SANTA CLAUS OF THE SULU SEA

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X, Happy is here!” CERS Philippines Project Manager Joceline shouts out loudly. I finally get the chance to meet Happy, the man Joceline often praises and feels happy about. In his sixties, Happy is a strongly built old man with a healthy tanned skin tone and beard growing on his chin and cheek. He effortlessly paddles his fishing kayak approaching us with speed. “Are you able to speak Hong Kong Cantonese?” I greet him with an excited loud voice and a big smile. A typical Cantonese gesture to greet someone you never expected, especially for me, in the middle of exotic Sulu Sea. “Of course! I am a Hong Kong boy from Shau Kei Wan.” He shouts back.
It is 12 days to Christmas Eve. The CERS research boat HM2 has just completed a 26 hour, 268 km eastbound voyage from Palawan Honda Bay to Cagayancillo Island, home town of Joceline. We have planned this trip over a year to achieve multiple tasks that include filming the Island’s Annual Children’s Day Parade when over 300 children dress up beautifully, sing loudly and dance and march across the town. It is a kind of tradition unique to fisher folk culture that I feel resembles the “Tai Ping Ching Chiu - 太平清 醮 ” of Hong Kong but is far less known by the outside world. We are also documenting the changing life of local fishing families in which most adults inevitably leave their own seas to work overseas. Last but not least, we have to test the newly acquired drone camera for capturing aerial views of the CERS research boat HM2 sailing into unknown territory.

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The first two tasks are accomplished with flying colours, but the third turns into a dull nightmare. Take off from the deck of the boat goes smoothly, and I maneuver the drone by remote control to fly around the boat filming. After the first 4 of the supposedly 10 minutes flying time allowed by a fully charged battery, I notice the power level is dropping rapidly. As a precaution, I turn around the drone to fly back to Xiao Cao, my co-pilot on this mission. He is trying hard to keep his balance on the boat’s galley roof-top above the stern, the best spot on the boat for launching and landing the drone. He is ready to grab the drone instead of me landing it. We have practiced this many times on land.
Suddenly, as the drone approaches, the remote-controller releases a series of beeping sound. “ I have a bad feeling about this!” I tell Xiao Cao.

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Xiao Cao reaches out to his utmost reach at the roof edge. Just a few inches away from Xiao Cao’s wide open fingers, the drone stops its forward motion and stops in air for a second or two to calculate its path to go ... HOME! HOME is a self-saving protocol designed to overcome all troubles, be it the loss of a control signal, bad weather conditions and, in this case, a low battery. It allows the drone to automatically return to its GPS recorded lift-off location. Such a good feature does no good for me at all. I knew I never wanted it to go HOME automatically. If our boat was anchored and the GPS coordinates of HOME remained unchanged, the drone would have been grabbed easily. Our boat, however, is moving forward after the lift-off, breaking waves for filming’s sake, so I have planned to grab-land it. But this stubborn hungry flying-octopus has made up its mind earlier than I had predicted.

