El Nido Affair

Crystal clear waters, limestone cliffs, blue skies…

El Nido – so distant, opulent and perceived to be luxurious, a popular destination many tourists have been raving to explore.  The notion of visiting it this year is somewhat remote as it was only an alternate for Tubbataha 2010.  Then last minute we deferred our coveted dive trip, and hastily arranged our schedules for our mid-year trip to this enchanting quaint town at the  northern part of the Last Frontier.

The arrangements were not easy – evaluating the possible routes required longer leave from work and it made me cringe since being away on month ends must be avoided as I was warned.  Both Angel and I crossed our fingers, and when it was approved with no questions asked I was elated but tried not to spill any hint of excitement!  My tickets were squeezed too to get easier course and ended up more costly compared to early-purchased ones.  We carefully planned our itinerary believing the place has much to offer  and we need to make most of our time, after all we have three full days to explore  El Nido, not to mention two days of travel time.

On the Road

As usual I sneak home one Thursday morning as I have to catch up my early flight to Cebu hoping again I would bump no one I knew at the airport but as I queue up to check-in, somebody was beaming calling me. Of all the people, executives from BFAR whom I knew well! So the usual questions, they were delighted I’m heading for a dive trip, knowing me with subdued traits it was surprising for them I became passionate with the marine world. We parted ways as they were on another plane.

I found myself seated  between two men on my flight to Cebu, it felt stupid why I didn’t ask for a window seat. I waited for more than two hours for my next flight and we touched down Puerto Princesa as scheduled with Angel waiting for over an hour, we rushed to Fort Wally terminal as the van has been waiting for us.  My mind considering possibilities as I got a message earlier from Seair that my flight was cancelled! We resolved to settle things when we arrive in our destination.  In a little while, we left and set off for the long trip about 238 kilometers away.  The heat was scorching!

Somehow I was surprised that the roads are paved far from what I conceived as dusty and potholed, stories I heard told me going up north are all rough roads!  Until we reached Roxas two hours later for our lunch stop, it was all smooth.   On our way,  I was trying to search for a rainbow, pressing my nose on the glass windows but found none, but was relieved when it appeared on the west side with its end just beyond the field!  I always took rainbows as sign of a wonderful trip which Angel also affirmed.  As we passed the towns of San Vicente and Taytay, there were still road works and estimated to be 70% completed until El Nido.  Our vehicle had a breakdown about 40 kilometers away before finally reaching our destination, delaying our arrival past 6pm.

Bacuit Bay horizons….

Surprisingly, the sun was still up and we had a great view of the colorful sunset at Bacuit Bay as our vehicle crawled to the town center.  It was all too gorgeous!  🙂

Holiday  Begins

We settled at Lualhati Cottages, a place farther away from downtown but still walking distance. It’s a quiet place with garden and fruit trees around,  a comfy and decent dwellings which Angel and I liked.  Few days earlier we agreed to find some place overlooking the bay to get a sunset view every day, it would be so wonderful!   🙂 We went for a walk downtown: buy some needs, had dinner at a carenderia, went to the beach front and search Og’s Pension to check their rooms.  The beach front was in festive mood as lot of people was night swimming perhaps because it’s the feast of St. John the Baptist.  We walked the whole stretch trying to get the El Nido night atmosphere – there were restos, bar, lodge, inns and beach hotels lining up – like any beach front it offered a lot of dwellings to pass the night by.  One thing I like when in a holiday in a strange place, I can wear anything (modestly, of course) without worrying somebody I knew would catch me, dress code and decorum at the office is sometimes drastic!  😛  Angel and I discussed where to dine in the next three evenings to wind up our day’s events!  We tried to remember landmarks as it would be our path in the next days.  We got back to our lodge  thankful it’s just ideal to our liking – I can hear the crickets, night bird and house lizard sounds – environment friendly still!  We doze off finally, it’s been a long day and the morrow’s schedule requires much energy!

