Panglao and Balicasag have some of the greatest snorkeling and diving opportunities out of any other places in the Visayas region of the Philippines. Balicasag in particular has amazing coral reefs, an abundance of green sea turtles, and a marine protected area. Continuing on from my last blog, today I went on and dolphin watching and snorkeling trip to Balicasag. We met the small banka at the shore around 6am this morning and loaded up. First we sailed out towards Balicasag and stopped at an area where dolphins are known to feed in the morning, a great opportunity for dolphin watching, however, it was quite chaotic. The pod of 10 dolphins were chased by about 50 bankas, all loaded up with tourists and their flashing cameras. Once the dolphins were spotted, the fleet of boats would rush to their side to get a good glimpse, only to scare the pod underwater. After several minutes of waiting, one boat would be seen rushing to a new location where the dolphins had surfaced. Once again the fleet of over 50 boats would cut each other off in a mad dash just to get a close enough view of the pod before they were scared off again. It was a horrifying experience.
Off to Balicasag, were we anchored into the sea grass and hopped off the boat to go pay our entrance fee of 250 pesos each. This cost is for the marine sanctuary, although there was no mention of this to any guest. During this relaxed period, I thought it would be a great time for an environmental briefing for the guests, although this did not occur. Soon after paying we were split up into smaller groups and assigned a guide to take us to the reef, just off shore, in a small 6-person boat. Once we reached the site, the guide would dive into the water to tie the boat up to a nearby coral so that the boat would not float away. I was able to take a few pictures of this practice to display in my personal project. Because the boat was only a few meters off of shore, the reef was just below our feet, and several guests and even some guides would stand on the reef, breaking off small pieces of coral.
Although life jackets are offered, they are not mandatory for guests, luckily the majority of guests we saw were wearing them. Over the coarse of two hours, I witnessed about 60 boats coming and going, all loaded up snorkelers. Given that each boat holds around ten people, I would argue that there were about 600 people snorkeling on the island during that two-hour period alone. This has huge implications, as the more uneducated tourists there are, the more likely damage will occur to the reef. Although this is a scary thought, there is some hope. With new regulations on the carrying capacity of the operation at Balicasag underway, as well as environmental education programs being developed for guides and guests, it seems that conservation will prevail for the people and the diverse ecosystem of the small island.