Monday, March 20, 2006

A PG Moment (PG = Puerto Galera)

I never mean for these stories to be get so long, but they always manage to get that way! Sorry about that. This tale comes from a visit my wife and I made to Puerto Galera last May. As always, when we go there, we had a great time, and during this trip, I made a really neat discovery. You can never go wrong with PG. Hotel rates and food costs are reasonable, AND the beaches and underwater life are extraordinary.
So far, Puerto Galera is my favorite vacation spot in the Philippines, and I’ve been to more than a few. As far as the actual town of Puerto Galera, I’m not all that familiar with it—for me, it’s only been a stopping place where the super out-rigger boats drop us off after the hour-plus ride from Batangas City. From Puerto Galera, we immediately hire a small outrigger taxi , or bangka, to take us to our final destination of Big La Laguna Hotel. Big La Laguna is walking distance from Sabang, a tiny resort town a couple miles around the bend from PG. Okay, so much for the beginning of the background information, but of course, knowing me, there’s more!

As you can tell from the title, today’s tale is about a “PG moment;” and I’ve had many of them, for Puerto Galera is THE place for making memorable moments. Its wind-rippled sea reflects an endless array of blues and greens, depending on its interaction with the ever-changing sky. The beaches are picturesque, and so numerous that you can always find one to call your own. Sabang’s curved beachfront is a quarter mile long—quaint resort hotels line it from end-to-end, each with it’s own unique restaurant, bar and dive shop. And the best thing of all about the region are the dozens of wonderful snorkeling and dive sites, which brings us to the beginning of THIS PG moment.

My favorite snorkeling site is The Coral Gardens. It’s only about a 10 to 15-minute bangka ride from Big La Laguna and it is spectacular. Once I’m in the water, outfitted with mask, snorkel and fins, don’t expect to see me again on the beach for at least two hours. I don’t want to get too bogged down describing the breathtaking underwater scenery of The ‘Gardens, but it IS incredible to behold. I’ve been in its crystalline water for more than three hours and it felt like 30 minutes. I think heaven must be like that—so delightful that time ceases to have meaning.

On once such snorkeling venture at The Gardens, I decided to explore the shoreline where the beach gives way to lofty rock formations. I knew it was bound to make for some exciting swimming after the relative calmness of the deep water. I could see large swells ending in foamy wash as they bashed headlong into those ancient volcanic rocks. I approached them, and from my close-up underwater perspective, I saw that the shore rocks were actually quite cliff-like at 15 to 40 feet in height, counting the submerged rock face.

I hovered in the water a dozen feet from the first length of this coastal rock and for a few minutes I simply observed the new environment. I'll say this: when a person swims in tropical waters THAT is when one truly SEES! I kid you not. Most of us go through life on land without really SEEING anything. A surface person going about daily routines looks WITHOUT paying attention; BUT as soon as that oblivious landlubber plunges into beautiful, life-filled tropical waters, such as those at The Coral Gardens, THAT is when he starts seeing EVERYTHING. In fact, ALL your senses go into overload as you try to take it all in and realize that you can’t!

At The Gardens, schools of brightly colored fish pass inches away; sometimes so thick in numbers that your vision is completed occluded by them. Many of the curious ones check you out, bumping and pecking at your skin to see if you might be edible. Coral of incredible shapes, sizes, and colors; too lovely to describe with words, dot the sea floor as individuals and in extensive formations—ALL this marine beauty—jellyfish, shelled animals, all sorts of seaweed, you name it—IT MUST be seen to be believed. Smug with this knowledge, I drifted on the tossing surface. Then, kicking my fins, I approached the first segment of rock face.

The underwater geology of the diminutive sea cliffs near The Gardens is best described as a series of shallow cul-de-sacs. You would never realize this by looking at the rocky shoreline from a boat, because from the surface, the craggy shore rock seems to run straight where it picks up from the sandy beachfront. I discovered through my mask that in actuality, just a few feet beneath the surface, there are mini-canyons formed by rows of jumbled rock. These parallel lines of submerged boulders and coral run out to sea perpendicular to the shore, and form miniature canyons of some 10 to 20 yards long. Each one ends in a shallow indentation in the rock wall. I swam up into the first little ravine and noticed plant and sea life I hadn’t spotted in the deeper water. Since I had never seen these aquatic organisms before, to me, I was discovering new life forms with every turn of my head. It was exquisite.

