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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
October, 1998 Vol. 1 No. 10

An hour with the dolphins at Tañon Strait

Having a whale of fun – literally

By Asuncion Sia







Sept 17, 0910. Port of Bais City, South Bais Bay: All aboard

listen amused as my boatmates, a merry mix of young and not-so-young Dumaguete-based journalists, engage in a light banter in Cebuano about whales and dolphins, the object of our trip.

"What’s the big fuss about a bunch of fish?"

"They’re not fish, they’re mammals!"

"Have you tried dolphin milk?"

We have all signed up for this whale-watching tour organized by the Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), a USAID-funded project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the government of Bais City to draw media attention to coastal resource management programs being implemented by local governments. This is my fourth trip out, but this is going to be the first whale-watching tour for everyone else, and the boat is crackling with excitement. I stand apart, feeling indifferent and a bit smug, but I understand how the others feel. I can still remember the first time I came here, all excited and wide-eyed.

                                                                           Photo by Ella Melendez

The passenger manifest is passed around for us to fill up and sign. I am now familiar with the routine. It will take another 10 minutes or so for the manifest to be checked by the Coast Guard, who will then issue a permit for the boat to sail. I add my name to the manifest mechanically, half-listening to the still lively – and now getting-a-little-risqué -- discussion about mammals and fish.

"While we’re waiting, let me tell you about this tour,," our guide, Rowena Merto from the city government of Bais, interrupts the cheery chatter. "We’re going to Tañon Strait, which should take us about 45 minutes. Please, when you write your stories, be sure to say that the dolphins and whales are in Tañon Strait and not Bais Bay."

The distinction is important. Tañon Strait is a narrow waterway separating the islands of Negros and Cebu, bounded in the north by the Visayan Sea and in the south by Bohol Sea. It is thus shared by more than a dozen towns in both Negros Oriental and Cebu, who value the Strait as a fishing ground and navigational lane and a natural pathway for dolphins and whales.

But it is with Bais City that the whale watching tour has become most closely associated. This agro-industrial town some one hour overland from Dumaguete City is the most convenient take-off point to Tañon Strait. It has a protected harbor and good tourist facilities, and it is within a comfortable distance from both Dumaguete City, the main gateway to Negros Oriental, and the Strait. It has made capital out of these assets by packaging whale watching tours out of Bais Bay as part of its overall strategy for managing its coastal resources.

Tañon Strait has been declared a protected seascape for dolphins and whales to highlight the importance of these marine mammals in the area. It has one of the highest concentrations of dolphins and whales in the Philippines. Of the 21 dolphin and whale species found in the Philippines, 10 species, including a killer whale known scientifically as Orcinus orca, have been spotted here. Many of these species are prone to extinction. Though protected under Philippine laws, dolphins and whales are being hunted for their meat, or in some places, simply because they feed on fish and are considered by fishers as competitors.

It would be nice to see some whales on this trip. I haven’t seen one in these parts, though I’ve heard some incredible stories from still awestruck visitors who’ve had close encounters with large pods of whales in the area. In fact, a few friends were here just the past week -- they saw not one but hundreds of whales, and they have stacks of photos to prove it. Well, who knows? The waters are calm and conditions seem perfect for whale watching, except for one thing: the timing isn’t right. The best season for whale watching, I am told, is from April to June, and whales are most likely to appear on the day before or after a full moon or new moon. But we could get lucky.

0945. Off the Talabong Mangrove Reserve: About the birds and the trees

Our boat leaves port later than I reckoned it would, but we’re off quickly and smoothly under a slightly overcast sky. We pass the 300-hectare Talabong Mangrove Reserve, named after a white heron found there. With its lush mangrove forest, Talabong is a destination in itself. There’s a boardwalk that goes deep into the forest, allowing visitors to experience the unique, albeit somewhat eerie, atmosphere of this "sea of trees."

"Mangroves are among our richest ecosystems," Rowena explains above the din of the boat’s engine. "They serve as breeding and nursery grounds for many species of fish, and also provide shoreline protection to coastal communities and habitat for a number of shore and wading birds." They are also, unfortunately, being rapidly depleted for fishpond, reclamation and other land development projects. In the early 1900s, the Philippines had more than 450,000 hectares of mangroves; today the figure is down to 150,000 hectares, one reason why intact forests like Talabong have been declared as protected areas or reserves.

