkelling, and I can’t wait to do it again someday.

A calm sea with a large rock in the middle.

2nd April 

This has to be the longest gap between the event and the recording of the event; I’ve got to catch up, let’s see when I left off. 

I was dragged back to the oat by the same means I was dragged out, and Nicole’s life vest was as much of a drag the second time. From there, we sped off to the next destination; a rocky outcropping in the middle of the sea we had spied on our way out to the sea grass. It was a crumbling pillar of unfriendly, solid sea rock. With a thousand hooked points on every surface, weathered by the salt water. 

But whilst on the surface it was the natural allegory of a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, underneath the surface it was a completely different world., at least from what I could see from the boat. The current was stronger now that we were further away from the shore, so the water was harder to see through, but it was a much deeper blue and glistened brightly in the late morning sun.  

Finally, it was time to plunge back in the lukewarm bath and sprint for the manta ray. It was swimming around the rock, right into the current, which made it impossible for Nicole and I to catch up with, especially without any flippers. In the end, I switched my focus to the island. 

Swimming up to the side was easy. But with the waves pulling me in and out and no foothold lower than sea level, it was hard to hoist myself up. The rocks were indeed as punishing as they looked. 

“Be careful,” said the manta ray spotter, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, standing a little further up the rock. As I navigated the small outcroppings, I found some very pretty pools of shorthand reef reminiscent of an aquarium, complete with anemones, urchins, multicoloured fish, and crabs. There were so many crabs on the island, and it was fun to watch them scatter and jump from rock to rock, disappearing out of sight one by one. The manta spotter guided me to a sleeping sea snake too, which I could barely see in the shade of the salt-shaped towers, save for the bright stripes. When I was called back, it was because the manta ray had completed its lap and was much easier to follow now. I cut my foot as I flung myself as far from the rocks as possible and moved my way across the sponges and bleached limpets to open ocean. 

I didn’t see much of the ray at first, on account of the lack of goggles. Even if the sea wasn’t too salty, I could only see three fuzzy circles gliding about. And yet again, the crewmate came to the rescue with his snorkel, and yet again I spent a good deal of time trying to get it to fit properly. Eventually it did, and everything after that was a magical experience. 

We were already lucky to see one at all, but this ray seemed almost playful. It didn’t rush off anywhere. In fact, it seemed happy to have the attention of so many divers. It dithered about the reef and did slow somersaults as people dipped in and away from its vicinity. It was larger than all of us.  The coral formed a huge bowl for it to play around in, as if were taking place on a stage. When the manta ray was away circling the rock, the more confident free divers explored an undersea cave, and followed it out to the other side. I imagine it was beautiful inside, though I could never experience it. An undersea forest of flora and fauna, with the ray as a cherry on top. Eventually it had to end though, and as the ray disappeared into the depths, it was time for us to leave. I was one of the last to make it back to the boat because I was enjoying looking at everything too much. 

“You look a bit pink on your shoulders, Alex,” an older Hawaiian diver said commented as I got back on. We had a lunch of rice, chicken, and vegetables (which I mostly ate, but soe of which I just couldn’t stomach).  

As we ate, people began to swap stories about their diving experiences. One man, a lifeguard, talked about his qualification, having to stay under the water for six minutes straight. 

“Those first four minutes are the hardest part. After your body accepts that, you mind calms down. Still hard as hell the first time.” 

I asked the Hawaiian man how long he’d been diving for. 

“Oh, since forever? Growing up by the coast I spent practically my whole childhood in the water. I’ve been surfing since I was seven and basically never stopped. I’ve free dived all over the world but there’s something special about the Philippines.” 

A large rock in the ocean, seen from a small boat.

Nicole had a few free diving stories to share from her time away from Coron town the day before. As I had spent my time in Coron, she had gone scuba diving around some large shipwrecks further out at sea. The diving assistant, usually an instructor, had shared some less upbeat stories of his own. Apparently, this man spent time regularly fishing the corpses of divers out of the water. It had never occurred to me that, yes, people do die when diving, and of course people would have to retrieve their bodies posthumously. The way she described his stories in such detail showed me how much of an impression they must have made on her, even after as many dives as she’d done. 

