Into the Danger Zone

A sea kayak journey through southern Palawan’s terrorist-held waters

Paddling Along The Western Coast Of Coron Island from day 1 of the expedition

As told to Conor Mihell

In February, London-based adventurers Ross Murray-Jones and Mark Coronato completed an impressive two-month, 800-mile sea kayak circumnavigation of Palawan, a province of the Philippines in the South China Sea. Here, the paddlers describe the journey's crux.

January 25 — Rest Day in Brooke's Point

We're quite sore and more than a little bruised after covering over 100 miles in three days from Puerto Princesa to start stage two of our expedition. Today we'll resupply in town and meet our security team for the first time to discuss emergency protocols for the next six days. The southern tip of Palawan is a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Foreigners have been kidnapped here. Consequently, Palawan's governor Jose Alvarez has issued us a security escort from Brooke's Point to Quezon, a distance of 171 miles.

Our safety crew consists of five members of Palawan Rescue 165 Speedboat Operations and four Philippine Marine Corps members, the latter in uniform and equipped with assault rifles and grenades. We're a little intimated at our first meeting, to say the least.

We plan out the route. For the first night, we choose an island 30 miles away. The security team considers our intentions in their native Tagalog language. We overhear "Pirate Island" and look at each other. We're both thinking, "We're not staying on no Pirate Island!" Of course, that's exactly where we're headed. An excellent start.

Together with our security escort in Brooke’s Point, the afternoon before departing on the most dangerous part of the journey


January 26 – Day 1, Brooke's Point to Pirate Island, 34 miles

Up at 4:30 a.m. and feeling nervous. The seas are rough, but we welcome the challenge. How many kayak expeditions have two speedboats flanking them? Let's go!

It's a 7.5-hour paddle to Pirate Island. When we near the island, the marines shoot ahead in one of the speedboats to scope it out and ensure it's safe. Turns out Pirate Island isn't a real-life version of Tortuga; in fact, it's just a small, deserted island with a deceptively menacing name. The marines surround our tents with their hammocks, and alternate sleeping and patrols throughout the night. If we want to go to the toilet, a marine accompanies us.


January 27 — Day 2, Pirate Island to Buliluyan Marine Base, 37 miles

Somehow a speedboat was lost overnight; apparently there isn't enough rope to secure the boats in changing tides. Several of the men take the other speedboat and, with some urgency, set out to locate and retrieve the wayward vessel. We give the team some pesos to buy longer rope in town to avoid a repeat occurrence.

Today is a big milestone: We'll reach the southern tip of Palawan. Covering the distance is our priority so it's a long day on the water. This area isn't as visually stimulating and we're grateful for the combo of wireless/waterproof earphones and audiobooks.

The Buliluyan Marine Base is a chaotic barbed-wired outpost managed by guards in flip-flops, basketball attire and AK-47s, and overrun by chickens and dogs. But it's home for the night and we feel safe. We're now a long way from the typical tourist areas and the people here aren't used to seeing foreigners, so needless to say we're getting a whole lot of attention. That said, everyone is extremely hospitable to us; everyone is curious, but nothing more. The marines gather everyone around in one of the huts and prepare a "boodle fight"—a typical marine communal eating practice. It's a meal of rice, noodles, sardines, corned beef and white bait laid out on a large banana leaf. Everyone eats with their hands and we're no exception!

Preparing For A Boodle Fight On The Navy Base At Buliluyan


January 28 — Day 3, Buliluyan Marine Base to Tagbita Bay, 32 miles

Today it's Tagbita Bay or bust. Our security team has emphasized this is the only place that is safe enough for us to sleep. We must reach it by nightfall at all cost. All sorts of carnage at daybreak: dogs are fighting, one of the marines is snoring, the cockerels are crowing and the locals are offering morning prayers.

Against the winds that have aided us on the island's east shore, we head north into a headwind. The anti-terrorism military unit patrols the coast ahead of us. Finally, after 10.5 hours of non-stop paddling, we reach Tagbita Bay. Our tents are set above a gorgeous beach within the safety of the jungle canopy. We barely make it past eight before retiring.


January 29 — Day 4, Tagbita Bay to Rizal, 34 miles

Favorable conditions to start the day: A cool breeze and light swell. The pace slows near day's end, with dark clouds and a relentless headwind. I develop a mantra for a four-stroke pattern, one word per stroke: "I. Can. See. It." Sounds silly but it focuses my mind for the death march.

Our maps and GPS tell us we've arrived at our Palawan Ecolodge destination, but the speedboats insist we have farther to go. Unfortunately, they are wrong. We have to backtrack to disembark in the dark around 6:15pm. Exhausted and infuriated at wasting over an hour, I snap at the marine leader. It's a big no-no to challenge authority in Filipino culture. Later, I apologize three times to the leader. Frankly, the security team has been nothing short of amazing.

Mark and Ross Paddling Around The Southern Tip Flanked By Two Speed Boats


January 30 — Day 5, Rest Day in Rizal

We're out of the danger zone and have all earned a rest day. We go into town to resupply and chance upon Miss France being crowned Miss Universe in a little corner shop. This is our first piece of news from the outside world in 10 days. Surreal.


January 31 — Day 6, Rizal to Quezon, 34 miles

This is it, the final hurrah. I wake up with my hands feeling like claws, my glutes killing me and to boot I've now got saltwater sores on my nipples, neck and under both armpits. So much for the rest day. I think I need a rest week! Mark's in considerable pain, too.

Today essentially consists of two big bays. Physically, the days are getting easier, but I am now covered in sores and my body wants to shutdown with the pain. The last three hours of paddling, it is mind over matter.

That night, after our finest meal of the expedition (fresh tuna), we sit around the campfire with a bottle of Emperador brandy. All good things must come to an end. Another chapter of the expedition has closed, and we'll paddle the final 200 miles of the circumnavigation in safer seas. It's back to just the two of us.

Three Large Tuna For Dinner on Nakoda Island


– Read more and see photos from “Circumnavigating Palawan, ‘the worlds best island.'”

– Check out daily video journals from the expedition.

– Read other classic journal accounts — from a speed circumnavigation of Ireland, to a Volga River source-to-sea, to the Amazon’s first kayak-only full descent.