Packing two decades of wildlife and nature experiences in the Philippines, WWF-Philippines’ JOSE MA. LORENZO TAN captures some stunning scenes in this mega-diverse archipelago.
EXPERIENCE: THE RARE EAGLE
Mt. Kitanglad Natural Park, Bukidnon
This is the national bird of the Philippines, as well as the tallest and one of the rarest eagles in the world. In the wild, the Philippine eagle is majesty defined, and an absolute must for the life lists of all birdwatchers. Started in 1969 by Charles Lindbergh as part of a WWF project, the conservation of this superlative animal is continued today by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEFI) based in Malagos, north of Davao City.
ACCESS: PEFI maintains a year-round watch of nest sites and helps arrange expeditions on request, often in coordination with local eco-tourism initiatives. The best time to go is from June to December, during the breeding season. Customized visitor packages are available. For inquiries, call The Philippine Eagle Center at (+6382) 271 2337 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
EXPERIENCE: THE GREAT REEF
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park, Palawan
Both a UNESCO World Heritage and RAMSAR site, this is the best-managed marine protected area in the Philippines, and arguably, one of the most productive coral reefs systems on the planet. Spanning 100,000 hectares, this very special marine ecosystem is one of only two great reefs of the Philippines enjoying a “no-take” status. Tubbataha offers visitors the full range of biodiversity—sharks, turtles, coral, marine mammals, sea birds, tuna, manta rays–all in constant interaction. It’s like stepping into the pages of the National Geographic.
ACCESS: There are various live-aboard packages, mostly from Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Divers must bring their own scuba gear; non-divers can bring mask, fins and snorkel. Birdwatchers should have their binoculars, spotting scopes and the best telephoto lens. Best time to go is from mid-March to mid-June, during the Philippine dry season. For information about park-certified live-aboard vessels, visit www.tubbatahareef.org.
EXPERIENCE: THE REMOTE FOREST
Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, Isabela
Running down Luzon’s northeastern shore, this park contains one of the country’s largest remaining forest blocks. Its natural icons include the Philippine Eagle, the Philippine and estuarine crocodiles, a stunning coastline, a herbivorous monitor lizard, giant flying foxes, hornbills, a 3,000-hectare ultramafic forest of “bonsai” trees, and a plethora of reptiles, amphibians and flora, much of which remains unstudied. This is also where you will find the Blos River, one of the cleanest and most beautiful rivers in the Philippines, where visitors can still swim or drink from. Located within the municipality of Maconacon, the site’s remoteness is what keeps it special.
ACCESS: The park is accessible by light plane from Tuguegarao or Cauayan. The best season to go is from April to June. Customized visitor packages are available through seasoned outfitters like Anton Carag. Email email@example.com.
EXPERIENCE: THE LARGEST FISH IN THE WORLD
Selected by TIME magazine as one of Asia’s best wildlife encounters, the annual gathering of whale sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon has been studied by WWF for many years now. No one knows for sure where whale sharks reproduce and drop their pups, but Donsol has the world record for the smallest whale shark ever found, measuring 15 inches. It is also one of the few places where a number of pregnant females are seen every year. With a successful interaction rate of 90 percent, there are few wildlife experiences that can best the predictability of Donsol.
ACCESS: A flight to Legazpi in Albay and a 45-minute drive over good roads will get you to Donsol, where you can find 250 rooms for guest accommodations (Legazpi easily handles any overflow). For inquiries on packages, visit www.sorsogontourism.com.
EXPERIENCE: THE VAST WETLAND
Agusan Marsh, Agusan del Sur
A RAMSAR site, this park is the catchment of eastern Mindanao, and a haven for botanical wealth, as well as an exciting range of fauna, including wetland birds (notably the Purple Heron), gigantic estuarine crocodiles, the Philippine sailfin lizard and the giant soft-shell turtle. Behaving very much like the vast wetlands that feed off the Amazon, this marsh expands and contracts annually, fed by the floodwaters of the country’s longest navigable watercourse—the Agusan river.
ACCESS: The easiest way is via the town of Bunawan in Agusan del Sur. See the marsh on roofed flatboats that take you into its innermost recesses. The best season to experience the Flooded Forest is normally from December to March, during northern Mindanao’s wet season. Bunawan is accessed via the Maharlika Highway, both from Butuan in the north, or Davao in the south. Customized visitor packages are available through the Davao Association of Tour Operators. For inquiries, contact DATO’s Alex Divinagracia at (+6382) 302 1039.
EXPERIENCE: THE DOLPHINS’ SANCTUARY
Malampaya Sound, Taytay, Palawan
Malampaya Sound is the country’s largest estuary. Its wildlife icon is the Irrawaddy Dolphin. Although three small populations of this very rare animal are known to exist in the Philippines, it is the critically endangered Malampaya Sound population of Irrawaddy Dolphins that was first discovered, and is best known. Seeing them breach in cream-colored pods, with their necks craned and lips pursed, leaves the traveler with an undeniable feeling of joy.
ACCESS: You can fly from Manila to Taytay or El Nido in Palawan. You can also drive four hours by highway from Puerto Princesa. Customized visitor packages are available. Contact El Nido Resorts at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s best to come in the sunny, dry season, from March to June.
EXPERIENCE: PRE-HISTORY IN THE FLESH
Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area, Tawi-Tawi
The TIHPA is Southeast Asia’s first trans-boundary marine protected area. As the largest nesting site for Green Sea Turtles in this part of the world, the TIHPA gives visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness dozens of sea turtles nesting, all in one evening. Baguan island, the only full-protection zone in this nine-island chain spanning Malaysia and the Philippines, is the last remaining island that offers the rare chance to see all this in a completely natural setting.
ACCESS: Fly from Zamboanga to Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi. The normal boat trip from Bongao to Taganak, in the Turtle Islands, takes 12 hours. The best season is from March to June. Visitor packages are not available—an adventurous backpacker’s delight.
EXPERIENCE: THE LEVIATHANS OF LEGEND
Camiguin del Norte, Babuyan Islands
Each winter, humpback whales from the Bering Sea migrate to the Babuyan Islands, just off northern Luzon in the Philippines. Now acknowledged to be the southernmost known breeding/calving site for humpbacks in the northwestern Pacific, these islands boast of the highest known marine mammal diversity in the archipelago.
ACCESS: Getting to this island via the northern Cagayan town of Sta. Ana entails a four-hour crossing in a small, motorized outrigger over a channel known for its currents, swells and chop. This remains a challenge for non-backpackers but if you’re feeling adventurous, go in mid-March to mid-May. No visitor packages or commercial lodgings are available on the island. For inquiries regarding a customized trip, email Anton Carag at email@example.com.