Mangroves and fireflies: Magical, eco-friendly kayak tour in Abatan River, Bohol

Rhea Claire Madarang

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Mangroves and fireflies: Magical, eco-friendly kayak tour in Abatan River, Bohol
Paddle amid quiet mangrove tunnels by day, and wait for fireflies to light up the trees at night. The kayak tours in Abatan River help sustain the local community, who work together to protect the river and its mangroves.

The river was quiet, save for the choir of crickets and the pull of our paddles in the water. On either side were mangroves bending, with their dark, spindly arms reaching out to each other and forming a vivid leafy ceiling above us.

Beneath us, the river was a perfect mirror, the mangroves’ roots seemingly growing down into new trees. It was a sight not unlike those from tales of magic and fantasy.

Our group’s kayak guide Jeremy allowed us to bask in the stillness before he pointed out the century-old mangroves that had withstood many a typhoon. He shared the names of some mangroves, including some of the species like pagatpat whose branches would light up with fireflies later that night.

Together, we paddled deeper into the forest.

REFLECTION. Abatan’s still waters perfectly mirror its mangroves.

WATERWAY. There are bends and turns along the waterway as you paddle deep into the mangrove forest.

Mangrove sanctuary

Stretching across five of Bohol’s municipalities, Abatan River is home to over 30 of the 44 mangrove species found in the Philippines, making it one of the country’s most diverse mangrove forests.

Mangroves are important to the environment for sheltering young fish, protecting against floods, and absorbing carbon, among other things.

Our guide Jeremy Morquiala is part of a local organization working to protect the river and its mangroves. Together, they plant seedlings, look after the mangroves, and patrol the area for possible illegal loggers.

RIVER PROTECTOR. Jeremy Morquiala, 27, is a kayak guide and is also a member of Abatan River’s local organization working to protect the river and its mangroves. Behind him is one of the river’s century-old mangroves.

Jeremy and his community are well aware of the importance of the river to their livelihood.

Many of them, including Jeremy, harvest nipa, a type of mangrove, and sell them per bundle for roofing. Some also catch fish and harvest shells from Abatan’s waters.

LIVELIHOOD. Nipa harvesting is a source of livelihood in Abatan River. Photo courtesy of KayakAsia Philippines

As he helps out in family expenses, especially in his sister’s studies, though, Jeremy admits that harvesting nipa is not enough. Selling nipa can be difficult, especially during the summer season.

Kayak guiding, a new opportunity

Jeremy, among many other locals, was then grateful when he was introduced to kayaking and river guiding.

Seven years ago, Abatan River had caught the attention of a group of local paddlers. Rey Donaire, a local based in Tagbilaran, said the river is “near-pristine, with few structures around,” and is easily accessible, being only around 15 minutes away from Bohol’s capital.

With his fellow paddlers, Rey set up kayaking tours, working with Abatan River local Ferreolo Peñoso, a community leader in mangrove protection and rehabilitation in the area. The latter became the first kayak guide for the tours, and earned the well-loved nickname of Sam Yolo among guests.

The tour organization was named KayakAsia Philippines, the Philippine counterpart for the Singapore-based KayakAsia, a group that organizes adventure tours in different countries.

POSSIBILITIES. Rey Donaire is among the local paddlers who saw the tourism potential for Abatan River. Photo courtesy of KayakAsia Philippines

PIONEER. Ferreolo Peñoso, fondly called Sam Yolo, is the first guide for KayakAsia Philippines tours in Abatan River.

Their group advocates the use of kayaks or paddleboats on the river as motorboats erode the soil, eventually making trees fall and the river widen.

Sam Yolo, now 59 and whose home is just several steps away from the river, attests to this, saying the river has widened by around two meters.

RIVER-FRIENDLY. The uses of kayaks or paddleboats help protect against erosion and river widening.

RIVER REHABILITATION. Locals also plant mangroves to replace those lost, especially when the river widened.

Kayak guiding also proved to be a good source of additional income for the community. Jeremy says he can better help out with his family’s expenses, while guides with children say they can provide better for their families.

Now that they have another income source from the river, their commitment to protect it has all the more increased.

Pag walang alitaptap, wala kaming isasaing (If there are no fireflies, we have no rice to cook),” 36-year-old guide Orencio Mosquisa, Jr. said.

Kaya ang mga alitaptap at mangrove inaalagaan namin. Diyan kami nabubuhay.” (That is why we are taking care of the fireflies and mangroves. It is through them that we live).

