Palawan (586 kilometers southwest of Manila) is an archipelago within the Philippine archipelago with 1,768 islands grouped around a large finger-shaped island (also known as Palawan), wedged between the Sulu Sea and the South China Sea on the southwestern side of the Philippine archipelago . Dubbed in tourist brochures as the "Last Frontier" of the Philippines, it is an unspoiled and beautiful region with vegetation-covered limestone formations, caves, rain forests, rare animal species, dense mangroves, African animals, picturesque islands, underwater caves, white sand beaches, and undisturbed coral reefs. Most of the diving and beach resorts are located in northern Palawan as much of the south is infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Palawan island is fifth largest and the least populated of the Philippines’s major islands. Palawan island is about 410 kilometers (260 miles) long and less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide. It is closer to Borneo than the rest of the Philippines. The entire province contains less than half of one percent of the Philippines’ population. The western coast of Palawan features the calm clear waters of the Sulu Sea and hundreds of small islands and reefs. Most of the islands are uninhabited but some like Miniloc Island have resorts. Most of Palawan's towns are also on the western side of the main island. The eastern side of Palawan island has rougher surf and fewer people.

Much of Palawan is still wilderness and holds the most promise for escaping the environmental damage that plagues much of the Philippines. For a long time the only large human settlements were a leper community and penal colony. Logging and destructive fishing methods arrived later here and have largely been limited. Most of the roads are dirt and it often takes a long time to get from place to place, with traveling by water easier then traveling on land. The climate of the area is somewhat drier than the rest of the Philippines.

Palawan History and Archaeology

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Palawan “is a northeast, southwest trending long island that serves a natural bridge between Borneo, and thence to the mainland of Asia. Geologically it is part of the island of Borneo. In fact the flora and fauna are more related to Borneo rather than the rest of the Philippines. During the glacial periods, Palawan was a land bridge to Borneo allowing early man, fauna and flora to enter the archipelago. Due to its position, it is crucial to the movement of peoples and biota into Central and Northern Philippines.” [Source: Report Submitted to UNESCO by National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)]

The Tabon Cave Complex and all of Lipuun Pont contains the oldest human remains in Palawan and among the oldest human remains in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. “It is located on a limestone promontory which is visible from any direction for many kilometers and honeycombed with at least 200 caves and rockshelters. This point is called Lipuun by the local people but marked "Abion Head" on charts made from British surveys in 1851. The point is about 104 hectares in are and is formed by a number of rounded limestone domes separated by deep chasms.

“The some 200 caves located in the limestone formation are collectively known as the Tabon Caves, after the main cave, called Tabon, so named after a megapode bird that digs its nest into the ground. This was the site to first establish the presence of humans in the Philippines during the Pleistocene. The different cave sites document through a corpus of C-14 dates a virtually continuous occupation between at least 50,000 years ago and ca. 9,000 BP, which have been widely cited because the Tabon Cave is one of the very few sites in Southeast Asia to have yielded Pleistocene fossil Homo sapiens. The data provide new chronological data on the questions of Pleistocene Homo sapiens settlement on the margins of Sundaland. See Tabon Caves Below

Archaeological sites in Palawan have been reported even as early as 1922 when Dr. Carl Guthe visited the El Nido (Bacuit) area during the expedition of the University of Michigan (1922-1925). Four caves were excavated by this University. The finds were discussed by Dr. Solheim (1964a:81) in his study of the "Iron Age" in central Philippines. One of the caves was re-excavated by Robert Fox in 1965, which upgraded the site from an "Iron Age" to a Neolithic site. Mr. E.D. Hester, in 1932 and again in 1935 visited the Uring-uring area south of Brookes' Point on the eastern side of Palawan and recovered a sizable collection of trade ceramics dating between the 14th to the 16th centuries, coming from China, Thailand and Vietnam. IN 1962, Fox again re-visited the place a recovered similar materials. Even a superb gold ornament was found identified as a garuda image dating from the Indonesian Madjapahit period (13th-14th AD), although the associated materials are trade ceramics from China from the late 14th-16th centuries AD. In 1951, Fox recovered an early Neolithic oval adze from a Tagbanua community in the municipality of Aborlan.

Palawan Ecosystem

Palawan has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Among the endangered species found here are bear cats, Calamian deer, mouse deer, peacocks pheasants, dugongs and giant sea turtles. A Stone Age tribe, the Tau’t Batur, were only discovered in 1978. In the sea, Palawan is home to 40 percent of the Philippines coral reefs and a third of its mangrove forests. To protect the environment, commercial fishing within nine miles of the shore and commercial loggimg have been banned.

The island province of Palawan is wrapped in a mantel of rainforests, outstanding dive sites, majestic mountains, primeval caves, and pristine beaches. It is surrounded by a coral shelf that abounds with varied and colorful marine life. Palawan waters are among the best in the world, not only for diving but also for fishing. The island’s forests boast of exotic flora and fauna, like the scaly ant eater, that are found nowhere else. The terrain is a mix of coastal plain, craggy foothills, valley deltas, and heavy forest interspersed with riverine arteries that serve as irrigation.

African animals from Kenya in Africa — giraffes, elands, zebras and gazelles — co-exist with endemic Philippine animals, like the Palawan bearcat, mouse deer and peacock in the Calauit Island Wildlife Sanctuary near Busuanga, considered one of the province’s most amazing sites. Another sanctuary found in Rio Tuba Village, Bataraza is the Ursula Island Game Refuge and Bird Sanctuary. This island is a haven for birds that rest and converge two hours before sunset, after a day's flight.

The El Nido Marine Reserve in Miniloc, El Nido, occupying an area of 96,000 hectares, is a popular nature spot in the province. It features diverse ecosystems, such as rainforests, mangroves, white sand beaches, coral reefs, and limestone reefs as well as a variety of fishes, like manta rays and dugongs. Sta. Lourdes Tagbanua, Puerto Princesa City are situated on Honda Bay. The bay contains of several islets with shallow reefs, bordering fabulous beaches and small resorts which have become the favorite water sports destination of local and foreign tourists alike.

Palawan Province

Palawan Province is situated between Mindoro Island to the north, Borneo to the south, the South China Sea to the west, and the Sulu Sea to the east. Its total area of 14,896.55 square kilometers spreads out to the peripheral islands of Busuanga, Culion, Linacapan, Cuyo, Dumaran, Cagayanes, and Balabac. The main island is 425 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide. Puerto Princesa, the capital city, is the chief seaport and the center of trade and commerce.

A chain of mountain ranges cut down the length of the main island. The mountain heights average about 1070 meters (3,500 feet) in altitude, with the highest peak rising to 2072 meters (6,800 feet) at Mount Matalingahan. The vast mountain areas are the source of valuable timber. The province is subdivided into one city, Puerto Princesa, and 23 municipalities: Aborlan, Agutaya, Araceli, Balabac, Bataraza, Brooke’s Point, Busuanga, Cagayancillo, Coron, Cuyo, Culion, Dumaran, El Nido, Española, Kalayaan, Linapacan, Magsaysay, Narra, Quezon, Rizal, Roxas, San Vicente, and Taytay.