First, she talked about the people who commit suicide. The assistant said that on dives, some people just...leave. Vanish into open water. Swim until they run out of oxygen, he’d supposed. Sometimes they would be couples, imagining it as some kind of tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet submerged. They were almost all Japanese or Korean. 

But the saddest story was about an American family the assistant had taken to explore a large World War II Japanese wreck. It had been a family of four, including a son in his late teens. He had planned to fly back home early so he could prepare for moving to university but was convinced to stay for one last dive. The assistant (the instructor for that dive) cautioned against it, but they were adamant. 

So, they all went out together, down to the seabed to watch the rusty remains of the warship. They spent some time swimming about, and the instructor was doing his best to keep track of them all. Then he noticed one of them was missing from the group. It was the son. 

He couldn’t search for him with the rest of the group there, so he led them back to the boat and dove back down. Now, something you’re taught to be careful of around shipwrecks is that inside they are very dark and can easily become confusing to navigate. Experienced, professional divers will attach lifelines as they go, so they can always find their way back out. But if you can’t see it, you can’t use it. And if you swam away from it, you lose it. The instructor spent the rest of his oxygen tank searching for the missing son, with no luck. He raced back to the surface, ignored the worried family members, changed tanks and went back again. 

Keep in mind how important it is to ascend and descend in stages when diving too. If you rush, you don’t equalise, and it can damage your ears. The nitrogen bubbles that form due to decompression can affect your joints too, making it incredibly painful to bend your arms and legs. It was necessary for him to risk it though. He searched for another half hour, looking in each room of the ship before he found him. 

The son had drowned. The room his body was in was still thick with disturbed silt, making it hard to see the exit. Whether it had been disturbed because the son panicked, or it had caused the son to panic, we will never know. But the instructor's tank was empty, and he had lost his mouthpiece. He recovered the body and returned to the ship for the last time. Nicole said that particular event had disturbed him more than any other, and he still had nightmares about a body lying on the floor of a cloudy room at the bottom of the sea, and a boy who shouldn’t have even been there. The darkest example of “I told you so” I’ve ever heard. 

After that chilling interlude, the mood returned to normal, and we headed home again. The ride back was much faster, or it felt so to me. The bumps in the road still made it impossible to get comfortable for long, and I was the last one to get off. I was back at the hostel for early afternoon. I was told the power was out, so there was no chance of a sweatless sleep. My back was so tender from sunburn that I could barely lie down. 

A calm sea with a fisherman on a small boat in the middle distance.


I’m going home, I’ll do this tomorrow 


It’s 9:52pm and I’m back here today yesterday. It's still the 26th, woo! 

The next day was an insanely early start, so early in fact that considered staying up instead of sleeping at all. It didn’t matter in the end as I barely slept anyway, and when the alarm went off at 2:30am, it was time to go. Walking to Nicole and Mika’s hotel that early in the morning was a much different experience than during the day. Nobody was awake, not even the receptionist at the hotel was awake when I left. He was snoring in his chair under the sky. ON the streets, there were only dogs. You almost forget that dogs can be seriously intimidating when they want to be. You spend so much time looking at cute puppies or petting them that you can feel genuinely unprepared when three start growling at you as you approach, and bare their teeth, and bark loudly as you walk by, and threaten to follow you. Act confident, stay calm was that advice I was given, and it worked thankfully. But in the moment, I was reminded that dogs aren’t far removed from wolves at all. When I fumbled my water bottle, the sound of it hitting the road scared a straggler away round the corner. Mercifully, it didn't attract too much more attention, but it was a tense moment and not an experience I want to repeat any time soon. 

The front of a small boat facing a calm ocean

As it turns out, I needn’t have walked to their hotel anyway, since the minivan was going to drive by mine anyway. We drove to progressive hotels and hostels picking up other members of the expedition until we had a van full of free divers, all people Mika has swam with earlier in the week. Some of them had been freediving for decades. Most, if not all talked about holding their breath for upwards of four minutes underwater. I was very clearly not a free diver. And I had shown up without a snorkel or flippers. 

