Barracuda Lake is considered by many to be one of the world’s most unique dives. A surreal, sensory experience from moment one, the underwater exploration is more about what you feel than what you see. Our dive master summed it up best when he said, “If you could do one dive naked, this would be it.”
While diving naked might be a bit of a stretch in conservative Philippines, we did forgo our wet suits, which made our approach to the dive site a bit rough. Barracuda Lake is a karst sink-hole separated from the open ocean by a wall of jagged karst. Our dive boat was too large to bring us in close to the rocky, coral covered shore near the wall, so we had to swim to the lake’s trail-head through waters full of translucent stinging jellyfish. One man in our group ended up with a nasty sting on his face. The tide was quite low, so navigating the coral near the shore was a second challenge. As we were lucky enough to avoid any stings, the initial hurdles added to the sense of adventure.
Suited up in BCDs, weights, and tanks, we then had to climb the awkward trail up and over the rocky wall to the the dive entry point on the opposite side. The site is remarkable. Like a sparkling emerald in a setting of spiky tarnished silver karst, the glassy body of water is remarkably perfect. A ridiculous example of nature’s sense for the dramatic, it seemed to blend tropical fantasy with dinosaur chic. If there were a Jurassic Park casino in Vegas, this would be the luxury swimming pool. Insane.
At the lake’s edge, I excitedly jumped into the irresistibly inviting natural swimming pool and started to sink straight to the bottom. Oops. Barracuda Lake’s deep waters are made up of three layers. The bottom layer is sea water. The middle layer is geothermally heated brackish water which maintains a constant temperature of 39 C (F). The top layer is freshwater, which it why I was less buoyant and started to sink.
Inflating my BCD to compensate for the fresh water, we started our decent. Visibility was incredible. All around us, towering formations of underwater karst led the mind to wonder what monsters lurked below. Apparently, that would be a lone barracuda that wondered in through undersea passages, thus the name of the lake. (How old is that barracuda?)
Descending further, we suddenly passed through an invisible barrier that divided the cool upper layer of water with the hot second layer. Called a thermocline, the barrier created a clearly visible boundry that shifted and bobbed like a smokey, oily membrane. As I passed through the “membrane”, half my body was hot and the other half was cold. The feeling was FAR more extreme than thermoclines in the open ocean.
Almost immediately, the novelty faded and I started to get uncomfortably hot. At 39 C, it felt like we were scuba diving in an enormous jacuzzi. How long would this middle layer last?! Oh, my god this is hot! Thomas seemed to be thinking the same thing. Just when I thought I couldn’t stand another minute of the heat, we passed into the lower layer of cool sea water bringing a wave of relief. We mused at the novelty of the thermocline for a couple of minutes moving up and down to feel the temperature changes and study the light play before continuing down towards the floor of the lake.
As we approached, I noticed bizarre, ghostly forms hovering around us. Like a transparent menagerie sprinkled with a revealing layer of dust, the strange forms were barely visible. I didn’t know what I was looking at. Was it something living? Were the layers of water or the temperature differences causing fine-grain sands to sit suspended in the water creating some kind of illusion? Before I could investigate, our dive master drew my attention to the next phenomenon.
Hovering above what looked like the solid floor of the lake, our dive master plunged his arm into what I had thought was a layer of mud or clay. His arm slid in as gently as if he had thrust it into a cloud. As his next trick, he dove head first into the ground, his entire upper body disappearing into the floor. Imitating the dive master, I thrust my arm into the ground and – voila – magically, my arm vanished into the sands without any resistance at all. Unbelievable.
We swam across the lake exploring a forest of karst until we came to a small cave, the source of the heated water. Returning along the vertical walls that enclosed the lake, we studied the formations and wondered at the light play caused by the thermoclines. Appearing from nowhere, relatively large brine shrimp danced on our limbs nibbling at our skin – what a strange sensation. They clung to us as we slowly continued our ascent.
Once again focusing on my surroundings, I noticed small animals darting in and out of the crevices. At first, I mistook them for large tadpoles. A little investigation revealed they were jet-black dwarf catfish. Their strangely evolved tails appeared oddly eel-like. More brine shrimp collected on me as I studied the catfish. What a wondrous place.
When I first heard about Barracuda Lake, I questioned whether a dive to experience thermoclines would be worth it. There are no whale sharks or manta rays. No hard or soft corals, or brightly colored nudibranchs. The dive is subtle and utterly unique, it’s sensory and magical. It boasts cloud-like muds, psychedelic light play, dancing shrimp nibbling at your skin, a mysterious transparent menagerie, a forest of underwater karst, and tiny catfish. This is like diving on another planet, a planet for those with an appreciation for small, wondrous details.
HOW TO DIVE BARRACUDA LAKE
We dove Barracuda Lake with Sea Dive Resort based in Coron Town on Busuanga. The dive was packaged with the Kogyo Maru and Tangat Wrecks. The 3-dive package cost 2,900 Pesos ($65) including Sea Dive’s fantastic onboard buffet lunch, soft drinks, and beer.