Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

2015 Philippines Field Report

Rich Pagen|May 15, 2015|Field Report

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 - Sandakan, Malaysia / Embark Caledonian Sky: We all converged in the city of Sandakan from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason—to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of the Philippines. Having gathered the previous night for our welcome cocktail party, we checked out of our hotel this morning and made our way up to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. We watched in awe as a young orangutan made its way closer, its large hands and feet making travel on vines and branches look so easy.

From there, we traveled to a private reserve for the very distinct-looking proboscis monkey. One of the largest monkeys in Asia, the proboscis monkey is named for its large nose, which is quite different in shape and size between the sexes and the old and the young. We watched both bachelor groups and harems interact; the roof and railings of the building we observed from were the play area of silvered leaf monkeys, small and fearless balls of fur with long non-prehensile tails. Also present were large Oriental pied hornbills.

We stopped for lunch at a tea garden with white-bellied sea eagles soaring overhead and fantastic views to the sea below us. We wandered through the former residence of American writer Agnes Keith, who wrote three books about her life in Borneo, in and around the time of World War II. We then stopped at an impressive Buddhist temple, still completely decorated from the recent Chinese New Year.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the pier and boarded the Caledonian Sky, our home for the next few weeks. Expedition Leader Mike Messick introduced us to the staff, Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship, and Assistant Expedition Leader Mike Moore briefed us on Zodiac operations. Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were ready for a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, February 11 - Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines: We awoke to gorgeous blue water in all directions, well on our way to Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital of Palawan.

Kathy Robinson gave the first lecture of the day, People, Religion, and Culture of the Philippines, which was an excellent introduction to the origins and customs of the people here. We then met Brad Climpson for a snorkel briefing and the divers had an introduction meeting as well.

After lunch, we pulled alongside in Puerto Princesa, where we received a wonderful welcome in the form of various dance groups performing on the dock. Those of us birdwatching disembarked first, driving up into the mountains in the hopes of spotting some of Palawan’s birdlife. A group of Palawan hornbills were perched in a tree on a ridge across the valley, while an occasional hill myna flew past overhead.

The rest of us went off on a cultural tour of Puerto Princesa and the surrounding area. We had the chance to try our hand at weaving at the Binuatan Cultural Center, where we quickly gained an appreciation for the skill required to do it competently. We also visited with the local Batak tribe, meeting many interesting characters along the way. We had lovely interactions with the local children, who happily posed with us for photographs.

Once back onboard, we pulled away from the pier, with a dance performance and many a waving hand giving us a wonderful send off. Later, we gathered in the Main Lounge for Captain Hakan Admarker’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. We mingled over champagne, and the captain introduced some of his senior officers.

Thursday, February 12 - El Nido: A beautiful sunrise illuminated the striking islands and islets of El Nido as we maneuvered our morning’s anchorage. El Nido, which translates as “the nest,” refers to the many swiftlets that nest in the caves and crevices of the karst limestone mountains in this area. The swifts, which are one of the few birds that can echolocate, flew back and forth overhead as we arrived by Zodiac to a protected cove, where we would spend the morning diving, snorkeling, and exploring a lovely white sand beach.

The divers did their check-out dive, getting re-familiarized with their gear, while the snorkelers took to the water for our first glimpse at the underwater diversity here in the Philippines. We came across Clark’s anemonefish, nestled cozily among the stinging tentacles of its host anemone, and foraging pairs of beautiful long-beaked coralfish, a type of butterflyfish. Feather stars sat conspicuously on coral heads, and the long white feeding arms of spaghetti worms stretched out across the seafloor, in search of organic material.

We repositioned to a new area as we relaxed over lunch on the outer deck. Once the anchor was down, some of us made a landing on a gorgeous beach where the bar staff were ready to greet us with icy refreshments. Some local fishermen were on the beach and we had the chance to talk with them about life in this remote part of the Philippines.

Underwater, the divers and snorkelers dove on a steep drop-off covered in coral growth. Staghorn and scissor-tailed damsels hovered above the reef itself, plucking plankton up as it drifted past the reef. Some of us headed into the shallows, where the reef transitioned to sand and the community of fish consisted of many tiny juveniles.

