I made a trip to The Philippines with Taylor Knox and Evan Slater in the typhoon season of 1992, early September. We didn't know very much about where we were going or what we might find there, but we knew the east coast of The Philippines got seasonal swell from Western Pacific typhoons so we decided to go to an island called Siargao to have a look.
After arriving first in Manila, then Cebu City and then; Surigao City, we realised we still had to get to Siargao Island. We asked at the hotel we stayed at and they said we could wait until the public boat in the afternoon or we could go to the harbour and charter a boat ourselves. We got in a taxi and went to the harbour. In an hour or so we had booked and paid a cash deposit on a boat to Siargao and returned to the hotel to check out and get our stuff
After a scenic six-hour journey to Siargao via the Hinatuan Passage, we stopped at Dapa and continued on to General Luna, further up the coast where we would get more exposure to the northeast groundswell in the Pacific ocean from passing offshore typhoons.
We waded ashore with our baggage and surfboards, General MacArthur style as there was no cargo pier in General Luna in 1992. Evan and I played with the welcome committee of kids and kept an eye on our stuff, as we had no reservations of any kind. We did not know if there were any accommodations for visitors on the island, we were hoping someone would have a room for three people in their house as we didn’t have any camping gear. Taylor went to ask a few people if there was anywhere we could stay.
Fortunately, there was. We got a cottage on the beach near General Luna town, the only accommodation in the area for visitors at the time and met the two surfers already there, Australians Kevin Davidson and Dave Motbey, who had arrived from Sydney the day before.
They said they surfed a good lefthander in the morning and invited us to share a boat with them the next day. We got up at sunrise, had some instant coffee and then motored out to the reef, trading six-foot offshore lefthanders until we were too tired and hungry to surf.
We surfed this lefthander for the next few days, until Evan came back to the boat where I was shooting and declared "We should pull the anchor and look around for a right - we are getting bored going left" I said ok, that sounds like a good idea. I had several days of images from the left in the can, so let's look around.
Taylor and Evan were both regular footers and thus, getting tired of going left. Taylor came into the boat a few minutes later and we discussed a plan with Jo-el the boatman. He nodded and said we had enough fuel for some reconnaissance. We pulled the anchor and fired up the ear-shattering unmuffled banca motor and were off into the unknown.
After a while, we saw spray coming off what looked like a clean peak with a channel next to the right. Trying to judge waves from the back is nearly impossible, so we nominated Taylor to paddle over and check it out, as his board was on the top of the stack in the front of the boat. Taylor wasn't that enthusiastic, moving out from the shade cover into the hot sun to check out this wave that was probably nothing, but we couldn't tell from the back if it was any good and someone had to go over and look at it.
Taylor threw his board in the water and jumped in. We gathered under the shade cover and waited, as he paddled towards the peak. We could see him paddling, then stopping and adjusting his position, looking around for exposed reef or anything dangerous.
He put his head down and paddled hard. Evan said "Here he goes". We were all watching as Taylor disappeared. As the wave began to break, we could see his track from behind the wave as he moved towards the channel, very fast. Suddenly he appeared on the shoulder, gliding on flat water and looking back at the boat with his arms over his head and shouting "Aaaawwooooooooooo!"
There was a mad scramble for wax, leg ropes and sun-blocking rash shirts as everyone tried to jump in at once. The boat was rocking and Jo-el looked surprised and asked me "What's going on?" I said "Can you keep the boat here for a while? We are going surfing". I later named the wave "Cloud 9" after the local no-melt chocolate bars, as walking into General Luna town after lunch for a Cloud 9 bar and a warm Coke was one of the highlights of our day.
As it turned out, the wave was a known wave, being in front of a beachfront hut constructed by Maui haole drug dealer, G-land surf camp founder and international fugitive Mike Boyum several years earlier. We knew nothing of Mike Boyum being in the area or "Max Walker", his nom de guerre during his time on Siargao Island, where he died from self-induced starvation in April of 1989.
