One tourist boat tries to cut our path, envious that clusters of the cetaceans –- whose species have favored this spot –- play with us. The spotter atop our boat, on the other hand, was setting his binoculars on the other boat, which was carrying women in bikinis.
It lasted a good deal of one Saturday morning in May with the dolphins, the culmination of everything, despite the intense summer heat rising to 40°C when we’d begun our one-week expedition on the Tañon Strait. This is where more than half of the 27 species of dolphins and whales in the entire country are found.
The dive boat had picked us up from a resort on the coastal town of Moalboal, in Cebu, the island that hems in the strait opposite Negros, where Bais is located on the southern part. There we’d seen the sardine shoal and the corals, this spot that makes Moalboal famous for being one of the best dive sites of the island province. They say whale sharks had been seen here, but I wasn’t that lucky.
The resort was called Hale Manna, a Hawaiian name that means a place of good energy, owned by a couple who had lived there. There were chairs and beds facing the shore; on a low tide, the sun plunged perfectly on the horizon. We had pangs about leaving, but then we were also looking forward to our dolphin watching in Bais.
Going south of the marine corridor, which runs a length of 160 kilometers and spreading as wide as 27 kilometers, we had stopped to stay the night at a solitary ranger station that keeps watch on the area for poachers. It stood lonely, a concrete structure that was the only sign of vigilance. A couple of local fishermen joined the watchers to help keep them awake, their voices keeping us up all night as well.
The moon was starting to wane and the breeze swept through the veranda where we had decided to put the mattress on tabletops to sleep in the fresh air instead of staying in the stuffy rooms. There was nothing else out there. Tañon was in a hush.
The strait had long been declared a protected seascape, yet commercial fishing continues to thrive. A legal declaration was put on paper 17 years ago, but it had been largely ignored and neglected until early this year, when the Protected Area Management Board of Tañon Strait Protected Seascape, made up mostly of local government units, decided to craft a management program and put it into action. (Oceana, an international NGO that organized the expedition in preparation for World Ocean’s Day on June 8, pushed for the convening of the board, along with its partner NGO, Rare.)
It is the largest protected marine area in the country, about 521,000 hectares, even bigger than Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the middle of the Sulu Sea.
The day before our dolphin watch, we’d gone underwater to check on the corals. They were breathing a fresh life because of attempts to protect them, in parts of the strait where non-fishing zones have been accomplished. In some bleak patches ruined most likely by dynamite explosion, surviving corals give shelter to the tiniest fishes, the beauty of small things growing anew.
The coral reef, put together, covers almost 19,000 hectares, a shelter to about 70 species of fish and 20 species of crustaceans. I’d seen the usual groupers and snappers and other schools of pelagic fish. At twilight I went diving over what looked like a cabbage field, the corals in the shape of the leaves with all colors of fishes gathered in various schools.
But it was the dolphins that left us breathless. As we settled down, and the dolphins went their way into the deep, we decided to take a stroll on the mangrove forest nearby, thinking it would only take a few minutes to get there on a rubber boat from our dive boat that couldn’t go cross the shallows. We were wrong: It took almost an hour and the sun pierced us.
The forest was parched, leaving the mangroves looking bare and sad, but leaving enough of the green for the sunbirds and a kingfisher hiding somewhere among the clawed roots. It was different from the mangroves we had seen a short distance from the ranger station, there on the coastal village of Bindoy where the fishermen and their families swam in the clear green water as though they were in a swimming pool.
Little by little, people living by the shoreline are beginning to see the value of the trees they used to cut for firewood; with storms regularly buffeting the islands, they’ve learned that mangroves are the sentinels on their water frontier, their protection against climate change.
At day’s end, we headed toward the nearest city, Dumaguete, now a major tourist destination in the Visayas. The expedition was over, and we treated ourselves to a nice dinner in one of the oldest restaurants in town. But some of us preferred to try out the food at the outdoor stalls by the boulevard. They were selling a local version of tempura, and when I asked what kind of fish it was, I was told they didn’t quite know, that it could be shark.
That should be enough to lose one’s appetite. Shark hunting, we had heard, had been happening too when illegal fishermen couldn’t get enough of their harvest. This simply means there’s still a long way to go in protecting the Tañon Strait, a major fishing ground of the Visayan Islands.