HAD Alfred Hitchcock seen this island, it could have been the location of his famous movie The Birds. The only difference is, the aves are not menacing crows and do not violently attack humans. Instead, they give you expressions of wonder and awe.
For those who do not know, Ursula is a one-of-a-kind bird sanctuary, the country’s best-kept secret for a lot of reasons. It is located in an island in Rio Tuba, Bataraza town, Palawan, far remote from civilization. It is actually an islet off the beaten track that looks like it had been spit out from Palawan mainland some 20 kilometers away.
The virgin landscape is carpeted with the purest and whitest sand you would have ever seen, and most likely, you’d pick your jaw on the beach floor once you step into its realm.
Ursula probably got its name from a British folktale about a virgin martyr. It makes sense because British James Brooke, the self-declared white King of Sarawak and Borneo who traveled to southern Palawan in the 1860s, and one town, Brooke’s Point (where Bataraza used to belong), was named after him. The island’s martyrdom as a bird refuge best explains this theory.
Ursula is not your usual islet. Its vegetation is made up of old- growth lowland forest with moderate undergrowth. In the middle of its far, far away kingdom, a forest with lush, verdant vegetation soars to the sky.
The fringes of Ursula thrive with wild pandan foliage, abundant with pineapple-looking fruits that also resemble Japanese lamps scattered around the whole topography. When they are ripe, they explode with red-orange hues, and the way they display their iridescent presence validates the saying nature is the best art director.
In the past, it has been promoted as an ecotourism destination, but failed to get a sizable amount of visitors because of its inaccessibility, lack of safe mode of transportation, and the continuing debate: Should it remain a bird sanctuary or be opened to the public for tourism purposes?
Ursula Island is notable for a large concentration of Pied Imperial and Grey pigeons that roost for the night in the island’s pristine territory. Along with that, flocks of White-Collared Kingfisher, Macklot’s Sunbird, Pygmy Flowerpecker, Chinese egrets, scops owls, megapodes (Tabon), eagles and the Nico Bar (Siete Colores) make the island their permanent address.
Only three people live on the island—the forest rangers from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) who alternately guard it from poachers of varying degrees. The rest of the inhabitants are birds, birds and more birds, including giant sea turtles.
A huge Palawan Eagle perches on top of a tree about 100 feet high by the island’s seafront entrance. Depending on its mood, you may catch it swooping down on schools of fish, or just gallivanting in different directions, playfully wanting to catch your attention.
The weather in Ursula is so torridly hot that you’d feel you’re directly astride the planet’s equator. That being said, you may need to seek shelter underneath trees or wild bushes to escape the punishing heat.
There are no resorts in Ursula either. No fancy Caribbean-like amenities. Not even primitive cottages. You literally lie, sit and sleep on the beach, on a rock or on a piece of a tree trunk washed ashore if you’re lucky to spot one.
There are no maids to ask if you’ve had breakfast. You don’t see ambulant vendors selling whatnots to tide you over. No fruit shakes or bottled water you can buy to quench your thirst. No ceramic bowls to sit on when nature calls. You had been forewarned that this is an expedition and live like castaway Robinson Crusoe you must.
To admire Ursula’s lonesome winsomeness, you have to shed off your urban lifestyle. At night, the sky is your rooftop, the balmy winds your blanket, and the stars your shimmering bright lampshade. The thought of being surrounded by thousands and thousands of birds competing with a symphony of crickets is your Spotify music.
The waters in Ursula gradate from emerald green to sparkling turquoise blue. While you wait for the “Grand Spectacle” everyone is looking forward to, what to do?
Swim, dive and snorkel to your heart’s content. Cavort with manta rays and countless varieties of fish species—all resplendent in vivid colors the way National Geographic would describe them. Explore the island and circle it by foot. In just about half an hour, you’ll be done.
