Voyage Log: Island Trails Of The Philippines | Keelung to Manila
Keelung to Manila | 24 October 2023 – 9 November 2023
Authors: Greg Watson, Michael Hermes, Stella Chiu-Freund, Juergen Freund and Tim Harvey
Day 1: Keelung, Taiwan
24 October 2023
After the handover of Taiwan from Japan to the Republic of China in October 1945, Keelung was established as a provincial city of Taiwan. By 1984, the harbor became the 7th largest container harbor in the world. It was here that guests were to board Coral Adventurer (CA) for a cruise south, along the east coast of Taiwan and down through the Philippines, describing an erratic course visiting small, rarely visited islands until eventually reaching Manila, the nation’s seething capital.
Keelung itself was a typical busy Chinese city. Commerce was king – from small family eateries full of smoking woks and hungry customers, to a modern and efficient commercial port. Interspersed were small areas of tranquility – highly detailed and vividly coloured Taoist temples as well as a surprisingly restful shoreline. Those who wanted bedlam, of course, headed straight for the city’s famous night market. Guest gathered in the afternoon and lines were thrown at 4:00pm. After the usual mandatory safety drills conducted by purser Sara, Expedition Leader Dawn introduced the expedition team and the itinerary for the next few days. Many of the guests were veterans from previous Coral Expeditions cruises, so, with bubbles in hand, everyone celebrated their good fortune as the ship set a course for adventure.
Day 2: Hualien
25 October 2023
Guest and expedition staff had no time to rest. After the anticipation of departure, we had an easy steam down the Taiwanese east coast until Hualien, our jumping-off point for a big, full day off-ship. We were headed to Taroko Gorge, one of the great natural treasures of the island. Were it not for the fact the state of Taiwan is not recognised by the UN, this place would be right up the list of UNESCO World Heritage listings.
Ship’s company boarded local buses (lacey curtains no charge) and, after 50 minutes or so of driving, arrived at the park’s main gate. Two days before there had been a significant earthquake that had caused several major landslips, some of which had impacted and closed the access roads. Accordingly, traffic was reduced to one lane only at designated times. It was imperative that we met those times, so, after some adroit re-scheduling between the team and local guides, we set of into an increasingly spectacular landscape.
The park covers more than 92,000 hectares in the northern section of the Central Mountain Range. It features high mountains and sheer gorges. Many of its peaks tower above 3,000m in elevation Much of the rock is marble – hard and resistant, not easily eroded – so the resulting valley is narrow with very steep sides. Everyone enjoyed the wonderful views from pullouts, bridges and our lunch stop high in the surrounding hills. Our activities were largely ignored by a bold troop of Formosan Macaques – Taiwan’s only monkey. Upon our return to the vessel, Guest Lecturer Stella encouraged everyone to ‘Let’s learn Filipino’, her native tongue. Captain Mark Neill then put his hand in his pocket for Captain’s Welcome Drinks, accompanied by canapes by chef Dylan and team.
Day 3: At Sea
26 October 2023
Today was a sea day. The Philippines beckoned, but we had some country to cover. The Philippines are part of Asia both geographically and bureaucratically. Accordingly, emigration procedures can be long, drawn-out and complex, often involving many people from many local jurisdictions. Fortunately for the guests all they had to do was a face-to-face with their passports in hand. That done, Guest Lecturer Michael gave his first talk – ‘The Region’s history in 20 Objects’ using authentic objects to explain the culture and history of our intended destinations. Stella then returned with a provocative presentation; an eyewitness account of the nonviolent revolution that removed the Marcos dictatorship, entitled ‘Bloodlines of Southeast Asian Politics’. After lunch Dive Instructor Chrissy held her first orientation to the many waterbased activities that were to be a feature of this trip. In a day of firsts, Guest Lecturer Greg then delivered his presentation ‘My Island Home’, an introduction to island biogeography, or why organisms live where they do. Many guests also chose to chat with new colleagues, read a book, browse the snacks or simply gaze out to sea and serene bliss.
