A Traveler Special Feature by Bev Isla
The sunlight dims behind our narrow red, white and blue paddle banca as the looming darkness ahead draws nearer. The smell of wet seaweed washes ashore from the ocean and the sounds of water dripping from amongst the cave ceiling surrounds us. The ambiance fills with curiosity as our group submerges into the unknown environment of the intertwining rocky tunnels within. At 8.2 kilometers, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in the Philippines is the longest navigable underground river in the world. Nominated as one of the World’s Seven Wonders, this river flows underneath a magnificent limestone mountain landscape that exits directly into the South China Sea. However, this cave system only allow boat tours access to the first 4 km before turning back due to low rock ceilings. According to the guide, it was in 1971 that Americans first explored this cave.
As our banca with outriggers crawls further in, the only light available comes from one large flashlight held by the person sitting in front – in this case, me. I hold the flashlight and my camera with my foot resting on the boat’s edge. Perhaps having control of the light and my camera for evidence (just in case) would keep my restlessness down. Tour boats resemble that of narrow canoes but the side edges are close to the water’s surface level. How easy it looks for the boats to submerge in water. Our guide navigates from the back of the boat as other tour boats glide past going the opposite direction. Its a good sign to see them coming back with smiles.
The low light conditions makes photography difficult. However, limited light sources also prevent large mosquitos (larger than I’ve ever before seen) from becoming too much of a nuisance. The brownish green waters’ depth lies between 10 to 29 feet deep, depending on the tides. In fact, the lower portions of the river is subject to tidal influences. During high tide periods, parts of the cave is actually underwater. The highest point in the entire cave is a 65 ft tall domed amphitheater above ground level which is never underwater. Our guide recommends against swimming in the area as it is too dark and potentially hazardous – a suggestion I will definitely not test.
Above us parts of the rock ceilings boast hundreds of bats, too dark and too far up to see in detail. A few fly near the top but threaten no harm. The bats also do not react to the sound of loud voices. I discover this fact when I excitedly point out “ Look! Those are bats up there!” Their glowing eyes can be seen if you watch carefully. It can be a mesmerizing yet anxious and eerie moment to see creatures not common in city-life. As far as the guides are concerned, there are no crocodiles or sharks dwelling in the cave area. If there are other life forms living here, it probably would not be visible to visitors.
As the boat glices smoothly in the water, our guide describes the major rock formations passing by: “Just ahead to the right is a whitish smooth rock that resembles a woman.” Unique rock formations and boulders such as stalactites, stalagmites and large chambers align the cave walls. Sharp rock pillars also hang from overhead. The cave wall where rock meets water also exhibit marble-like material while others display a smooth lumpy texture. The flashlight holder must be quick at following the guides’ instructions of where to point in order for the shapes to be seen. Luckily, I heard no complaints from the back of our boat about my flashlight operations.
Smaller tunnel pathways and black hallow recesses lead deeper into the cave where visitors would have to duck should they choose to continue. It is at this point where our tour guide slows the canoe to turn around due to low ceilings, sharp twists and turns. To further proceed to the inner depths of the niches and tunnels before flowing out into the sea may require more skilled scuba divers. Although curiosity of the mystical environment beyond our turning point irk the group, the point of sunlight upon return bring about some relief.
Visitors can be assured lifejackets and hard hats are provided. Professional tour guides are very knowledgeable of the cave area and know exactly what and where everything is without the need for flashlights. Using mosquito repellent is recommended. The general registration fee to enter the park is 30 PHP (approx. $0.65 US). Visitors will need to obtain entry permits from the Park Information and Booking Office or Visitors Center at the Park itself. Cave entrance fees are 200 PHP (approx $4.25 US dollars) for individuals ages 21-60, 100 PHP for those ages 17-21, 75 PHP (approx. $2.13 US) for 13-16 year olds, and 50 PHP for 6-12 year olds. For those that want commercial videos, 3000 PHP (approx $63.00 US) is the fee. Hours of operation begin at 8:30 am with 4:30 accomodating the last tour due to tide influences.
Photo credits: Bev Isla and iStockPhoto
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is one of the most unspoiled natural beauty of the Philippines. It boasts a significant habitat for biodiversity conservation as it contains some of the most important forests in Asia. Considered a National Geological Monument, the global significance of the park is also inscribed in the World Heritage list.
For more details, go to www.puerto-undergroundriver.com
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park Office
No. 11 National Highway, Junction 1
Brgy. San Miguel, Puerto Princesa City 5300, Palawan, Philippines
Tel: (048) 433-2409
Email: reservation [at] puerto-undergroundriver.com
Bahile is 81 KM (2 hours) from Puerto Princesa. Jeepneys or aircon shuttle vans can be taken. After registering at the park entrance, a 15 min pumpboat ride or 1 and a half hour hike then leads you to the underground river.