Be astonished with an abundance of marine wonders along the way. Sit with seagulls on the rocks. You may chance upon megapode (tabon) birds and turtles laying eggs (at nighttime) on a secluded shore. Go wild taking photos of the islet’s avian inhabitants. Penetrate the inner sanctum of the forest (ask permission and go with resident guides). Or just thank God you made it to the island.
A cloud of birds
Wait, those are just appetizers. The visual entrée or ultimate reveal, we are referring to is the sight of birds returning to the island just before sunset. When it is 30 minutes past 5, it is to your best interest not to blink. The main beach facing west is the best place to give you a ringside view of what is going to unfold.
All set? Now look up. Get ready for a sight you’ll probably never ever see again. Behold. From initial groups of tens and twelves, the birds will be in batches of twenties, thirties, and then fifties, and by the hundreds. As they come home from the mainland and neighboring islands, they will start to blacken the sky.
The interval will soon be in a faster, hair-raising succession. Before the sun finally disappears, their number will grow by the thousands. Wheeling like some kind of a hypnotic cloud, they would become one of nature’s most mesmerizing sights, like starlings roosting for the night, cooing and making myriads of nocturnal sounds.
By five in the morning, you would witness “The Flight Redux”, a repeat of what happened last night, the same avalanche, the same sequence, only outward bound. Starting with the same number of batches, the reverse would be replicated. This will be your breakfast. The birds will now hie off to the mainland and hunt for food. The cycle of life goes on.
Our world is full of wonders. Amazing places are discovered every day. Different geographical locations and natural wonders sometimes are hard to believe they actually exist. The BusinessMirror catches up with Rommel Cruz, passionate nature lover and organizer of this once-a-year trip to give you insights on a number of wild expeditions he has organized for Filipinos who love extreme adventure.
Wild expedition leader
“I love outdoor life,” he opens with excitement. Raised in Palawan, Cruz wants people to explore nature in its rawest form just like the way he does.
He was already hunting birds when he was a kid. He sees expedition trips as a venue for people to experience wildlife, nature, local village life, and the feeling of isolation in an island. “For me, this is the real essence of an expedition. By inviting people who are tired of resort life and wanting them to experience a new kind of adventure,” he says.
Before Cruz ventured into organizing wildlife trips, he worked for Katala Foundation for seven years. He was initially assigned assisting filmmakers and bird photographers in scouring the jungles of southern Palawan. Part of his job was to comply with a number of protocols in protecting the area. Identifying birds was part of them.
He eventually went on his own and loosely put up Wild Expedition Palawan with one thing in mind: Wildlife and use the word expedition in his campaigns.
A small team helps Cruz put trips together. A camp manager, assistant tour leader and a cook. As in the Ursula episode, he required that a tour leader must be a birdwatcher. “We have a herpetologist for mountain trips, or an ornithologist for birdwatching tours.
Each trip being different from the other and weather-dependent, Cruz has met many challenges along the way. “We are not your typical resort trip vendors and we know that not everyone is interested in extreme tours,” he explained.
So enamored is he with the word expedition, that Cruz’s mantra is to explore and be pioneering in an unconquered territory. He doesn’t hide his elation that his group has built a different kind of traveler database—adventurers on a different level.
When we bid Ursula goodbye, Cruz and his team brought back bags and sacks of trash to the mainland. He intimated that throughout our stay, his team used organic and biodegradable stuff—from detergents, food, coffee, etc. I gave my bulky jacket to one of the Forest Rangers in the island whose 7-year-old son Javier was my constant companion in roaming the island.
Cruz said outdoor tourism is growing. “It was hard to invite people before, even just for camping, trekking or climbing. Now, they voluntarily list up,” he said. Eighty percent of those who join Cruz’s expedition tours are foreigners, while wildlife photography trips lure 30 percent and the rest of the 70 percent are domestic enthusiasts.
When I was small and Palawan was literally the country’s Last Frontier, a barrio just 5 kilometers away seemed so distant. How much more a village, more than 200 kilometers away?
