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Sing For the Moment

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Nonprofit organization Balyena has spent nearly a decade pursuing humpback whales across the Babuyan Islands, and return to the human communities that call these islands home.

Photography by
Story by
Sonny Thakur
Read Time
Location Tag

The Brent Josephine tore through the blue canvas, drawing a chasm between the sky and the sea.

She was built entirely by hand, like all outrigger types that are born on these islands; the wooden hull was coated in aquamarine while the edges were lined in orange, her name gleaming proudly in white cursive. This was a boat built by fishermen, yet today it carried neither fish nor hunter.

Perched on the roofless deck, as the April sun burned relentlessly upon their skin, was a group made up of the most seemingly unlikely characters to ever set out on a sea expedition together: a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a fresh graduate, a couple of government workers—their lives and professions worlds away from this remote fishing village on Camiguin, the smallest of the islet cluster known as the Babuyan Group of Islands, in the northernmost part of the Philippine archipelago. Neither residents nor tourists, they were still acclimating to the scorching temperatures and treacherous weather of this place they were learning to call home for a few weeks.

Hundreds of years ago, royal vessels and warships braved the fury of the northeast monsoon winds to sail across the Babuyan Channel, dropping anchor upon laying their eyes on land. Surely, the sight of limestone cliffs and the lush forests that covered every island in the Camiguin de Babuyanes must have caused their hearts to swell with hope and awe. Today, this motley group of travelers aboard a humble pumpboat would repeatedly cross these very same mercurial waters.

Their uniform blue t-shirts all bore the symbol of a humpback whale at the front. They are not the first group of volunteers that Balyena.org has sent out on a research survey expedition to monitor migration and breeding patterns of humpback whales in the Babuyan Marine Corridor. This was the third of three survey groups this year that had managed to venture out to search for the Asian stock of Western North Pacific humpback whales, which pass through these parts as they migrate from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, toward warmer waters for their winter breeding cycle.

As the boat made its way back towards the shoreline of Barangay Balatubat, the founder of Balyena stood at the frontmost edge of the deck. Dr. Jom Acebes gestured to the boat captain and called it a day, her dark glasses concealing any sign of frustration.

“We haven’t heard a single song since we arrived,” Julia, one of the volunteers, reported. Clutching a black Pelican case in one hand and several dry bags with the other, she entered through the makeshift gate of the open cottage. Fishermen and seafarers that venture far out into the open sea sometimes hear whalesong, resonating from depths unknown, sung by creatures weighing up to 40 tons and measuring up to 18 meters in length. Only the males sing. Heard within 800 meters and lasting up to 20 minutes, their songs are intended to beguile the females of their species.

Nearly all the tasks for the day were complete, yet one still had yet to be crossed off the list. A piece of paper was taped on the wall, prescribing the daily drill of tasks for each of the volunteers: “Wash and clean hydrophone after each survey” is written in blank ink, just above “Encode data in photo ID database.”

Setting the heavy plastic case on the rough concrete, Julia moved quickly, retrieving the hydrophone with the care of handling a fragile infant. Unwrapping the plastic, uncoiling the wire, she carefully dipped the hydrophone in a bucket, washing off any sand and debris. It was a lightweight and seemingly simple audio device, yet so essential to the marine biologists that I can’t help but wonder if these things are insured.

“You can really hear the humpbacks singing when the sea is calm and still. So we heard it all from above the surface…”<callout-alt-author>Dr. Jom Acebes<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

The sun had begun its descent. The sky painted a rapid swirl of purple and pinkish hues, while a fiery streak of amber still burned towards the eastern end of the horizon. Inside the cottage, the volunteers were huddled at the long worktable, laden with laptops, books, documents, folders. The table was silent, save for the sound of rapid tapping on keyboards, the rustling of pages, and scratching of pencils against paper—a frantic race against the fleeting light. Julia, typing furiously to encode all the data from the day’s survey into the digital database before dusk fell. Luca, another volunteer and an intern for Balyena, was assisting her with transcribing data from the handwritten notes. Over their shoulders, amidst the sea of notes I could decipher the main report of the day: No sighting. No whale.

The volunteers of Balyena are not whale watchers, as they adamantly declare, and maintain a considerable distance in the event of an actual sighting. This was the fifth day into their survey, and with the exception of a mother and calf tandem that was serendipitously spotted on their first survey day, they had not much success, unlike the previous teams that embarked on the survey earlier that month.

