Firefly Watching on Palawan's Iwahig River, Philippines

The road was intermittently paved, unlike most of the routes in Puerto Princesa we'd taken. Five of us guests, a local guide and our driver headed out into darkest night. Most roads - that is to say, all of them except the two main thoroughfares that intersect in the middle of town - are unlit. No kidding, Puerto Princesa has no nightlife in the bar or club sense. Unlike what one might assume about a capital - although a provincial capital - most businesses shut down by dusk, if not earlier. Firefly watching was as close to nightlife as Puerto Princesa could offer.

On a glowing (pun intended) recommendation from a fellow Filipina blogger I'd met in Manila, we drove to the Iwahig River for firefly watching.

Iwahig, as the main tributary of Palawan, flows through the prison without walls, a crocodile preserve and out into the sea.


Fireflies, we learned, are a sign of a healthy eco-system and they like to gather in flowering mangroves. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that live in brackish or semi-brackish water, right on the coastlines of tropical areas usually, taking root right in the mud or sandy soil.

Mangroves, Palawan, Philippines

The reaction of several chemicals or enzymes in the fireflies cause it to emit bursts of light. Bioluminescence is the fancy word for this. Fireflies light up as a group when they sense danger, to communicate with one another, and in courtship or mating rituals. Even as eggs nested in or on the sandy soil fireflies glow, but the higher-ups in the forest food chain know not to eat these glowing insect balut because the chemicals that make them bioluminescent are toxic.


In a gravel parking lot, we set down from the van towards a few small buildings connected by flagstone trails and a small footbridge: a sari-sari store just off the lot, a cashier and check-in booth, a waiting area and safety instructional desk, a covered wooden stair down to the river launch.

The covered launch had curved v-shapes in opposite ends of the floor, for the hull and the sterns to fit into and help the passengers embark and disembark.

Each boat can accommodate three passengers plus one guide/bangkero. Two of our group, a father and daughter from Hawaii, set off in the first boat. After the requisite waivers signed and safety orange life vests lashed to our bodies, we boarded the vessel. My companions were Ernie, from the Department of Tourism, and Carlotta, a reporter from Honolulu. We'd gotten along famously since we'd stepped off from Manila but the second we got in this boat, things got quiet.


The moon, a matted sliver, slung low in the skies.

Thin clouds of mellifluous forms thin as piña diffused the moonlight unevenly, with spectacular results caught between rustling of the mangroves.

Thickly forested mountains darkly rose downstream, its peaks cutting the night.

I didn't want to ask any questions, unlike other tours we went on during our days, when I jotted my notes in a craft paper Moleskin. I didn't want to talk and I hoped no one else talked. And no one did very much. This was not the place for it.

The water gently lapped against our craft. It whorled 'round our guide's oar as he softly pushed us at a measured pace. Iwahig's waters were still. Whirl on one side, then the other. Cicadas sent out their signals.

And the stars. Stars have colors. Small and big, they clustered like clouds. It's what the galaxy looks like in movies, but here it was in real life right above us. The well-lit evenings in urban spaces means I can see the world around me well, but I can't see the other worlds above us much at all. I think that's not a good tradeoff, now that I've seen what I've seen. The night skies, like many other things, are different here in Palawan.

The guide said it was too bad we were there on a moonlit night because the fireflies were harder to see. That may have been true, but I saw the little bugs shine just fine, especially as they clustered together only in the flowering mangroves. Our guide paddled us closer to the twinkling mangroves on either side of the river.

Apparently not all fireflies flock together, and not all firefly groups synchronize their lighting. Strangely, entire trees full of firefly groups lighted up together when the guide flashed a red light.


During the boat ride, one of the fireflies, inexplicably, landed on me. I picked it up gently with my left hand, placing it on my right index finger. The tiny light crawled towards my nail and then under it. I hardly felt its tiny body, its warmless heat, the smallest star glowing from near.


Note: This post is not sponsored by the Philippines' Department of Tourism.  But I did write it about events on that trip, the 2013 Ambassadors' Tour in July 2013, of which the Philippines' DOT underwrote my participation.

Iwahig Firefly Watching in Puerto Princesa can be arranged via local tour operators or concierge. Price for three guests in one boat is PHP 600. Ride lasts 45 minutes. Firefly tours start after dusk (around 7 PM) and run generally until midnight or when there's no more guests. Reservations can be made ahead of time. During the day, kayaking and other water sports can be done on the river.

Edit! My friend Cy, who works with the Puerto Princesa city government, tells me that there IS nightlife in the city: Kinabuch, Tiki Bar and Scenario (located in the Asturias Hotel). These are restaurants by day and bars by night, all of them located along Rizal Road. She also suggests Salo Bar in the Legends Hotel for karaoke. (You read my mind, Cy!) Thank you!