His hut was still on the beach three and a half years later, approximately where the base of the famous Cloud 9 pier is now, with part of the roof caved in and looking deserted. There was nothing else on the beach at the time other than coconut palms and piles of coconut husks, it was completely empty. We took the boat into the beach only once, at peak high tide at sunset to retrieve the front half of Taylor's broken board.
The bow of the boat hit the sand and we all jumped out. Taylor jogged down the beach to get the front half of his board and while we were waiting, we were looking around. Evan asked Jo-el who the hut on the beach belonged to. He said "Max Walker - American guy". Evan said with surprise "American guy - out here? What happened to him?" as the hut was run down and looked empty.
Jo-el looked at us and I remember exactly what he said, as Jo-el could speak English but he was not an educated man and rarely spoke sentences of more than three or four words. This was perhaps the longest sentence he spoke the entire time we were on the island for that first trip to Siargao when he said "He did not want to live any more, so he died".
That statement gave Evan and I the chills, but at the time; we did not know "Max Walker" was Mike Boyum nor did we know any of the sordid facts that had brought Mike to The Philippines three years previously to hide out incognito as “Max Walker”. It just seemed like a lonely and remote place for someone to die.
As the sun was already below the horizon and there were a few mosquitoes around, when Taylor came back we loaded Taylor's front half into the boat, pushed the boat off the beach and left. I don’t think we mentioned or discussed the hut on the beach or the unknown American who had died there for the rest of the trip, as none of us knew of anyone named “Max Walker”.
We surfed the wave I named Cloud 9 nearly every day we were on Siargao Island in early September, 1992. We had no internet, no mobile phone signal and no newspapers or television, so we didn’t know where the consistent swell we were getting nor the constant southwest Habagat seasonal offshore wind were coming from. There was no surf or weather forecast, internet or otherwise. We surfed good waves every day we were on the island without the slightest idea what was going on in a meteorological context.
It was only a few years later, when I was able to do some research on typhoons in early September 1992 and we could see there were two western Pacific storms while we were on Siargao. Not huge “super typhoons”, but average category 3 or 4 storms, moving slowly from the east to the northwest through the swell window below Guam and certainly strong enough to give us consistent 4 to 8 foot groundswell and the offshore southwest wind for several weeks.
In addition to the swell and wind, the other mystery I was able to investigate to some degree was: Siargao was a very pleasant island with great surf, but there was no one surfing except us and there appeared to be very few visitors of any kind.
The place we stayed, the only one in the General Luna area at the time, had been open for three years and the guestbook had less than 100 entries, most of them domestic Filipino visitors. Not everyone signs the guestbook as it is not a requirement, but still - very few visitors, particularly international visitors. Siargao was an obscure island, very few people outside The Philippines had heard of it for any reason.
Looking around, we could see that people in the area were not rich, but they were not starving either. There was plenty of fishing and farming going on and many small shops in town selling baked goods, fruit or fresh fish. Not too bad, everyone had something to eat, but virtually zero businesses catering to visitors to the island, everything was targeted to locals.
We later learned General Luna was a fairly prosperous town by the standards of Surigao del Norte province, which includes the city of Surigao on the mainland and Dinagat and Siargao Islands, with Siargao having a population of over 100 000 people.
At the time, 1992; Siargao Island and Surigao del Norte had one of the highest out-migration rates in The Philippines, meaning people left the island, the province and in many cases the country, to find a cash-paying job, any job. Fishing and farming can feed a family in the distant provinces like Surigao del Norte, but finding a job was a near-impossibility.
On one of our trips into town, we noticed a line of parents and children outside a house, being rented by two of the only foreigners we met on the island, a Swedish man and a German fellow. They came by our place on bicycles with several books in English, asking if we had any books to trade. We had only recently arrived, so we said to come back in a week or so and we would have finished a few of the books we brought. We asked Jo-el, who happened to be with us as we were going to the petrol kiosk for a plastic jug of gasoline for the boat, “what are those people doing in front of the foreigner’s house”? Jo-el said they “pay the parents to make movies with the kids”.
