The Slow Lane

By Ronnie Hoyle

THERE are times when the world gets too much to bear and things have to slow down a little: you cannot always be running at top need a little island in the stream of life to interrupt the flow now and again.

   That dream island is Panglao.

   Sitting at the tip of Bohol, the island in the way of the stream is built for relaxation. Surrounded by coral-white sands, and with the seas around it teeming with fish life, this is the slow lane - even the fish know that.

   The fact is, living life in the slow lane need not be boring - it can even be great fun - and we should know, because our island life is built around what happens when you slow down without coming to a grinding stop.

   Here, life ebbs and flows with the tides if you want it to. On the other hand, we can also get up and jump around with the best of them - we also have our own form of island nightlife, although it is nothing like city life.

  This is a place of regeneration, where the stress and strains of modern living have not yet arrived: we are a backwater...and we love it. And the fact is, we know that you and your family will love it too.

   So when you want to sit back and relax - with or without a beer - there’s always a welcome waiting for you on Panglao, particularly on Alona Beach, the really friendly part of the Friendly Island of Bohol. Don’t take our word for it...just come and see for yourself.


 Some really fishy business… 

PANGLAO has been revealed as one of the ‘hot spots’ in the world for several creatures, with scientists working for the Bohol Marine Triangle project counting 1,200 species of decapods (ten-legged creatures like shrimps, prawns and crabs) and so far between 4,000 and 6,000 mollusks (as well as normal shells, this also includes brightly-coloured sea slugs with internal shells).

   By comparison, the Mediterranean Sea only has 340 species of decapods and 2,024 species of mollusks. It is believed that Panglao may have up to 250 new species of crustacean and nearly 2,000 new species of mollusks.

   One new species of stone crab was collected in a trap which was located just 20 meters in front of Panglao Beach itself, so you could easily find yourself looking at a strange creature from the underwater world for the first time when you visit one of the many resorts around the island.

   Another one of the discoveries of the team was a minute species of gastropod — only measuring 3-4mm — which scientists have only known for about 20 years from empty shells found in various sites in the tropical seas of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

   The characteristics of the shell indicate that it probably represents a new family which dates from the Jurassic Period, some 200 million years ago, since it is similar to other Jurassic fossils.

   The survey team also discovered that the second most commonly caught shell was one with the Latin name of Conus gloriamaris, which is a rare and expensive shell sought by collectors around the world.

   That means you could go home richer as well!

 Whale sharks are spotted... 

KNOWN worldwide for its abundance of fish, Panglao Island is home to one of the biggest fish alive, the whaleshark, which can grow to more than 50 feet and weigh up to 18 tonnes. In general, however, they are much smaller.

   Now classified as an Endangered Species and once more common around Pamilacan Island, which actually gets its name from the fishing hook which locals used in times past to catch them, it is one of nine species of marine mammals which were sighted around Panglao Island during the Bohol Marine Triangle Project survey.

   Of the nine different mammals seen - especially around the nearby islands of Pamilacan and Balicasag - bottlenose and long-snouted spinner dolphins were the more frequently sighted in the deeper waters of the area, but also included were Risso’s dolphins, Fraser’s dolphins and pantropical dolphins, which are often seen by visitors.

   Surprisingly, whale species were more abundant and included the short-finned pilot whale, the melon-headed whale, Blainville whale, Bryde’s whale and the giant sperm whale, which migrates to mating and calving grounds near the Equator and then back to higher latitudes for feeding: mature females grow to some 12 meters (39ft) while mature males can grow to 18 meters (58ft).

   Only recently one 22ft sperm whale got itself caught in a fishing net close to Doljo Beach, but after suitable treatment for minor wounds was maneuvered  into deeper water and set free by Alona Beach divers and boatmen.

   Commercial fishing boats around the islands of Panglao, Balicasag and Pamilacan “disturbs them and poses a threat to their lives” says the BMT report, which also cites tanker and ferry traffic, as well as some dive banca and pleasure craft plying between the islands to dive sites, as posing a menace to their future existence if great care is not taken when taking tourists out for whale and dolphin-watching.

 Diving down to fishy friends… 

WITH FIFTEEN scuba diving shops on Alona Beach itself, what the dive instructors and guides don’t know about fish around Panglao Island is not worth knowing. But the fact is, every day they are learning more about the unique underwater world around them.

