Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

2016 Journey through the Philippines Field Report

Ellen McIlvaine|May 17, 2016|Field Report

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - Sandakan, Malaysia / Embark Caledonian Sky

Our morning in Sandakan began at the Sun Bear Sanctuary at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, built in 2014. The bears were active and we observed them playing with one another and climbing the trees around the viewing platform. A short walk led us to the orangutan sanctuary and we made it in time to watch two female orangutans eat their breakfast of bananas, long beans, and fresh greens. The smaller of the two gave us great views by climbing up the ropes and eating bananas above our heads, swinging along with ease.

A short drive brought us to a private proboscis monkey reserve, maintained by the owner of an oil palm plantation to provide natural habitat for the very distinct-looking primate. 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 observed the males moving their noses up and down to communicate, and watched both bachelor groups and harems interact.

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 visited a serene Buddhist temple with sweeping views of the harbor.

We soon boarded the Caledonian Sky, our home for the next two weeks. We settled in onboard, before gathering in the lounge for a safety briefing. Later, Expedition Leader Mike Moore introduced us to the staff, and Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship as we set sail for the Philippines!

Wednesday, March 16 - Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines

Our first port in the Philippines was a clue of what fun was to be had to us on our journey—as we arrived alongside in Puerto Princessa, we were welcomed by drum majorettes. We soon joined the local dancers to learn the It’s More Fun in the Philippines dance routine, before boarding our respective vans to explore Palawan. Many of us went to the village of the Palawan tribe where we met the local people, saw typical houses, observed a marriage ceremony, and tasted some sticky rice.

Birders explored the outskirts of the area, traversing into foothills cloaked with secondary forest. Wandering the roads through the forests, they experienced several lovely and purple-throated sunbirds feeding on nectar, and a number of Palawan endemic species including Palawan bulbul and Palawan tit; a few were lucky enough to see Palawan hornbills!

Thursday, March 17 - Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park

Soft and calm waters welcomed us to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After two park representatives came on board to brief us on the rules, we set out for our visit to Tubbataha—the first-ever of a passenger cruise ship!

The sandy islets of the park are home to thousands of great-crested terns, which appeared to be turquoise, reflecting the shining blue waters back to us on their snow-white underbellies as they flew overhead. Even the tamest of bird enthusiasts enjoyed spotting brown boobies, sooty terns, brown and black noddys, and a few great frigatebirds. The Zodiac cruise (or “toodle,” as Mimo referred to it) treated us to raucous display flights over our heads, as well as curious boobies gliding over us and peering down, making for great photo opportunities.

What we saw above water was only a hint at the multitude of life under the sea. From the smallest plankton eaters to varying arrays of hard and soft corals, from turtles to reef sharks, and even dolphins playing in the wakes of our Zodiacs, Tubbataha Reefs surpassed our expectations!

Back on board in the late afternoon, we heard from Rommel Cruz about the birds of Tubbataha, one of the last protected seabird nesting sites in the region. At recap, Brad Climpson shared underwater footage from our impressive snorkels, Brent Stephenson further enlightened us about the birds we had witnessed, and we learned the divers had three incredible dives. After dinner, those of us with any remaining energy congregated in the Panorama Lounge for a St. Patrick’s Day party!

Friday, March 18 - Coron Island

Early this morning, the birders took off for the Mabentangin Nature Reserve, on the hunt for kingfishers. They were successful, observing 33 species including blue-eared and ruddy kingfishers, blue paradise flycatchers, and Palawan bulbuls.

The rest of us boarded Zodiacs and headed to the steep karst limestone cliffs of nearby Coron Island. We climbed the 200+ steps for incredible views of the blue-green seas on one side, and scenic Kayangan Lake on the other. Down at the lake, we saw needlefish and black snails scooting along rock surfaces as most of us took a dip, while some snorkeled in an underwater cave with racquet-tail parrots flying overhead.

Bright clear skies lit up the colors on the reef for our morning snorkel, and we enjoyed several species of clown-anemonefish, turnecits, sponges of bright purples and blues, and even the sailor’s eyeball—an algae that shone like a giant pearl among corals. The divers were equally pleased with their circumnavigation of two small islets, encountering a rainbow of nudibranchs, gorgonian fans, and schools of barracuda.

