I recently found myself clutching a steaming mug of coffee and a book in Tagaytay, wistfully gazing down at Taal Lake. The sun would occasionally break through the overcast heavens to illuminate fish pens and Taal Volcano, named Vulcan Point after the Roman god of fire and volcanoes (and, of course, pointy-eared Star Trek characters).
Clutching a copy of The Mysteries of Taal by Thomas Hargrove, I wondered what the giant lake looked like before the big eruptions of 1749 and 1754, which, according to the parish priest of Barangay Sala in Tanauan, Friar Buencuchillo, “seemingly set the entire island of Taal ablaze”. The eruptions were so powerful and sustained that they rocked the earth and blocked the mouth of the Pansipit River — the sole drainage system for Taal Lake, which was connected to nearby Balayan Bay.
With drainage blocked, 265 years’ worth of rain not only submerged four of the lake’s lowest-lying towns with up to 15 feet of water, but also turned the once saltwater bay into a unique freshwater lake. That is, of course, where The Wild Side comes in.
From saltwater to freshwater
Famed not just because it hosts one of just two volcanoes-within-lakes-within-volcanoes (let’s say that twice), Taal is known over the world for hosting marine life, which has completely adapted to freshwater. Let’s take a quick look at some of them.
The Bombon Sardine (Sardinella tawilis) takes its moniker from the original name of Taal: Bombon Lake. The tiny bullet-like fish made headlines in January 2019 because it was finally declared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species.
Once marine fish, they have evolved to survive in freshwater, feeding on floating algae and plankton. Though other sardines can survive in freshwater lakes (like the Tanganyikan Sardine), the Tawilis is the only freshwater member of the genus Sardinella. Owing to a combination of overfishing, pollution and invasion from farmed African tilapia, Tawilis numbers have plummeted by as much as 50 percent in the last decade. To help stocks recover, the government has imposed a closed season to prevent fishers from catching the tiny fish each March and April.
The Freshwater Trevally (Caranx ignobilis) is essentially a freshwater-adapted Talakitok or jack. Commonly-encountered in coral reefs and mangroves, the marine versions of these giants grow up to five feet and weigh over 80 kilos, but the majority of Maliputo sold in Tagaytay and the towns of Taal average just three kilos.
Like their marine forefathers, they hunt smaller fish like pack wolves. Owing to continued fishing to supply tourist hubs like Tagaytay, these spade-like fish have become increasingly rare, but are still classified by the IUCN as a species of least concern. The government has instituted a system to breed them in captivity, as reported in 2006 by Agri-Info magazine, greatly enhancing their chances of survival. Maliputo are also featured on the nifty new line of fifty-peso bills.
Trust me, there’s nothing as freaky as free diving through the eelgrass meadows of Taal Lake and finding yourself face-to-face with a venomous sea snake. Good thing they almost never bite. One of the world’s two freshwater sea snakes, the Lake Taal Snake (Hydrophis semperi) is usually harmless as it eats only small fish.
Often killed by fishers and townsfolk just because they look scary, our banded brothers are becoming rarer and have been classified by the IUCN as vulnerable. If you wish to see one, take a kayak or small boat, paddle around and wait for one to pop up from the depths to take a breath. Don’t approach it — just observe from a distance and marvel at its Slytherin-like grace.
One of my favorite fish in the lake, they usually hide out in tall reeds, eelgrass meadows, and floating debris. Pipefish are close cousins of seahorses, who are unique because of their armor plating, excellent camouflage, and because the males are ‘impregnated’ by females.
Taal Lake hosts at least three species from the genus Hippichthys, Microphis, and Coeroichthys. They are usually hard to spot because they look like horizontally-floating blades of brownish grass. Not much is known about these pipefish but in general, they are planktivores and spend much of their time in calm, vegetated areas. Aquarists are highly discouraged from capturing them, though in case you already have one, the care of freshwater pipefish would be similar to marine seahorses — almost constant availability of high-quality live food like brine shrimp or daphnia and a quiet aquarium housing just their kind.
Swimming in biodiversity
Taal Lake itself features unique shores because they are covered in various types of aquatic plants. Vast fields of Vallisneria and Hornwort dominate many areas, while floating patches of Water Hyacinth become moving islands for seabirds and insects.
“Aside from hosting endemic fish and sea snakes, the lake provides people with food, tourism revenue, plus intrinsic value as a historical and cultural spot,” explains Conservation International Country Executive Director Ricky Nuñez. The planned construction of a road ringing the lake shore threatens all this. “The government should be very prudent in the implementation of this project and consider not just the economic merits of the project but also its environmental and social concerns. These include road right of way issues, easement concerns, and ecological impacts on the lake’s ecosystem. Now is the best time to review and update the lake’s management plan to address new and ongoing threats to biodiversity.”
Relics of history
Aside from endemic fish, freshwater dives can reveal sunken Spanish-era towns. Thomas Hargrove, author of the book I was reading about Taal Lake, organized some of the first freshwater SCUBA dives to find these towns. Some portions were apparently so sulfuric that their black wetsuits were bleached white!
Hargrove is noteworthy as an American who earned double degrees in agricultural science and journalism before earning his PhD. He was a First Lieutenant during the Vietnam War, where he spread high-yielding rice in the heavily-contested Mekong Delta. So noble were his contributions that the Vietcong, who often had him in their gunsights, let him live. After the war, he worked for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, where he not only studied rice, but also went on many adventures — including some of the first explorations of Taal Lake.
His exploits didn’t end there. After the Philippines, he moved to Colombia, where he was kidnapped by FARC guerillas and held for nearly a year before escaping — the basis for the movie “Proof of Life” starring Russel Crowe and Meg Ryan. Check out his book and uncover more mysteries of Taal Lake from an adventurer who truly lived on the Wild Side.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s May issue.