Breathless in Bongao

You can never miss Bongao Peak before toucihng sown Sanga-Sanga Airport
You can never miss Bongao Peak before touching down Sanga-Sanga Airport

After two plane rides a day apart, I find myself in the southern most province with a cluster of 307 islands and islets, one of the red flag spots in Mindanao – Tawi-Tawi, more than 328 kilometers from the nearest urban center in Zamboanga City. I had been doing my research and inquiries about diving in these group more than three years ago, and in 2011 chance upon a seat sale on Zamboanga – Bongao – Zamboanga route. My MRDP workmates were too encouraging having visited the province for marine preservation activities. Unfortunately, we had the trip cancelled after some irrational changes of flights leaving my tickets down the drain. Finally, I made it with my dive buddy, of course. I watched Bongao Peak in wonder as it loomed before us, while approaching the terminal of Sanga-Sanga Airport. It was still early, and the locals were just starting the day.

Zenith Moments

We went straight to our refuge in Beachside Inn, our modest room with windows facing the sea  was just to our liking. We had a long day at hand and after an hour break, headed for the trek to Bongao Peak. Yet we need the bananas for the macaque monkeys which is really necessary, the climb is not possible without the offering. Our friendly guides assured the trails won’t be horrid as it has been sunny in the past weeks. The midday sun was already scorching as we started our ascent.

The climb was only one third when we got at the cemented steps, it was getting steep which surely make one breathless but the glimpse of surrounding waters beyond was so alluring. The myth is true, the monkeys appeared for the offering and I was thinking, without the bananas all of them will swarm and block the way. They could be dangerous indeed. But personally, I found the plastics tied on the trees so disturbing, I will always see them as trash – inarguably, it marred the purity of the trees and forest. Lot of trash was left on the trails, from the climbers without doubt, it was so pathetic.

The peak was all consuming, it gave us an ample view of the surrounding islands with turquoise waters around, the town, the communities and the airport. The endless blue seas meeting the blue skies beyond is so calming. Breathless with the panorama! Peaks are always marvelous indeed.

Intense Depths

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Diving in Bongao includes climbing or hoisting yourself from the waters to this boat!

The main agenda of the trip was diving of course, what else? An off-beaten site is always to our liking,  Some what mysterious and there is much to unravel. We were up early the next day, it was a gloomy Saturday morning as we gather up our gears waiting for our transpo at 7am. There is no dive operator in Bongao but the local Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) has been handling diving trips in the province, and we are grateful to them.

The hired boat, similar to those floating at the old Chinese pier was already at the bridge connecting Sanga-Sanga Island to Bongao, waiting for us. Our first site was at Sanga-Sanga Reef which is just at the front of the airport. The waters started to get choppy when we got there, but DM Ramon first sought permission from the guards, it meant wading down the waters until the shores.

Summary of our descents during the day, our first and last dive was with DM Ramon while the wreck was with Sir Dong Reyes, the president of TDC:

   Sites                  Depth   Bottom Time     Conditions
 Sanga-Sanga Reefs        15.3m     0:45        Strong current
 Pahut Plane Wreck        19.1m     0:31        Very strong current
 Sowangkagang Tiny Wall   12.1m     0:36        Mild current

One need to be an experienced diver especially that current are all common in every sites. The most challenging one and my top pick was the Plane wreck in Pahut, it was believed to be a World War II Japanese Tora-tora plane. Sir Dong had a detailed briefing before the descent making us aware of the currents judging from tide movements. The good thing was other local divers were invited, making us six in all, two of which are new graduates form MSU – Tawi Tawi from Marine Bio and Environmental Management. The instruction was once in the waters, descend immediately to the floor and hold on while waiting for others, everyone will swim or drift to the wreck together.  Angel warned me to stay close with him and never to get lost, I went ahead of him for the entry.

We all swam to the wreck with Sir Dong leading us, the overriding current almost sweeping us but firmly finned for the spot. I was somewhat dismayed that the remnants barely outlined the plane, far from the photos I saw taken two years ago. I came too near holding on an iron part, the strong current fiercely gushing and swooshing before us. Although I was focused with the currents, my eyes never failed to notice the colorful fishes hovering the artificial reef, such lovely sight! I tried to circle around still seeking refuge in the wreck mound. We all drift away as our DM signaled to depart from the spot, passing hard and soft corals with the tropical fishes – there was no pelagic in sight. We ascend too far from the boat!

Diving in Bongao or in Tawi-Tawi for that matter is not for the faint hearted, its depths is as fierce as its local people, silent but tough and can be dangerous. Confidence and trusting in one’s capacity is necessary but never forgetting basic safety rules. Forget about the comfortable white-washed dive boats with amenities and ready stairs, doing the Spartan way is the mode, climb your way from the side sans modesty and without reservations. I have gone that far, but that’s all part of the job!

Our last descent was for finishing touch with DM Ramon, it was already late at 4pm but the current has gone mild fading away. Sowangkagang was just near our lodgings. It was not a wall actually but a sandy slope decorated with soft corals like it was filled of brown grasses swaying with the current, it was mild and barely noticeable. We took some time trying to find the giant clams Sir Dong was talking about but it was nowhere. Three dives with currents are exhaustive and left us almost breathless, thanks to my oxygen! I learned that there is more joy in the routines than conquering the site – challenging or not!

The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting
The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting

Marine Preservation and Protection

It is impressive to note that while Tawi-Tawi province is distant and the frontier to Malaysian waters, it is not last in terms of marine environment protection – government agencies, local government and advocacy groups like WWF, FISH and even MRDP are collaborating cohesively in information & education campaign around the islands. The efforts to address existing environmental problems is supported by local communities particularly in preservation of MPAs, research studies and activities were put in place too. I learned from Engr. Dong Reyes that TDC in cooperation with MSU Tawi-Tawi College of Fisheries replanted coral polyps from dead corals due to dynamite fishing. He showed few of this artificial reefs scattered near the university’s port with the grown corals which will be transplanted in areas with depleting coral reefs. WWF Philippines on the other hand has satellite office in Bongao and extension works in the islands of Simunul, Sibutu and Sitangkai. They claim that marine resources have depleted precariously, fish stocks are overfished and important habitats are being lost – fish catch of fishermen are dwindling over the past years. The increasing number of people living in coasts and continuing rise in consumer demands for fish threatens marine biodiversity. Yet hopeful with this impending crisis as the rural communities are aware and cooperating in preservation and protection efforts. The Tawi-Tawi group is one of the country’s significant breeding grounds and a rich source of marine products and by-products – definitely more than just a “tourist” destination.  No, definitely this province is not struggling to be seen, just come and be their guest!

Travel Notes:

1. There are no dive shops in Bongao, diving in islands can only be arranged with Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) through Engr. Rosendo Reyes  at 0917 7222905 or 0921 2938287.
2. Bringing your own gear is recommended, TDC gears are owned by members and by chance not available.
3. Boat hires are available at old Chinese Pier: for diving within Bongao it costs P 1500.00; going to the islands costs more depending distance, Simunul Island is P 2,300.00 – haggling skills may help.
4. Trek to Bud Bongao is more than an hour including stops and monkey offerings, the descent is about fifteen minutes depending your pace.
5. Sunsets are best viewed at the Provincial Capitol that sits on a hill.
6. Simunul island, is the site of oldest Mosque in the Philippines and home of the revered Sheikh Makdum one of the early pioneers in the spread of the Islamic religion in the country.

NB. My point and shoot cam was totally useless during my dives, sorry no underwater photos on this post

Related Article:

Scuba Diving expeditions launched in Tawi-Tawi  (www.zambotimes.com)

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