In the early morning and late afternoon, Rowena adds, the area around the Talabong Mangrove Reserve teems with Philippine mallards and white herons. We’re not stopping at the Reserve this time, but a tour can be arranged with the Tourism Operations Unit (035 5415161) of the Bais City government.

1000. Approaching Tañon Strait: Advance party

The clouds become sparse as we near Tañon Strait, and the sea sparkles under the now blazing sun. Snacks are handed out, and the conversation turns to general topics of interest. There’s no sign of the dolphins and whales yet, but, every so often, a flying fish appears, breaking the monotony of the yonder blue ocean.

"That’s the advance party, out to welcome us," Rowena remarks.


"No, it’s a flying fish. The swordfish hops on water, this one skims the water surface."

I take note of the fact, one more trivia to spice up some future conversation. A piece of styrofoam floats by and I realize we’ve piled up a sizable litter since we boarded the boat. Half-empty plastic water bottles that just a few minutes ago sat neatly on the table are now on the floor. There are trash bins on board, fortunately, as well as provisions for keeping empty cans and bottles. The bottles and cans are quickly put in their proper places before they could end up in the sea and do untold damage to the marine environment (choke animals, suffocate corals, etc.).

1015. At Tañon Strait: Where are they?

We reach the Strait. "We are not going very far. We will be circling a portion of the Strait where we spot the animals," says Rowena. "A few rules: First, when you see the dolphins, don't rush to one side of the boat; we have to keep our weights properly distributed. Second, please don't jump overboard and swim with the animals. Third, don't touch the animals. And fourth, don't feed the animals." The first two rules, she explains, are for safety reasons, the last two are to prevent the animals from losing their natural instincts.

So, where are they? Ten minutes are gone, and still there are no dolphins and no whales. Five more minutes, and then another. The party's excitement level drops a notch. "I have a tip for you," says Rowena. "Whale watching takes T-E-P -- time, effort and patience."

A couple of dolphins appear. "There they are!" My boatmates move forward to get a better view, then wait on bated breath for the show to begin. And then... nothing.

Rowena is reassuring. "Dolphins do that all that time," she says. "A small group will approach the boat, swim away, then you have to wait a while to see more dolphins."

True enough, it takes another ten minutes for the dolphins to reappear, and when they do they are in a still relatively small group of five or six dolphins at a time. But then they begin to approach the boat to ride its bow wave more boldly and at more frequent intervals. Again, there's a rush to the forward side of the boat. A cheer erupts every time the dolphins appear. I stick to my seat. I've seen all this, haven't I? Let the others have their fun.

The boat moves surely in the calm sea. Despite Rowena's earlier pronouncement, it seems our crew are ready to take us right across the Strait to Cebu to see, if not whales, then at least more dolphins.

1100. Close to Cebu: Here they come!

And then they come, in bigger and bigger groups. A short distance away, a dolphin jumps out of the water. "Yes!" the crowd in the boat roars their approval. Three dolphins ride our bow wave. "All right!" the dolphin watchers shout. A half dozen more dolphins frolic nearby to more cheers. The show goes on for a full 20 minutes, then one by one the watchers return to their seats, apparently having their fill of the dolphins' antics.

But our boat captain isn't ready to leave yet. He turns the boat around. The show isn't over, I realize. Armed with a camera, I take my turn at the bow. A friendly bottlenosed dolphin obligingly rides alongside the boat for a photo op. Then two more, and more. At intervals they frolic in the water nearby and then return to the boat to let the bow wave push them along. All the time, I frantically work my camera. The action's too fast for my brand of photography, but in my mind I see some great shots.

Ten more minutes at the bow and I know: I am far from becoming indifferent to the joys of watching these friendly creatures of the sea. I've seen many more dolphins in my previous visits here, and I still have to see Tañon's famous whales. But I'm having fun -- a whale of fun!


Getting There.

