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2000, Palawan, Philippines

Palawan, Phillipines

The Barca, a narrow-hulled motorised boat with two sets of outriggers, dropped anchor in a place that Rene called Twin Lagoons. It was time to swim again.

This was the fourth of seven swim stops in a day-long boat trip to display the glories of Coron - one of the Calamian islands in North Palawan - and the most westerly and least exploited Philippine island.

Filipinos call Palawan "the last frontier", as if its coral outcrops and quiet sandy beaches are virgin territory. They are not. Walking along the tidal fringe of some of the islands it was necessary to dodge occasional glass slivers from broken bottles.

Some of the glass is the fragmentary remains of crude bombs made from petrol-filled bottles hurled into the sea by fishermen. The use of these bombs, what the Filipinos call dynamiting, along with cyanide poisoning, has caused widespread damage to coral reefs, so much so that some resort owners mount armed patrols on their beaches.

Dynamiting is illegal and the authorities run poster campaigns in an effort to persuade fishermen to end the practice; but it still goes on. "I saw thousands of dead and dying fish among coral which had been untouched a day or so earlier," said Charlie Needs, a fellow guest at Dive Link Resort on Uson, a small island 10 minutes by boat from Coron town.

In spite of the constant ecological struggle between conservationists on one side, often led by scuba diving interests, and the fishermen driven by poverty to scoop up as much as they can from the sea bed, it is still possible to fool yourself that Coron is a slice of paradise.

The swimming circuit with my personal Barca crew, Geronimo, the helmsman, Lui, the anchorman and Rene, an all-purpose passe-partout, was like drinking from a well of sensory delight.

The water in Two Lagoons has a fuzzy, almost oily quality near the surface as clear warm springs from the depths meet and fuse with a colder brackish layer.

Dive and the sea becomes crystal clear, falling away beneath the submerged cliff face into a deepening, silent, enveloping blue mass. No wonder this is the diving centre of the Philippines. It is difficult to resist the urge to dive ever deeper.

Lui seemed to understand this lure, expelling the air from his lungs and drifting effortlessly downwards to the coral and weed encrusted ribs of an old fishing boat wreck. My own effort to reach the wreck, a lung-busting challenge at a depth of 30ft, achieved the briefest of touches.

By the time we had hiked to Cayangan Lake, an inland lagoon, I had mastered Lui's technique but could not match his capacity to walk on the lake bed. This was in the shallower parts. The lake has become a favourite among divers who can reach a thermal layer about 40ft down, where water temperature rises to 38 deg C.

But the biggest draw for divers in Coron are the wrecks from a second world war Japanese supply flotilla attacked by US dive bombers in September 1944. Twelve of the ships were sunk and 10 are accessible in depths of 40ft to 120ft. Several resorts and companies run diving courses that can enable novices to achieve a basic qualification within a few days.

Dugong and manta rays are often found in these waters. Puffa fish, groupers and moray eels are common and wrecks are visited by the occasional shark. The despoliation through dynamiting means purists may conclude there are better places for coral diving in other parts of the world. Some of the slowest-growing corals will take years to recover.

Those who are not purists, however, will be entranced by Palawan. This, after all, is the part of the world which inspired Alex Garland's The Beach, so it seems fitting that the hordes have been diverted to an island off Thailand, chosen as the location for the subsequent film.

Palawan is special for its natural beauty - the undercut limestone cliffs and palm-fringed beaches. But the extra ingredient that contributes so much is people. The local economy was sustained by fishing and pearl diving before scuba diving began to bring tourism. You sometimes meet old pearl fishers in the town, their legs lumpy with throm boses, the legacy of diving continually at great depths.

The diving centre bars are populated mostly by macho types who like nothing more than discussing the correct mix for nitrogen and oxygen or the debilitating symptoms of the bends. There are also some romantics, drawn by stories of hidden gold. The whereabouts of a legendary treasure hoard, supposedly collected and hidden by General Yamashita during the second world war, is a constant source of speculation throughout the Philippines.

But, if you seek solitude, there are a few hideaways left. One is Coral Bay: three beach huts on privately owned Popototan Island run by the Dive Link Resort.

The staple diet there is fish, crab and rice. The boat ride takes about two hours from Coron town, passing the wreck sites and pearl farms. There is nothing to do at Coral Bay. It is not a place for the energetic. But there cannot be many better places to unwind.

If Palawan is indeed the last frontier it might be worth a visit before it gets the full resort make-over.

The Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved