Towers and spires of limestone stand above crystal clear waters with corals and fish beneath.

When you swim in a Coron lake or lagoon, you are surrounded by walls of limestone, some 50 meters high or more. They are like the cement facades of skyscrapers without windows, half submerged and rising from depths of 50 to 80 meters below. When you look up at the cliffs and trees, you can’t help but wonder how it all got there. It’s like a basilica full of water where the ceilings are the sky and heaven itself. The silence comes not from prayer but from the challenges of seeing and preserving such beauty. No person, company, or government can construct something like Coron Island. This is why we tend to come up with gods and spirits to help explain such things.

Coron Island
The municipality of Coron is located on the southeast end of Busuanga Island in Northern Palawan. The town is actually named after Coron Island, viewable from Coron town proper on the Busuanga side.

The karst limestone landscape is home to various tree and bird species above the water too.

Coron Island looks nothing like its larger neighboring island, Busuanga. When you land at Busuanga Airport, the land is reddish and quite bare along the highway. It looks much like nearby Mindoro’s soil as well. This is probably because, according to Philippine biogeography studies, Mindoro and Palawan broke off from mainland Asia some 30 million years ago.

On the map, it looks like an inverted drop of almost pure limestone. From the coast of Coron town proper, it looks like a sleeping giant with forested bumps and mounds of limestone along its back.

The limestone of Coron Island dates back some 180 million years.

Coron Island is also part of that continental slab, of which Mindoro and the rest of Palawan are a part of, colliding with the rest of the Philippines some 10 million years ago, as quoted from geologist Manny Bate. But the limestone of Coron Island itself dates back some 180 million years ago. Like most limestone in the ocean, it was likely formed not by sleeping giants, but by smaller creatures: shellfish, corals, and clams. The island slowly rose to life over millions of years, formed from the dead marine life that slowly absorbed calcium carbonate from the sea for protection. This is the process of how marine limestone is made. 

Coron Island is reminiscent of the limestone pillars of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. According to NASA, islands in this bay were also formed by shells and carbonate sediments some 300 million years ago. They were then lifted, exposed, and carved by the elements around 40 million years ago.

It is no wonder then, that Coron Island’s beauty comes from something as majestic and immeasurably timeless as plate tectonic upheavals, the shells of countless extinct and existing species achieving the permanence of rock, etched by a millennia of rain, uncountable storms, and typhoons with no names.

Coron Island super ultimate tour
During the boat tour you will meet your tour guide, boat captain, and the rest of the team needed to cook your food and keep watch over visitors and the boat. They might give memorized trivia and corny jokes in broken English to the foreign tourists, but if you are Filipino, feel free to listen to their local knowledge and tsismis in fluent Tagalog, Cuyonon, or Bisaya.

One of the tour packages is called “Coron Island Super Ultimate Tour.” The list of destinations include Barracuda Lake, Kayangan Lake, Twin Lagoon, Twin Peaks Coral Garden, Beach 91, Balinsasayaw Reef, and CYC Beach. All but Balinsasayaw and CYC Beach are located on the coast of Coron Island. Our tour guide John Renz shared that tourists are restricted to certain parts of the limestone Island, which was most of the destinations on the tour. Not only do restrictions help preserve and maintain the island’s limestone terrain, forest, and biodiversity, but it also helps keep the lakes clean. This was made possible thanks to the work of Coron Island’s Indigenous community: the Calamian Tagbanwa.

“P100 per tourist goes to the Tagbanwa,” shared Renz during the tour.

“Most of the revenue from Coron Island tourism goes to the Tagbanwa,” shared a coffee shop manager in Coron town.

But this was all I heard or saw about the Tagbanwa, despite the fact that they had been living there longer than many of Coron’s migrant residents.

The Tagbanwa
Tagbanwa means “from the place”, or “original inhabitants of the place” according to the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development, Inc. (PAFID). Banwa sounds similar to the Filipino word Bansa, which means country or land. In fact, banua in Proto-Malayo-Polynesian means “inhabited land, territory supporting the life of a community.” The term anakbanwa for example is used in Pangasinan and means “child of the homeland or territory.”

Though there are Tagbanwa who have long lived on the different islands of Palawan, their languages and cultures are distinct from each other. The Calamian Tagbanwa speak a different language than the Aborlan Tagbanwa or Apurawnon on the larger island of Palawan. The culture of the Calamian Tagbanwa on Coron Island is also different in that theirs is unique to life in the ocean, than that of living from the land like the Apurawnon. There is also a Tagbanwa writing system similar to Baybayin, but I couldn’t find information as to which Tagbanwa communities still use it. A friend who lived in the northern part of Busuanga informed me that the Tagbanwa communities there do not use it.

