Palawan really is "a little corner of paradise". From Coron to Balabac, white sand beaches are met with coconut trees, and the coral gardens and turquoise lagoons offer amazing snorkelling. But, somehow, some of the world's most beautiful places are littered with the effects of human kind... and a whole lot of plastic pollution!
On the flight to Busuanga Island, we were treated to amazing scenery, and the drive through the countryside was just as stunning. Our eyes were fixed out the window at the endless carpet of green farmland and not a single piece of litter in sight. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Coron Town itself, with us noticing a massive amount of litter and a distinct lack of bins.
The nearby points of interest on Coron Island (Kayanga Lake and Twin Lagoon) were heavily protected against any form of litter and, as a result, there was none to be seen in the water. But that said, the open ocean was a completely different story, with plastic bags, bottles and food wrappers cluttering the water. It seemed to congregate right above what was regarded as one of the best and most beautiful coral gardens in the area. It all became clear how serious the issue with marine litter was and how we as humans need to change the way that we consume. At times, we weren't sure if we were swimming through swarms of jelly fish, so it was saddening to imagine what a hungry turtle could quite easily end up doing.
Our tour guide who called herself "Happy" showed a concern about the plastic pollution and marine litter, and had a genuine desire to conserve her beautiful home for generations to come! Whilst another crew member took over her tour guide duties, assisting those that weren't quite as strong swimmers, Happy dived straight into the water with a bag in hand to collect as much of the plastics as she could and thanked us for helping as well. The whole experience actually made us quite hopeful for the future of marine conservation.
Whilst on our three day island hopping adventure with TAO Philippines, we were happy to see a surprisingly small amount of plastics at our remote and unspoilt snorkelling spots. TAO themselves seemed to be strongly against single use plastics. However, after a bit of exploring at our first "basecamp", we started to see quite an overwhelming amount of large plastic bottles on one particular stretch of beach. It looked like a cleaning effort had already been made, but more and more bottles had continued to wash up in the tideline, which could have been thanks to a recent typhoon.
On day three of the tour, we were taken to Bacuit Bay, to the west of El Nido and, once again, started to see a lot of marine litter. Bacuit Bay is also visited by the boat tours based in El Nido, so it's easy to imagine that a lot of the marine litter had been produced by these boat trips and their passengers. As well as the usual plastic bottles, bags and food wrappers, there were plenty of beer bottle tops on the sea bed. We took what we could back onto the TAO boat with us, but we couldn't help but think having rubbish bins on the islands would encourage much cleaner beaches. Plus, bins would be a lot easier on the eyes than rubbish on the beaches and in the water, and we're sure that some of the money generated from the environmental fees could quite easily fund this.
Once we finished the TAO trip, we wanted to experience one of the four boat tours that go from El Nido - tours A, B, C or D. We chose tour C because it was supposedly something different to what we had already done with TAO. We were lucky enough to get a group together and hire a private boat for the day, which cost 7,000 pesos total. We were taken to Matinloc Island, where we visited Hidden Beach, Secret Beach and some close by coral gardens. It was here that we saw a lot of fishing rope entangled in the corals, but not much else interestingly. There were no bars on the island to produce any litter and only water was provided on the boat. Although, we were able to bring our own soft drinks and beer on board.
In El Nido itself, we were stunned by the scenery, but shocked by the marine litter that we saw. On the main beach, we could see broken down micro-plastic everywhere we looked - it was the worst place for it yet! On the other hand, it was definitely doing the most to reduce the amount of plastic pollution that it produces, with a lot of bars using paper takeaway cups, restaurants using paper straws and shops selling drinks mostly in cans and glass bottles. It seemed that there were incentives in place or regulations slowly coming into play as well to make the town more sustainable. Some businesses even took things a step further to help protect the environment. Specifically, ArtCafe (once just a boutique and tour operator) now has it's own organic farm, solar panels and a water bottle refilling station outside.
Puerto Princesa and Honda Bay
We were sad to see that a concern about plastic pollution hadn't yet made it as far as Palawan's capital city (even at our favourite vegetarian restaurant - Ima's), and compared to El Nido, it was completely backwards. Things didn't get any better on our boat trip to Honda Bay either. It was off to a bad start at our rest stop on the way with some of us being given soft drinks with plastic straws, hot drinks in polystyrene cups and masks and snorkels in plastic bags.
The boat trip itself was nothing special and not something that we'd recommend. We were crammed onto the tiniest boat at the port, experienced unimpressive snorkelling spots and were served limited food for vegetarians or vegans. What's more was the plastic cutlery given out with the food, which we also found all over the island's beach along with other plastic items. The islands were almost all privately owned, so the main priority for them was to get as much profit at every possibility. The bins were overflowing with non-biodegradable materials and plastic straws were poking out of coconuts that had been left on the beach. Overall, it was not a good way to spend our last day in Palawan!
After going on the Honda Bay boat trip, it was clear that not all tour operators are created equally. Without choosing tour company wisely, we are at risk of causing more damage than they're worth - even though we were trying to be as responsible and sustainable as possible. The corals were already dead, which is most likely a combination of fishing boats and tourist boats. Feeding the fish was aloud, which isn't a natural way for the fish to find food and can also lead to overfeeding and a reliance on humans. Plus, the oils we sometimes saw on the surface of the water could've been from the boats or the many tourists wearing non-organic suncream and chemicals. On the other hand, the money generated from the environmental fees have to do some good - right?? Without better education and added pressure, unfortunately, we won't see much change.
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