February 19-21, 2016: It was finally time for us to head out and explore some more of the Philippines. Lying about 55 nautical miles east of Puerto Galera is a sheltered basin at the northwest tip of Marinduque Island. We first read about it on a sailing blog. It sounded promising.
It had rained overnight (no surprise given the weather we’ve been having in Puerto Galera), so MOKEN was freshly showered as we pulled up the anchor at first light and made our way out Manila Channel and into Verde Passage. This stretch of water between Luzon Island and Mindoro Island, bisected by Verde Island, is notoriously rough. But today it was calm and inviting, despite the overcast skies.
It would have been a perfect day to go diving at Verde Island, something I’ve been dying to do since my first visit to Puerto Galera way back in 2005. I was skunked again in our attempt to get there this past week. This time because the current was too strong. Other times they said it was too rough or there weren’t enough people to justify the big boat. I’m beginning to think it’s more legend than actual dive site, but Chris insists he’s been there. And it’s worth it. Sigh! Maybe next time.
We motored around Sabang beach and the tip of the peninsula (home to a multitude of dive sites that we have done numerous times) and set a course directly for Verde Island. Once we were nearby, a rather large pod of rather small dolphins decided to come pay us a visit. They swam alongside and played in our bow wave for quite some time before heading off to wherever it is they go. Looking for fish, presumably. An auspicious start to the day.
From there it was a straight run due east to Marinduque and the crossing was uneventful. The sun came out. Nukaat stretched out in the cockpit. I called my dad and Chris called his parents miles from land. We got better 3G and voice-over Internet connections out here than we normally do in Subic. Go figure!
We wondered what was up when we saw a bunch of large fishing boats seemingly anchored in about 2000 feet of water. How do they do that? Were they waiting for nightfall or waiting for the fish to come to them?
Mid afternoon we approached Port Balanacan on Marinduque. The entrance is fringed by small islets and shallow reefs, but there is a clear entry channel used by a lot of ferry traffic and our chart seemed accurate. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so I stood at the bow, binoculars in hand, on the lookout for shallow spots and departing ferries.
It’s a busy port for an island that only has a population of about 230,000. Aside from a couple of ferries and the usual array of small fishing bancas, there were several large barges, a few tug boats and a large diesel power plant. Overseeing it all is the shrine of Our Lady of Binlang Awa, otherwise known as the Blessed Virgin Mary. She sits on a point at the entrance to a large, spectacular, protected inner basin.
We made our way past the lady and anchored in the middle of the basin off Pig Point in about 38 feet of water. There was a light breeze, nothing like the gales of Puerto Galera for the last ten days. We could get used to this.
Initially, we were only planning to spend one, maybe two nights here. That easily stretched into three. Aside from the local bancas used for hand line fishing and net fishing or ferrying people back and forth to work or school, and a few larger bancas pulled up on shore near the entrance, ours was the only boat in the basin. We had the place pretty much to ourselves.
The sunsets were spectacular. The weather was good. And with a huge cell tower overlooking the basin, the Internet was excellent. What more could we want? Even Nukaat seemed to enjoy listening to the dogs barking on shore, cats in heat, roosters crowing at all hours of the day and night. Even the karaoke on Friday night. Lucky for us, the singer was actually good. But then the singer changed… It’s amazing how far sound travels over the water when there’s no wind.
Port Balanacan Anchorage: 13 32.259 N, 121 51.979 E
After our morning coffee the next day, we headed out in the dinghy to explore the area. Our first stop was Salvaria Island, across from the ferry dock. I suppose at really, really high tides it is a separate island, but most of the time it makes up part of the protective outer ring of the basin and the harbour. It’s postcard perfect, with a small beach, gently swaying palms and a charming cottage.
This morning there were a group of people drying fish on shore. So we stopped to chat and met Florence, who was happy to tell us about her town of Mogpog just across the way and the fish drying process. They catch the small fish overnight and then lay them out on the rocky beach on nets to dry for one or two days before shipping it to Manila for sale. (By the way, Salvaria Island is for sale. Email us if you want the contact number. I’m guessing it’s not cheap. And I’m guessing it’s destined for a resort and the fish drying operation will have to move elsewhere.)