Back on the ship, we grabbed a cocktail and watched the sunset before meeting the expedition team in the lounge for a lively recap, followed by dinner.

Friday, February 13 - Ulugan Bay, St. Paul’s National Park: Today we set out to visit one of the longest underground rivers in the world, a stretch of the Cabayugan River that disappears into a limestone cave for over five miles before it empties out into the sea. Exploring the cave was quite an adventure, but the various means of transport required to even get to the river was good fun itself—after taking a Zodiac ride up a mangrove-lined river, we went by road to the town of Sabang, where we boarded colorful wooden boats with outriggers. Under glorious sunshine, we cruised along the coast all cozy in our covered seats. We disembarked at a beach not far from the river mouth, where boardwalks took us through thick forest to the edge of the river. There we donned hardhats, boarded a local canoe, and selected among us who would have the all-important job of shining the light where the local guide asked.

Once inside, we encountered every imaginable shape of rock formation. The clicks of echolating swiftlets came and went, while we passed huge roosts of several species of bats clinging to the cave ceiling above us. There were impressive stalactites and stalagmites, and stretches where we entered a massive chamber where the ceiling was so far overhead that the roosting bats appeared as tiny dark specks.

Some of us went on a long hike through beautiful terrain on the way back from the cave. It was quite the work out, but well worth it to get out into the wilds of Palawan. Others went off in search of birds, spending some time admiring the impressively large monitor lizards along the way. In addition to white-rumped shamas and Palawan flowerpeckers, we came across the gorgeous male Palawan peacock pheasant, with beautiful reflective blue feathers.

On the way back to the ship for lunch, we stopped at a school where the local band performed for us, and then came around to say hello.

In the afternoon, Rommel Cruz spoke to us about many of the birds we may encounter in the Philippines, which was followed by special waffles and ice cream at afternoon tea. This was followed by Rich Pagen’s talk,Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire.

Saturday, February 14 - Coron Island: This morning, we boarded Zodiacs and sped across a glassy sea, which reflected perfectly the steep karst limestone cliffs of Coron Island. Erosion from falling rain has left impressive gray rock spires, accented by green forest. We landed in a small cove, and began a climb up several hundred steps to a viewpoint out to the sea on one side, and down to beautiful Kayangan Lake on the other. We hiked down to the lake, where a boardwalk wound around part of the rocky shoreline. Snails were everywhere on the submerged rocks, and some of us jumped in for a swim or a snorkel. Ashy drongos sallied for insects from bare tree branches, while an occasional racquet-tail parrot flew overhead, calling loudly.

Meanwhile, the birders headed off to the Mabentangin Nature Reserve to stake out a stream for kingfishers, and the divers dropped in on one of several World War II shipwrecks in the area.

We returned to the ship to gear up for a pre-lunch snorkel in a nearby marine park, where the diversity of corals and fish was astounding. Several species of brightly colored nudibranchs were spotted, as well as several species of cardinalfish, somewhat unusual for these nocturnal creatures. Other highlights included a huge school of yellowtail barracuda and false clown anemonefish living among the stinging tentacles of their host sea anemone.

We shared stories from the morning over lunch, while we repositioned to just off Banuang Daan Village. This community of the Tagbanue Tribe is situated in a stunningly beautiful valley with towering limestone mountains on both sides. We landed on a rickety pier, where we were warmly welcomed ashore by the locals. As we gathered for a hilarious performance put on by several men dressed in skimpy red plaid outfits, the local children laughed just as hard as we did.

At the conclusion of the performance, we wandered through the village, introducing ourselves to the locals along the way. One woman was weaving plant fibers, while another took the time to show us the ins and out of chewing betel nut. A few brave among us gave it a try, ending up with the characteristic red teeth, just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Back on the ship, we gathered for recap, where Rich talked about camouflage on the reef, Kathy shared her observations from our village visit, and Brad highlighted the diversity of corals we encountered. We celebrated Valentine’s Day with a festive dinner before heading off for a good night’s sleep.

Sunday, February 15 - Sibuyan Island: We landed on a beach in the community of San Fernando this morning, and found for the most part, each and every person from the town was there to greet and welcome us! The mountains of Sibuyan Island loomed behind the town, covered from top to bottom in lush vegetation. The island is surrounded by deep water and has never been connected to the rest of the Philippines, resulting in a place with a rather unique flora and fauna.

