"A LIFE OF ADVENTURE" jessaminevillareal's Profile
If I find myself with over a million dollars today, I’ll buy an island at El Nido. For a fragment of Paradise, it will be a bargain price, too.
For now, I have to settle for a P30,000 three-day and two-night stay at Lagen Island and make the most of what I have.
For me, El Nido’s allure has always been the isolation and the sea. Sailing over Bacuit Bay, gazing at the 45-islet cluster studding the sea like a tiara atop molten emeralds was like coming home.
As usual, Lagen’s pier was alive with needlefish, fusiliers, parrot fish, wrasses and sergeants majors expecting to be fed. After the welcome of songs and drinks, the bell boy escorted me to my water cottage on stilts.
On my bed was a sprig of flowers and a leaf woven into the likeness of the edible nest swiftlet for whom El Nido took its name – the “balinsasayaw” inhabiting the crags and crevices of its 300 million year old limestone formations. Natives harvest the nests, made of swiftlet saliva and moss, and export them all over Asia. In restaurants, the nests are cleaned, cooked and served as the famous Nido soup.
I opened the verandah door and looked out in time to catch a glimpse of a baby octopus jetting among the rocks. The sea beneath the stilts will not ebb till dusk.
There was no TV in the room, which was a relief, although it was furnished with a telephone and a stereo-CD player.
The island group is secluded, a good 240 kilometers away from Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, cut off from the mainland by the Luzon Sea to the North, the China Sea to the East and the Sulu Sea to the West.
I unpacked quickly, eager to snorkel in the cove behind the resort. But I was saddened when I saw how the corals have thinned out since the last time I came to El Nido four years ago.
Brindled parrot fishes munched on what little remained. Moorish Idols drove off smaller butterfly and angel fishes among the coral rubble. At the bottom, sweetlips nosed for food and triggerfish flailed their fins in clouds of sand. Above them, a cluster of batfish hang suspended, like a scattering of mangrove seed pods, viewed from their sides.
Our boatman assured me I’ll find better-looking corals at Pangulasian Island, after we visit the caves.
So, we chugged off to Cathedral Cave - an ancient temple of limestone with stalactites and stalagmites for spires and glassy turquoise waters in its halls and aisles.
Then we squeezed through Cadugnon cave, which was the same age as the 22,000 year old Tabon cave in Southern Palawan and like it, was once the abode of pre-historic men. Inside, archaeologists found shards of clay goblets carbon-dated 400 years B.C., along with a shrine lined with human skull and bones.
Finally, we headed for Pangulasian, the site of the first El Nido Resort Hotel which was razed to the ground. Now, all that was left of the pyramid-shaped island was forested slopes, a mountain trail to the eagle’s eyrie and coral fringed shores.
The peak looked inviting, so I decided to trek alone, in high noon, before diving. Anyway, the guide said the trail is just straight up. In less than an hour, I reached the highest point and gazed out into the huge limestone mass of Jip Rocks, under which tuna, barracuda and sharks lurked.
On the other side was Turtle Island, with its frill of white beach where endangered hawksbill turtles lay their eggs. Beyond lay the endless blue expanse of the South China Sea.
A kingfisher winged by as I took in the scenery, but I longed to see a raptor and was amazed at how quickly the spirits of the place granted my wish. Soon, a speck materialized in the cloudless heavens. Gliding closer, it turned out to be a magnificent white-breasted sea eagle.
I watched the eagle ride the thermals on his six foot wingspread without flapping his pinions even once. But as he drew near me, a mob of crows erupted from the trees below, cawing frantically to drive him away from their turf.
The great bird veered away, rode another updraft and then dipped into the sea. Silently, I wished him good fishing and hoped he kept a well-fed mate with a nest of full-bellied eaglets somewhere in the limestone ledges.
Back on the beach, I could not see the boat, or any guides and members of my group, so I plunged straight into the cool waters. The current was running from one end of the island to the other, so, all I had to do was allow the sea to carry me face-down over the coral forest.
Under some boulders, a huge oval plate moved. I squinted and realized it was a hawksbill turtle. He hugged the shallows, confident of his camouflage, until I grasped the sides of his carapace. In haste, he hurtled towards the purple black murk below the drop-off, with me on his back. It must be a hundred feet deep. I really had no choice. As he banked to dive, I let go and finned the opposite way – to the surface.
Back to drifting lazily in the current, my eyes roamed over a wilderness of barrel sponges, staghorn, tabletop and brain corals, over carpets of salmon pink anemones with feisty clown fish dancing in the forest of their tentacles. A spotted eagle ray flashed by me and vanished.
Then my gaze flitted to a pockmarked pillar of dead corals and froze. Something very long and almost as thick as my thigh was bunched inside - a giant moray eel. I couldn’t even see where his head was. Not that I intend to grope for it. Morays have very sharp teeth and don’t let go the moment they latch on to something. Worse, their tails are securely knotted inside their burrows. I’d rather wrangle with sharks.
