Day 4 – 20th October
Following a more relaxed start to the day, we headed to the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary. A tarsier (the Philippine species is Carlito syrichta) is a small nocturnal primate, with eyes so large that they are bigger than its brain. They are unfortunately under threat of extinction, largely due to habitat loss. Tarsiers become stressed and die if they are kept in captivity, but the sanctuary does keep a small number in semi-captivity: an open area that visitors could walk through. And so, we got a proper look at this peculiar little creatures, who did not seem terribly impressed by us.
We then went on a long walk through the sanctuary itself. It was far from even ground: the upward slopes were quite strenuous. There were no tarsiers in evidence, but we did see a praying mantis, and a Draco (flying lizard) climbing a tree some distance away. Back at the car park, I was surprised by a couple of girls who wanted to have their picture taken with me, something which hardly ever happens at Comic-Con.
It was then time for lunch, which took the form of a buffet meal – rice, vegetables, chicken and various fish – on a cruise down the Loboc River and back again. With lush forest on either side and green hills forming the backdrop, it was wonderfully picturesque, and there was also a little surprise waiting at the end: a group of Filipino girls doing some dancing for us, to the music of ukeleles.
Our final stop of the day was the Chocolate Hills, a collection of over a thousand conical, grassy hills, which are actually ancient limestone formations. They get their name because in winter, the grass turns brown and they resemble chocolate.
Day 5 – 21st October
For our final full day in Bohol, we headed for the Rajah Sikatuna park. There was a little rain early on, which produced a lovely double rainbow, and resulted in a wet and slippery walk through the forest. Sadly for the birdwatchers in the group, there weren’t that many birds around, though a couple of tarictic hornbills (Penelopides panini) were spotted in the distance at the end. There were, however, mammals: some Philippine macaques (Macaca fasciularis philippinensis) were hanging around where we parked, and clinging to the trees were several colugos (Cynocephalus volans). There are only two species of colugos in the world, and this one is endemic to the Philippines: also known as flying lemurs (they aren’t actually lemurs, though they are related to primates), they are able to glide using a baggy membrane between their limbs.
The next stop was a river, where our guides intended to show us a silvery kingfisher (Ceyx flumenicola), quite a rare species. After walking to the river bank, though a narrow gap in some squelchy paddy fields, we found the kingfisher – at which point it took off, back from where we had come. And when we followed it back up the river…it proceeded to fly away again! Finally, we split up, with the guides sending the kingfisher back towards the rest of us, and this time it remained stationary long enough to take a few pictures. This is the best one I could get.
The last wildlife sighting for the day was an Everett’s scops owl (Otus everetti), hiding in a tree outside a butterfly centre.
Back at the resort, we had a discussion about changing our travel plans, in light of the fact that we hadn’t seen anything out on the sea the previous morning. We originally intended to take a ferry to Cebu City, then fly straight to Palawan in the west, but Paul had another idea: charter a boat to take us to Oslob, and go see some whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) – not only would we be guaranteed to see them, but we would actually get to swim with them! I was told that my face lit up at the idea. Nigel, however, would just be going straight to Palawan, having already swum with many whale sharks over the course of his career!
Day 6 – 22nd October
At 9:30am, we proceeded to the beach with our luggage, and boarded our pump boat to take us across the sea to Oslob. It was a pleasant and picturesque two-hour journey, where at times the sea was absurdly smooth. Every now and then, what looked like a silvery swallow would burst out of the water and glide for a few moments before disappearing again: they were flying fish, and I was very impressed with how far they could go – easily the length of my local swimming pool, and possibly further. The only problem with the journey was the constant engine noise: my ears were ringing for the following two days.
Returning to land, we then got into a number of motorcycle taxis – two people in each – and headed for the Seafari Resort. There hadn’t been much space to stretch on the boat, and the taxi was even more cramped, so upon arrival, I felt the need to jump up and down a few times to bring my limbs some relief. The resort itself was a long way down from the road: looking at the beach from the top, we could see turtles materialising in the sea, close to the shore. While we descended the steep staircase, our bags went down one by one on a pulley.
Once we had sorted out where our rooms were, we were able to take some time to relax. I took another swim, which revealed more coral, clownfish, and some peculiar purple jellyfish. Later, as the light faded away, we all sat and watched the sea, with Panglao and Siqiuijor Island visible in the distance. I felt extremely contented, and the sweaty forest felt a long way away.
Day 7 – 23rd October
After a quick breakfast in the morning, we took a canoe to the whale shark watching area. As we approached, we could see a large number of boats in a circle, while every now and then, a large fin broke the water. The sharks are fed on krill, encouraging them to hang around the area and practically guaranteeing sightings. It started raining as we arrived, which worried me as my camera wasn’t waterproof; but by the time we had registered, been debriefed and gotten our snorkelling gear, it had cleared up. Gradually, we rotated around the circle, until it was time to get in.
I dropped into the water and found myself just a few metres away from the biggest species of fish in the world; it slowly followed the boat that was feeding it, keeping its wide mouth turned upward. The three whale sharks present were only juveniles, but quite big enough at five or six metres long. While I was careful to follow the rules and not get within touching distance, the experience of sharing the water with them was incredible, and in spite of the fact that they are plankton-feeders, a little intimidating.
Upon returning to the resort, we climbed back up to the road – I was pleased to finally get a photo of a turtle before we left – and made a three-and-a-half hour drive to Cebu City. Another flight later, this time heading westward, and we found ourselves on the island we would be spending our second week on: the fifth largest island in the Philippines, Palawan.
When we left the tiny airport at Puerto Princesa, there was no time to think, as we picked up Nigel and headed straight out for another activity: firefly watching on the Iwahig River. This experience, like the whale sharks, was another highlight of the whole trip. With three of us in each canoe, well-covered in insect repellent, we were paddled out onto the river, until there was not a trace of artificial light, and the only sounds were insects and the lapping of the water. In the mangroves on either side, clusters of fireflies lit up as we approached, like tiny Christmas lights. Above us, the sky was so clear that the Milky Way itself was clearly visible: there have been few times that I’ve seen so many stars at once. It was wonderful.
That evening, we needed to pack our rucksacks as most of our luggage would be remaining at the hotel – for the next two nights, we would be camping!