Day 4: Claveria
27 October 2023
We encountered an incredibly friendly reception this morning at Claveria, with dancing and singing and plenty of “Mabuhay!” in the local fish market depot, re-imagined as a reception space. We all enjoyed watching the communal fishing activity off the beach, despite some patchy rain, this traditional practice known as Daklis. Unfortunately, due to the running tide we weren’t able to see the result of this communal work. We also got an opportunity to see the traditional practice of rice harvesting and threshing. We were fortunate that they had thoughtfully left a small corner of their field unharvested, so that we could learn about the way it was done traditionally. [There were mechanical harvesters in the vicinity]. This morning I think we were all overwhelmed by the reception we received. I reflected that the only way you might encounter such a welcome where I come from [Jervis Bay NSW], would be if we were the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. A police escort, roads closed, all agencies – Police, Fire Brigade, Coastal Guard, Ambulances involved – and we went through the towns and villages without impediment, contrary to all the traffic lights. In the afternoon, after lunch, Lead Chef Dylan led a presentation on the life of a chef on a Cruise ship, and as a bonus had a cooking lesson [and tasting] to cap It off.
Day 5: Calayan
28 October 2023
Due to the waves breaking on the beach this morning, the intrepid shore party had to dive off the Xplorer and swim the 20 odd metres onto the sandy shore. Many chose the option to walk up to the half-destroyed lighthouse, a casualty of the recent typhoon. According to Philippine regulation, the lighthouse should only accommodate four visitors at one time, but according to our Australian regulations the climbing of the lighthouse should have been no persons at any one time! A few guests chose to follow the local regulations and enjoyed the views from the skeletal lighthouse. After returning to the ship and a quick shower, we all enjoyed Mark Daffey’s presentation on travel photography accompanied with an inspirational collection of images and words – we all now, I think, hold our cameras, and compose our pictures, with a little more thought than we used to. And to cap a wonderful day, the Chef Dylan and his fabulous team put on a sumptuous BBQ dinner on the vista deck.
Day 6: Palaui Island
29 October 2023
Today we all experienced a magic moment – a tranquil sea, a beautiful island, and a variety of experiences for us to enjoy. Several of us visited the lighthouse, which had also been built to be an observation tower since Chinese pirates were a problem in these waters in the late nineteenth century. Others took to the water, snorkelling, and swimming off the sandy beaches. Some guests today took tours of the Bridge or the Engine Rooms – both being fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ experiences. In the afternoon Guest Lecturer Mike provided a talk on the Historical Trade Routes of Asia and the Pacific, and later, Guest Lecturer Stella told us of the farming of pearls in the Philippines.
Day 7: Jomalig Island, Polillo Islands Group
30 October 2023
Before venturing out this morning, Guest Lecturer Greg gave an informative and amusing presentation entitled: ‘Camouflage – Amazing Animals You’ve Never Seen’. Later in the morning, as we approached our next destination, Tim spoke to us on the theme of ‘Seafarers, Superstitions and Shipwrecks’. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a shore visit, with a long walk through low sandy country to a river, interspersed with villages, coconut plantations, and a coastal thicket. There was a little rain about in the afternoon, but not enough to spoil a beautiful afternoon walk. And to cap off the day’s activities, Sarah’s hospitality team put on a wine tasting, each wine accompanied by a specially prepared canape.
Day 8: Palumbanes and Catanduanes
31 October 2023
In the morning we had two presentations. Yogi’s intriguingly entitled ‘Sex on the Reef’, which looked at coral spawning events, and as always Yogi’s presentation was full of his wonderful imagery. The second presentation was Greg’s, covering the history of some lesser-known naturalists, mostly of the nineteenth century. One standout was the eccentric Englishman Frank Buckland, who amongst other remarkable feats, taught his children to identify different animals’ urine by taste alone! In the afternoon, we travelled on shore on Catanduanes Island, some to visit the Latik of Virac, a small cottage industry with rice preparation and beautiful gardens. Others explored the local seaside town of Virac, the locals being very welcoming as always! And here Guest Lecturer Stella got to have her favourite Filipino fast food, the Jollibee Fried Chicken [watch out KFC!].
