From the karst-studded seascape of Coron Bay to the teeming reefs of Tubbataha, back-to-back boat trips in the waters of the western Philippinesâ€”one aboard a traditional paraw outrigger, the other on a Jacuzzi-equipped dive yachtâ€”provide passage to the remoter corners of Palawan.
The rain struck my skin like a thousand acupuncture needles, driven by a wind that almost bore my weight as I leaned into it. The only real shelter on board the Balatik was the wheelhouse, where 15 or so bedraggled guests huddled around Toto the tiller man as he squinted into the squall. But four or five of us preferred to stay outside with the crew as they hurried to lower the sails, everyone shouting and roaring with laughter at the fury of the elements. For the seasoned crew this was nothing, of courseâ€”the Philippines is a magnet for some of the fiercest tropical storms on the planet. It was just a bracing prelude to rainy season.
Still, hampered by the low visibility and unable to hear the shouted warnings from the bow, Toto ploughed into the rope floats bordering a pearl farm and we had to carefully reverse, while one of the crew dove under the boatâ€™s keel to disentangle us. I made my way to the stern to check on the pig that had been brought on board earlier that morning. It looked surprisingly unfazed. Or resigned to its fate, perhaps, since it was destined for the spit that night.
We were four days into an island-hopping voyage in the Palawan Archipelago, our vessel a native Filipino outrigger known as a parawâ€”at 22 meters, the largest of its kind in existence. On board were a couple dozen sunburned, barefoot wannabe buccaneers of varying ages and nationalities whose itinerary included exploring hidden reefs, kayaking past jungle-clad limestone monoliths, and sleeping in bamboo huts on deserted beaches. It was a way of experiencing the islands that felt refreshingly unfiltered.
Named after its main island, Palawan, the Philippinesâ€™ westernmost province is also its largest and least inhabited, and itâ€™s being positioned as the countryâ€™s new tourism jewel. Its biogeography is distinct from the rest of the country, sharing many species of flora and fauna with Borneo, and its 1,700-odd islands feature dramatic karst formations, powdery beaches, and swathes of tropical rain forest. Developers are apparently queuing up to grab beachfront plots.
For this trip, Iâ€™d forsaken landlubber luxuries in favor of boats. First was this leisurely expedition between El Nido at the northern tip of Palawan and Coron on Busuang Island, some 150 kilometers to the northeast. After that, I would spend a week on a well-appointed dive boat at Tubbataha, an isolated marine park farther out in the Sulu Sea thatâ€™s earning accolades not just for its underwater attractions, but also for sustainable management.
In fact, both segments of the trip boasted impressive ecotourism credentials. Tao Philippines, which part-owns the Balatik along with 10 other boats, has been running voyages like this for a decade and has built 16 camps scattered through the islands of north Palawan in partnership with local communities. Founders Jack Foottit and Eddie Brock Agamos started out with just one boat and a simple desire to explore the region. â€śWe began bringing backpackers along because we hadnâ€™t realized how much it costs to run a boat,â€ť Eddie told me after my trip. â€śIt grew organically from there and pretty soon we had the communities working with us and we were able to help them out with infrastructure, building schools, providing access to water. Weâ€™ve been able to build an economyâ€”an entire ecosystem, reallyâ€”around Tao. But we never had investors or a business plan, it just unfolded very naturally.â€ť These days, Tao is held up as a model of ecotourism, and both Jack and Eddie give lectures all over the world.