"a caterpillar doesn't just grow into a butterfly. a caterpillar must undergo metamorphosis, and a cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all: enters total chaos, undergoes total rebuilding, and is born to a new way of living. only in taking the risk of entering that inert cocoon can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

off the beaten path: the baliscar island adventure and the walo-walo encounters

"The healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality,
a sharpening of the edge of appetite...
a brief excursion from his way of life."
--Robert MacIver

reminiscing "destination: baliscar lighthouse"

i assumed it was going to be a walk in the park. i did not end up being disappointed. it turned out to be a walk in the park, yes, but with exciting twists and overlapping multiple phases of adrenaline rush. definitely, it was a more than the usual walk in the park and one for the adventure chronicles!

it happened two years ago but it still feels like it was just yesterday because the details of the experience remain fresh in my memory. it was a sunday in march and it was the second day of the pinas flashpackers' "beachbumming" weekend in mauban, quezon of lamon bay. the open-close quotes are there for good reason -- it was far from the beachbumming trip we expected it to be and we experienced more than what we were ever prepared for.

once upon a sunday morning in march
i remember getting up early that day. we were in villa cleofas, a resort in cagbalete island facing the pacific. facing the pacific means facing east and facing east implies good vantage for watching sunrise, and i'm quite a fan of sunrise -- by now, you get the picture. i had an obviously good reason for getting up early.

it was quite a cloudy morning when i and some of my travel buddies set out to the white sand beach to catch the sunrise. sunlight seemed to struggle and barely won its early morning battle against thick clouds.

03.14.10 sunrise picture | trivia: 03.14 is pi day and is also albert einstein's birthday in mm/dd format :D

i cheered for sunlight and prayed for the clouds to give way. again, i had good reason.

the weather condition for the morning and for the rest of the day had to be favorable because we were scheduled to go to the lighthouse, atop baliscar island somewhere further to the east. we were told that the island was a 30-minute boatride away from where we were and the trip was only gonna push through if the waves were not too rough.

while we were on the beach until the time we had breakfast, it was a waiting game but watching the sky and looking out the sea gave us good enough indications that seeing the lighthouse was gonna be a go.

it was still gloomy when we set out sometime after breakfast. by then, the tide level had gone so low that we first had to walk a long, long way from the beach to ankle-deep then knee-deep seawater to get to the boat, m/b st. anthony, which was already anchored further out -- where the water was deep enough for the waves to no longer dangerously tossle and eventually force the boat to run aground. 

a picture of my travel buddies which i took while we were walking towards the boat

the distance between where the water was only knee-deep and where the boat was waiting required us to either swim or wade through relatively strong waves that came at semi-tolerable intervals. another option made available to us was to board a small boat to facilitate our transfer to m/b st. anthony.

the small boat was of such unusual shape that "it reminded me of a triangular banyera (big basin)" is the way to describe it now. hehe. it looked cute and could be easily dismissed as a toy boat for the small boys (and small girls) but, at the same time, it seemed built for stability despite the waves. the boatmen and their helping hands convinced us to take a short ride on board the small boat since it's the best option for us (we can avoid getting wet among other things) and for them (no need for them to divide their attention assisting and looking after a lot of us walking, swimming, and/or struggling our way to the big boat). we were 17 in our group alone and the other group which was making the trip to baliscar with us had a headcount of around 20. go figure!

one adventure after another
walking from the beach to where we could already board the small boats (there were two of them) was an adventure in itself. for a good stretch, walking was just as simple as walking on white sand with ankle-deep water. then, there were already seaweeds, creatures like sea cucumbers, sea stars and anemones, and rocks which we needed to walk around, step on, walk through, or jump away from to avoid getting unnecessarily tangled, scratched, imbalanced, and, in the case with sea urchins, being punctured by their spikes. walking while trying to see the underwater path particularly got tricky when somebody else already disturbed the seabed and caused grains of sand to turn the water turbid. what if there were sea snakes? ewww.

riding the small boat was another adventure. we had to properly mind the rhythm defined by the waves and accordingly time the act of swinging our legs to board the boat or we risked being hit, thrown off-balance, and getting bruises. i was being careful but one of my knees still got bruised!