   With 23 regular dive sites which can be easily reached from Alona Beach (and quite a few more if sites which can be reached on dive safaris to places like the smaller islands around Cebu, Apo Island, Negros and Siquijor are included) without visiting the northern parts of Bohol itself - which contains the largest manmade mangrove plantation in the Far East and a largely unexplored double barrier reef – it’s not really a surprise.

   Best-known of the dive sites is probably Balicasag Island, because here shoals of jackfish and barracudas in their thousands swim among divers all day as they circle against the sun looking for their lunch.

   The almost circular island is so teeming with fish that the five regular dive sites visited do themselves form a complete circle of the smaller island, covering the Black Forest, Diver’s Heaven, Cathedral, Rico’s Wall and Rudy’s Rock.

   The deepest point is reached at the wall dive of Cathedral which runs from three meters to 45 meters and deeper and is about a 30-minute banca ride from Alona Beach itself.

       It provides the best barracuda sightings, while the Black Forest - named because of the corals - going to 40-plus meters plus is described as the island aquarium with aggressive trigger fish guarding their nests from May to July and a collection of groupers.

   The jackfish hangout is around Rudy’s Rock and Rico’s Wall, while Diver’s Heaven is the place where most turtles are seen among the rainbow palette of other fish schools which use the island as a playground.

   Look toward Panglao itself and you will see Pungtod and Gak-ang islands, while in the other direction is Pamilacan Island and the underwater shoal of Snake Island.

   As its’ name implies, this is the home and breeding place of the black-and-white banded sea-snake, and because it is in open water the area often has a strong current.

   It is usually one of the stopping points on the way to Pamilacan but can be combined with an early morning dolphin hunting trip, since one of the favourite routes of spinner dolphin and Risso’s dolphins early in the morning is in the blue between Balicasag and Pamilacan. You can see the route at night from Alona Beach because it is lit up by fishing boats which are strung out across the horizon like a highway in the sea from Panglao to Balicasag.

   While whale sharks are rarer these days, they still migrate between the island and Panglao itself, as do a number of manta ray. In fact, the island is noted for 11 species of whale and dolphin, including on occasions the giant sperm whale.

   Coming closer to Panglao itself there are a total of 11 ‘normal’ dive sites just a few minutes away by boat.

   While not a lot of fuss is made about it on the beach – because of misconceptions by the non-diving general public – there are even a few sharks around, although they are usually too small to cause any worry and are not in the swimming areas.

   White tip, thresher and hammerhead sharks can be seen in their season – usually between February and April - along with some reef sharks around Doljo Point. There are also many giant sea fans and a great selection of corals, including green leather and elephant ear.

   Around the corner – across the shallow Panglao Bay – is a wreck sunk by one of the dive shops at 35 meters which attracts lion fish and some giant angler fish, as well as many types of cardinals.

   Royal blue corals – and even purple – can be found at Kalipayan, along with some table corals. It is also a good place to see several types of pipefish, while not far away is a dive site with beautiful coral gardens and two types of sand eels swaying in the tide. 

The party life on Panglao… 

JUST a short sea-trip from Cebu, Panglao Island has already proved itself to be the new playground of the Philippines...and thousands (if not millions) of dollars of investment money are being poured in to develop the island and its facilities.

   Already, it has three times helped Bohol to win the Tourist Destination of the Year contest in the Philippines and hopes to help a fourth time at the Manila trade exhibition when it showcases the beauty of the island’s beaches.

   There are even plans approved by President Gloria Arroyo to develop a domestic airport on the island to take over from Tagbilaran Airport, with the intention to upgrade it to international status at some time in the future, to make it easier for the island’s thousands of visitors to reach the coral-white sandy shores which surround it on all sides.

   There are resorts doted all around the shores of the island, which connects to mainland Bohol at Tagbilaran and Bool via two road bridges, and each resort is situated in its own grounds on the edge of the sapphire sea.

   Already well-known by scuba divers for the diversity of its fish life in the off-islands of Pamilacan, Balicasag and Pungtod, which are easily reached from Panglao resorts, the rest of the island is also developing with top-class resorts: land has already been put aside for a proposed new Tourism Estate with another section for a proposed Retirement Village.