Just then, I had a strange feeling I was being watched. Instinctively, I thought: “There is a shark here with me.” In my peripheral vision, I made out a shadowy form cruising a good distance away but parallel to me. It was a blacktip shark, about six feet long.
A surge of thrill shot through my body. I wondered what he was doing in the reef at this time of day. Was he hungry or just curious? Was he patrolling his territory? Are there other sharks nearby? Where could they be? I wish to see them, to swim with them and touch them if I can.
I go out of my way to look for sharks in every dive, but I usually see them in the early mornings and towards dusk - their normal feeding times. I actually surprised one as he fed on squid. Anyway, my black tip was gone in a wink, in the purplish gloom beyond the abyss.
Everything else after that was anticlimactic. Our boat was back. Soon, it was sunset over Bacuit Bay. I perched on the prow, apart from the others, watching the dying sun gilding the massive limestone spires. I could make out strange glyphs, shadowy faces and figures emblazoned on the rocks, what must be the guardian spirits of the islets, the devas of the seas and the winds.
Next day, I woke up early. Oh, but I woke up much earlier for the bird watching tour the first time I went to El Nido. In the chill morning mist, we negotiated the labyrinths of the mangrove forest, startling clouds of fries and fingerlings under the gnarled roots. Cicadas filled the air with their singing while hordes of blue herons clamored in their nests.
But now, the herons have deserted their old grounds, refusing to nest amidst too many boatloads of tourists. Other denizens have become scarce too. I cannot even find a single black and yellow banded mangrove snake. They used to twine around the branches like living jewels.
In all, over a hundred species of birds and 20 species of mammals make their home in El Nido’s forests. The waters host 200 species of fish, more than 100 species of corals and three species of endangered sea turtles. But in such a short time, a good number of them had vanished forever, including crocodiles, megapodes, cockatoos and sea cows.
Today, our guides could only try to console us with prospects of touring the star attractions of El Nido - the Big and the Small Lagoons at Miniloc Island, the home of the gods. And they assured us we will enjoy feeding the fish on the docks.
Miniloc has a group of “resident” giant trevallies – half a dozen or more of them, weighing over half a hundred pounds each, incredibly fast thugs on their fins, with jawfuls of serrated teeth. They make the water boil the moment the resort staff tosses in the meat scraps.
Many gave the trevallies a wide berth though. A Korean tourist made the mistake of dangling his feet underwater right in the midst of their feeding frenzy. One chomped down on his toes with surgical precision.
Unfazed, I hijacked a bagful of bread from our guide and lowered myself in the waters. Immediately, the giant trevallies started circling me. When I crumbled bread in my fingers and the smaller wrasses and tangs darted in to feed, the toothy thugs began tightening their circle, jaws half-agape. One boldly brushed against my leg. I touched him, a fleeting caress. He’s sleek and slippery – and for the all the sinuous grace, hard as steel.
On a trail of bread fragments, I lured my hungry entourage to the waters above the abyss. Parrot fish jostled along with the sweet lips, triggerfish and wrasses plus other creatures with rock-crushing jaws.
Odd, I know that parrot fish and most others graze on corals. But nobody wants to turn down a free handout. Fish of all sizes and colors mobbed me in a rainbow haze. In their frenzy, many of them missed the bread and sank their mandibles on my exposed hands, arms and belly.
The trevallies drifted away, sulking, when they realized I have no meat in the bag for them. But out of nowhere, a spectacular fifty- found Red Emperor moved in. As the serving tray-sized fish advanced, the tiny ones vacated the scene. Everyone else made way.
I held my breath to keep as still as I can as the wary Red Emperor fixed me with his bulging eyes and munched a few inches from my dive mask. I can actually hear his teeth clicking. And I can’t take my eyes off him either. I have to make sure he feeds on the bread and not on my fingers. He could very easily lop off my indexes.
After the fish demolished my bagful of bread, I finned along the edges of the drop-off and discovered a mini “cleaning station”. Below me, a triggerfish hang suspended, only his pectoral fins beating nonstop to keep him in one place. A group of blue cleaner wrasses groomed his flanks but a dauntless one ventured inside his mouth and another was darting in and out of his gills.
Unfortunately, I can no longer find the potato grouper who used to hang out in the vicinity, along with the schools of jacks so thick they obliterate everything in a whirl of silver when I swim in their midst.
Before I knew it, our guide was waving me back to the boat so we could proceed to the Big Lagoon, and from there into the Small Lagoon, through a narrow gap in the karst.
We dropped anchor far from the opening but I did not wait for them to launch the kayaks. I just jumped into the turquoise waters and swam for it, careful not to brush against the rocks.
Razor-spined sea urchins, some as big as basketballs, nuzzled under the overhangs. Small but poisonous striped catfish clustered in some areas. Stone fish, along with their prettier-looking but equally lethal relatives, the lionfish, lurked camouflaged along the channels.
