Travel

Why a Group of Adventurers Braved the Last Island of the Philippines

The "Last Island" of the Philippines is a dangerous and treacherous place that bears immense strategic, military, and political significance.
IMAGE Javier Cang
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In the northernmost tip of the Philippines, the last island of the Philippines stands like a lonely sentinel protruding above rough seas. At a glance, Mavulis looks Jurassic. Century plants, which are prehistoric vegetation, abound in the rocky island while flocks of large birds glide overhead. To humans, Mavulis is an inhospitable island, offering no food and providing poor shelter. No ship dare dock so near its shores, lest it becomes wreckage on the rocks. The waters around Mavulis are notoriously treacherous, and are said to be responsible for lost fishermen at sea.

Prehistoric: Mavulis is an Inhospitable Place that Feels Prehistoric

Photo by Javier Cang
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The Philippines' last island in the north is also its first line of defense. Because Mavulis is the Philippines' northernmost edge, the outline of the country's territory is drawn using straight lines that start from here. Although uninhabited, the island bears immeasurable strategic, military, and political significance. Without Mavulis and the baselines we are able to draw from it, the Philippines would lose hundreds of square kilometers of territory.

Javier Cang, who prefers to be called Javi, is a 28-year-old photographer and finance professional who fights for the environment and the loves the outdoors. Last May 2019, Javi and a group of intrepid souls braved the unforgiving seas for one week just to reach Mavulis. The expedition was the result of more than one year of planning and coordinating with military and various non-government organizations. 

"There is only a small window of time every year when ships can make a calm passage to the island."

Making the Impossible Voyage to Mavulis

Last year, during a relief mission in Itbayat, Batanes, Waves for Water, a non-government organization, found out about the military's plan of constructing a fisherman's shelter in Mavulis. The goal of Waves for Water is simple: to provide clean water access to everybody. Mavulis, being the northernmost island of the Philippines, and a frequented refuge for fishermen, was no exception.

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At the Summit of Mavulis' Highest Point, the Philippine Flag is Raised to Assert the Philippines' Territorial Integrity

Photo by Javier Cang

"When we heard of a joint effort to establish a fisherman’s shelter on Mavulis, we jumped at the opportunity to provide clean water access knowing that remote areas like Mavulis have little to no access to water. After a year of planning and coordinating, we see positive change in this part of the Philippines; at least in terms of access to potable water for the fishermen of Batanes," said Javi.

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The shelter, apart from being a refuge from the storm, is also designed to provide electricity and potable water to fishermen and Filipino soldiers patrolling the area.

"Getting to Mavulis is a challenge in itself," said Javi. "From Basco, it takes multiple hours of rough sea travel by boat. To make things more difficult, there is only a small window of time every year when ships can make a calm passage to the island."

Javi and company boarded a C-130 military transport plane to Basco, Batanes. The C-130 is an iconic military plane used by the U.S. and its allies to transport cargo and personnel around the world. Surprisingly, considering its brute appearance, the flight turned out to be smoother than expected.

Boarding the Military's C-130

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Photo by Javier Cang

After landing in Basco, the group traveled by boat for hours to rendezvous with navy ship BRP Davao del Sur, which was anchored some kilometers away from Mavulis. Javi and company had to board the ship using a side ladder.

Photo by Javier Cang

At that time, the waves were getting bigger, making it more difficult and dangerous to climb the side ladder. Thankfully, the Philippine Navy’s marines are highly trained for such maneuvers. "On the ship, the marines were selfless in providing assistance, always looking out for everyone’s safety and well-being," said Javi.

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"Many parts of the mission involved military-like procedures, such as boarding rigid-hull inflatable boats (RIB) from a side-ladder of BRP Davao del Sur. Despite the dangers, we constantly felt secure because of our navy."

Navy's Marines and Crew Had Been Away from Their Families for Months

The Filipino soldiers who protect our seas do so at the cost of being away from their families. 

"It was delightful to see that they find family within each other while they spent months away from their loved ones," said Javi. Some of the soldiers had been away from their families for almost a year, protecting the integrity of the national territory, including Mavulis. 

"During their rest hours, we watched them play badminton. At night, we all partook in karaoke."

At sea, there is no cellphone reception, which is why many of the soldiers aboard BRP Davao del Sur have not been able to speak with their families. Most of them find ways to entertain themselves just to rid themselves of homesickness. 