Day 9: Biri Island and Capul Island
1 November 2023
After an early breakfast we headed out on the Xplorer to a pier on Biri Island. We jumped into chariots that took us to Danggit village, a busy little village where we learnt the process of drying and salting Rabbit Fish, and some of us got to enjoy the end product. The hospitality here was amazing – plenty of “Mabuhay” from young and old! Later in the morning Guest Lecturer Mike gave his presentation on two remarkable women who traversed the world, in very different times, namely the French woman Rose Freycinet and African American Juanita Harrison. After lunch we headed out to Capul Island where some of us explored a traditional washing place, a church and a lighthouse. We learnt that All Saint’s Day [today] was an important date on the Philippine calendar, with families visiting the graves of passed loved ones.
Day 10: Maripipi Island and Sambawan Island
2 November 2023
This morning we had two options: either to visit a pottery making village called Casibang, or to head off to Agutay to learn about the Nito weaving practised here. The pottery villagers were very welcoming, and had set up a tour of the different stages of pottery manufacture. One local lady, who built a pot as we watched, was eighty years old and had been a potter for many years, and was clearly a master of the craft. A few of us tried our hand at building a pot, but I don’t think there were any job offers made to those that did! For those of us who went to learn how to do Nito weaving we first had to pile into a mix of vehicles from the elaborately decorated jeepneys to being in the back of a small ute (‘pick-up truck’ if you are not Australian). Then it was along a concrete road followed by what looked like a small platoon of bikers – local lads on a mix of Honda, Kawasaki, and several Chinese brands. We arrived to a great reception, which we are getting used to, and entered a sort of enclosure that had houses and a large stage. It was here we learned how to do the weaving. Nito (pronounced ‘nee-to’) is a small vine that is woven into bags, baskets, fashion accessories etc. It is harvested and dried in the air before being woven. It is an age-old tradition and these days it provides income as well as keeping the tradition alive. We also had the chance to try local food and be entertained by a dance performance. Several of us had a chat with the doctor at the local clinic. The doctor has an assistant who is a midwife. These 2 ladies are responsible for a huge region. The average number of children in a family has apparently dropped from about seven to two in the last 15 years, and many of the local lads leave to find work elsewhere, so the local population looks like it will be smaller in the coming years. In the afternoon Guest Lecturer Tim presented the first part of his World War Two talks, entitled ‘Sunrise’. In this first part, Tim set the scene for the Pacific war. Later in the day we headed on shore to Sambawan Island where we got to enjoy a swim and a snorkel, and some climbed up to the watch tower which provided panoramic views of the surrounding islands. At around 4:30pm, the Hospitality team arrived and set up a temporary bar where we enjoyed sunset drinks. This was a magical afternoon, to be sure.
Day 11: Tacloban, Leyte
3 November 2023
The Xplorers headed to the Babatngon port to be welcomed by the town Mayor and live music from a young marching band, complete with percussion and drums. We were ushered in to air-conditioned coaster turned jeepney style face to face seating, with traffic enforcers on motorbikes paving the way for our journey through overcrowded city roads. Our first stop was a very solemn start to our morning. We headed to Ground Zero of Super Typhoon Haiyan burial ground where 3,000 nameless crosses represent the tragic deaths of up to 6,300 victims from category 5 Super Typhoon Yolanda (as it was locally renamed) when the eye of the typhoon hit Eastern Samar at peak strength causing catastrophic destruction in the Visayas, particularly in the islands of Samar and Leyte, taking the lives of thousands. This tragedy happened ten years ago on the 8th of November 2013. After we gave our silent prayers and tribute to the memory of those who perished, we headed to the symbolic remains of a ship MV Eva Jocelyn that served as a memorial along the road. This ship (along with 9 other massive ships) washed ashore after the storm surge brought it to higher grounds on land, crushing many homes, families and lives in its wake.