Diving in Bacuit Bay

We check in at Palawan Divers the next morning before 8am as instructed, earlier I was trying to negotiate for a 3-dive trip to maximize time but not promising although they will consider if other divers will sign in, no other bookings yet at that time as informed. I was getting excited as it has been more than two months since I last dove with Angel at Kalanggaman Island.  So, when I asked GM Yoshi and Ms. Abby if we can have 3 dives, Angel and I was thrilled when they showed us the plan for the three spots!  😀  Other divers can just snorkel around while we do the third descent.  After we signed up, briefing, review of hand signals  with DM Windel, other divers came.  Malcolm, Paddi & Heidi are Britons while Rafael is French – all  foreigners!  Might as well worthwhile to mention that in all our dives, foreigners are regulars (mostly Europeans) and they too are wondering why locals are not so much into diving.

Somewhat the skies are downcast, an advantage actually since the heat will be minimal.  We cruise the bay for or first descent at Abdeens Reef, Angel and I was with DM Windel and Malcolm.  We did the roll-back entry, it felt so good to be back in the waters!  When we got down, our first sighting was the garden eel – we stayed for awhile getting a good view while it tried to come out almost thirds trying to observe us perhaps!  And again, the feeling of belonging to the marine world engulfed me – so beautiful, so serene… Then suddenly a school of stripe fish appeared, camouflaging as big fish – such a rare sight! DM Windel was so keen on macros, we search on corals, crinoids, rocks for shrimp, small crabs, and lot of tiny colorful nudis.   Tropical fishes abound at the reef – butterfly, bat, angels, banners, damsels, surgeons, rabbit, anemonefish, barramundi, anthias, moorish idol, lionfish and a moray under a coral. Somewhere along while we get shallower, I was struggling to control my buoyancy so one kilo weights was added for me which made me more stable while doing the safety stop.  After 63 minutes, we ascend with 40 bars of my air left.

Exploring the secret in the depths of Bacuit Bay

After an hour of interval, we cruise shortly to Paglugaban Rock for our second descent, we went down at 21.8 meters as deepest and again there was an array of fishes, critters, corals plus rock formations.  We went into alley-like formations, ship front and boulders. Suddenly, we heard an explosion, looking around we wondered what it was! We found out later from DM Windel it was some dynamite explosion – what, in broad daylight? In a marine protected area? By law, El Nido (MNR AO # 518 expanded by DENR AO # 14 s. of 1992; Proclamation #32 is now at congress) is protected, terrestrial or coastal. How ridiculous!  Nonsensical – how far have they gone in destroying this paradise? After awhile, we went around though and there was anemones again, lionfish, porcupine fish, unicorn, parrots, triggers, puffers, butterfly, a lobster, colorful nudis and variety of hard corals.  We ascend after 73 minutes with 30 bars of my air left.  I was wondering if the fishers got all the catch they wanted after the blast, have they realized the extent of damage done on the marine environment?

It started to drizzle as we speed off to Entalula Island for our late lunch, there was a patch of white beach and we anchored there for our stop.  We took refuge under a tree and took our meals leisurely talking and Ms Abby telling us stories about this small quaint town. We just sat on the sand surrounding an improvised low table (Japanese style) bidding our time.

Squid eggs hanging on at the cage!

Finally, for our third descent we hop to Comocotan Island, a small rock islet.  Lowly in structure but rich deep down.  Initially, it was only Angel and I was booked but in the end Malcolm enlisted too.  Since we’re in same group, we got out of the boat together, we descend almost 3pm.  The first sight that met us as we got down were cages with green leaves, we came closer and found lot of squid eggs hanging  on it – whitish small tubes, which could produce thousands if not millions of mollusks. How magnificent!  We found fusiliers, groupers, wrasses, cardinal fish, spotted sweet lips, variety of anemone fish again and colorful unique nudis in pairs. We took a closer look of a shell covered in black, thought for awhile it was a big nudi.  🙂  We circled completely the small islet and after 76 minutes we surfaced with 40 bars of my air left.  I realized later that all of us went down for the last dive! Well, how can a diver resist such opportunity?  🙂

We sailed off back to town still drizzling grateful for the great marine encounters of the day.  GM Yoshi commented it’s unusual for them to have three long dives in a day!  Before we could call the day off at the diveshop, DM Windel discussed with us the species we got into and we learned so many things from him.  We roam the streets looking for a place to dine, we retraced our steps and settled at Lonesome Carabao Lounge which was just near the diveshop.  Fortunately, the rains have stopped already and after our relaxed dinner we walked back to our lodge.    It was such a long day, and after rinsing our gears we surrendered to the comfort of our beds.  There was no sunset today….