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"One common trait that I observed was their earnest dedication. Many of them spend months away from their loved ones, often without cellular signal, but they persevere tirelessly with their missions," said Javi. 

A Navy Man Takes a Well-deserved Break

Photo by Javier Cang

After a couple of days of scouting the weather's condition, the military finally decided that it was aleady safe to make landing on Mavulis. The soldiers assisted Javi and company as they got into the BRP Davao del Sur's rigid-hull inflatable boats. 

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The mission on the island is to hand over the newly constructed shelter to the fishermen, and for Waves for Water, to teach the soldiers and the fishermen how to use the water filtration system. 

"During the inauguration, we also conducted a handover of the filters to the persons who will eventually use them. The filters are only as effective as the people using them, so it is critical that proper filter usage is communicated well to the persons who will use them," said Javi. 

Newly Constructed and Fisherman's Shelter on Mavulis, Handed Over by the Military to the Fishermen 

Photo by Carlo Delantar
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The shelter is not only a refuge for fishermen and the military. It also provides electricity to the island, thanks to the solar power facility donated by One Meralco Foundation. It also has a desalination plant to provide potable water. Apart from these new additions to the island, Waves for Water also provided water filtration systems to the military and fishermen. 

Waves for Water: One Filter Provides Clean Water to 100 People for Five Years

Photo by Javier Cang
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Photo by Javier Cang

Used correctly, a single filter from Waves for Water can provide safe, clean, drinking water for five years to a community of 100 people. Most of the people who will benefit from these filters are the fishermen, who rely on muddy rainwater for drinking on Mavulis. 

"We also met fishermen on Mavulis who mostly originated from Itbayat. They shared stories of the conditions they often have to brave to reach the island: waves as tall as buildings, roaring winds, and unpredictable weather," said Javi. 

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He continues: "There is neither a natural source of fresh water nor fruit-bearing trees on Mavulis. When the fishermen seek refuge on the island, they rely on rainwater and a papaya tree that they recently planted for sustenance. Their traditional fishing boats, called Tataya, are simple but rugged, no more than a fiberglass hull and an engine. The bravery of these fishermen is admirable."

Raising the Flag on Mavulis Protects it from Foreign Poachers

"There was one particular part of the trip that gave me goosebumps: when we raised the Philippine flag atop of a peak on Mavulis. It was a proud moment to be a Filipino!"

Raising the flag is like raising a barrier of protection on the island for Filipino fishermen. In recent years, Filipino fishermen avoided Mavulis because of the presence of foreign poachers on the island. 

The poachers only stopped when the government asserted its sovereignty on the island by raising the Philippine flag on Mavulis' highest peak. 

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In 2016, the Philippine government hoisted the very first Philippine flag on Mavulis, according to a report by Philippine Star. But because of the strong winds and violent seas around Mavulis, the flag did not last. The flagpole was damaged by strong winds that same year, and was repaired in 2017. Then, in 2018, another storm destroyed the flagpole and the flag. 

Philippine Flag Raising Ceremony on Mavulis in May 2019

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Photo by Javier Cang

A new Philippine flag was raised again on Mavulis on May 2019. The ceremony was simple yet very chilling, owing to the significance of the act. It was attended by members of the military, various stakeholders or NGOs, who helped build the Fisherman's Shelter and donated equipment, and the fishermen of Itbayat. 

Aside from the hoisted flag, a large fiber glass image of the Philippine flag is also framed on the front of the new Fishermen's Shelter on the island. 

Homeward Bound with the Military

Going back to Manila, Javi and the rest of the comoany hitched a ride with the military aboard the BRP Davao del Sur.

"The entire journey took nearly a week. From an undisclosed military airbase, we took a Philippine Air Force C130 to Basco, Batanes then boarded BRP Davao del Sur," said Javi.

"From Basco, it was roughly five to six hours of northward sailing to Mavulis. The islands north of the main island of Batan are remote, yet fascinating. Their landscapes are dramatic and are often surrounded by jagged rocks. After the completion of our mission, we sailed all the way south to Manila on board BRP Davao del Sur. The southward journey took around three days, taking us along the western seaboard of Luzon."

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Helipad on BRP Davao del Sur

Photo by Javier Cang

Navy Men Waving to their Family in Manila. The Soldiers Had Been Away From Family for Almost a Year Without Any Means of Communication.

Photo by Javier Cang
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