A guide and a snorkeler swim close to a whale shark in the pristine blue waters of Puerto Princesa Bay, with several smaller fish adding to the lively scene. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Murrell)

Just several nautical miles away from the baywalk in Puerto Princesa City is a sanctuary teeming with marine life, offering opportunities to witness some of the ocean’s most majestic creatures.

When conditions are favorable, this sanctuary comes to life with whale sharks, dwarf spinner and Fraser’s dolphins, large Mobula manta rays, and on some occasions, short-finned pilot whales.

Whale sharks (butanding) are admired for their enormous size and gentle disposition, which fascinates both marine enthusiasts and conservationists. Dwarf spinner dolphins are popular for their acrobatic displays and social attitude, whereas Fraser’s dolphins are distinguished by their vivid hues and high-pitched vocalizations.

Large Mobula manta rays glide gracefully through the waters, captivating observers with their impressive size and elegant movements.

Mobulas are well-known for their extraordinary leaping activity, which frequently involves breaching the water’s surface in acrobatic displays. These rays play a vital role in marine ecosystems and are coveted for their beauty and size. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Murrell)
Blue Bird boat manager and tour leader Shan Cabiguen during one of their marine wildlife expeditions.

Occasional visitors to the area include short-finned pilot whales, known for their tight-knit family groups and distinctive bulbous heads. Recently, local fisherman Ronie Mercado had an unforgettable encounter with five orcas, commonly known as killer whales. This sighting could potentially mark the first documented instance of these apex predators in the city’s bay area, adding to its richness and diversity of marine life experiences.

Encountering these remarkable wildlife species is a rare privilege, often requiring perfect timing and a bit of luck. Shan Cabiguen, boat manager and tour leader of Blue Bird, an extension of Wild Expeditions Palawan, emphasizes the need for careful and respectful approaches when visiting these marine wonders.

His perspective points out that encountering them isn’t solely about personal tourism; rather, each visit should contribute to their conservation in their natural habitat.

Blue Bird’ efforts in bringing guests to the site where they’re found contribute to wildlife conservation by promoting awareness and appreciation for marine life. Shan explained that they collaborate with local conservation groups to ensure that their activities are environmentally responsible, balancing tourism with the protection of wildlife.

A pod of Fraser’s dolphins, known for their playful and social behavior, captured by a camera in Puerto Princesa Bay. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Cruz)

Established last year, Blue Bird has quickly become a major player in the ecotourism sector, focusing primarily on water-based wildlife experiences.

“Blue Bird is a wildlife agency specializing in water activities,” Cabiguen said. “While we started with whale shark tours, we plan to incorporate the broader range of nature activities originally offered by Wild Expeditions.”

Close encounter with gentle giants
One of the highlights of Blue Bird tours is the chance to swim with whale sharks, a core experience that attracts both local and international tourists.

These tours venture 15 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa Baywalk towards the northern part of the bay, an area known for its whale shark population, as confirmed by researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE).

Dwarf spinner dolphins at play in the city bay. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Cruz)

However, the company emphasizes the unpredictability of wildlife encounters.

“There’s a 50-50 chance of spotting a whale shark,” he noted.

“While we strive to provide unforgettable experiences, we set realistic expectations to avoid disappointment. Weather and the natural behavior of wildlife play significant roles in our success,” he added.

Commitment to safety and conservation
Cabiguen stressed that safety and conservation are at the forefront of Blue Bird Tours’ operations. The company adheres to strict wildlife interaction guidelines to ensure the well-being of both guests and marine animals.

“We maintain proper distancing between humans and whale sharks during interactions,” he said.

“Onboard, a safety officer is always present, and our team includes certified professionals trained in water safety and rescue,” he added.

Unlike other parts of the Philippines, where wildlife is often chummed, or fed, to attract them, Blue Bird Tours maintains a hands-off approach.

Cabiguen stated that they observe the whale sharks in their natural habitat without disrupting their natural behaviors. This practice supports their commitment to preserving the natural movements and behaviors of these gentle giants.

Short-finned pilot whale. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Cruz)

A rich biodiversity
Beyond whale sharks, the city bay is teeming with marine life, offering sightings of manta rays, spinner dolphins, and occasionally pilot whales.

“Puerto Bay is rich in wildlife, though it’s not always marketed. These sightings often occur during transit, adding an element of surprise and delight to our tours,” he said.

Cabiguen said that in promoting responsible tourism, Blue Bird Tours contributes to local conservation and research efforts.

Their ethical practices ensure minimal disruption to the natural behaviors of marine animals, fostering a sustainable tourism model. This approach not only enhances the guest experience but also supports the long-term preservation of Palawan’s rich marine biodiversity.

For inquiries, email: bluebirdphilippines@yahoo.com