Palawan's total population is about 1.1 million, including Puerto Princesa. The province is a melting pot of 81 different cultural groups and ethnic groups who live together in peace and harmony. The native-born Palaweños still predominate. Eighteen percent is composed of small minority groups. Fifty-two language and dialects are spoken in the province, with Tagalog being spoken by 28 percent of the people, followed by Cuyunin (26.27 percent), Pinalwan (11.08 percent), and Ilongo (9.6 percent).

The province has two types of climate. The first, which occurs in the northern and southern extremities and the entire western coast, has two distinct seasons — six months dry and six months wet. The other, which prevails in the eastern coast, has a short dry season of one to three months and no pronounced rainy period during the rest of the year. The southern part of the province is virtually free from tropical depressions but northern Palawan experiences torrential rains during the months of July and August. Summer is the peak tourist season. Sea travel is most favorable from March to early June when the seas are calm. Palawan is generally not affected by typhoons. Heavy rains from southwest and northeast monsoons occur suddenly. Monitor weather conditions daily. If renting a vehicle, 4WD is recommended.

According to ASIRT: 1) Roads are being improved. Tourist infrastructure is being upgraded. National roads linking rural areas of the province to Puerto Princesa City and other main cities have been upgraded. 2) Gravel roads scheduled to be upgraded: Aramaywan- Berong Road-Puerto Princesa Road, Palawan Circumferential Roads, Quezon-Aramaywan Road, and Quezon-Punta Baja Road. More than 90 percent of these roads are gravel-surfaced. 3) Water transport is best transport option, as there is no direct road link between Port Barton and Sabang. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), PDF, 2012]

Puerto Princess

Puerto Princess (570 kilometers west of Manila) is the main town and capital of Palawan and the home of the only hospital, banks, public transportation and fast food restaurants in Palawan. Founded in 1872 and home to 260,000 people, it is relatively new and has few historical buildings. The city's main attraction is the Iwahig Penal Farm, a prison without walls founded by the Americans in 1904. The prisoners, who include rapists and murderers, work in rice fields and farms and sell handicrafts from a souvenir stand to visiting tourists

Aptly nicknamed “the city in a forest,” Puerto Princesa city’s attractions have much to do with its natural wonders and commitment to the environment. In fact, it’s been named the Philippines’ cleanest and greenest city, and has been internationally recognized for environmental excellence.

The town is pleasant and clean and relatively unhurried. Other attractions include a small sea shell museum in the city hall, and a market near the police station that indicates where 143 prisoners of war were burned to death in a tunnel by Japanese troops in World War II. Snorkeling is possible from the public beaches but you are better off heading to Honda Bay. Rizal Avenue, the main drag, is lined with open-air seafood restaurants. Most people get around on tricycles.

Pricing Information Items Price
Accommodations — Hostel bed Php 800 — 900
Accommodations — Hotel room Php 1,500
Accommodations — Family room Php 3,000
Accommodations — Resort room Php 1,000
Dining — Chicken bbq (chicken inato) Php 95 per piece
Pricing Information Items Price
Activity — City tour Php 600
Activity — 1 day hike with guide Php 400
Activity — Nature adventure tour Php 1,100 per person
Shopping — handmade trinket Php 200 & up
Shopping — souvenir t-shirt Php 250
Shopping — local "rain stick" Php 150

Getting to and Around Palawan Puerto Princesa

The Puerto Princesa airport is served by all domestic airlines, and is just a few minutes from the city. There is daily wide-body air service from Manila. It is pretty difficult to get to Puerto Princesa or Palawan by any other way than flying and it is hard to travel around Palwan without coming to Puerto Princesa first. Travel to the city and tours from it are quite reasonable. For a few hundred dollars it possible to fly here from Manila and stay at reasonably nice hotels and tour some nice spots. A number of new hotels have been built in recent years.

According to ASIRT: 1) Road between Puerto Princesa City and Sabang is mostly paved. Main roads and some secondary roads are congested during rush hours: 7:30am to 8:30am and 10:00am to 12:00 noon. 2) Most congested main roads: Rizal Avenue (Roxas Street- Junction 1); Malvar Street (Public Market-Caltex Station); Manalo Street (Fernando-Roxas Streets); and National Highway (Junction I-Junction II). 3) Most congested secondary roads: Lancao, H. Mendoza, E. Valencia and Burgos roads. 4) Tricycles are a major factor in congestion. Be alert when crossing streets. Drivers do not yield to pedestrians. Few pedestrian crossings exist. 5) Tourist vans and other vehicles often park along main streets, blocking pedestrian sidewalks. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), PDF, 2012]

6) Buses, jeepneys, multi-cabs (minivans), tricycles, rental vans with a driver, rental motorbikes and boats are the main means of transport.. 7) Ferries provide transport to city. 8) The bus station is several kilometers from city center. 8) Buses are generally overcrowded and not air conditioned. Fare is lower than on minivans. 9) Minivans are generally air conditioned. Transport time is shorter. Drivers stop only at designated stops. Do not pick up and drop off passengers along the route. 10) Jeepneys provide transport on specific routes. Fares are lower than mini-van or bus fares, but vehicles are often overcrowded. 11) Tricycles do not travel long distances. Availability may be limited in some areas. 12) Rental cars are available. Most rental agents require renter to hire a driver. 13)Rental motorbikes are readily available. Not recommended for inexperienced riders. Bring a regulation helmet.

Pricing Information Items Price
Transportation — 10 minute Tricycle ride Php 8.00
Transportation — 10 minute Jeepney ride Php 8.00
Transportation — 30 minute boat ride Php 8.00

Sights and Attractions in the Puerto Princess Area

Puerto Princesa’s pride is easily the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (or Underground River), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The 8.2-kilometer river, said to be the longest navigable underground river in the world, winds its way underneath a mountain range, through the St. Paul Underground River Cave, and then goes out into the South China Sea. The journey through the cave system alone is 24 kilometers long. The entire area where the Underground River is located is a national park and a model of biodiversity. More than 800 plant species, including almost 300 trees, 195 bird species, 30 mammals, 19 reptiles, and eight bat species call this area home.

Looking to swim? Island hopping is one of the biggest draws of Puerto Princesa. At Honda Bay, boats take tourists to nearby islands for lunch picnics, snorkeling and non-stop swimming. The calm water and sandy bottoms beat any hotel pool. Puerto Princesa is also home to more secluded and less commercial beaches. Try the beaches of Nagtabon, Napsan, and Marufinas if you want to enjoy fine beaches and awesome sunsets away from the crowds. In the municipality of Narra, Arena Island, a turtle sanctuary, and Rasa Island, a bird sanctuary, both are island-hopping opportunities.

