Footprints on Scarborough Shoal

Footprints on Scarborough Shoal
Gaining a foothold on Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) —VIDEOGRAB FROM SOUTH SEA CONVERSATIONS BLOG

On May 17, 1997, the first group of journalists embarked on an extraordinary expedition to this triangle-shaped coral reef now part of long-running geopolitical tension between the Philippines and China. It was a place few had heard of, let alone visited, at a time when the world was still grappling with dial-up internet and flip phones.

Today, it is known to the world as Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc. I was among the journalists who joined the expedition, and to my recollection, I was the first to set foot on it.  

I was 33 years old, a correspondent covering Olongapo and Zambales for The Philippine Star, and a stringer for Kyodo News and CBS News. I may no longer remember the names of some people, 27 years having passed, but I will never forget this remarkable odyssey.  

Under the veil of darkness, we boarded a Philippine Navy patrol vessel that left at midnight from Alava Pier, Subic Bay, en route to Scarborough Shoal. We were a mix of international correspondents and stringers, local reporters, and photojournalists. Then members of the House of Representatives of the 10th Philippine Congress—Jose Yap (2nd district, Tarlac) and Roquito Ablan (1st district, Ilocos Norte) led the 220-kilometer journey that took more than 15 hours.

Earlier, I received a call from Anthony de Leon, a media specialist with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) public affairs office. (Anthony died two years ago. Writing about this made me miss his friendship.) He wanted to know if I’d join the trip—“Sama ka mamaya?”—and said the coverage would be “interesting.” na coverage ito. Congressmen Ablan and Yap will go to Scarborough Shoal with some members of the media.” 

I was a bit put off that the SBMA issued the invitation so close to the scheduled departure, and thought that maybe the province-based reporters would just be “fillers.” Still, the prospect of joining an important and maybe historical coverage excited me. I asked Anthony: What time? 

‘Pack light’

“Twelve midnight” was his quick reply. “Pack light dahil balikan lang tayo. Be in front of the SBMA flagpole 30 minutes early. We will walk to the pier with the others,” he added. 

Anthony made it sound like an easy day tour. But like most of us, he might have been shocked by the circumstances we faced as soon as the vessel left Subic. It was probably the most uncomfortable sea voyage I have ever taken in my life. No bed bunks, only portable chairs to sit on for the duration of the trip. So, when we were traversing some bumpy portions of the sea, I thought it was handy that I packed some sick bags in my survival kit!

An expedition to unfamiliar territory surely requires days of planning and preparation. Back in the day, SBMA usually extended courtesies like food and drinks on press visits and special coverages, especially on remote locations. I did not bother to ask Anthony what I should take with me. And didn’t he say, “pack light” because we were not staying long?  

The thought that we might have been stranded on the shoal due to unpredictable circumstances, like sudden bad weather or any life-threatening situation, occurred to me only after we had returned to Subic. 

During the trip I found that most of us had only the clothes we were wearing, our press IDs, our reporter’s tools (notebook, camera, tape recorder, flip phone), and the spirit of adventure. 

We were saved from hunger and dehydration by the two lawmakers’ Boy Scout spirit. Both Ablan and Yap brought coolers full of water and other refreshments, as well as sandwiches, snacks, and candies to share with the press and the crew. 

As we sailed out of the mouth of Subic Bay, I heard somebody say, “Wow, this is literally a slow boat to China.” One of the journos hollered back, “No! It’s a slow boat to Masinloc Shoal.” Loud cheers from everyone followed. 

When we were not writing on our notebooks or taking pictures of the vastness of the ocean, we amused ourselves somehow. I recall that at one point, a Filipino reporter was singing, spoofing the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel:  “Are you going to Scarborough Shoal/ Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” 

I remember there were only two of us women present. I doubt if anybody slept during the bumpy journey. It was ridiculously hard, but I managed power naps every now and then while sitting on my chair.

There were two small cabins assigned to Ablan and Yap but by their haggard look, it seemed that they were unable to sleep, too. Yap, at that time the chair of the influential House committee on defense, was wearing a neck brace—for whatever condition, I cannot recall. He might have removed it before he and Ablan planted the Philippine flag on the highest rock formation in the atoll because it was not visible when we were taking their photos. 

Almost there

Scarborough Shoal
Scarborough Shoal

The voyage was a test of patience for everyone aboard the Navy vessel, including the captain and crew who remained professional and calm through the journey. We took turns asking if we were anywhere near our destination: “Malapit na ba tayo?”

I briefly joined a Japanese reporter in his space portside. I remember him to be of hefty build, and he was from Yomiuri or Asahi Shimbun (I remember the “Shimbun” on his press card). He was smoking. We both quietly watched the horizon for a while. Then he looked at his watch and said to me, “I think we are close.”  As if on cue, an announcement came from the PA system, “We will reach the destination in an hour,” eliciting cheers from the weary passengers. It was a very warm mid-afternoon, yet the sun brought hope to the news-hungry group that this is going to be a good day of reporting. 

I was returning to my chair to get my water bottle when suddenly, I heard shouts: “Pirates! Are they pirates!” I ran back and saw a motorized boat with two men who appeared to be Chinese, heading speedily in the opposite direction of our vessel. They were about 15 meters away. One was standing behind a machine gun that was positioned close to the bow. He was naked from the waist up and had a towel (or was it his shirt?) tied around his head like a bandana. The other was piloting the boat. My colleagues took photos. It was so quick that it was over within seconds.

