My ears thrummed in the silence as I crouched inside the maw of Panglao’s forbidden cave and shone my headlamp in its dark abyss.
Water glistened on the dripstones above and I smelled the wet chill breath of the giant fissure where the karst parted reluctantly, like a convoluted shell. I thrust myself further in, perched on a spur of the vertical drop and squinted at the thick blackness.
Just below me, I made out possible handholds and footholds, though too shallow and too far apart, on a limestone wall angled at ninety degrees. But even with my headlamp and flashlight combined, I cannot see bottom.
This was my first time to steal alone in an unexplored, unnamed cave. I should have brought a rope. Too late now though. I picked up a broken rock and hurled it in the impenetrable blackness. It clattered down a long time before I heard an unmistakable splash.
I shucked off my shoes. My bare feet can purchase a better grip on the slippery rock though I have to take care not to cut myself on the jagged parts. Warily, I inched down the wall and lowered myself into a ledge less than two feet wide.
By now, I must be half a hundred feet inside the sinkhole. Much lower down, I can see another limestone buttress protruding like a serrated tooth out of still rippling blue waters.
Bohol cradles at least 1,400 caves. Some say the island province took its name from the local word “buho”, meaning “hole” because many of its caves are sinkholes like this – openings from which spring waters seep.
Bizarre creatures, such as albino crabs and blind fish, populate this world which the sun never lit. Humans also sought refuge in these secret passageways. In fact, Danao folks named the Francisco Dagohoy Cave after the patriot who hid away in its underwater mazes in 1744 after starting an 85-year revolt against Spain.
After some maneuvering and grappling with the karst, I managed to drop down to the lowest shelf and into the ice-cold water of a narrow pool which disappeared beneath a giant limestone tongue.
Right away, I suspected other passageways lay hidden beyond, in the wilderness of rocks. This is just a branch of a vast network of streams sunk deep inside the earth.
Unfortunately, I can go no further without risking life and limb. Among other things, I have no guideline, no underwater light and no scuba gear with me. And no one knew I’m here in case something bad happens. My forbidden cave has to wait.
But for an hour at least, I sat at the edge of the waters. I turned off my headlamp and lingered in the abyss, letting the womblike darkness and the silence of the karst walls engulf me. I felt an eerie comfort here, a strange peace.
I don’t wonder now why monks, warriors and mystics meditate and pursue vision quests inside caves. Ancient folks have always revered these subterranean labyrinths as the dwelling place of spirits and a gateway to the netherworld.
Anyway, the Panglao Island Nature Resort (PINR) where I was booked, has at least twenty caves running beneath its 14 hectare property.
Hinagdanan, which means “laddered” in the dialect, lies 150 meters from the hotel’s entrance. Stalactites and stalagmites stud a hallway which leads to an underground lagoon. Both ends of this public cave are open, permitting light to flood in through gaps in the ceiling.
On the other hand, Kambagat, a private cave, is just five minute’s walk from the lobby. The name means Camp in the Sea, or “kampo sa dagat”, and is also referred to as “Pinagtaguan”, or Hiding Place. Almost a hundred Japanese soldiers hid here during World War II. A Boholano guide showed them in and brought food to them until the war was over.
Now, the hotel owner had steps carved in the bedrock to make it easier for guests to negotiate the down climb to Kambagat’s outer chamber two stories below. Before, natives grappled with hanging vines and creepers to lower themselves into the entrance.
Developers also blasted off one rock wall of Kambagat to expose an inner chamber with a pool of brackish water sixteen feet deep. A dark tunnel branched out to a passage where countless bats roost.
The cave was empty when I descended. An outcrop shaped like a giant komodo dragon guarded the stalagmite island of the inner chamber. From the dimly lit waters, I made out canyons of ancient rock and collapsed stone shelves. The waters are bone-chilling cold but I lingered till dusk, savoring the silence.
Then I walked back to my Forest Cottage and rinsed off in the private Jacuzzi on my veranda. As I lay in the bubbles, I gazed at a bleached skeleton of a rainforest giant towering over what remained of the wilderness. On the other side, clusters of thatched roofs protruded from the tops of bamboos and palms.
Yet it’s hard to imagine that I’ve just landed in Tagbilaran on the Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight from Manila over an hour ago.
“Because it’s a nature resort, guests should understand and appreciate Mother Nature as it manifests itself,” the hotel advisory atop my dresser stated. “Lizards, big or small, may visit and don’t panic in case you see pythons.” Thank heavens, I love reptiles.
Before dinner, I took a dip at the twin eternity pools next to the buffet pavilion, watching the horizon fill with the lights of fishing boats. Swiftlets, “sayaw-sayaw” (literally “dance, dance”) dive-bombed the pool for insects, grazing my head with their wings.
Next morning, I sailed off for Balicasag, a coral atoll floating over the Bohol Sea, a stretch of blue which goes out into the Pacific Ocean.
Its sixteen-hectare Marine Sanctuary features a narrow fringe of coral reef ending abruptly in massive walls that formed overhangs, grottos and terraced gardens of giant sea fans and corals before they dropped off into nothingness.
The bottomless walls plunge on “forever”, over a thousand feet below, my dive master confirmed. In fact, many do decompression dives here.
I donned my scuba gear to peek in caves and crevices alive with lionfish, squirrelfish and moray eels. I inspected giant pink gorgonian sea fans and sponges – elephant ears, baskets and barrels. I even spotted some frogfish and scorpion fish as they hugged the rocks, perfectly camouflaged to be almost invisible.
Clouds of silver jacks, surgeon fish, baby barracudas, batfishes, parrot fishes and trevalies eyed me as I finned along the wall. They revolved slowly as I swam in their midst then dispersed in the violet black murk beneath.
Deeper down, I saw huge sweetlips, giant groupers, Napoleon Wrasses, some tuna and rainbow runners. Briefly, a grey shark materialized then vanished in the depths. The ocean’s top predators flock here to feed where the currents meet. Occasionally, hammerhead sharks and whale sharks turn up.
But beyond 50 feet, visibility suddenly dropped. The sea became a thick milky broth which enveloped me. At this time, of all times, my regulator began to leak and the tattered inside rubber of my mouthpiece started to disintegrate. Not a good prospect this deep.
Luckily, I’m not prone to panic. I clamped one hand on the reg. With the other, I traced where the hose of my octopus ended, unclipped my spare reg and switched to another mouthpiece. When I checked my gauge, I have just enough air to turn back and do my safety stop before resurfacing.
Soon, I was on the boat again, bound for Panglao. I perched alone on the bow, watching dark rain-bloated clouds massing ahead. Forks of lightning rent the sky but the sea remained glassy calm in some parts, turbulent in others.
Suddenly, the back of a dolphin arched over the whitecaps. In the next second, the sea came alive with bottlenose dolphins, a baby breaching high in their midst.
From the bow, I watched the unexpected show while the rest of the people in the boat shrieked and fumbled for their cameras.
The tightly-bunched pod dispersed in all directions as our boat headed straight for them. But a handful of the more curious dolphins approached within two feet of me. A big one flung himself out of the sea, rolling his eyes to inspect me. Another torpedoed across our path.
I held my breath as a couple of dolphins swam up beside me to ride the bow waves. For a moment, I found myself between them, so close I can almost touch their glistening backs.
They vanished as fast as they came. But the weariness of my day was forgotten, riding away on the smiling beaks of half a hundred, frolicsome, wild dolphins.