With the advent of GPS technology, we now have the ability to reach the proverbial “ends of the earth.” Although Balabac Island may not be at the end of the earth, it undoubtedly comes close to fitting that implied description in this age of satellites, rockets, and moon landings. If not at the end of the earth, the Island surely qualifies as one of its last remaining frontiers.
Located at the southernmost tip of the Philippine Islands’ Palawan archipelago, Balabac Island is situated on the northern shore of the Strait that bears its name. On the opposite southern shore of the thirty mile wide Balabac Strait sits the island of Borneo. The waters of the Strait, home to a vast array of marine species: the giant Sulu Sea Pearl, sharks, dolphins, tuna, whales, rays and sea turtles, are among its numerous inhabitants.
On the very southernmost tip of Balabac Island, designated as Cape Melville on charts, sits an aging and picturesque lighthouse that has served its purpose and survived the rigors of a tropical climate for over 120 years. The lighthouse stands on the Cape and gazes across the thirty-mile-wide Balabac Strait and is the last landmark visible when headed south towards Cabo Bojeador, the northernmost tip of the island of Borneo.
In spite of its advanced age, the Cape Melville Light remains a key navigation aid for merchant vessels transiting into and out of the South China Seas through the hazardous reef-laden waters of Balabac Strait. Present-day merchant vessel traffic through the Strait is modest when contrasted to the Strait of Molucca, with only a dozen or so merchant vessels transiting daily into the South China Sea bound for ports in China, Vietnam, Formosa and the northern Philippines. Significant portions, over 50%, of the vessels are oil tankers bound for oil-deprived Asian nations.
The principal historic landmark on Balabac Island is, without question, the Cape Melville Lighthouse. This octagonal-shaped light tower was built starting in 1818 and, after numerous starts and stops, finished in 1892. Given the shallow waters just off the Cape, it was necessary to construct a landing stage 13 miles from the tower site, and supplies were forced to be moved through heavy underbrush and jungle-like trails to the light’s construction site. The lighthouse was erected primarily with local granite stone from the island’s mountainous interior. The shortage of drinking water and the incidence of malaria and indigenous tropical diseases were an additional obstacle delaying construction. These forbidding conditions, along with the hostile reputation of the islands’ Muslim (Moro) inhabitants, proved to be a marked hindrance, prolonging construction of the tower and its adjacent structures.
In addition to the classic arrangement of many of the lighthouses of this period, the Cape Melville light contained a unique and most distinctive feature – barracks to house a troop of soldiers essential for the protection of the compound from Borneo-based pirates and the local Moro rebel population. For added security, the entire lighthouse compound was surrounded by a rugged protective stone-and-iron defensive wall.
The granite tower is situated on a hill 90 feet high, just 800 yards northwest of the tip of Cape Melville, and the light source itself stands well-elevated above sea level. When viewed from the beach, the structure, rising above the tropical tree line, clearly can be appreciated as an architectural gem. When operational, it showed a flashing white light of five seconds duration every 20 seconds through an arc of 265° (N 65°E to N 30°W), elevated 300 feet above the sea. The range of its light beam was reported as between 24 and 28 miles. The eight-sided tower, sloping inward, contains an interior spiral staircase through which supplies were raised through the staircase by means of a pulley arrangement.
The intact keeper’s house now serves as the office and living quarters for Philippine Coast Guard watchmen whose duties include monitoring, via radar, and recording the mandatory registration, using VHF radio transmissions, required of all vessels transiting the Strait. The full-time Coast Guardsman is acknowledged as giving noteworthy tours of the light and its rich history to any and all visitors; however, examination of his log books suggests very few persons make the long and difficult trip to visit the site.
With its remoteness, at the very southern tip of the Philippine Island’s chain, the Cape’s lighthouse is one of, if not the most difficult to reach of all the Spanish colonial lighthouses constructed in the Islands.
While the grounds surrounding the light are kept neat and orderly, the tower and its contents are in a state of some disrepair and are showing the effects of the tropical climate. Fortunately, the original equipment, including the 1st order Fresnel lens and clockworks, remain in place and under guard, secure within the light tower.
In the mid-19th century, the Spanish Colonial government, then ruling the
Philippines, undertook a massive construction project building navigation aids whose primary focus was to advance the rapidly increasing international maritime trade the Philippines was experiencing. The project necessitated developing safe shipping routes to and from the scores of islands, as well as serving the important maritime trade connections to the nation’s capital, Manila. One of the keys to this endeavor was the construction of lighthouses throughout the length of the archipelago. Seventy lighthouses were created, twenty-two of which were considered major construction projects. The lights were designed by Spanish engineers to be functional, comfortable, and attractive and were constructed in the Victorian style of architecture. They accommodated the lighthouse keeper and his family and were constructed around a central courtyard that contained a house with a kitchen and storage structures for materials to service the light and upkeep of the grounds.
Unfortunately, many of the Spanish-built lighthouses are in either total ruin or disrepair. The picturesque Cape Melville Light is, regrettably, among them; in spite of the fact the U.S. Government in 1914 spent a considerable sum for the repair of the entire compound. In 2011, the Philippine Government declared the Cape Melville Light a National Historical Landmark, although sadly it is now decommissioned and has been replaced by an aluminum prefabricated tower whose solar-powered light is erected just yards away from the original structure. Happily, there is an active and popular movement within the Island Nation to re-establish this lighthouse to its former operational state. Though the tower may be dark it still serves as both an important visual and radar navigation target for vessels transiting the Strait today.
Balabac Island is so minuscule it is barely visible on a map of the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine nation and travel there is a trip for people with a spirit of adventure. Although the island has an airstrip used by the Philippine Coast Guard, no commercial airlines fly to Balabac Island. Understandably, tourists seldom venture to this part of the world, primarily because of the scarcity of supporting infrastructure, inadequate transportation facilities, and, the occasional threat to personal safety from political insurgents.
About the author: Gene Bialek is a physical Oceanographer who is retired from the Special Projects unit of the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office. He is currently a volunteer Staff Aid in the Navy-Maritime section of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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