Our next stop was the Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum built by Imelda Marcos from 1979-1981 when she was still the first lady of the Philippines. This was one of 20 presidential rest houses built that is colloquially known as Imelda Marcos Museum. Imelda was originally from Tacloban and this shrine/mansion or palace really, served as a chapel, museum and guest house, with 21 bedrooms to host visitors of the first family. Seven bedrooms were built for the members of the Marcos family and each of the other 13 guest bedrooms had its own individual and unique Filipiniana motifs. And, not to forget, a diorama for each guest room depicting some historic moment during the Marcos administration, like one of shaking the hand of president Muammar Gaddafi; the first lady’s housing projects and human settlement and too much more. The biggest room was of course Imelda’s bedroom. A constant appearance was the signed photographs of both Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos everywhere, lest you forget whose house this belonged to. The dining room was a replica of the first family’s dining room in Malacañang Palace. Larger-than-life paintings could be found hanging on the grand staircase wall and the grand ballroom, with Imelda in all her beautiful splendour, in pride of place, making no qualms who lorded over these premises. Some prestigious fixtures included chandeliers from the Czech Republic, Italian tiles, Argentine carpets, Austrian mirrors, Chinese porcelain jars and intricately carved ivory that were gifts from Mao Zedong. This mansion was used only once during its inauguration, when the first family graced it with their presence. It’s never been occupied since. It was sequestered after the Marcoses left the country in 1986 and turned into a tourist destination. It has been left in disrepair and major damage happened with Super Typhoon Yolanda affecting some of the guest bedrooms on the first floor. It is nonetheless an amazing, albeit bizarre, experience to be led around by very loyal Marcos followers who speak of the family with awe and pride. Surreal is an understatement having a glimpse at the excessive ‘overthe-tops’ spending that happened during the Marcos era.
Although unrelated, it was quite a juxtaposition of experience to the mass gravesite visit we did earlier that morning. Our lunch was catered and hosted at the Price Mansion; a beautiful historic house built in 1910 by an American – Walter Scott Price. He married a Filipina and they migrated to Leyte where Price established many businesses, later becoming known as ‘King of Tacloban’. He was a prisoner of war during the Japanese Occupation and was freed by Gen Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur used this mansion as his headquarters after his landing in Leyte. As of 2019, the Price Mansion is owned by the Romuladez family. After our sumptuous meal, we were entertained by beautiful dancers in traditional Filipiniana costumes performing traditional Philippine folk dances. Their smiles and the warm palpable Filipino hospitality was bouncing off the walls of this historic mansion. Some guests who didn’t want to continue the afternoon tour went back to the ship and the rest travelled to the MacArthur landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte. This landing represents one of the most historic moments of WWII that began the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. The Leyte Tourism organised for us flag-bearing men in WWII uniforms: 2 Japanese soldiers, an Australian, an American and a Filipino soldier, all standing in front of the massive bronze statues of MacArthur and his men marching into Leyte. Audio created an ambiance of the 1940s starting with boogie-woogie and swing music and then the air surrounded by sounds of air planes flying and gun strikes leading to the audio explanation of the WWII situation surrounding this historic landing. Some guests wandered around and managed to have a taste of local ice cream, fondly called ‘Dirty Ice Cream’. It was back to the ship after this, ending our Leyte experience. Once back on the ship, we listened to Guest Lecturer Tim give his wellrounded research on the world situation comparing Japan to culminating in the Second World War.
