Thursday, December 29, 2016

Diving off Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines

My logged dives #1524-1526

We had heard Internet would be dodgy in El Nido, so we were glad to see that there was free wifi almost everywhere. However we soon found out that wifi rarely worked. The problem was with the Internet provider for the whole area. So once you are in El Nido, if you've been playing things by ear to get that far, it's hard to plan a way out unless your time is flexible.

The way I would like to have gone would have been to get the boat from El Nido to the island of Coron further north. There was a fast boat leaving at 6 a.m. most days and another slower boat that departed occasionally, but not every day. These boats tended to be booked out for next day travel, so you had to plan a day or two in advance to make the trip. Then once in Coron you would have to back-track the journey or get the boat onwards to Manila. That was an overnight boat which sailed perhaps three times a week. I would like to have done that if I had a week to spare. But given tight timings and inability to get on Internet and book our flights from Manila to Kuala Lumpur (so we'd have to do that in Manila).

There are airports in El Nido and Coron, though it was doubtful we'd have been able to get on a flight at that time of year, Christmas holidays bringing so many people to Palaway. It seemed best to plan a Coron trip for a later time when we could book round trip air travel to and from Manila and make a dive plan, perhaps a liveaboard, to see the wrecks there, do it properly, not with just two days to spend in Coron.

So as an alternative, we heard that some travelers were going to Port Barton, on the way back to Puerto Princesa more or less, and in a rare moment of connectivity I came on a Wikitravel article that led us to come here:

The article mentions " 'Aquaholics' run by Keith Dudley and located in the middle of the beach next to Summer Homes. This diving center has a highly recommended diving instructor named Martyn who has been diving for more than 33 years and is also a level one qualified SSI Free Diving Instructor and swimming teacher +639199916282(Smart). Martyn can teach you to dive and take you through speciality courses such as Wreck and Deep diving. ... For fun diving and diving courses Port Barton is superb, with great coral and marine life, not to mention some wrecks, within easy striking distance."

We've learned to be wary of glowing recommendations from people just learning to dive, not the most discriminating of customers. But it was time to go somewhere, and the weather had turned in El Nido. It rained all night the day before we left, and it rained all through the van ride from El Nido toward Puerto Princesa. It was still raining when we left the main road at Rojas and took the road to Port Barton, which is under construction. The parts that had not been developed were in quagmire in the rain, with the van slipping toward the edge, and raising some doubts about getting out of there on the uphill leg.

Accommodation in El Nido is laid back but simple and hard to find when we arrived. The van ran as far as the beach and dropped us at the beach-front Jambalaya restaurant where we de-camped Bobbi who waited with the bags while I went out scouting for accommodation (they were having happy hour so we enjoyed that and ate there when I returned later with a room key). I walked up the beach as far as the dive center where I found Keith, an old retiree who said he had learned to dive when he was 50 and had found himself a niche in paradise where he could live easy and support his retirement. He had spaces for us next day (only had another couple of divers, one of them on a beginner's course) and he outlined a program of diving starting with the shallow wreck and then working our way back to a couple of reefs on the trip home. It didn't sound all that exciting and it wasn't really; Keith disclosed later that diving was declining there due to overfishing and the local habit of channeling waste disposal to the bay..

As for diving at Port Barton, we embarked on a banca outrigger boat for the day trip starting with the Albaguen Wreck, 26 meters, which you can read about here:

Aquaholics Dive Center description of diving off Port Barton

As wrecks go, it as a mediocre one, and we saw with fish, glass shrimp in the hold, a scorpion fish hidden in plain sight on top, a common slug, and blue flatworms in the sand.

I didn't get the names of the reefs we dived next but they were similar. Dive 2 was on a reef on our way home, where we saw slugs, a turtle with a remora, a humphead wrasse, batfish, nudibranchs, clownfish, a camouflaged crocodile fish, and more flatworms.

Dive 3 was on a reef near grass flats where Martyn said they sometimes see manatees, or dugongs. Here we saw more slugs, clownfish, nudibranchs, lion fish, more flatworms, another camouflaged crocodile fish, schools of razorfish, and a fish with alien eyes peeping our of a hole in a rock.

We had planned to spend two diving days there but in the end did only one. Accommodation in El Nido our first night was rudimentary. Electricity went off at midnight, except at the discos, which had generators, so the bass-beat started at midnight and thumped down the quiet beach into the wee hours. Roaming dogs barked and chickens crowed until the motorcycles took over at dawn. Our second night I managed to get us a pleasant room at Summer Homes (24 hour electricity) in a beach view room. It was quieter there (less street noise reaching our room) and the restaurant had excellent Thai food. I booked and a van from there to Puerto Princesa the following day, where we decided to take a travel break in rooms with more standard amenities and indulge in rectifying our pent-up Intenet latency

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