Thankfully, no confrontation ensued. As the other boat sped away, we saw the man with the machine gun looking back at us. Later, we learned from the Navy crew that they were Chinese fishermen. 

Philippine Coast Guard officials round up Chinese fishermen caught near shoal.

Wow, Chinese fishermen with machine guns! I thought: What chance do our Filipino fishermen have when faced with such a hostile presence?

Scarborough Shoal
Two of the intruders are placed behind bars.

On the approach to Scarborough Shoal, the crew started to prepare the lifeboats that would take us there. I boarded the lifeboat after Ablan and positioned myself behind him, intent on seeing every piece of the action. 

As our lifeboat bobbed in the turquoise waters, the reef—or what looked like mainly coral, barely above sea level—came into view. There were a few scattered rocks that appeared above the waterline.

‘I will be the first’ 

Scarborough Shoal
Posing for history

The competitor in Congressman Ablan emerged. I heard him intently tell our boat pilot to speed up our pace and to get ahead of “Aping” (Yap). Then he turned to me and said rather emphatically in a mix of Filipino and English: “Jen, I will be the first congressman to set foot on Scarborough Shoal. Now, you can be the first journalist to land on it. Just let me get ahead by a few seconds. Don’t be first, ha!” 

And that’s what happened. I was conscious of his instruction the whole time, so when we reached the tip of the reef’s shallow part where our boat berthed, I watched him take his big step, and then I let my feet follow. My heart was racing. On this contested ground, I stood where no other journalist had stood before.

I looked around me and saw that we had disembarked ahead of the others. Congressman Yap seemed unmindful of whether he was first to set foot on the shoal or not. Perhaps it was his health condition? Ablan looked jubilant. I heard him ask the Navy captain where to plant the Philippine flag. 

(This 1997 expedition was the second time that the Philippines raised its flag on Scarborough Shoal. The first was in 1965, when a lighthouse was also built on it.)

I stood on the shoal and felt the cold caress of azure water on my feet. Oh, my gosh. The shoal unveiled itself as a silent landscape with beautiful secrets. Crystal-clear pools teemed with marine life. I saw colorful fish, mostly angel fish, and sea urchins and seahorses. The Filipino fishermen who came ahead told us to be mindful while stepping on the corals, to look before we step. Their medium-sized motorized bancas were docked nearby. 

‘Ililigtas ka’

As early as the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, Bajo de Masinloc served both as economic sustenance and life-saver to Filipino fishermen who used it as traditional fishing ground and shelter during bad weather. 

While waiting for the flag-planting ceremony, I spoke to some of the Filipino fishermen. They pointed to a spot in the middle of the shoal where, during storms, they would dock their boats and huddle together, waiting for the bad weather to pass. What was amazing in their story was the fact that there was no structure or cover to protect them from the harsh elements. The shoal is in the middle of the open sea but according to them, it is so calm and serene even during a tempest: “Parang walang bagyo kahit may bagyo.”

A fisherman drew sharp contrast between Scarborough Shoal and the urban legend involving the Bermuda Triangle that swallows and makes one disappear. He said Scarborough Shoal will save you—“Ililigtas ka.” (Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc is also known as Panatag Shoal.)

They said they survived even the heaviest storms here; their boats remained intact, allowing them to go home unscathed and safe to their families. 

The Philippine flag-planting ceremony was starting. I rushed to board one of the lifeboats to get to the rock where it was to take place. In a press conference that followed at the same spot, Ablan told us reporters: “They (China) claimed that they own this place. But now that you are here, you’ve seen that the Philippines is more accessible, it is nearer, and it is within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s description of what is our territory.” 

(Fast-forward to July 2016: The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or International Court of Justice in The Hague found that China’s claims of historic rights within the nine-dash line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea, are “without legal foundation.” The court also concluded that “China’s activities within the Philippines’ two-hundred-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), such as illegal fishing and environmentally ruinous artificial island construction, infringe on the Philippines’ sovereign rights.”)

We stayed at the shoal for perhaps more than an hour. The Navy crew was in a hurry to return while there was still daylight. I was quietly relieved that we left early.

We boarded a second Navy vessel that was already waiting for us at the shoal when we arrived. We were told that this one was faster. It was bigger and faster indeed, because we were back in Subic by midnight of the next day.

Back on the boat, I gazed at Bajo de Masinloc as it faded into the distance. As a journalist, I felt fortunate that I had a glimpse of it and its stories, up close and personal—not only of the day’s events, but of what may come next. 

What left an indelible memory in me was the weathered faces of the Filipino fishermen and their stories of resilience, dwindling catches, Chinese patrols, and dreams of peaceful seas. 

Will I return to Bajo de Masinloc? I probably would when an opportunity presents itself, this time more hopeful than apprehensive. At 60, I am now a grandmother of fiv. My wish is that the next generation will witness a peaceful resolution to this conflict that has taken so many years of livelihood, dignity, and lives from Filipino fishermen and their families. They may not fully grasp the intricacies of geopolitics, but they are the true custodians of Scarborough Shoal.

Jen Velarmino-van der Heijde covered Olongapo, Subic Bay Naval Base, and Zambales as a correspondent of The Philippine Star in 1988-2010. During her active years as a journalist, she was also a stringer for Kyodo News and CBS News Manila bureaus. Currently, she is a project consultant for an international NGO, and the president of the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber for Health and Environment Conservation.

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