Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Maps Get Redrawn: Puerto Princesa Underground River part 3

[This is the third and final post in a series about the Puerto Princesa Underground River. The other two are here and here. -- Tom]

Why should anybody care? Wouldn't you imagine the "Committee on Stratigraphic Nomenclature of the Geological Society of the Philippines" to be a staid and august body that sees about as much action as the National Committee on Library Sciences? (Nothing against librarians... you'd be surprised at how stimulating the science organizing information is... think Google).

Well, remember at the beginning how the carbonate was formed from living materials millions of years ago sinking to the bottom of the ocean? That's exactly how fossil fuels like natural gas and oil are formed. Instead of an underground river running through it, the underwater El Nido formation is full of petroleum deposits. Because the geologic formation that makes the Underground River is the same formation as the off-shore petroleum deposits, legally, the fossil fuels should have been the jurisdiction of Puerto Princesa. In the image of the crocodile, "The nose rests on our shore, so the whole body (and everything in it's stomach) belongs to us."

Just imagine how thrilled you would be if you had discovered that your property line was misdrawn decades ago and now you were the proud owner of a mansion? Or that you were lost as an orphan but then found out that you were related to royalty and stood to inherit a fortune?

The citizens of El Nido, naturally, were not happy about this and were reluctant to see their bounty of petroleum go. Unfortunately for El Nido, geologic tests firmly swing things in Puerto Princesa's favor because their rocks are the same age as the offshore deposits, and El Nido's rocks are nearly ten times too old.  Mayor Ed and Doctor Socrates helped champion this issue all the way through to the Supreme Court, and the ruling was in Puerto Princesa's favor. It was an incredible boon for the area and one I'm not sure many people (tourists or locals) appreciate.

And that's how the Mayor and the Underground River helped rewrite the geologic maps of the Philippines!

But when you thought it couldn't get any stranger... The Underground River's formation doesn't just extend out to natural gas deposits but arguably far out under the hotly contested Spratly Islands. Six different countries including China lay claim to these islands (because of the strategic importance of their petroleum and fishing). As recently as a few months ago, naval vessels were opening fire on eachother in a conflict that has been going on for decades.

The Spratly Island dispute is a bit off track and the Philippines' geologic argument is just one of many perspectives on who owns what, so we'll just leave it there. Furthermore, you can't imagine the time and money it takes to do the geologic tests to establish ocean-bed ownership to the satisfaction of The International Law of the Sea. The greatest hurdle would detailed mapping of the seafloor bottom that would involve petabytes of data. At dinner one night we met some US military scientists that had been mapping a single navy port near Puerto Princesa for weeks (they described their job as "mowing the lawn", motoring a boat back and forth in stripes while an expensive machine scans the ocean bottom).

Speaking of vacationers, what is the Underground River tour actually like? The Guide for Tourists is comprehensive and some of the photo galleries on the web are enough to make you want to book your next tropical holiday. We rented motorbikes from Puerto Princesa and it was about a two to three hour ride up a newly paved road to Sabang, the village closest to the Underground River. Along the way are rice fields and limestone cliffs. Funny enough, the thing that excited me the most was seeing a groundwater well being drilled (so many questions- why were they drilling, how deep does it go, what's underground?).

They say that when you ride a bike (or car or snowmobile), you tend to turn in the direction that you're looking. So if you're about to crash into a tree, don't look at the tree itself but instead look at where you want to go. There's a big life lesson in there somewhere (if you obsess on your problems, you'll be more likely to fail?), but the takeaway for me was that jerking my head while stopping too quickly is a good way to fishtail and end up tumbling on the pavement.

It wouldn't be until a week later that I realized I chipped my tibia and would need crutches. After days of moaning in the darkness of a beach bungalow in Sabang, I had Underground River fever and couldn't be talked out of turning back now. In Hunter S Thompson style, I cleared out the village pharmacy of its stock of pain pills and limped down to shore on a makeshift jungle crutch made from a tree branch.
I didn't realize my leg bone was cracked in this picture. The things I do in the name of hydrology!
In 2002, about 50 people per day visited the river and in 2010 it was about 475 people per day, about 20% of which are foreigners. Capacity is limited by a first-come-first-served permitting system. Tourism has increased so much, partly because of an incredibly successful tourism campaign backed by the Mayor and local government. I can only imagine how that is going to increase now that it won the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World competition. As I write, nearly all the Puerto Princesa Underground River webpages are down because of too much internet traffic.

The Underground River tour itself is in a mix of languages, often times in the same sentence. For example, the boatman would set up a joke in English ("Do you know why they call this rock the Wolf's Head?") and tell the punchline in Tagalog, leaving everyone on the boat but me roaring in laughter. Nearly all the major features in the cave are named after everyday objects, e.g. "This formation looks like sweet corn", and most of the allusions were Catholic, e.g. "Look there, the Three Kings bearing gifts", "This looks like the Pieta statue", "Can you see the outline of the Virgin Mary?"

Again, the positive influence of the Mayor is everywhere, down to the Mayor Ed Hagedorn sponsored welcome tent at the dock, the Mayor Ed Hagedorn observation spot overlooking the bay, and various other projects along the way. On the ride back to Puerto Princesa, the thing that impressed us the most was a larger than life banner declaring "This quarry was ordered closed by City Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn and is now undergoing rehabilitation: We are building the Babylon Gardens of Puerto Princessa Eco-park".
The banner declares the quarry ordered closed by Mayor Edward Hagedorn
The new park's 5 elements are "Planet ecosystems, Sustainable planet, World of leisure, Extreme sports planet, and World of bible." Again, so many questions- can a Mayor close a quarry by himself? Wouldn't someone like a judge have to get involved? There is a much deeper back story than I could possibly hope to get in to here (e.g. earlier this year an anti-mining advocate was assassinated and Mayor Ed's political rivals were still pending).

What is this Mayor not involved with?
A short ride from that banner is another that shows a large portrait of the Mayor sponsoring the "1st Mayor Edward S Hagedorn World Shoot Qualifier Match" for Practical Shooting (which is something like sharp shooting on an obstacle course). The background photo for the banner? The Puerto Princesa Underground River, naturally.

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