Their expedition leader’s voice broke the silence, her calm voice punctuated by a firm resolve, which never ceased to raise the team’s morale. “Tomorrow we go out and search again.”

Babuyan islands map Cagayan province

One hot afternoon in 1999, Jo Marie had just graduated from college and was combing the streets of Teachers Village in Quezon City in search of a particular office. She had hoped the iconic black and white panda logo would be emblazoned on the building’s facade or gate, just to ease her search a bit. A friend had told her that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature actually had an office in the Philippines, news that caught her with much surprise as well as filled her with hope. Clutching her resume, she prayed that her bachelor degrees in veterinary medicine and biology would be needed at WWF-Philippines.

So when Dr. AA Yaptinchay, the head of WWF’s Species and Conservation Unit at that time, received her resume and offered her a spot to help gather data about humpback whales wintering in the Babuyan Group of Islands in northern Luzon, she plunged in without a moment of hesitation and took the volunteer post, despite the fact that she hardly knew anything about whales, cetaceans, or coastal research.

“One of my first tasks was to make a poster for AA, for his presentation at the Marine Mammal Conference that year in Hawaii,” Jom recalls. “It is the biggest conference on marine mammals in the world and that year was the first time the Philippines ever presented about sightings of humpback whales in the country. It was a big discovery for such a well-known species.”

“We are surrounded by water and have so many species of whales and dolphins, yet we know so little about our own marine environment.”<callout-alt-author>Dr. Jom Acebes<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

A few months after the conference, Jom was tasked to travel to the Babuyan Islands and conduct interviews with the local communities, particularly the fishermen and those that dwell in the coastal areas, for they would be the first knowledge of any sort of whale activity in their waters.

This required Jom to travel to a part of the country that rarely ever saw visitors. The trip, which entailed 15 hours of land travel from Manila to Tuguegarao City by bus, followed by another half day to reach the coastal towns of Aparri, Claveria, or Santa Ana—where one may spend the night in a convent dormitory or one of the few hostels—in order to catch a five-hour pumpboat ride that would take her to Fuga Island, the closest to the mainland (its neighbors—Camiguin, Dalupiri, Calayan, and Babuyan—all belong to the Province of Cagayan). This was long before the age of high-speed internet and online maps or navigators. Nonetheless, Jom made her way to Fuga Island, the same island that Dr. Yaptinchay had visited during his initial investigation about the presence of humpback whales in the area. Though there were no whale sightings for her at that time, Jom brought back enough land area information and the right contacts to prepare her to lead the first research expedition to the island the following year.

“I still remember that first survey. We were all first-timers; nobody was really a cetacean or marine biology expert. Though we had four biologists, didn’t really see much—just a few dolphins. It wasn’t until one of the volunteers was drinking with  the local fishers and became friends with one of them. He took us out on his own boat the following day and brought us to the spot where he said they would often see humpbacks. And true enough, after a few minutes, we heard singing. We just stopped and stayed there. It was a perfectly calm day. You can really hear the humpbacks singing when the sea is calm and still. So we heard it all from above the surface, even without a hydrophone.”

Garmin GPS device for going out at sea
Photo of a whale fluke

By 2006, as WWF shifted its focus away from species-centric research efforts in the country, the funding for such projects was discontinued, including the humpback whale research in the Babuyan Islands. Jom found herself confronted with the decision to either let years of research simply go to waste or continue the project by herself.

She decided to go on. Balyena was registered as a non-profit organization, with the primary objective of continuing the task of monitoring the patterns and presence of wintering humpback whales in the Babuyan Channel, and by comparing whale photos and song recordings with other international groups, they could advance their pursuit of finding links with other populations in the western North Pacific, particularly in feeding grounds. “Balyena is not just doing research. Everything that we collect—whether it’s for humpbacks or dolphins or fisheries or mobula rays— we want it to be used to raise awareness to conserve the species or the habitat, and at the same time to educate the people that live in these areas,” Jom explained.

“We are surrounded by water and have so many species of whales and dolphins, yet we know so little about our own marine environment. So we conduct talks in the communities and schools in these areas, also along the coasts. We try to cover the areas where humpbacks are usually found and raise awareness about them—why they’re there, what are the threats, as well threats to the marine environment. Of course it’s not easy. But we still do it. Every year.”