MANGROVES FOR SUSTENANCE. Guide Orencio Mosquisa, Jr. emphasized the importance of protecting the mangroves as it is linked to their livelihood.

Beyond daily sustenance

Guides have since picked up new skills, even getting international certifications from guiding and safety training. Some were even sent to international events to oversee water safety.

The guides also learned more about mangroves through further training, with some from conservation organizations. All guides gained confidence interacting with tourists, with some even picking up several languages along the way.

MANGROVE TRAINING. Conservation organizations like the Zoological Society of London shared more knowledge on mangroves to the Abatan local community. Photo courtesy of KayakAsia Philippines

GUIDING TOURISTS. All guides now have increased confidence guiding tourists, even those from overseas.

KayakAsia Philippines also sponsored the college education of three guides, including Jeremy. All of them are now on their fourth year in school.

After they graduate, a new batch of guides will be sponsored. KayakAsia also worked with AirAsia, who filmed the scholars’ story to raise awareness, and also gave each of them a laptop.

RIVER SCHOLARS. KayakAsia Philippines sponsored the college education of three guides. Pictured here from left are Derk John Reyes, Joel Morquiala, and Jeremy.

While each scholar is given the option to work elsewhere after they graduate, all scholars have decided to stay with KayakAsia Philippines.

Jeremy, a tourism management major and Derk, a hotel management major, hope to help with the organization’s operations, while Joel, a computer science major, may set up the organization’s website.

KayakAsia Philippines is also planning to work with local guides in setting up the Abatan River Mangrove Ecology Conservation Center to expand current conservation efforts.

River magic

The sun had began to set when we paddled out of the forest, which the guides call mangrove tunnels.

We watched as flocks upon flocks of egrets flew past near and above us. Abatan is a highway for Philippine egrets traveling back and forth every day from home to feeding ground and back – yet another reason that makes the river special.

MANGROVE FOREST. Tourists would stay here before paddling out in time usually for sunset.

EVENING FLIGHT. Philippine egrets have made Abatan River their flyway, and their flight is a sight to watch out for in the morning or evening. Photo courtesy of KayakAsia Philippines

As the sky lit up with stars, so did the mangroves with fireflies. Jeremy led us under one. I lay my head on the kayak and looked up, allowing the fireflies to blend with the night sky’s stars in my vision.

Later, on our way back, I found “stars” in the river too, shimmering with bioluminescent plankton every time we dipped our paddles into the water.

FLICKERING LIGHTS. Mangroves light up with fireflies at night. Abatan River is home to eight species of fireflies. Photo courtesy of KayakAsia Philippines

The experience was nothing short of magical, a magic brought to life not just by the river’s natural beauty but also by the hard work of locals determined to protect their river home, and the organizations supporting them.

LOCAL COMMUNITY. Some of Abatan River’s local guides, including the first guide Sam Yolo, who also heads a local organization protecting mangroves

Tour info: Mangrove tunnel tour and firefly tour is at P1,950 each inclusive of river use fee (which the local government collects), guide fee, gear rental, home-cooked Filipino meal prepared by the community, and round trip transport from Tagbilaran or Panglao.

Each tour usually lasts two hours. When taken as one tour, the mangrove tunnel and firefly tours cost P2,450. The kayaking tours are beginner-friendly, covering an area of around two kilometers, but guests also have the option to let a guide paddle for them.

Proceeds from the tours also help sustain the efforts of the local community in protecting the river and mangroves, as well as in funding the scholars. Visit KayakAsia Philippines for bookings and inquiries.

Where to stay in Bohol: An environment-friendly choice for accommodation, Amorita Resort in Panglao Island is a repeat ASEAN Green Hotel awardee. The resort also makes use of eco-friendly materials in their facilities when possible. Amorita has rooms good for couples and families, as well as two infinity pools with a cliffside view of Panglao’s beaches.

ECO-FRIENDLY ACCOMMODATION. Amorita Resort in Panglao has been recognized as an ASEAN Green Hotel for the past few years. Pictured is one of the resort’s infinity pools.

Claire Madarang is a writer, researcher, and documenter whose work and wanderlust takes her to adventures like backpacking for seven weeks and exploring remote islands and bustling cities alike.

Follow her adventures, travel tips, and epiphanies on her blog Traveling Light and on her Instagram.

Planning to go on this kayak tour? Book with Agoda and enjoy your stay in Bohol!

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Rhea Claire Madarang

Claire Madarang is a traveler, writer, biodiversity communications practitioner, and facilitator of nature play activities. Follow her adventures, travel tips, and reflections on her blog Traveling Light and on her Instagram