It stared into my eyes, just as I locked my gaze on its.
Then, tongue slapping its lips, it broke away from the exchange – even if I continued observing, as it clambered down the shore rocks and slithered into the water, sluggishly wading away until out of my sight.
Was that an iguana that can swim? I fantasized announcing it like some zoological breakthrough, only to then garner the laughter and ridicule of the Victorian science community.
Turned out it’s my taxonomy skills that was laughable.
“That’s a water monitor lizard,” Geegee, the resident environmental officer on Apulit Island, lectured me after I’d badgered her about my sighting like an ecstatic adolescent. “They’re very common on this island – you’ll see many of them.” So my discovery wasn’t ‘pioneering’, either.
At least it was a personal first, a close encounter with wildlife and nature that’d eluded me in my urban life. And it wouldn’t be the last time Apulit Island, my habitat for a brief few days, surprised and bewildered me: with its biological and geological wonders – and the activities the eco-adventure resort offered me, in order to get up close and create my own tales of discoveries.
Here are the stories where I fell under the enchantment that is The Philippines’ Palawan.
Chance encounter with an aquatic mage
When the outrigger set sail from the Apulit Island pier in the morning, seafaring conditions still bore symptoms of the storm raged overnight: clouds choked the bluer skies, while the water’s surface were staccatos of raindrops and slurs of aggressive tides.
But rain or shine, they said; so if not content with calmness, then conquer the waves – because it looked choppy out there this morning. Not that I minded: my adventurous spirit needed a shaking up, and the two Japanese toddlers running fearlessly around the quivering boat deck were really putting me to shame.
The motor hummed to a halt after the 40-something-minute journey; Clark, our marine sports guide, announced our arrival at Nabat Island, while Geegee helped the children into the water.
I borrowed the captain’s mirror – or whatever broke off a car’s side door – retreated to the boat’s cabin rear to put my contact lenses on; I needed my sight unimpaired, unlike when I went snorkelling Apulit’s house reef the day before having forgotten them. Even if I could spot the blurred patterns, the colours, the flutter of corals – and especially the looming propellers.
Which had me wonder, while turbulence kept me poking my eyeballs and missing the pupils: wouldn’t the water beneath me be a tumble of turbidity? I’d better not have too high hopes for the underwater visibility.
I’d barely slapped on my fins and goggles when I spied the kids speeding away on floatation aids. Ice rinks, and now here; was I destined to keep finding venues where I got outmatched and outrunned by people a fifth of my age?
Enough self-pity and get in the water already.
I expected a head-surging chill upon plunging into the sea – yet it was temperate, almost warm as the air above it. And I could see through, clearly, the 20-metre distance I had to rapid-swim to reach my guide and his convoy.
And when I did catch up, I looked down below: along the cusp of an underwater ridge, where the seafloor subducted and plummeted to depths I could no longer trace, was a subaquatic forest sparkling in all hues of the spectrum: limbs of corals swivelling in the current, neon-glowing fishes gliding nonchalantly amongst the reef and even as close as my arm’s reach.
All of a sudden I was outnumbered, outbeautied; attention baited from all sides, my count lost its track of the sheer varieties of shapes, colours and patterns flaunting around me.
So dizzied was my sense of time, that I didn’t even realise our group had swerved and set a course to return to the outrigger.
And as we approached the boat, Clark grabbed our attention with gestures and pointed frantically – two fingers to his eyes, then one to the abyss underneath.
A dark round silhouette. I could just make out the two pairs of paddles flapping placidly.
Five seconds, it took me to remember the sign. I slapped my hands together, wiggling the thumbs; Clark reply with the okay/yes sign.
My gaze returned to the sea creature – it must have been 15 metres under us, but the unexpected lucidity made it possible to observe that far under. It was enormous; its shell, scarred with barnacles and moss, spoke of its century-old age. It continued with its journey, without ever acknowledging our presence or seemingly noticing it, until it disappeared into the darkness.
“That was a sea turtle, really old!” Clark exclaimed back on the boat, his usually serene tone crescendoed. “We’ve never spotted them on this island before. Did anyone see it?”
I nodded – words could form only once I’d caught my exhilarated breath.
Blown out of water
No agendas, no hurry. No reason to beat water with my oars, intensive-paced or gently, than to stay in synchrony with the rhythm of the waves. No course charted or followed, except not to stray far off from shore.
