Subic to Borneo Adventure: April Highlights

April 1-30, 2018: As our Borneo or bust saga continued into April, we were firmly entrenched in Busuanga Bay and our days ambled by. Here are some of the highlights.

One day, locals Roma and Jenny paddled a kayak over to MOKEN to meet Nukaat and feed him lots of treats. He was in his element.

Another day, we did a dive trip to Coron Island with Dan, Nicole, Mashek and an American couple. Our first dive was inside Gunter’s Cave followed by the reef outside. After lunch on a tiny beach nearby, we jumped in again for an exploratory dive near the southwest tip of the island.

Our buddy Richard finally arrived on his sailboat Bewitched. He’d just had a considerable amount of work done to it in Subic, and it was looking great all put together again and back in the water. With him was Polly, a couchsurfer from Hong Kong.

We’d been enjoying our relative seclusion in the bay, but suddenly we found ourselves surrounded. Where did all these cruisers come from? In addition to Bewitched, there was Sie (Freebird), Melinda and Brian (Velella), Pablo and Nerea (Vanini), Tom and Colleen (Mokisha), Skip and Tally (Orion), Matt and Karen (Yume), Julio and Annalee (Gray) with their niece Ellen, a French couple on a trimaran (Moana), the Russians on two sailboats from Vladivostok and others we didn’t get a chance to meet. What fun to hang out and share cruising stories and tips on anchorages, things to see and dive sites.

Skip and Tally invited us to their place for lunch together with Damian and Dave the Dog, and gave us a tour of all the work they’ve got going on around their waterfront property in the outer bay. It’s indoor outdoor living at its best with no walls and no neighbours nearby. Why didn’t I take any photos?

Air Juan float planes fly in to the bay on most days, shuttling guests to and from the various resorts in the area. One morning our pilot friends David and Jim from Subic flew in after an aborted attempt to pick up guests from a private resort further south. We had a quick catch up over coffee before they flew out.

Nicole’s family owned a large stretch of water access only beachfront property on the northwest tip of Culion Island near Galoc Island. The property was being sold and so she planned a dive trip for a group of us. One the first dive, Dan and Nicole went exploring for booty from a suspected Spanish nearby wreck, while Richard, Polly, Sie, Chris and I opted for a relaxing reef dive. While damaged in some places, some areas were incredibly healthy and there was a lot to see. If only the visibility had been a bit better. After lunch, all the divers jumped back in the water except me. I hung out on the beach with MJ and little Sam, who was busy digging in the sand with my flip flops. What a great day.

Then there were the usual trips to Ann and Mike’s in Concepcion, pool time at Al Faro, happy hour at the Seahorse Bar and dives on the wrecks. One day I took a Q van into Coron for the day to restock. Meanwhile, Chris finished his wiring project, and added a second VHF radio in the pilothouse. And we decided it was finally time to go exploring up the river as far as we could into the mangroves, something we’ve been meaning to do for years. It wound and twisted its way quite far inland to a small village near the main road, where we found the Pirate Divers boat resting. This is the dive boat we used for both our big day trips.

On our last day around Bususanga, we rented a motorbike for a trip to the market in Salvacion for fruit and veg, followed by one last trip to Coron to stock up on other stuff.

At long last, we were ready to continue our journey south. On the morning of April 13, after topping up our water supply, we untied from the mooring and headed out, leaving behind only Freebird and Yume in the bay. All the other cruising yachts (aside from the bay’s regular residents) had trickled out over the last few days.

We had gusts up to 25 knots as we made our way to Popototan straight, where we had a short reprieve before a salty passage down the west side of Culion Island to Halsey Harbour. We were anchored in our usual spot in the north arm by mid afternoon. The wind continued gusting and it wasn’t long before a local family in a small banca appeared to collect some pins and notepads. One of my favourite things about this place is how dark it is at night. There are no city lights to compete with the stars. It makes for great sky watching and the Milky Way is especially stunning.

We spent the next day on board. A local fishermen came by in the morning and sold us two big crabs (one kilo) for 500 pesos. We ate the legs for lunch and saved the rest to make crab fried rice for dinner. Tom and Colleen (Mokisha) arrived in the afternoon and anchored near us. After their wet exploratory dinghy ride up the mangrove river, they joined us on MOKEN for appies and sundowners.

The following morning, Tom and Colleen left for Linipacan Island while we opted for a short hop to the south arm of Halsey Harbour. It was still gusty when we anchored well up the south arm, not far from the Tao camp, and it stayed gusty all afternoon. Just as we got in dinghy in the afternoon to go exploring further up the way, Matt and Karen (Yume) arrived and anchored nearby. Our dinghy trip up to the end of the inlet was humid and hot and we turned around when it got shallow and muddy. That afternoon, we enjoyed sundowners on Yume.

Back on MOKEN, we sat out under the stars and listened to the tukos calling back and forth. It was calm as glass. What a great anchorage. We should have come here years ago.

The next morning we were up early and on our way by 0600. The water in the inlet was still glassy and we decided to go through the south pass. It looks much narrower on the chart than it is in reality, but we still had to keep an eye out for reefs and rocks. Sadly, there was a lot of garbage in the water around here.

It was rolly on the outside and we put up the main sail for a while to get some stabilizing effects as we crossed to Linapacan Island. We tried ducking in among some of the smaller islands looking for protection from the swell, to no avail. We heard the Philipinne Navy coast watch hail our friends on Mokisha and then they hailed us. They must have seen us on AiS as they called both of us by our vessel name.

We hoped the seas would calm down a bit once we started south down the east coast of Palawan towards Iloc Island and Butacan Island, but it was uncomfortable the whole way. On the approach to Flower Island, we found the west side of the island protected by an outer net well offshore. There were five or six moorings on the inside and two entrances to the area. The northern one was marked by a raft on one side and a large float on the other. After tying to the largest mooring, we took the dinghy to shore where we were met by the resort manager, Nenit.

