Third Stop, Calauit Island

January 20, 2014: You never know quite what to expect in the Philippines. Today was a perfect example. As we got ready to make our post-breakfast departure from Port Caltom, where the bay was perfectly still, we decided not to bother lifting our dinghy by the davits into its usual cruising position. Instead, we took a chance and opted to tow it.

As soon as we rounded the point separating us from the South China Sea, we wondered if we had made such a wise decision. We faced the same big swells coming from the north as we had a few days previously, meaning they would be broadside for most of our cruise around to the west coast of Busuanga Island and our stop for the night in a protected bay just south of Calauit Island. It meant a lot of furtive glances back to the dinghy while underway to make sure it was happily bouncing along behind.

Then we had to figure out how to get in to the bay at Calauit Island. From a distance it looked a bit tricky. There were big waves breaking straight across the entrance, but we could see several offshore tuna boats anchored inside. How did they get there?

Turns out there was a point break on the north side of the entrance. Once we made our way closer to the south side, we could see a clear way in. Our chart seemed to be only partially accurate in terms of reef placement, so we made sure we kept a close eye on the water depth ahead as we snaked our way between reefs on either side of the bay. Luckily the sun was behind us and the water was clear enough to see the shallows.

Right near the spot on our chart that showed good anchorage but where the water turned murky, our depth sounder rose quickly from 25 feet to just six and we had to beat a hasty retreat back to deeper water before dropping anchor and breathing a huge sigh of relief. We churned up a fair bit of mud as we made that getaway.

Here’s where towing the dinghy turned to our advantage. No messing about having to lower it from the davits, get the engine in place and hook up the fuel tank. We were ready to go explore the island.

Calauit Island itself was another surprise. One of the four main islands that make up the Calamian Chain of islands, it is separated from its larger neighbour, Busuanga Island, by only a small river and a mangrove swamp. This isolated 3700 hectare island was turned into a wildlife refuge in 1976 by none other than then-President Ferdinand Marcos.

We tied up at a small dock and made our way ashore to the Calauit Island Safari Park information centre. Here we met Orlan, who would be our guide, and hopped into an old Land Rover Defender for our own private tour.

This is not your typical nature preserve. Orlan told us that Marcos had attended a conference in east Africa in the 1970s and learned about problems that Kenya was having with park management and the protection of African wildlife. Apparently, Marcos agreed to set aside Calauit Island and accept large numbers of African animals to assist with conservation efforts. One thing Orlan didn’t mention but Wikipedia does was the fact that 200 families were relocated from Calauit Island to another island 40 kilometers away to make room for the park. Some of the families have since tried to reclaim their lands unsuccessfully.

Also according to Wikipedia, the 104 original inhabitants included 12 bushbucks, 11 elands, 11 gazelles, 15 giraffes, 18 impalas, 12 waterbucks, 10 topis and 15 Grevy’s zebras. The gazelles and topis eventually died out but the overall numbers increased from the original 104 to nearly 500 by 2005. I couldn’t find more recent figures.

The park is also home to indigenous wildlife as well, including a thriving population of Calamian deer (up from 25 to more than 1200 today).

First up we met Gerard and Isabelle, a pair of giraffes. They sauntered over the surprisingly African-like savannah in their graceful loping way to meet us for a snack of their favourite leaves. Feeding these imposing creatures was definitely a highlight!

Then we were off to see the zebras and tiny indiginous Calamian deer, who hang out together quite happily with migratory egrets from mainland China.

Other stops along the route included a swamp with fresh water crocodiles and small enclosures housing fresh water turtles in one and feisty baby fresh water crocodiles in another. We also got up close and personal with the local porcupine species affectionately called durians (after the spiky stinky fruit), macaques, two different types of pythons, a pair of Palawan civet cats, a fish eating sea eagle and some wild pigs. (The animals kept in pens are “examples” kept for education purposes. We were told they rotate most of the species back into the wild so they don’t get too used to humans and captivity.)

The marine environment around the island is also protected and is home to a small population of dugongs (sea cows), which we were fortunate enough to see on our last visit to the area in April, giant clams and sea turtles. [You can read about our previous dugong adventure here.]

Apparently poaching is a big problem in the park, so rangers dressed in fatigues patrol the area with big guns. They also had a fair bit of damage from Typhoon Yolanda, and we saw plenty of evidence of that. There were uprooted trees and broken branches everywhere. The freshwater crocs even used that opportunity to escape from their pens into the surrounding swamp and then had to be painstaking (and very carefully) retrieved.

Incredibly, Orlan and our driver had both worked for the park since it started. Nearly 40 years. They’ve been through at least a dozen changes in terms of which government agency they report to, currently it’s the provincial government in Palawan. It sounds like they do some really good work in terms of education about conservation and they were pretty passionate about protecting species for future generations. While we were there, they even gave a free tour to a big group of fishermen off a couple of the tuna boats to help spread the word about conservation.

Back on board MOKEN to watch the sunset and we had a surprise visit from three fishermen off one of the tuna boats. They brought us four small tuna as a welcome gift before heading to a small sari sari store across the bay to buy beer. We could hear them singing until well into the night!

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