We found the moon still lingering at 6 o’clock the next morning. A faint layer of mist hovered over the earth as we made our way towards the shore, in single file, clutching dry bags, food baskets, and data-gathering equipment. It was another survey day, as the group would sail yet again across the Babuyan Marine Corridor to different location points that had been identified as sighting spots. Once onboard, everyone moved like clockwork. Half of the group moved towards the front, sheathed from head to toe against the sun, gazing out into the horizon and scanning the seas from left to right and back.

Upon checking the time, they were officially “on effort”, a term used to denote the task of actively scanning and monitoring the seas for any sightings of species, whether it be of the water, air, or land-dwelling kind. Harley Aguinaldo, the boat captain, was poised at the center of the deck, holding a GPS tracker. As soon as Jom gave him the go signal, the boat began to glide across the surface of the water, barely causing a ripple.

Hours passed, and so did a couple more location points on the GPS tracker, yet there was still no indication of whales anywhere.

Several times that morning, they would kill the boat engine and drop the hydrophone, as Julia and Luca pressed the headphones against their ears, waiting for the distinct humming of a whale song. The heat in the Babuyan Islands is a different level, reaching up to 50 degrees in the peak of summer, and without proper care and preparation, could lead to heat stroke and severe sunburn. Without the protection of a roof or shade, everyone on the boat remained exposed to the sun’s burning fury.

A humpback whale shows its fluke over the water

“Breach! Breach!”

Loud voices and the sight of our boat captain and his brother, Wilson, running across the beach broke our relaxed, post-lunch chatter. Worried and confused, we asked what the commotion was all about, yet they continued to race towards the other end of the island, somewhere in Pamoctan.

“I think... they said there’s a whale,” said one of the volunteers.

This was enough to make us drop everything and gallop towards the shoreline, where Harley and Wilson had finally stopped.

“May nakakita daw ng balyena,” Harley reported, after discussing with the island’s watcher. “Sa may Pamuktan nag-breach.” We set out into the water, with Brent Josephine roaring in full speed.

Anticipation filled the boat as everyone’s senses spiked, all 12 of us suddenly pitching on-effort. A ripple of excitement washed over me. With every passing minute, my awareness grew more acute; suddenly, I could hear everything, smell everything, see every glimmer of movement in the open waters. Everything was so still that the drumming in my chest felt as though it had overpowered the boat’s cantankerous engine.

“Blow!”

We all jolted, the lump in my throat nearly exploding as Harley’s voice tore through the tension. And there it was. Several hundred meters away, in the middle of nothing but water, a billowing cloud of mist and water shot towards the sky.

A flurry of excitement erupted throughout the boat while we watched the spray of water. A split-second later, two white-speckled gray flags flipped from the surface of the water and pointed up to the sky, as the two lobes of the cetacean’s tail whipped out of the water and made a splash.

“Fluke!”

The volunteers cried out, using the proper term for the creature’s tail. The hydrophone was immediately lowered into the water and we all waited for the distinctive sound of whalesong. The others kept their eyes peeled towards the vast seas, taking turns with the binoculars, scanning the water for more activity, for a sign of another whale. This went on for a few more hours, like a mad chase around the Babuyan Marine Corridor, as our boat sped across the sea each time we’d catch a glimpse of a blow or a fluke from the surface of the water, hundreds of meters into the distance.

Dr. Jom Acebes of Balyena Org
Dr. Jom Acebes


“Of course it knows we’re here,” said Jom as she peered into the viewfinder of her camera, adjusting the telescopic lens. “But it doesn’t seem threatened, it doesn’t seem to be swimming away from us. If anything, it could be curious about us, as it had us swimming around in circles.”

Are they playful? Jom hesitated. “Compared to most animals out in the wild, especially those living below the ocean, humpback whales tend to display traits that are seemingly playful and charismatic—as they are curious and also gentle and seem to put on a show that really entertains us, humans,” she began to explain. “But... I don’t know—how do we know they are really being playful? We are interpreting everything from one perspective—the human perspective— using cues, body language, and an understanding of communication that’s only known to our species. But... we don’t really speak whale, right? What works for us doesn’t necessarily apply to them—or other species for that matter.”

“We humans always tend to anthropomorphize animals,” Julia chimed in.

“But isn’t that what we humans do best?” I said. “Believe that we know everything?”

“Yeah. Unfortunately.”

A volunteer rests after research
A local shack in Babuyan Group of Islands

We lingered for a few minutes, scanning the horizon, hoping for a glimpse of a whale’s fluke or perhaps another breath, or if we were lucky, a breach, or a spy hop—a term for when the whale raises its head above the surface of the water in a vertical angle. Jom glanced back at Harley. “Looks like we can go home now,” she announced, packing the binoculars.

