PALAWAN, commonly known as the Philippines’ “Last Frontier”, is famed for its rich biodiversity and complex ecosystems. The striking karst limestone formations of the northeastern zone trace back to the Permian age, about 300 million years ago. There are thousands of these breathtaking island landscapes, but so far only one has revealed a hidden spectacle – Paglugaban Island and its enormous underwater cave. Despite Paglugaban’s infamy being sealed with the unfortunate deaths of three recreational divers three decades ago, the cave is currently experiencing a growth in popularity.
Paglugaban’s deceivingly small and curved entrance spills into a large chamber, half dry and half submerged, but already gleaming with remarkable speleothems. Entering can be perilous when sizable waves and swells strike the entrance; worse, getting out may be impossible. Further inside and completely underwater are colossal formations perfectly preserved by the water. Some of the largest underwater chambers span 25 metres from floor to ceiling, with water-carved columns and jaw-dropping cave formations. We came prepared with five powerful video lights to document the expanse of these massive chambers. But how very naive we were.
Many of the cave walls and passages reveal distinct planes of discolouration, suggesting that the cave has existed during the freezing and melting that occurred over multiple ice ages. Skeletal remains of three giant groupers occupy the cave floor. The first two appear to be disorganised piles, but the third shows the perfectly formed skeleton, exactly as the grouper first laid to rest on its side. There is evidence of a fourth grouper almost completely buried under the cave floor, with just a hint of its protruding skull. If a major geological event was responsible for covering this fourth set of remains, it’s plausible that the floor may have anthropological value. Not far from Paglugaban are dry caves where fossilised remains of humans have been dated at 67,000 years old.