After lunch on the ship, we visited Banuang Daan, home of the Tagbanue Tribe. Village elders welcomed us with homemade instruments fashioned from recycled household goods. A few boisterous kids introduced themselves, while shy adults watched from the background, most of them chewing beetlenut. After exploring the village, we watched the chief and elders perform the war and marriage dances of their custom. The children from the village school, eventually joined and performed three songs for us. At the end of the dance, the chief invited us to join him in a dance which lasted all of 40 seconds before he quickly stopped the party by yelling, “STOP!”

Back on board, Kathy Robinson told us about the Tagbanua Tribe, Ellen McIlvaine showed us photos from the inside of the village school, and we watched even more amazing footage from our marine biologists.

Saturday, March 19 - Apo Reef

Perfect conditions and glassy waters welcomed us to Apo Reef, and our day began with snorkeling and diving. Snorkelers were treated to crystal-clear visibility above a diverse garden of hard and soft corals, schools of pyramid butterflyfish and fusiliers, the random unicornfish, and even reef sharks! The divers were just as pleased with what divemaster Mike Murphy described as, “A true 10 out of 10 dive!” which included sharks, dogtooth tuna, barracuda, giant rays, and huge schools of fusiliers and giant trevallies—fantastic!

We visited the beach on Apo Island where our hotel department met us at the small cantina for smoothies and rum punch in the shade. Those who were able to sway themselves from the incredible reefs looked for birds in the mangrove forests, and some of us climbed the lighthouse for views of the reef through the clear seas.

Sunday, March 20 - Sibuyan Island

We arrived off the shores of Sibuyan Island on Palm Sunday, an important day for the mostly Catholic community that resides here. Birders disembarked early in the morning to explore the forests of Mt. Guiting-Guiting, where they spotted a Philippine serpent eagle, among other endemic species.

The rest of us were quickly put to work pulling in a local fishing net and leanred about the fish brought in with our naturalists. Quickly following, we released offerings of coconut boats in memorial of lost soldiers in the sinking of a Japanese warship off Sibuyan during World War II. We then met the women of the highland tribes donning creative costumes of recycled and foraged materials; we received a blessing as we walked through an arch with burning offerings—and all this happened before even leaving the landing site! We walked through the Sunday market where locals were selling fish of all varieties, vegetables, fruits, woven baskets and fans, cuts of meat, and more.

Some of us rode to our next destination “local-style,” and climbed on top of the Jeepneys; this offered beautiful views of the surrounding rice fields, farms, houses, and mountains. A 10-minute ride brought us to a wide expanse of rice fields, where local women taught us how to plant seedlings in muddy paddies. A few brave adventurers even plowed the fields behind the water buffalos!

After some in-depth rice education, we continued to the river, a popular picnicking ground for locals and a perfect place for us to have a break from the day’s heat, a snack of fried cassava with local honey, and a cool swim! We returned to the Caledonian Sky for lunch and a break from the heat.

Back on shore in the afternoon, the entire village had undergone a costume change, and we became part of a parade that followed the dancers through town to 18th-century ruins. Here, we were treated to yet more unique dance performances, and a full Filipino meal, the star of which was the lechon, or roast suckling pig. After the dances and a demonstration by the young men of the town on traditional games, we tried our hands at the games and dancing until it was time to say goodbye to all our new friends on Sibuyan.

Monday, March 21 - Balicasag

We all appreciated our morning at sea, and some of us joined Ellen for early yoga, followed by a lecture by Rich Pagen on Productivity on the Coral Reef. Our Executive Chef taught us tricks of the trade to making an authentic strudel in the dining room; and Brent spoke about Tips and Tricks of Photography. We arrived off of Balicasag Island in the early afternoon. Although the visibility wasn’t as good as earlier locations, we enjoyed seeing the reef so close to the surface of the water and saw, yet again, a healthy population of sea turtles. Divers explored a gentle slope of reef covered in superb soft corals, and both snorkelers and divers got great views of moray eels, parrotfish, giant nudibranchs, and five species of anemonefish. Those who didn’t explore the reef went ashore to the local resort, for a relaxing afternoon at the beach.

Back on board, we cleaned up for recap and briefing and were treated to a special Filipino dinner and presentation, put on by the incredible crew of the Caledonian Sky.

