PASTOR HERMI MET us at Culion port. He was tall, tan and wore wraparound sunglasses. He looked more like a beach volleyball player than a man of the cloth and tour guide, but he was passionate about unearthing and sharing Culion’s surprisingly rich history. We piled into a motorized trike and zipped uphill towards the old Spanish fort. The beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception had been built on and amongst the defensive walls. Inside, two women were dusting the pews and arranging flowers for a wedding later that day. Exiting through a side door, we climbed up to a battlement with a commanding view over the island-studded sea.
“See that cannon?” Hermi asked Drake and Kiva. “See that narrow place where the boats can come into the city? That’s where the cannon is pointing; to protect the city from invaders.”
Drake and Kiva were fascinated. “Who were the invaders?”
“Well, at that time, mostly Muslims,” Hermi replied. “The Spanish wanted to protect their fort and their church. Remember, before the Spanish came and brought the Catholic faith, most of the people in this area of the Philippines were Muslim.”
A short walk away were the lemon-colored walls of the Culion Sanitarium and Hospital. A hundred years ago, this was the largest leprosarium (leper colony) in the world, designed by the Americans to isolate the afflicted, prevent the spread of and eventually eradicate the disease. Today, it’s an important medical center for the region. “We get patients from Busuanga, Palawan, all over. It’s amazing to think that this hospital has changed from a ‘place of no return’ to a place where people are cured!”
After sailing north through a maze of tightly-packed islands, we moored beside the wreck of the Terukasi Maru, sunk by U.S. planes in WWII. The boat lay on its side in relatively shallow water, its stern only a meter below the surface. After eighty years submerged, the Terukasi Maru was now a ship-shaped coral reef teeming with life. Wreck snorkelling was a new experience for the boys and they were utterly captivated. Our family had a good hour floating alone above the ship and free-diving down to get a closer look. Then suddenly, four boats from Coron Town showed up and we shoved off.
Our second evening was spent on stunning Pass Island, a low hump of green with a tongue of the whitest sand extending into the light blue water. Hoover, the island’s loveable resident chocolate lab, was the first to greet us. Chino said that the island gets over 100 guests daily, mostly day-tours from Busuanga and Coron Towns. But it was already 4:00 p.m., so we had the island to ourselves (again). While the boys played Uno with Chino and cavorted with Hoover, Nori and I followed a path up and over the knoll to the other side of the island. The sky was filled with ragged clouds that lit up magically as the sun dropped behind dozens of islands.
A GLORIOUS SLUMBER recharged our bodies and spirits. We woke to the peaceful sounds of palm fronds high-fiving above our bamboo hut and tiny waves caressing the sand. The last day. Sigh. After a ‘clear-out-the-leftovers’ breakfast of gristly beef tapa, bright red hot dogs and fried rice, Nori and I snorkeled one last time in the exceptionally clear water. The boys were giving Hoover belly-rubs and jumping from the outriggers. It was one of the finest mornings of our six-month trip.
Towering Coron Island – always visible throughout our cruise – was a two-hour sail east back across Coron Bay. But an hour into the journey, we heard a loud grinding noise from the stern, followed by a BONK! Our transmission had broken. We’d have to wait an hour for a replacement boat to arrive from Coron Town.
“Time for fishing!” Chino shouted, killing the tension.
While I fished Filipino-style – a hand-line wrapped around a joint of bamboo, a section of rebar for a sinker – the boys jumped overboard, turning the bangka’s outriggers and struts into a jungle gym. There was no point in getting upset. Our overnight ferry to Manila left tomorrow afternoon, the kids were having a great time and there was plenty of Tanduhay rum and Coke in the cooler box. An hour later, we and Chino were on a new boat with a new crew, heading for Coron.
After the splendid isolation of Pass Island, Twin Lagoon was something of a shock: eight bangkas crammed into a small cove. You could swim to a bamboo ladder and climb up over the low saddle between the two lagoons (a favorite IG spot), or you could swim through a nearly submerged tunnel to the other side. We swam, together with a group of 20 comically unfit Filipinos who linked arms and legs and were towed backwards into the lagoon by their beefy guide. Coron’s serrated cliffs towered above us, carving a circle of blue from the sky.
The dozens of bangkas lined up under the cliffs near Kayangan Lake made for a pretty photo, if you waited in line 20 minutes to take it. Each one of those boats carried upwards of a dozen tourists. As a result, the trail leading up over the ridge and down to the lake looked like the queue for Magic Mountain at Disneyland. Kayangan Lake itself was undeniably beautiful – pellucid water hemmed in by sheer limestone walls – but the short wooden pathway built along the lakeside was thronged with people desperate to get a sexy photo with no one else in the frame. Our boys inadvertently spoiled hundreds of photos. I purposely spoiled a few.
I WORRY that greed could ruin Coron Island, just as it did Boracay (which Philippine President Dutuerte closed for six months because its famous waters had become a “cesspool”) and Thailand’s Maya Beach near Koh Phi Phi (closed indefinitely due to ‘overtourism’.) Coron’s main attractions were already overcrowded, yet the Philippines is now a “hot” global destination and the tsunami of intra-Asian tourism is still swelling. Underwater, I had noted bleached coral, meagre fish numbers and diversity and clear evidence of dynamite fishing. The only long-term solution is to limit tourist numbers and raise prices, but local governments are terrible at enforcement and there are huge incentives for businessmen to keep adding flights, hotel rooms and boats.
Two things did give me hope. First, we hardly ever saw trash (PET bottles, crips packages etc.) floating in the water (like in Komodo) or strewn across beaches (like in the Mergui Archipelago). The islanders, apparently, had embraced a clean-up campaign. On both Banana and Pass Island, we’d watched in amazement as staff meticulously swept up fallen leaves and plucked tiny bits of trash from the beach in the morning. Second, Coron Island is owned and managed by the Tagbanwa people, one of the Philippines’ oldest ethnic groups. Ultimately, they have the ability (and responsibility) to control where, when and how many people visit the island. Hopefully, they learn to prioritize sustainability over revenue maximization, so that their karst wonderland keeps captivating for generations.