Some local fishermen had set a net just off the beach, which some of us helped to retrieve. We got up close looks at a female blue swimming crab, which was carrying an orange egg mass containing thousands of tiny eggs. We then watched a ceremony commemorating the lives lost in the sinking of a Japanese warship off Sibuyan during World War II, which concluded with us each setting adrift a miniature boat made of coconut shell.

The birdwatchers among us set off by jeepney to the interior of the island, where we spotted such avian treats as white-eared brown-doves and Philippines magpie robins. The rest of us walked through the town of San Fernando, meeting many of the local people along the way. We walked through a food market, where we sampled bananas, tamarind, and rice cakes, and then boarded jeepneys to drive out to the rice fields.

At the rice fields, we got up close and personal with water buffaloes, some of us even hopping on for a ride. We then shed our shoes and stepped into the mud to help plant the rice—it was a hilariously muddy affair! From there we walked to a field with recently harvested rice and learned about the whole process while mingling over deep-fried cassava with local honey.

We visited an eco-resort on a gorgeous river, where local fishermen showed us how they trap freshwater prawns. We also watched a dance performance and heard a few words from the mayor. Our final stop before lunch was the hydropower plant, where we had a look at the operation that provides the majority of power to the island.

After lunch, we returned for a walking tour of town, including a stop at some 18th-century ruins. We then joined a parade with drummers and dancers, the theme of which was the importance of water to the community. The parade took us through the streets past crowds of onlookers, and finished at the local university. We gathered in a large hall where we feasted on delicious local dishes, before each of us received a seedling ironwood tree, which we planted as a visible reminder of our visit to this amazing village.

Back on the ship, we met for recap where we learned about continental drift from Chris Done, some World War II history from Kathy, squid and octopus biology from Brad, and funny goings-on from the day from Rich.

Monday, February 16 - Donsol / Legazpi: Under perfect calm and sunny conditions, we dropped anchor off of the town of Donsol on Luzon Island.

Those of us on the full day tour began by visiting the remnants of an 18-century Franciscan church called the Cagsawa Ruins. We also visited Legazpi’s waterfront, its current population of over 180,000 dwarfing its beginnings as a small fishing settlement. We got excellent views of the conical Mayon Volcano, had a fantastic lunch that included “Bicol Express,” and visited a blacksmith shop where they made knives out of the steel from old defunct automobiles. Finally, we visited an operation that made weavings from the fiber of abacá (a native species of banana).

The rest of us went out in small groups on local boats, each equipped with several eagle-eyed spotters to scan for whale sharks. It was great to be out on the water, some of us encountering small groups of dolphins, while others watched great crested terns take interest in flushing flying fish. After much searching, some of us got lucky and were able to jump in for a quick look at these enormous beasts.

After lunch, some of us sped over to a sand cay island to snorkel. The guides showed us how they find and harvest both urchins and an alga called sea grapes, and we had the opportunity to sample both of these local delicacies.

Others drove off in a jeepney to a small village where we embarked on a hike through lush green surroundings to a waterfall pouring 150 feet down from above. We snacked on fried bananas and rice with coconut, between dips in the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. On the way back to the landing, we enjoyed the always-fun adventure of pushing our vehicle out of the mud it had gotten stuck in!

Tuesday, February 17 - Ticao Island: We stepped out on deck to a gorgeous pink sunrise over Ticao Island, and the sound of bird song carrying across the water from the vegetated islets. Today we visited Mababoy Hamlet, a community of approximately 25 families that subsist mostly on fishing and the farming of seaweed, which grows on lines put out in grids on floats along the shoreline.

We landed on a sand beach beneath the school, a recently built yellow building, where we found the children waiting for us. We presented school supplies to all of them, and we took turns singing to them and applauding them as they sang to us.

We looked on as several fishermen baited small hooks with tiny silversides, preparing for a fishing outing later in the day. One of the fishermen showed us an unusual deep-water fish called an elephant fish, named for the bizarre protuberances on its snout. After returning from the village, some of us went ashore on a beach in a small cove to beachcomb and watch white-collared kingfishers perch conspicuously along the shoreline.

