There are 24 species of whales and dolphins that can be found in Philippine waters at various times of the year. There are frequent sightings of the singing gentle giants, humpback whales, off the coast of the Batanes Islands. June of this year saw a pod of orcas, or killer whales, near Apo Island. And there are dolphins—common bottlenosed dolphins (think Flipper!), spinner dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, and more—throughout the archipelago. In fact, dolphin and whale watching is a spectacular ecotourism adventure that's not to be missed when traversing our country's various islands, and Tañon Strait, the body of water that lies between Cebu and Negros Oriental, is one of the best places to do it.
Learn more about this fantastic area and ecotourism adventure by either clicking on the links below or just reading on!
- Tañon Strait: Cetacean Playground
- Practicalities: Getting There, Where to Stay, and Expenses
- On-Boat Rules
- Tips for the Intrepid Dolphin Watcher
You can also simply scroll all the way down and go directly to the slide show of some of the images from a recent dolphin-watching trip!
(All photos by Liana Smith-Bautista unless otherwise indicated)
TAÑON STRAIT: CETACEAN PLAYGROUND
Cetaceans are the order of aquatic mammals to which whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong. Tañon Strait boasts sightings of 12 of the 24 species found in the Philippines—last month's orca sightings bring that number to a solid dozen. It serves as a marine wildlife reserve and breeding, feeding, and resting ground for these aquatic mammals. It is on the migration routes of many marine animals, including the whale shark or butanding.
The strait is between 5 and 27 kilometers wide at various points, with the narrowest point being in the south, where the tip of mainland Cebu is about 5 kilometers away from Negros Oriental.
Although dolphin and whale watching outfits can be found in various areas up and down the strait, the most well-known is Bais, which is about an hour or two from the city of Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. This trip, however, used the Cebuano town of Malabuyoc as a jumping off point. My family and I have gone dolphin and whale watching on this stretch of water, which links the Visayan and Bohol Seas, several times—frequently when we have guests from abroad (whether foreigners or balikbayans) or from Manila. However, this was our first time to start off from our home province of Cebu, and we were very excited.
(Photo sources: TheCoffee via Wikimedia: Bais, Malabuyoc)
PRACTICALITIES: GETTING THERE, WHERE TO STAY, AND EXPENSES
It is easy enough to get a domestic flight out to Dumaguete from Manila, and it's even easier to get one out to Cebu. Where you go is entirely up to you, as each town gives you a variety of other activities you can try out—Cebu being a very historic town and a great place for a food trip, and Dumaguete being a peaceful town very close to some extraordinary ecotourism hotspots (including Apo Island).
To get from the main cities to the dolphin and whale watch jump-off points, you can rent a van and driver (rates will vary between around P3,500 and P6,000 for the day, depending on the company you rent this from). Some resorts out of Bais and southern Cebu will offer pickups from the piers or airports in Dumaguete and Metro Cebu for a lower rate. You can also backpack and take the provincial buses or vehicles for hire (V-hires, or vans that operate much like buses and can be found in specific terminals in the cities).
When it comes to board and lodging, there are a number of resorts in both Bais and all along the western coastline of southern Cebu. Bais is close enough to Dumaguete that you can make a day trip of it and simply get a room at one of the Dumaguete City hotels if you prefer.
Malabuyoc, however, is a good four hours' drive from Metro Cebu, so it's best to get a room at a resort in Malabuyoc itself (the dolphin watch boat we hired was attached to a resort, the Kawayan Marine Malabuyoc Reef Hostel) or in other nearby towns. We stayed in the resort town of Moalboal, which is known for its diving and snorkeling as well as its white-sand beaches and which is around 45 to 60 minutes' drive from Malabuyoc. Other destinations you may want to look into are Malabuyoc itself and Badian, which features the luxurious Badian Island and its resort and golf course and which is home to the Kawasan Falls, which is about a day's worth of adventure in itself if you're into hiking and communing with nature. Rooms are likely to go for anywhere between P1,500 and P6,000 per night, so choose your resort wisely!
Malabuyoc and Bais aren't the only places to go dolphin watching from, though, so when booking a room, find out if your resort has in-house dolphin and whale watching services!
Then of course, there's the dolphin and whale watching trip itself. Rates will vary, but the boat we rented cost P5,500 for the day (inclusive of gas and crew) and could seat up to 20 people, so it's a good idea to take this trip with your barkada. You should also invest in a packed meal or two—you'll be setting out very early, and you may want to make sure the trip is sulit and stay out until the afternoon, so packed breakfasts, snacks, and lunches as well as an ample supply of water are a must!
There are a few basic rules that you should follow when you go dolphin and whale watching. Click on a rule to learn more about it, or simply read on.
Rule No. 1: Poor swimmers should wear life vests.
While Hollywood has dramatized the idea of lifesaving dolphins—and there have actually been cases in which dolphins have saved the lives of people lost at sea—the chances of that happening should you fall overboard are actually very, very slim, more so if you are not a great swimmer. Therefore, it's a good idea for you to wear a life vest, which will be provided with the boat.
