Monday, February 9

Back in Pamilacan with the dolphins

Non-birding trip!

I joined my co-teacher Jom and some of our students on a Conservation Biology class fieldtrip (I was part of the team teaching it - in charge of the genetics part!) to Bohol.

I had been to Pamilacan Island twice before.  The islanders were traditionally whale hunters, hunting whales, whale sharks, dolphins and manta rays via harpoon ("pilak"). When their main source of income was banned in favor of protecting these marine animals, they were offered dolphin watching as an alternative livelihood. 

A shot of Pamilacan island from our 2010 trip
To make a long story short, it has been a rough road for conservationists and the islanders, and scars from the experience still have not fully healed.  And even today, the Pamilacan locals, who were trained in the proper dolphin-watching techniques, experience a lot of competition from non-trained guides and boatmen who pick up tourists at the popular Alona Beach on Panglao Island. (Note:  If you do go dolphin-watching in Bohol, try to find guides who are based in Pamilacan).

My first visit to Pamilacan was during the time of SARS in 2003 with Vir, Kutch, Adri and JenneR.  It was my first time to see dolphins in the wild and it was an unforgettable experience!  Seeing dolphins all around the bangka, swimming under us, riding on the bow, somersaulting in the air - I had to stop myself from jumping in the water to join them.

Check out my shot from 2003 - digital cameras were not yet the norm!

The second time was fairly recently, in 2010, when Adri, Mel and I planned a birding + beach trip to Bohol.

Adri's cool shot of spinner dolphins from our sunny 2013 trip.

Between my first wild dolphin close-encounter and this last one, I had seen dolphins a few other times.  While swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, a dolphin jumped on the horizon and was shrugged off by our boatman ("Dolphin lang un" "It's just dolphins") and on our return ferry from the Camotes Islands we were lucky to have encountered a huge pod.  I don't think I will ever tire of seeing dolphins in the wild!

This time it was far from the ideal weather to go dolphin watching.  The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle.  The sea was a somber steel grey and white caps formed on the tops of waves.

Waiting for our pick-up at Alona Beach
(which has changed considerably since I was here in 2003!)
on an overcast morning.
But we were all optimistic. Our guide, Turning, and boat crew were all experienced locals and we knew that they could find the dolphins.

As we headed from our pick-up point at Alona Beach on Panglao to Pamilacan Island, a lone Great Crested Tern checked out our boat, looking to see if we had any fish it could steal. Photography challange: close subject (couldn't fit in the frame!), bird-in-flight, low light, moving boat rocked by waves!
A Great Crested Tern checking out our bangka.
Soon there was a slight commotion as our boatmen, Turning and Jom spotted splashes on the horizon.  The dolphins were here!

It was a pod of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris).  They came up to the bangka to check us out and were soon swimming alongside and in front of us.  Every now and then, one would jump out of the water.  There was even a mom with its calf!

To count dolphins you multiply by 5 every dolphin you see on the surface.

The monochromatic hues reflect the somber weather that day.

Chuffing:  when dolphins surface they exhale forcefully from their blowhole to clear the area.  
Bubbles from chuffing are a good way to spot dolphins in the distance.
These spinner dolphins approached our bangka and
spent a few minutes with us before moving on.
Our students were so excited!  For many of them, it was there first wild-dolphin encounter. Their comments about wanting to jump in the water to join the dolphins reminded me of my first experience.

Our students rushing to the bow for a closer view of the dolphins.

Flukes in the air! Dolphins seem like such joyful animals.
Eventually, the pod left us and we continued on our way to Pamilacan where we would spend the night. The non-ideal weather added a little challenge to docking the boat on the beach.

Docking at Pamilacan island
The weather didn't improve during our stay, it was cold, wet and windy.  But I didn't mind (What is it with me and cold beaches? I had the same experience 2 weeks before at Pannzian!).  Having dolphins greet us was a warm enough welcome!

Low tide on a gloomy, cold and wet morning.


  1. Oooh! I learned so much from your post! It's been so long since I last went dolphin watching... sana this year ulit =)

    1. Thanks Maia! Hope you get a chance to see wild dolphins again soon!

  2. Just like Maia, I learned a lot about dolphins from this blog! My only encounter with them was when we were going to Siquijor from Dumaguete. :)

    1. Thanks Bob! The triangle of Siquijor - Panglao - Camiguin Sur is a great place for dolphin spotting. Cool! Will look out for them on next time I go to Siquijor.