Day 12: Cuatro Islas
4 November 2023
Our certified divers started their day early at 07:45 to pack in two morning dives on the reefs of one of four islands, as ‘Cuatro’ means ‘four’ in Spanish. We started with Mahaba Island where the guests had a taste of marine biodiversity of the area. Zodiacs were deployed for the divers and when the snorkellers were ready, Xplorers were out to take the guests to Mahaba Island. The bright white sand beckoned and the clear turquoise waters hosted critters galore. The mayor of Inopacan was on the small island to welcome some of our guests who went walkabout and didn’t go snorkelling. There were lounge chairs in the shaded part of the beach and the island was idyllic for this morning’s activity. What we found everywhere were blue linckia sea stars (what we used to call star fish) with a splattering of little coral patches and loads of anemones with clownfish of all sizes – from multiple sized Nemos – true percula or false percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula or ocellaris) (it’s difficult to tell them apart!) to Spinecheek anemonefish (Premnas biaculeatus), black and red anemonefish (Amphiprion melanopus) and the Clarke’s anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii). The drop-off showered us with anchovies fleeting from the coral rubble and reef to the blue, joined by bright purple anthias or fairy basslets (Pseudanthias sp). For the very sharp-eyed snorkellers, four extremely tiny but very colourful blue dorid Anna’s nudibranch (Chromodoris Annae) occupied the shallows. The tiny nudibranchs were so very well camouflaged until your eyes honed in on them. We didn’t take eyes off their positions for fear of losing sight of them! They looked like tiny gems and it was amazing to see four in one small patch. There was a crinoid or featherstar at the drop-off that served as a nice background for some underwater modelling for several guests. The Discover Scuba Divers had a chance to be on a local dive boat in a classic Filipino outrigger banca to dive the locally visited dive sites around the islands. Local dive guides accompanied the divers for a late morning exploration and discovery. After a full morning workout admiring nature’s critters, we all went back to the mother ship for some nourishing lunch. By 2:00pm, the Xplorer took us to another island called Digyo, where we had the chance to walk around a small tropical white sand island to either snorkel or wander. There was a local convenient store on the island where we could use some of our Philippine pesos or local currency to buy some local snacks and drinks. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the ship to quickly freshen-up for Guest Lecturer Stella’s interesting talk entitled ‘The Last JapaneseStraggler’, about Lt. Hiroo Onoda, who still thought he was in WWII fighting the Americans from 1944 to 1974. Onoda spent almost 30 years in Lubang Island and would only give himself up to his commanding officer in 1974. Serendipitously, aboard our voyage was our Filipino Immigrations Officer Erick who shared his own grandfather’s Lubang story, where the land Onoda pillaged was in his grandfather’s property! What was the likelihood of this lecture having this surprise coincidence?! A special Filipino buffet made by our very Australian chefs welcomed us for dinner culminating with the 2019 film ‘Midway’ to keep us in the WWII mood.
Day 13: Tagbilaran, Bohol Island
5 November 2023
Today was one of the busiest, most filled, most varied days we’ve had on this trip. Big distances, different sites and sights, and packed with activities. We had docked at Tagbilaran on the beautiful island of Bohol. So, there was no embarking on the Xplorers…we just walked down the gangway and got into 2 buses. We were all going to the same places but each bus did the activities in reverse order to each other. We headed off for our first activity…a chance to defy gravity, and try and keep our brains together. But to get there we had a long distance to travel. The view from the bus was a mix of forest, rice fields and small villages. It was Sunday but there was a lot going on. The tiny shops lining the roads were bustling with people and there was a lot of the amazing motorcycle/taxi vehicles; sort of bike with a structure that covers the sidecar, or rear seat. Many have individual names written on the front, such as ‘Felix the Cat’. We eventually arrived at the Eco Park, the Zipline site. This was going to be the adrenaline fix for the morning. The actual zip cables are 120m over the mountain valley, with the Loboc River in the valley that runs across the route of the cable. Those of us who were probably a tad insane donned a helmet and were strapped into a sort of bag and laid horizontally fixed to a strong (we hoped) wire that disappeared into the distance over the heavily wooded valley. Then we were off, two at a time, to plunge along the wire in a downward trajectory. Our speed depended on our weight, the heavier we were the faster we went. But it all felt full speed. The forest whizzed below us, providing breathtaking views and we crossed the raging Loboc River. What a unique perspective of the stunning natural lush surroundings of Bohol! Looking ahead we could see the landing stage arriving at a remarkable speed and just before we thought we might hit the rock wall behind the landing stage we came to an abrupt but gentle halt. It was fantastic! In fact, it was so good we eagerly did the zip back across the valley in the same way. Two amazing bits of fun that hadn’t lasted more than a couple of minutes in total, but were highly memorable. Then it was time to climb back into the bus and journey down to our next exciting activity…lunch.
