Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Coron Bay, Philippines
Visited: May 2019
The tiny island of Coron is located just north of Palawan on the western end of the Philippine Islands. Above water, Coron and the surrounding islands provide a breath-taking tropical setting with sheer black cliffs, covered in lush greenery, jutting out from turquoise waters. Between the long stretches of sheer rock walls, white sand beaches can be found peaking out from tiny bays along the coastline.
The view from the top of the hill in Coron Town
While some visitors are drawn to Coron for the beaches, the real treasure lies beneath the surface. Coron Bay is the best place for wreck diving in Southeast Asia, and possibly even the World. The Bay is the final resting place of at least 12 well-preserved WWII Japanese warships, some of which measure more than 200 meters long. As if that weren’t enough reason to visit Coron, there are also some nice reef dives, and it is even possible to dive in shallow waters with dugong.
Coron Bay is relatively shallow, which means most of the wrecks are within recreational diving depths. Because they are in shallow waters, the outside of the huge ships have become encrusted over the years with thick hard and soft corals, creating artificial reefs which are teeming with marine life. Schools of barracuda are a common sight along the exterior of the ships, and the decks are home to countless lionfish, colourful nudibranch sea slugs, pipefish, and even turtles. Wreck diving sites in Coron Bay include the Akitsushima, Irako, Kogyo Maru, Kyokuzan Maru, Nanshin Maru, Okikawa Maru, Olympia Maru, Lusong Gunboat, East Tangat gunboat, and 'Skeleton' Wrecks.
Gun Turret on the Akitsushima Wreck
If you plan to dive in Coron, you will want to make sure that you have at least an Advanced Open Water dive certification in order to appreciate the wrecks. We were told by our guide that at least a couple of divers get lost and die inside the ships each year, so safety should be a serious consideration here. Many of the wrecks rest on the bottom at more than 40 meters, and the shallowest sections of some are deeper than 20 meters.
None of the dive shops we talked to required a wreck diving specialty, but it would be a good idea, as much of the dives here are spent in relatively deep water, exploring long corridors and cargo holds in long underwater mazes where there is not always a clearly visible ascent route to the surface. To make it even more exciting, many of the wrecks are filled with deep layers of fine silt, which can quickly reduce the visibility to zero if they are disturbed by a misplaced kick of a fin. The more dive teams inside of a given wreck each day, the lower the visibility is likely to be, so it is best to go as early as you can.
Swimming through the wreck
You can dive in Coron year-round, but the best time to go is during the dry season (October to May), as the rains can reduce visibility. Outside of the wrecks the visibility was about ten meters when we were there, which we were told was about average.
Ornate ghost pipefish hanging outside of a ship's hull
Most of our dives in Coron were relatively short (40 minutes or less), because the sites were too deep to use nitrox, and with the highest point of some ships at 20 meters, we were pretty much hitting no deco limits every dive.
Many of the shipwrecks of Coron Bay are filled with fascinating artifacts
On the 24th of September 1944, the U.S. Navy “Fast Carrier Task Force 38” carried out a surgical attack on a group of Japanese war ships in Coron Bay. The Japanese ships had been relocated to Coron after a previous U.S. attack near Manila. The strike was the longest-range attack ever attempted at that time from a carrier fleet.
Twenty-four Helldiver bombers, escorted by an additional ninety-six Hellcat fighters, flew the 340-mile return journey from their carriers to attack the ships sheltering in Coron Bay. The planes had just 15 minutes to sink the ships in Coron, or they would not have enough fuel for the return journey.
The attack was brutally successful, leaving behind a legacy that would not be discovered until many years later when recreational diving became popular in the Philippines. For more detail on the history of the wrecks at Coron Bay, visit www.coronwrecks.com.
Downtown Coron Town
The majority of divers who come to explore the shipwrecks of Coron Bay stay in the town of Coron on the nearby island of Busuanga. Coron Town is a dusty seaport, built along a busy narrow road that is jam-packed with motorized tricycles and light trucks unloading tourists and supplies from the seaport. While there is a lot of tourist infrastructure, many of the homestays and restaurants are still pretty rustic by western standards.
The first hotel that we stayed in, which was highly recommended online, was surprised by our request for running water and a toilet seat in the bathroom. On the table outside of reception, there was a dead squirrel on one of the tables for at least 24 hours, that didn’t seem to bother any of the staff at all.
Needless to say, we rented a scooter and spent a day driving around town looking for more comfortable accommodations. After driving down every dirt road leading from the “paved” main street through Coron, we came to the conclusion that there is a wide gap between the quality of the budget homestays and the high-end resorts. You can find quality budget accommodations, but it may take some hunting if you prefer a hotel with running water and no dead rodents.
It is not uncommon for budget hotels to run out of water in Coron Town. You will see that most have tanks on their roofs that they pay to have filled. If pricing reaches a premium, as it had when we were there, most cannot afford to fill their tanks until they are completely empty. Just something to keep in mind when planning your trip.
Heading out to the dive sites in Coron Bay
There is no shortage of affordable places to eat, especially if you like Filipino food. Most of the western food, consists of hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries. We found the best way to do it was order Filipino food, family-style. Order a meat dish, a vegetable dish, and some steamed rice to share. If you eat pork, be sure to try the sizzling sisig, a Filipino dish consisting of fried chunks of pork served on a hot skillet with spicy chilies and egg.
Dive shops can be found on nearly every block along the main street through town. They seemed to very pretty drastically in both price and quality of service, so you may want to speak with several before choosing an operator to dive with.
Heading back to Coron Town after a day of diving
The fastest way to reach Coron Town is via direct flights from Manila Airport to Busuanga Airport. Cebu Pacific has several direct flights that take roughly an hour and a half and cost between USD 60 – 150 one-way with luggage. You can get a flight without checked bags for a little less, if you can get by with just a carry-on. From the airport, there are shared minivans that will take you into town for about USD 3.
If you prefer a more scenic route, overnight boat trips “cruises” can be arranged from El Nido or Puerto Princesa in Palawan. These boats island-hop along the way, stopping at secluded beaches as they go. We didn’t get a chance to try one of these, but we heard rave reviews from travellers that did.