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Tales from Taal

By Rodney Jaleco

My wife grew up by the shores of Taal Lake in Talisay, Batangas. She’d tell me how she and her sisters would harvest “tulya” from the rough, dark sand; lie on their backs to watch how the full moon bathed the lake with shimmery light and see fishermen return with a fat catch of “tawilis”.  She attests Taal Lake was enchanted.

The lake was protective and nurturing to the people who lived beside her. But mysteriously, she also exacted a toll especially on strangers. On town fiestas, for instance, natives caution merry-makers against testing the waters (some have sworn seeing hapless victims dragged down by human-like creatures with gills and fins).  Old wives tale, folklore, fantasy or superstition, you might ask.  The lake may be the keeper of their secrets, but she’s also proven to be a jealous mistress who brooks neither insult nor imprudence.

According to geologists, Taal Lake (and its nearby neighbor Laguna de Bay, which is actually the Philippine’s largest lake) was formed by catastrophic eruptions between 100,000 and half a million years ago.

Taal Lake is a caldera that was until around Magellan’s time, directly connected to the South China Sea . But a series of powerful eruptions (there have been 33 since 1572 when the town of Taal was established, thus giving the lake it’s name) have altered the contours of the land.  Coupled with earthquakes, floods and landslides they carved and shaped the lake’s unique features.

Taal Lake is the crater of a crater of an island. Near the center of Taal Lake is Volcano Island that has a smaller lake that holds a small island called Vulcan Point. Got that? Let’s put it this way, Taal Lake is the world’s largest lake on an island in a lake on an island that has its own small island.

She is about 30 kilometers long and 19 kilometers at its widest and at least 200 meters deep. The water from Taal Lake meanders along 20 kilometers of the Pansipit River which drains into Balayan Bay and onto the South China Sea .

Centuries-worth of rain eventually diluted the seawater trapped in the lake by volcanic eruptions and explains perhaps Taal Lake ‘s intricate ecosystem, a virtual laboratory of evolution. It is home to several indigenous species, including the venomous sea snake Hydrophis semperi whose poison can cause muscle pains, paralysis, difficulty of breathing and even death.

She holds a species of trevally (known locally as “maliputo”) that’s adapted to fresh water and reportedly spawns where Taal Lake ‘s fresh water meets Balayan Bay ‘s sea water along the Pansipit River, providing a glimpse into the delicate balance of nature.

Taal Lake is also the only place where you can catch Sardinella tawilis, reputedly the world’s only freshwater sardine. She also used to be home to a species of bull sharks but they were exterminated by local fishermen in the 1930s.

A zoological study in the late 1990s revealed there are 27 fish species endemic to Taal Lake , a sharp decrease from the 101 species recorded in the 1920s.

Neither the “bangus” nor the voracious “tilapia” is native to the lake. And yet they were the center of attention when a massive fish kill struck Taal Lake ‘s multimillion-peso fish farming industry. Scientists say a combination of overstocking and rapid change in water temperature killed close to a thousand tons of fish.

Taal Lake ‘s pristine beauty has been scarred by thousands of fish cages that, from a perch in Tagaytay, look like so many ugly boils and zits. She no longer looks as alluring or foreboding; she looks like any other. There was no magic after all.

In Talisay, the “tawilis” is gone and children can no longer swim by the shore because the water has been invaded by fish cages or blocked off by the mushroom of new resorts. The signs of progress, some locals say. My wife wonders if she could ever enjoy those moon-lit nights by the lakeside again, and if today’s children are still able capture those moments, or even if they knew. Most of all, she ponders the enchantress of the lake.


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