In fact, one of our guides had stepped on a stonefish. Its venom is said to be so excruciatingly painful not even morphine shots can dull it. And it’s one experience I don’t want.
Nonetheless, I explored the inside chamber of the small lagoon ahead of the others. I saw many fish but few corals. Also, the water was warm in shallow places but spine-tingling cold in the murky passageways. The further I moved in the watery corridors of the inner chambers, the colder it gets.
Suddenly, in the dense green gloom, two white transparent blobs pulsed up to meet me - jellyfish, bigger than dinner plates, trailing yards of stingers. Frantically, I finned away from their course.
Anyway, it was almost time for our lunch at Entalula Island. Food was already laid out for us in fresh banana leaves, picnic-style, when we arrived. On the grass under the coconut trees and on the white sands, the resort staff had also spread out native mats for us.
I plunked down facing the sea with my plateful of rice, crabs, blue marlin and grilled pork belly. Some of my companions took siestas beneath the coconuts soon after. But I decided I can’t waste my time sleeping in paradise. I put on my scuba gear as soon as I have cleaned my plate and entered the waters.
But instead of a coral forest, I found mostly coral graveyards. Much of Entalula’s reef had been destroyed. All around, juvenile giant clams lay pitifully exposed among the bleached skeletons, their vivid blue, fuschia, violet and green mantles pulsing in the current.
The dive master blamed the crown of thorns starfish for the carnage. Concerned groups had been spearing and removing these rampaging devourers of corals for the past few months, he said. However, I have not seen a single crown of thorns in any of my dives since I came. Later, one boatman admitted that government agencies, police and private resort owners have failed to curb cyanide fishing in the reefs.
From what I have seen, even the rich coral reefs of Pangulasian have been affected, although the damage was more pronounced in Miniloc and Lagen. I have been to these reefs only four years ago, so I knew the difference. And it was disturbing.
Still, I tried to ward off the sense of impending doom. I tried to think of other things – a rinse in the pool, a massage scheduled for tonight, the sumptuous dinner.
When we returned to Lagen, I plunged straight in the swimming pool. But guests were packed in almost elbow to elbow. I hauled myself out and was about to leave when a huge, handsome water monitor lizard waddled along the edge of the pool, head raised high, like he owned the resort. He flicked out his tongue at me.
Woes forgotten, I tried to entice him with a morsel. But I must have moved in too close, too soon. He sidled closer to the water. But his long, coppery-green tail was within grabbing distance.
I have tailed good-sized snakes before, but not water monitors. On impulse, I lunged forward. He hit the pool at the same time, belly-flopped on the water and zigzagged away. Bathers screamed and scrambled out in all directions. In a flash, the pool was empty.
I’m sure biting a human was the last thing in his mind. He only wanted to flee. And he did it in great style, my little dragon. He was more gorgeous swimming than padding on land. No wonder they called him water monitor. Why everyone else fled in terror was beyond me. Anyway, I’m glad he taught me how to clear a crowded pool in two seconds flat.
But the following morning, my last day at El Nido, the foreboding feeling returned as I went up the forest trail by myself.
They called it the Cardiac Arrest Trail. It used to be a wild, steep path up and down the forest, behind Lagen’s cottages. Supposed to be challenging enough to give you a heart attack, it culminates into a descent to a white beach pocket behind the cliffs where swiftlets nest.
Almost half a decade ago, I tackled the trail alone for the first time. Monitor lizards almost as big as Komodo dragons scurried out of my path. Mynahs, monkeys wild parrots and hornbills announced my coming. Colorful snakes rustled in the underbrush.
Now, I’m at it for the second time, I thought the trail was no longer wild and challenging. Fat blue plastic ropes had been fixed all the way from trail head to trail end and steps had been dug out of the earth in the steepest places.
Yet, I was thankful I took the trek because the forest gave me one last parting gift - the sight of Palawan hornbills, those handsome, black birds with cream-white crowns and tails – and the odd bony protuberance between their long-lashed eyes and over their great beaks.
Close to the end of the trail, I heard rustling in the treetops and froze. A Palawan hornbill just landed on a branch close by. He gripped something in his beak - his mate’s breakfast in her prison-nest.
I could hardly see the tip of the female’s beak protruding from the tiny feeding hole in her mud prison in the hollow of the tree as he slipped in bits of fruit and insects to her. She had sealed the entrance of her nest with mud to keep predators out while she molts and sits on her eggs. She will not demolish her prison until her chicks fledge.
As I sailed back to the airport, vivid images haunted me - moray and monitor, shark and turtle, eagle and hornbill. I told myself that for as long as I live, I will claim the spirit of the place, the wildness, the solitude, the beauty.
Perhaps the Paradise that is El Nido will not be lost forever. Perhaps there is a way to save it. There has to be.
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