Taking a deep breath, I headed back out of the first gulch. I jack-knifed, and kicked my fins strongly. Quickly reaching the bottom, I skimmed a foot or so above the seafloor and glided back out to sea. When I reached the end of cul-de-sac, I surfaced and forcefully blew stale air from my hungry lungs. This sent a surge of spray from my snorkel, clearing the water from it, and allowing me to suck in a fresh lungful. I turned back along my original direction of exploration, exploring each little canyon in turn, every one with its own geological characteristics. Some were deep and wide, others comparatively narrow and shallow, but no two were exactly alike. That’s The Coral Gardens, everywhere you turn there’s a multiplicity of scenery.

Believe it or not, all the above narrative is mere setup for what I saw next. Forty-five minutes after my investigation of the shore rocks began, I swam up into a very deep and wide underwater ravine. I knew instinctively that this one was nothing at all like the others—even the water was colder. I turned up into this unique ravine and stopped dead in the water. There, in front of me, was a black and ominous maw. I felt my heart go crazy and my eyes bulge in astonishment. I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’

The black abyss that I had stumbled upon was an underwater cave. I forced myself to calm down, and soon I swam slowly directly toward the ominously dark and disturbing void. I’m not sure why I was so frightened by it, but I liked the feeling. I grinned around the snorkel in my mouth thinking, “Now THIS is the kind of thing that makes life worth living!’

I could not take my eyes off that dark emptiness. Irrationally, I suspected that something dreadful was lurking in its sinister depths. Still, if one can do so wearing fins in the water, I crept forward, closer and closer toward the cave. I stopped advancing once I reached the waterline well above the cave entrance.

The indentation leading to the actual opening didn’t start until 4 or 5 feet below the surface, so that from a boat, no one would ever suspect that the cavity was there. Complicating my inspection, as I intimated above, the black opening of the cavern itself didn’t start immediately below the waterline. Like all the other mini-canyon cul-de-sacs I had just explored, the rock face here had a bulging indentation below the waterline, and at the end of this bulge, several feet back, that’s where the blackness of the cavern actually started.

The deepness of the cave prevented me from being able to see it from near the rock face while snorkeling. At the surface all I could see through my mask was rock, but as I became more comfortable with being near the cavern, I got braver. I took a breath and cautiously swam underwater toward the menacing opening. The back and forth surge of the sea made it tough to hold my position, and my buoyancy forced me up and into the rock where it started to form a roof. I tried to put my arms up and hold myself away from it, but it was very awkward. I kept bumping my head into the rough stone above me as I peered into the oblong orifice.

To spare my noggin from anymore of a beating, I went as deep as I could before angling back up towards the mouth of the cave. From 6 feet down, and the same distance from the scary entrance, I could take in some of the particulars of it. Dimensions are hard to calculate underwater, but now I could see that the maw was oval in shape, about 8 feet across, and 5 feet high; and it wasn’t vertical, but steeply canted outwards from the bottom, a bit like a door slanting toward you. It was this steep slant that gave the hole its oblong appearance. I started to drift upwards into the rock roof, so I turned and pulled with my arms and kicked hard for the safety of the outer surface and blessed air. But, for a split second, just before I had to jet, I thought I had seen something way back inside the blackness.

I held onto the vertical rock face and considered what I thought I had just seen—sunlight! As unlikely as it seemed, way in the back of the abyss, I was sure I saw a shimmering patch of light. Excited with the possibilities, I quickly refilled my lungs and dove deeper yet into the recess. I reached the bottom and kicked back up, situating myself at the very entrance of the murky opening. Putting my hands up against the stone surface above me, I gazed intently into the circle of darkness.

I was right! There, way up inside of the cave tunnel, it wasn’t completely black after all. There was light, at least two splotches of it, and it seemed to shimmer as if reflecting off surface water. That meant the cavern wasn’t completely underwater; there must be open air someplace back there. There had to be if I could see sunlight—Right?

‘Okay, now what?’ I thought. I felt an intense need to swim into the very throat of the maw and towards that light. As I said though, it’s very difficult to judge distances underwater. Those glimmering spots of light could have been 10 feet away, or more than 30 feet. I struggled with what my next move would be.

‘Oh hell. I’m going for it!’ I decided. As soon as I made the decision, I felt my pulse increase as my heart kicked up a couple notches. ‘Man oh man, I could die in there!’ I thought happily. ‘God help me, I must be sick or something,’ I told myself, but I was giddy at the idea of the danger. ‘All right, let’s do it!’ I took five or six deep hyperventilating breaths and dove deep into the outer opening, at the bottom I kicked off and headed directly into the cave’s murky mouth.

