Our kayaks gently break the stars’ reflections on the obsidian water, taking on a soft yellow glow as they glide beneath the mangrove trees. What was once a faint twinkle in the distance is now a living, breathing galaxy. The river carries us beneath the glittering branches, right where the action is. I draw in my paddle and brace myself for the moment we’ve been waiting for.
Up close to the trees, the unmistakable dance of life plays out; hundreds of fireflies float between the leaves, blinking amorous flashes of gold to one another, as if to say ‘I’m here! Look at me! I’m alive!’. This is one of nature’s most bewitching spectacles, starring pteroptyx macdermotti – one of the rarest species of firefly on the planet. Here in the heart of Bohol’s black night, these tiny little creatures keep the darkness at bay.
“The males are lighting up to find a girlfriend,” explains Ronron, my guide, as I sit with my mouth quite happily open in awe. It is late evening on the Abatan river: a 20-kilometre stretch of water that passes several small villages in Bohol, a region in central Philippines most famous for its Chocolate Hills. Long before roads were paved on the island, the Abatan was a transport route made up of dark and deep waterways, which locals would navigate with nothing but bamboo rafts, candlelight and their courage.
Their exact numbers are unknown but pteroptyx macdermotti is a very rare species of firefly, endemic to the mangrove forests that sprawl across Bohol’s Abatan and Loboc rivers. It is in the undergrowth beneath the trees where they live up to three years as larvae, dramatically metamorphosing into bioluminescent adults for only a month of their little lives. A quick flash and poof – the light goes out.
Suspended in the air like fragments of gold dust, the fireflies pay us no notice. I imagine antennae and abdomens somewhere in the darkness. My eyes catch a glimpse of fluttering wings; in this moment they are more fairy than insect, twinkling sweet nothings into the night.
Ronron breaks my reverie to say “they are having a party.” If you had only a month left to live, wouldn’t you make the most of it too?
We push off from the glittering branches, Ronron doing most of the work. As part of the Kayakasia Philippines team hosting this group tour, he has kindly volunteered to share a paddle with me – the lone straggler who didn’t bring a partner.
“I used to swim here as a little kid,” says Ronron quietly, his deep voice cutting through the darkness. I judge he is about my age (late-20s), with an athletic frame that makes easy work of steering this vessel. Despite our eternally youthful Filipino faces, his voice is more serious and mature than mine – calming my mind when it plays tricks with the dark shadows in the undergrowth. Crocodiles don’t live in this river, he assures me.
We have just begun our search for the next firefly colony when Ronron suddenly says “stop.” The guides pressingly speak in Cebuano, gesturing “pagdali, pagdali!” (hurry) from their kayaks. Ronron picks up his paddle and starts steering with a quiet urgency. “A boat is coming,” he says. “We need to move to the side.”
A harsh beam of light strikes the area. The offender, a big beast of a motorboat, comes into view. Its hull is enormous and its engine is deafening, whirring above the crowds of tourists laughing on board. It dwarfs us as it passes by, sending ripples through the water that rock our kayaks a little too much for comfort. The boat stops at the same firefly colony we visited only minutes before, switching off its freight-truck headlights. The tourists lurch forward for the perfect Instagram shot, ignoring the ‘no flash’ rule set by our own guides.
“Putang ina…” I hear someone murmur under their breath. You don’t have to be fluent in Filipino to realise that wasn’t a happy comment.
Motorboats are wreaking havoc on the Abatan’s ecosystem. Leading the campaign on sustainable tour operations is Rey Donaire, one of the founders of Kayakasia Philippines. “We have documented the accelerated erosion of mud underneath the trees where fireflies develop,” he says via email some months after my excursion. “This is something the tourists who take the motorboats do not see.”
Pteroptyx macdermotti fireflies critically depend on the roots of the mangrove trees. Here, as larvae, they can feast on slugs, hide from predators and shelter in bad weather. Motorboats create waves that cause the water to bob up and down, chipping away at these delicate firefly nurseries. Travelling down the river at uncontrolled speeds and at increasing frequency, it is these tour companies that, ironically, are eroding the mud where their star attractions are born.
Despite urgent recommendation from the scientific community, the Abatan river is currently not recognised under the National Integrated Protected Areas System of 1992 (NIPAS) Act of 1992, which would protect it from “destructive human exploitation.” Until these national protection measures are put in place, tour operators may continue to use motorboats and disrupt this vulnerable environment.
Kayakasia Philippines strictly limit their tours to 20 kayaks maximum per day, spacing them out so as not to disturb the water. “We are the visitors,” says Rey. “So I believe we should observe as much as possible under their natural terms.”
We paddle quietly into the night. The soft murmur of gangits (crickets) and kuwago (Philippine owls) stirs the cool evening air, growing in confidence the less we make our presence known. My eyes adjust to the darkness and I, too, grow in confidence – finding comfort in the river’s ancient rhythm.
These same deep jungles were here centuries before the Spanish staked their claim to the Philippines. This same river ran its course when the first treaty was signed between my ancestors and the colonisers – which happened here, on this very island, between two men who cut their hands and sealed our fate in a bloody ritual. Bohol has survived a lot of history; yet I wonder if it can withstand what’s to come.
A yellow light flashes behind the trees. Then another. A few minutes later another flash, accompanied by the grinding of wheels on gravel – a road.
“We won’t find any fireflies on the trees near the road,” says Ronron, his back to me while he pushes forward. “They don’t like the lights from cars so they go to quieter spots.”
Light, to fireflies, is like speech is to us. They communicate through synchronised flashes, baring their tiny lower abdomens to say everything from ‘hello’ to ‘that’s a nice pair of wings you’ve got there, let’s make some babies.’ With too much artificial light from oncoming vehicles and lamp posts, their signals get all mixed up. It’s like trying to have a conversation in a very noisy nightclub – impossible and incredibly exhausting.
Yet Bohol shows no sign of slowing down its march of development. Millions of pesos are currently being pumped into new resorts and attractions, turning this once remote corner of the Philippines into a tourist haven. The island experienced unprecedented tourist growth of almost 40 percent in 2016, which the Bohol Tourism Office proudly credits to “social media and improved roads.” Strange things happen when places catch up to the past two centuries at once.
These big numbers are increasing year on year: Bohol caught the windfall of foreign tourists from Boracay’s 2018 closure. Over 90 percent of resorts in Panglao and Anda were fully booked in Easter. As an island that bore the brunt of the devastating 2013 earthquake, Bohol is making up for lost time.
My parents spent part of their honeymoon on Bohol island. In a conversation about my solo trip plans over FaceTime, my mother showed more than a little concern. “Where will you sleep?” she said. “What will you do? There’s nothing there for tourists.” How times have changed since the 1990s – and, I wonder, how many more fireflies were lighting up the Abatan back then.
Our kayaks glide like herons on the jet-black water, our paddle strokes in sync with the flow of the river. I now feel a little less useless at this, following Ronron’s example, steering our vessel along the winding bends. He asks if I’m tired – I say a little, but I don’t want to stop.
In the distance, I spot a faint golden glimmer; another colony of Pteroptyx macdermotti, wrapping themselves around a mangrove tree like a shimmering heat map of the universe. “Merry Christmas everyone!” shouts one of the guides from the darkness. It is a gift to us indeed.
As we float towards our glittering little friends, Ronron draws in his paddle and turns his head to face me. “Andoy,” he asks, using my Filipino nickname. “Do you think my English is good?” I assure him it’s great. “Thank you,” he smiles, as we paddle on.
Above, the stars are breathtakingly clear – twinkling in their synchronous light patterns and, perhaps, even talking to each other.