We are in Pokhara, Nepal right now and will be heading out trekking tomorrow morning. We’re doing the rather straight forward “Poon Hill” trek (5 days) and if all is going well we’ll extend to the Annapurna Base camp in the “Annapurna Sanctuary” area. We have 2 guides and 10 porters hired to help us with our Annapurna summit (8091m) attempt. We picked up some extra socks and packed some extra coffee, because we understand that this can be quite a difficult climb and the weather can be sketchy at this time of year. If we are successful we’ll be the first Canadian family of 4 to summit Annapurna. Oh .. Yvonne’s calling out … a change of plans … apparently as of 2012 191 climbers had successfully submitted Annapurna while 61 died trying. With a family of 4, the odds aren’t perfect for us. So I think we’ll just turn around at the base camp 😉 OK, how many of you were still with me? Actually we have hired just one guide and our high point would will be 4100m which hopefully will be manageable. We were a bit higher in the Andes but had much more time to acclimatize to the altitude. So, we”ll be offline for a while … don’t worry if you don’t hear from us. We’ll have some Hong Kong entries ready when we get back. I am really excited … have dreamed of this for many years.
Another long travel day awaited us in our journey from Whitebeach to our next destination of Sablayan. I had been fascinated the night before with the dueling Ladyboy shows that Jake described, but otherwise was anxious to leave the overdeveloped and tacky feeling Whitebeach. We were still hoping to head out to the highly touted Apo reef for one last hurrah of diving. But it really seems that from anywhere to anywhere in the Philippines is far. The overloaded tricycle habit continued as we made our way to board the boat at Balatero cove.
I really didn’t think it wise to try to put all us and our stuff on one trike but the driver insisted. I was sure we’d blow a tire or worse. The Canadian in me worries that short term financial imperative overrides good long term business thinking.
But … he got his 4 fares with his trike intact. He knows best.
After a rather perilous disembarkation from the boat (in high seas, dodgy gangway, 15 ft above the water) at Abra de Ilog we were rushed onto a bus that sped its way 2hrs south along the coast to the town of Sablayan. The road was covered in drying corn and rice – so much that we were swerving violently side to side. But it all works out. We got talking on the bus to Christo from Belgium who had a great approach to travelling … moving slowly, staying with families wherever possible. He had a wonderful way about him and we ended up spending the next 3 days together.
Sablayan had a refreshingly authentic feel to it, especially after having come from the touristy Sabang and Whitebeach. Not another tourist it sight here. It did have a modest “ecotourism” office that connected us with two Apo Reef dive operators and we immediately headed off to “Gustav’s Place” to see what we could do. Gustav is off the beaten path … really off the path. We left our bags at the tourism office and grabbed a trike down one twisty gravel road after another, ending at a river. On the other side of the river was a welcome sign for “Gustav’s Place”. OK, so we needed to take a boat to cross. Gustav’s Place had some bungalows and was otherwise very understated, as was Austrian Gustav himself. His boat going out the next day to the reef was full with divers, but we negotiated to be taken along as snorkellers then dropped on Apo island to camp for the night. He would send his boat out the next day with our diving gear and a dive master. Sounded pretty good! Expensive, but good.
Apo reef is the second largest continuous reef in the world (after the Great Barrier reef) and is located about 30km out to sea from Sablayan. The core area is 34km square in area. It was protected in a National Park back in the 1980s but fishing continued. In 2007 the boundaries were expanded, a buffer zone was put in place and fishing (including the destructive dynamite fishing) was stopped within park limits. Divers were then courted to provide income for locals – especially the displaced fishermen. It is known for fantastic biodiversity, including huge schools of pelagic fish, sharks, turtles and manta rays. We were really excited!
We rushed back to town and headed straight to the local market to get food for our overnight outing on the island. Christo offered to work up a curry; we didn’t argue. Veggies and rice bought for dinner, eggs, onions and cheese for breakfast omelettes.
Back to fetch kids and bags at tourism office then back to Gustav’s Place. Unfortunately his boatman had his earphones in grooving to some tunes so we had to work pretty hard to find a boat to cross the river this time. Some 10yr old girls found one and got us across. We squished into a tiny bungalow with Kaia and Jake on thermarests on the floor.
Something I’d eaten didn’t agree with me that night … I hardly slept a wink. And we slept in for our early morning (6:30) boat departure. We’d hoped to leave half our stuff behind … that wasn’t to be after sleeping in so we threw all our bags into the boat and away we went.
Two and a half hours later we arrived at the first dive site on the reef. We donned our snorkelling gear as the divers set out. Snorkelling was a bit of a bust as we were in at least 8m of water. The second site was better though .. we saw schools of huge bump headed parrot fish ( 2-3 ft long) and some lovely turtles.
