One of my goals whilst travelling was to try living a more sustainable lifestyle. This included eating only local produce, minimising my impact on the environment and spending more time enjoying nature. The dream slowly formed whilst travelling around SE Asia and came together in the Philippines when we reached El Nido. Bacuit Bay is home to many islands, all with abandoned beaches and water as clear as you’ll ever see. Most tour the islands on local Banca boats, but they are very noisy and fill the islands with big groups of tourists. It didn’t seem the best way to spend time in the serene bay.
When we saw ocean kayaks for rent on El Nido beach we fell in love with the idea of touring the islands ourselves. We had fishing rods and would be able to catch our dinner, and the warm weather meant we could camp with a light tent. We set about buying supplies from the town and planning a route around the islands. People throught we were a little crazy heading out alone for 4 days but we couldn’t wait for the adventure. With a break in the weather coming soon we had 2 days to make all the arrangements. Its amazing how much you need to sustain yourselves for 4 days and the list soon became long. Just some examples – 16 litres of drinking water, charcoal, sharp knife, mosquito repellant, fishing bait, torches and spare batteries, all essential items that couldn’t be forgotten. After cramming all of the supplies into the kayaks, we paddled out into the bay and away from El Nido town. The adventure, Bacuit bay and its islands laid around the headland.
Waiting for good weather paid off, the paddling started easy. We had an gentle first day, following the coast down the bay until we found a beach close to the first island we wanted to visit. Some friends had joined us for the first night camping and we had marinated BBQ skewers and a Styrofoam coolbox filled with Philippine Pilsner. We needed to ease ourselves into the trip – we would soon learn to appreciate the certainty of a good meal! As the sun neared the horizon we found the ideal beach, long and abandoned with plenty of firewood and space for the tents.
Making a fire as the sun set behind the islands was a fantastic feeling. Over dinner we discussed what creature could had left hundreds of trails in the sand. As we ate our questions were answered; slowly the beach came alive with hermit crabs in all shapes and sizes of beautiful shells.
With the sun long set the only light pollution was from the glowing embers of our fire. Walking a short way down the beach and allowing your eyes to adjust for 10 minutes unveiled a night sky clearer than we have ever seen. Stars, planets and nebulas all shine bright – Mercury stood out near Orion as a plane passed by overhead. We slept with only the rustling of hermit crabs to disturb us.
We were startled when woken by the sound of waves lapping close to the tent. Happy to find our feet dry and the kayaks still on the beach, we reached up and stretched – sand is not so comfortable if you are lying on it for 8 hours! I am not a morning person but it’s hard to wake up badly with such a great view and only the sounds of nature. A hard bed, cold night are light sleep soon forgotten. The air is still, sea clear and flat like glass and we can’t wait to start paddling. A large log from last night is still smouldering so starting the fire is easy and it doesn’t take long until we are are sipping hot coffee. We had packed bread, peanut butter and bananas for breakfast and were enjoying it whilst the bread was still soft. Dried fruit, nuts and leftovers would be our lunch and we planned to be eating freshly caught fish for dinner.
Our goal for the day was to head directly across the bay, taking in a couple of the islands on the way. Lunch was at Snake Island and then an afternoon paddle to what looked like another good campsite at the opposite peninsula.
We passed immaculate islands with steep limestone peaks, lush jungle with giant palm trees and white sand beaches. All were surrounded by coral reefs and there was little need to snorkel, we could admire them just by looking down. Some islands had small shacks, some abandoned. Apparently the islands are privately owned and security guards keep a watch. A couple of hundred pesos (£3) and a smile can buy you a night on an island protected by a guard.
The beauty of starting early is not just the conditions, you have the whole bay to yourself. Bar a couple of local fishing bancas in the distance the was no one else on the water. Since the kayak makes no noise, it is perfect for truly feeling at one with the view around you. We arrive at Snake Island after tour groups have already landed, but it isn’t a problem. Setting up our hammocks we dose in the afternoon sun knowing they’ll be gone soon. Sure enough we shortly have the stretch of sand to ourselves. Just before the last tour leaves one of the boatman gives us a leftover fish. We feel its cheating but relieved we will have dinner if we don’t catch any ourselves. The sun isn’t doing much good for our bait but we learn fish love hermit crabs freshly cracked from their shells.
A snaking sand bank reaches all the way to the mainland, giving the island its name. The water is ankle deep all the way along and reefs just off either side. We would love to stay here longer but the beach at the headland looks much more sheltered and we want to arrive with time to make camp and a fire before sunset. It looks abandoned but turns out to be the governor’s private beach when a security guard appears from the treeline. We are given permission to camp, but shortly afterwards two more men appear with a wild bearcat they have just caught. It hisses aggressively as they carry it along the beach but we think it won’t be hissing for much longer.
We are treated to a beautiful sunset whilst enjoying the donated fish with rice and a tin of emergency sweet corn. The water is too shallow to fish and we prefer to relax with the view anyway.
