The Tao Organic Farm in San Fernando village, where we spent our second night, is by far the largest and best-equipped of the outfit’s camps, with ocean-facing bamboo guest pavilions strewn along the beachfront, an impressive permaculture enterprise, livestock, and a giant bamboo edifice that serves as a community center for various cooperatives. It was here that I met Melot, a grizzled old salt who had lost an arm dynamite fishing some years before. His whole life, in fact, had been one of hardship, as he recounted one evening outside his home, a beach hut cluttered with nets and buoys and driftwood. Recruited by communist rebels as a child and taught to shoot a gun, he was then sent off by his father to join a crew of compressor divers—arguably an equally dangerous pursuit. Breathing air pumped through a simple plastic hose, compressor divers descend as deep as 40 meters hauling vast nets, which they manoeuver over shoals. Many of Melot’s friends died, either from the bends or by getting tangled in the nets. He said he took up dynamite fishing to feed his growing family.
“Life’s better now,” he told me. “I look after the water and electricity here, my wife runs the massage cooperative, and my daughter’s going to college in Puerto Princesa.” The latter is thanks to Tao’s scholarship fund, which supports promising young students from the local villages.
Palawan’s relative remoteness meant that it was sparsely populated until about four decades ago, though human remains have been found here dating as far back as 10,000 years. In the 1970s, migrants started arriving from the Visayan Islands, which form the central part of the Philippines between Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. Today, like everywhere else in the country, Palawan’s fish stocks are under pressure thanks to a spiraling population and destructive fishing methods. Local families who’ve fished for generations have been forced to turn to farming, resorting to slash-and-burn in the absence of agricultural know-how.
Tao has been gradually introducing permaculture techniques that are more sustainable. “We grow a wide variety of native vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and we keep livestock,” Eddie told me. “Everything is locally available and integrated, so there’s no waste. Now we’re setting up a marketplace with local farmers where we buy excess crops for our trips.”
It all seems to be paying off—the food offerings at the Organic Farm camp and throughout our voyage were excellent. Our first stop was Cadlao Island in El Nido’s Bacuit Bay, where we waded onto a white beach in the lee of an enormous limestone crag. Jeff, our jocular and tireless chef, cooked up a delicious mung-bean stew served with giant trevally while the ship’s dog, a solemn Jack Russell puppy named Datu, dug for crabs. We ate out under the stars, as we did every evening. The next morning, there was an impromptu game of beach volleyball for those of us not nursing hangovers from the lethal rum cocktails served from sunset each day. And then, after a refreshing cold shower, came a breakfast of watermelon slices and eggs with banana-flour fritters loaded with onion and green pepper.
There’s no set schedule on board the Balatik, but there is a lot of time spent in the water. Palawan lies within the Coral Triangle, a million-square-kilometer bioregion that’s home to more marine species than anywhere else on the planet. The reefs were mesmerizing, colorful subaquatic gardens teeming with tropical fish and occasionally larger pelagic species including turtles and trevally. On one of my last dives, the day after the rainstorm, I felt something nipping my chest and looked down to see a remora that must have mistaken me for a shark. It stuck around for the rest of the dive, nibbling at my skin—and once quite painfully on my lip.
I’d sometimes join our captain, Gener Paduga, up at the bow, where we’d sit wearing headphones, beer in hand, gazing at the blue-on-blue horizon. As we neared Coron and the end of the voyage, he told me he’d spent two years building the Balatik after stumbling across the design in a book. “The last of these boats stopped trading in the 1970s,” he said. “But they’ve been around since before the Spanish—they were once used as warships, with 100 warriors rowing on the outriggers.” Building it was a major undertaking as there were no master shipbuilders familiar with the old design, and Gener insisted on using traditional materials, employing local tribes to carve indigenous motifs into the wood.