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The final moment of seeing the drone flying away is absolutely horrific. At the most desperate moment, the idea of kicking Xiao Cao off the stern to catch the drone in mid- air did flash through my head. I didn’t. Perhaps I should have.
Once auto-pilot is engaged, the system overrides all manual control and flies the drone high up to find its return path. The problem is, its GPS guided destination HOME is now the open waters one kilometer behind us.
The Drone is capsizes and drowns. The home-made foam attached to its base just prevented it from sinking, but didn’t keep it upright. A nearby fisherman on a kayak helps to salvage the wreckage and returns it with a big smile.
Immediately I retrieve the SD memory card from its heart. There is smoke leaking out from the dead octopus body. The smell of burning is strong. The short-circuited camera and CPU board soaked by salty sea water are bleeding out green slimy liquid. Vital signs seem to be failing. At 5:30pm, I declare the drone is dead.
I crashed the drone into open waters on its very first ocean launch. The drone went out of control, or better to say I failed to control properly the 4 propellers, which ran extra fast to counteract a strong crosswind. I blame my inexperience. I finally realize that understanding the inspiration of three respected centenarian WWII pilots and spending time to learn from them last year does not make me a pilot. SAD.
My sorrow lasts for the rest of the week, until the moment Happy arrives. His look and laughter match amazingly the image of Santa Claus from my childhood dream. The calm sea is as smooth as a snow mountain and his kayak rides as fast as the reindeer sleigh. I can see him travelling with a big bag full of stuff. I fantasize. Quietly, I make a wish to this Santa Claus for a new drone for Christmas.
To celebrate the rarest chance of meeting and pleasing this Hong Kong man in the middle of nowhere, I invite him to our boat for lunch. “Here is a gift for you!” Happy stretches his arm deep into his big bag. I am delighted to see something resembling the shape of a drone. It is a drone look-alike home-made from dried salted grouper fish. Smells good!
Happy’s home is 40 some kilometers south of Cagayancillo in Cawilli island and then 5km beyond on La Rinna Atoll. This beautiful white sand paradise used to house a village of more than 100 families until it begun to sink some 40 years ago. Now completely submerged, the remaining 15 fishing families live on dilapidated timber chalets surrounded by seawater. The whole village is protected from huge waves by a kilometer long stretch of shallow coral reef.

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It took merely 40 years for La Rinna Island to completely submerge. The scenario of a sinking island is not unique. It is happening to every island at the same time as sea levels rise. CERS, being a small NGO, is no match for the force of nature and the power needed to change the human world. But our strength is more than sufficient to build a permanent research base in Palawan. Getting to meet and learn from the locals, however short and brief the chance, is a step forward. Well, at least we have started.
Villagers in La Rinna grow seaweed to supplement income, particularly during the three months long fishing moratorium. According to Happy, villagers can harvest the seaweed 4 times every year for a total of roughly 500kg. The wholesale price for a kilogram of good quality seaweed is set to be 20 peso. For him, he prefers to buy fresh fish from locals at a price of around 150 peso per kg and sell it to Manila for 300 after it is dried and salted.
“Of course! We are still catching fish during the ban. It’s alright for personal consumption, otherwise how can we survive!” At age 64, Happy who lives here alone, declares his right to the sea. He retired from commercial fishing 10 years ago and began his small dried fish business. “I have four children. My eldest son is now a ship’s engineer in Manila earning 100,000 peso a month (US$ 2,000),” Happy proudly announces.
“Of all the places in the world, why here?” I ask curiously. Happy is the fifth son of nine siblings in his family in Hong Kong and never had a chance to go to school. As an illiterate boy who knew nothing other than catching fish, he was often bullied and cheated. At the age of 15, he became determined to regain his pride and prove to the family that he could make a living in the farthest place away from home. Indeed, some 50 years ago, 1450km south of Shau Kei Wan, he discovered his new home by boat.

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“Palawanyo have good heart. Here you don’t see Mafia or troublesome guys who always ask to borrow money but never pay back.” I assume that is one of his major reasons to find peace in trouble-free Palawan. It has been 13 years since he last visited Shau Kei Wan. A true wanderer and fisherman making a catch wherever possible. His Filipino wife and Palawan-born children have never met his Shau Kei Wan family.
“Why do I care? I am nearly there!” - a common Cantonese saying implying “going to die” that Happy enjoys repeating loudly. “In Hong Kong, my Chinese name is Chan Ah Peng 陳 阿餅. In Palawan, Ah Peng sounds like Happy, that’s why I am happy here.”
Shau Kei Wan, one of the oldest fishing villages in Hong Kong where most families used to live on a boat, has now been made famous by a private housing estate named Grand Promenade 嘉亨灣. The cost of its 71st floor high penthouse has reached a record- breaking 30 million Hong Kong (US$ 3.8m or 193 million peso). To buy one, the whole village of La Rinna Island would have to grow and sell seaweed for another 1266 years. Hong Kong is definitely not a place for Happy to be happy. Instead, on all the underwater land in Palawan that he can wander around, he could build his own valley - Happy Valley.