The most convenient take-off point to Tañon Strait is South Bais Bay in Bais City, about an hour away from Dumaguete City. If you’re going there on your own, the trip can be expensive. Jeepneys ply the Dumaguete-Bais route (P15, one way, then take a tricycle (P5-10) to the pier), but you have to rent a boat to take you to the Strait – a boat costs from P2,500 (up to 15 passengers) to P3,000 (up to 30 passengers). A more cost-effective way is to organize your friends so you can all go together and split your expenses; a rented car or van can take your group from Dumaguete to Bais and back (P1,300, pick up only). Or call the Tourism Operations Unit of the city mayor’s office (Tel. 035 5415161/4028174; Fax 035 4028181, 4028183) and check if there’s a scheduled tour that you can join.

The tour takes only a day, but you may want to go to Bais in the afternoon and stay the night there so you can start out early for Tañon Strait the next day. Stay at Bahia Hotel (Tel. 0912 5151899, 035 4028850/4028851; P693/room, twin sharing) – it takes you away from the city center, but it offers a nice hilltop view of Bais Bay and the food is good. La Planta Hotel in the city proper (Tel. 035 4038321, 5415755/56; from P1,000-1,700/room) is another good option.


Gearing Up. Water, sunblock lotion, sweatshirt, swimming gear -- not so you can swim with the dolphins, but there’s a sandbar, about 10-15 minutes from the Strait, where you can spend the afternoon lazing in the sun and swimming. You may bring your own food or have your meals catered by the Tourism Operations Unit (P100-200 per person).

Doing it Right.

  1. The best time to watch whales is from April to June, especially on the day before or after a new moon or full moon, or during a first quarter or last quarter moon. Dolphin-watching is possible year-round as long as the water is calm and it is not windy; the peak season is from March to October.
  2. Bring several rolls of film and a high-speed camera with auto-film-advance feature. Generally, whales are easier photography subjects than dolphins, which are highly active. You will typically use up about three rolls of film to get a decent photo of the dolphins.
  3. Bring a whale watching guide so you can identify the whales and dolphins that you see. A good reference is "Field Guide to Whales and Dolphins in the Philippines" by Lory Tan (Bookmark).
  4. Leave early (before 1000), and don’t give up if you don’t see the whales or dolphins at once.
  5. Your guide will give you a briefing before the tour – listen closely, you will appreciate the whale-watching experience a lot better.
  6. The boat’s bow (front) is the best place to watch the dolphins and whales. Some dolphin and whale species (the bottlenosed dolphin and melon-headed whale, for example) like to ride the bow wave of boats.
  7. Do NOT harass the animals in any way. Do NOT feed, touch or pet them. Such actions can disrupt the their natural behavior and be a serious threat to their well-being (these are animals in their natural habitats which must depend on their natural instincts for survival).
  8. Take time for the other highlights of your tour: swimming at the sandbar and a visit at the Talabong Mangrove Reserve. If you start out before 0800, you can stop by Talabong on your way to the Strait, watch the whales and dolphins and then have lunch at the sandbar. Or you can leave shortly before 1000, head straight for the Strait, watch the whales, have lunch at the sandbar and, late in the afternoon, visit the Mangrove Reserve on your way back to Bais City.
  9. While on the boat, store plastic wrappers, empty bottles and cans and other trash in the trash bins provided onboard so they don’t get blown away or roll off the boat into the sea.

Where the whales and dolphins are

Tañon Strait is by no means the only place to see dolphins and whales. Resorts, especially in the Bohol and Cebu area, package their own whale- and dolphin-watching tours. Alegre Beach Resort in Sogod, Cebu offers a "Sunset Cruise" that includes some whale and dolphin watching near the so-called "Bohol-Camiguin-Siquijor triangle". Three marine mammal species have been spotted here: the spinner dolphin, bottlenosed dolphin, and melon-headed whale. Typically, five or six animals are spotted at a time, "not like at Tañon Strait where you see schools of up to a hundred or more dolphins," according to one recent visitor. But the cruise alone, which offers a view of the seascape between Bohol and Cebu, is worth the P800++-per-person price, she swears.

Other spots to see dolphins and whales: Malampaya Sound, including the El Nido and Busuanga areas, Northeastern Sulu Sea area (southwest of Negros and northwest of Dipolog), and Davao Gulf, including Samal Island all the way to General Santos and southeast to Mati.


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This website was made possible through support provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the terms and conditions of Contract No. AID-492-0444-C-00-6028-00. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID.

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