   The off-islands sport hammerhead sharks, some rays, massive schools of jackfish and barracudas, and there are resident dolphins playing just off the beaches, plus (in the right season) whale sharks.

   Bohol itself takes pride in Panglao Island, although sometimes other towns in the area become a little jealous – especially since Panglao town itself has won the prestigious street dancing competition in Tagbilaran’s Sandugo Festival three times in a row, the only town in the history of Bohol to do so.

   The ‘dance capital’ of Panglao Island is not too worried: the Sandugo street festival in July is only the live rehearsal for its’ own major event – the Hudyaka sa Panglao which takes place on August 28th every year in the grounds of its parish church. Then the ten barangays of the municipality compete fiercely with each other to see which is the best of the best.

   Its’ own dance festival brings back ex-Panglao residents from all over the world, and instead of making a day of it, the music and dance lovers of Panglao try and make a whole week of it…and more. Actually, they take nine days and the whole town has a festive atmosphere with parties all over the place.

   The big feast starts off in earnest at 2pm every August 28th when several hundred dancers and their accompanying bands with their distinctive beat queue up outside the Municipal Hall to dance and parade their way to the grounds of San Agustin Church, where the ‘real’ party is held on the green, seen by thousands of locals.

   Mind you, not all barangays wait until August 28 to have a feast or a fiesta and a bit of a rave-up with a disco on the basketball court: every barangay on the island has its’ own date for its local celebration when every house-holder puts out the special ‘welcome’ mat and cooks up a feast of food for neighbors and visitors alike.

   Even then, feasts are not kept to just one a year: every type of celebration you can think of ends up around the roasting pig with the ale flowing freely. Just ask: we can even set up a fiesta especially for you!

 Swamped by the mangroves… 

MUCH of the biodiversity of Panglao Island is due to the life on its’ shores: fishing is the number one income provider in the Municipality of Panglao itself with some 1,290 people - or more than 16 per cent - dependent on the sea for their livelihood.

   Since life in the sea depends on how it is looked after by humans, the people of Panglao try hard to look after it from the shoreline outwards...and that means looking after the mangroves at the sea’s edge as they are the main breeding ground and nursery area of the fish-fry which will eventually grow to fill the nets, as well as the home of shrimps and many other crustaceans.

   Mangrove swamps (kabakhawan) also provide the right ecosystem for the collection of edible shellfish like scallop and mussel, which are a staple part of the local seafood diet, and which are often served up to foreign visitors on the island, while the mangroves also form protection for the island itself in times of typhoon or bad seas.

   The mangrove forest of barangay Danao, which is next to Alona Beach, is the largest on the island - covering almost 93 hectares - and contains 21 of the 32 true mangrove species found on Bohol, plus six associated species. The municipality of Panglao as a whole has more than 170 hectares of mangrove.

   Home of the mudskipper, which can push itself forward nearly one meter over damp land by flipping its’ tail, and thousands of comical fiddler crabs - which dig their homes in the mud - with their one oversized claw which is also used to beckon females and fight other males, mangrove wood is used for a variety of purposes, from charcoal making to furniture manufacture and firewood: some species of bark can be used as tannin or dye for leather, as food seasoning, as medication for sore eyes, fermented to control hemorrhage, to stop toothache, as a substitute for cork, as a plywood adhesive and the ground wood ash can be used for soap making.

   The oil of some can also be used for lamps and for making hair glossy, while the bark of another variety is used as an astringent and a cure for diarrhea.

   Relatively unexplored by most tourists, because the wood grows in salt water, mangrove is also made into long-lasting fish traps and pens while straight branches are made into poles used for spear fishing and house fencing.

   Mangroves also act as home for many of the island’s larger lizards - like the meter-long how - and are feeding grounds for many migratory birds, as well as safe nesting areas for resident birds: it is also estimated that one hectare of mangrove produces at least 600 kg of fish and shrimps and prawns - like the tiger prawn - each year and can generate up to US$1,500 per year.

   Fishing and sleeping platforms with small ‘kitchens’ are often erected in many mangrove areas - there is one at Danao in Panglao Bay - and they become hives of activity at weekends when they often double up as family picnic and swimming sites in the middle of the sea.

   Foreigners using them should watch the tides carefully and plan on ‘escaping’ as soon as the tide starts to turn back over the swampy mudflats, otherwise there may not be time to reach dry land with the risk of being trapped overnight or until the next low tide.