I was born in Palawan and grew up in Puerto Princesa, but I have never ever been to Ursula, the island our teachers in grade school gloriously told us about. Not even after attending college and pursuing an advertising career for almost 40 years. Ursula remained to be just a fantasy,
March 3, 2018. I came back and forth countless times to my hometown, but Ursula never crossed my mind. Ursula was beginning to slip away. Had I not logged on the Internet on this day, it would’ve escaped my mind for the umpteenth time.
April 5, 2018. It’s now or never. After two weeks of indecision, I dropped everything and made arrangements for the trip. I got hold of the itinerary three days before I flew. Prone to backing out at the last minute, I was mentally prepared this time. At 6 in the morning, my plane was hovering above Puerto Princesa from Manila and I was set to land.
April 7, 2018. I was in a van packed with people whom I didn’t know from Adam. I only came to know about them almost halfway through our trip. Because we were not introduced to each other at the onset, I had little time to socialize and was more focused on how to craft my travelogue.
I would later learn that they were a Dutchman and his Filipina partner, a flawlessly Tagalog-speaking American and his girlfriend, both of them based in Davao, a resort owner in Coron and his son, and a local lawyer. In another van rode the expedition’s crew.
By 8 in the morning, we’re on a long and winding highway to Rio Tuba, 236 freaking kilometers away. “This must be fun,” I said. The six-hour trip would take us to a place I have long been wanting to see, the oldest operating mining community in the province, with a name as exotic as Ursula’s.
We made a stopover in Narra town for lunch. After one hour, we pushed southward, passing through hectares and tiring hectares of palm-oil plantation in Española town. The road network was surprisingly well paved, far from the mud and sludge days of yore when I first traveled to this no man’s land almost 10 years ago.
Brooke’s Point, a quaint, lovely town soon beckoned. On the right side of the van, I could see Mount Maruyog’s strange summit formation with a peak that plunges 45-degrees vertically inching close to Mt. Mantalinggahan, Palawan’s highest mountain range.
You know you’ve reached Bataraza when the soil begins to turn orangey. “Presence of nickel,” I muttered. At the province’s southernmost town on the mainland, you begin to inhale the scent of nickel ore.
It rained hard as we approached Rio Tuba, a grand welcome, I reckoned. No swirling dusts to inhale for some of us who had no sleep at all the previous night. It then stopped abruptly as we rolled down the mining village. The first thing that I noticed: Practically all rooftops were covered with the color of nickel.
We were checked-in at Pring Pension House near the market. Now getting closer to the eastern border of Sabah, we were virtually isolated. No signal for our phones and nothing to do, except stroll around the village (but within safe distance of each other). I strayed in the wet market and got a handful of videos.
Boat to bird sanctuary
April 8, 2018. We woke up at 5 in the morning all ready to take the Ursula plunge. When we got to the jump-off point, it looked like it was going to be a well-planned trip as the speedboat we were to take was already waiting for us. No waiting and it sped away in seconds as all passengers were accounted for.
Prior to this, DENR-Brooke’s Point, the local government of Bataraza through its Tourism Officer Jun Dawili, Mayor Abe Ibba and Police-Maritime Special Boat Unit Supt. Greg Togonon, SPO2 Rodriguez and Rey Togonon of the Coast Guard had made arrangements to assist us.
The Coast Guard men on our boat all looked glum, poker-faced and seldom talked, making my fertile mind percolate with some sordid news. Fearing that they would distract me from enjoying the trip, I immediately shut them off my mind.
I jumped into the boat and positioned myself at the rear end so that when I take photos, no one would photobomb what I was recording from behind. Bad decision. The tumultuous slamming of waves, aggravated by bad weather, drenched me all over.
It was also the worst spot for an unknowing senior citizen to choose. My companions who were safely seated near the boat’s steering wheel area were of no help either. Only my presence of mind, and a grip, tighter as hell, saved me from flipping over. If my previous Tawi-Tawi trip was a breeze, this was like facing a gale head-on.