As I pushed into the murk, I realized I was entering a tunnel of sorts, and I would have to pass through it to enter the unknown depths of the cavern. I became disconcerted when I lost sight of the small puddles of light that I had been using as a visual reference. I became disoriented and started to freak out. Those little patches of sun had winked out, blocked by the crown of the tunnel. I could see nothing but blackness; I might as well have had my eyes closed. I beat back panic, and to worsen things, my head bashed painfully against the semi-smooth overhead rock. ‘No AIR yet! Where is it!’ I heard myself scream inside my head. I was only dimly aware of the pain on the top of my coconut, because I was becoming more and more concerned about drowning.

When I was a teenager, I could hold my breath and swim three submerged lengths of our 20+foot pool. I hadn’t gone a fraction of that distance into the entrance tunnel of the cave, but my adrenalized body was already craving air, while my psyche longed for light. For a split second, I thought about going back out, but then I thought, ‘NAAAHH!’ I became determined that my next breath was going to be from INSIDE the cave!

Now, it wasn’t as dramatic as all that, because I knew from my years of swimming that if I had to, I could swim a long way even when my lungs were at the bursting point. Thing is, I also knew that if I lost concentration and gave in to my breathing reflex, my dead body would end up against the roof, submerged for only-God-knows how long. So there WAS a small element of peril in the mix.

Stuck against the rock above me, I tried to push down, but I had very little leverage. I tried to continue kicking toward the direction where I knew the light was but, again, I bumped my forehead two more times. ‘To heck with this!’ I pushed mightily against the roof and swam as powerfully as I could. Suddenly, I could see dappled light ahead of me, and then, thankfully, I felt air on my hands and forearms. Carefully, I raised my head, leery of another bump to my noodle. I gasped greatfully and sucked in huge lungsful of wonderful air. What a relief!

The inside of that cave is too cool to believe. If you ever go to PG, take a look for it because it is like a movie set. It has an irregular-shaped main chamber with smaller “rooms,” or galleries, jutting off at different angles. And, it is quite roomy—about the size of a small bedroom. The light I saw from the outside was coming from two primary openings in the roof, with a couple more openings that are really little more than cracks. There is a large fallen boulder sitting directly under the largest roof hole. If I had been wearing something other than flippers, I would have tried to climb on top of it to see if I could get through the opening.

For a moment, I sat on the edge of the entrance pool and looked back from whence I swam. Yet again, I was stunned by what I saw, but this time it was a reverse feeling from before. From the sea side of the underwater tunnel entrance, I had seen a menacing black hole, but from INSIDE the cave, the hole was anything BUT menacing—it was gorgeous! From where I looked down at it, framed by the dark walls of the cave and tunnel, what once seemed a scary black mouth, now appeared as a welcoming oval of light green sea. Through that football-shaped opening, I could see the seafloor—rocks, fish, seaweed—everything! It struck me as funny that the sea looked so near from INSIDE the cavern, because it is--probably less than 15 feet. How ironic after being so excited about the possibility of risking death. Yeah right!

Most of the floor of the cave is water. There are a few dry areas of sand and loose rock, but not much. I explored the smaller narrow side rooms, but there was not much to look at. I found a fairly comfortable place to sit on a tiny sandbar almost directly under the largest skylight, and proceeded to soak up the solitude.

The sunbeam streaming in through the natural skylight highlighted a gargantuan spiderweb. I felt uneasy until I spotted the big 8-legged fellow. I relaxed when I realized it wasn’t going to bother me. Smart spider: it had woven its web in the perfect location. Any insect that carelessly falls through the hole above it gets stuck in the web and becomes instant arachnid chow; plus, any flying bug already in the cave will be attracted to the light and be caught as well. Sheer bug genius!

If you’ve ever seen the Tom Hanks movie, “Cast Away,” then you have the feel of my cave; except MY cave’s floor is water. I sat there for a long time, completely hidden from the world; not even my wife, sunning herself not 200 yards away, knew I was in there. I pretended I was Tom as I listened to the water surging in and out of the cavern. As water tends to, it found it’s way to the cave’s furthest reaches. From those shadowy recesses, the surging water made more of a slurping sucking sound; it was kind of creepy to hear.