  Because sea-borne garbage, mostly from passing vessels and indiscriminate dumping, is already a problem to islanders, please help by taking your rubbish back home with you and disposing of it properly.

 The wonderful world of wildlife… 

NOT all life exists in the seas around Panglao – there is a lot of it on land too. It may not be as diverse as the wildlife on the plains of Africa, or in the jungles of Borneo, but it is just as wonderful and wild and equally as old as time itself.

   A prime island for ecotourism - where man and nature live together in peace and harmony, instead of in competition with the needs of each other - Panglao residents are putting their established fame for friendliness to work for their betterment by showing how it can be done.

   Tami Farms at Doljo is one instance: there former film director, producer, stuntman and ex-Elvis Presley bodyguard Mike Stone (the undefeated World Karate Champion) and his wife have set up a business which not only helps the local community produce food on a commercial scale, but have also made it a visitor-friendly tourist destination for old and young alike.

   Although in its’ infancy, the farm is already attracting many viewers and beginning to sell its’ produce to them and helping local employment at the same time.

   In the middle of the island, just outside of Lourdes, Daks and Gams Wildlife Park has been established to show the original wildlife of the island which existed before man decided to populate it...

   A variety of animals which are indigenous to the island - and that of adjoining Bohol itself - are on display, including rarely-seen coconut crabs, which climb local trees and have claws powerful enough to snip off a coconut for a snack or chop off unwary fingers which come too close; there are also snakes and a wide variety of lizards, monkeys and birds, including the Philippine sea eagle.

   On occasions, you may even find a pool containing young rescued sea turtles which have been collected from local fishermen’s nets and are usually taking a little bit of rest and recuperation before being returned to the sea.

   Just a short distance away from that, Vicky Wallace and her partner have set up the Bohol Bee Farm, which is adjacent to Chicken City which not only supplies birds for the table in vast quantities but also provides local cockfight aficionados with fresh stock.

   Local and imported bees flit around the island from flower to flower collecting nectar to turn into honey and helping the masses of mango trees on the island to fruit and produce a bumper crop each season.

   Honey from the farm is sold in various localities around the Visayas and not many people have visited and left without a jar or two in their hands after tasting examples.

   Not far away is the Panglao Bird Sanctuary, a large area of mangrove swamp which attracts migrating and resident birds all-the-year-round: thirteen endemic species for Panglao Island have so far been recorded in the area by Silliman University investigations, with Cattle Egret noted as the most abundant species at Danao barangay’s inland lagoon and inter-tidal flats, where the Wandering Whistling Duck and the Philippine Mallard were spotted and were previously unrecorded evidence of a new family of birds for the island.

   On top of that, the island is noted as one of the major stopping off, resting and refueling points for birds migrating from China to Australia and back each year and shows a need to conserve this site for future generations to enjoy. 

Kissing frogs on Alona Beach… 

IF YOU have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your Prince Charming, make sure the frogs you kiss belong in a fairytale and not at the bottom of the ocean with a different type of tail.

   That’s because the frogfish is one ugly-looking creature, and if it turned into a human being you wouldn’t give him a second look or the time of day…you’d run the other way and hope he didn’t follow!

   The tale of the tail of the frogfish is a complex one around Panglao Island, and they are distantly related to the angler fish, sea toads and batfishes. They creep around on the ocean floor on modified pectoral fins while searching for food, although in most cases they prefer to sit and wait for food to come to them.

   With the ability to camouflage themselves to the background colouration when they need to – which makes it difficult for inexperienced divers to see them - they can come in a variety of colours. Even their method of catching their prey is different. Like the angler fish, they have a fishing lure, but instead of being external it is in their mouth and wriggles around like an inviting worm.

   As soon as another fish comes close enough to investigate, the mouth extends in one instantaneous split-second and the would-be explorer gets swallowed with a swift intake of seawater: sometimes the fish swallowed can be almost as big as the frogfish itself because the frogfish also has the capability of enlarging its’ stomach at the moment of swallowing.

   There are some 260 related fish in all parts of the world but the frogfish family, Antennariidae, is usually about 18 inches long and has few natural enemies – what you can’t see you can’t eat, can you?