Tuesday, March 22 - Bohol / Pamilacan Island

We woke early this morning, ready for our exploration of Bohol! We climbed steep stone steps from our Zodiacs and were welcomed by a dance troupe, waving flags in rhythm to our theme song—It’s More Fun in the Philippines! We stopped at the island’s most famous cathedral, and drove to the iconic Chocolate Hills, a series of over 1,200 conical, symmetrical mounds averaging 50 meters in height. During the dry season, the grass-covered hills dry up and turn a chocolate-brown color, hence the name. We climbed to the top of one of the karst limestone hills for a spectacular view out in all directions.

While the birders set off for Rajah Sikatuna National Park, on the look-out for silvery kingfishers and tarictic hornbill, the rest of us stopped at the Tarsier Sanctuary where we enjoyed up-close views of the tiny primates in their natural habitats. After meandering through the sanctuary and observing several animals, some of us met Carlito Pizarras, the man who founded the sanctuary and championed tarsier conservation in the region.

Our afternoon landing was a sandy beach lined with open thatch huts. We walked into the town and over to the Pamilacan Elementary School where they had prepared a recital for us! True to the hospitality we had come to expect in the Philippines, locals along the road opened their homes for an inside view on simple island living; we were quite impressed by the intricately woven palm walls and floors! At the school we enjoyed modern dance performances by many of the students, and presented them with a solar panel to power their school’s computers. As the recital wound down, we were each given a handwritten card from one of the children, who thanked us for our gift and coming to visit. It was very touching, and many of the children walked with us back to the beach.

Back on the Caledonian Sky, we cleaned up and grabbed a cocktail in the lounge. The evening recap included Rommel explaining Philippine ingenuity, and tips from Brent on how to get the best photographs using our iPhones and iPads.

Wednesday, March 23 - Camiguin Island

Another spectacular welcome was waiting for us at the ferry pier of Camiguin Island—dancers in dramatic costumes from the local festival of lanzones, a yellow fruit which grows abundantly here. We each received a necklace with a ceramic lanzones ornament before loading into Jeepneys for our tour. Our first stop was a historic school where we learned about the ruins of a defensive wall on the seashore. We stopped along the coast where we were put to work pulling in yet another fishing net; it was amazing to see how the local fishermen recoil their nets. As hard as we pulled, we would have had to stay all day to see what we caught; that is how enormous the net was!

The Green Church in Sagay is a marvel of folk art, and we were all impressed to see the driftwood chandeliers and craftsman altar. Originally known as the St. Rosario Church, it has a small museum behind the altar, where we saw the collection of vestments used by the priests throughout the year.

In the courtyard we were met with—you guessed it—more food and dancing! Today had not one, but two lechons for us to enjoy, as well as local delicacies of fried and sautéed squid, rice, and cassava cakes.

As if we hadn’t eaten enough, we dined onboard the Caledonian Sky for lunch while our snorkel and dive team set up for an afternoon of watersports off of Mantigue Island. We had the island to ourselves, and many of us explored nature trails on foot while snorkelers gazed at technicolor reefs spotting drummers, lionfish, jacks, golden rabbitfish, and more.

We had a sunset cocktail party on the Panorama Deck—the perfect way to wind down another fabulous day in the Philippines.

Thursday, March 24 - Limasawa Island

The yogis among us joined Ellen in the Panorama Lounge, before Mike announced we would disembark after breakfast for snorkeling and diving. Angelfish, soldierfish, sergeant majors, Oriental sweetlips, varying arrays of anemones, and more, densely populated a scene around spectacular corals. Those who preferred not to snorkel were shuttled over to the Dag Dag Resort for a relaxing morning on the beach.

This afternoon we went ashore on Limasawa to Barangay Magellanes, known as the landing spot of Ferdinand Magellan in the Philippines in March of 1521, and the location of the first Catholic mass in the Philippines. We were fortunate to visit on the same day as their Easter fair, and they could not have been more welcoming! Dancing girls in bright yellow dresses guided us into a walking tour, which became something of a “Stations of Magellan,” where the history of the island was enthusiastically performed by local guides. Our pilgrimage delivered us to the site of the first mass, and then the new village longhouse where a spectacular performance was held in our honor. The dance drama—the depiction of the arrival of Christianity to the Philippines, as well as the selection of a wife during the time of the Sultanate, was yet another highlight of our entire trip. After the show we danced with the actors in the longhouse and joined the rest of the community outside for an Easter feast, and some of the best food we had the entire trip! Many of us got henna tattoos at the fair and learned how to write our names in local script.

As we loaded up our Zodiacs at the end of an incredible visit, children waved from the stilted boardwalks above our heads. “Come back!” they yelled, and we hoped we would!