A three-hour ride also takes you to Port Barton in the municipality of San Vicente, which has been described as a backpacker’s dream. The only problem you might have is deciding whether to swim, dive, snorkel or just swing to sleep on a hammock. Get a glimpse of Puerto Princesa’s heritage in the Batak Cultural Village. It’s a model of the communities where the Batak mountain people — one of Palawan’s oldest and the smallest of three major indigenous groups — live. The village has a gallery and a shop where Batak handicrafts are sold. For the brave, exotic food choices await. The ever popular Kinabuchs Grill and Bar serves tamilok (shipworm) and crocodile meat. The less adventurous can head for Ka Lui for their creative seafood dishes.

Honda Bay tours will take you to several beaches where you can swim, snorkel and sunbathe. Stay at one of the many hotels and lodges in the city, and you’ll find it easy to book island-hopping trips and city tours. Visit the Maoyon Mangrove site, witness the weavers of Rurungan sa Tubod and Binuatuan at work, shop for handwoven products made from Palawan’s indigenous fibers, and marvel at the thousands of fireflies on the Iwahig River.

The Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center is also known as the Crocodile Farm. You can handle cold-blooded reptiles and even walk above their dens in the research institute. There is some other wildlife in the mini-zoo.

Honda Bay

Honda Bay (7 miles, half hour north of Puerto Princess) is the best snorkeling spot near Puerto Princess. It has several coral-fringed islands and snorkeling reefs that can be reached in a pumpboat on full day or half day trips. Many people stop at Bat Island, where thousand of bats live among mangrove trees.

The Honda Bay coastline is rugged and green and it is home to some the world’s most expensive and exclusive resorts. Amanpulo was named the 2nd Best Leisure Resort in the World and given and Award for Excellence by Gallivanter’s Guide. Situated on a beautiful island, this lone resort has 40 native-inspired casitas (cottages) designed by Philippine National Artist and Architect Bobby Mañosa.

Dos Palmas Island Resort on Honda Bay in Palawan was the scene of a mass kidnapping in May 2001, when Abu Sayyaf militants raided the Dos Palmas resort in central Palawan and kidnapped three Americans and 17 other tourists. One of the Americans was beheaded and another was killed during a military rescue the following year (See Below). The kidnapping and the drop in tourism after September 11th forced the resort to close down.

Snake Island (in Honda Bay) is a superb snorkeling site. Offshore from this quarter-mile-long, few-yard-wide sandbars are thick concentrations of colorful fish that are fed from time to time to

Abu Sayyaf Kidnapping from Palawan

In May 2001, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 people—three Americans and 17 Filipinos— from the Dos Palmas Island resort on Honda Bay in Palawan. The three Americans were Martin and Garcia Burnham, a missionary couple from Kansas that worked with the th U.S.-based New Tribes Mission. The other was Guillermo Sobero, a tourist from California. After they were captured the hostages were taken by speedboats to the small island of Basilan, where Abu Sayyaf has several hideouts in the dense jungle.

The hostage drama continued for months and was marked by occasional clashes between Abu Sayyaf and Philippine armed forces and Abu Sayyaf picking up and losing hostages as it went along. A few days after the initial abduction Abu Sayyaf took more hostages during a clash with Filipino troops in the town of Lamitan on Baslin. An additional four Filipino nurses, a midwife and a school principal—were abducted and nine hostages escaped or were rescued when Abu Sayyaf seized a hospital and church. Two hostages were found dead, apparently executed by Abu Sayyaf. More than a dozen people, including civilians, were killed in the crossfire.

But how did Abu Sayyaf escape. The 30 to 50 militants that held the hostages were surrounded. Many though it was the end of Abu Sayyaf. But they escaped by walking calmly through the town to a jungle path to make an escape after Philippine troops for some reason withdrew. Many believed that the military allowed Abu Sayyaf to escape after the terrorist group shared some ransom money with them. One person present said he actually saw money changing hands,

The Basilan faction of Abu Sayyaf was behind this kidnapping. Many of the Filipinos were released over time, reportedly after ransoms had been paid. One of these who reportedly escaped in Lamitan was allowed by Abu Sayyaf to do so after his family paid a ransom of $200,000. A payment of $300,000 was paid to Abu Sayyaf for the release of the Burnhams but they were not released.

In June 2001, Guillermo Soberia was killed by Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sabaya claimed that he personally beheaded him as a “present” to the Philippines on its independence day. Hostages that escaped said Sobero was a diabetic and he more likely died from lack of insulin or from infections of wounds that wouldn’t heal. Eight Filipinos, including a priest accused of being a spy for the military, were beheaded.

In June 2002, Martin Burnham was killed during a gun battle Abu Sayyaf and Filipino soldiers in the jungles of Zamboanga del Norte in Mindanao. Garcia was wounded in the leg and rescued. A Filipino nurse who was being held hostage also was shot and died. The gun battle, according to the Philippine government, occurred after a “chance encounter” with Abu Sayyaf. Many believed it was a pre-meditated raid.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (76 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princesa and 360 kilometers southwest of Manila) is an extraordinary sight. Located near the sea, it embraces is am 8.2-kilometer-long underground river that penetrates a cave with 40,000 bats and unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations that bring to mind cathedrals and pipe organs. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was selected one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

The 8.2-kilometer river, said to be the longest navigable underground river in the world, winds its way underneath a mountain range, through the St. Paul Underground River Cave, and then goes out into the South China Sea. The journey through the cave system alone is 24 kilometers long. The entire area where the Underground River is located is actually a national park and a model of biodiversity. More than 800 plant species, including almost 300 trees, 195 bird species, 30 mammals, 19 reptiles, and eight bat species call this area home. The level of the freshwater river rises and falls with the tide up to a point of 4.3 kilometers. It is possible to tour the underground river in paddleboat and explore the caves and their impressive stalactites, and the awesome rock formations on foot.

Located in the southwestern part of the Philippine Archipelago on the mid western coast of Palawan, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park embraces of various landforms and encompasses one of the world’s most impressive cave systems, featuring spectacular limestone karst landscapes, pristine natural beauty, and intact old-growth forests and distinctive wildlife . Impressive mountains, limestone plateaus and karst features form the rugged landscape of the Saint Paul Mountain Range with elevations ranging from sea level to a maximum height of 1,028 meters. The topography of the park varies from flat plains to rolling hinterlands and hills to mountain peaks. The extensive rainforest of the Park is the habitat of diverse endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna. The mouse deer, calamian deer, Palawan bearcat, porcupines, skunks, wild pigs, flying squirrels, rats, bats, and monkeys are among the animals that inhabit the Park. Cave-inhabiting forms of reptiles, birds, and mammals dominate the animals. All of these endemic to Palawan: they exist nowhere else on earth.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park was designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.According to UNESCO: “This park features a spectacular limestone karst landscape with an underground river. One of the river's distinguishing features is that it emerges directly into the sea, and its lower portion is subject to tidal influences. The area also represents a significant habitat for biodiversity conservation. The site contains a full 'mountain-to-sea' ecosystem and has some of the most important forests in Asia.[Source: UNESCO]

“The property, comprising an area of approximately 5,753ha, contains an 8.2km long underground river. The highlight of this subterranean river system is that it flows directly into the sea, with its brackish lower half subjected to tidal influence, distinguishing it as a significant natural global phenomenon. The river’s cavern presents remarkable, eye catching rock formations. The property contains a full mountain-to-sea ecosystem which provides significant habitat for biodiversity conservation and protects the most intact and noteworthy forests within the Palawan biogeographic province. Holding the distinction of being the first national park devolved and successfully managed by a local government unit, the park’s effective management system is a symbol of commitment by the Filipino people to the protection and conservation of their natural heritage.”