we had to go in batches since the small boats could only accommodate so much. however, we still ended up being like sardines packed in a limited container. hahaha. the helping hands -- most of them were kids still but strong swimmers and familiar with the sea -- guided the small boats towards m/b st. anthony.

the first to approach m/b st. anthony was our small boat. as in the case with boarding, we also had to properly mind the swell of the waves and time the act of making our way out of the small boat before rushing a safe climb onto the big boat via outriggers.

at the risk of breaking our necks or being beheaded by the bamboo katig
there was pandemonium when we realized that m/b st. anthony's bamboo outriggers (common local term: katig) spelled danger for us  -- one ill-timed movement of our small boat relative to the motion of the waves made us face the risk of bumping our heads and/or breaking our necks (or, worse, being beheaded, tsk tsk) if we didn't duck in time or if we failed to watch out for the others on board. hehe. no joke.

the bamboo outriggers

sometimes, in my head, i can still hear our collective girly shrieks caused by the momentary panic. we were all females on that boat and if you were there and shared that short ride with us, you'd realize it was really a spontaneous reaction to something very risky and very real -- a heart-pounding moment that thrill rides in themeparks could not duplicate.

the other small boat: filled to the brim but still afloat
in the foreground are 5 bamboo outriggers of m/b st. anthony

those who boarded the other small boat were saved from our ordeal since their helping hands and those of us who were already on board m/b st. anthony already learned  a better way to conduct the transfer from the small boat to the big boat. eventually, everyone of us who signed up for the baliscar island trip got on board m/b st. anthony and our journey to baslicar island began.

destination: baliscar island

cagbalete, bonsai, and baliscar islands in lamon bay.
image source: wikimapia. i provided the arrows and readable names

the engine of m/b anthony roared to life and the captain steered the boat to the direction that would take us to the island. by then, the clouds had cleared out, giving way to the sun and granting us a cool blue summer sky as we went further away from cagbalete and out to the sea. the boat rode the waves and defined an aqua path on super blue waters.

soon enough, baliscar island was in sight.

baliscar island from a distance

baliscar island is actually a rocky islet -- a very small rocky island. from a distance, it looks like a flat piece of rock in the middle of the sea with the lighthouse as the only thing that is prominently jutting out of it. it is easy to imagine that seafarers will definitely not miss the lighthouse, especially at night.

the baliscar challenge: jagged rocks and waves

as we got nearer and saw baliscar up close, i began to wonder how we were going to get to the top of the very rocky island. the boat circled the island once and we all saw that there was no port nor beach in sight and the waves incessantly lapped the perimeter, angrily lashing at sharp, rough rocks. more than that, the portion of the water where our boat remained afloat, a good distance away from the island, was far from being shallow -- the water was dark blue!

the boatmen announced we could already go to the island. a lot of people on board had that questioning look on their faces -- they sported the "big how" look.

i remember having this conversation with marl, one of the gals in our group:

marl (who turned to me and asked me, ): "pupunta ba tayo? bababa nga tayo?" (are we going there? are we really going down?)

me: "pag sinabi nila kuya na ok bumaba, yes! andito na tayo (baliscar). that (pointing to the lighthouse) is what we came here for." (if the boatmen will say it's ok to go down, yes! we're already here...)

so from the boat, our group went to baliscar island. how? the answer is another risky adventure which we didn't prepare for. 

picture this.

one of the boatmen jumped overboard and swam dragging a rope towards the island. we watched as he swam past the strong sea current and reached baliscar; he secured the end of the rope that he was holding to one of the big rocks there and gave the OK signal for others to cross. the helping hands positioned themselves along the long stretch of rope and beckoned for us to get moving and start THE crossing.

we grabbed the life vests and quickly donned them. i checked my dry bag, secured the straps of my ever reliable outdoor sandals and took hold of my snorkel and mask. one after the other, we made our way to the outriggers and jumped to the water -- cold, blue, with waves.

baliscar island, a rocky island destination where faint-hearted people need not go
one way to describe the crossing: not for the weak. another way to describe the crossing: dangerous.

the water was deep. between our boat and rocky baliscar island was an expanse of sea with strong current. closer to the island, the water was shallow but the waves were unforgiving and ready to drag and smash anything and anyone against jagged rocks. the only readily available lifeline was the stretch of rope. to do the crossing, one needed to willingly take the risks and face the unfamiliar. we did.

