After spending an incredible week in El Nido, I decided to revisit Taytay before continuing further south to Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan, Philippines. I’ve been to this quiet coastal town a couple of times before, as I never tire of visiting the beautiful 18th-century fortification of Fort Santa Isabel.
Aside from the heritage sites, I wanted to visit Malampaya Sound for the first time to see a rare marine resident. Declared a protected area in 2000, the Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape is home to several species of endangered and endemic animals. One of its elusive residents is the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), which was first discovered here in 1986, inhabiting the Inner Sound. The indigenous Tagbanua people call them lampasut.
This was the first locality in the Philippines where this species was found. Since then, two more subpopulations were discovered in Quezon, southern Palawan and Guimaras Strait, between Panay and Negros islands in the Visayas.
With around 6,000 left in the wild, the Irrawaddy dolphin — or “waddy” as they are sometimes nicknamed — is considered one of the world’s most endangered dolphin species. Most of them thrive off the coast of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, but the few hundred found across Southeast Asia face extinction. Outside of South Asia, small groups are also found across Indochina, Borneo and the Philippines, where they also thrive in freshwater habitats far inland in large river systems like Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River from which the species takes its name.
On a backpacking trip in 2013, I saw waddies for the first time at the Laos-Cambodia boundary of the Mekong River, where 12 of them remained. Sadly, they were declared “functionally extinct” in the area three years later, after a scientific survey yielded only three dolphins. I’ve also written about the conservation work behind the subpopulations found in Bago-Pulupandan, Negros Occidental (10 to 13 left) and the Mahakam River (less than 80 left) in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
At the time of their discovery nearly four decades ago, the Malampaya subpopulation numbered 77. Threatened by fishing net entanglement, pollution and sedimentation, their numbers have dwindled to less than half. The most recent estimate pegs their population at only 35 individuals.
I couldn’t find updated information on how to arrange dolphin watching tours in Malampaya. So I decided to just go to the pier of Barangay Pancol, the jumping off point for tours, according to Google Maps. After spending a night at a budget inn at Taytay town, I was able to find someone willing to rent me their motorcycle. Apparently, there are no motorcycle rental shops in Taytay. Most tourists rent their bikes from Puerto Princesa or El Nido. Nontheless, I was still able to borrow a beat-up Honda XRM semi-automatic for only ₱300.
The best times of the day for dolphin watching is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. So I left my accommodation at 6 am, driving 16 km northwest of the town proper. It took me around 30 minutes to get to the village, with a stopover by the roadside, overlooking the inlet. It was my first glimpse of Malampaya Sound, surrounded by lush mountains on all sides.
At Pancol Port, I asked around for someone who could take me out on a boat to find the dolphins. Ronnie Alvarado, a local fisherman, offered to help me. As I waited for him to bring out his bangka (double-outrigger boat) to the pier, I had a quick breakfast at a nearby carinderia (eatery). By 7 am, Ronnie returned with his boat. I boarded the bangka, and we puttered away from the T-shaped pier, passing by other small boats traveling across the inlet or floating stationary to haul in their gill nets.
As with all other wildlife watching trips, I kept my expectations grounded on the fact that we were looking for wild, free-roaming animals and that encounters are not guaranteed. Whether or not we would find lampasut, I allowed the scenery to distract me. The sound was so calm and beautiful. Lording over the peninsula across the inlet was Mount Capoas, a 998-meter extinct volcano.
Following the advice of other fishermen, Ronnie brought us southwards off the coast of Sitio Maypa, where dolphins have been sighted within the previous days. According to my boatman, local fishermen would take note of the dolphins’ whereabouts, as they are a reliable indicator of where abundant fish and shrimp are located within the Inner Sound.
We were traveling for only 15 minutes from the port when suddenly something dark surfaced in front of the boat. Ronnie was as excited as I was. It was an Irrawaddy dolphin! Although he has seen them on fishing trips before, it was his first time to bring a tourist out on the sound to find them. According to Ronnie, some tourists would spend hours looking for the dolphins, and never encounter them. Luck was definitely on our side that morning.
Learning from past experiences watching Irrawaddy dolphins, I instructed the boatman the shut off the engine right away to avoid scaring away the animals. Waddies are known to be timid, and aren’t as congenial towards human spectators like other dolphin species. So don’t expect any theatrics when observing them in the wild. They rarely leap out of the water and never bow-ride alongside boats.
They’re tricky to spot. One can typically only see their gray-colored backs breaking the surface, topped by a stubby dorsal fin, whose shape is often used to distinguish individuals. If they’re diving deep after taking a breath of air, they usually expose their flukes – the ends of their tails – after rolling above the water. Unlike typical dolphins, lampasut have rounded heads without snouts.
We counted around six dolphins in the pod, circling our boat. A cow and her calf repeatedly appeared. They were probably chasing prey. We successfully kept our presence low-key, as the pod stayed in the area where we spotted for around 45 minutes before swimming farther south, past Magaling Island. The boatman suggested we follow them, but I told him all was good. I was able to take enough photos of the dolphins, and didn’t want to stress out the animals by chasing them. I was really happy and grateful that we were graced by their presence so quickly. After the pod left at around 8 am, we returned to the village, extremely satisfied by the morning’s fortuitous events.
Dolphin Watching Dos & Don’ts
Sustainable dolphin watching tours respect the animals and their habitat. Both tourists and boatmen should follow these guidelines when watching Irrawaddy and other dolphins in the wild.
– Stay at least 50 meters away from dolphins (unless they willingly approach the boat)
– Move away slowly if they show signs of disturbance
– Refrain from swimming with, touching or feeding the dolphins
– Never throw trash in the sea. Dispose of it properly upon returning to land.
– Encourage others to follow these practices
How to Get There
Barangay Pancol, Taytay – the jumping off point for Irrawaddy dolphin watching at Malampaya Sound – lies along the national highway between Puerto Princesa and El Nido. Take a bus or van, and alight at the barangay junction, from where it’s a short walk to the pier.
Ask around for a fisherman who can take you around the inlet for dolphin watching. The fair price for a boat rental would ₱1,000 to ₱1,500 for a two-hour tour. My boatman Ronnie Alvarado can be reached at +63 9368325140 or +63 9061735512.