Lunch was enjoyed under a thatched roof on Apo Island. The island is small .. maybe 500m x 200m. Great lunch, shared with the dive clients. We then had the afternoon to explore, snorkel, swim and otherwise chill. This was ocean paradise.
We had just enough time after dinner for a trip up the island’s light tower to catch the sunset.
I slept soooo well that night after my horrible previous night and the fact that there were no car/kareoke/dueling ladyboys/rooster noises – just the lap of the sea. We had time for a leisurely breakfast before the boat/dive crew appeared off the horizon to meet us.
The diving at Apo was phenomenal! On all three dive locations we descended to the ocean floor then made our way to the “dropoff” (yes, Marlin .. the dropoff!). The 15m deep floor ends abruptly and you look down into deep blue nothingness.
It was so thick with fish .. of every shape, size and colour. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by such vibrant beauty in such a quiet, peaceful place. You want to call out your amazement to the other divers but can use only your wide open eyes to communicate. The photos here come nowhere close to capturing the visuals … but they at least remind us.
The coral was in such great shape here, so there were infinite little things to gaze upon in the nooks and crannies. Colours fantastic. Every now and again Albert would tap is metal pointer stick on his tank to get our attention, to point out sharks, turtles, jack fish, Napoleon fish etc etc. It was all quite overwhelming.
Perhaps that’s why I ran through my air so quickly. I am always the first in our family out of air. I am relaxed in the water, and try to breathe slowly. But clearly I am doing something different. We all start with about 200-220 “bars” of pressure. When you get to 50 bars you need to be near 5m of depth so you can do your 3 minute “safety stop” at that depth (to prevent nitrogen release into the blood) and still reach surface with a reasonable amount of air left. I would hit 50 bars around 35-40 minutes while Kaia, Jake and Yvonne would still be at 120-150!! At Sabang we all came up when I ran low on air, which meant the other 3 were cut short in a way. I am the week link! I asked Albert if I could do my safety stop and surfacing on my own and he said that would be OK. So he pointed me in the direction where the coral rises and I made my way up to 5m. As I was waiting my 3 minutes I came across a large school of large bumphead parrotfish that were more or less indifferent to me. They are huge, and a bright blue/green colour.
I have to say it was lovely to be alone in the sea like that and have these giant fish to myself. Clearly there is safety in numbers/buddies. But I was only 5m from surface and knew I could easily reach the surface in one breath. I just hovered with only fish moving around, and only the sound of my own bubbles. Ahhhh..
I surfaced and hailed the boat over for a pickup, then waited about 20 minutes for the others to surface (they stay down for about an hour, air permitting).
You need “surface time” between dives to ensure nitrogen levels are down before starting the next dive. So we relax/snack on the boat while the crew changes our tanks over and the captain maneuvers to a different part of the reef.
I had a plan for staying down longer on the final 2 dives of the day (3 total). All divers have secondary (breathing) regulators attached. It can be used if the primary fails. But mostly it is to be used by your “buddy” if they run out of air – “buddy breathing”. This is supposed to be done in emergencies only, but I asked Albert if I could buddy breathe from one of the kids when I run low so I can stay down for the full dive. He said that would be OK. So down we went on 2nd dive, this time with current, ,so we descended the anchor chain then headed “up current” to this second reef dropoff. Equally enthralling!Sharks were cruising by in the deep the schools of fish surrounded us.
True to expectations I ran out of air much before anyone else. So I linked arms with Kaia (the hoses are short) and took my regulator out and put her secondary in. Though we practiced this in our training, it is still unnerving as a new diver to take your regulator out when you are 18m down. But all was fine and away we went together. Thanks for the air, Kaia! Together we lasted the full hour which was a nice change for me.
Lunch was taken onshore again and we had time to explore the island a bit more.
Third dive after lunch was equally sublime. This time I buddy breathed Kaia down to 70 bars so then set off to mooch from Jake who helped me get through to the full hour. I knew there was a good reason to get my kids certified for scuba!
And so ended the diving on our year adventure. Kaia was so right on an earlier blog entry where she noted that our diving experience has given us new appreciation of what’s at stake in our oceans – an emotional attachment if you will. It is stunning, precious.