I could let myself drift, floating on a fluid glass film covering a shallow, living exhibition.
Then, from beneath, an explosion: it may have been my paddle striking, or an underwater predator launching a surprise move – either had startled the school of fish.
They pierced through the surface like a hundred silver needles, bursting from all side of my kayak; in a split second they froze in midair, fish out of water, until the barrage dove back in, sloshing as they went, as though they’d hit like a scatter bomb.
For a little while, after the herd had vanished, ripples from their puncture holes lingered – until they too dispersed upon the face of the sea.
Ropes, rocks, and a 60-metre drop below
I noticed that I talk a lot when I’m nervous. Like when I was a kid, on my first-ever horse riding excursion, when I spoke to the horse for the entire duration –
Seriously, is this the right time to have a self-reflection?
“Mario, is my foot in the right place?” I’d pressed the release mechanism too hastily, which jolted and had me falling back abruptly on my lean; my foot, losing its grip on the rock, slid down until another jagged surface caught the studs on my boot – at least I disguised it as my next step. I thought.
“Does this look okay to you?”
Instinctively, I peeked over my shoulder to inspect the new landing position of my limb…my glimpse aimed too far, all the way to the bottom of a 60-metre drop. Nerves crept back in.
“That’s a lot of people down there. Enjoying the view?”
Two ropes. Suspended from the top of the outcrop and through my harness: those kept me from free-falling – I had imagined that’d be a painful landing – and those Mario the instructor held tightly on the summit while, well, instructing.
“Lean back a bit more Dylan. Now move to your right. Good. Doing really well!” In one version of the two, it was my talking to myself.
Until I’d reached the overhang: my legs could no longer touch the rock, so they merely skidded off – my torso jerked forwards, as I lost the reclined stance, my heart felt the wallop of adrenaline punching through its valves –
I was left perching on my harness, dangling – with still a frightful-enough distance to terra firma.
My fist clenched. The winch turned and lowered me, bit by bit. Then, it ground to a halt.
“Oh no! I’m stuck!” I cried out. The horrified gasps from a small spectating crowd beneath; I could hear them. Putting pressure back onto the trigger, but a little more confidently, the rope whizzed through my harness straps and I fell as though I’d lost control – and decelerated just in time to land smoothly.
Talking too much and pulling practical jokes, it seemed.
A false finding of Nemo
In that rarest of occasions I’d like a photograph of myself taken, I didn’t come equipped with an underwater camera.
The German couple I befriended on the boat ride to the island were also snorkelling nearby in the house reef – she saw me approaching, nodded as she shoved me the waterproof point-and-shoot she was wielding. No thank you, I tried conveying with hand signage, but could you please take a photo of me?
Kicking my fins and swam a distance away, I respired in a few short bursts; and upon one deep inhale, I drove downwards and submerged my whole body.
Swivelling to my side, I faced the camera with some pose I thought marginally presentable – have I ever mentioned I’m pretty inept in posing for cameras? – and returned to the surface gasping for air, like I’d never breathed before.
She eagerly sought her subject’s approval; “it’s terrible,” I joked, then reassuring her it’s splendidly captured. She nodded as profusely as movements exaggerated underwater.
“Can I actually borrow your camera – oh, danke schön!”
I explained I’d stumbled upon a discovery I simply couldn’t resist capturing: an entire clan of clownfish nestling in a sea anemone. Take it, she kindly offered – and I set off to relocate the habitat I’d vaguely committed to memory.
Surrounded by these formations. Roughly facing the second cottage to the left. Wait, bit further out. That didn’t look familiar. Had I lost it –
It’s right underneath my belly. An adult clownfish emerged from the tentacles – I took an opportunistic snap.
I need to get up close.
Diving under it was. I regulated my breathing; upon sucking a chestful of air through the snorkel, I spurred myself head-down, vertically descending the two metres until I was at half-arm reach of the anemone. Stiffening the arms, I pushed the trigger – before internal buoyancy dragged me back onto the surface.
Let’s try a different approach. Keeping a distance from their shelter, I submerged again – this time, diagonally spearing towards the ocean’s bottom, looming from the side rather than above.
Some fifteen attempts later, I’d perhaps intruded the family enough; so I left them in peace and paddled to shore. Until I saw the images blown up on my laptop screen, I could only hope I’d faithfully portrayed my subjects’ grace and allure.
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