Others changed into wetsuits for diving and snorkeling, and found the diversity of soft corals in the area staggering. Several banded sea kraits patrolled the reef in search of prey, while large and spectacular crown-of-thorns seastars were encountered in several spots on the reef, feeding on the polyps of the hard corals. A young many-spotted sweetlips, reddish-brown with white spots, swam in an undulating motion with its head facing down, imitating a toxic flatworm.

After lunch, we arrived off of Catandayagan Falls, which plunges 150 feet down a limestone rock face straight into the sea. It was a sight to behold, and many of us took full advantage of the opportunity to jump in off a Zodiac and have a swim beneath the falls.

Later, we all boarded Zodiacs for a cruise along the spectacular coastline, including another stop at the waterfall. We arrived at Torogon Hamlet, and wandered through the narrow pedestrian streets to the local elementary school, where we were greeted with song by the students. After leaving the school grounds, we explored the town on foot, arriving finally at the waterfront where we watched a glorious sunset over the colorful wooden boats. Back on the ship, we gathered for recap, where Rich went over some of the snorkel highlights from the day, Kathy spoke about fishing in the small communities in the Philippines, and Brad shared amazing video footage of the sea kraits we encountered earlier.

Wednesday, February 18 - Capul Island: The sky glowed orange over breakfast, after which we boarded Zodiacs for the village of San Luis on Capul Island. A wonderful dance performance to live drum music was underway just up the beach, the dancers in beautiful, almost flower-like costumes.

From there, we saddled up on the back of the local transport of choice, the habalhabal. These motorcycles have elongated seats allowing a lot of people to pile on the back. We passed one with six people on one motorcycle (not including the baby in front!), but we rode with just three, including the driver.

We drove out past a schoolyard filled with children cheering and waving yellow flags, before arriving at the Capul Fortress, a 17th-century ruin with a gorgeous church next to it. In the courtyard, we watched a performance by some singers and dancers, who taught us a step or two at the end. We gathered at the Banadero, a natural spring that was significant during trade between Manila and Aca Pulco. In fact, the name Capul comes from the word Aca Pulco, which had its beginnings as an old trading post in Mexico.

From there, we rode out to an open grassy area interspersed with coconut palms. We watched a demonstration on collecting and processing coconuts, weaving, and making charcoal. We sampled some local delicacies made from coconut and rice while watching a beautiful performance put on by children in handsome red costumes. Across the road at the beach, we sipped on coconut water while feasting on roast pig and other tasty treats.

Our last stop was the end of the road at the north tip of the island, where the Capul Lighthouse stands. First lit in 1896, the lighthouse marks the entrance to the San Bernardino Strait, and the view from the top was astounding. Crowds of people gathered at the beach as we pulled away at last, heading back to our ship. We shared stories over lunch, before meeting Kathy in the lounge for her talk, Indigenous People and Their Rights in the Philippines. At afternoon tea, we snacked on scones and sandwiches, and met Brad for his presentation,Fish of the Indo-Pacific: Who’s Swimming Around Us?

We met for cocktails and recap, where Brad shared motorcycle video footage, Rommel spoke about daily life in the Philippines, Kathy gave some background on coconuts, Rich had us laughing about warning signs, and Mike Murphy showed us what goes on during afternoon movie showings in the ship’s lounge.

Thursday, February 19 - Pamilacan Island: As the ship approached Pamilacan Island from the northwest, we jumped up from our seats at the Lido Deck breakfast tables to get a look at a big group of spinner dolphins just off the island. Once the Zodiacs were down and the landing scouted, we sped ashore for our visit to Pamilacan Island.

Once ashore we walked inland past a church, several small shops, and the ruins of an old Spanish fort that formerly served as a watchtower. We were very impressed with the hospitality of the people here, being invited into several homes along the way. Some of us stopped to watch a few young men and their respective roosters engage in a cockfight, a sport that is very popular here in the Philippines. The shops even carry vitamin supplements for the roosters, to give them the competitive edge in these matches.

We arrived at the school, where several different groups of students performed dance numbers for us. We all joined in when the youngest children took the stage to do the chicken dance! At the end of the performance, we were each given a handwritten card from one of the children, which thanked us for coming to visit. It was very touching, and many of the children walked with us towards the fishing village on the south end of the island, where the Zodiacs would pick us up.