our group of 17 atop baliscar island

these pictures of our group -- headcount: 17! -- with the baliscar lighthouse in the background only mean one thing: all of us were able to cross and we were able to find our way to the top of baliscar island! yey!

the lighthouse of baliscar island

we were really not prepared for our baliscar island adventure. apart from the lighthouse and that it was 30 minutes away from the shores of cagbalete, we did not know anything else about it. the lack of proper unloading site, the crossing, the totally rocky surface, the rough climb -- all these made up for a very adrenaline-pumped surprise adventure.

getting to the top of the island was definitely NOT a walk in the park but we initially thought it was gonna be one. we thought getting past the sea current and  avoiding the crashing waves were the only things we needed to do and the rest of the way was gonna be a piece of cake. wrong! maling akala. totally.

proofs of our cluelessness? some of the girls wore bikini and loose knitted tops (beachbumming mindset!). some left their slippers behind. i still had the derring do to bring along my tripod -- well, two of the guys took turns in holding it for me (but still!). imagine those and try to match them with the risks that stared at us: drowning, being swept away, being smacked against rough rocks, falling off the rocks, snakes... yes, snakes!!!

baliscar may look like every bit of a barren island from afar but it is not totally barren. some plants grow on it and it is home to birds and snakes -- another detail which we overlooked and downplayed until the sight of snakes was right in front of us.

upon reaching the rocks of baliscar, there was no way for us but up. the boatmen guided us as we climbed the sharp rocks. we listened to verbal instructions of where we needed to place our hands and feet and how to position our bodies to avoid falling. they calmly told us to watch out for the snakes.

"andyan lang po sila. ingat lang." (they're just there. just be careful.)

when i looked towards where they said the snakes were lounging, my eyes almost left their sockets. mannnnnnnnn... very close to us, shaded from the harsh summer sun, was a nest of walo-walo -- very, very venomous sea snakes but the boatmen told us about their presence as if they were just ants nearby.

there was no time to complain or panic or go hysterical or simply faint. it wasn't the place nor the time. when you've just crossed the sea and survived the waves that tried to eat you while the sun tried to blind you, you're determined as ever to continue your efforts for survival. we focused on completing our real deal rock climbing adventure -- getting scratches on our arms and legs in the process -- and, finally, got to the top of baliscar island. yes!!!

one of the sights at the top of baliscar island is this gaping hole facing the pacific ocean

the island top was as rough as the jutting rocks that we climbed. with the image of the snakes still fresh in our minds, we were ever careful in going about. we did not walk too far from where we came from and did not anymore get too close to the lighthouse. plus, the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. we had no reason to stay too long so, after we took enough pictures, we began descending.

going back to where we came from
the rough way down

one after another, we carefully made our way down the rough rocks, earning more scratches on our arms and legs, exerting our muscles some more. we were too focused on reaching the rope and crossing the sea again to get back to the boat in no time,  we couldn't be bothered anymore by the walo-walo snakes -- nevermind that there's actually a nest (or nests, who knows?) of them there.

surviving the waves that tried to drag the unsuspecting towards the rocks
crossing the way back to the boat was relatively easy and more enjoyable

having done the sea crossing once, the way back to m/b st. anthony was a whole lot more fun. as we neared the boat, our queue lingered along the rope just so we could have our pictures taken. hehe. 

during our trip back to cagbalete, there was a temporary commotion as most of us rushed to the front of the boat to take a look at something huge, something dark, something moving, something very near... a whale! it was totally unexpected and we were all taken by surprise. among our group, only one of us -- tiff -- managed to get a picture of it.

the shoreline of cagbalete island was already within sight but still too far from us when we were told that we had to already leave the boat. it was around noontime and water had further receded so much so that not only more of the seabed directly facing cagbalete island was exposed, a lot of nearby bonsai island was also already exposed and drying up. it was easy to see that there was no way the boat could go nearer to the shore without running aground or being pushed by the waves against the rocks in the shallower portions.

just when we thought we already had our fair share of survival-at-sea challenges that morning, we had to go through another crossing -- from the boat to the rough shores of bonsai island. as before, the boatmen laid out the rope and guided us to the outriggers of the boat and we jumped to the sea -- cold, blue, with strong waves. again.