Rule No. 2: No swimming with the dolphins.
Here's yet another Hollywood scenario debunked: you can't just jump in and swim with these friendly marine mammals. It's best to keep in mind that even though many dolphins enjoy putting on a show, these are still wild animals and should be treated accordingly. It's a good thing to remember than dolphins acting together can kill sharks—even great whites—by driving their beaked mouths into the shark's body with rib-crushing force. How do you think you would fare against 250 lbs. of fast-moving dolphin crashing into you at a speed of up to 40 kilometers per hour? This is not to say that dolphins are violent creatures normally, but you will be the uninvited stranger in their midst, and their instincts will be to protect against any perceived threats, especially if they have their young with them.
Moreover, in order to keep these dolphins as they are, human contact is minimized. Besides, dolphins travel very quickly, so you'd probably have a hard time keeping up. And you don't want to scare them away by leaping on them from the boat.
Rule No. 3: No feeding the dolphins.
As mentioned, these are wild dolphins, so if you have visions of tossing a fish out onto the water and having a dolphin jump up to catch it, you're out of luck. For one thing, dolphins in the wild eat live fish, which are not convenient to bring on your trip. More importantly, the last thing anyone wants is to have these wild animals becoming dependent on humans for food.
Not convinced? Think of it this way. If dolphins start associating boats (and the people in them) with food, they might start approaching the boats willy-nilly. They could end up getting injured accidentally should they draw too near the boats. Worse, if they approach fishing boats in the hope of getting fed, they may run into a nasty fisherman who sees them as competition for his livelihood—there have been incidents in which fishermen have hit or speared dolphins to deter them from going for the fish in their nets. So it's best if we stick to the status quo: we look for them, not the other way around.
TIPS FOR THE INTREPID DOLPHIN WATCHER
Here are some tips for making the most of your dolphin watching trip. You can click on a tip to learn more about it or simply scroll down and keep reading!
- Start early.
- Wear your bathing suit.
- Bring sun protection.
- Bring food and water.
- Take pictures!
- Show your appreciation: applaud!
- Go as a group.
We arrived at the Kawayan Marine Malabuyoc Reef Hostel, where our boat was anchored, at 6:00 AM. That meant leaving our resort at Moalboal at 5:00 AM. You have a good chance of seeing more dolphins if you're out with the sun, during their feeding time. Not an early riser? Stay at the resort you're going to start out from, so that if you don't wake up to your alarm, you can at least roll out of bed and into your swimsuit when your friends start pounding on your door.
Wear your bathing suit.
While you won't be able to swim with the dolphins, it's likely you'll stop for lunch (and a cooling swim) at the Manjuyod White Sand Bar off Bais Bay. Your boat may or may not have a small changing room attached on board (and by small, we do mean small), so it's best to don your swimsuit under a pair of sensible shorts and a top before even getting on the boat and to bring your towel.
Bring sun protection.
When you're on the water, you won't just be getting UV rays from above, but also from below—the water will reflect the sunshine onto you, making it doubly easy to get burned. So make sure you get a good dose of SPF and bring sunscreen—you'll need to reapply at least a couple of times on the trip. Also bring a head covering—a hat is great, but a bandanna will also help in a pinch. Sunglasses are another essential; unless it's overcast (and perhaps even then), you'll end up squinting the whole trip without them.
Bring food and water.
Dolphin and whale watching is hungry and thirsty work, so make sure you keep well hydrated and bring both snacks and solid meals on board with you since you'll likely spend most of the daylight hours out on the water. Bring as much as a liter or two of water per person—our mistake was not bringing enough, and we ended up having to turn back around lunch time.
The dolphins move fast, and the whales you may only see from a distance (they're frequently much shyer than their cetacean cousins), but bring your camera and use it! You're still going to get some great shots since dolphins will frequently come right up to the boat to play in the bow wave (the wave caused by the front part of your pump boat). And since Tañon Strait is naturally very calm, the areas in which there aren't any strong currents will be as still and clear as glass on a good day, making for some great shots that look like they were taken underwater.
Show your appreciation: applaud!
Fred Ponce, our dolphin spotter and the manager of the Kawayan Marine Malabuyoc Reef Hostel, told us that the scientists he consulted said it didn't really matter whether or not people on the boats applauded the dolphins when they came—at least not to the dolphins. But he disagrees. "They seem to jump more when you clap your hands," he told us. "And anyway it's more fun." True, that. And besides, where's the harm?
Go as a group.
As I've already mentioned, the boat we were on held up to 20 people. The same is true for the boats in Bais, so it's a good idea to take this trip with your family or barkada. (Besides, that way, there are more people to clap for the dolphins!) This not only keeps you from being the only person clunking around on a huge boat, but it also drives the cost down. We went in a group of 10, so it only cost us P550 per person!
Dolphin watching is an amazing experience—there's nothing like seeing those sleek, streamlined bodies break the waves or dive straight down into the ocean depths. Plus, if you're lucky, you'll find some particularly flamboyant dolphins who won't mind putting on a show for you: some will jump completely out of the water, or get up on their tails and do a couple of spins!