Friday, March 25 - Capul Island

After a morning of yoga and lectures, we left the ship and met the enthusiastic residents of Capul Island. After shaking the hands of countless smiling locals, we climbed aboard our habalhabals—motorbikes with extended passenger seats, and the best (and only!) way to get around. A calm ride on a sandy road through coconut palm plantations took us to the Capul Island Lighthouse.

We also visited the Capul Fortress, a 17th-century ruin, which is adjacent to the gorgeous church. This spot proved to be the island’s other social hub—anyone who wasn’t at the beach to greet us seemed to be at the church! Fortunate to be visiting on Good Friday, we were witness to a live reenactment of Jesus' Seven Last Words.

Near the church and fortress was the Bandero, or natural spring, where we observed people gathering drinking water, doing laundry, and bathing. Many of us refilled our water bottles at the spring and found the water to be very fresh and sweet. The spring was significant during the galleon trade between Manila and Aca Pulco, and we learned the name Capul actually came from the word Aca Pulco, which had its beginnings as an old trading post in Mexico.

We learned about the importance of the coconut fruit, including how to husk and grate coconuts, and about the process of making coconut oil; at the same time, we were serenaded by the clear voices of the children’s choir! At the beach, we were treated to a smorgasbord of local delicacies, almost all of them featuring the coconut as the star. Sticky rice and coconut meat steamed in palm leaves, sweet coconut and cassava muffins, various coconut and rice flour desserts, and a succulent fish fry. Some of us simply sipped the water of fresh coconuts, and others completely spoiled our dinners and filled up on the generous picnic.

Capul Island had been hit by a storm just six weeks prior, and the roof of the school was blown off and destroyed. As a thank you for the overwhelming generosity of the town, Mike presented new aluminum roofing materials to repair the school, and we were happy to hand backpacks filled with school supplies to grateful students.

Saturday, March 26 - Ticao Island

We anchored near Catandayagan Falls, on the western side of Ticao Island; those of us who had signed up for a “wet” cruise, set off with just our swimming gear. We rode directly into the falls, which cascaded down a sheer limestone cliff, and dumped directly into the sea. Our ship sailed gently behind us and met our Zodiacs near the small hamlet of Torogon.

A rarely-visited village, Torogon is mainly populated by fishermen and their families. A few locals waited for us on the sea wall or met us along the road, while others peered through dark windows. Stores were selling weekend pastries in plastic bags through chicken wire windows, and although school wasn’t in session, more than 175 school children eagerly awaited our visit to the Torogon Elementary School. The school’s brightly painted archway welcomed us, with the inscription “WELCOME VISITORS.” As we entered the school grounds, the wide-eyed children chanted in unison, “Good morning, visitors!” and “Hello, visitors!” to each and every one of us! Mike Moore presented three boxes of school supplies, toothbrushes, and toothpaste for the kids, and then we explored the village on our own. Some of us went to the church, while others were welcomed into the homes of local people and introduced to the entire neighborhood, and every distant relative.

We returned to the Caledonian Sky for lunch, as we set sail for our final port, the city of Manila. We managed to pack our bags between returning our snorkel gear and posing for our group photo on the Panorama Deck, then met in the lounge for a final recap and reflections from our expedition team. We all agreed it was indeed, more fun in the Philippines, and were sad to see our voyage coming to an end! The party wasn’t quite over yet, as that evening we met for cocktails provided by Captain Hakan Gustavsson, and then a farewell dinner. After dinner we watched a slideshow of our voyage presented by Brent, and were reminded of how far we had come.

Sunday, March 27 - Manila / Disembark

One more time, we enjoyed a lively welcome at today’s port of Manila, complete with a musical performance, people on stilts waving flags, giant puppets, and a dance troupe draped in brightly colored beads. We set off for the St. Augustine church, where some stayed for Sunday service. The rest of us continued to explore the old fort and made a visit to Trinidad Tecson Elementary School, a rehabilitation home for children removed from abusive homes. We played games with the kids, and even met Jollibee, the mascot from a popular fast food chain, and extremely popular with children. We enjoyed an afternoon at leisure, with some exploring the colonial house museum and others exploring the town, before one last group dinner.

Our journey through the Philippines was complete, and as we reflected back on all we had seen and participated in, it seemed so long ago that we boarded our ship in Malaysia; and yet how had it come to an end so soon? 

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