The Stingless Jellyfish of Sohoton Cove National Park (Surigao)

The jellyfish pond. Sohoton. Not much additional information on the jellyfish sanctuary heading into Siargao Island. We didn’t know exactly what the sanctuary is called, if it’s still part of Siargao, or how far it is from Siargao. All we wanted to do was go see the stingless jellies. No guts, no jellies. Siargao offered more surprises than we can take home even when using the biggest luggage in this inflation-challenged market.

Booking a Boat

Looking for the jellyfish sanctuary is not a difficult task. It’s the second-popular attraction in Siargao. You can simply ask your resort’s staff where to make the tour reservation (they can even book it for you, if you’re lucky enough, something that will serve you well in the P1Billion lotto draw).

What we did, scout girls and boys that we are, was to track down a cellphone number we got in the dark internet. Not really dangerous because you hand the payment after the ride to and from the jellyfish pond. P5,000 to rent the entire boat. The night before the scheduled boat ride to the jellyfish pond, we sent a reminder to the boatman, reminding him about the scheduled boat trip. Efficiency is the word to save and maximize time and money.

See you at 7:00 a.m. at the General Luna pier, the boatman texted back. So far, so good, we thought, as we downed the last bottle of beer at Cloud 9. The next day, tired from the surfing torture (okay, okay, it was just a few minutes of basic surfing lessons) the day before, and having imbibed the island surfer culture in just a day, we crawled out of bed and slipped straight into swimming gears. The simple life. Who needs to take a shower when you’re going to get soaked anyway?

It was drizzling during the 20-minute tricycle ride from the resort to the General Luna pier. The kids didn’t look bored but we just had to make sure. We improvised a hitech game, we called the Count the Animals Along the Way. It’s simple. Someone looks at the left side of the road and shouts out (normal voice is useless in a tricycle, noisy engine and all) the number and kind of animals seen. Other players, assigned to watch the right side of the road, will have to pick up the last number, then add the number as soon as he/she sees an animal of the same kind. Math and memory game. We ended the count at 19 carabaos, 15 pigs, 8 chicken, and 5 cows. Lots of carabaos, no jellyfish, yet.

It’s better to head on to the jellyfish pond early in the morning to avoid the swarm of people on peak hours.

Breakfast

Planning ahead is useless if you forget one thing: food. Breakfast happens to be the most important meal of the day; if not in any other day, on the day you’re going to the jellyfish pond.

Breakfast is available at the karinderya. Hot soup of the day’s fresh catch from the sea, a dish called tinowa (Visayans use fish for tinola). Beer bottles and beer cases are neatly tucked along the corridor, and it’s interesting to think how early the “happy hour” is in Siargao. Bought some snacks, lots of water instead of beer, and a bunch of packed lunch. You have to think of lunch. Again, food is crucial; people are more impatient and grumpy when they’re hungry.

As an aside, we don’t know why Siargao doesn’t do what Palawan does. In Palawan, they prepare your meals ON the boat while you’re out swimming in the clear waters or rolling on the white beach. Lunch is ready, complete with fruits and crabs and all the bounty of the ocean you can afford, by the time you get off the water. We hope this becomes standard in the Siargao boat tours.

The 2-hour boat ride from General Luna wharf to Sohoton Cove was uneventful.

The Jellyfish Pond

Sohoton, the generic term for the jellyfish pond. Tourists don’t go straight to the jellyfish pond. They have to register at the Tourist Center, a network of wooden planks and huts, at the side of a cliff, hidden from the sea by a tiny rock. Wood planks on the sea floor, visible through the clear waters, are mute witnesses how savage typhoons can get in this area. A huge billboard greeted us with this message:

Welcome!
SOHOTON
Bucasgrande Island, Philippines

Here you will find peace: Serenity of the mind, tranquility of the soul, and simplicity of the heart….

You’ll find serenity, tranquility and simplicity in Sohoton, no doubt. You’ll still find simplicity in the open sea to and from Sohoton but, during the time we were there, we got the exact opposite of serenity and tranquility on the way back to Siargao. We’ll get to that in a while.

An atmosphere of confusion appears to rule the mass of humanity when you first enter the Sohoton Tourist Center. Controlled chaos, you’ll soon realize. The steps are simple: line up, pay the environmental and boat ride fees (around P500 per head), get your helmet and life vest, line up again, wait for your boat, and, when applicable, eat (no food sold at the Tourist Center, so take our food reminder seriously).

Sohoton is a catch-all, generic term. Sohoton is not part of Siargao Island. Many travelers, like us, mention Sohoton together with Siargao merely for convenience, Siargao being the most popular destination in this area.

Sohoton is found in Bucas Grande Island, part of Socorro municipality, Surigao del Norte. Bucas Grande Island is obviously not a part of the bigger Siargao Island. It’s like the island of Cebu, which consists of many cities (including Cebu City) and municipalities, beside the island of Mactan (both Cebu island and Mactan island belong to the Cebu province).