There are other groups in Palawan as well, such as Agutaynon, Kagayanen, Molbog, Batak, as well as the Cuyonon, and Filipino migrants from Luzon and the Visayas. Migrants in Palawan are also referred to as lumalayag (sailors) or “those who migrated to the area by sea”, according to PAFID.

The West has a term, “deserted island.” But Filipinos and Indigenous people on islands all over the world have long known the riches of islands. Coron Island, though seemingly made mostly of uninhabitable limestone, has its own wealth that the Tagbanwa living there have long sustained and subsisted from.

The riches of Coron Island
The Tagbanwa depend on two natural resources on Coron Island, the first is fish, tekbeken or octopus, latuk or seaweed and other marine biodiversity. The next important ancestral resource is luray, or the nests of balinsasayaw or local and endemic swiftlets. Luray are prized key ingredients for bird’s nest soup, an expensive delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine. Known as yanwo (燕窩), one bowl of bird’s nest soup in Hong Kong can cost between $30 to $100 U.S. dollars. A kilogram or about 90 to 120 nests, can cost up to $2,000 US dollars.

Buwad or daing, or dried fish, is a source of income for not only the Tagbanwa but other Coron residents and fishers as well.

The value of luray is in its “glue”. Balinsasayaw secrete a high-protein glutinous saliva, which they use to bind fine plant materials from surrounding forest in a bowl shape. The nest is also fastened to walls and ceilings of caves and crevices with this expensive saliva. Coron Island is full of caves, many inaccessible, which is probably why they are also the preferred living space for balinsasayaw.

The trade of Tagbanwa luray in Coron Island has been going on for at least 400 years, and definitely sometime before Spanish colonization of the islands. Before 1624, Fray Juan de la Concepcion recorded that the Calamian Tagbanwa traded luray through Chinese middlemen. In general, yanwo trade goes back to the Tang Dynasty in China between 618 and 907, and there is evidence of nest bartering between the Chinese and pre-Spanish Filipinos during the Song Dynasty between 960 and 1279. In Palawan, Pala’wan and Tagbanwa communities traded with both Chinese merchants, as well as Tausug merchants from Sulu in the south, with luray, beeswax, rattan, and other local products.

If you swim in any one of Coron Island’s lakes and lay on your back and float, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of balinsasayaw. The Filipino name for swiftlets and swallows, depending on the region, refers to “sayaw” or dance. Swiftlets are quick and agile species in the sky, as they zoom back and forth in blindingly-fast swirls, as if dancing. Two species have been cited as sources for luray on Coron Island: the Pygmy Swiftlet (Callocalia troglodytes) and the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus).

Only two lakes, or awuyuk in Tagbanwa, are open to the public on Coron Island: Barracuda Lake and Kayangan Lake. Barracuda Lake is actually called Luluyuwan Lake, which according to Renz means far. Despite being the only two lakes open to the public, both have received awards as being the cleanest lakes in the Philippines.

Arguably one of the most photographed tourism sites in the Philippines: Kayangan Lake

There are also 33 beaches on the island, but only 7 are open to the public. This is because for the longest time, many of the beaches were not only places for their way of life, but also in death. Some beaches are home to Tagbanwa burial grounds, and are regarded as panyaan or sacred sites.

Some areas are considered so sacred, that even the Tagbanwa themselves don’t enter them. In the deep waters of these areas, lies a spirit giant with both octopus and human features. The West has its “Kraken”, a large squid creature with roots in Nordic folklore and actual giant squids. But this is the Manlalabyut (also referred to as Manlalabiyot, Panlalabyut, or Kunlalabyut in other studies and stories). The Manlalabyut is also mentioned in “Panyaan: Three Tales of the Tagbanua” a children’s story book derived from the stories of the Tagbanwa. If Tagbanwa need to enter one of these sacred areas to retrieve nests, they had to first ask permission from elders or mepet and shaman or bawalyan. Upon entering they must also either remain silent or speak in a specific Tagbanwa language reserved only for conversation in these sacred areas. If not, they risked being pulled down to the depths below by the Manlalabyut. 

View of Coron Island from the reclaimed port areas of Coron town proper.

Tourism has a narrative
“Tourism has a narrative: It has to be sexy, it has to be glamorous. It’s so difficult to link an issue to traditional culture and social justice. When you talk about tourism, it should be fun. It should be an adventure. It should be glamorous. It’s hard. Kung tatanungin mo yung mga tribo, they didn’t look at the island in such an extraordinary way. They looked at it as their neighborhood.”