The park “contains an underground river that flows directly to the sea. The lower half of the river is brackish and subject to ocean tide. The associated tidal influence on the river makes this a significant natural phenomenon. The river’s cavern exhibits dramatic speleothems and several large chambers of as much as 120 meters wide and 60 meters high. Its accessibility and navigability up to 4.5 kilometers inland allows it to be experienced by the general public, who can view the magnificent rock formations on a river cruise unequalled by any other similar experience elsewhere in the world.”

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Ecosystems and Animals

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park covers roughly 39 square kilometers (15 square miles) and contains 11 different ecosystems, including moss forest, limestone mountains, and coral reefs. Among the animals found here are pythons, flying foxes, Palawan peacock pheasants, bear cars, Oriental small-clawed otters, civets, stink badgers, Palawan hornbills, kingfishers, sulphur-bellied bulbuls mudskippers and six-foot-long monitor lizards known as bayawak

According to UNESCO: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park “contains globally significant habitat for biodiversity conservation. It includes a full mountain-to-sea ecosystem, protecting the most significant forest area within the Palawan Biogeographic Province. There are eight intact forest formations: forest on ultramafic soil, forest on limestone soil, montane forest, freshwater swamp forest, lowland evergreen tropical rainforest, riverine forest, beach forest, and mangrove forest, included in the property. It contains outstanding biodiversity with the Palawan Moist Forest recognized by the WWF’s Global Report as containing the richest tree flora, with high levels of regional and local endemism and as being the largest and most valuable limestone forest in Asia. [Source: UNESCO]

“The property, including the karst mountain landscapes and the underground river, is in excellent condition. Integrity of the property is also expressed in the complete "mountain-to-the-sea" ecosystem that protects one of the most significant forests in Asia. The uniqueness of the mangrove forests in the Bay along with the flora and fauna they harbour, and the bioecological connection with the caves and surrounding forest is protected within the core area of the property ensuring the local key inter-related and inter-dependant elements of their natural relationships are protected.

“The topography varies from flat plains to rolling hinterlands and hills to mountain peaks. Over 90 percent of the park comprises sharp, karst limestone ridges around Mount St Paul, which is itself part of a series of rounded, limestone peaks aligned on a north-south axis, along the western coast of Palawan. The focus of the area is a spectacular karst landscape which features both surface karst features (pinnacles, shafts, dolines and limestone cliffs), as well as an extensive underground river system. The underground river (the Cabayugan River) arises approximately 2 kilometers south-west of Mount Saint Paul at an altitude of 100 m, and flows underground for almost its entire length to an outflow into St Paul's Bay. All rivers and associated tributaries are within the park, which is important in relation to catchments impacts on the water quality of the Cabayugan River.

“Approximately two-thirds of the site is forested, dominated by hardwood species. Three forest formations are present: lowland, karst and limestone. The karst forest is restricted to small pockets where soils have developed. In the coastal area, mangroves, mossy forest, seagrass beds and coral reefs are also found. The faunal diversity in the park is moderate, especially with respect to invertebrates. Endemic mammals include the Palawan tree shrew, Palawan porcupine and Palawan stink badger. Dugong has been recorded in the marine component of the park. Monitor lizard and marine turtles are also present. The Palawan Peacock Pheasant has also been recorded in this site (recognized as an internationally threatened species). The subterranean fauna has not been studied in detail, but comprises fish, prawns, snakes and insects. The tunnel and chambers of the subterranean river are home to abundant populations of swiftlets and bats. Eight species of bat are also found in the cave, and cave swiftlets nest on some of the underground boulder piles. Further studies are required to determine the extent and diversity of the underground fauna. The species listed below represent a small sample of iconic and/or IUCN Red Listed animals and plants found in the property.

Agathis philippinensis — Almaciga
Alstonia scholaris — Blackboard Tree
Anthracoceros marchei — Palawan Hornbill
Arctictis binturong — Bearcat
Barbourula busuangensis — Philippine Flat-headed Frog
Cacatua haematuropygia — Philippine Cockatoo
Calophyllum inophyllum — Alexandrian Laurel

Chelonia mydas — Green Turtle
Crocodylus mindorensis — Philippine crocodile
Dipterocarpus gracilis — Apitong

Touring the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River

People explore the cave and underground river at Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in outrigger canoes operated by local fishermen. Authorities have set strict limits on the number of canoes that enter the cave every day and these boats prohibiting from traveling more than a one mile into the cave (only scientist are allowed to venture further). Many people take a swim in the mouth of the river near the sea.

Most people travel to the cave area over bad roads as part of an arranged tour that begins with a two- to three-hour minibus ride from Puerto Princess to the village of Sabang. On the road one passes coconut palms, limestone karst formations. small towns with dirt-floor karaoke bar and general stores. From Sabang, one can take a pumpboat to the cave or walk for 2½ hours through a rain forest on the Monkey Trail. Many people visit the caves as part of a long day trip. For those who want to travel at a slower pace, there are some guest houses and bungalows in Sabang, where you can spend the night.

Describing her trip the cavesm Isabel Templo wrote: “Plan ahead as a permit is required beforehand. Or else, be prepared to wait for as long as three hours for the 45-minute tour. To minimize carbon footprint, the caretakers of the longest navigable underground river on Earth only allow 900 visitors daily. Sabang, where the river is situated, is located some 50 kilometers north of Puerto Princesa. To get there, you can rough it up or travel in comfort. You can take a bus (US$7/Php300) or jeep (US$5/Php200) from the terminal in Barangay San Jose at 7 a.m., or rent an air-conditioned van for Php3,000 to Php3,500 (US$71 to US$83).

“Once in Sabang, you can either take a boat from the wharf to the Underground River for (Php700/US$17 for six passengers) or walk through the jungle trail (about 2.5 hours). Don’t go all Indiana Jones here, as you’ll be required to wear a life jacket and hardhat. When you see the boat floating only a few inches from the water, you’ll realize that the life jacket is a good idea. Wear a light raincoat to protect your clothes from bat droppings. Hold on to that helmet while you’re staring at the stalactite formations. You don’t want it falling into the water.