We didn’t think much of the comment at the time, but later at dinner that evening, Evan said “making movies with the kids - what kind of movies?” Taylor and I said something like “Probably not Disney movies - paying the parents? It’s a kiddie porn factory”. At the time, unfortunately that’s what people on Siargao Island were willing to do to make a cash income. Along with a kiddie porn industry there was a thriving human organ trade in selling kidneys for transplant.
Organ-harvesting was considered the money-making scheme of last resort on Siargao, but was well-known on the island. Recruiters regularly visited villages with cash offers. There were several impromptu surgeries set up where the kidneys were removed, the donors paid and the organs taken from Siargao in portable coolers with ice and distributed worldwide to eager transplant recipients.
These economic problems were brought home to me several years later, in 1996 when the Governor of Surigao del Norte province established the first Siargao Cup surfing event, which brought huge publicity to the island and has been held annually ever since.
During one of the contest days, I was approached by a woman I had never met or seen before. She introduced herself and asked rather nervously if I was “John Callahan, the Photographer”? I said I was and she told me her story.
She was from Siargao, a native of General Luna. She had left The Philippines a decade earlier, recruited by one of many agencies to work as a housemaid in the Middle East, in her case the UAE where she found a job with a middle-level sheikh. After a few years, she was promoted to head housekeeper and invited on the annual family sojourn to the UK, where the sheikh kept a posh townhouse in Mayfair and the family could spend the torrid summer months in cooler comfort in Britain.
One of her duties in London was to go to Harrods once a week and collect the sheikh’s standing order of groceries and other household goods and do a bit of browsing in the store. One one trip, she was at the magazine section and saw a copy of Surfing World Australia, one of the magazines that had published a feature article from our 1992 trip to Siargao.She recognized Siargao and General Luna from the images in the magazine and that evening, called her family and announced she was resigning her position soon and returning home.
They were initially baffled, but soon learned that change was coming as shortly thereafter the first foreign-funded accommodation and restaurant operations were started outside of General Luna, on the then-unpaved road to Cloud 9 and Tuason Point.
With her organising skills from working as head housekeeper for the sheikh, she soon found a job as a general manager for one of the new accommodation operations. She said “I wanted to thank you personally, if I ever got the chance to meet you. Your articles about surfing in Siargao changed my life, now I can live at home with my family and have a paying job, something that was not possible before”.
That encounter taught me a valuable lesson, one I have never forgotten or discounted on the many surfing projects we have done since - it’s not all about you and what you want. There are people living in these types of places that can benefit greatly from visitor-centred development and you should never, ever assume any sense of ownership simply because you visited a place and want it to remain static and undeveloped so it will be exactly the same the next time you visit. Keeping poor people poor is not a viable option for your uncrowded surfing pleasure.
In the many years since our first trip to Siargao in 1992, I have had many people say to me, “Too bad you blew up a secret spot, kook - it would still be uncrowded if not for you and your photos” which is of course; not true but even if it were; what these people either choose to ignore or don’t understand in the first place is every accommodation operation, bar or restaurant, shop or boutique, motorbike rental or surfing lesson provides jobs and income to local residents.
Jobs mean an income from surfing and non-surfing visitors, as every person who comes to Siargao spends money. That money goes a long way in a community like General Luna which is far from Manila and any government assistance or funding.
The huge increase in visitors since 1992 to this area has changed many people’s lives much for the better. The Philippines isn’t the kind of country, like Australia, where the government pays you if you don’t have a job - more likely you will starve to death.
To the best of my knowledge, people on Siargao are no longer prostituting their children for cash money nor are they selling their kidneys. Whenever I hear the false narrative of “Dude, don’t ever tell anyone - it’s a secret spot!” about these kinds of remote places in so-called “third world” countries, I think of my former housemaid friend in Siargao and what she said that day and remember - it’s not all about you and keeping poor people poor simply for your uncrowded surfing pleasure is selfish and wrong.
We have kept the interest of the local residents front and centre on every project we have done since in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. If our activities can make a difference in the upward financial mobility of local residents through additional surfing visitors, we are happy to do so.
Text © John Seaton Callahan/Images © John Seaton Callahan