Reading, Writing, Walking
Monday, March 13, 2006
 
What Makes a Great Fish Story
In the early 1900’s, Conchita Hidalgo Sandoval spent her honeymoon in Palawan. During that time, trips to this part of the Philippines weren’t all that exotic and exciting. She recalls that “relieving” herself involved walking to an outhouse along a “pantalan”, passed the shoreline, and out into Coron Bay. The very sound of her steps would excite the fish for what was to follow, for each “dump” resulted in much commotion down below!

This, I consider, has the makings of a good fish story. It has humor, and it has wit. I am especially amused since it wasn’t like my grandmother to say such a story at all. See, she was an extremely proper lady, polite and dignified in every way. This leads me to believe that either the story was said in great jest, or “relieving oneself in Coron Bay” ranks as one of the most unforgettable, or better said “forgettable” experiences of her life.

It seems that most of the people I meet in Coron have a great story to tell; one of adventure, of fear, and of face-to-face encounters with particularly nasty creatures of the sea such as manta rays and sharks. My relative George Paterno claims that there were many crocodiles around his property in Tulawa three to four decades ago, and that his family had to hire Muslim crocodile hunters to reduce their numbers.

And then there are the “kadudadudang kwento” of a large catch that can leave you wondering. Robie Sandoval told me about the largest lapu-lapu ever caught in the Calamianes was supposedly caught off Calauit. It was so large that they needed a 6x6 truck to haul it away, and even then the “buntot” or tail was still sticking out!

For me, a great story cannot be based on legend or “sabi-sabi”. It has to be real. Ali, the town photographer has a captivating picture of two Dugongs, a mother and a calf. He is proud to say that he took this photograph within Coron Bay, not far from the port. No “myths” here because a picture says a thousand words. Some consider Palawan to be the last wild frontier and so I seek engagement with the animals it has to offer. My dream is to someday encounter what I call “the great three”: the “dugong” (sea cow), the “pawikan” (sea turtle), and the “buaya” (sea-faring crocodile), all of which are on the endangered species list of the Philippines yet still thriving in Palawan.

With the few trips I have taken to Palawan, I have collected my share of fish stories. Some have the elements that I have previously mentioned. And some, well they stand out because they are about fishermen. I admire those who live and die by the graces of the sea; their realities at times are stories in themselves. What ever they may be, they are all gems in my treasure chest of personal experiences. These are my stories.

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In 1995, I bore witness to a simple yet amazing event. George Paterno took us to the island of Culion, 16 kilometers from the port of Coron. We spent the day touring the island, glancing at the old leper colony hospital, taking in the wonderful views from the Fortress (which is actually an Old Franciscan church) atop the hill.

On our way back to the boat, I saw two little boys fishing along the “pantalan”. All they had were nylon strings wrapped around bottles. Busy filling an old “broas” container, the boys seemed to be having a lot of fun. Not that it was a game because it wasn’t; their catch was their family’s dinner. They would drop their line, each with 2 to 3 hooks tied at the line’s end, wait no more than ten seconds, and then quickly pull the line up. Luckily the catch was good, very good! Their success rate was 1 in every 3 tries. It wasn’t like they were catching 2 lb. lapu-lapu. The fish were small, about 6 inches long and an inch in diameter, but there was as much fish as they would care to catch.

After further inspection, I realized that they didn’t have any bait! Wow, how can this be true? I stood beside the boys and asked them. “Paano kayo nakakahuli na walang pain?” They replied “sa dami ng isda, meron at meron kaming nahuhuli!” I was flabbergasted! “Wala na silang problema sa pagkain” I uttered! And with that comment I succeeded in showing off even more of my city ignorance. It turns out that the problem has never been the fish, but rather the rice and other crops. In Culion, prices are expensive since some staples are imported from Mindoro or Batangas. Yes, there is abundance and bounty from the sea, but that isn’t everything.

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Coron Island is clearly the diamond amongst the many attractions of Northern Palawan. It is an impressive silhouette as viewed from the port, a large rock with 7 hidden lakes, two of which I have seen. This massive island with its limestone cliffs and turquoise green waterways is pristine, and undeveloped. Sadly, its beaches lay in a battered state. Even the indigenous tribes the Tagbanuas were unable to protect its beaches from dynamite and cyanide fishing. So, when my wife Joyce and I visited in February 1998, its snorkeling sites were barren, like ghost towns under the sea, full of chattered coral, whitened as if covered by sand, with little life. Disappointed, we looked towards the SeaDive so that we may accompany divers out to sea and bring us to better snorkeling sites.

Our contingent had no less than 3 chefs, my cousin Rene, his friend Holger, and Joyce. And since their worst nightmare was to go hungry while at sea, they accompanied the boatman early at 6am as he visited the market. They offered to beef up the boat’s planned meal for lunch. And so it turned out to be the best meal, maybe ever.

As we got to the second dive site, the dive group stayed underwater for less than an hour while some of us non-divers enjoyed a swim. This allowed Romeo (the boat’s Mr. Do-it-all) to cook the live shrimps, the “sitaw”, and the “gata” from the market. He then proceeded to cook his version of chili crab. Together with some adobo from our lodge, rice, and MBKS (which stands for mangga, bagoong, kamatis and sibuyas), we were ready for liftoff! Back onto the large bangka, the divers were satisfied with the wreck they had just explored, and proceeded to gorge themselves in this great feast. It is possible that the meal took longer than the dive itself as we took our time relishing every “sipit”. All the crab shells and other organics were thrown back into the sea. The fish had never been happier.