“Inside, the darkness gives way to incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations. Some of them have even gained monikers like the “Holy Family” and “Sharon Stone,” while a few phallic symbols will also elicit giggles. And that’s just scratching the surface. Some parts of the underground river are still unexplored. After the tour, you might realize that nature does have a grand scheme. You’ve been inside it. And now, you have the satisfaction of ticking off one more thing from your bucket list.

Secure your permit up to two weeks in advance from the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park Office. Email Or call +6348 4342509 or +6348 7230904. The resort or hotel where you are booked can also arrange a tour for you; the package includes securing the permit.

Tabon Caves

Tabon Caves (150 kilometers southwest of Puerto Princess on the west side of Palawan) is a complex of 200 or so caves of which only handful are open to the public and only a handful have been carefully studied. Known as the Philippines "cradle of civilization," it includes 29 cave complex on Cape of Lipuon Point, where a 22,000-year-old skull, known as Tabon man, was found. Tabon Cave is also where among the remains of the oldest Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia were found, dating to 47,000 years ago. Other items found in the cave include Chinese pottery dated to the 8th century B.C.

The Tabon Cave Complex and all of Lipuun Pont was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “It is located on a limestone promontory which is visible from any direction for many kilometers and honeycombed with at least 200 caves and rockshelters. This point is called Lipuun by the local people but marked "Abion Head" on charts made from British surveys in 1851. The point is about 104 hectares in are and is formed by a number of rounded limestone domes separated by deep chasms. [Source: Report Submitted to UNESCO by National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)]

“The some 200 caves located in the limestone formation are collectively known as the Tabon Caves, after the main cave, called Tabon, so named after a megapode bird that digs its nest into the ground. This was the site to first establish the presence of humans in the Philippines during the Pleistocene. The different cave sites document through a corpus of C-14 dates a virtually continuous occupation between at least 50,000 years ago and ca. 9,000 BP, which have been widely cited because the Tabon Cave is one of the very few sites in Southeast Asia to have yielded Pleistocene fossil Homo sapiens. The data provide new chronological data on the questions of Pleistocene Homo sapiens settlement on the margins of Sundaland.

The Tabon Cave, itself, is the site where possibly the oldest Homo sapiens sapiens fossil evidence in Southeast Asia in the form of a tibia fragment dating to 47,000+/- 11-10,000 years ago (IV-2000-T-97) has been found (Dizon et al, 2002, Annex 8). There are also a right mandible dating to 31,000 +-8-7,000 years ago (PXIII-T-436) and a frontal bone dating to 16,500 +- 2,000 years ago (previously dated to 22,000-24,000 BP). The dates are based on isotopic 230 Th/U 234 ratio. Another fossil mandibular fragment raises the issue of a possible colonization of Palawan by Pongidae during the Upper Pleistocene (16,500 +- 2,000 BP).

“These caves contained an astonishing wealth and an extensive time-range of cultural materials: a flake tool tradition which dates from the Late Pleistocene and early post-Pleistocene periods including a highly developed jar burial complex which appeared during the Late Neolithic and continued on to the developed Metal Age; and finally, porcelains and stoneware indicating local trade with China during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. The excavations have revealed more than 50,000 years of Philippine prehistory and; south and East Asian relationships.

Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape

Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (in the mountains of southern Palawan) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015 According to UNESCO: Nestled in the southern part of the Palawan Man and Biosphere Reserve is the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL), a protected area by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 1815 signed on June 23, 2009. It covers a total area of 120,457 hectares within the territorial jurisdiction of the municipalities of Bataraza, Brooke’s Point, Quezon, Rizal, and Sofronio Espanola. The peak of Mt. Mantalingahan towering at 2085 meters above sea level is the highest peak in the province and considered sacred by the indigenous Palawan people. [Source: UNESCO]

As a key biodiversity area, MMPL hosts denizens of plants and animals. It is one of only ten sites of the Alliance for Zero Extinction in the Philippines and one of the 11 important bird areas in Palawan. Most of the threatened and restricted-range birds of the Palawan Endemic Bird Area occur in the Mantalingahan range and the adjacent lowlands. With the recent discoveries of several potentially new species of plants and animals, Mt. Mantalingahan represents a significant contribution to the known pool of Philippine and global biodiversity.

Mt. Mantalingahan has exceptionally high floral and faunal diversity and endemism with several noteworthy species recorded during the rapid biological assessment conducted in 2007. There are eight (8) possibly undescribed plant species; at least five (5) plant species that are newly recorded for Palawan; and twelve plant species considered as new plant records for the country. Three restricted-range species of plants which are known only to occur within mountain range: Alyxia palawanensis Markgraf (Apocynaceae), Rhododendron acrophilum & Quisumb. (Ericaceae) and Sphaerostephanos cartilagidens P. Zamora & Co (Thelypteridaceae). Six out of fourteen recorded frog species are Palawan endemic. One of these, Ingerana mariae (Mary's Frog, Palawan eastern frog) is known to be restricted to Mt. Mantalingahan. Three lizards, Gekko palawanensis, Mabuya cumingi and Sphenomorphus sp and two snakes (Calamaria cf. palawanensis and Trimeresurus schultzei are endemic to Palawan. A new species of forest gecko, Luperosaurus gulat was confirmed by experts and published in 2010. The Stachyris hypogrammica (Palawan striped-babbler) is restricted to Mt. Mantalingahan.

Two endemic subspecies of birds are restricted to Mt. Mantalingahan: Cettia vulcania palawana (bush-warbler) and Brachypteryx montana sillimani (white-browed shortwing). The critically endangered Cacatua haematuropygia is among the five Philippine endemic bird species thriving in Mantalingahan. Two parrotfinches Erythrura hyperythra and Erythrura prasina were recorded in 2007. Based on all current records, both species are new island records for Palawan and the latter is a possible new country record. The presence of two elusive fast canopy flyer bats, the Saccolaimus saccolaimus is a new record for Palawan faunal region and Chiromeles torquatus that was again seen after five decades in the island is a surprising discovery. The Palawan soft-furred mountain rat, Palawanomys furvus, that was rediscovered in 2007 has not been seen since it was first discovered in 1962 and known to occur only in Mt. Mantalingahan. The taxonomic identification of a certainly new species of shrew that probably lives only in the high mountains of Mantalingahan and a potentially new species of toadlet is underway at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Undoubtedly, there are more globally unique species waiting to be discovered in the area.

