Tag Archives: underground river

The beauty that is Ulugan Bay

"Ulugan Bay (north is on the right side)." retirednoway

Ulugan Bay (north is on the right side).


I started writing this post eight months ago in April and suddenly stopped. I was waiting for information about these three islands, called the three sisters (“Tres Marias”) that were located at the mouth of the bay. I shot an image of Tres Marias and wanted information to write something interesting in the image’s caption.

"Mouth of Ulugan Bay (upper-right). The three islands at the mouth are Tres Marias." retirednoway

Mouth of Ulugan Bay (upper-right). The three islands at the mouth are Tres Marias.

It doesn’t matter now since this post found new life. It’s very relevant to the one that preceded it–about understanding the trip to the Underground River.

"Tres Marias, at the mouth of Ulugan Bay" retirednoway

Tres Marias, at the mouth of Ulugan Bay

The image above was taken at dawn. It was taken at low tide in April from a hill (that belongs to Ulf and Perla Carlen).

"Ulf Carlen. Swedish homebuilder in Palawan" retirednoway

Ulf Carlen. Swedish homebuilder in Palawan

Ulf is a Swedish homebuilder. He and his Filipina wife settled in Palawan eight or nine years ago. They came from Sweden. They bought several hectares in barangay Buenavista (center of map). They’re developing it into a subdivision with large lots. How large? The lots are at least a thousand square meters (a quarter of an acre).

"Ulugan Bay and the surrounding barangays(north is at the top)." retirednoway

Ulugan Bay and the surrounding barangays(north is at the top).

Barangay Buenavista is at the map’s center. The Tres Marias are the three indistinct islands at the top left of the map.

Do you notice that red line marked “National Highway” go through Buenavista? That red line is the route between Puerto Princesa and the Underground River, as well as to the northern half of the province. The portion of the route that passes through Buenavista appears poised to appreciate in value sooner than the surrounding area.

Ulugan  Bay, 1974

In 1974, Ulugan Bay was an outstanding example of a small bay in the tropics–not just in the Philippines. It was lush. The estuary was populated with adult, not juvenile, mangroves. The forest that surrounded it abounded with valuable and now scarce hardwood trees like narra and ipil.

The bay opens into the West Philippine Sea (formerly known as the South China Sea 🙂.

The white area outside the bay indicates a tiny fraction of one of the most strategic bodies of water in the world. Simply put, the bay opens into one of the most important seas in the modern world.

"Ulugan Bay and the barangays around it (north is at the top)" retirednoway

Ulugan Bay and the barangays around it (north is at the top)

It’s a most important sea because of its location and natural resources. A third of the globe’s shipping traffic passes through it. Most of China’s raw materials pass through it. Within its area, the sea holds large oil and gas deposits.

Six nations have active claims over a portion of the sea but within the past five years, China has shouldered its way ahead of the pack and made its intention clear. China wants almost everything. The border it draws around the sea comes to 10 kilometers of the islands that form the Philippines!

This is the very definition of volatility. Six countries–with one being the 800-pound gorilla–actively jostling to own their immediate part of this strategic body of water.

Its volatility rivals the Middle East as a flashpoint that could lead to the next major world conflict. This one will pit China against the U.S.

Until the past few years, the United States regarded the South China Sea as being under its control. American forces were able to project American power with total domination. Not anymore. China’s military grew. I’ve read many articles about their navy and the doctrine the west thinks the Chinese will follow.

I could get into that but it happens to be Christmas Eve, the 24th, so I’m feeling a lot of love for humanity, so forget that.  😉

The South China Sea covers an area of 3.5 million square kilometers. “It’s importance largely results from [the fact that] one-third of the world’s shipping [passes] through its waters. [Furthermore,] the sea is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.” (Wikipedia)

"South China Sea showing competing assets and potential points of conflict (hwebb.freeservers.com)" retirednoway

South China Sea showing competing assets and potential points of conflict (hwebb.freeservers.com)

You may click on the image of the map above or look at the next image below.

Palawan is located on the right side, in the central portion of the map. Ulugan Bay (encircled) is barely visible on the west coast of the island. The bay faces the South China Sea.

"Ulugan Bay is encircled in red" retirednoway

Ulugan Bay is encircled in red

If a naval battle breaks out (and I’m afraid that it will happen in my lifetime), it’ll be in that direction–towards the mouth of the bay–facing north. You’ll have a front-row seat.

