Cross-posted from FilipinoVoices
Disclosure: The author’s spouse owns and operates a travel agency, which may be construed (but the author hopes it is not) as to having an effect on the context of this post.
There’s a fantastic story that came in yesterday afternoon about a Puerto Princesa fisherman being saved by a pod of spinner dolphins and pilot whales. As the story goes, the fisherman had been floating in the open water for nearly 24 hours, bleeding from crustacean bites, when a pod of dolphins took it upon themselves to nudge the man and his makeshift lifeboat towards the shore.
“Dumating yung mga dolphins. Ang dami nila. Tapos may lumapit na dalawang balyena. Dun sila sa tigkabilang tabi ko lumalangoy,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. (There were dolphins, lots of them. Then a pair of whales started swimming on both sides)
“Palit palitan sila tinutulak ako gamit ang kanilang palikpik,” (They would push me alternately using their fins). Meanwhile, he said the rest of the pod stayed close to him to around just a meter away apparently trying to make sure no harm would come to him from any other animal. [Inquirer.Net]
What makes fisherman Ronnie Dabal’s ordeal more special is that he and Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn attributed the fisherman’s “rescue” as a sign of gratitude from the dolphins. As it turns out, Dabal is a deputized dolphin warden, and part-times as a dolphin spotter and habitat protector in Puerto Princesa Bay.
Dolphin spotters — a common second job for Puerto Princesa fishermen — head out early in the morning to look for large pods of dolphins, whose location they then relay to boatmen bringing tourists in for dolphin watching tours (using, what else: SMS text messages). Ronnie Dabal had been part of a program conducted by the Palawan NGO Network and ABS-CBN Bantay Kalikasan Foundation, with the help of the City of Puerto Princesa administration, wherein local folk, especially fisherfolk, are trained to find, identify, and protect dolphins, whale sharks, and other marine life as well as their habitats. Ultimately, locals earn revenues from eco-tourism activities, making for a win-win situation wherein the environment is protected and the locals earn a windfall from tourism, augmenting their traditional fishing or farming livelihood.
The locals, in turn, have a lot to thank for with such programs. A little over a year ago, my wife, her friends and I visited Puerto Princesa, where we were brought on an island hopping tour of Honda Bay by a guide named (I kid you not) Gloria. Gloria gave us a complete and detailed rundown of the tour: the origins of the word “Honda” (from the Spanish “hondo”, meaning “deep”, and not the Japanese car maker), the vigorous clean and green efforts of the city (our chain-smoking friend was getting mouthfuls from Gloria, boatmen, and other locals alike each and every time he would out of sheer habit throw aside a cigarette butt), and the various resort islands in the bay. It didn’t stop there; by the time we were in the water, not only was she pulling five snorkelers (my wife and her barkada) all at the same time, she would identify each kind of fish, crustacean, and coral that was there, sometimes by species name. Later that afternoon, I casually asked her if she were from a fishing family, with her excellent swimming skills and strong sea legs. I was surprised when she answered back: “hindi, magsasaka ako”.
It is difficult to believe that merely a decade and a half before, some locals and fishermen not unlike Ronnie Dabal were considered as part of the problem when it comes to environmental protection. In 1997, whale sharks, colloquially known as butanding, were discovered in Donsol, Sorsogon, and where subsequently hunted for their soft white flesh, which can be sold to Taiwanese dealers at around $15 a kilo — the most expensive whale meat in the world. As late as 1999, an estimate put 70,000 fishermen, or about 12% of the fishermen in the Philippines, are involved in illegal dynamite fishing.
Over the past decade, the tide is being turned with the help of various NGOs, as well as their respective LGUs, training programs were set up all around the country, and eco-tourism has become an increasingly bigger part in the lives and livelihoods of locals. Fishermen, aside from being dolphin spotters, are also being trained to be snorkeling guides and lifeguards — quite easy for them since it is customary for them to skin dive during fishing trips. Womenfolk are being taught crafts to be able to sell as souvenirs; everyone is being taught basic English to be able to communicate with foreign tourists. Donsol fishermen, for their part, have become whale spotters themselves, earning large sums during the whale shark watching season.
While I have no solid numbers at this point, my own trips around the country over the past year looks promising — the stories of Filipinos who are increasingly turning to eco-tourism to augment their incomes — or sometimes, who turned such activities into full-time jobs, are the same whether one goes to Palawan, or Bohol, or Davao, or Camiguin. Our guide in Bohol was a former OFW; our divemaster in Davao comes from a family of farmers; our Camiguin guide was a former Stork sales agent. Over that same year I learned to appreciate marine life to a greater extent, far from being an ordinary beach bum frolicking at the edge of the water and enjoying white sand.
The first time I snorkeled, and saw first hand just how beautiful Philippine marine ecosystems are, was in December 2007 — by November 2008 I tried, for the first time, scuba diving, finally being able to touch those corals:
No need for any fancy doctorate degree from an overseas university to appreciate that beauty, definitely. No need for audio even. It’s amazing just how teeming the marine ecosystem is at merely five to ten feet from the surface. My wife took this footage with a regular digital camera in a waterproof case, but needed to just snorkel above me and the dive master to capture the richness of the reef below.
Oh, and if you’d rant that it’s probably gonna be expensive — that 20 minute dive only costs PHP1,000 per person. It would’ve been PHP1,200 for two dives, but we couldn’t take a second dive since our flight was later that day, and apparently it is quite deadly to go on a flight right after going on scuba. One thousand pesos — the amount you’d spend on just one bag of groceries in SM — for the experience of a lifetime.
Clearly, the Philippine eco-tourism scene’s promising outlook presents several lessons that must be fully appreciated. Foremost of these lessons is that locals will fiercely defend whatever livelihood they have — make the environment their livelihood and they will defend it out of their own volition. Everything else follows — compliance with laws, self-policing amongst ranks, even a total change in attitude with regards to littering.
On the other hand, we have to do our part in helping our eco-tourism industry grow as big as it can, and the best way to do this is to go out there and see it for yourself. If there’s any way that best implements an effective “trickle down” effect (whether or not you believe in it), it is going to the provinces and spending money on the services and goods offered by locals. Instead of bringing your money out to shopping in Hong Kong or going to Disneyland or Ocean Park, check out the real fish in the real ocean. Experience the beauty of the countryside — and vigorously promote it to city dwellers both here and abroad.
Everyone will benefit from that.