There are 10 vegetative cover-types within the MMPL: old growth, mossy, karst/limestone, residual, mangrove, brushland, grassland, coconut plantation, cropland, other plantation. Forests cover about 100,000 hectares, approximately 79 percent of the total land area, three-quarters of which is primary forest playing a macro-climatic function by acting as a significant carbon sink. The integrity of this forest cover as part of Palawan’s last bastion of solid forest is being managed as refuge for several threatened species including the critically endangered Cacatua haematuropygia and the several endangered endemic species such as Megophrys ligayae. MMPL is the ancestral home of more than 12,000 indigenous Palawans. The livelihood of indigenous peoples residing in MMPL is directly linked to the ecological health of the landscape. The conservation of ecological resources, such as medicinal plants or resin, allows for the continuation of specific cultural practices

Dive Sites in the Palawan Area

Dive Sites in the northern part of Palawan include Exotic Island and the "aquarium" at Albargin island near Port Barton. Apo Reef is between Palwan and Mindoro Island. In the south there are Tubbataha Reefs and Roxas. Tubbataha Reef Marine Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It is regarded as the Philippines’s most biologically diverse coral reef system. The Paradise Club is situated on Dimakya Island, a lovely spot with wonderful reefs, great diving, shipwrecks and spectacular lime cliffs. There is a daily flight there from Manila. According to the El-Nido-based Submariner Diving Center, some of the best dive spots in Palawan are:

1) Kalambuyan Reef, Coron Bay: flourishes with an unparalleled diversity of coral reefs bursting with sea life. It takes 30 minutes by boat off the NW Okikawa Maru to get there and during the summer the current gets quite strong. [Source: Submariner Diving Center ;

2) Tagbao Islands, El Nido: El Nido is rated as one of the best diving spots in the world with an abundance of coral and bountiful marine life. The two tiny Tagboa islands are situated north-west of Miniloc with three important reefs nestled in between. El Nido is a perfect spot for beginner divers as the water is shallow.

3) Tubbataha Reef, Cagayancillo: Part of the Natural Marine Park of the municipality of Cagayancillo, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, it is known as the global center of marine biodiversity. CNN Travel declared Tubbataha Reef one of the best dive spots in the world.

4) Cuttlefish Shawl, Puerto Princesa: This site is for experienced divers looking for a more challenging dive in terms of depth. You may need a local guide to help you, but your efforts will be well rewarded with sightings of barracuda, sea turtles, and the reef’s namesake, the cuttlefish.

5) The Wall, Roxas: This site is excellent for beginner divers as well as more experienced divers and can be reached by boat 20 minutes off the main island. Underwater photographers regularly explore the depths of this site for its beauty and diversity as they are often surprised by new species.

6) Bulawit Bay, Linapacan: Off the pier coast, this dive site has shallow waters and the seafloor, covered in seagrasses, is a good spot for starfish. Moving to the drop-off point you will be rewarded with spectacular sea creatures like pipefish, eels, ribbon fish, batfish, and other tropical fish.

7) Mares Rock, Puerto Princesa: This sloping reef site at the mouth of Puerto Princesa Bay drops down to 112 feet and the highlights include octopus, nudibranch, crustaceans and other interesting bottom dwellers. Popular with underwater photographers it also offers big fish like tuna, jackfish, barracuda as well as turtles.

8) Morazan Maru, Coron: The passenger-cargo vessel, built in 1907, was later commandeered by the British for WWI when she was captured by the Japanese and utilized by them in WWII. The wreck lies just under 330 feet down and holds a large engine room and steel boilers that are still intact, making it a great dive for experienced and newly certified PADI wreck divers.

9) Dilumacad Tunnel, El Nido: This 115-foot long tunnel is a spectacular dive for experienced divers. Discovered in early 1990, it starts off at 40 feet where a memorial plaque can be seen at the entrance then gradually narrows down towards the exit. The tunnel has several ceiling holes and a sandy bottom.

El Nido

El Nido (far north of Palawan) is dominated by spectacular karst formations and towering limestone cliffs that are homes of swiftlets that provides the material for bird nest soup. The area is also known for having some of the most beautiful seascapes in Palawan and there are some eco-friendly resorts there to exploit it. Offshore is some of the best diving in the world.
Maniloc Island to the west of El Nido has resort set among beautiful clear water lagoons and fantastic limestone formations.

The El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. According to UNESCO: It is located on the north-western tip of the mainland of Palawan. In 1991, the Government of the Philippines proclaimed Bacuit Bay as a marine reserve. In 1998, the protected area was expanded to include terrestrial ecosystems and portions of the municipality of Taytay. It is now known as El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, which covers over 36,000 hectares of land and 54,000 hectares of marine waters. It contains towering limestone cliffs, beaches, mangroves, clear waters, unique forests over limestone and neat farmlands. It is home to five species of mammals, including the Malayan Pangolin and 16 bird species endemic to Palawan including the threatened Palawan Peacock Pheasant, the Palawan Hornbill and Palawan Scops Owl. Bacuit bay is also home to the dugong, dolphins and marine turtles, many of which are threatened species. Colorful coral reef fishes are found here. Some of these are the: butterflyfishes, parrotfishes, wrasses, triggerfishes, angelfishes, surgeonfishes, damsel fishes, emperors,snappers, groupers and rabbit fishes. [Source: UNESCO]

Nido is rated as one of the best diving spots in the world with an abundance of coral and bountiful marine life. It is a perfect spot for beginner divers as the water is shallow. Dilumacad Tunnel — 35-meter (115-foot) long tunnel — is a spectacular dive for experienced divers. Discovered in early 1990, it starts off at 13 meters (40 feet) where a memorial plaque can be seen at the entrance then gradually narrows down towards the exit. The tunnel has several ceiling holes and a sandy bottom. The two tiny Tagboa islands are situated north-west of Miniloc, with three important reefs nestled in between, is another great site.

According to to PADI: El Nido’s most famous dive sites feature “Colourful, shallow water coral gardens combined with turtles, schooling big-eye snappers, yellow tail barracuda and smaller schools of chevron barracuda make this a memorable site. 1) North Rock - Located near the center of Bacuit Bay, this is an awesome spot for passing pelagics. You’ll find a mix of topographies from swim throughs to massive rock cleaning stations and huge table corals. Highlights include schooling jacks, barracuda, big eye jacks and the occasional blacktip reef shark,

2) Dilumacad Tunnel - This 35 meter (115 foot) long tunnel was discovered in the early 1990’s. Starting at 12 meters (40 feet), with a memorial plate at the entrance, the tunnel has a sandy bottom and several ceiling holes. The tunnel gradually narrows towards the exit. It’s a stunning dive for experienced divers. 3) Entalula – Depending on whether you dive the spectacular 35 meter (115 foot) wall or the stunning coral garden and sloping reef, this dive site never fails to impress. From schooling fish through to lazy turtles, marble rays, passing reef sharks and occasional eagle rays this colourful spot showcases the marine biodiversity of El Nido. 4) Nat Nat – An absolute must for macro photographers and critter hunters. This coral reef and sandy patched dive site is home to seahorses, hermit crabs and a plethora of crabs and nudibranch including Spanish dancers. This site really comes to life after the sun sets so night diving here is recommended.

