The words, “It’s more fun in the Philippines!”, echoed in song across the landing beach during our first stop on the 2015 Zegrahm Philippines trip. We came ashore to find a welcome ceremony more intricate and heart-felt that any we could have imagined. And this phrase, which soon became thoroughly embedded in our minds, proved more and more true each day during our two-week-long expedition exploring this wonderful country.
Made up of over 7,000 islands, the Philippines is the perfect destination to explore by ship, allowing access to off-the-beaten-track villages, coral reefs, rainforests, and wildlife. If you love beaches, you’ve certainly come to the right place. But if you have even a HINT of an inclination towards wildlife and wild places, then you will be absolutely blown away by the Philippines.
As an example, on the island of Palawan, we embarked on a quest into the coastal rainforest to find what can only be described as the most beautiful pheasant in the world, a bird found on this one island and nowhere else in the world! As we searched for (and eventually found!) the very secretive Palawan peacock-pheasant, with its stunning electric blue plumage, we encountered huge monitor lizards basking in the splintered sunlight on the forest floor, their tongues flicking the air in attempts to better understand us. We were also under the constant watch of groups of monkeys called long-tailed macaques, which picked through the leaf litter for invertebrates to snack on.
At Coron Island, we hiked up and over a rise from the beach to reach beautiful Kayangan Lake, where a boardwalk wound around part of the karst limestone cliffs that make up the shoreline. Birds called ashy drongos sallied for insects from bare tree branches, while racquet-tail parrots flew overhead, calling loudly. The water was so crystal clear that from the boardwalk (or in the water with a mask and snorkel), we could see snails grazing on the rocks, and fish hovering beneath fallen tree branches for cover.
The underwater world of the Philippines is equally as impressive as the terrestrial, in part because the country lies in what is known as the Coral Triangle: a region that boasts the highest diversity of reef-building corals and fish on the planet! Nearly every day of the trip we landed by Zodiac on beaches where ghost crabs were king, or snorkeled and dove beneath the sea surface to admire the incredible marine life.
We came across Clark’s anemonefish, nestled cozily among the stinging tentacles of their host anemone; and the long thin arms of brittle stars protruding out of the reef and up into the water column, in attempts to grab bits of organic material that happened to be drifting by. In places where the reef dropped off into deep water, large fish like drummers, jacks, golden, and snappers hovered along the wall, while bicolor cleaner wrasses swam out to “groom” them.
But perhaps the highlight of our experience in the marine realm of the Philippines was heading out to a site known to be a regular feeding area for whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea! Whether we watched from the boat or jumped in the water to observe these magnificent creatures through the lens of our snorkel mask, being in the presence of a 5-meter-long whale shark making multiple passes as it fed on tiny plankton was certainly one of the great wildlife experiences of a lifetime!