The southern island of Mindanao is the largest single island in The Philippines and has a long history of social and political conflict. Making a surfing project in this area was risky, as few visitors had visited the coastline of Mindanao for any reason.
Since the arrival of Europeans in The Philippines in 1521 after the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean from Panamá, Mindanao has seen everything from religious disputes to armed political struggle, conflicts that have severely constrained the social and economic development of the island.
At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, led by the Portuguese navigator Fernão Malgalhaes, better known by his Spanish name of Ferdinand Magellan, most of Mindanao was under the control of various Muslim sultanates.
It took a few centuries, but the devout Spanish Catholics beat the Muslims back with a Bible in one hand and a sword of Toledo steel in the other, back to the southern parts of the island where they continue to reside today, simmering with resentment and periodically rising in armed rebellion against the Catholic government in Manila.
In later years, starting with their declaration of armed rebellion in 1969, the struggle for Mindanao took on a political dimension as the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of The Philippines, gained influence and once held a large amount of territory in the eastern part of the island bordering the Pacific Ocean.
While being largely atheist and favouring neither Christian nor Muslim creeds, the NPA collected “revolutionary tax” at gunpoint from residents and merchants and gained acceptance and power in Mindanao and other regions of The Philippines mainly from the sheer neglect and blatant corruption of the central government in Manila.
Bureaucrats and elected officials lined their pockets with public money for decades and left large areas of Mindanao, including much of the province of Davao Oriental; shamefully undeveloped, with many people relying on basic subsistence fishing and farming for survival.
With recent reports of an upturn in the fortunes of Davao Oriental, including better governance, increased government spending on basics like roads, bridges and telecommunications infrastructure, we decided to make a plan for a surfEXPLORE project in this area.
There had also been reports of a decrease in the numbers and influence of the NPA in the region also, with the few bands of insurgents remaining now little more than bandits rather than ideological warriors for international communism.
Despite the obvious potential for great waves on this coastline and the booming visitor and surfing economy of Siargao Island not too far away to the north in Surigao del Norte province, the coastline of Davao Oriental had remained basically unsurfed by locals and visitors for decades.
The first challenge is getting out of Davao City, a sprawling mess of light industrial estates, girlie bars and storage and distribution facilities for the large agricultural output of the area, vast plantations of pineapple, banana, mango, and durian fruit; the spiky, stinky, pungent-smelling fruit for which Davao City is famous.
Once on the coast, Dahican Beach in the Mati region is a good place to start looking for waves, with a stunning white sand beach and numerous accommodation places at Dahican and on the nearby Pujada peninsula, which also has numerous accommodation facilities and several reef waves surfed by local surfers.
We chose to move north from Dahican, stopping at several promising setups and closely monitoring the forecast for any sign of a typhoon forming in the western Pacific Ocean. We noted the new all-concrete highway on the coast with new bridges and good 4G mobile internet signal, a sign of increased government spending in the area bringing tangible improvements to infrastructure.
There are two distinct seasons for waves on the Pacific coastline of Mindanao, the first being the northeast monsoon or “Amihan” season, during which a near-constant northeast wind produces short-period but surfable windswell along the entire coastline, with a sloppy onshore wind in all but a few locations.
The second is the western Pacific typhoon season, known locally as the “Habagat” season, during which a near-constant southwest offshore wind can blow for weeks, waiting for a long-period swell from a distant typhoon to blanket the coastline of Mindanao from Surigao City in the north to Cape San Agustin in the far south.
A solid typhoon swell from the East - Northeast direction can produce ideal surfing conditions and world-class waves on this coastline, it is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, something The surfEXPLORE Group has been proven quite good at in many locations around the world.
At one location, we saw erosion that may be one of the effects of sea-level rise due to global warming. A cemetery, formerly high and dry when it was inaugurated during Spanish colonial times, was now being severely eroded by the Pacific Ocean. Numerous concrete coffins were in a state of exposure and disrepair, with human bones scattered around the narrow beach and more graves being uncovered and subject to wave action with each cycle of high and low tides.
Moving north on the new concrete coast road; which from the numerous construction crews hard at work on bridges, is still under construction after decades of government inaction and neglect, made travel on this coastline much easier than the previous rutted and frequently impassable roads. The central government in distant Manila bringing tangible improvements to local infrastructure can only be a positive in keeping the NPA and other extremist political ideologies on the fringes in this area.
We were able to find a place to stay at a small coastal resort and could see waves breaking on a distant point, but we had no idea how to get out there to get a closer look as there didn’t appear to be any roads through the thick jungle.
We hired a local guide who said he knew how to get there walking on the beach, so we set off after lunch with water and food to try and find some waves with the favorable afternoon frontlit conditions.
After an hour or so of beachfront hiking through spectacular rock formations we reached the point and found clean offshore righthanders, breaking on a shallow reef in front of a sandy beach. We wasted no time in paddling out, with the rather startled and staring local fishermen confirming this area was rarely (perhaps never) surfed before.
The water at this spot, being well outside any area of human settlement and away from any rivers or streams emptying into the ocean, was some of the clearest and bluest ocean water any of us had ever seen - absolutely transparent, making the vibrant coral reef look even shallower than it actually was.
The next day the swell had dropped, so we made a trip across the bay to the other side of the point, where there was a small village and a series of reefs with deep channels and quite a few fishing boats on the beach. One of the reefs was angled perfectly to capture the Amihan northeast monsoon windswell and bend it enough to have the predominant seasonal wind blow offshore.
The villagers said yes, they had seen surfers before.
The woman said they had one man from the United States who had a house in the village. He had returned every season for surfing in the northeast monsoon period for almost twenty years. Sometimes he brought his friends, sometimes he was alone. He was not there at the moment, as it was Habagat typhoon season but did we want to see his house and leave a message?
We walked a few minutes to a small wood and thatch house on the edge of the village, no different than any of the other houses, and looking through the dusty window we could see five or six boards leaning against the wall. Normal white foam, no embellishments, no color, standard thruster fin setups and two or three leg ropes on the floor.
We declined to leave a message, but heard later from the people we stayed with the man was enraged when he learned from the friendly villagers The surfEXPLORE Group had been in the area; to his house even, and vowed to seek vengeance if we ever returned to what had apparently been his private Amihan season wave garden for nearly twenty years on the Pacific coastline of Mindanao Island.
Considering the improved infrastructure on the coast of Davao Oriental, the greatly reduced threat of the NPA guerillas and proliferation of surfing and surfers in The Philippines since the mysterious American first came to surf in Mindanao twenty years ago, there will be many more surfers coming to this area in the next twenty years.
Like many other places in the world, in Davao Oriental Province of The Philippines, there is no going back to the unsurfed past, surfers and surfing are here to stay.
Text and images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE