There's more to the Philippines than the tropical, world-class barrels of Siargo island's Cloud 9. With more than 7,000 islands making up the archipelagic country's geography, there are hundreds of untapped setups that could produce waves of similar magnitude. And that's not hyperbole, those waves were evidenced almost three decades ago by a small team of explorers who uncovered dozens of hidden gems as they hopped between islands.
After negotiating three free tickets to skip over the pond from San Francisco to Manila, John Seaton Callahan set about finding waves in the Philippines back in 1992, with only a map and a nose for it to go on. Now, he has explored more remote areas across the country than anyone on the planet.
Spot guide: Philippines
And, what's your knowledge of surf in the Philippines? Did you know the current surf scene is flourishing? With Cloud 9 earning the moniker 'Crowd 9' amongst those who are in the know. But before all that, surfing was bought to the islands via US servicemen in the 1960s, and began its rise in popularity after the filming of 1979's Apocalypse Now -- that famous surfing scene filmed in Luzon, north of the country's capital city of Manila.
Nowadays, most major sponsors have invested in the country's surfing protagonists and there's a home grown pro tour to boot. It has all the makings of a tropical, wave paradise – if you avoid the flat months between May and September.
So in 1992, surfing was exploding, thanks to the east coast's exposure to typhoon swells. Surf comps were up and running with ad dollars attached. But that only makes for a small portion of the country's vast interspersed coastline. For most locales, surfing remained (and remains) a virgin experience, rather than a full-blown lifestyle. John's expedition set about cataloguing some of those off track spots and ended up uncovering some never-before-seen waves -- and all you see throughout this feature.
Forecast: Cloud 9
We touched base with John recently, to talk exploring fresh setups, the growth of the sport, the Filipino landscape in 1992 and at least one death threat that ended up in the hands of the FBI.
When did you first go to the Philippines and what inspired you to go? Who did you go with?
We made our first trip to The Philippines in early September, 1992. I thought we could get waves there during the western Pacific typhoon season, but as the destination was unproven and very obscure, neither of the two major US magazines at the time wanted to pay to go there. Warren Bolster had made a successful project at Catanduanes Island previously with John Shimooka and Todd Chesser, but Siargao was a big unknown.
So I worked for several months with a very kind and helpful executive at Philippine Airlines to receive three complimentary tickets from HNL to MNL, as Philippine Airlines had a daily San Francisco - Honolulu - Manila flight at the time, with additional tickets onward to Cebu City. We would have to make our own way to Surigao in Mindanao from Cebu and then to Siargao Island, something none of us had done before and frankly, had no idea how to do.
Were the flights pinned to a storm?
No, not at all. Forecasting as we know it hardly existed in 1992, perhaps for the North Shore of O'ahu and Southern California, but not for WestPac typhoons sending swell to The Philippines. I knew basic weather info like September was prime season for typhoons and that the Pacific coast of The Philippines would have offshore SW wind at that time, but as far as where to surf or when, even if we would receive a swell at all, we had no clue.
It was only years later that we were able to reference the two typhoons that provided swell and offshore winds for more than 10 days in early September, 1992 through the archives of Digital Typhoon, a Japanese weather site. Not particularly large or special storms, but a good W to NW track and nice and slow through the Philippine Sea swell window, which is what you want for ideal conditions on the Pacific coast of the Philippines.
When to go? Siargo
Given its location we now know the Philippines picks up swell. Guess you knew the east facing beaches would have surfable waves. Where did you explore and what did you find? What types of waves did you stumble across?
Yes, that was the general plan. The offshore Philippine Trench in the Pacific Ocean is more than 10,000 meters deep in places, so there was good bathymetry for large, hollow, powerful waves to break on coral reefs, but as to where we might find surfable waves on Siargao Island, we did not know. We had a US Defence Mapping Agency nautical chart to look for favourable reef setups in the general Luna area, but no knowledge at all of anyone who had surfed in the area.
We had a US Defence Mapping Agency nautical chart to look for favourable reef setups in the general Luna area, but no knowledge at all of anyone who had surfed in the area
Once we finally got to the island and somewhat miraculously found a place to stay right on the beach, the proprietress told us her only other guests were two surfers from Sydney whom had arrived the evening before and had been surfing that morning. Great - we went over and introduced ourselves to Kevin and Dave and they were friendly, although somewhat wary of sponsored pros and photographers. They suggested we share the cost of a boat the next morning to surf where they had surfed, a powerful left reef wave about 20 minutes boat ride up the coast.
Did you have a guide?
I figured we could find something surfable in the Siargao area, given the extremely favourable bathymetry and offshore SW wind. The proliferation of coral reefs on the DMA chart were also very favourable, but exactly where we could find waves....nope, we didn't know - but that's what boats are for, right? We knew that fishing would be a major local occupation and there would be boats around - just find a good local captain with a decent boat who would rather get paid to look for waves than fish and we would be in good shape.
At the time, how was surfing perceived over there?
On our first trip in 1992, there was zero surf culture in The Philippines. Surfing had arrived in the late 1960's via surfers in the US military, which maintained two major facilities on Luzon island and many smaller bases up until 1991 when USAF Clark, the huge US Navy facility at Subic Bay and all other facilities were closed due to the failure of the US and Philippine governments to agree on terms for lease extensions.
Several boards were left behind in Baler after the shoot and locals quickly put them to use in the quality beach and reef breaks in the Baler area
Philippine surfing received a major boost in 1975, when director Francis Ford Coppola arrived in the country with a massive amount of people, equipment and funding to film his Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now in Luzon. The shoot went on for months, with one of the locations at Baler on the Pacific coast, where the famous surfing scene at Charlie's Point was filmed. Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore stood on the beach north of Baler with bombs exploding and helicopters whirling overhead, delivering famous lines like "I Love the Smell of Napalm in the Morning" and "Charlie Don't Surf!" Several boards were left behind in Baler after the shoot and locals quickly put them to use in the quality beach and reef breaks in the Baler area.