Here’s a better thought: now that the Underground River won inclusion into the exclusive list of 7 New Wonders of Nature, tourism will swell. Tourism is the primary driver of Palawan’s economy. It’s eclipsed both agriculture and fisheries. The route from Puerto Princesa to Sabang, your jump-off point, follows the outline of the bay. The land around the bay is poised to appreciate–increase in value–within a generation or two (within about 40 years, or around the year 2050.)

The original post

For a moment there, I was going to call it the secret that is Ulugan Bay. Its location along the most heavily-traveled route in the entire province and its own charm of being another beautiful Palawan bay make this area valuable in its own right. And before you know it, Ulugan Bay’s potential will be realized.

I visited and stayed in this bay for two entire months in 1974. My brother and I were guests of a childhood friend, Tony Villarin. Their family had a charcoal business in Bahile <ba-hi-le, all short vowel sounds>. We stayed in the neighboring town of Macarascas <ma-ca-ras-cas>.

Ulugan Bay’s value comes from three things:

  1. its natural features (beaches, spectacular views)
  2. its proximity to Puerto Princesa City
  3. and its proximity to the Underground River.

The Underground River

There’s a global contest going on to name the new 7 Wonders of Nature. Well, first, do you remember the ancient 7 Wonders?

The commonly known Seven Ancient Wonders of the World were all man-made monuments, selected by Philon of Byzantium in 200 B.C. Today, only the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt remain.

His selection of wonders was essentially a travel guide for fellow Athenians, and the stunning sites were all located around the Mediterranean basin, the then-known world.

Now, just as Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1896 with his modern version of the competition, New7Wonders founder Bernard Weber has revived the concept of the 7 Wonders of the World with … the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

The key difference is that, this time around, they were not chosen by one man, but rather by millions of people all over the world.

That quote came from their website. Now Bernard Weber’s using the web–the World Wide Web (also known as www)–to poll the world.

And the Underground River’s a finalist!

Finalists "7 New Wonders of Nature" "Underground River" Palawan Philippines

Finalists of the 7 New Wonders of Nature.

Selection is down to the final 28. And the winners–seven of them–will be announced in November 2011.

Care to vote? Here’s the procedure.

In those days…

In 1974, we took a long pumpboat ride through Ulugan Bay, then rounded Punto Diablo (Devil’s Point), then sped past kilometer-long uninhabited beaches, before anchoring in the eerie calm of a beach that had no life. I don’t mean that literally. Rather, I mean that there were no corals, no fish, no seaweeds, no nothing in that beach. Several meters past the beach was the entrance to the Underground River.

"Ulugan Bay" Route "Underground River" "Puerto Princesa"

The route we took in 1974.

I don’t have any photos to share. But I remember the sights vividly. Our camp was at a great location. It was located at the mouth of this river, at the point where it empties into Ulugan Bay.

Rivers are how the land disposes of the rain that falls on it. At a certain point, the fresh water running downhill collides with the salt water of the bay. The water in that collision area will be a violent mixture of fresh and salt water and the animals and plants that live in them. This turbulence creates a lot of feeding opportunities for predators. This turbulence creates a feeding zone and reminds me that in the ways of nature, this is a restaurant. The waters are said to be estuarine.

The root word, estuary, defines an entire ecosystem. The estuary’s inhabitants evolved into very effective predators within that ecosystem. These predators are fearsome beasts even if outside their ecosystem. The crocodile and alligator come to mind.

So our camp was located at a feeding zone. The river that emptied into the bay was called Bahile (also Baheli). There were a few households that lived upstream but none at the mouth where we were camped. Apart from them, there were no other inhabitants. The place was desolate.

The river was less than 10 meters wide, I’m pretty sure. Its waters were dark and the water was muddy. At noon, your open palm held underwater would become vague and indistinct a mere 30 centimeters (12 inches) below the surface. That’s how opaque the waters were.

We played at the mouth of the river. There were two 16-year olds (Tony and me), a 14-year old (my brother Dan), and so on. We were eight kids (boys and girls) ranging in age from 16 to four years old.

There were mudskippers feeding among the roots of the mangroves. We were camped in the midst of a mangrove forest. I was surrounded by mangroves.

"Mudskipper from aryahya.posterous.com" retirednoway

Mudskipper from aryahya.posterous.com

I was standing on one of the mangrove’s elongated roots when, to my absolute surprise, someone pulled a paddlefish, a prehistoric-looking fish, out of the waters next to me.

The present

Merry Christmas everyone!