The Philippines - Palawan Island
The Philippines’ island of Palawan offers fantastic cruising and up-close contact with rare marine life to the yachtsman willing to venture a little farther.
I hung in the water, holding my breath, as the cloud of jackfish morphed towards me. Unafraid, the hundreds of silver and yellow bodies parted like the Red Sea as they swam around me, until I was completely surrounded by flickering fish. As I began to spot turquoise between them again I realised I was out of air and kicked gently for the surface. A regular attraction of Palawan’s Club Paradise Resort, and just a handful of metres from the resort’s beach, one of the resort’s staff had lead me out to the jackfish.
My first instinct was to immediately dive down and experience that extraordinary feeling all over again. But something larger and darker caught the corner of our eyes. A Green Sea Turtle was hovering, like a UFO, just above the sandy seabed. I took a deep breath and ducked into the water, as gently as I could, following my guide down. He pointed at the grass growing on the sea floor and motioned towards the turtle. So I picked some and swam slowly towards him, and could barely believe it when he tentatively pecked at it with his scaly mouth. My lungs bursting I had to leave him but managed to feed him a few more times before he lost interest and flapped his fins and went off into the blue yonder.
This part of the Philippines is an underwater playground for divers and snorkelers. Close encounters with marine life may include the mysterious and cow-like dugong, as well as turtles, rays, sharks and a smorgasbord of smaller coral life. Above the water, the world is just as beautiful, with the archipelago dominated by the blue-green ocean, dotted with over 1700 islands of white sandy bays, caves, lagoons and karst limestone rocks reaching up for the deep blue sky.
I was travelling from Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, north east to the low-lying desert islands of Dos Palmas and Amanpulo resorts, up to Club Paradise in the far north and then west to El Nido. Ten days surrounded by a world almost entirely given over to nature at its finest.
Travelling through Palawan and its archipelago, you’ll come across so many natural wonders it’s no surprise that the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Philippines has long been one of the most underrated countries for world-class sites. But, ignore the country’s political issues and you’ll find a region blessed with stunning natural attributes barely touched by man’s presence, and presided over by fauna and flora and friendly locals living the manana life.
Charter a flight from Manila to Palawan’s main town of Puerta Princesa or the island of Busuanga and you’ll find yourself in a delightful backwater where Palawan, and the more northern islands of Busuanga, Culion, Coron and Linapacan, make up most of the landmass and include four marine sanctuaries, two World Heritage Sites, world class diving among WWII wrecks, mangrove kayaking, hiking and, of course, sensational sailing.
“The west coast of Palawan is a wonderful cruising area for those who are really looking to get away from it all,” says Allan Riches of Brunei Bay Radio, whose cruising notes provide some of the best information available for sailors in the area (see Useful Info). “Very few yachts travel this area and those who do can expect to enjoy private anchorages, lovely beaches, interacting with friendly local communities, buying food from the traditional style local markets, and crystal clear water in which to swim, snorkel and dive.”
Resorts like El Nido on Palawan’s west coast and Amanpulo and Dos Palmas on private islands to the east have cornered
the luxury market, but it is the smaller properties that specifically welcome sailors to the area’s 2,000 kilometres of coastline. Mike Beresford, also known as Tequila Mike, is the harbourmaster at El Rio Y Mar, sister resort to Club Paradise. A long-term resident and sailor, he has over twelve years experience of sailing, and living, in and around Busuanga Island. “Most of the islands around here are more or less uninhabited and most have beautiful white sand beaches on their eastern side. Even in the northeasterly wind, the holding on these east side beaches is great, with steeply sloping sand that no anchor would drag up,” he advises.
That El Rio Y Mar was set up by sailors, for sailors, is immediately apparent. El Rio considers yachts on moorings in the bay to be a beautiful addition to the natural beauty of the location. The moorings were set up in 1998 by Tequila Mike and Steve Marsden, who ‘discovered’ the area when cruising through on their own yachts the year before. Other yachtsmen had come and gone, but this location had the beauty and strategic location to make it a yachting focal point. The close proximity of Club Paradise and the forward thinking of the owner, Juergen Warnke, led to a friendly team being formed which then built what is now the El Rio y Mar resort.
There are a total of 14 moorings available, all of which can withstand 40 knots of wind and the largest mooring can accommodate yachts up to 120 tonnes. The bay is very sheltered from all but the southeast winds, which are relatively rare. The waters in the bay are normally very calm, with little more than one foot wavelets. This is the reason for the two resorts setting up their watersports centre in this bay – water skiing is possible almost every day.
Sailors with yachts are met by a dinghy and shown to a mooring suitable for their size of craft and are then invited to come ashore and sign the yacht register with a few details of their yacht and crew. Most spend awhile reading through previous yacht details. The comments section at the bottom of each page entry is full of quirky compliments and ideas for cruising the area – a good read for visiting yachtsmen and yacht captains.
Beresford recommends following the coast around the island of Busuanga for sailing, off the north end of Palawan. Taking anything from a few days to as long as you want, the combination of sandy bays and reefs, rugged rocks, and off-shore tiny islands make it a trip full of beautiful surprises. “One of my favourites is South Cay,” he says, “where I anchor in 20 metres only 30 metres off the beach, set back so that I can jump off the stern of my 36 footer straight onto the sand. Peace and quiet is what you will find, with nary a hassle from the locals who will leave you alone but may pass by on their way home from fishing to offer you a super fresh potential dinner.”
Off the south east of Busuanga is Coron Island, world renowned for diving wrecks. The biodiversity of the area is incredibly rich as the environment has been remarkably stable giving organisms time to evolve, meaning that fans of the Red Sea and the Caribbean will be coming face to face with species they’ve never seen before. Incredibly, you could dive the ocean’s Cathedral Cave and Black Island Wreck in the morning and then hot foot it, literally, to Barracuda and Cayangan Lakes where hot geothermal activity warms the water.
The best wreck is generally acknowledged to be the Irako, a Japanese refrigeration ship, now teeming with tuna, turtles, groupers and lion fish, which experienced divers can explore inside.
Above sea level, towns in the area are good stop offs for popping into tiny friendly resorts and restaurants, and enjoying a cold beer on solid ground. In the west, the town of El Nido has a bustling backpacker scene, which makes for an entertaining evening of shopping, eating and drinking away from the luxury resorts. The locals are catching on to what tourists are looking for but you won’t be hustled much – it’s far too relaxed for that.
While there are few charters in the area, this lack of infrastructure makes it more appealing for those owning their own yachts, and helps keep the area quiet and pristine. “Exploring this coast requires a sense of adventure, and a self-sufficient capability,” says Riches, “but it rewards intrepid cruisers with a step into a less frantic lifestyle and that sense of freedom-of-the-sea which only ownership of a private sail or motor yacht can provide.”
For me, I ended my trip in El Nido on a slightly less sophisticated vessel – a kayak. Leaving Miniloc Resort I paddled around the craggy contours of the limestone cliffs, until they lead me into Big Lagoon. Translucent and aquamarine over sand, darker over reef, I drifted looking down into the water, the kayak following the whims of the wavelets, occasionally glancing up, completely surrounded by rock. I glided through the tiny, low entrance to Small Lagoon, only accessible at low tide, where even more intense aquamarine greeted me. Before long I had abandoned ship to dive down into the colour, getting up close and personal with corals and their guardian fish. Call it the pull of Palawan.