We were going to swim with dugongs, but that required driving to the other side of Busuagna, a trip that altogether took four hours, including stops for petrol and breakfast pick-up. The roads on that island are not smooth, and our driver was treating it like a rally stage. I honestly felt travel sick for the first time in years just from all the bumps and sharp turns we were subjected to. Thank god we could catch some air while we picked up breakfast, or I may well have made the ride intolerable for all of us. 

After what felt like a lifetime for all of us, we arrived. It was quiet. The dock was tucked away down a short, dusty path on the other side of some trees. Two much friendlier dogs were keen to investigate us, though one was scarcely skin and bones, It was a dog skin hung over a skeleton. You could see all the contours of the pelvis as if it were exposed. Though it was still very early morning, the temperature was already at the higher end of the pleasant threshold.

There were three different boats, one for each minivan in our convoy. One of the divers in our van had been woken up earlier at his hostel, and told it was time for him to go. Unfortunately, they had woken up the wrong guy, and now he was on a dugong trip instead of spearfishing like he was supposed to be. What a poor start to the day for him, but ultimately better for the wildlife that he did mess up. 

The rest of us had an amazing start by contrast. There’s always a tiny moment of fear when you wobble when stepping onto a small boat, but everyone made it. The spare flippers that had were about four sizes too small, so no luck there, and no spare snorkel either. I was truly, truly unprepared, and it would affect my experience later on. For now though, I could enjoy the marvellous morning and gently rippling water. We exited the natural harbour and opened up to the coast and open sea, which was serenely still, so much so you could see the currents criss-cross each other across the wide blue expanse. The flotsam was mostly branches, with what looked like some stray coconuts. It didn’t matter that we were on a boat, the roosters could still be heard from the shore, still letting us know we were up far too early. 

The area we arrived at appeared fairly nondescript – in terms of features, at least. Of course, the water was like a window to the ocean floor, and made me wonder how the ocean and seas must have looked before all the modern pollution. Seeing all the life that existed beneath the waves would definitely lend credit to the idea of sea-gods. I asked one of the crewmen how often he came out here to do this trip. 

“Almost every day.” 

“Oh, so I suppose it isn’t so exciting for you to see the same animal all the time."

"Nah, it's always pretty special. They're cool animals, you know? Plus sometimes you see sharks, turtles, manta rays, it changes day to day."

"Is there anything you'd rather be doing if not this?"

"Uh.. sleeping probably."

I spotted some turtles while we waited for a dugong to arrive, but in trying to get my phone for a photo, I missed them. Fortunately, I didn’t miss the dugong! One arrived a little distance from the boat, so everyone jumped in and began swimming furiously to catch up with it. Some were more furious than others, but in any case I was going nowhere fast without flippers and trailed far behind. Nicole tried to drag me along while I held on to her lifejacket (which she did not wear again), but in the end both of us were helped by a member of the boat crew who swam forward as we held onto the life ring (that more of an oval shape). Once we did finally get ot the dugong, since I didn’t have any goggles, I could only see a blurry grey lump on the seafloor when I dived under. Even though the salt water didn’t sting, I was fully prepared for a disappointment of my own making. Until, suddenly, the same crew member offered me his pair of goggles too! 

Thus, I was able to watch the animal after all. Dugongs are weird creatures. They are larger than I expected, at what must have been around 2 ½ metres, my best guess. It blew up small puffs of sediment as it harvested the small seagrass and looked as if it barely moved at all to properly forward. It was also exceedingly docile, entirely unconcerned with the free divers speeding after it. I was fortunate to get near when it surfaced for air. I was maybe a metre away, close enough to get a good look at its funny face. Their mouth faces downwards, and they have friendly eyes, so it's easy to imagine them as happy innocent animals just going about their day. Do they even have predators?  

[‘They have four natural predators, although... crocodiles, killer whales, and sharks pose a threat to the young’ - Lawler et al.; 2002] 

We were recommended not to wear sun cream before seeing them as it would negatively affect them. They never actually clarified why, but this would come back to haunt me in a huge way soon enough. 


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