We reached Ursula in less than one hour (the smaller boat carrying the expedition crew arrived a full hour later). When the island’s majestic view loomed right in front of us, there was another lull: We couldn’t get ashore.
We learned that the crewmen were extra careful in choosing a spot for us to land, so as not to crush the corals underneath. Had it lasted for a few more minutes I would have thrown up due to the boat’s nonstop swaying.
Should Ursula be opened to tourists?
I have found my fountain of youth in Ursula. But deeper questions had to be asked. Should it be opened to the public? We asked people from all walks of life. Here are their thoughts:
“Bird and animal sanctuaries provide an area for wildlife to live their lives as nature intended to. History has shown that man’s influence on their environment has been to modify and make the environment adapt to his needs. These needs are often, if not always, in conflict with nature’s needs. As such, sanctuaries should be protected, and tourists regulated. When tourists come in droves, they surely start to make the environment adjust to their convenience. We need tourism that is less invasive,” said Jackie Gamboa, sports entrepreneur.
“It is better that it be off-limits to tourists as it will disturb the island’s fragile ecosystem equilibrium,” said a UP marine expert the moment I posted photos of the island on social media. “It is a sanctuary, and therefore, must be closed to irresponsible tourists,” said a Palawan-based environmentalist who has been to many far-flung islands in the country.
“A bird sanctuary that lacks protection will not serve its purpose. We are noted for nature and our wildlife. If we can’t hold on to what makes us stand out on the global stage, so what’s new?” said Inigo Acuna, digital artist and stage actor.
Enrico Chee, a Malaysian millennial who has been to the Philippines as a youth sport ambassador, said: “Without this uniqueness, there won’t be any demand for tourism in the future.”
“Wildlife and their ecosystems are vital parts of our country’s cultural identity. We already suffer from lack of a clear identity. We should protect them, not destroy them,” said Filipino-British Adrian Williams, a digital entrepreneur.
Medy Beroy, a Filipina journalist based in the US, said: “As long as Ursula is protected, local and migratory birds can live in peace and multiply abundantly in a sustainable way. Tourists will only destroy it.”
People have noticed that the number of birds in Ursula have diminished in the last 10 years due to human encroachment on their habitat. Opening the place for tourism purposes will aggravate the matter, according to them.
Last, this is the best argument why Ursula Island should remain a bird sanctuary, excellently verbalized by Lauren Finnessey in her published scholarly article, actually her thesis that was submitted to Johnson and Wales University, Rhode Island, USA:
“Tourism is one of the largest industries worldwide, and travelers commonly visit national parks and protected areas because of the peaceful scenery they offer. While tourists love to see these natural environments in their undisturbed states, they oftentimes add to the degradation of these parks.
“Tourists can harm the environment in many ways, and may be unaware of what they are doing. Many visitors are there to see the beauty in nature and are focusing on enjoying themselves and not what they are leaving behind. Actions such as trampling on vegetation add to the destruction of the land.
“The negative impact of tourism on national parks is a global problem. Parks in all countries and continents struggle with these issues and are looking for ways to minimize their effects. Other countries like England, Canada and some Asian countries are trying to reverse the impacts that tourists have on their natural preserved areas.
“State parks have also been threatened due to their cost for rangers and upkeep. In New York, many state parks were shut down for a period of time due to budget costs and understand that they should reduce the negative impacts that people have on the parks in order to keep them around for generations to come.
“Tourism in national parks is a growing trend due to the economic standing of the country and the increase in interest of ‘ecotourism’. Travelers want to spend time in natural and peaceful areas, but with growing numbers of tourists comes an increase in problems.
“An example of this would be a ‘soft ecotourist’. Soft ecotourists have anthropocentric tendencies, which means they view themselves as the most important beings in the world. Because of this, their dedication and knowledge of environmental issues is not as deep as their ‘hard ecotourist’ counterparts.”