Science, Tech & Environment

Palawan's Underground River welcomes evokes wonder and awe in tourists

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Boats approach the Underground River cave on Palawan in the Philippines. (Photo by Mary Kay Magistad.)

The 300 mile long island of Palawan in the Philippines lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

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It has a bio-diverse environment with several hundred species of butterflies, and one endemic species of Bearded pig. It's also home to one of the newly named Seven Wonders of Nature, an underground river that is a major tourist attraction.

Rene is small, wiry, and a bit of a cut-up, the tour guide at Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Paddling through a sunny lagoon, surrounded by karst limestone cliffs, into the mouth of the cave, she commands the tourist who’s been tasked to carry our sole flashlight to turn it on as we enter the cave and then to point it at a high dome above us.

It’s covered in a layer of tiny sleeping bats.

“Look up to the ceiling. So many bats there,” Rene said. “But remember, when you look up to the ceiling – close your mouth!”

Gliding past stalactites and stalagmites, and limestone formations that look like — at least according to the locals — various religious images,

“Now, we go into the cathedral. See the big dome? On the right side, looks like the Virgin Mary. And there’s the Holy Family – like the Nativity,” Rene said.

Whatever your religious persuasion, the cave does inspire wonder. So the Philippines felt it was only natural to enter the underground river, and the diverse ecosystem in and around it, in a competition to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

The contest was run by a Swiss Foundation, and based on a global vote. To boost their chances, the Philippines made a promotional video, with dramatic music and lines like this:

“The entire world cannot but regard the Puerto Princesa Underground River as God’s gift to mankind, definitely a true wonder of nature.”

A little heavy-handed, but at one time, Palawan’s underground river was thought to be the longest in the world. That was before another was discovered in the Yucatan, in Mexico, that twists and turns for more than 90 miles.

Paddling through the cave, you do wonder how this place had beaten out the Grand Canyon, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and Mount Kilamanjaro.

A clue came from Philippines President Benigno Aquino in the same promotional video:

“This river was carved out of stone by nature. Let us use it to carve out a future for our tourism, and the jobs that come with it,” Aquino said.

Turns out, the New 7 Wonders of Nature was a bit of a popularity contest. There was no limit on how many times you could vote. So, in the official video promoting the underground River, President Aquino urged Filipinos to vote early and often.

“Let’s all join together in supporting the Puerto Princesa Underground River. This is our hope. This is our way of doing our part for our country. Vote and let’s make the Puerto Princesa River one of the 7 Wonders of Nature,” Aquino said.

It worked. Last November, this Underground River became one of the Seven Wonders of Nature — along with the Amazon Rain Forest, Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, Jeju Island in South Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia and Table Mountain in South Africa. UNESCO sniffed that this wasn’t a fair or representative contest, and said it had no plans to allocate its resources based on the competition.

Still, the Philippines can rest easy. Palawan’s Underground River has already been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a dozen years. The growing numbers of tourists who flock to see it have brought an island, once known for its malaria and prison camps, pride and a little prosperity – and an incentive to protect an ancient ecosystem.