We arrived at the small town adjoining the Laboc River. But before we actually sat down for lunch, we had the chance to visit the local church to see the Sunday morning mass. Then back in the bus and the short ride to the tourist site where there were several boats moored. The boats were really floating restaurants, laid out with tables. We boarded and the boat moved away from the dock, propelled by a small vessel attached to the rear with a driver. As we made our way up the river we served ourselves at the buffet and listened to a band singing songs that most of us remembered from our youth…songs from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s by bands like Credence Clearwater, ABBA, and Fleetwood Mac. As we hummed along to ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, we ate a delicious Filipino lunch and took in the beautiful scenery of valley sides packed with trees. The sides of the river were also lined with a range of dwellings, some old wooden houses and others modern and made of concrete. There were also a couple of platforms beside the river filled with people wearing bright clothes. We soon found out what they were. They were dancing stages for performances by the people on them. We pulled up beside a platform and the show started. The performers were mostly women in bright pink dresses. The older women were at the back playing small ukuleles whilst at the front were young girls doing some amazing coordinated dances. Then it got even better: the kids danced the tinikling. Out came long bamboo poles that were laid on the ground in pairs with a dancer holding them at each end. These served as the dance platform. The dancing, that is a sort of hopping in and out between the clashing bamboo poles, got underway. As the bamboos went tap tap, clap…tap tap, clap…tap tap clap…to a beat, it allowed the dancers to manoeuvre their feet avoiding being caught by the clapping bamboo, all with grace and full smiles Filipinos are known for! It reminded some of us of the sort of playground things we used to do at school…many years ago. But the chance to revisit that time came back as several of us went on the platform and did the hopping between the poles. It wasn’t as elegant or accurate as the performers but it raised a lot of laughs. If the guests were expecting a quiet cruise along the river, this was not the trip for them! ‘Love the Philippines’ was indeed shining through.
Eventually we headed back to the mooring, climbed off the boat and got back in the bus for our next activity; a visit to the Chocolate Hills. The hills are called ‘Chocolate’ because during the dry season the grass turns brown and the lovely individual rounded hills resemble chocolate. We climbed a long staircase to get a 360-degree view. It certainly was impressive: a vista of ancient conical karst topography. These hills are leftover limestone deposits of ancient coral and shell deposits when some 2 million years ago, streams and rivers slowly created the dips and valleys that today showcase a sample from 1,776 hills of the most unusual scenery. Currently the hills are bright green and have no trees. They sort of poke through the surrounding forest. The day was not over. We still had to visit another site. The attraction was the exact opposite to the large scale one we were currently at. Our next venue was to see tiny, furry, tree dwelling creatures: the Philippine tarsiers (Carlito syrichta). But before we arrived at the tarsier site we had the chance to visit a local market. It was late afternoon and the market, especially the ‘wet market’ that sold fish and meat, was almost closed, but there was still much to see. We arrived at the small Corella Tarsier Sanctuary as the light began to fade. That was a plus as we were more likely to see tarsiers; they are nocturnal. The tiny tarsiers are no bigger than a human clenched fist. This tarsier sanctuary in Corella started in 1997 with just 10 of the world’s smallest primates. Twenty-six years later, after much community education and reforestation work by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, the 8.4 hectares of secondary forest is now home to 200+ out of the estimated 2,500 endangered tarsiers left in the Philippines. The rules at the sanctuary are to remain quiet, turn the flash on your camera off and don’t shake trees or touch the tarsiers. The forest hosted the cutest nocturnal animals with the biggest eyes, resembling Yoda. A short video and locally prepared refreshments were presented while each group waited their turn to enter the fenced one-hectare forest that is purposely set aside for tourists to have a chance to glimpse and photograph these wonderful creatures of nature. Not only are they cute, they are also remarkable. As a nocturnal animal they have big eyes that only peer forward from their face, a bit like an owl. In order to see sideways they have to turn their heads. They have beautiful long fingers and toes. Although we only saw a few, we managed to take some lovely photos of them. Then it was time to return to the ship. The day had been long, the distances travelled had been considerable and a lot of happy but tired guests staggered back up the gangway to reboard the ship. It had been a great day.