Calamianes Islands and Its Super Exclusive Resorts

The Calamianes Islands (between Palawan and Mindoro Island) is a group of beautiful islands with a handful of expensive resorts. Not many backpackers go here. The three main islands are Coron, Busuanga, and Culion. The smaller islands Calauit, Malcapuya, Banana Island, Pass Island, Calumbuyan and hundreds of smaller mostly uninhabited islets.

Club Paradise resort on Dimakya Island, north of the main Calamianes islands, can be reached by a daily flight from Manila. Here is it possible to go straight from the pool into the ocean, and see dugongs from March to June as well as sea turtles, stingrays, jellyfish, coral gardens, and psychedelic fish. Ariana south of main Calamianes islands is mysterious 125-acre island was unknown except to few jet setters until Vogue UK named it the No. 1 holiday destination in the world in 2012. The resort here accepts only up 17 guests at a time and they have to shell out at least US$41,000 for seven nights plus the US$600 roundtrip transfer fee.

Amanpulo Resort (east of the Calamianes Islands) is a super luxurious and expensive resort that occupies all of Pamalican island, which is comprised of white sand and jungle and is surrounded by a wonderful reef. Each of the hillside cottage cost around $1000 a night. When Bong Bong Marcos comes here with his family, he and his wife stayed in one cottage and his infant son and a nanny sleep in an another cottage. The resort is reached by special air service from Manila.

Historically, the Calamianes was site of the Spanish politico-militar Provincia de Calamianes. The Spanish Empire later purchased mainland Paragua from the Sultan of Borneo. During the American occupation (1898-1948), the old Provincia de Calamianes was dissolved and jointly administered with the Island of Paragua as the new Province of Palawan. During the American occupation and up until recently, Culion Island was host to a leper colony. Busuanga Island hosts the largest town, Coron, in the Calamian Islands. Calauit Island is known for hosting a number of African animal species. Diving spots, with coral reefs and sunken World War II Japanese shipwrecks, also lies within the waters of these islands.

Calauit Island

Calauit Island (off northern Palawan, 320 kilometers south west of Manila) is a 3,760-acre island located across a strait off the northwestern coast Busuanga, one of the main islands in Calamianes Group off northern Palawan. In 1979, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos imported 104 animals from Kenya, including giraffes, zebras, eland, bushbuck, gazelles, waterbucks, and impala, and placed them here to live hear with native Palawan species such as mouse deer and bearcats.

The African animals have thrived on the rolling grassland and forests on the island, which was was declared as a wildlife sanctuary and game preserve in 1977, but suffered during the El Niño droughts. In 1999, the African colony was made up of 550 animals, including a couple of the original giraffes. In the water around the island are sea turtles, dugong and giant clams. Visitors to Calauit Island first fly to Yulo King Ranch airport on Busuanga Island and then take a boat to Calauit. Visitors are advised to make arrangements through the Department of Natural Resources in Quezon City, Metro Manila, before departing for Palawan.

The entire island now is a tourist attraction known as Calauit Safari Park. The imported animals included 20 giraffes, dozens of zebra and antelopes. Marcos ordered the locals to move to Halsey Island and ordered workers to clear the bamboo forests on Calauit to make the place similar to the savannahs of Kenya. An estimated 254 families, mostly from the indigenous Tagbanwa tribes, were evicted and relocated to the former leper colony of Halsey Island. Today, the African animals continue to roam around the island and the number of animals is increasing. The animals have been inbreeding for four generations and may die off from the lack of diversity in their gene pool.

Coron Island

Coron Island (350 kilometers southwest on Manila, 350 kilometers northeast of Puerto Princessa) is covered with unexplored rainforests, stunning cliffs and secluded lakes. Offshore is great diving. Kayaking is a popular activity here. One popular destination is Kayangan Lake, sacred to the Tagbanua people and known for being the cleanest inland body of water in the Philippines. This beautiful blue-green lake is surrounded by lush rainforest and stunning limestone karst cliffs, and is a great place for a swim. Another attraction are its sunken World War II ships minutes from the shore. One gunboat with its crusted hull is visible just five inches from the surface.

Coron island was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. According to UNESCO: “Coron Island is roughly equidistant from Manila and Puerto Princessa City. The Island has a rugged topography, generally mountainous and its terrain marked by steep rock and ravines. Almost 70 percent of the area made up of rocky cliffs, 25 percent is rolling hills and 5 percent relatively flat. Out of the total area, approximately 18 percent is occupied by the Tagbanua as residential and agricultural lands, as rock formations almost dominate the entire area. Large area is composed of Karst formations where swiftlets dwell and build their nest (birds nest). There are vertical limestone cliffs that reach up to 600 meters above sea level and eight brackish lakes and three smaller one's that have underground connections to the sea. [Source: UNESCO]

Coron Island comprises two barangays, Banuang Daan and Cabugao, all of them belong to the Indigenous Cultural Communities. There are 373 households with a population of 2,028 individuals of Tagbanua in the Island. The primary users of the resources of the island are the residents of these two settlements. Majority of the residents of the two barangays are seldom seen in the mountains except for the gatherers of edible bird's nests on towering cliffs that serve as the major source of income for Indigenous people in the island. Coron Island is wedge-shaped limestone island, dominated by Permian Limestone of Jurassic origin, with few of its coastal areas being covered by mangrove forests. It is situated in the Calamianes group of Islands and belongs to the Municipality of Coron.

Some of the rare places not found in the regions are the fantastic and legendary lagoons which are wide, deep and with very clear water, interestingly nestled in one huge and rocky island popularly known as the Coron Islands. Encircled by giant walls of limestone cliffs, this jewel of a mountain, boarders the beautiful and wide Coron harbor, where more wonders of nature abide.

On two of the dive spots there, Submariner Diving Center reports: 1) Kalambuyan Reef, Coron Bay: flourishes with an unparalleled diversity of coral reefs bursting with sea life. It takes 30 minutes by boat off the NW Okikawa Maru to get there and during the summer the current gets quite strong. 2) Morazan Maru, Coron: The passenger-cargo vessel, built in 1907, was later commandeered by the British for WWI when she was captured by the Japanese and utilized by them in WWII. The wreck lies just under 330 feet down and holds a large engine room and steel boilers that are still intact, making it a great dive for experienced and newly certified PADI wreck divers.

Apo Reef

Apo Reef (north of the Calamianes Islands and southwest of Mindoro Island, more acessible from Mindoro) has some of the clearest water and healthiest coral formations in the Philippines. It is located near the Calamianes, group of islands north of the main island of Palawan. One the main dive operations is Discovery Divers, run by a German named Gunter Bernert. He offers tours in which you can fly by ultra-light craft to diving areas, paddle a kayak to actual dive site and put on scuba gear for the dives among pristine reefs with crinoids, lizard fish, parrot fish, brain coral, anemones, butterfly fish, clown fish, angelfish and puffer fish

Apo Reef was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 According to UNESCO: “Apo Reef is the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world and the largest one in the Philippines. The Apo Reef Natural Park consists of the three islands. Apo Reef is the largest among the three islands. It has a shallow lagoon with a depth of 2 meters to 10 meters surrounded by mangrove forest which serves as source of food, nursery and spawning ground of several coastal and marine species of fauna and sanctuary of birds. Its diverse corals are approximately 34 square kilometers of reef where different species of fish, marine mammals and invertebrates thrive.

