Looking out in Palawan, Philippines

Most of what I’ve written to date about a brief stint living on a boat in the Philippines (here, and here) has focused on pictures and stories from within those 30-odd feet that kept us only slightly separated from the ocean below.

The thing is, although living within Danica’s confined quarters was an adventure and sight unto itself, we spent the vast majority and perhaps the most enjoyable of our moments looking out and away from the boat. Because there wasn’t a closed cabin, day and night we were afforded 360 degree viewing of our surroundings, which changed daily whether or not we changed location.

During the night we could only take in the closer views. Sometimes there was moon light or the twinkle of a nearby town, but the dominant theme was darkness save for the occasional fire on the shoreline, marking a family’s residence. Nights that we were anchored in a quiet mangrove cove offered several options. Peering into the water, bioluminescent creatures scooted around the hull quickly, slowly, or even jerkily, resembling some sort of ‘The Jetsons’-esque galaxial superhighway. Laying up on the bow, stargazing could easily while away the time before bed, unless it was cloudy. This was, of course, on the nights that we didn’t pass out directly after dinner from the fatigue of long and mentally taxing days in the sun. Activities were different when we had run Danica up on the beach for the night – those evenings were prime for walking around with headlamps and chasing crabs, or keeping track of the strandline of pebbles, sea grass and sea glass in an effort to predict whether or not we were at the high tide yet. The nighttime activity that drew a consistent thread through all of this, regardless of surroundings? Checking the anchor line for that sought-after 30-45 degree angle.

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I probably don’t have to point out to you that the daytime views were much easier to photograph. My absolute favourites were the mornings, almost always with glassy waters, reflecting the hills reaching up from them. These conditions made for great gazing during mandatory coffee uptake, or for smooth motoring if we meant to split early-ish to take advantage of high tide, safeguarding against running aground. The mornings were also a popular time for fishermen to be out working from their small, uncovered bangkas. During the nighttime we couldn’t see them, but we sure heard their strategic ‘plop – plop – plop’ they made in the water to attract a catch.

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Okay, the late afternoon wasn’t so bad, either, with its big skies and layered island topography, like ripped grey paper…

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Regardless of the time of day, there was lots to see as we slowly motored through small and wide waterways separating the island clusters. We shared the paths with many, many other bangka boats. Some were large and rigged up for extended dive expeditions, others were multi-tasking workhorses, serving as family transport in the mornings and evenings, punctuated by tourist transport in the day. These were complementary sights to the ubiquitous fishing bangkas, and those responsible for monitoring pearl farms dotting the region. These farms created a black bauble-scape over wide swaths of the waterways and provided us with some navigational anxiety.

No matter the function, they all looked to us a bit like giant robot water beetles when the light was right.

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We had interactions with other people on about half of the days we spent on Danica The Bangka, plus ample smiles, waves and pointed fingers each day from passing vessels. Almost all exchanges we had were positive,  most were stunted by a language barrier, many were helpful and a few were a little bizarre. Thinking of the latter, I’m brought back to the morning that I woke up before Jon, beached high up on a deserted and beautiful stretch of Calumbuyan Island (as expected) to see a man with a machete standing right in front of us, staring right at me with a perplexed expression (less expected). To say that I felt vulnerable in the moment would be an understatement. He turned out to be soft spoken and tried to be helpful, a caretaker for the island who had needed the machete to hack his way through the jungle to check on us. This is what we choose to believe. We were, after all, on his turf.

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I’ve mentioned the Philippines’ coral reefs in every single post about bangka living, but even at the risk of boring the audience, I would be remiss to not give it one (or two) more mentions. It was everywhere, it was different everywhere, and it felt like flying to be silently gliding over the reef after we killed the motor and used long bamboo poles to push ourselves in. It never got old to hang legs over the edge at midday and see the underwater landscape lit up perfectly, with the high sun and clear water. The reefs and the shallow water sheltered behind them were also home to all sorts of tropical fish, starfish, jellyfish, squids and the occasional sea snake, adding yet another element to the minimal-effort, maximum-payoff activity of simply staring off whatever side of Danica one happened to be on. Okay, that’s enough on coral, for now.

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No post about a tropical island paradise would be complete without a note on beaches, so I will end with these. The beaches in Palawan left us feeling spoiled, and we were lucky to spend as much time on them as we did. What I’ll say about the sandier days of the journey is that we most enjoyed the uninhabited strips we managed to find, even if they weren’t perfectly clean or manicured, and even if one ended up housing a cemetery back in the bushes and news of us hangin’ out here passed between mouth to superstitious mouth quickly, reaching Coron Town before we did. I generally assume I’ll inadvertently make a significant cultural faux-pas every once in a while…

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