Apo reef marks the northern tip of the “coral triangle” which stretches through the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Coral experts describe it as the epicenter of marine biodiversity and it “seeds” reefs and fish through the Pacific & Indian oceans. Coral reefs cover just 1% of the ocean floor but harbour over 25% of the oceans fish. A heathy square km of coral reef can provide over 40 tonnes of food. It has been noted by marine biologists many times over that “as the corals go, so goes the ocean, and so goes the world”. If we can’t protect the coral, the ocean is in a dire position. Ocean and terrestrial die backs are historically linked to vanishing coral. It is now well known that our coral reefs are in trouble. Over fishing, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, pollution, sedimentation and climate change are taking their toll. In the Philippines and Indonesia only 5% of reefs are identified as being in good condition. It is with this knowledge that these countries have been setting aside marine protected areas (MPA) like the Apo reef. The Philippines leads the charge, with 500 MPAs. Encouraging is the fact that many if not most of these MPAs, including the Apo reef, are the work of local communities/governments. Discouraging is the underfunding of the management programs; one estimate has only 1/5 of the MPAs possessing sufficient resources to actually protect. The rest are “paper parks”. Further complicating protection is foreign fishing. Chinese and Vietnamese boats have been found with enormous numbers of endangered turtles aboard, to say nothing about the actual fish.
Since full protection of Apo was put in place in 2007 (and corresponding opening of the ecotourism office and alternative livelihoods program), the reef has shown some very promising signs of recovery. And the MPA financing means for Apo are unique. Almost all the management funds come from an initiative of regional Cebu Pacific Airlines where fliers are encouraged to donate to the Apo reef MPA as a means for offsetting the (climate change) damage of their flights. Have a look at https://www.cebupacificair.com/WWFBrightSkies/index.html
I wish we had known this when we flew with Cebu Pacific twice …. but we didn’t see anything.
Here are the words of WWF Philippines president Jose Lorenzo Tan: “In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation: should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people. This is a natural investment.”
Where will our next dives be? Hard to say. But we’d all like to rent for a dive on Kennisis lake at the family cottage this summer.
We were all lost in thought as we made the return trip to shore, arriving at sunset.
We had a couple more days before needing to get to Manila for our flight out so took some time to lay low and explore Sablayan. We enjoyed the always vibrant markets, delicious (but repetitive) road side food stalls otherwise roamed around.
The kids were really a novelty here. Philippines is not a huge family destination, and most of those that do come end up at resorts. Eyes lit up when they spied the blondies and often pictures were requested. But it was done with grace so K&J didn’t mind too much.
Christo spent a day at Sablayan’s 2nd biggest tourist draw – the large prison just outside town. Really! You go part way into the prison security and chat with prisoners and maybe buy some of the crafts they make. It is a garden-prison – the inmates have to largely feed themselves. Although the Lonely Planet says you can only meet with the low and medium security prisoners, Christo had some very moving conversations with two 2nd degree murder inmates. We considered going, but the kids weren’t super enthused and kids can’t really get past the gate so we left that experience to Christo’s stories.
On our final day Kaia and I made our way about an hour out of town and climbed to the Mindoro Pines. I had arranged a guide but he did not make the bus on time so I thought we’d do it alone, but he found a friend to zoom him out behind the bus on his motorcycle so we had guidance … two of them as it turns out. The hike starts out at a Mangyan village. The Mangyan are Mindoro’s indigenous peoples and are known as the indigenous group with the best preserved culture in the Philippines. This despite continued interference and persecution by just about every group that has since occupied the island. Remote Mangyan villages are still very traditional (including non western clothing) but those like the one we passed through have partly embraced new ways, including the use of cell phones.
Kaia and I were glad to stretch our legs, even though this wasn’t a particularly memorable hike. Jake wanted to stay back at the hostel to work on his blog and Yvonne was happy to have a down day. After we left however, they had a visit at the hostel from “Bert” who we’d met the day before. Bert used to live and work in Brampton and has 8 children all over the world, including one in Mississauga. He really liked Canada but his wife insisted that they return to the Philippines. Bert invited Yvonne and Jake to lunch at their house his wife and cook put on a great spread of Filipino food and shared stories of their globetrotting children and their time in Canada.
We caught a bus 2hrs south from Sablayan later that afternoon, to the city of San Jose. I had a major boil at an inopportune place at the top of my leg that pretty much prevented me from sitting down and I couldn’t get my head around the 10-12 hr bus/ferry ride north to Manila. We could catch a short flight from San Jose instead. San Jose was absolutely bustling that evening and we savoured our last street-side dinner and tricycle rides in the Philippines. We were airborne for Manila by 9 AM next morning and lifted off for Hong Kong later that afternoon. Philippines had offered up some rich experiences. People were welcoming always. We loved the tricycle as a means of transport. I would LOVE to make one back home as a car alternative (groceries, running the kids around). Can you imagine the look on the cop’s face as I drive by?
Looking back, I think we could have done better with our planning. 2 weeks is really short in the vast array of large Philippine islands so for this time frame we would be better to have looked for just one island – maybe Palawan – with a multitude of experiences. I do wish we’d been able to visit the villages in north Luzon with the spectacular rice paddies. I’ll throw a net photo in in case you haven’t see the visuals before.