Day 14: Canigao Island
6 November 2023
Breakfast at the leisurely hour of 07:30. Many of us were still getting over yesterday’s long activities. But we were ready for another chance to get to a beach, don the mask and snorkel to go see what lay beneath the shallow waves, or just do a bit of beachcombing and sitting on the sand and chatting. We boarded the Xplorers at 08:30 and made our way to the lovely Canigao Island. The weather was perfect this morning for our excursion onto the beaches. Some took to the water whilst others were happy to beachcomb for shells. And we found some very beautiful ones too – Spider Conch shells and a large Helmet Shell. We took our photos and left the shells behind, of course. On the opposite side of Canigao to where we landed, some of us came across a monument commemorating the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Magellan in the Philippines from the East in 1521, as a part of the first known European circumnavigation of the world. Of course, Magellan was killed in the Philippines but 19 crew of the original 270, managed to return to Spain on the ship the Victoria in 1522. In the afternoon, Yogi provided a very informative presentation on Marine Protected Areas and Marine Life of the Indo Pacific, accompanied by some of his spectacular photographs and a short video. The images of the cleaner wrasse and their cleaning stations, where all manner of fish species turn up to be cleansed of parasites, were amazing! Following dinner it was time for a Coral Expedition’s tradition on these voyages. It was time to engage what remaining brain cells we had and try to win a prize by coming up with answers to the ‘Coral Adventurer Nautical Trivia Quiz’. This was hosted by Tim in the Bridge Deck Lounge. It was chaotic and a lot of fun.
Day 15: Ticao Island and San Miguel Island
7 November 2023
This morning we headed on shore to the historic town of San Jacinto on Ticao Island. We had the opportunity to explore the grand 100-year-old house ‘Casa Fidel’ and also the old Catholic Church. Some checked out the local chocolate and the souvenir shop. A tropical downpour did not dampen our spirits or those of large group of dancers and musicians who welcomed us in the style we are now accustomed to. In the afternoon we visited the best snorkelling site we have encountered on the whole trip. Beautiful corals and abundant fish life. Some of us trekked up the bulldozed track to the other side of the island which proved to be a good workout. This island had ancient cycad palms, a very early type of plant, which evolved in the Cretaceous period.
