Text and photos by Carlo Roberto Felix
The municipality of Taytay was the first capital of Palawan during the Spanish era. It has great potential for tourism, but is still largely untapped. Many people visit Taytay en route to El Nido as a stopover from Puerto Princesa. They stay for a few hours, a night or two at most, only visiting one or two places in the area.
When my family and I were in Taytay, we stayed for two nights because I had been wanting to visit Taytay for one reason - the Irrawaddy dolphins of Malampaya Sound.
Where It Happens
Any accommodation or resort in Taytay can point you in the right direction if you ask about dolphin watching in Malampaya Sound. They require at least a day’s notice. Dolphin watching is only done in the morning. On the night before the trip, they advise guests if the dolphin watching will push through, depending on weather conditions. On the day itself, they pick up guests at 5am via a tricycle to go to the takeoff point for dolphin watching, Barangay Poblacion.
What You Will See
Guests are accompanied by only one guide/spotter, who is also the boatman. The boats, also owned by the fishermen, are small, only able to seat two people comfortably aside from the boatman. The ride starts from the river, which lined by mangroves. It is also possible to spot birds.
Malampaya Sound is well known as a fishing ground, although its richness has seemingly dwindled over the years. As such, there are fish traps everywhere, for fishes and crustaceans, and bigger fishing boats can be seen farther out.
When the boatman spots dolphins, he directs the boat towards them and tries to get as near as possible without driving them away. As the boat gets closer to the dolphins, he turns the engine off, so as not to scare them. Once they swim off, he looks for them again.
The dolphin watching trip lasts for 2-3 hours, and the boat is usually back to the takeoff point by around 10am.
Where the Money Goes
The dolphin watching fee is P1,800 per boat, and up to 2 people can share a boat. The payment is collected by the accommodation’s representative (who may also be one of the tricycle drivers) after the trip. The boatman gets around P1,000 from that payment, while the remainder (~P800) goes to the resort for arranging the trip.
The boatmen are all fishermen, who take turns accompanying guests as an alternate source of income. On days when they go fishing, they can take home anywhere from a few hundred pesos to close to a thousand per day, depending on how good the day’s catch is.
On days when they go dolphin watching, each boatman usually spends around P180 to P200 for fuel per trip, which means that they can earn up to P820 for only a few hours of dolphin watching, compared to a whole day (or night) of fishing.
Difference with Other Dolphin Watching Sites
The Irrawaddy dolphins eat the same animals that the fishermen catch. They are often spotted near the fish traps. The waters of Malampaya’s Inner Sound are relatively shallow—in some places only several meters deep. The water is turbid because the sand is mixed with mud and sediments coming from the river and the mangroves. It can be hard to spot a dolphin even if it’s swimming right under or beside your boat, unless it breaks the surface.
Irrawaddy dolphins are not as “active” or “acrobatic” as other dolphins; they don’t swim as fast, jump as high, and bow-ride, unlike Spinners or Bottlenoses, for example. (They do spit, however.)
Visitors cannot expect the same level of dolphin activity, excitement, or the same kind of experience that they can expect to find in Bohol, for instance, because Malampaya Sound has a different kind of dolphin and a different environment. Irrawaddy dolphins are critically endangered in the Philippines, so there are only a few dolphins to see. They also tend to form smaller pods, usually no more than 10 dolphins in a pod.
Recent estimates put Irrawaddy dolphin numbers in Malampaya Sound at around 50 individuals. They have a high mortality rate caused by entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, and habitat degradation.
As with other wildlife watching activities, sightings can never be guaranteed. It is very important for weather conditions to be right when you go looking for dolphins, but it’s even more crucial when you’re in the Sound, because of the way the dolphins live and behave. If you really want to have a lot of sightings, it will be better to allot at least two days.
It’s also more costly to go dolphin watching in Malampaya than in other provinces, with the rate being at least P900 per head. This is because the boats are smaller, and the number of tourists has not yet reached a point where the rates can be sustainably lowered. The fishermen are also not yet formally trained to be tour guides; they don’t deliver spiels and share bits of trivia. They simply drive the boat and spot dolphins.
I would like to see Irrawaddy dolphins again, as often as I possibly can, in my lifetime. This will only happen if Malampaya Sound is preserved, and if the dolphins stop becoming by-catch. Malampaya Sound is a very beautiful place, with great ecological and economic importance. Seeing it is definitely worth the price of an expensive boat ride, whether the dolphins appear or not. And if dolphins show up, then that’s a very big bonus!