   Territorial to a large degree, during the mating season they become more gregarious and it is then that small groups can often be seen lurking in close proximity to each other as the sex urge overcomes the eat urge.

   The moment of sexual bliss is not all that wonderful either: the female is ten times larger than the male and the parasitic male bites into the neck of the female and hangs on until the circulatory systems of the fish join together…then she has to provide him with his only source of nourishment through her blood until his sexual appetite is sated.

   Who wants to find Prince Charming on Alona Beach on Panglao Island when he turns out to be nothing more than a sex-mad vampire? Not you, eh...unless you’ve got a thing for fishy tales...or tails.

 Panglao…a little bit of a dream… 

EVERYTHING comes true in the land of dreams, even your wildest fantasy. Well, Panglao may be part of the dream business for many people, but only in a minor way - we cannot make everything come true, no matter how hard to try to achieve the impossible.

   But Panglao does promise one thing: all around the island people will do all that is within their power to help you achieve a holiday of a lifetime...except to offer you a guarantee on the state of the weather. On that score, we can only tell you that most people think our best time is between November and May, but as far as we are concerned there is no season when there is a reason not to visit.

   Since Panglao is always beautiful at any time of the year, we’re not quite sure when the worst time is...probably on one or two days during our ‘growing period,’ which a few oddballs call the ‘rainy season’ sometime between July and October. We call them ‘oddballs’ because we know you cannot have flowers without a sprinkling of liquid sunshine now and again to freshen things up.

   In any event, even our rain is the temperature of unused tepid bathwater for most visitors when you compare it with rain which drops from heaven in the so-called ‘temperate zone.’

   So where is this land of dreams? It’s right in the middle of the Philippines, set in the azure Visayan Sea, which itself is teeming with people and places so great that it has deserved its’ second name of The Friendly Island.

   Just look at the map of the Philippines, find the round Visayan island of Bohol, and then look at the southern tip for Panglao Island, itself just south of the main island. We are on the southernmost and sunniest point, far enough away from everything but easy to get to.

   We have beautiful coral-white sands, crystal blue waters teeming with fish, and enough spare sunshine to give a silken satin sheen to anyone who wants to relax and dream and become as brown as we are.

   Don’t be shy: some of our sunshine is free for come and get it. 

Songs and the smiling singers… 

CRUISE around the resorts of Panglao Island and one thing rapidly becomes apparent to any visitor: everyone looks happy...and that’s because everyone is singing. Okay, we admit that not everyone on Panglao has the voice of a superstar - especially when they get in front of one of those karaoke machines - but practice has to start somewhere if you’ve been refused entry to the church choir, doesn’t it?

   Putting aside some squeaky off-key voices and a few bellowers that couldn’t do justice to a carabao with toothache, even if they tried (yes, even we’ve heard a few on the island!), Filipinos are known worldwide for their musical ability...the only thing that stops them singing or playing guitar is the need to eat and sleep sometimes!

   Entertainment is the name of the game around the bars and resorts of the island and there are wandering minstrels all over the place: you’ll find some having a jamming session on the beach or in one of the many poruks almost every day or night of the week.

   Join in - no one really cares if you can sing or not, as long as you enjoy yourself and buy the guitarists a beer or two to keep their voices oiled. We might even let you sing and play a song or two yourself...

   If you think the songs are a bit old-fashioned, they are, and that’s what makes it easy for anyone from any country to join in: we all know the words to songs that were popular when we were teenagers a few years back and when we still thought we were stallions chasing the available fillies.

   Some places on the island (we won’t mention which ones in case we offend anyone) have live band nights once or twice a week, in or out of season, and bravely back them up with karaoke torture sessions at other times.

   Or you could visit one of the regular discos with more modern music and which take place on the basketball courts around the island on most Saturdays, but please be prepared...they are noisy affairs: we like our music loud and with the base-beat creating an earthquake for miles around...the vibration of the earth drives the snakes away, and the mosquito’s go deaf and daft and get blasted backwards to where they flew from, you see! 

Walking the plank on a Banca… 

ON a small island like Panglao, you can always rely on the fact that it will be surrounded by boats of all sorts...and in the Philippines that usually means the traditional-style quickly and cheaply constructed native boat - the banca.

   They are still the second most popular form of transport on the island, after the motorcycle...although you could say that feet are probably the most used means of all.