We told stories over lunch while the staff scouted and set for the afternoon’s outings. The divers dropped in on a wall decorated with soft corals and a variety of different types of anemones, some with resident anemonefish. We spotted tiny transparent shrimp on the sand at the base of some coral, and caves with soldierfish waiting for the sun to set, when they come out to feed. The snorkelers encountered chocolate chip seastars up on the reef flat, as well as four-foot-long synaptid sea cucumbers foraging for detritus on the sea floor. We came across several impressive mollusks, including a horned helmet, a spider conch and a tiger cowrie. Several species of damselfish fed in the water column above corals with ample hiding places for shelter.

Back onboard, we cleaned up and grabbed a cocktail in the lounge. The evening recap included Rommel going over some of the interesting birds we’d seen so far, and Ellen on the philanthropy project Zegrahm Expeditions is putting together in the Philippines.

Friday, February 20 - Bohol / Balicasag: This morning we landed on a stone pier on the southwest corner of the island of Bohol.The birders set off for Rajah Sikatuna National Park, a protected area of forest that turned up silvery kingfishers and tarictic hornbills. The divers went off for a full day exploration of some of the top dive sites in the area, and were rewarded with looks at sea turtles and a tremendous variety of reef fish. Others went off for a general tour of the area, stopping first at a tarsier sanctuary, where we got excellent looks at this tiny nocturnal primate in its natural habitat. We roamed the dense forest, where local guides pointed out several resting tarsiers to us.

We then went to the Loboc River, where we boarded large covered pontoon boats, and sailed downstream listening to guitar music and sipping coconut water right out of the coconut. We tasted all sorts of local foods, and made a stop along the shoreline where we watched an energetic dance performance.

Our final stop of the morning was the legendary Chocolate Hills, a series of over 1,200 conical and symmetrical mounds averaging 50 meters in height. During the dry season, the grass-covered hills dry up and turn a chocolate-brown color, which is the inspiration behind the name. We climbed up to the top of one of the karst limestone hills for a spectacular view out in all directions.

In the afternoon, Balicasag Island provided an excellent opportunity for a snorkel along a steep drop off. Parrotfish approached cleaning stations, where blue-streaked cleaner wrasses picked off parasites and bits of skin from their much larger cousins. Back on the ship, we gathered for recap, during which Kathy spoke about the island culture of Bohol, and Rich presented a reef fish quiz show. We then enjoyed a barbeque out on deck, followed by a wonderful presentation of song and dance by many of the ship’s crew.

Saturday, February 21 - Cagayan de Oro: We awoke early this morning to one of the most lively welcome ceremonies any of us could remember. As the Caledonian Sky pulled up to the dock in the city of Cagayan de Oro, drummers and dancers put on an amazing show, and we lined the railings clapping and tapping our feet to the music.

Following breakfast, we headed off in various directions to explore this region in the north of the island of Mindanao. The birdwatchers headed off to the Mapawa Nature Reserve for a full day excursion in search of avian highlights on the island. The showstopper was most certainly the hooded pitta, a secretive forest bird that flushed out in the open long enough for most of us to get satisfying looks. Some of us donned our water shoes for an exhilarating rafting trip down the Mambuaya River. With spectacular scenery all around us, we paddled our way through both calm stretches and raging rapids, dodging rocks as we went. It was a fantastic outing, and afterwards we laughed over stories and beer at lunch.

Others headed out to explore the city of Cagayan de Oro, starting with several fascinating exhibits at the Museo de Oro, including one that went through the entire human history of the island. We then went to the Cogon Market, the largest market in the entire city. From food counters serving all sorts of rice dishes, to the fish market with its incredible diversity of fresh seafood, it was a wonderful experience chatting with the various vendors and sampling some of the local cuisine.

After a stop at La Castilla Museum with its grand vine-covered veranda, followed by a pottery manufacturer, we had a scrumptious lunch at the Chalie Beach Resort, where the delicacies ranged from seafood pasta to fresh jackfruit. We then made a stop at the Mapawa Nature Reserve to learn about a local reforestation project of mahogany and teak, and the Malasag Eco-tourism Village for a cultural performance put on by several ethnic groups from the highlands of Mindanao.

