Saturday January 12, 2013
The dive nest
Story and pictures by BRIAN MOH
El Nido on Palawan island, the Philippines, is a small town with some great diving.
PROBABLY the last frontier of the archipelago that makes up the Philippines, the island province of Palawan is still draped with virgin forests. Here lies El Nido, or “The Nest” in Spanish, a place which lays claim to being one of the best beach destinations of that country.
If you are game for some good diving and a bit of an adventurous getaway from bustling city crowds, El Nido, some 420km southwest of Manila, seems to be an ideal choice.
Our plane from Subic Bay (100km north of Manila) landed at the airport of Palawan’s provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, and within 10 minutes we were transfered via bus to Deep Forest Garden Inn. As The Philippines is the world’s third largest English speaking nation, communication with the locals was not an issue for us.
Upon checking into my air-conditioned room, I hung out at the jacuzzi, and later had my lunch by the pool, spending my Saturday afternoon lazily at the hotel.
We were told that the Badjao Seafront Restaurant is one of the most popular restaurants in Puerto Princesa and that was where we had a great dinner.
To get to El Nido, we had to catch a bus. The journey through the rolling hills of Palawan province took us past little towns and villages, and along a scenic coastal road.
After six hours, we reached our destination – a paradise of clear water with a beach of fine, soft-as-cotton, white sand.
El Nido is such a small town that there aren’t any hospitals or ATM machines, while electricity is only available from 2pm to 6am. However, the place is very safe, with an almost zero crime rate. And you also get to see the same people again and again; in our case, we kept bumping into two South Korean women who were on the same bus with us.
Soon, we headed out to find the Deep Blue Seafari dive centre. Tourists can choose scuba diving or island hopping packages.
The rate was Peso 3,500 (RM270) for three boat dives inclusive of lunch, all equipment, and after the dive, a free half hour massage!
Dive master Diana Acera also told us that we could choose from over 20 dive sites, ranging in depths from 6m to 40m to suit beginners right up to experienced divers.
“As El Nido’s Bacuit Bay is rich with marine life, you have the chance to see an array of wildlife as well as many corals and tunnels,” she added.
We did our first dive at West Intalula, and as we moved to deeper waters, saw plenty of marine life and a healthy mix of hard and soft corals.
We also saw green turtles, butterfly fishes and nudibranchs.
I had once been told by Daniel Quilter, the founder of conservation group Ecoteer, that seeing is believing.
“We all love to take photos on land, so why not take photos while diving. Then show the world the marine life you have seen.”
So we took our time snapping photos before ending our dive an hour later.
After an interval of about an hour on the surface, we did our second dive at South Miniloc which is one of the best dive sites in El Nido.
With good visibility between 10m–20m, the coral reefs here were in excellent condition, giving us many opportunities to indulge in macro or close up photography.
Jose Calzadilla, a master scuba diver trainer, said we were very lucky that the weather was good and the seas were “calm like a mirror” during our dive.
He also told us that the town was “very quiet” 10 years ago with only handful of tourists. As tourism has boomed in the last two years, Calzadilla hopes that visitors will be aware of the fragile marine environment and take care not to spoil it.
“To quote Michael Jackson, ‘If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change’,” a tourist at El Nido told us.
Non-divers can take an island-hopping tour through El Nido’s cliff-backed islands. The best way to experience the many lagoons are by snorkeling or kayakking in crystal-clear waters off white sandy beaches.
For our final dive of the day, we went cave exploring at a depth of 18m. The cave’s entrance was wide enough for more than two divers to enter together, and an 18m tunnel led to an air pocket chamber in the centre of the cavern.
Visibility around us was good, making it yet another a perfect chance for underwater photography. We ended our day with a massage.
And our dinner of pizza and pasta, both in seafood flavours with lots of cheese, was enjoyed with our two new South Korean acquaintances.
After just three days, I was already settled down into the serene island way of life, but soon realised that it was time to leave. I packed my bags with a heavy heart and told myself that I had to return to this lovely place.
More on Palawan
PALAWAN island lies stretched between Mindoro (the Philippines) in the north-east and Sabah (Malaysia) in the south-west. On its north-west is the South China while the Sulu Sea is in the south-east. The population is about 700,000.
Two Unesco World Heritage Sites are located here, namely the Tubbatahan Reef National Marine Park and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River.
How to get there:
Puerto Princesa International Airport is the main gateway to Palawan. Major airlines serving it include Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Zest Airways.
To get to El Nido, you need to take six hour bus from San Jose bus terminal in Puerto Princesa.
The type of diving here features a mix of pelagics (larger sea creatures, similar to that seen in Pulau Sipadan, Sabah) and also lots of macro stuff (smaller creatures).
The visibility is better than that found at many other islands in South-east Asia and the corals are healthy and colourful.