   The banca in its present form is actually quite a new invention which owes its’ existence to earlier local boats - the dugout canoe. In the beginning canoes for fishing were made by hollowing out tree-trunks, and in some areas the traditional boat still survives. But log canoes do have a problem: they are easy to capsize.

   No one knows on what island the idea came from, but someone had the notion of fixing bamboo outriggers and, since bamboo floats by itself because of the hollow sections between the nodules, it became both a stabilizer and a life-preserver.

   Until World War II, the dugout was the normal boat for fishing, but after the war there were a lot of American and Japanese vehicles left to rot...with useful engines. It did not take long before the Filipino learned to incorporate the engine into the dugout: no more paddling, so the boat could get bigger and more fish could be caught.   In the beginning they still had a solid keel as a buffer against sand and coral, like the Spanish carrack before them, but then plywood became available for construction instead of solid planking for the sides. Being lighter, they rode higher and the need for a solid keel cut from a whole tree trunk vanished.

   When the Spanish controlled the islands, the word for a small boat was a ‘sampan’- probably taken from Siam - or ‘bolato,’ and larger boats were called ‘balanghi,’ sometimes thought to mean ‘boat home’ and from the Bahasa Indonesian language: ships were termed ‘benaou’ in the 16th Century Philippines.

   Today’s bancas are tougher and stronger than they ever were in days gone by, and relatively safe in skilled hands even in the roughest of seas around the Philippines: children on Panglao discover their banca survival skills from when they first learn to ‘walk the plank’ by balancing and running along the bamboo outriggers and diving into the sea.

   At any time of the year you can find bancas being built around the island’s shores, although they are sometimes also built far inland and then transported by groups of willing helpers to the launch spot.

   Like all forms of boat-building, it begins with the laying of the keel and the skeleton, to which the plywood is attached. No plans are used by the builders, who rely on how they ‘feel’ the boat should be and how it looks.

   On the island, many of the foreign and locally-owned diving concerns use large bancas to take their customers to the many diving locations as far away as Cabilao Island, or even on safari.

   Now Panglao is becoming recognised for its’ skilled seafaring workforce with the opening of the Crystal e-College in the municipality of Panglao itself and which is offering courses in navigation and seamanship in preparation for sending Panglao men and women to work in modern shipping all over the world.

Speaking in tongues… 

WITH some 2,500 inhabited islands in the Philippines, it means that the archipelago itself can claim to be the original version of the United Nations, especially since Rajah Sikatuna of Bohol is claimed to be the first person to propose a peace pact between foreign countries when he signed the Blood Compact for harmonious relations with the Spanish conquistadors on March 16, 1565.

            Being brought together for the first time by the Spanish, this group of islands had - until that time - lived separate lives under different rulers for thousands of years, with little or no commonality among islanders: many islands were frequently at war with each other.

            Even though only a few miles apart, some 169 languages and dialects are still spoken in the archipelago with Filipino, or Tagalog, being the mother tongue of some 17 million people and the official language of the nation. Altogether, some 57 million people can speak or understand Tagalog. Despite this, some 15 million people still speak Cebuano, or Visayan, as their native tongue across the central islands from Leyte to Negros and down to the second largest island of Mindanao.

            In most cases, people in the Visayas speak at least four languages fluently: Visayan, Tagalog and English, as well as their own island language or dialect - which makes them more linguistically gifted than most other people in the Philippines, especially when there are dozens of ‘foreigners’ living locally as well and speaking and spreading their own languages.           

Although visitors can usually get by with speaking English in the region, it pays to know a few words in Visayan if you want to get closer to the people. It also shows that you are willing to learn their way of life and demonstrates respect.

            Evolving from Sanskrit into Bahasa Indonesian as tribes moved into the islands on the way down to Australia and across to Polynesia, it is still similar to Bahasa in many respects: Salamat means ‘thank you’ in both languages, for instance. In fact, Visayan Filipinos can even make themselves understood as far away as Papua New Guinea in some cases.

            The grammar is simple too: there is very little. He, she and it, for example, are the same word, siya, while him, her and it (an object) is niya and iya is his, hers and its’ (possessive).

            Dictionaries and phrase books are available in local bookshops, especially the branches of the National Bookstore, but the following will give you a few pointers: