The Philippines is a mecca for scuba and snorkelling with a host of clear-water opportunities for exploring the ocean bed. Melanie Brown flew to Palawan to introduce her children to the delights of diving.
Stunning Palawan attracts divers from all over the world.
Both of our children are used to spending holidays snorkelling patiently on the ocean surface as we parents scuba beneath them.
They have been treading water (quite literally), waiting for the time when they would both be old enough to take their PADI Open Water Certification. That moment has now been reached, so earlier this year we spent a sea-and-sun soaked week at the Sangat Island Dive Resort on the island of Palawan in The Philippines.
Ten years is the minimum requirement for Open Water Certification, which allows for independent diving of up to 12 metres with a ‘buddy’.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, anticipation mounted further as the children completed the online eLearning course and assessments - and I have to admit with a lot more enthusiasm than they usually manage to muster for their school homework assignments.
Sangat Island is closest to Busuanga airport and is reached by a half-hour drive in a minivan and a further half-hour speed boat ride. But the remote dive resort had been recommended by friends and turned out to be worth the journey. It’s eco-friendly and family-friendly and apart from the odd grumpy wild monkey, very easy-going. We were well looked after by the dive shop, which is smoothly run by Jo Jo from Germany, an experienced and marvellously calm English dive instructor called Luke, and a team of efficient, well-humoured dive masters and boat captains.
The Brown family exploring the 'big blue'.
The children spread their open water qualification over five days, although it is possible to complete the course in four. The training begins in a sheltered, sandy-bottomed sea pool and then progresses to three, open water training dives.
While the kids got the hang of their equipment and buoyancy control with the eternally patient Luke, myself and my husband explored the amazing shipwrecks in the Coron Bay area.
On September 24, 1944, a US bomber squadron devastated a Japanese supply fleet. Today, these wrecks remain surprisingly intact and lie at accessible depths of about 20-40m, which means they work well for Nitrox (the oxygen-enriched air used in recreational diving) and don’t involve the hassle of lengthy decompression stops.
We swam inside several massive vessels and saw boiler rooms, engines, tractors and even a bicycle and a gas mask. Some sections are narrow and dark, which the lobsters probably enjoy more than I did. In other spots, natural light fights through the fans and fish that arrange themselves in the portholes. Then you suddenly reach a wider open space where the light floods in from different holes in the wreck and it’s like a cathedral.
The wreck dives were magical but by far the most memorable experience this holiday was the first reef dive we did as a family. Luke guided us, which helped the kids feel safe and follow the procedures they had learnt. Together, we descended to the maximum 12m that the children are qualified for.
Finding Nemo amongst the corals.
I watched them find lots of “Nemos”, a moray eel and colourful nudibranchs (sea slugs). Almost 20 years ago to the day, myself and my (now) husband had taken our own Padi Advanced Open Water course together in Cairns, Australia, and marvelled at clownfish in the same way. The realisation that I’m not only still enjoying diving with my husband but also now with our two kids may have brought a tear or two to my eyes - luckily dive masks do a good job of concealing soppy mummy tears!
“It felt like flying!” exclaimed my daughter back in the dive boat.
“Actually it’s like wearing virtual reality goggles - but it’s reality,” corrected her brother. Needless to say, they were both blown away by their first ‘real’ dive.
Another fun fact is that diving makes you hungry. The inclusive buffet meals at the resort were a pleasant surprise. We were presented with an impressive selection of dishes three times a day, with many plant-based options, pastas, curries and fresh salads, as well as the classic white rice option with pork or chicken that the kids love. We were even treated to spit-roasted wild boar with a thick, chewy crackling and gravy that completely broke my plant-based resolve.
The happy hours involved brightly coloured, generously poured cocktails and bottles of San Miguel in the outdoor bar while the kids played pool, drank calamansi juice and scoffed bowls of popcorn. There is enough wifi in the indoor communal area to keep the kids happy for an hour or so during siesta. The wifi it doesn’t stretch to the accommodation or the outdoor bar, so I could enforce non-digital conversation on the family for most of the time.
The Brown family all at sea; (l to r) David, Mel, William and May.
The accommodation is simple but clean and comfortable. In-keeping with the eco-tourism ethos, there is no air conditioning, so we did have the ceiling fan and two large plug-in fans running all night.
As well as dining and diving, there are canoes, stand-up paddle boards, jet skis and my personal favourite, comfortable hammocks. We also took a full-day, island-hopping trip to visit the lagoons, lakes and snorkelling spots in Coron Bay. The stops were beautiful but somewhat busy at Easter so we appreciated our Sangat seclusion the following day.
We’ll definitely be back to Sangat when the children are of an age and experience level to explore the wrecks with us. In the more immediate future, I’m just trying to work out how we can squeeze a few more family dives into our busy summer plans….
The Brown family flew Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Manila, where they transferred to the domestic terminal (top tip, take a taxi rather than the slower, airport shuttle bus). They then flew with Sky Jet to Busuanga. The resort organised the rest of the transfer. All up, it took 12 hours door-to-door.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Asia Family Traveller. Never miss an issue by subscribing now.