Leisure and lessons in the western seas

An hour more before midday, but the Pacific sun was already prickly hot, maybe because Mindanao had entered the peak of its chronic climatic curse, the El Nino phenomenon. In front of us, beyond the steel gate of the wharf in Mukas, Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte, an improvised vessel was unloading passengers, cars, buses and cargo from Ozamiz City in Misamis Occidental, a mere 15-minute ride across the usually calm Panguil Bay.

Standing on Kolambugan’s shores, one can get a rough idea of how Ozamiz’s coastline looks like. As we boarded the same vessel and headed for the opposite shore I squinted for a clearer view of what must be Bucagan Hills, where the Spaniards put up a belfry which they used in warning people of an impending attack – most probably by Moro warriors. The first and only time I climbed Bucagan was in March 1985 yet. But no, I wasn’t going back there; there’s no reason for me to take another climb. Other destinations awaited my return to the western seas.

After a sumptuous lunch of sea foods in Ozamiz, it’s way straight ahead to Sinacaban, a town in Misamis Occidental known for its aquamarine park that showcases the provincial government’s marine conservation efforts. Upon entering the park, one can easily notice the mangrove forests that shelter a modest visitor center and sleeping quarters for those who wish to spend the night there. What a relief, the sound of waves lapping on the rocks and mangrove trunks, I mused as I leaned on the bamboo rails beside the visitor center, my hands clutching a camera to my breast while listening to the even tune of the rising tide and to the few seabirds that cooed among the branches, their shrill calls blending with the whiff of a gentle breeze.

Some of my male companions, naughty and boisterous as ever, turned their attention to me. “Ayaw pa-cute cute diha, giuhaw lang kag Tanduay. Paghulat kay sayo pa kaayo! (Don’t play cutesy there, you’re only thirsty for Tanduay. Wait because it’s still too early for that)” one of them shouted from a distance, making the rest break into wild laughter. “Ang nagsulti baya, mora pod og di alcoholic (Look who’s talking, as if he’s not an alcoholic himself),” I shot back gamely. More laughter.

The exchange of friendly jeers stopped when the instruction came to proceed to a large motorized boat that would take us to the dolphin rescue center some 15 minutes farther northwest. Except for our hosts and guides, it was our first time to see real dolphins which, sensing maybe that many visitors had come, voluntarily performed acrobatics around the enclosure that housed them.

There were six dolphins at the time of our visit, all of them with laceration marks all over their bodies. “Tungod na sa baling, Sir (It’s caused by nets, Sir),” a caretaker explained as he threw pieces of galunggong (round scud) to the waiting mouths of the playful creatures. “So, how many kilos of fish do they consume daily?” I asked him. “Mga dos kilos kada usa, Sir (About two kilos for each one of them, Sir),” he answered as two dolphins appeared before us mouths agape, obliging the caretaker to throw in more fish. As if in gratitude, the dolphins whistled after catching the food in their mouths, dived back and glided away.

Injured dolphins that are brought to the rescue center for treatment and rehabilitation are usually released back to the wild after six months. But many of them would come back to the center after some time. “Maybe they like it here because they don’t have to hunt for food,” I offered an explanation. The caretaker gave a hesitant nod before throwing another fish into the water.

By the time the caretaker had run out galunggong for the dolphins the sun had almost sunk. Time to head back to the cottages for dinner – and yes, for a sip of my favorite rum before dozing off to dreamland.

The next morning, we headed for Sibutad town in Zamboanga del Norte. Sibutad got its name from the word “sibut”, a dip net widely used by local fishers.

In the 1990s, Sibutad became a gold rush site, attracting small-scale miners that came in hordes from as far as Agusan in the eastern side of Mindanao. Shortly after, a mining firm operated in the area, denuding parts of the mountain forests through the open-pit mining method. The company, Philex Mining Corp., had left, but small-scale miners have remained, using tunnels and ball mills to extract gold from the ores.

Our guides led us to barangay Calubi, a fishing village hemmed in between steep hills and craggy shores with small patches of mangroves. They pointed to the ball mills that sprouted like mushrooms after Philex left. One of the mills stood on a hill partly covered with coconuts. It had two tailings ponds. Apparently, however, these have failed to contain the mercury-laden refuse from the mill. We traced one of the drainage canals originating from the mill and noticed that it carried tailings all the way down to a stream and finally to the sea.

Datu Inkaluba, a Higaonon tribal leader from Impasugong, Bukidnon exclaimed in disbelief at the sight of the stream that had turned reddish brown. “Mao ni ilang sapa diri? (Is this the kind of stream they have here),” he asked as he stooped to have a clearer view of its water. The answer came in a chorus and without hesitation: “Yes, Datu.” Having lived all his life in Impasugong’s pristine forests where waters run clear, the datu must have felt a sense of anxiety knowing that some mining firms are keen on exploiting the area’s mineral resources.

But Datu Inkaluba and the rest of us were quickly lost in another world of excitement as soon as we jumped into a motorboat for Pinyahon, an islet 15 minutes away from Sibutad’s shore. The underwater terrain between Sibutad and its islet-attraction is quite treacherous; bigger vessels have to watch out for shallow parts or sandbars. “Sa una, naa may mga barkong mangagi dinhi pero nahadlok sila kay basin masangad (Some ships used to pass through here but they’re afraid they might run aground),” our boatman said.

Like most other islets, Pinyahon emerges and sinks with the tide. There was a “bigger” dry area by the time we arrived since it was low tide. By mid-evening, though, a greater part had been covered by water. Some were eager to take a dip after a dinner of sinugba, tinola and kinilaw, but a female caretaker warned that sea snakes called “walo-walo” abound during nighttime. “Pero dili man sila mamaak basta di lang masakitan (But they won’t bite unless they’re hurt),” she added, trying to assure us. Of course, nobody took a chance.

Yet who cares about swimming – with those snakes – if one could satisfy himself by just staring into the dark expanse and savoring the quiet of the night, a luxury that has become hard to find these days. I glanced at Datu Inkaluba and the others. Nobody talked anymore about that dead stream in Sibutad. All appeared lost in their own reveries. It was as if Pinyahon held us under a spell, at least for a night. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews)