Monday, May 2, 2011

A Boat Trip to the Sulu Sea, April 2011

The Motor Yacht Santa Maria of Langkawi

The Santa Maria. The Motor Yacht Santa Maria of Langkawi, a 52-foot power boat, sailed from Puerto Princesa, Palawan on 14 April 2011 on a trip that would bring us to Tubbataha Reefs, Cavili Island, Cagayancillo, Cuyo and finally to Coron. The trip started with a 14-hour crossing on rough seas from Puerto Princesa to a mooring at the South tip of South Tubbataha.

A map of the Sulu Sea showing our route
The Puerto Princesa Yacht Club

Tubbataha Reefs. After passing close to Jessy Beazly reef, well known to divers, we arrived after dark at the mooring near South Islet, in the company of several live-aboard diving boats. The Tubbataha Reefs are a UNESCO Heritage Site and are protected as part of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. A permit is required to enter the park, and landing on the two islets is not allowed as they are critical bird nesting sites. We navigated around the South and North reefs, passing as close as possible to North Islet to observe the thousands of Brown Booby and Red-footed Booby roosting on the islet. We ended the day with a visit to the ranger station, built on a sandbar that is bare at low tide. There were many birds on the sandbar, mostly terns and waders.

The South Tubbataha Reef

South Islet with the remnants of a wreck in the foreground

North Islet, also called Bird Islet, a critical bird nesting site

The Brown Boobies and Red-footed Boobies roosting on trees on North Islet

Brown Booby flying over North Tubbataha

Little Tern near the Ranger Station
The Ranger Station at the South end of North Tubbataha
Arena Island. This is a small island about 80 km Northeast of Tubbataha, with a lighthouse, and surrounded by a large shallow reef inhabited by seaweed farmers. Their houses are built on stilts over the water. We sailed on the South side of the reef on our way to Cavili Island. There is an eerie feeling around it, like a scene from Waterworld.
The ghostly reef around Arena Island - Waterworld

Arena Island, just a sandbar and a lighthouse
The critically endangered Christmas Island Frigatebird
Cavili Island. Close to Arena is beautiful and isolated Cavili Island, a bird sanctuary and a protected marine area. It is home of about 1000 friendly Cagayanon-speaking people, who are well aware of their environment and protect the wildlife around them. It is also home to about 1000 Red-footed Boobies and 100 Frigatebirds, including the rare and critically endangered Christmas Island Frigatebird. These large birds roost on high trees, or fly above the trees and over the sea - an amazing sight. We observed the frigatebirds harassing the boobies to force them to drop or regurgitate their food. The locals call them pirate birds because of their aggressive behaviour.
Approach to beautiful Cavili Island

The main street of Sitio Cavili

A surprising poster in Cavili Island

Red-footed Boobies roosting in a tall tree

Red-footed Booby
Red-footed Boobies in an animated conversation

Elegant flight of the Red-footed Booby

Male Frigatebird

Immature Frigatebird in flight

The Frigatebird Tree in Cavili

The Cagayancillo Church decorated with sea shells
Cagayancillo. Our next stop was the town of Cagayancillo, located on Cagayan Island, of the Cagayan Islands Group. Tubbataha, Arena and Cavili are in the municipality of Cagayancillo, itself part of Palawan. We anchored near the rocky and forested Dondonay Island, and the next day reached Cagayan Island in Barangay Talaga, the only safe approach we could find for the Santa Maria. From there I walked and rode a carabao cart to the town proper, about 5 kms away. This hospitable and charming little town has an old Spanish fort on a hill and an old church, notable for its inner walls decorated with shells.
The walls of the Cagayancillo Church

The town of Cagayancillo seen from the old Spanish Fort

Cagayancillo Municipal Hall

The old 19th century school in Cagayancillo

The road from Barangay Talaga to Cagayancillo

Laughing children of Cagayancillo
Barangay Talaga Hall

The smiling people of Barangay Talaga

Strange island shaped like a Christmas Tree
Another weird rock formation around the lagoon

Manucan Island around the Cagayancillo lagoon

Piedra Blanca, jutting from the sea half way between Cagayancillo and Cuyo 

The old Spanish fort of Cuyo
Cuyo. We then sailed North to Cuyo Island, passing close to Piedra Blanca (white rock) sticking out of the water half way between Cagayancillo and Cuyo. Cuyo is a clean and friendly town, with an old Spanish fortified church. It was the first stop since Puerto Princesa where we could buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and receive a cell phone signal. It was like getting back to modern civilization after the isolation of the small islands of Cagayancillo.

Cuyo from the Sea

The old Spanish Church of Cuyo

The happy children of Cuyo

Interesting signs around Cuyo
The South tip of Coron Island
Coron. After an overnight stay in Cuyo, and another stop in Lubic Island which I visited the previous year (see A Boat Trip to the Cuyo Islands, April 2010), we reached Coron Island on very rough seas and anchored in one of the magical lagoons on the North side of the island. The trip ended the next day by mooring the boat at the El Rio y Mar Resort, on the North side of Busuanga.

Islands are always fascinating. The friendly people and unusual birds of the Sulu Sea make these islands unforgettable

See my other travelogue "Off the Beaten Track in the Philippines"