“Apo Reef, the largest atoll like reef in the Philippines, is a submerged platform that is a submerged of a 34-square-kilometer sub triangular northern and southern atoll like reefs separated by a 30-m deep channel that is open to the west The channel runs east to west from 1.8 m to 30 m deep with a fine white sand bottom numerous mounds and patches of branching corals under the deep blue water. The main geographical features of Apo Reef is submerged. There are three islands that mark it on the surface, the Apo Island, Apo Menor (Binangaan'; and Cayos del Bajo Tinangkapang). The largest is Apo Island (22.0) hectares which harbors mangroves and beach vegetations, whereas Binangaan is rocky Iimestone island with relatively few vegetation and Cayos del Bajo (200-300 sq.m.) is a coralline rock formation with no vegetation.

“Apo Reef was proclaimed as Protected Area under the category of Natural Park and it Surrounding waters as buffer zone by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 868, dated September 6, 1996. The Apo Reef Natural Park (ARNP) and its peripheral Buffer Zone covers an area of 15,792 hectares and 11,677 hectares, respectively, totaling 27,469 hectares in all.” . Tubbataha Reefs

Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park (200 kilometers east of Palawan, 640 kilometers southwest of Manila) is one of the Philippines premier dive sites. Located in the Sulu Sea and listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1993, it is home to 460 types of coral and 379 species of marine life including mackerel, jack, snappers, barracuda, emperor angelfish, surgeon fish, schools of tuna and gray and white tip sharks. The marine park covers 1,030 square kilometer In 2013, Tubbataha was in the news because a U.S. Navy minsweeper ran aground there and got stuck and had to be dismantled.

Tubbataha Reef was the Philippines first UNESCO World Heritage site. Traditionally, the only people found here were Samal Sea Gypsies. The word “Tubbataha” is derived from two Samal words meaning “a long reef exposed only at low tide.” The underwater biodiversity of Tubbataha is staggering. Marine biologists believe that its underwater gardens harbour a diversity of marine life that in unequaled by a reef of the same size anywhere else in world.

According to UNESCO: “The Tubbataha Reef Marine Park covers 130,028 ha, including the North and South Reefs. It is a unique example of an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species; the North Islet serving as a nesting site for birds and marine turtles. The site is an excellent example of a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-m perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and two coral islands. [Source: UNESCO]

“Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies in a unique position in the centre of the Sulu Sea, and includes the Tubbataha and Jessie Beazley Reefs. It protects an area of almost 100,000 hectares of high quality marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea. The property is home to a great diversity of marine life. Whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and Napoleon wrasse are amongst the key species found here. The reef ecosystems support over 350 species of coral and almost 500 species of fish. The reserve also protects one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region.”

Tubbataha Reefs Ecosystem

According to UNESCO: “Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park contains excellent examples of pristine reefs with a high diversity of marine life. The property includes extensive reef flats and perpendicular walls reaching over 100m depth, as well as large areas of deep sea. The remote and undisturbed character of the property and the continued presence of large marine fauna such as tiger sharks, cetaceans and turtles, and big schools of pelagic fishes such as barracuda and trevallies add to the aesthetic qualities of the property. The property comprises two atolls (North and South Atoll) and an emergent coral cay, Jessie Beazley Reef. It includes open sea with an average depth of 750 m and still displays a well preserved marine ecosystem with top predators, and a large number and diversity of coral reef and pelagic species

“Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies in a unique position in the middle of the Sulu Sea and is one of the Philippines’ oldest ecosystems. It plays a key role in the process of reproduction, dispersal and colonization by marine organisms in the whole Sulu Sea system, and helps support fisheries outside its boundaries. The property is a natural laboratory for the study of ecological and biological processes, displaying the ongoing process of coral reef formation, and supporting a large number of marine species dependant on reef ecosystems. The presence of top predator species, such as tiger and hammerhead sharks, are indicators of the ecological balance of the property. The property also offers a demonstration site to study the responses of a natural reef system in relation to the impacts of climate change.

“Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park provides an important habitat for internationally threatened and endangered marine species. The property is located within the Coral Triangle, a global focus for coral biological diversity. The reefs of the property support 374 species of corals, almost 90 percent of all coral species in the Philippines. The reefs and seas of the property also support eleven species of cetaceans, eleven species of sharks, and an estimated 479 species of fish, including the iconic and threatened Napoleon wrasse. The property supports the highest population densities known in the world for white tip reef sharks. Pelagic species such as jacks, tuna, barracuda, manta rays, whale sharks and different species of sharks also are common here and the property is a very important nesting, resting and juvenile development area for two species of endangered marine turtles: green turtles and hawksbill turtles. There are seven breeding species of seabirds and Bird Islet and South Islet are breeding grounds to seven resident and endangered breeding species of seabirds. The critically endangered Christmas Island Frigatebird is a regular visitor to the property.”

Visiting Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park

The atolls in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park are home to seabirds but no people. It is possible to dive at the reef but the only realistic way to do that is pay for a package tour on a liveboard boat — a vessel used for diving expeditions or cruises where the divers live on the boat for the duration of the cruise and use it as a diving support vessel. Tubbataha is about 10 hours by boat from Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

On diving at Tubbataha Reef from a liveaboard boat, Alya Honasan wrote: “It was the kind of moment that passionate scuba divers live for. We were at about 65 feet at White Tip Alley, a dive site in the Tubbataha Natural Marine Park. Suddenly, our lead diver raised her hand to signal a halt. There, about 10 feet in front of her, was a solitary manta ray, its graceful wings spanning about six feet, swimming slowly in our direction. Then closer it came, almost caressing our lead with its wing, and grazing the heads of several wide-eyed American divers.

“It was just another ordinary day in Tubbataha, the Mecca of Philippine diving and a superstar in the international diving scene. Accessible only by live-aboard dive boats during the months between March and June, Tubbataha is your sweet spot if you mean serious diving business. For about US$1,000* you can explore what the reefs offer for an entire week.

And they offer a lot.

“The manta ray is only one of the myriad creatures — including 11 species of sharks, over 600 species of fish, 360 species of coral, 12 kinds of whales and dolphins, and nesting green and hawksbill turtles — that have been spotted in these 97,000 hectares of natural marine park which include 10,000 hectares of reefs. On one trip alone, a scalloped hammerhead swam alongside me at 60 feet. Several minutes later, we spotted a 20-foot whale shark hugging a wall — so huge that its accompanying remora, fish that hitch a ride to pick and eat parasites off a bigger animal, were the size of small sharks.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Philippines Tourism websites, Philippines government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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