Call of the Wild: Exploring Siargao Island, Philippines

by Christina Buo

The kayak glided across the sparkling blue water of a wide lagoon and drifted near forested islands where the Philippine ironwood, Tiger Ebony tree and Pandanus Palm grew on its rocky sides and wild birds sailed off into the sky.

Try a different adventure like plowing with a carabao. This can suprisingly provide you a unique experience
Try a different adventure like plowing with a carabao. This can suprisingly provide you a unique experience. Photo Courtesy of Troy Peden.

The stillness was broken by the beating of bird’s wings and a flash of red darted among the trees as a large, red-knobbed Rufous hornbill alighted in the upper branches. Seconds later, another   hornbill swept through the canopy. They were evidently mates, for the Philippine hornbills usually travel in pairs. Suddenly the air vibrated with their booming calls, their voices mingling with the winds, like music of the Old World, a rhapsody of rapture, echoing from island to island.

This scene unfolded in the Suhoton marine reserve in Bucas Grande, Siargao Island,  one of the most remote, wild, and beautiful regions in the Philippines. Swimming inside a tidal sea cave, snorkeling in its glassy lagoons, cliff-jumping, and paddling around its toadstool-shaped islands are popular activities. Exploring Suhoton is a journey back in time to a walled Eden, a world within a world, a secluded realm of nature, where the rare pitcher plant thrives, the harmless jellyfish breeds, and the Flying Fox stalks the night and evokes the spirit of the wild.

Siargao and its group of islands, encompassing an aggregate area of 278,914 hectares, was designated a national priority protected area in 1996.  One of the largest of the Philippines’ national reserves, the Siargao Island Protected Landscape and Seascape (SIPLAS) site is of important conservation value to the Philippines for its mangrove forests, coral reefs and rich diversity of plants and animals.

Siargao, understandably, is a great favorite for surfing, kayaking, snorkeling, sport fishing, hiking, biking, backpacking, and nature tripping. Surfers travel the world over to ride the pro-worthy and powering waves in General Luna, San Isidro, Burgos, and Pilar. Big fish abound in the deep waters off the reef. Fishes commonly caught by local and international anglers and game fishing enthusiasts during Pilar’s annual summer game fishing tournament are Great Barracuda, Blue Marlin, Swordfish, Sailfish, dolphin fish, King mackerel, Pacific tuna, and yellowfin tuna.

In Santa Monica in the northern part of the Siargao Island, wooded hills, sparkling waterfalls, caves and blindingly white beaches are just some of the discoveries to be made.  The waters of Hanigpagi, between Dahican and Litalit Islands in San Benito, harbor a colony of formidable stingrays. Climbing a steep, thickly forested island in Poneas, an uninhabited region of mangrove forests, green-clad isles, and fresh water lakes in San Benito, primarily appeals to hardcore wilderness trekkers.

Del Carmen, the largest and oldest town in Siargao, hosts the biggest mangrove forest in Mindanao, 4,200 hectares of protected mangroves, a haven for the endangered Philippine crocodile. Boating through Del Carmen’s mangrove rivers and white-sand lagoons presents a glimpse of the beautiful Philippine White –bellied Sea Eagle pirouetting in the wind and snow-white egrets nesting in the Rhizophora mangroves.        

An early morning hike to the lowland forest in Lobo in the main town of Dapa offers an ample opportunity to observe Siargao’s wildlife, fascinating plant and animal ecology.  Visitors can take a guided tour to the Biodiversity Monitoring Site (BMS) with forest rangers serving in the Community Environment Natural Resources Office. Lando Pobe has roamed these woods for many years and expertly points out different trees, flowers and birds in the area. He followed the rough road through banyan trees and coconut palms. Lando picked a cluster of reddish blossoms of the achuete. “Young girls crush the seeds and use it as lipstick. It’s popularly used as food coloring, dye, and body paint.”

For the next two kilometers, the rugged trail climbs to about 600 feet. In the shade of molave, mahogany, sajetes and hagdang-uwak trees, grow palmettos, their fan-like fronds illuminated by golden sunlight piercing through the dense canopy. Lush green and reddish-brown mosses, fallen leaves and sagay grass carpet the trail adorned by tangled ferns and fire orchids blooming red and wild. Lando looks closely and discovers the abandoned exoskeleton of a brown-colored beetle still clinging to the leaf of a tree. The humidity and the buzzing of cicadas accompany the smell of decaying vegetation permeating the forest.     

Birding is best in the summer. Lando, the Forest ranger, picked out the song of a cuckoo bird (or Asian koel),  the staccato of a flowerpecker, the tilic tilic of the Tarictic hornbill and then the whistling cry of a yellow-wattled bulbul. More than 80 species have been spotted, including kingfishers, Imperial pigeons, pied fantails, turtle doves, sunbirds, palm swifts, golden-headed fantail warblers, and the lonely owl, hoot-hooting around 7 am in the morning. At a higher elevation, hikers are at eye level with the treetops and can observe a Brahminy Kite or banog swooping down to roost in the lauan tree, 80-100 feet tall.

On the way out of the quiet woods, a brilliant blue Morpho butterfly wafted across the wayside and shimmered in the sunlight. The secondary lowland forest in Lobo shelters other kinds of wildlife including the wild boar or baboy damo  and the endangered Philippine tarsier.      

Also of interest to nature lovers and birders is the coconut woodland in Catabaan, Dapa. This was the scene of a territorial battle where a small, sturdy-beaked wood swallow defended its territory and the air space above it in a sensational mid-air attack against an intruding large-billed crow. It is a story of an avian battle between David and Goliath, and how a tiny but gutsy swallow chased away a big, black crow. Pablo Sumalinog, a farmhand who lives with his family out here is an expert guide for he knows every rock and tree and creature. He points to a thicket of tall grass near his nipa hut, where he found a nest of a Philippine coucal with eggs. Found here are tiny, owl-eyed tarsiers, civet cats, monitor lizards and snakes camouflaging in the grass.      

A walk through an overgrown trail of cogon grass and thick tangle of vegetation takes hikers to the secret location of underground caves where town folks hid for shelter and protection during the war.  All of a sudden, there is a loud croak. A dark lukay lukay snake hanging from a vine cascading down the mouth of a bigger cave, seven to eight meters wide, was holding in its mouth a smooth-skinned American frog. In a rescue effort, Pablo, the guide, snapped a twig and threw it at the snake which slithered back into the ceiling of the cave, releasing the poor frog from its venomous grip.

A walk in the woods is a lesson in geography; the fluting call of orioles is music; and a bird ballet is made for poetry. Nature is sublime; it enchants, instructs, restores and endures. Roaming the woods, fields and the seas makes one the better for the experience; the restless wanderer finds beauty, freedom and serenity in the wild.