Around Palawan in 60 days–in kayaks
Puerto Princesa City— They battled swells approaching from 5 meters, winds of up to 35 kilometers per hour and off-season heavy rains limiting visibility to no more than an arm’s length.
Conditions were at times so extreme that they once wrestled with their kayaks for 45 minutes to move forward by only 200 meters, often being pushed back by gales. It
was during these rough times that the two friends had to work together the most to
Overcoming their ordeal, Ross Murray-Jones and Mark Coronato, both British nationals, set a world record of
sorts last week as the first to circumnavigate Palawan, the country’s longest island province, on hand-paddled sea kayaks, covering some 1,300 kilometers of calm and stormy seas in two months.
The duo, both professionals and triathletes from London, began their journey in early December from Coron Island in northern Palawan.
They crossed the Calamian Channel to explore the tourist town of El Nido in the northern mainland, navigating through dangerous waters off Balabac in the southernmost tip, and finally ending a grueling marathon hampered by monsoon gales and two strong typhoons on Feb. 15 in the small beach resort of Floresitas, in the fishing community of Sibaltan in El Nido.
Jones and Coronato were emphatic in underscoring the natural beauty of Palawan as seen from their kayaks. “The best way to see this island is by sea. We found the beauty of Palawan just wonderful and it does feel less touristy than some other parts of the country—the scenery is just unparalleled,” Jones said.
“Our encounters with dolphins, dugongs, reef sharks, dozens of sea turtles and leaping mobula rays made the days interesting,” Coronato said.
The two said they were impressed that many parts of the province had remained pristine and largely unexploited by mass tourism.
Meeting the locals
Jones and Coronato had planned and embarked on their journey as a private expedition.
Though they are enthusiastic triathletes, they are not experienced kayakers. “We wanted a challenge where we didn’t have to rely on anyone else, so sea kayaking was our decision,” Jones said.
They had to learn the skills from the South East Kayaking in England before coming to the country for the first
time. Jones said it was Singaporean kayaker and world-record holder Khoo Swee Chiow who encouraged them to take on Palawan.
Their journey stirred local frenzy, with every successful leg celebrated with communities and local hosts they befriended along the way, including provincial officials who volunteered to assist them.
“The single biggest highlight of this entire trip was the people we encountered,” Coronato told the Inquirer. “The support and hospitality that we received along the way have been truly amazing.”
During their first stop in Sibaltan, an obscure fishing village far from the main tourist routes on the other side of El Nido, Jones and Coronato were stranded for nearly a week because of heavy monsoon winds.
Their host resort, Floresitas, threw a red carpet welcome and organized a surprise 30th birthday party for Coronato.
“They blew us away—crabs, homemade cocktails, food for everyone and an incredible birthday cake,” Coronato said.
“They even arranged for some of the village children to come by and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ I was speechless,” he said.
They sought advice from the provincial government before they set out for the final leg of their journey through the dangerous waters of southern Palawan. The area was the site of recent kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf bandit group.
Gov. Jose Alvarez instructed his staff to arrange a security team to escort them and ensure that they rounded safely the southern tip, particularly the most treacherous 220-km stretch between Brooke’s Point and Quezon town.
Jones and Coronato were accompanied by five men from the provincial government’s Rescue 165 team, a local emergency response group, and four Marines soldiers on two speedboats.
Personnel of the military’s Western Command were monitoring the pair’s progress.
“We want to promote every aspect of the unique landscape and amazing biodiversity of Palawan and I salute the tenacity of these two British explorers as they enter the record books, becoming the first kayakers to circumnavigate the world’s best island,” Alvarez said.
Midway through the journey, Jones posted on his Facebook page a query on where he could have his damaged spearfishing gear repaired.
“David, an expat, volunteered to bring me to the Badjaos (a fishing community in the coastal fringes of Puerto Princesa City). We went there one evening and they served us food, fixed my spear gun and never asked for anything in return. Coming from London, this was phenomenal,” Jones said.
Jones and Coronato said the islands of Linapacan in the Calamianes and parts of Balabac were among the unexplored and unexploited parts of Palawan.
“When we got there, it was so majestic. Linapacan’s reef was well maintained. It seems crazy to me that you’ve got so many tourists going to El Nido and Coron and you have this beautiful island that no one is [exploring]. It’s only a matter of time until people connect the dots and discover this place,” Jones said.
According to Alvarez, the marine attractions of Balabac may be more exciting than El Nido, if these are properly developed.
He said the provincial government had begun upgrading the road network around the southern tip.
“The congeniality of the Filipino people can be seen as an example of human kindness at its best, and Palawan should be on top of any traveler’s bucket list,” Jones said.