I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Philippines, but whatever it was, the reality was better. The islands are so beautiful and the wildlife…well, it was just different from other islands I’d already visited for this series. I wrote a blog from the Philippines last October called ‘The Lucky Butterfly’…such a great piece behavior.
This butterfly chrysalis look like it’s held together with silver. We spent most of our time on Palawan a stunning island of craggy limestone cliffs poking out from dense jungle. Palawan also has one of the world’s most extensive cave systems the most famous of which is in the Underground River National Park, a World Heritage Site.
Here we explored the caves by boat. Climbing ashore in the cathedral-like caverns is a slippery business and a pretty creepy one too. This is spider city. Settle down in the glutenous mud and hundreds of tarantulas emerge from their burrows to wait patiently for a passing whip scorpion the size of both of my spread hands.
Mountains of bat guano squirm beneath the feet of a million cockroaches. It’s impossible to keep ones balance in the slippery shit so by the time we all emerged from the caves several hours later we were covered with slime from head to toe. Back outside, we were able to wash off in the sea and film monitor lizards chasing down ghost crabs along the shoreline.
The highlight though was something we hadn’t anticipated and it was a phenomenon I’d wanted to see since I watched David Attenborough talking about it on ‘The Living Planet’ in the early 80’s. It’s a phenomenon which I think is found in only a very few locations in South East Asia. These are the synchronous fireflies and the colony we were going to be shown existed on only one small tree on the banks of a river.
We arrived at dusk and stood in the soft mud looking at this unassuming little tree which was no more than 6m high.
Looking closely at the leaves I could see the little fireflies wandering about over the leaves and start to flash at each other with their bioluminescent abdomens.
The fireflies are actually beetles and this species is quite tiny, only about 5mm long and belong to the lampid family. Some species of firefly are as p as 25mm long, huge great things with car headlights!
As it got darker more and more fireflies began to glow as each little beetle switched its glowing bottom on and off. Then all of a sudden they become totally synchronous all flashing at once.
By the time it was totally dark the entire tree was awash with hundreds of thousands of these incredible insects. They started by flashing randomly but then every few seconds they somehow achieved perfect synchrony and wave after wave of green bioluminescence swept across the tree in a series of Mexican waves.
It’s truly an awe inspiring sight, like watching the northern lights but much, much more intense.I wish I’d had more time. There are some amazing time-lapse opportunities here but it would require a lot of experimentation. I’ll definitely be back.