“It seems we’ve met this whale before, on another survey in 2014,” Jom announced, showing me a photo with similar markings on the whale’s fluke. “It has the same pattern of white splotches, as well as the tears and ridges along the edges of the fluke.” The whale was male and this time, it appeared alone instead of with a pod. It is also a common sight for mothers and calves to make the perilous journey across oceans with a male escort, though there has not been any study that has ascertained whether or not these escorts could be the biological father of the whale calf.

After dinner, Harley and Wilson stopped by with a few bottles of rum and Red Horse to unwind with the group over some card games. As they traded stories and mishaps from previous expeditions, there was a notable bond between the group and the boat captain’s family. While it was my first time to ever cross the Babuyan Channel or search the seas for whales, most of the volunteers have been working with Balyena for the past several years.

As Harley was recounting an instance when their boat capsized in the midst of a menacing rainstorm, Sharon noticed that she hadn’t been seeing one of his assistants lately. The boat captain shrugged. “He’d rather go fishing,” Harley replied, his Tagalog thick with the Ilocano accent. “Says he earns more fishing than joining these surveys. I think it just bores him.” Theirs was a family of fishermen. All the men in their family learn how to fish before they even learn how to read and write. Harley was, however, more interested in the boats than fish. By the time he was 17, he had joined a major fishing crew and spent several years working on large fishing ships. In those years, he studied the make of various watercraft, fascinated by their form as well as their function. He built his own boat by the age of 20 and found himself hooked. He had found his passion, his craft—and a lucrative way for him to make money without being so far from home.

Harley, a local fisherman and the group's boat captain

Harley returned to his family, to this very same island, and spent the next ten years building boats for his family to use. “I figured, why should my family spend the little money that they earn on boats when we can just build our own and use the money for food? The kids’ schooling?” He explained. “I can also sell the boats or make money off them aside from fishing, as transportation around the islands. I was then able to save up enough to buy some land and grow some vegetables, my own small farm.” Today, he makes a steady living from this boats.

“Did the people living here always know about the whales?” I asked Harley. He nodded, reaching for a handful of peanuts. “Of course, people here are fishers, they’re always out in the water. They always saw them, out in the sea, sometimes from the coast. My father did, my grandfather, my neighbor’s father.”

“And did anyone ever hunt them?” I asked carefully.

Harley shook his head. “Not that I know of. I never really heard about anyone hunting whales here. It seems too risky, they’re too big,” he mused. “More likely sharks. But not the whales.” “Was it because they were afraid of the whales?” I wondered.

Harley paused to think. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “Nobody really made a big thing out of them. People knew they were around; they’d pass through every year but they never bothered us, so we never really bothered about them. But then we’d only see parts of them; I don’t think anyone really knew how large they actually are.”

“When you talk about fisheries, you’re not just talking about fish. You’re talking about people... about communities.”<callout-alt-author>Dr. Jom Acebes<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

“It’s the other fishermen that bother to hunt them,” Wilson said. “The Taiwanese have the boats for it. Those whales wouldn’t fit in our boats.”

Harley looked thoughtful. “They’re always talking about tourism—whale and dolphin watching—they do that in other places like Bohol and Cebu,” he said. “But I don’t know... this is a small town; there are no hotels or transportation to get around, except maybe for the kuliglig or the boats. And we’ve never disturbed the whales—and maybe that’s why they keep returning all these years, because they’ve always felt safe.”

“There have been less of them these past few years, but we’re not sure why,” one of the volunteers said. “Some say climate change—the whales probably didn’t feel the need to travel far for warmer waters in some seasons; others say dynamite fishing as well as bombing the shipwrecks underwater for metal might have scared them and kept them away.”

We all sat quietly for a while, chewing on these thoughts. Jom shook her head. “Tourism is not always the right solution for everything,” she said quietly.

Balyena volunteers encode their day's research data

A few weeks before we joined the expedition in the Babuyan Marine Corridor, the Convention on International Treaties on Endangered Species (CITES) had announced that they had included the manta ray in their list of endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species, thus prohibiting it from being hunted or harmed under any circumstance. Effective since April 4, 2017, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) imposed a total fishing ban and declared it illegal to catch, sell, purchase, transport, possess, or export manta rays—dead or alive, raw or processed—including the Manta alfredi (giant reef manta), the Manta birostris (giant manta ray), and the different types of devil rays. (As of June 24, 2017, the Zoological Journal of The Linnean Society published a DNA study that officially reclassifies the manta as simply Mobula.)