Sohoton can also refer to the general area where the jellyfish are found. The Tojoman Lagoon (also known as the “Jellyfish Sanctuary” or “Sohoton Jellyfish Sanctuary”) is part of the Sohoton Cove National Park, found in the Bucas Grande group of islands, all part of the town called Socorro. The Sohoton Cove National Park is a maze of coves, caves and lagoons.

Pump Boats, Small Boats

A pump boat, or pambot to many, is an outrigger canoe (bangka) powered by a small gasoline or diesel engine. The pump boat we hired from Siargao Island to Sohoton was a bigger boat, with a capacity of more than 15 people. The one used from the Tourist Center to the Sohoton Cove is a smaller pump boat, which can accommodate less than 8 people.

Sohoton is derived from the Visayan word sooton (so-o-ton), which means to squeeze through a small opening. The only entrance, by boat to the Sohoton Cove low-lying limestone cavern, not accessible during high tide.

Guests are usually encouraged to go down the boat and swim into Hagukan Cave, which name is derived from the visayan word “hagok” (snore). A few meters from the Hagukan Cove is the Magkukuob Cave, where guests are faced with a cliff diving challenge.

Tiny Boats

The pump boat ride through Sohoton Cove, lasting around 30 minutes to one hour, ends back at the Tourist Center, where tourists transfer to smaller boats (banca). No engines. Pure paddle power. One paddler, or the bangkero, and two passengers for each banca. These bangkeros are fishermen, earning more as paddlers of these bancas for tourists.

The use of paddle-powered banca is necessary not to cause too much disturbance at the Jellyfish Sanctuary. These bancas are tiny because during low tide, a rocky patch emerges at the lagoon’s entrance, which requires the boatman to carry the banca over the obstacle, then over the net (or mesh) that covers the lagoon entrance. Bigger boats are heavier boats, inconvenient to carry over the obstacle. Bigger boats also occupy a bigger space at the Jellyfish Sanctuary, reducing the number of tourists that can be inside the lagoon at any given time.

We were lucky to be ahead of everyone else. Our two-banca group was alone for a good 15 minutes inside the lagoon. With the banca leisurely criscrossing the lagoon, there was enough time to take photos and goof around.

The Jellies

There are two species of stingless jellyfish in the area. One is the Mastigias papua, a brown-spotted jelly also called the lagoon jelly, and Aurelia aurita (also called moon jellyfish, moon jelly, or saucer jelly), mostly found in warm, tropical waters.

Here’s the moon jelly (Aurelia aurita), if you can see it:

And here’s the brown-spotted lagoon jelly (Mastigias papua), which appears like a lump of real jelly that’s looks appealing to bite (no wonder those turtles love the jelly meal):

It was amazing to see the jellyfish up close, yet we can’t help feeling a tiny sting of disappointment because there was only a handful jellyfish, less than fifteen, we encountered. It’s a far cry from the swarm of jellyfish you see in photos and travel TV shows. It’s like Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” discovering that the hamburger served looks different from the hamburger on the menu.

The bangkero explained that it wasn’t the season for the jellyfish. Sea turtles aren’t of much help, it turned out. These sea turtles love to eat jellyfish, we were told. It’s their happy meal (see what we did there, Jollibee?) The net or mesh at the lagoon entrance is meant to stop the sea turtles from going in the lagoon and eating the jellyfish.

Here’s an interesting thought: which one swims faster, the jellyfish or the sea turtle?

The Ride Home

Thirty minutes into the boat ride going back to Siargao Island, right on cue after eating lunch, the wind and rain started to pick up. Wind and rain. Bad combination.

One reason why Siargao has good waves is the fact that it’s facing the Pacific Ocean, a typhoon nursery (see 2018 typhoon list). If the sea can be treacherous, a typhoon nursery is even worse. There are strong currents flowing through these islands. You’ll notice that the RoRo port on the other side of Surigao is located in a town called “Liloan“, from the Visayan word “lilo“, which means whirlpool.

It was like scary movie. For the first time, we experienced raindrops hitting us sideways, the fresh rainwater alternating with the salty seawater in dousing us each time the boat slammed down from the wave’s crest. The raindrops felt like a thousand needles pricking the exposed skin.

The downpour severely reduced visibility. The contour of the distant mountain was gone, the sight of the waves’ trough, terrifying. Our only source of comfort was the boat pilot giving a thumbs up sign, grinning, probably thinking how weird we looked at that moment. Just another day in the office for them, we suppose.

The ordeal lasted for around 45 minutes. It felt like an eternity. At the first stopover, Naked Island, we discovered that when you’re ecstatic in seeing land, you tend to kiss it. We skipped the next stopover, Daku Island. We didn’t mind. Shaken and stirred, that’s how we felt at that time.

Around a kilometer or so from the Siargao shore, with Cloud 9 visible from the distance, we noticed the same huge waves, this time with surfers having a grand time. Fish in the water, these surfers are. It’s weird that they welcomed the waves; we did not, at that time. Siargao indeed has a lot of surprises.

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