Our goal was to be catching and eating pelagic (tuna mackerel etc) not reef fish (snapper, grouper). These fish live in deeper waters and usually feed on smaller fish. The entire time we were kayaking we were trolling – dragging a small lure 20m behind the kayak. The lure wiggles and swims under the surface of the water and attracts a larger fish to take a bite and become hooked. We hadn’t had any bites yet, but this was the first morning we saw a bait ball. When larger predatory fish feed, they herd together a school of smaller ‘bait fish’. The bait fish all struggle for safety at the middle of the ball, and the hunting fish work this ball up to the surface of the water. When the bait fish reach the surface and have nowhere to to, a feeding frenzy ensues. We saw the water ‘boiling’ from a bait ball 20m off an island we were paddling past. The small bait fish were frantically trying to escape as tuna took turns to surge into the ball for breakfast. Occasionally a tuna breaks the surface and flies though the air. Our hearts are pounding, there is water ‘boiling’ all around us and Lily gasps as a massive school of hungry tuna swim underneath. With the lure already in the water, we paddle around the bait balls, hoping one of the tuna would like our offering. We make many passes, paddling the wiggling lure past the bait balls without any bites. One tuna jumped in front of us and felt like it could have landed in the kayak, unfortunately this is the closest we come to catching a fish. After half an hour we decide to save energy for the days kayaking and just watch. It was the first time we had seen bigger game fish feeding like this and watching it all just metres away in a kayak was a heart racing start to the day.
We spend the rest of the day kayaking around some of the best islands in the bay, Turtle Island, Shimizu Island Miniloc Island etc. The beaches feel like they have been lifted straight from a postcard. We are out of fishing bait so have to use some sweet corn to catch a small fish, and then fillet this to make bait for something bigger. A good spot off a reef provides us with a rainbow snapper and local speciality lapu-lapu (grouper). We still haven’t caught any elusive tuna but any fish this fresh tastes delicious.
We eat under the stars with just a few candles for light. Nearing us from the inky darkness comes the sound of a boat, getting closer and closer to the beach. When it lands I walk down the beach and the local fisherman look as surprised to see us as us to see them. They have landed to clear their nets of fish after a successful catch. Mostly snapper, but all smaller than our dinner which puts a smile on my face.
We will never forget the faces of the boatmen and tourists on island hopping boats as they passed us in the middle of the bay. Some looked concerned and others confused as to what we were going all the way out to sea in a kayak.
It was on our way back across the bay towards home, heading to Helicopter Island that we see something floating in the water. I pointed to it and ask Lily if she could see better from the front of the kayak. It looks like a large submerged buoy, with a coconut floating past. As we get closer the coconut lifted from the water and slowly turned towards us; it is connected to the smooth 1 metre wide object just under the surface. We quickly realise it was a giant turtle and sat in shocked silence. We have only a brief glimpse as it silently slips underwater and deep out of sight. We wait for 5 minutes in the still sea hoping the graceful giant will resurface. It doesn’t, but we can’t help wonder what else is hiding in the depths of the bay. You can feel quite vulnerable on a small unsteady kayak with water for miles around.
We stop for lunch in Cadlao Lagoon, a place not often visited since it is not included in the popular tours. The jutting limestone cliffs and rocky outcrops were impressive but we are really just relieved to have a rest from paddling. The wind has begun to pick up as forecasted and we know we have a long hard paddle back to El Nido. Eating inside the peace of the lagoon we soon forget the swell awaiting us and stayed a little longer than planned. By the time we leave the sheltered beach and turn around the headland the waves are half a mater high, crashing over the front of the kayak. We are both more excited than worried, it makes for an exhilarating if not tiring paddle home.
When we reached El Nido, we met with friends and celebrate being home over a big meal to catch up. It was great seeing friends, but when our heads rested on our pillows that night we missed the crash of the waves, eerie sounds of unknown animals and shadows cast on the tent from a flickering fire. We felt a little lost the next day and both commented we wish we could be back out on the water. That’s why we are still travelling with the tent, waiting for the next beach or island begging to be explored. Wherever there’s fish to catch, sand to sleep on and reefs to swim over, we know we will feel at home.
Planning Your Own Trip
An island hopping day tour starts at 1200 pesos (£17) including lunch. After renting a double seat ocean kayak, buying the tent and other supplies we had spent approx 800 (£11) pesos each per day for a 4 day trip. Considering this included all food and accommodation costs it worked out a very cheap way to travel.
The regulations for camping in El Nido change often, it pays to check with the local Municipal Hall and get approval before planning a trip. High quality kayaks with waterproof compartments are available on El Nido beach from Kayak Island Trip (www.kayakislandtrip.com). Fishing line, hooks and other supplies are available in hardware shops throughout El Nido. We recommend paying a local fisherman a couple hundred pesos for a tuna trolling jig. This handmade 5m section of line has several hooks and can be dragged behind the kayak to provide a fresh dinner every day. Check the weather for the days you plan to be at sea – wind and wave predictions are more important than sun! It never gets very bad in the bay, but its much more enjoyable paddling when the sea is flat and there is no wind. Ensure someone trustworthy in the town has your phone number and route in case of emergency. We suggest La Bodega for your celebration meal when you return, the extra cheese bacon burger with caramelised onion relish is well worth the 400 pesos!