Once we arrived back at the pier, the energetic welcome singers and dancers from this morning were back in action, culminating in a finale where many of the Filipino crew members from our ship ran down the gangway to join the locals in the final number.

Before dinner, we celebrated our day with a happy hour cocktail, and a recap that included Brad paying tribute to Zegrahm co-founder Jack Grove and one of his favorite reef fish, and Rich (along with many of the ship’s crew) reminding us why It’s More Fun in the Philippines.

Sunday, February 22 - Camiguin Island: Upon landing on the beach in Mambajao, a town on the island of Camiguin, we walked through a welcome ceremony line consisting of dancers in bright orange costumes. From there, we set off in small groups with a local guide to explore the island interpretive center, followed by the local market.

We then boarded jeepneys for a tour of the area, our guides very enthusiastic to show us everything. Our first stop was the 250-foot-high Katibawasan Falls, which plunged impressively down a moss-covered cliff. Some of us took a dip in the pool at the bottom, or took it all in from a viewpoint above. We then went on to an artisanal cacao processing operation, where we tasted some samples, and watched the chocolatiers putting out dabs of chocolate to cool on banana leaves.

We visited a peanut brittle operation, where a dozen women sat around a big table wrapping up the final product. We also visited a hot spring resort where we sipped coconut water in the cool shade of the forest. From there we stopped at a beautiful old house, with impressive ventilation through enormous windows that opened to the outside.

Our final stop was a historical school, where some of the original buildings from 1925 were not only still standing, but in good working order. The huge windows had tiny translucent squares of shell to let the light in, and each classroom had a tiny telephone-booth-like bathroom set in the corner of the room. There was an impressive spread of food, including a roasted pig, to sample. The students put on a fantastic dance presentation, after which the governor of the province got up and welcomed us to his island.

The ship repositioned to the southeast side of the island, where some of us embarked on a visit to the village of Sagay, where we visited the town plaza and the unique “green church.” We watched the local fishermen dry their catch of squid, and had the chance to taste several squid dishes.

The rest of us spent the afternoon snorkeling and scuba diving around a small island off of Camiguin. The numbers of large fish here was greater than anything we’d yet seen on this trip. Drummers, jacks, golden rabbitfish, and snappers hovered along the drop off, while bicolor cleaner wrasses swam out to “groom” them. Several lionfish were encountered, hovering like ghosts in mid-water, and an extremely well camouflaged stonefish was spotted looking like an algae-covered rock on the bottom.

We cleaned up back on the ship, then gathered for a cocktail party up in the Panorama Lounge, followed by a special Filipino dinner.

Monday, February 23 - Sogod Bay / Limasawa Island: This morning we dropped anchor off of a secluded stretch of coast along narrow Limasawa Island. This island is well known as the place that Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in March 1521, and where the first Christian Mass was held on Easter Sunday, a few days later. Occasional rainsqualls passed as we boarded Zodiacs to head out to snorkel or dive in the area.

The snorkelers encountered beautiful coral cover and lots of reef fish. Soldierfish hid in the shadows while parrotfish grazed on filamentous algae on bare rock. Some of us encountered a very friendly sea turtle. A highlight was an emperor angelfish, somewhere in the middle of its transition from juvenile to adult coloration. The divers dropped in on the steep wall, where they managed to pick out a scorpionfish and a large colorful flatworm that was hard to miss, advertising its toxicity with bright warning coloration.

Others boarded local boats to head out to a site known as a feeding area for whale sharks. Rain was our constant companion as we stood on deck looking for signs, and a fleet of small canoes fanned out in front of the boats as our spotters. After trying several locations, we had almost decided to throw in the towel when an excitement poured over the boat—a whale shark had been spotted! Into the water we went as a 15-foot-long whale shark made multiple passes around us, sometimes only a few feet from the surface.

We all warmed up back on the ship over lunch, before heading ashore for a walking tour of Barangay Magellanes village. The friendliness of the people there was off the charts! We met so many wonderful people as our guides brought us up to a monument commemorating Magellan’s arrival and the country’s first Mass.