I soaked in all the sights and sounds in that concealed chamber, but I knew I’d better get back soon. There was plenty of room to stand and walk around, but doing so with fins is difficult even in the best of circumstances. Unsure of the footing, I opted to pull myself along on my stomach back to the entrance pool through the 2-feet of water on the floor. Once back in the deep water above the cave entrance, I adjusted my mask and snorkel. Taking three sharp breaths, I dove straight down towards the beckoning light. It felt like I was birthing myself! It was so easy swimming OUT from the inside, compared to my earlier struggle coming in; but now, I knew exactly where I was and where I was going. What a difference a little light makes.

I popped back out under a big blue tropical sky, and not 50 feet away was our rented bangka boat. I yelled at the boatman and my wife, causing them to jerk their heads around in my direction. My wife was worried sick. They had lost sight of me, and for well over an hour. Amalia was convinced that I had drowned, however, the boat guy wasn’t the least bit surprised by my disappearance. Apparently, he suspected all along where I was, which puzzled me somewhat. He dropped the climbing board into the water for me, and flashed a knowing smile. Nodding towards the cavern's hidden location, he asked, “You found the cave huh?”

I shook my head in disappointment. So much for it being MY cave!


Ed said...

That was one heck of a story. All during the story, I was imagining myself seeing you disappear under water and not coming back up, wondering what I would have done. Then you finally tell that part at the end.

I've never snorkeled but it sounds like a wonderful experience. If I ever spend an extended vacation in the Philippines, I would like to give it a try sometime.

I certainly understand the "my" feeling when you discover something so beautiful and so isolated from the world. I still refer to the Grand Canyon as my canyon!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Thanks Ed. I was foolish to just blunder into the cave that way, but I do things like that sometimes.

Snorkelling is awesome, but my diver buddies tell me there's NOTHING like scuba. I've got to try that.

I've never been to the Grand Canyon, but I've seen it from 3 or 4 miles in the air many times. It certainly is grand. I MUST go and experience if from the ground someday. I'm sure I will truly SEE it then!

Nick Ballesteros said...

This is one exciting post. I actually had goosebumps while reading and saw the photo of the school of fish! Wow, you did your exploration by your lonesome? Makes the adventure more exciting, I guess.

Snorkeling for me is just staying on the water near the banca and looking down. Never learned to swim well. I have wonderful memories of Snake Island in Palawan, Hundred Islands, and Boracay. But surely diving amongst the fishes is not comparable to just shallow snorkeling.

It seems you have seen more of the Philippines than I have. I am indeed glad that I have started on trekking and camping even if it is already quite past my prime. Seeing these natural wonders make me appreciate what we have, and I do feel a sense of responsibility to do my part in preserving it for the benefit of the next generation.

Strange how you suddenly become more aware of your surroundings when you have been to camping trips. Like the tree in my recent post which I have not noticed for years. Or how I would muse about going back to camping when besieged by the polluted urban air. Or how lifted I feel after a trip even if my camping bag physically weighs me down. It is a wonderful feeling.

I have never been to Puerto Galera ... I must include it in my list of itineraries :-).

PhilippinesPhil said...

Wat, you MUST go to PG! If you had goose bumps by seeing those pitifully few fish, you will be awestruck by the massive schools at the Coral Gardens.

Here’s a trick I learned during my last trip: I put three or four handfuls of potato chips in a throwaway plastic shopping bag, the kind with the two handles. Then I twisted it to close the neck, filling it with air. The bag floated on the surface while I snorkeled around on the surface. I untwisted the bag a little so that tiny bits of chips came out of the bag. The particles were dust-sized, but the fish attacked the cloud of chip specks, and remember, I was in the MIDDLE of the cloud! I can’t tell you how amazing the feeling of that was! The little rascals even swam into my swimsuit! Give it a try.

My friend, at PG you don’t have to swim all that deep to be among giant schools of multicolored, multi-sized, and multi-species of fish. You'll love it!

Yeah, I always swim solo, but when I use fins and snorkel, it’s not even like swimming to me. I don’t have to move in the water at all. I float effortlessly, and then barely kick my fins to move about. Unless something dramatic was to happen to me, like getting trapped against the roof of an underwater cave, then I’m completely safe.

At PG I regularly swim so far out that I can barely see the beach. It’s not a problem, even when the water gets to 40 feet deep, because I’m on top of all that H2O with plenty of air to breath! Dang! I’m talking about it and it makes me want to go there tomorrow!

I’ve heard the snorkeling in Palawan can be every bit as breathtaking as PG. You didn’t find yourself surrounded by beautiful schools of fish there? Hmmm. That disappoints me.

