Doing research on the field isn’t easy, but one of the things that make up for it is being able to travel all over the Philippines. There’s something about being able to peek inside the nooks and crannies that most Filipinos don’t get to see that sometimes makes all the effort and exhaustion worth it. I got to tick a major milestone off my travel bucket list when we surveyed the islands of Tawi-tawi last October.
The houses of Panglima Sugala
The seagrass and mangrove team in Simunul
This wasn’t my first trip to the southernmost province of the Philippines (that happened last year) but it was my first time to go beyond the main municipality of Bongao and visit the outer municipalities: Simunul, Sibutu, Panglima Sugala, and Sapa-sapa.
See the map? That’s how close Tawi-tawi is to Sabah.
It was also my first time to do a research cruise. Since the islands are pretty far from the mainland, the only practical way to move four research teams around was to base out of a liveaboard ship, the Sea Glory. It was also my first time working with such a big team! The NACRE program is composed of five projects, and four out of the five were present in Tawi-tawi: the corals and seagrass and mangroves teams from DLSU and the fish and physical oceanography teams from UP MSI. All in all, there were about 50 people onboard, including the lantsa crew. It was a tight fit but we managed to make it work.
Our home for a week
The research teams that managed to fit in it
Off to do some research!
A research cruise was definitely something to remember. First, I had to share a small boat with 50 other people. I’m not the most sociable person so having to share my space (or the lack of “my” space) for days on end weird but workable. Most of us shared the top deck area but over the next few days, we realized that it was breezier outside. Some of my labmates brought their sleeping bags outside and slept under the stars.
Then there’s the issue of water. Small boat = small water tanks (around 400 gallons for everything: bathing, cooking, washing plates, washing equipment, etc.) but 50 people = lots of water. We’d initially hoped to stretch the 400 gallons for the whole trip but it just wasn’t possible. We emptied the tanks after only 3 days then refilled them when we went back to Bongao to pick up the oceanography team. We also relied on the generosity of the island barangays, who let us take a bath using water from their common wells.
It was also a bit strange to have Marines and the Maritime Police escorting us. I felt a bit awkward having them around because I thought that they were making us even more conspicuous but with such a small community, we were going to stand out no matter what. So yes, better to have the extra layer of security. And they were really nice too 🙂
This is PO1 Ali of the Philippine Maritime Police. He was our escort when we went diving around Bongao. Absentminded me had forgotten my booties at the inn *facepalm*. I was fully prepared to stick my bare feet and slippers into my open heel fins but he so generously offered to lend me the socks off his feet so that my feet wouldn’t get scratched up by the fins’ rubber straps. Call it a small gesture, but it really mattered to me.
We also got a closeup look at seaweed farming. The Kappaphycus seaweed is tied to rope lines using plastic straw, with Styrofoam or empty plastic bottles as floaters, and grown in very shallow water. The Philippines exported Php 4.7 billion worth of seaweed in 2009, with Mindanao accounting for 64% of the production, with Tawi-tawi as the main producer. Unfortunately, the seaweed farmers – majority of whom are small-scale – receive only a tiny portion of the profits. There’s no seaweed processing plant in Tawi-tawi, so the farmers have to sell their product to local buyers, who then send the seaweed to Zamboanga and Cebu.
Spending an extended amount of time in Tawi-tawi was definitely an eye-opening experience. All of the members of the local community that we met said that Tawi-tawi was safe and that it was a source of frustration that Jolo’s reputation affected Tawi-tawi as well.