This should then make the line between fishing and poaching less blurry; it should be clear that catching and taking the species in any way—accidental or not—would be considered illegal and entail corresponding legal action. This greatly affected several fishing communities around the Philippines, such as Bohol where the meat of manta rays (known as sanga in the local dialect) is in great demand.

Bohol is the site of Balyena’s other project, one that is focused more on sustainable fishing than it is on gathering data for species conservation. It is also the project that has had Balyena knee-deep in murky waters, as they are faced with the tough position of championing the species as a marine research and conservation group while considering the livelihood and plight of fishing communities in these coastal areas. Sustainability and conservation cannot be just black or white, according to Jom.

“I believe total bans are a lazy attempt at resolving a situation,” she explained. “I personally believe that when you talk about fisheries, you’re not just talking about fish. You’re talking about people. You’re talking about communities. There’s a Bisaya term for it actually: kinabuhi. Para sa kanila, it’s a way of life, not just a job they earn money from. It’s a way of living that they learn from their elders, passed down through generations. When that’s gone—just like that, out of nowhere— what will they do? What will they be? This is not to say that we agree with poaching or killing vulnerable species— of course not. But how much do you think a simple coastal fisherman with a small boat would be able to catch? So, I’m not against bans per se, but I believe total bans don’t work.”

She continues to enumerate the factors that disrupt and complicate the sustainability of communities vis-a-vis their relationship with marine species. “Look at what happened in Jagna, they [imposed the fishing ban] without any consultation, without giving opportunities to find alternative sources of income. Then what about bycatch? Do they really believe it would be that simple and easy to just surrender and turn over a manta if it’s accidentally caught? Of course these fishers would be afraid of being implicated or apprehended. Now, there’s no way people will just talk or be transparent or accountable. Now, it will just be harder to trace facts and make reliable reports and solve these issues.” Jom’s voice is slightly teetering on the edge now. “See, if I accidentally caught a dolphin, would I report it now? If I do, parang umamin ako that I killed a dolphin—and it doesn’t say anywhere in the law that accidental [incidents] would be pardoned. Same issue with hunting of mantas, mobulas, and other species.”

Dr. Jom Acebes with Darius, her dog, and Harley's niece

We took a few moments to let the conversation lighten up. “What made you choose whales?” I asked Jom.

This made her pause. “I didn’t, really,” she said slowly, thinking. “My real dream was more about gorillas in the African jungles like Dian Fossey.” She pauses again, reflecting quietly. “When I started [researching on cetaceans and humpback whales], nobody else was doing it here then. I had this opportunity and I grabbed it, and invested myself in the research... and just had to keep continuing the work. And still have to. It’s a continuous struggle to keep it going; luckily, we keep getting support and funding, but it’s not enough. It has become so much larger; it’s more than just about me, or Balyena, or the whales. There are communities and lives of people involved.”

The afternoon sun began to dip, the horizon darkened with a smear of amber. Some of the volunteers are resting on their beds, the others still busy working on their notes. I watch as Luca plays with Harley’s nieces, Danica and Irene, two feisty six-year-olds who never seem to run out of energy.

Jom sat back in her chair, her gaze following the setting sun. Darius, the large household canine who seemed to take his role as guard dog very seriously, plopped on the ground beside Jom’s chair and carefully positioned his head right below her hand. His black nose nudges her fingers, begging for her attention. Instinctively, her hand strokes the dog’s head, as she stares out into the horizon, obviously deep in thought.

“Before, when we started, it was purely research and a little bit of outreach,” she said. “But I believe as researchers, it’s also our responsibility to know how our work affects communities. We keep coming back to these places, doing our research, using their resources, but there are all sorts of issues that may not have anything to do with the whales or the species, but are still happening right in front of us—we can’t just say, ‘sorry, we don’t do that’ and just carry on like nothing. At the end of the day, they are the ones who live here. They must have some sort of stake.” She turns to Darius for a bit, ruffling his fur affectionately.

Out in the distance, a small boat headed towards the island. The sea was so utterly flat and calm that the boat appeared to be floating over glass. Somewhere, further beyond the horizon and below the depths of our own understanding, the chorus of a song filled the abyss, dedicated to those who are worthy of hearing it.

A dolphin accompanies the group's boat