I don’t know if I’ve seen MORE of this wonderful country than you, but I have been to a lot of places here over the years. I’d like to go back up to Banaue again. I much prefer it to Baguio, which has turned into a Manila of the denuded mountains! Time to plant some trees up there I think. What a shame no one sees fit to do that.

You’re right about being more in tune with your surroundings after immersing yourself in nature for a time. I started as a young lad in Michigan. I tramped the fields and woods for hours. I used to collect and press plant leaves and wild flowers. I kept my collection in a large album with every botanical item labeled with both common and Latin names. Admittedly, I was a geek! ...and proud of it!

Did you read my comment on your tree with the missing leaves? I think I provided a plausible explanation based on my amateur experiences with botany.

Ed said...

If you see "my canyon," I highly recommend taking a month and going down the river on a wooden dory boat during the early spring. It is the only way to go in my opinion.

Baguio seems to be more and more crowded everytime I go back. I agree that Banaue is better in that aspect.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I don't know when I'll ever see it, but a month on the Colorado River (is that the one?) sounds awesome, like a dream!

The Rice Terraces of Banaue are incredible to behold, and when I went there back in the 80s the vistas were awe inspiring. Have you been there? Also, Sagada is quite close. I saw the hanging coffins high up on the cliffs there, as well as taking a guided tour deep into a ravine that lead to a burial cave. I have pictures of myself next to a "sleeping" skeletal native. I hope they've stopped that disrespectful nonsense.

The beautiful thing about that region was the natural beauty and being able to see the Ifugao in their natural setting. Maybe I'll post some memories of my trip from that long ago time.

Ed said...

Yes I have visited that area. For more details, you can visit my "Joe Philippines" archive in the sidebar of my blog under journals. The things I recommend are:

There is a very neat cave to spelunk near Sagada.

There is a fairly nice (rustic type) motel near some of the rice terraces. Behind the motel, you can follow a path down the mountainside and it eventually leads to a village part way down where there is a lady willing to show her grandfather's bones to paying people. Most tourist maps have the place on it. I declined the offer thinking it morbid but did "hire" her daughter to take us on down to the rice terraces for awhile.

I did see the hanging coffins and by your description, probably visited the same cave. Though we were told that they collected money at the entrance to view the bones, nobody was there. We didn't go very far in out of respect but enough to see hundreds of coffins in all states of disrepair and plenty of bones.

For better descriptions, read the back journals. I also posted some pictures too.

Ed said...

Oh... yes the Colorado river is correct. I boated with Grand Canyon Dories on a 21 day trip from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead. It was the trip of a lifetime. Those journals are also on my sidebar.

Amadeo said...

Nice, exciting account, Phil.

With your deep passion for snorkeling, you should visit the southern islands like Cebu, if you have not already done so. Where coral reefs abound, and of course, colorful fish life.

And maybe even mysterious or ominous Siquijor.

Me? Though I grew up no more than a few kms. from ocean beaches, never developed the skills to swim well. But I admire those who can.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Ummm... I did have a wonderful time at Palawan. Even at knee deep, the fish would swim near you!

I certainly feel your enthusiasm for Puerto Galera! :-).

Being someone who grew up in Baguio, I am indeed disheartened that I see a LOT of strangers there. And the traffic has become so horrid. As a concerned citizen, I must monitor the projects being done by the local government there.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ed, your an extremely physically active guy and a prolific blogger to boot...!

I'll be checking out your journals if I ever got caught up with my VSO homework. I finally get a break from school and the service officer work takes off. And here I THOUGHT I was retired.

I stayed in that hotel back in 1985 if its the same one, and I don't remember it being rustic. It was a fairly new hotel with a pool and the whole schmeer. I know there was also a hostel for travellers with a slightly lower budget. On my own, I followed a path that led away from the hotel and I didn't make it to a village. I think I started to follow some of the terrace paths and ended up climbing for a view. I always go to the high ground...maybe my military training?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Amadeo, yes, I have been to Cebu but the only beach I visited was the Magellan Death Beach on Mactan. It's the one with the big statue of Lapu Lapu.

I hope to be here long enough to swim all the good snorkelling spots, including any around Cebu.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Wat, have you ever tried using fins in the water? Along with a mask and snorkel, it's hardly like swimming at all. You can breathe without worrying about keeping your face out of the water, and the fins make you super human when it comes to speed. The equipment is cheap to buy, cheaper to rent, and it is a blast!