Water, Water Everywhere!

The next two days was devoted for island hopping and snorkeling and what a joy – I just love the waters!  🙂  On our second day, we explored Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon at Miniloc Island.  We swam and snorkeled to get into the small lagoon, there were many kayakers inside but we wade to the innermost corner to explore a small cave.

Cave inside the small lagoon

There were formations inside, you can get a good view as you swam around the waters inside but there was less fish life.  We hop next to big lagoon cruising around, the two Koreans in our company was simply amazed of the sights, perhaps they were attracted with the limestone cliffs. We cruised to Payong-payong Beach for our lunch, a small white beach near Miniloc Island Beach Resort.  We snorkeled round while waiting for our lunch, I had the opportunity to observe a school of parrots & triggers feeding on dead corals, I learned that they are capable of producing cu. ft of sand in a year! We had a sumptuous lunch of grilled snappers and pork chop with veggie salad, having  a good view of the resort but to me it looks gloomy and ominous.

We hop next to Shimizu Island (named after two Japanese brothers who died while diving due to air loss), there’s a white beach again but what was most interesting was the active fish life in the area.  We snorkeled and even without food, throng of sergeants, six bar wrasse and damsels gather around on you, it was simply marvelous!

Feeding with sergeants, six-bar wrasse & damsels

Angel and I enjoyed so much fish feeding (sorry!), they came near surrounding you and feeding from bare hands was simply amazing!  🙂  We lingered for awhile going round and round, we took turns in taking photos…

Our last hop for the day was in 7 Commando Island, another white beach too just beyond the limestone cliffs south east of the town.  When we got back, we roamed the streets again trying to search for El Nido Foundation to buy a fish id book but when we got there, it was closed.  So we went straight back to our lodge to freshen up.  Our dinner was spent at Art Café believing the food would be great plus the wifi connection.  🙂  Indeed it was – our fish n chips, Hawaiian pizza and fruit shakes were perfect but somewhat pricey!  Most of the diners were foreigners, Angel and I was amused because two dogs were roaming around the restaurant and nobody dared to drive them away!  Dogs everywhere…

Mysterious secret beach…

The next morning we attended Sunday mass at St. Francis of Assissi church as our first agenda of the day and later rushed back to our lodge to prepare for our last day of exploring  Bacuit archipelago.  We found again the two Koreans plus a French couple joined with us for the tour.  We cruised for Matinloc Island which led us to our first stop at Hidden Beach – another small patch of white beach hidden among the limestone cliffs.  We swam again and snorkeled a bit just trying to observe the underwater scene.  We cruised next to Secret Beach which the waters become choppy when we got near the area.  It was bit challenging, with the raging waters we swam to a small entrance at the rock cliff, must be careful not to be swept by the big waves.  But when you get inside, it seems another place – crystal calm waters, white sands, lush vegetations, rock cliffs – all so natural and serene.  We stayed awhile swimming and enjoying the scenery inside the little paradise.  We swam back again the raging waters back to the boat.