In 2019, surf culture in The Philippines is thriving, with thousands of local surfers and a domestic professional tour, the Philippines Surfing Championship Tour, designed to give the best local Filipino surfers a chance to raise their competitive skills to compete with Indonesian and Japanese pros on equal terms. All the major international surf brands are represented in The Philippines, with quite a few up and coming local brands competing strongly for a share of the available business from a primarily young population of 100 million westernised consumers.
Out of all the islands explored, what really surprised you?
One thing that always surprises me about travelling in The Philippines is how few people, surfers included, make the effort to get off the beaten track and go to the more obscure and remote areas of the country.
The Philippines is a highly westernised society - 300 years as a Spanish colony, 50 years as a colony of the United States, so the people are very approachable, always friendly and almost everyone speaks basic english. Yet there aren't many travellers and very few surfers who want to make the effort - hence the crazy tourist crowds on Boracay and so many surfers on Siargao that Cloud 9 has earned the nickname "Crowd 9" due to the sheer number of surfers, all day, every day.
We were chatting the other day and you mentioned there were a few death threats thrown around back in '92 – what was going on there?
I have received a few death threats over the years from disgruntled expatriate surfers, never from actual Philippine citizens. One of them was from an American guy living in Guam, he said I needed to be shot dead the next time I visited Siargao and that he knew people who could carry out the hit job.
I received this note via the United States Postal Service in Hawaii. As the post office is located in a federal office building near the airport that also has the Hawaii field offices of the FBI, I went to look for the FBI offices to show them the message and ask their opinion.
He said I needed to be shot dead the next time I visited Siargao and that he knew people who could carry out the hit job
I had never been to the FBI offices previous, but found them easily enough. I showed the receptionist the message and the envelope postmarked from Guam, which is a US territory. She asked me to take a seat and an agent would be available shortly. She then told me to go down the hallway, second door on the left. I met with the agent and he said, "Yes, we would consider this to be a death threat. Sending this kind of material via the USPS is a serious crime".
The agent made photocopies of the message and the envelope and said their field office in Guam would receive the information and go over and have a talk with the individual, as he had conveniently provided a return address on the envelope.
He asked me to come back in a week for an update, which I did. A week later, he said an agent had been able to meet with the sender who admitted sending the note. The agent warned him in strong terms that sending death threats through the USPS was a federal crime and not to do it again. He asked if I wanted to press charges and I said no, as long as I don't receive another threat from this person. It didn't particularly bother me, but my wife gets pretty freaked out by that sort of thing. Fortunately, I am still alive and I have never heard from that individual again.
Guess it's one of those things, is that characteristic of the area at the time?
The Philippines can be a violent society. When mixing the "Quien es más macho?" Spanish attitude with 50-years of Hollywood "Do you feel lucky, punk?" gunslinging American culture, violence is often the result.
Guns are common and easily obtainable anywhere in the country. Violence against visitors is rare and I personally have never received any threats of any kind from Philippine citizens - only from angry expatriates, both Americans and Australians.
What were some of the difficulties documenting the Philippines?
Poor infrastructure would be one - it can be very difficult to access remote islands on the Pacific side of The Philippines and they see very few foreign visitors or surfers as a result. On one island where we found a wave I later named "Jurassic Point", the barangay captain said we were the first foreign visitors to the island since the US Marines left in 1945. Locals go back and forth all the time, but foreigners? Not so many, at all.
For several decades, the NPA controlled large areas of the Pacific coast of Samar island and Mindanao, stifling development and making those area dangerous for anyone to visit, but that threat has largely receded. The NPA is the New People's Army, armed and trained by the Communist Party of the Philippines.
From a peak of over 25,000 combatants in the last years of the Marcos regime in the mid 1980's, the NPA has shrunk to fewer than 5,000 fighters in isolated areas of Samar and Mindanao due to increased government investment in the provinces, overall improvement in the national economy and high levels of emigration from the affected areas. People left the country rather than deal with the NPA in their backyard and many of these overseas Filipinos have never returned.
Another problem for image producers is the soggy heat and humidity. If you have ever used sensitive electronic gear like modern mirrorless or DSLR cameras and video cameras in a high-humidity environment, it can cause a lot of problems from a greasy film on lenses to a complete shutdown of the camera from internal humidity mixing badly with electronics. After several weeks without a dry environment, most equipment will start to fail as the climate is simply too wet and soggy.
Nothing really remains secret for long though, how much of the Philippines do you think is left to explore?
Of the 7,107 islands in The Philippines, I would estimate maybe half of the surf potential has been seen or surfed at one time or another. While the leaders in surf exploration in the past were foreign surfers, mainly Americans and Australians, the current charge to find new waves is being led by Filipino surfers themselves in the remote areas of Palawan, Samar, Luzon, Mindanao and many smaller islands on both the Pacific coast and the West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea, renamed for anti-China patriotic reasons)
Many of these local surfers have learned well from the examples of the foreigners. They are knowledgeable in forecasting and determined to find, surf and document new waves in their own country, as they should. As the Philippines is one of the most enthusiastic consumers of social media of any nation worldwide, word spreads quickly and new spots are soon on the map for visitors, domestic and foreign.
As an example, a wave on the Sulu Sea side of Palawan which has been documented by Filipino surfers - not the expected northerly fetch in the West Philippine Sea, but the east coat of the island - who knew there were waves in this area? Not me, for one, and I have done as much surfing exploration in the Philippines as anyone on this planet. There's still a lot out there in The Philippines, waves that have never been seen nor surfed.
Thanks for talking story John, great insight.