as soon as i regained use of my legs and feet and was assured i could keep my camera dry, i took pictures of my travel buddies who were still in the middle of our pahabol crossing adventure.

how we got to bonsai island from the boat

bonsai island
bonsai island is about one kilometer away from cagbalete island and it is located just in front of villa cleofas. it is an islet that got its name because of two clusters of bonsai mangrove trees that, according to stories, are at least one hundred years old-- century old bonsai, they are called and they dominate this islet of mostly flat rock surface that reminds one of a cracked-here-and-there helipad. during high tide, the entire surface is submerged in water and only the top branches of the clusters of bonsai mangrove trees can be seen.

walking on bonsai island

since it was low tide, we had freedom to explore and enjoy bonsai island. the noon sun gave us good light and allowed us to take good pictures.

destination: bonsai island | hello world, this is not an indoor studio shot.

we were naturally drawn to the bonsai clusters and had our pictures taken with it, mostly as part of our background. one of the girls, tiff, went into one of the clusters (the one farther from cagbalete) and -- good thing she looked before taking another step -- discovered a nest of snakes  there. yup, snakes. sea snakes! again.

the bonsai clusters that gave bonsai island her peculiar name

the nest of snakes
they were of the same color and appearance as those snakes we saw in baliscar -- the very, very venomous walo-walo!

the nest of walo-walo snakes that we saw in one of the bonsai clusters in bonsai island

it used to be that the only sea snake that i knew of was the tangkig -- which, i was told, is relatively harmless that, if somebody got bitten by it, the worst that could ever happen to that person was a week-long fever -- perhaps out of a psychological (rather than a physical) affliction.

i learned of the walo-walo sea snake during a trip in caramoan, camarines sur in november 2009. i first saw something like it floating in the middle of the sea on our way to sapitang lahi island. when we got to sapitang lahi, a group of girls who were taking turns posing for photographs along the shoreline started shrieking and moving away from where they were standing. it turned out, they saw a snake, slithering. two locals -- boatmen, i suppose -- came to their rescue and managed to put the snake inside an empty plastic bottle.

walo-walo sea snake in a bottle | sapitang lahi, caramoan, camarines sur

i got the chance to take a photo of that bottle with the snake inside it. since it looked nothing like the sea snake that i was familiar with,  i got curious about it and asked questions.

walo-walo sea snake in a bottle, freed | sapitang lahi, caramoan, camarines sur

getting to know the walo-walo
according to a seafaring local, the walo-walo is very deadly and got its name because it will only take eight (the filipino term for eight is walo) seconds for the snake's venom to take the life of the bitten. whether this eight-second figure is true or not, there's only one thing i can say for sure -- when you see a snake like this, be on the safe side: just avoid getting bitten!

why? because the walo-walo is the banded sea krait (genus: laticauda), common in tropical waters and mangrove swamps. this particular snake's venom is known to be stronger than the cobra's, "packs a punch ten times more toxic than a rattlesnake's," and "ranks among the most toxic in the world."

it works to our human advantage that banded sea kraits, like most sea snakes, are very docile and rarely aggressive. add to that, they have such small mouths and their fangs are at the back of their mouth so when they strike to bite -- which, according to internet sources, happens very rarely -- the only body parts at risk are those that are small enough like fingertips, small toes, appendages between digits, and edges of the ears when underwater.  moreover, the only known occasions when they do eject venom are feeding and under great duress.

i leave it to you to learn more about the walo-walo. there are places in the philippines, like the island of pulo laum in olutanga of zamboanga, sibugay that serve as sanctuary for walo-walo sea snakes.

the kilometer-long walk to cagbalete island from bonsai island

none of us in our group of 17 got bitten by any of the many walo-walo snakes which we saw in the islets of baliscar and bonsai in lamon bay.

having experienced what we experienced and having encountered what we encountered, it is now easy to understand why there are write ups that say stepping on baliscar is not all possible. i'm telling you that IT IS POSSIBLE and it is possible to enjoy the whole deal as well. however, you have to be prepared and very careful.

one of my travel buddies collectively referred to the back-to-back-to-back adventures that we experienced that day as buwis-buhay. i say, thrill-seekers' delight. reserve buwis-buhay for the suicidal. we are thrill-seekers. (--,)

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