We first heard about Flower Island several years ago from the owner, Jacques, who kept his luxurious French-built sailing yacht (Namaste) across the dock from MOKEN in Subic. He invited us to visit. It took us a while, but we finally made it and so glad we did. What a beautiful place.

Flower Island (aka Butacan Island) doesn’t have the most protected mooring field, and we got quite a lot of swell from time to time, but we still hung out for five days. One day we went for a walk around the island. That took about 40 minutes. Another day we walked up to the lighthouse viewpoint at the highest point on the island for 360 degree views of the surrounding islands. We did a dive on the house reef from MOKEN’s swim deck. It was really, really close. Chris cleaned the hull, while I cleaned inside and worked on our taxes. Whenever it got too hot, we’d jump into the water for a quick dip to cool down.

Most evenings we spent watching the sun set from the beach chairs followed by buffet dinners at the resort. For a change, one evening we watched the sun set from the umbrella viewpoint on a rocky outcrop. We could never understand why nobody spent any time here until we discovered a huge horde of giant, biting red ants. We successfully eluded them for a while, but eventually gave up and moved into the tidepools below.

The most curious thing about our stay was a two-day invasion by millions of little brown round jellyfish. They weren’t there when we arrived. One day they just showed up. The staff had differing opinions on whether or not they were stingers. We didn’t really want to find out. Sometimes the jellies were grouped close to shore, virtually shutting down swimming. Sometimes they were floating around the bay in small and big clusters. As the winds picked up during the day, they’d ride the surface current out near MOKEN and that put an end to our cool-off swims. Just as quickly as they arrived, one day the jellies disappeared. Maybe the winds blew them offshore to invade another island.

On our last day, we joined a Swiss French couple for a trip to one of eight pearl farms that Jacques owns in the area. At the farm, our guides gave us a very interesting tour, explaining the various steps from cultivating the oysters through to pearl seeding and harvesting. The local oysters aren’t very good at procreating on their own in the wild, so they get a lot of help here, increasing the reproductive rate from well below one per cent to somewhere between five and ten per cent. It takes a year before the oysters are ready to leave the nursery and go out to the farms for another year before the pearl making process begins.

In the seeding building, we watched as a Filipina technician sliced the mantle of a sacrificial donor oyster (which provides the colour to the pearl) into eight pieces. Then a Japanese technician carefully propped open the receiving oyster, made a slice in the mantle and inserted a piece of donor mantle and a freshwater pearl seed. Cheaper quality pearls are made with plastic seeds. Once done, the oysters were placed back on racks and taken out to the farms to grow for another three years. Divers clean the racks and oyster shells regularly, and oysters are x-rayed from time to time to make sure the growing pearl hasn’t been vomited out.

The whole process takes five years from start to finish and the farms employ a large number of technicians, divers and security guards. It’s a big investment and can be negatively impacted by environmental hazards, natural disasters and disease. In the end, they are hoping for prized champagne coloured pearls. A matched pair of large, champagne pearl earrings could set you back USD $4,000. Their method is very proprietary, so we weren’t allowed to see some aspects of it or take any photos.

That afternoon, off-duty resort staff Daphne and Cheche came to the boat to meet Nukaat. We settled our bill that evening after dinner in preparation for departure in the morning.

We were up early and set off at 0615h for our trip around the north tip of Palawan to our next anchorage near El Nido. What a difference a few days makes. The seas were calm and we spotted a few dolphins off our beam after we rounded the cape. We were anchored off the beach at Corong Corong by 1300h.

For the next week, we settled in and made ourselves at home. The anchorage is much busier than it has been in other years. All the tourist bancas are now based here, so it makes for a busy early morning and late afternoon when all the boats are leaving or returning from their day trips to the islands around the bay. There were also quite a few cruising yachts anchored nearby.

We provisioned at the market, one of my favourites for quality and variety of fresh seafood. I may have gotten a little carried away on my first visit. I got tuna steak, squid, prawns and pork tenderloin. I’ve started taking my own containers for seafood and meat, so I don’t have to deal with fishy-smelling plastic bags afterwards. We also took in our laundry, got water and had a sand anchor made at Nawar welding shop in town. We went for a swim and beach cleanup at a tiny beach near MOKEN. It’s popular with local teens and was littered with trash and broken glass. What a mess.

One night, Nukaat caught a birdie, proving that he hasn’t lost his hunting skills even after all this time on board. Chris tossed it overboard. What a mess we found on deck and inside in the morning. There were feathers everywhere.

Getting sick is one of the least fun things about traveling. About a week into our stay in El Nido, I got food poisoning. Projectile vomiting is no fun, let me tell you. I felt so much better the next morning that I even ate three crackers.

Meeting new people is a much better aspect of traveling. We spent one evening sharing information on cruising in Borneo and the Philippines with fellow cruisers, Phil and Iva. Another day we dinghied to Vellagio resort for sunset mojitos and got to talking with a young couple from the UK, Nana and Stefan. Suddenly, out of the blue, Nana added that she was Russian/Georgian and grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Chris had worked for years. What a small world. She was so amazed that we’d been to both Georgia and Azerbaijan.

There are some recurring faces too. One day we met up with Chris and Shelley from Vancouver Island, as they were in the area for Chris to work on a float plane in Tay Tay. We’d first met Chris last year, when he was working on the same plane in Subic. Sie arrived on Freebird towards the end of the month, and we also caught up with Rocky, who we met on our first trip to Palawan, several years ago.

Stay tuned for the final installment in our Borneo or bust saga, possibly coming soon.

With additional photos by Polly.

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