While we were there, a young man swam ashore and met up with his buddy. The two of them, crew on one of the ferries, had swum the channel but were too tired to swim back. So we offered them a lift back across the way to the shrine.
Next up, it was time to explore Mogpog town. The town hugs the shore with the Community Fish Loading Centre and further inland, a large Catholic Church, dominating the skyline. Soon we had a following of children that kept doubling every time we turned around. We planned to wander around a bit more, but instead we found ourselves at the fish market and I bought a kilo of small fresh squid. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with them, but the ladies at the market cleaned them for me. One kilo, one hundred pesos (roughly USD $2.15). I paid an extra hundred for the cleaning, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the ink sacks on board with a limited water supply. Messy stuff.
We ran the squid back to the fridge on MOKEN and then hastily packed our snorkel gear and a picnic lunch and headed out to the outer islands. We settled on Agpisan Island, a small islet with a beautiful beach and what we thought was a coral reef out front for snorkelling.
Looks can be deceiving. The reef turned out to be rocks and the water was a lot colder than we expected. And the current was sweeping past the island on either side. The beach was more rocky than sandy and strewn with a fair bit of trash. Mismatched flip flops, bottle tops, food wrappers, plastic bags, bits of clothing. I collected and piled the trash in behind a rock where I found another collection. This time a collection of discarded plastic flashlight housings of assorted styles and colours. Curious. I started calling it Dead Flashlight Island. Instead of snorkelling, we ate our picnic on the beach and then sat out on the rocks watching tiny sea creatures in the shallow pools, trying not to cut our feet on the tiny, sharp mussels and barnacles or slip on slimy rocks.
After lunch, we decided to explore another couple of beaches on the lookout for sand. Instead we found steep piles of broken coral and rocks and small breaking waves. With no luck in our pursuit for the perfect sand beach, and with the winds picking up outside the harbour, it was time to return to the protection of the basin and take a look around inside.
There are several tiny fishing villages dotted around the shore and a small island in the middle. Aside from a large white conference centre that overpowers as it overlooks the bay, and seems decidedly out of place, the whole area is mostly very natural with healthy mangroves still covering much of the shoreline and neat rows of palms growing up the hills.
Marinduque is primarily noted for growing rice and coconuts and fishing. It used to be a mining area until a terrible mining disaster occurred at the local Marcopper Mine in 1996. At the time, Marcopper was owned by Vancouver-based Placer Dome. A huge leak of toxic tailings contaminated a river, buried one village and forced the evacuation of 20 others, killed livestock and led to numerous children needing to undergo lead detoxification. Apparently locals referred to the airborne toxic dust that drifted around as “Snow from Canada.” All mines have since been closed but cleanup was never completed and the government is suing Placer Dome’s new owners. If we had known this at the time, we might have hid our Canadian flag. Shameful. For more on this story, check out Wikipedia.
That evening I used about half the squid and made a stir fry. The ladies hadn’t pulled out the beaks when they did their cleaning, so I ended up cleaning anyway. Sadly, the result turned out a little bland. Nothing a few chilis and seasoning wouldn’t fix when reheating the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Sunday was cleaning day. Chris dove the hull and scraped and scrubbed off critters and the grass growing along the waterline. Meanwhile, I cleaned all the windows and a spill under the stairs from a burst bottle of Goo Gone. At least it was contained inside a large plastic bin. Still, what a mess! Polishing stainless was another project we both tackled, on the hunt to keep rust at bay.
With MOKEN looking top notch again, we decided it was finally time to turn south and mosey our way towards Romblon. But we would definitely miss these gorgeous sunsets.
More fun Marinduque facts:
- It is reported to be one of the safest places in the Philippines, with very low crime rates.
- The island is at the geographic heart of the Philippines (although we later heard the same thing about Romblon)…and the island is roughly heart shaped.
- They hold a huge festival during Holy Week that is supposed to be well worth seeing.
- Boac, the capital city of Marinduque province, is less than an hour away by jeepney.