Swim with dolphins in the seas where Moby Dick lived

Hunters have swapped harpoons for binoculars in the seas around the Philippines. Nigel Hicks joined them

The boat cruised gently across the glassywater, slowly circling, its engine cut back to a gentle murmur. In the centre of the circle lay eight pilot whales, lolling lazily on the surface of the sea, taking advantage of the calm weather to soak up the sun's rays. The arrival of our boat caused only a few minutes of unease before the whales returned to their sunbathing, nonchalantly eyeing us from a distance of 50 or 60 metres.

"Damn!" hissed Rowena Merto, the diminutive marine biologist and whale- and dolphin-watching organiser for the local government. "I should have brought my mask, then I could have gone in with them. It's even calmer than yesterday." The previous day she had - for the first time ever - swum with the pilot whales.

"When I went into the water I was so nervous I could feel my hair standing on end," she told us. "But, in fact, it was fine, and as long as I didn't go close the whales didn't mind at all."

Welcome to the latest up and coming hotspot for whale- and dolphin-watching; the Philippines. Long disinterested in their natural environment, the Filipinos have rather belatedly woken up to the glory that surrounds them, and which they have come perilously close to destroying. After years of decimating reefs and cutting down forests, the penny has finally started to drop that an intact natural environment has far greater earnings potential than one that has been blown to bits, cut down and chopped up, or hunted to extinction.

Though still operating on a small scale, slowly word is getting out that the Philippines represents one of the greatest places in the world for whale- and dolphin-watching. At the right sites, not only are sightings almost guaranteed, but the variety of species that can be seen within a small area and in just a single day is quite phenomenal. And it can all be done from the comfort of a boat, warm (if not necessarily sunny) weather guaranteed.

The Filipinos insist that the seas surrounding their islands were the setting for Moby Dick, and they could be right for since research began just four years ago, 27 species of cetacean - as whales and dolphins are known collectively - have been spotted in Philippine waters. These range from the large sperm and grey whales to the smaller killer and pilot whales, plus a whole host of dolphin species, including the well-known bottlenose and lesser-known species such as Rissols, Fraser's and spinner dolphins.

So I was filled with high expectations when I arrived in the town of Bais, one of the country's two main cetacean-watching centres. It was a sunny little place on the east coast of Negros, one of the larger islands that makes up the Philippines' heavily fragmented waist, known collectively as the Visayas.

Running for just three years, the operation is still very low key, but the local government is keen to expand. In an area that has missed out on general tourism and which is suffering from a slump in global prices for its main product - sugar - the dawning of the ecotourist age and the presence of so many dolphins and whales just offshore offers the promise of an economic boom.

And it's all in the hands of Rowena Merto, trained at the Marine Laboratory of nearby Silliman University, one of the top spots in the whole of southeast Asia for marine studies. It seemed to me an unusually enlightened act to put a biologist in charge of a tourist development, and it augurs well for the success of the project, at least in terms of protecting the interests of the whales and dolphins.

Rowena led me to a quay lined with several shiny new boats, all large and brilliantly white outrigger trimarans, complete with sun awnings and plastic chairs just perfect for a leisurely viewing of the local marine wildlife. Soon we were speeding out across a calm sea, eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale fins and water spouts.

The sea around Bais is the sheltered Tanon Strait separating Negros from Cebu, site of the Philippines' third largest city and one of the country's main tourist centres. The strait is just a few kilometres wide, yet it is incredibly deep - more than 300 metres according to the latest studies. I was warned that one cannot find the whole 27-species range here; its narrow confines attract mainly dolphins and the smaller whales. For the really big stuff I would have to head further south to more open seas. No matter; I had never seen dolphins or whales in the wild before, not close-up anyway, and I was excited enough at this opportunity.

We were out for nearly an hour and were about two-thirds of the way across the strait before our first sighting, a group of about 20 spinner dolphins leisurely making their way northwards along the strait. Another cetacean- watching boat loaded up with a party of Filipinos was already trailing them, and after following along for a few minutes my skipper decided to break off and follow another school he had spotted further ahead and which was still without human company.

Through the morning we trailed a number of schools of spinner dolphins, their characteristically tall black dorsal fins visible in the sunlight for quite some distance. Though an occasional dolphin came in close to our bow, in general they did not like the boat to approach too close: less than 50 metres and the whole school, 20-30 dolphins, would dive in unison and not reappear until a margin of several hundred metres had reopened.

Several schools were visible scattered across the strait, over 100 animals altogether, all spinners and all heading north. Globally, spinner dolphins are rather rare, yet here they were everywhere. Though no one is sure of numbers, the first ever one-day survey conducted in June of this year revealed an astonishing 800 individuals. "Until recently we weren't sure whether these dolphins just used the Tanon Strait for migration or whether they actually live here, but now we've decided that they are resident, just moving up and down the strait," explained Rowena.

And then came the pilot whales, spotted close to the Negros shore some way north of Bais, eight animals in line abreast and taking their ease at the surface. As the boat approached, the whales nervously dived, but not for long and they soon resumed their casual sunbathing, content to let us slowly circle, a line of eyes calmly surveying our progress, their only movement the occasional puff of spray and exhaled breath from a blowhole.

The third and final species of the day was the dwarf sperm whale, two individuals frolicking at the surface, which dived within minutes of our approach. A rather rare animal but one resident in the Tanon Strait, the dwarf sperm whale is known for its shyness and I was lucky to get to see any. Not exactly what one would expect of a whale with the name "sperm" attached, these animals were no bigger than the dolphins, but when I got a glimpse of a head I saw the strong, square outline more usually associated with its much larger cousin. A dwarf sperm-whale indeed.

And so, with the day progressing well into afternoon the boat turned for home, passing by several more schools of spinner dolphins, and getting hit by a sudden squall that turned the glassy waters into a foaming maelstrom, forcing the boat to pound through short, steep waves, the bamboo outriggers gyrating ominously. An exhilarating end to an exhilarating day.

Nigel Hicks travelled in the Philippines courtesy of Philippine Airlines and the Philippine Department of Tourism.

dolphin Fact file

Where to go

The dolphin and whale populations are concentrated in the southern end of the Tanon Strait, which separates the islands of Negros and Cebu. Boat trips operate out of the city of Bais, on the southeastern coast of Negros.

When to go

Whales and dolpins can be found in the Tanon Strait throughout the year, but rain and occasional storms make June to November unpleasant. December to May is the dry season, with especially calm weather in April and May.

Getting there

Philippine Airlines (PAL) operates direct flights from London Heathrow to Manila six times a week (no flight on Saturdays). Domestically, PAL runs daily flights from Manila to Bais's neighbouring city, Dumaguete, capital of Negros Oriental province. All domestic flights are bookable in the UK. From Dumaguete take a bus or hire car to Bais, 25 miles north.

Accommodation

There is one reasonable, hotel in Bais, but a wide choice of accommodation in Dumaguete.

Arranging a boat trip

Arrangements can be made by contacting Rowena Merto at the Tourism Operations Unit, Office of the City Mayor, Bais City, 6206, Philippines (Tel: 00 63 35 541 5161; Fax: 00 63 35 541 5285). This office can also arrange accommodation in Bais. The hire charge for a boat that will carry up to about 10 people is 2500 Pesos (approx pounds 50) for a whole day. There is no discount for smaller groups.

Further Information

The Philippine Department of Tourism, tel: 0171 499 5443

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