We then gathered in a large clearing for a theatrical reenactment of the arrival of Christianity to the Philippines, as well as the selection of a wife during the time of the Sultanate on the island. The costumes and dancing were incredible, and we came to find out this presentation is usually only done once a year, at Easter. We felt very honored to have it put on for our visit.

Some of us were given henna tattoos, and all of us mingled over an incredible spread of local foods. The coconut wine was an acquired taste, but the assortment of seafood was all excellent. We waved goodbye as the Zodiacs pulled away, and then gathered for recap in the main lounge, during which Kathy gave a hilarious presentation on local toilets, and Brad talked about the ecological development of sand cays.

Tuesday, February 24 - Bucas Grande Island / Lajanosa Island: A tropical gray sky greeted us as we stepped out on deck to sip our morning coffee, with periodic rainsqualls coming and going throughout the morning. A beautiful indented coastline of bays and islands stood before us, with lush greenery covering every bit but the exposed and undercut limestone at sea level. After breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs to go out and explore the area.

We weaved in and out of the islands, closely examining the limestone rock for crabs at water level, and pitcher plants higher up. These magnificent plants are known for their ability to grow in areas with little or no usable soil and its accompanying nutrients. Here, the pitcher plants clung to the rock face, getting all of their required nutrients to carry on photosynthesis by trapping insects. We also found another plant, commonly called the ‘ant plant,’ which houses a colony of ants inside a bulbous stem and gets its nutrients from the waste products of the ants.

Back on the ship, we dried off and prepared ourselves for getting wet, this time in the sea! Some of us dropped in on a scuba dive that was quite eerie in the low light. Much of the coral had died back, leaving impressive rock formations behind. We suspected this was due to the large numbers of crown-of-thorns seastars we saw in the area, a species that specializes in feeding on coral polyps, which in turn kills patches of corals. The snorkelers explored a spine of similar rock formations, where we encountered several different shrimp gobies with their respective snapping shrimps, sharing a burrow in the sand that the shrimp maintains and the goby watches over. But the highlight had to be the large group of striped eel-catfish that were swarming over the sandy bottom in search of bits of food beneath the surface, leaving a cloud of sand in the water behind them.

Over lunch, the ship repositioned off of Lajanosa Island, where we had the chance to visit two different landing sites. First, there was the beach option, where we mingled with some local children who let us paddle around with them in their small canoes. We walked the beach admiring the seashells we found along the way, and explored the exposed intertidal zone, where a reef egret followed along with us. The egret was remarkably fearless, and curious what we humans might uncover as we turned over rocks in search of crabs and sea cucumbers.

Across the channel, we visited a village where we were taken around to the school and met many of the students. Not only did our very own George Lake get special treatment from the locals because of his birthday, but also later at dinner on the ship, birthday songs reverberated across the outside deck to wish George another wonderful year!

Wednesday, February 25 - At Sea: After breakfast, we joined Chris for his presentation, Sandalwood: Heavensent, followed by a gathering on Deck 6 for our group photo for the trip. This was followed by Rich’s lecture, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, during which we learned about warning coloration, mimicry, and some of the ways that reef creatures protect themselves.

We relaxed over a long lunch, then met Kathy for her talk, Global Pinoy: Filipinos Migrating Overseas. Following afternoon tea, we joined the expedition team for our final recap, during which we all celebrated the amazing adventure we’ve shared together.

In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join Captain Hakan Admarker at the farewell cocktail party. After a superb dinner and dessert, we watched a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Mike Moore. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in the Philippines seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Thursday, February 26 - Davao City / Disembark: We pulled back the curtains to the harbor city of Davao, where the pier was covered with performers and music filled the air. We sat out on deck during breakfast enjoying the show, and singing along to songs that had become so familiar over the past few weeks.

We began our morning with a visit to the Philippine Eagle Center, where we learned all about this icon of the Philippines; one of the largest birds of prey in the world. We wandered through beautiful gardens with displays on several other birds of prey as well. Outside the center, we had the chance to hold a huge python and taste durian, a common fruit with a rather acquired taste.

From there, those of us flying home stopped for lunch before heading to the airport. Those of us continuing on the ship had lunch in the Eden Nature Park, and stopped at a bazaar, as well as at the central market where we walked through a huge seafood section, and even live goats and chickens for sale. We have reached the end of our exploration of the Philippines. The final days have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old.

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