“Snatch up the line the moment you feel a tug.” That was what my local fishing guide instructed me as he shelled open a dead shrimp and tore pieces off the peeled flesh to bait my hooks. It didn’t even take a minute when I felt something nibbling at the end of my line, and I yanked it up only to find that my baits were gone. The damn fish were just much more clever than I was as, several times, my guide re-baited my hooks, and I cast my line only to still reel up nothing. We were fishing just some distance away from Ticao Island Resort, which arranged for me the morning activity, a quaint diversion to experience local life on one of the three major islands comprising Masbate province.
My guide described to me how, on most days, he and fellow islanders would be out fishing by hand line until late morning to haul in enough catch to earn their family’s daily sustenance. Other fishers with bigger nets, on the other hand, would set out during the much darker hours to find bounty in farther shoals. There was a time, my guide mentioned, when illegal fishing techniques – dynamite, fine net, and compressor – ran rife amongst their waters, with the coral cover ending up spoilt and the number of fish diminished. But there were interventions that came, and the communities earnestly took effort to safeguard their resources. Although the much larger game have yet to return to the familiar fishing grounds, the reefs since have considerably nurtured itself back to health.
It wasn’t long before I finally exhausted all the baits we had, and my guide then paddled our tiny outrigger canoe back to shore.
Along a Marine Corridor
Ticao Pass, the strip of blue running between Ticao Island and the Bicol peninsula in southern Luzon, is considered to be among the Philippines’ most diverse marine ecosystems, an ecological corridor along which spectacular underwater wildlife gather, drawn by nutrient-rich waters fed from the Pacific into the pass by the San Bernardino Strait. Over the recent years, the name Ticao has gained notable circulation within the diving community particularly for one of its dive sites: the Manta Bowl, a depressed shoal that levels off to some 10 to 15 meters in depth in the middle of Ticao Pass. The reason for the name is quite self-explanatory.
I tagged along for some diving with a party of Singaporeans who were staying in the same resort as I was, but their dive destination for the day was San Miguel, an islet on the northern tip of the Ticao mainland and almost an hour’s boat ride away from the resort. It would have been splendid had I the opportunity to witness the manta rays, but my itinerary during my brief stay on Ticao afforded me only so much time. Nonetheless, my dives at San Miguel were nothing short of magnificent. Topside, the islet itself, gleaming with white sand and rising high above the water with jagged limestone rock faces, was already a lavish sight to observe. Down beneath, the varied underwater topography of the area was an exciting showground of shimmering sandy bottoms dropping off into steep coral walls. The reefs were lush and exuberant with color, and the water was dazzlingly clear. Our dive guides mentioned how, on some of their outings, they were blessed with encountering some astonishing marine fauna such as whale sharks, thresher sharks, hammerheads, and dolphins. Several of the sites that we dived in bear the names of our guides, and I surmised that there is perhaps still much more of the underwater terrain around Ticao Island left to be explored.
The Bucolic Life
As on many of the rural islands I have visited in the Philippines, life on Ticao, a rather large island comprising four municipalities strewn with crop fields, coconut plantations, and cattle ranches, goes on at its own languid pace. A motorbike tour took me around the municipalities of San Jacinto and Monreal, the ride itself being an enthralling excursion along dirt paths and national roads, past laidback countryside and the welcoming smiles and sometimes curious gazes of the island residents. We stopped over a place called Matang Tubig, a spring well that serves potable water as well as provides a recreational ground for nearby communities. There were some locals swimming in the catchment pool while, along a nearby stream, a group of women bantering with each other as I came in close to snap some pictures, did their laundry. From there, we proceeded to some hidden nondescript waterfall where children took a plunge from the fall’s high point, and then afterwards, to the town proper of San Jacinto, a somnolent municipal center, with only its clusters of small town stores giving it the stirrings of life.
From my bike tour, I went on horseback to Natasan beach, a hidden strand of white shoreline tucked along the eastern margin of the island. It has been a rather long time since I last rode a fast horse, and the clear stretch of sand being grazed by the washing waves was an undeniable call to coax my steed to gallop in full abandon.
A Genteel People
More than the quaintness of its landscape or the riches of its earth and sea, it is perhaps the temperament of its people that defines the character of Ticao. From the staff members at the Ticao Island Resort to every anonymous island local with whom I have crossed path however quietly and fleetingly, I have not once met a distrustful soul during my entire sojourn. Though some may be reserved, taciturn, or just bashful, everyone generously gave me a piece of themselves with their accepting smiles and gracious warmth.
I passed by a fishing village where I met some residents who have opened their homes to foreign visitors as part of a homestay program initiated by the Ticao Island Resort. Their dwellings, bereft of any elaborate accoutrements, were no larger than the beachfront cabana in which I was billeted, yet the entire family openheartedly offers their sole sleeping quarter to their guests. The fare that the host families serve to their foreign boarders is the same one they partake of among themselves, though some of them admitted that they previously went out of their way to slaughter some prized livestock or expend outside budget for canned goods, embarrassed at providing their guest anything as meager as rice and dried fish. It was already late afternoon, and outside, under the light of a dying day, folks chatted with convivial ardor while children at play squealed and scurried about.
It was a Saturday, and it was by chance that a weekly village disco was being held that evening. I decided to check out the event, and, upon my invitation, was accompanied by the group of Singaporean divers whom I had met earlier. In local island culture where conservative values and traditions still underlie societal structures and norms, such evening dances, or “barayle” as it was referred to in the native dialect, served as an open venue for the island lads and lasses to carouse and socialize. The affair was held at an open basketball court that was fenced off to restrict admission to only paying entrants. It must have been quite a novelty for the locals to have some foreign guests attend the ball, as children excitedly formed a crowd in front of the flashing cameras. For the group I was with, on the other hand, it must have been a rather unique experience to revel in some infrequent nightlife on a quiet island, a memorable closing highlight to an endearing retreat.