We cruised to Star Beach which belonged to Tapiutan Island, our next stop for our lunch, which was just across the Shrine. Another white beach but lot of mosquitoes!  While waiting for our food, we swam again and snorkeled to view the corals in the area. We did some fish feeding but not much fish life. We had a sumptuous lunch again of grilled squid and fish with veggie salad.  We hop across next to the Shrine.  It has small port, a

Matinloc island shrine

cottage, a gazebo and a little chapel.  We explored a bit and climb up the limestone cliff to get an overlooking view of the surrounding waters.  We look up to that small rugged cross on the topmost of the cliff. We saw a large school of fish

Just love the fishes!

in shallow waters near the port which darkens the area – such rich resources!  We did a side trip to Kulasa Beach for fish feeding and snorkeling again.  Fish life was active – trumpet fishes, damsels, anthias, sergeants, and anemones too.  Our last stop for the day was at Helicopter Island (because It looks like helicopter at a distance), it has a long stretch of white beach, crystal waters, reefs, rich fish life even in shallow waters and idyllic setting.  I snorkeled again viewing the underwater in all its splendor, soon I’ll be missing all these and I just wanted to immerse myself in all its perfection.

In our last day, Angel and I wished to catch a glimpse of the gorgeous sunset at Bacuit Bay and true indeed, the sun showed up in the afternoon. We planned for a dinner overlooking the bay, we headed for Bacuit Grill to the end of the beach front.  The colorful sunset displayed its countenance as if smiling, beckoning to take in its vast glory!  Our food was just perfect – shrimp spaghetti, fish steak in bacuit sauce, garden salad and fruit shakes.  It felt luxurious and I was imagining I was in St. Tropez!  We enjoyed our dinner in oil lamp with matching night lights from the port!  So picturesque…

When we got back in our room, we started to pack up.  Our holiday almost ended… 😦

Journey Back

We woke up earlier the next morning and finished packing – always I have a lot of stuff to pack!  With the cancellation of  my El Nido-Manila flight, I ended up going to Puerto Princesa with Angel and joined him in his Zest Air flight to Manila in the afternoon.  We got into Fort Wally van again on our way back and reached Puerto a little past 12 noon. We wanted to treat ourselves with a sumptous lunch, gladly we ended up at Ka Lui Restaurant after asking the tricycle driver for a good resto in the city.

Fish cordon bleu for lunch at Ka Lui

The good ambience plus the delectable dishes have refreshed us – fish cordon bleu, tuna steak, tubbataha salad, fruit shakes plus a complimentary fresh fruit salad was more than enough for my hunger.  Again, we indulge ourselves to close a wonderful holiday!  🙂  While waiting for our 5:20pm flight, we transferred to Itoy’s Café and  taking advantage of the wifi connection while sipping  capuccino.  We checked in early and found the pre-departure area full, at least there’s no one I knew here!  It was my first time for Zest Air (so with Angel), our flight was smooth but  our landing was delayed due to some emergency at the old domestic airport, we hovered around and circled four times – the thing is I was getting a good view of the sunset at high  altitude!  Somewhere in the mid of the flight, we spotted a rainbow in the horizons – a reminder for a wonderful journey….  🙂

An Affair to Remember

Grateful all the arrangements work well for me, I left for the airport from Visayas Avenue the next morning for my 420am flight.  Actually I only slept about three hours, so as soon as we got airborne for my flight back to CdeO, I doze off straight and only woke up when we touched down.  The Lord again arranged all things perfectly, indeed entrusting things to Him can do wonders.  I reported back to work as planned.  I sat on my desk doing my work, my workmates had no idea what I been up to. Will they notice my tan or the twinkle in my eyes?  🙂  Maybe, maybe  not…

I could have wanted more, our Dive Tubbataha!  as planned – I waited for it, prepared for it, saved for it and dreaming of it. I learned that sometimes no matter how carefully we plan for things, interventions can come beyond our control, without doubt for a purpose. But the El Nido affair had in many ways refreshed me, I hold on to my theory that knowing one new place is therapeutic, some kind of a door to another world.  It gives a smile to one’s lips and twinkle in one’s eyes. I couldn’t be more bullish to admit that the wonderful dives at Bacuit Bay with my friend and dive buddy Angel was incredible and educational one: three long dives in a row, dynamite blast underwater, first encounter of camouflaging stripe fish, and witnessed a squid eggs habitation.  The Tubbataha dream can wait, but El Nido affair is something I will always cherish.  We might not be able to visit this quaint town in the next five years but the experience is something I would treasure and relish, never to be forgotten.  Indeed, an affair to remember…

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