Day 16: Marinduque Island and Natangco Islet
8 November 2023
We woke this morning to our final day of activities. The morning was going to be pretty busy and the afternoon was going to be a short visit to a beach for a final swim and snorkel. And also the last chance to get our gear wet so when we packed it everything would get damp in our suitcases. We walked into the Xplorers from the CA and then climbed out of the front of the Xplorers at the dock. As usual we were greeted by enthusiastic local people and once again we had an elaborate neck adornment placed over our heads. However, one of the unique features of this greeting was the amazing masks and costumes worn by many of the men. The masks are locally carved from wood and represent the scene of the crucifix of Christ. The masks match the amazing costumes to create a cast of characters. There were Roman soldiers, often with a mask that resembled a growl. There were several what looked like dignataries from the bible. Each mask and costume was unique: although there were several Roman soldiers each had a different face and costume. We were going to learn more about these later. After an official greeting with singing and throwing of flower petals and small coins we piled into 13 small buses and drove into the centre of Boac. We parked near the museum and then had the chance to wander around the busy centre of the city. It was bustling with people shopping at the multitude of small shops that line the streets crammed with the local motorbike taxi service. On virtually every busy crossroads a policeman was directing traffic with handsignals and a whistle. We had the opportunity to visit the local market that had fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and virtually anything else you wanted and could carry. There were also several very old wooden buildings with large sliding windows with panels made of shell. These windows allow air to breeze through the house. Inside these houses that we could enter there was usually a history of the owner’s family represented by dozens of photos on the walls. Many of these photos were over 120 years old. And everywhere there were statues of Christ and Mary. Before leaving the city centre we had the chance to visit the cathedral that was on a small hill made of limestone blocks. The cathedral was bigger than it initially looked and once you walked inside you realised you were definitely standing in a massive building. Then we jumped back in the buses and drove out to the Mopog mask making village. This is where the amazing wooden masks we had seen at the dock are made. The masks and costumes are part of a large festival held each year to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. The mask carving tradition is still very much alive and is supported by the Phiilippine government. It is a vital part of the local culture. Apart from the masks, which are made to fit the heads of the individuals who will wear them, the costumes are elaborate. They are usually made by a local seamstress from material sourced worldwide. Even the special footwear, for example Roman soldier knee length sandals, is made locally. The tools for the wood carving are a great variety of chisels, most curved, that are made locally from old metal car springs. We finally had to head back to the dock to reboard the CA to speed towards our final destination: a beautiful small beach on a tiny islet. During lunch the fairies visited our cabins and delivered the instructions for departure tomorrow and a copy of our bills. We were also told to bring our passports to the Purser’s desk for final clearance of the sea section of our time in the Philippines. The beautiful small beach we arrived at became something we saw but didn’t land on. Because of a change in the weather the water was too choppy for the Xplorer to beach on. But this inconvenience didn’t stop those of us who’d chosen to have a final snorkel. The Xplorer anchored just offshore on the reef drop-off. Once the anchor was dropped and Logan had manoeuvred the Xplorer securely, we fell into the water. The depth was only about 1.5 metres and it gave us a great chance to see whatever was lurking there. And there was plenty. We saw numerous pipefish, batfish, parrotfish, lionfish, sea cucumbers…and other things that we couldn’t identify. Finally it was time to climb back into the Xplorer to return to the ship. Despite the chatter it gradually dawned on us that the excursions were over. But it was a lovely finale. Once we’d returned our borrowed fins and masks and had a shower we went to the Bridge Deck Lounge for the final part of the cruise. Greg gave a short presentation about the most dangerous animal in Australia (apart from humans): the Drop Bear, a type of Koala that is a menace for people wandering in the bush. Greg also told us what we needed to do if we wanted to survive. Much of this involved a strategic use of Vegamite. As we gradually moved towards pre-dinner drinks a preview of the photos of the sites and sights we had visited since leaving Keelung many moons ago was shown. They were a mix of amazing and amusing…and a few of us realised we were definitely not photogenic. It is dawning on us that the trip is nearly over and we will be saying goodbye tomorrow. The evening pre-dinner drinks were ‘on the house’ by Captain Mark, and thanks were given to everyone who had made this trip such an interesting one. This included the Officers, Crew, Expedition Team, GLS and of course…the Guests. Everyone has contributed to make this trip unique. Our final dinner was a mix of fun and sorrow. Fun, because we’d had a memorable trip; sorrow, because it was almost the end of the trip. Just before we finished dinner the Purser, Hospitality Team, and the hidden Galley Crew were given thunderous applause. Then Sara gave a rundown of tomorrow’s departure procedures and it was time for everyone to settle their bills at the Purser’s desk and realise just how much wine they’d managed to consume during the voyage. It was also time to pack everything, exchange contact addresses, check documents and reminisce.
Day 17: Manila
9 November 2023
As we arrived at Manila we enjoyed our final breakfast onboard and said our heartfelt goodbyes. It has been a delightful and unusual trip, with some incredible sights. It will certainly be something we will remember. We thank everybody who has taken this opportunity and hope to see you again soon. And of course, we wish you safe and interesting travels.