This was said by Dave de Vera, Executive Director of PAFID in this write up by Grid Magazine. Dave had been working with the Calamian Tagbanwa in the early 90s, helping them secure tenure over their ancestral rights.

30 years before that, the municipal government of Coron began seizing ancestral caves of the Tagbanwa on Coron Island. They were auctioning (subasta in Tagalog) the caves to raise money for the municipal treasury, and the demand was for the balinsasayaw nests deep inside.

In 1985, the Tagbanwa mepet or elders, along with the only two barangays of Coron Island (Banwang Daan and Cabugao) formed the Tagbanwa Foundation of Coron Island (TFCI). They then applied for a Community Forest Stewardship Agreement or CFSA with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources or the DENR. After years of work, the application was granted in 1990, and the DENR returned the ancestral caves to the TFCI.

Despite this progress, the land and caves of Coron Island was just half the battle. Remember that the Calamian Tagbanwa of Coron Island are also people of the sea. The CFSA was limited to land stewardship. Between 1989 and 1995, the average fish catch around Tagbanwa islands had been reduced to less than half. De Vera quotes the Tagbanwa, “Half of our life is in the ocean.”

The process was long and arduous, here is a highly-simplified timeline derived from AG Sampang.

  • 1992: The National Integrated Protected Areas System or NIPAS act is passed. Coron Island is included. Definitions for ancestral domain for certain plans include coastal zones and submerged areas.
  • 1993: The DENR passes an administrative order which provides awarding of Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim or CADC. TFCI begins to gather the necessary documents for this, with the help of PAFID.
  • 1997: The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act or IPRA is passed. Indigenous People or IPs in the Philippines get additional support from a new office created by the act: National Commission on Indigenous Peoples or NCIP. Though it is not without its setbacks.
  • 1998: Coron Island is granted its ancestral domain claim by the DENR, including ancestral waters, and receives its CADC. The Calamian Tagbanwa would be the first Indigenous People to be granted an ancestral water claim.

Nowhere was it shared how the Tagbanwa community of Coron Island worked to preserve the island and their heritage. No signs were posted on the newly-reclaimed areas of Coron town proper that the limestone island a few kilometers away was the first ancestral water domain claim in the Philippines.

As we headed to Coron Island that morning, we saw a large cruise ship disembarking hundreds of tourists. They too would be headed to the island that day as well.

A cruise ship docked at a pier at Coron town proper.

Revenge tourism
“Coron is a happy and indulgent vacation for revenge travelers. It is a gem, a ‘crown jewel.’ If this island paradise is simply a dream, I dare not awaken from it.” This is from an article in PhilStar titled “Revenge Travel in Coron.”

Revenge travel” has everything to do with people stuck at home during the pandemic lockdowns, and then spending time and money to finally travel once again. An article on CNN put it as another way of saying, “Hey, life is short. I want to book that trip. I want to spend more time with family. I want to connect with humanity and with nature…”

Palawan News reported last month that Palawan attracted more than half a million tourists in 2022, a 964% increase in arrivals compared to 2021 during the lockdowns. Coron had 100,828 visitors, almost 15% of the total. The US was Palawan’s top foreign market, with 14,658 American travelers visiting Palawan last year.

Before the lockdowns the ADB estimated that more than 1.2 million people visited Coron Island alone, with 100,000 of those people visiting Kayangan Lake. This was in 2018.

If revenge is a need to go back to normal, I just hope that it also doesn’t mean taking revenge on the tourist sites themselves.

Murals with a message, in Coron town proper.

What is a tourist site for millions of people, could be a sacred place for five hundred. To businesses and governments, numbers matter. But only dollars, pesos, pounds, and euros. What I learned about Coron Island is that when a small group of people band together, and work because their livelihood and heritage depends on it, they will win. But will millions of years of limestone paradise survive a barrage of tourists out for revenge? Maybe. What about aspects of the island not protected by rock, but by law? The sacred and pristine lakes, the memories, history, stories and spirits of the Calamian Tagbanwa, the balinsasayaw, the fish, and the octopus (both species and spiritual)… will they all survive?

With help they can, from tourists, visitors, migrants, and residents who also deem this place sacred. We can all win.

About the Author
Albert is a graphic artist & illustrator based in Quezon City. With 20 years of experience in graphic design, he has produced materials for various environmental groups such as the Haribon Foundation, WWF Philippines, Clean Air Asia, and more. You can see more of his work in his portfolio here. He also creates illustrations highlighting Philippine biodiversity on instagram.com/philippinewildlifeart.