My American friends would always laugh at my e-mails when I tell them about these snorkeling episodes. They say it is a big irony that I profess my love and respect for marine life just to turn around and eat them for dinner!

The third stop for the day was the East Tanggat wreck. This is a special site because the sunken Japanese gunboat lies with its tip only 4 to 5m deep. And so, I snorkeled and joined the divers as far as my breath could hold. After having seen a school of napoleon wrasse, and a large cuttlefish at the wreck, I then proceeded to snorkel towards the shores of Tanggat Island; that was until I saw a long silvery body, with shinny jaws to boot. It took a while for me to realize, stupid me, that I was headed towards a barracuda. I distinctly remember its eyes, which I could only describe as cold-blooded! They say the ones that are alone are the deadliest, perhaps protecting offspring nearby. And so I changed direction and swam as far away as possible. I proceeded towards the bangka, got onto the boat, and looked for Joyce. I screamed “barracuda in the water!” She then turned around, asked “where” and proceeded to jump in the water to look for it! Go figure.

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It was 3:30 in the morning and it was pitch dark. I accompanied Albert and his companion as they set out to sea.

We went through muddy sand and mildly cold waters to get to his boat. Once in the bangka, I noticed that the clouds were absent. I could see the stars clearly and wished I were an astronomer, or even just an amateur hobbyist, so I could appreciate the cornucopia of stars. My eyes soon adjusted and the vista became surreal. Collectively, it was a blanket of shimmering lights. The thin mist of light turned out to be three dimensional, of enormous depth, moving and swaying as the bangka started to gain speed. I felt such an indescribable peace that I wanted to write a book right there and then!

Forty-five minutes into the grave silence, they stopped the bangka. We had reached our destination. They helped each other cast the net, starting with a rock on one end and a make shift piece of styrofoam on the other. Slowly the kilometer long net was laid.

I tried asking them some questions, but I noticed they preferred silence. Not because it was too early, but that they had done this so many times before that the excitement was no longer there. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to pull up the net and see our salty harvest. They planned to leave the net for approximately an hour, reeling it in just as the sun was rising. While waiting I offered them some doughnuts and they gladly accepted.

The hour had passed and they cued me to position. I stood uncomfortably hanging from the right “katig”. My left hand was precariously holding to a bamboo pole. Albert would rhythmically pull the net, a full arms length at a time, while his companion would pluck the fish from the net and into a basket. With the sun rising, I had just enough light to capture the struggle in their forearms, the intense concentration on their faces, all of the movement. This reality was unmatched; and photographing it, a privilege!

They both continued laboring to lift the heavy net. All of a sudden they stopped. There was a sound. It was the sound of a large fish hitting the side of the boat. Perhaps it was a barracuda or a shark, the one that got away. But even though,the basket still had an assortment of fish “dalagang bukid”, parrotfish, puffer fish, etc.; all were of value, and none tossed back into the ocean. I counted seven one-and-a-half foot long baby sharks, pure white in color, probably the right size needed for the continued success of the shark population.

They say all in all it was an average night, no more than 40 kilos, but nothing like they were used to a decade ago. I had the chance to ask them why they continue this way of life; they say it is all they know. They might not like it, but till such time as they can buy their own bangka, “konteng tiis, baka naman swertehin”. Both owners of the boat and the net greeted us anxiously at the shore. This catch would have to be divided up by all of them.

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I was walking through a densely populated community on stilts, atop Coron bay. Luck had it that towards its end was a buying station for fish, owned and managed by a woman named Mrs. Carpio. The stereotype was true; she was large, loud and very bossy, ordering her “tigs” to weigh more than ten cylindrical bins on a large, industrial weighing scale. These contained tulingan, maya-maya, and other unidentified fish.

I could tell that she wanted me to take her picture and so I did. She told me that it was a good time to take photos as the boats were coming back from the “lawa” or ocean. There was a bangka twenty feet from the buying station, slowly pushed forward by a man at the rear using a long bamboo stick. The man standing in front was smiling from ear to ear. It turns out he got lucky, his overnight venture out into the deep sea has yielded two large “pagi” or rays. Not just any stingrays, but Manta rays. And even though it is illegal to catch such fish, they weren’t about to let their prized possession go.

This was a great photo opportunity and so I nodded and showed him my camera. He agreed to carry it and painstakingly tried to. It took him more than 2 failed attempts. On the third, he lifted the manta ray with outstretched arms all of two seconds. I clicked. And as I was checking my camera (I was knee deep in the water at the time), I suddenly saw red streaks go passed me. It was the manta ray’s blood mixing with the seawater. He had cut up one of the manta rays right there and then. It was fast. It was brutal! At this instant, it hit me that my perspective was different from that of the fisherman, or of Mrs. Carpio for that matter. To me, the “pagi” was a thing of beauty reflecting everything majestic about marine life. Something that should be nurtured, taken cared of, saved. And for them, the “pagi” was the catch fishermen dream of, the “swerte” that drives them forward passed the rigors and drudgery of daily life.


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