It doesn’t matter where you look in the Philippines – underwater, in the air, or on dry land – you’re spoiled for choice, when it comes to wildlife.
The Philippines is one of 17 mega-diverse countries. Nature-lovers should be sure to fit in moonlit firefly-watching in the mangrove forests of Donsol, bat-spotting in the cavernous caves of Boracay, bird-watching basically everywhere, plus getting to grips with the sea life (nudibranchs, sharks, rainbow-coloured coral – and much, much more). Here are a few of our favourite furry, finned and feathered locals…
It’s naughty to pick favourites, but who can deny the insane combination of cuteness and weirdness that makes the endangered tarsier so special? Good things really do come in small packages: the tarsier (AKA mamag) is one of the world’s smallest primates, clocking in at just six inches in height. Tarsiers are something of an animal cocktail, having a lengthy, rat-like tail and oversized bat-like ears – they’ve been affectionately compared to ET, with good reason. Tarsiers use their enormous eyes (the largest of any mammal) to keep a beady nocturnal watch for predators. Another handy survival skill is their ability to swivel their heads 180 degrees; they’re also pretty good at hopping backwards, in order to avoid unwanted attention. Despite their tiny size, these solitary animals require a hectare of space to themselves. Traditionally, tarsiers are revered as avatars of the forest spirits; harming one would cause bad luck. You can see them up close at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol, which is dedicated to the species’ conservation. Visitors can swot up on tarsier facts in the visitor centre, meet the sanctuary’s tiny residents and walk the Tarsier Trail, admiring all the wildlife.
Likes: Nighttime; nibbling crickets, beetles, termites and other insects. Despite their tiny size, tarsiers sometimes eat lizards, frogs and even small birds.
Dislikes: Daytime; captivity – to the heartbreaking extent that they will actually commit suicide if they are captured or touched: the stress is too much for this faint-hearted, fiercely independent creature.
Donsol is home to possibly the largest school of whale sharks in the world; go swimming or snorkelling in Donsol Bay, and you’ll see whale sharks calmly cruising close to the surface of the water. Local fishermen double up as expert spotters and guides. They’ll take you out in a small boat and give you a shout as soon as they spy sharks ahead, so that you can drop into the water and swim alongside the gentle giants. In peak season, people have spotted as many as 45 sharks in one sighting, though that’s pretty lucky (you’d be unlucky to see less than five on one outing). Gargantuan whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean, weighing up to 20 tonnes and spanning 4–12 metres, though there have been reported sightings of sharks as big as 18m. Their mouths alone measure up to 2m wide, enabling them to munch vast numbers of plankton and grill (their favourite snacks). Thanks to their distinctly spotted skin, no two whale sharks are the same. Despite their famously mild manner, it’s best not to touch the whale sharks or get too close; like everyone, they have boundaries to be respected. You’re also likely to see manta rays, turtles and other underwater heroes if you go for a swim around Donsol Bay.
Likes: Plankton; grill.
Dislikes: Being poked by divers
Thresher sharks are notable for their huge caudal fin (tail), which can measure the same length as the rest of their entire body. Their name comes from the fact that they lash out at prey with their mighty tail, which can move so fast that the water around it boils (just spot the bubbles). Sharks in the wild have been filmed threshing their tails at speeds of 80 miles an hour – unsurprisingly, such speed equals hefty damage. Through thrashing their tails, sharks can break bones and chop prey into pieces, returning to swim leisurely around the crime scene to collect their meal. They’re good at jumping, too – leaping out of the water and into the air to pounce on prey. The best place to go diving with whale sharks in the Philippines is Malapascua Island – the only place in the world where you can expect daily encounters with these formidable fish. Thresher shark attacks on humans are pretty much unheard of, though divers should always pay attention to that tail – their biggest risk is being accidentally hit by it.
Likes: Athletics; eating tuna, mackerel and seabirds.
Dislikes: Boats that get too close
Also known as the monkey-eating eagle on account of its fondness for, yup, munching monkeys, the Philippines eagle is one of the world’s largest, most powerful birds of prey. Monkeys aren’t the only ones who need to keep a close eye on this bird’s whereabouts – its other favourite snacks include pigs, monitor lizards, rodents and bats. Endemic to the Philippines, this species’ population has been dwindling alarmingly in recent years, though its status as national bird of the Philippines (as of 1995) has helped it gain more awareness and protection. The bird has a shaggy, lion-like crest and piercing, bright blue peepers. You can spot the Philippines eagle on four islands: Luzon, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao (where the majority reside: between 82 and 233 breeding pairs). These romantic raptors are monogamous, sticking with the same mate for the rest of their lives.
Likes: The element of surprise.
“We’re just completing a documentary on the wildlife, especially the reptiles, of the Philippines. Our shoot there was in February 2016: it was my first visit to this awe-inspiring archipelago and it won’t be my last – in fact, I’m leading a nature tour there with Greig Smith Travels in October”
“I have so many wondrous memories. The Filipino people always seem to be smiling; the hotels, resorts and food were first rate. On Cebu, I encountered the rare black shama, a bird with a beautiful voice, that’s unique to that island. On Bohol, I met the Philippine tarsier, the world’s smallest primate. On Palawan, I’ll never forget my journey on the Underground River, deep into a mountain – it’s one of the new seven natural wonders, and it lives up to all expectations.
Then there was the country’s national bird, the Philippine eagle, which we saw at the fabulous breeding centre on Mindanao. The world’s largest eagle, the bird stands a metre tall. On Luzon, I marvelled at racket-tailed parrots and dived with a hawksbill turtle as it snacked on feather stars.”
“As an ecotourism destination, the Philippines is superb. A whole series of documentaries is needed to do justice to the country’s creatures and landscapes – I love the Philippines and I’m working to get those shows off the ground.”
Nigel Marven, wildlife TV presenter, producer, author and birdwatcher