The curse of the Romblon Triangle

SIBALE ISLAND, Romblon—From the shores of this small island, residents have a good view of the large volume of sea traffic that passes through the “Romblon Triangle,” a watery grave in the central Philippines that has claimed thousands of lives and numerous ships in the past 60 years.

Coastal town. The town proper and plaza of Sibale
No white crosses mark the graves but residents use Sibale Island as the point of the triangle with Tablas Straight and Sibuyan Sea as its base to draw imaginary lines of the area that has put fear in the hearts of seafarers, who are familiar with its history.

On clear days and good weather, they call the sea lane the “Edsa of Philippine navigation,” but many times in the past, especially during bad weather, they describe the Romblon Triangle the “graveyard of sunken ships.”

“So many ships have made the Romblon Triangle their final resting place. They went down to their watery grave with thousands of people on board,” said Sibale Mayor Lemuel Cipriano.

Residents easily recall the worst ship disasters that happened in the area: In 1980, the Don Juan with at least 1,000 on board collided with an oil tanker and sunk; In 1987, the Dona Paz with 4,000 passengers collided with an oil tanker and sunk; In 2008, the Princess of Stars with more than 1,000 passengers capsized and sunk during a typhoon.

In World War II, the triangle claimed as victims four Japanese battleships during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea on October 24, 1944. Allied planes sunk Musashi, Japan’s second most powerful battleship, and two destroyers --- Nagato and Myoko --- while Yamato, Japan’s symbol of naval power, was heavily damaged it evenually sunk in the sea in Okinawa.

Sibale officials. Deo Atillano (left), executive
Secretary, and Sibale Municipal Mayor
Lemuel Cipriano.  ROBERT EVORA
Cipriano said Sibale island is a natural sanctuary of sea vessels and yachts during bad weather, seeking refuge in the Concepcion Cove, where two sunken Japanese ships lies in the bottom.

During a storm ship captains watch out for the lighthouse blinking on the peak of Sibale to serve as guide into the cove but a few don’t make it and crash into its promontory.

But one ship captain said he saw fireflies and “santilmos” (St. Elmo’s Fire) swarming around Sibale island, which guided him into the safety of the cove.

Other than the ships that pass by during the day, residents swear they also see a “ghost ship” during the night, which is brightly lighted and “it glistens like gold.”

They said minutes before the Don Juan collided with the oil tanker on the night of April 22, 1980, the ghost ship appeared and the Don Juan captain tried to avoid it but crashed into the tanker instead and sunk with more than 1,000 people on board.

But an official of the Philippine Coast Guard said the waters from the Pacific Ocean and the West Philippine Sea intersect in Tablas Strait and it forms a riptide that cause big waves that makes the area dangerous for ships.

Unique. A rock formation off the shroe of
Sibale Island. Robert Evora
“Sea accidents and disasters are due to natural phenomena like high tides, storms, typhoons, human error, pilot disorientation and other factors such as the topographic features of the area,” the Coast Guard official said.

Sibale Island is five hours by boat from the capital town of Romblon and its inaccessibility has left the island largely undeveloped --- a forgotten island where the monkey population is growing while the number of people are waning because of migration and zero growth.

Cipriano said Sibale Island is so poor and lonely the residents are “torn between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

“We need outside help. We are looking for investors who can turn the island into a tourist destination, a retirement haven, a honeymoon island because of its tranquil environment and virgin surrounding,” Cipriano said.

Sibale Island has eight coastal barangays --- each one has its own coves, bays, coral reefs and unexplored dive sites --- teeming with marine life such as sea turtles, lobsters, coconut crabs and various kinds of fishes.

The interior is mountainous, jagged and forested with caves, clear rivers, unique rock formations and hills that offer breathtaking views.

Diosdado Atillano, executive secretary to the mayor, said the island has no hospital or health clinic and residents rely on a “sea ambulance” to bring emergency cases to Pinamalayan town in Oriental Mindoro, which is two hours away by boat.

Atillano said 90 percent of the people want to break away from Romblon and annexed to Oriental Mindoro because Romblon has neglected their needs and development.

Noel Fedelen, a fisherman said: “Gusto na rin namin maging bagong bayan ng Oriental Mindoro dahil nahihirapan na kami dito. Kami ay pinabayaan ng Romblon.”

Fedelen and other residents said their hardships are part of the curse brought by “the ghost ship of Lolo Amang” and the Romblon Triangle has made life on the island similar to living in a cemetery.

“If we can make the ghost ship disappear forever, the curse of the Romblon Triangle will be lifted and our lives will be better,” Fedelen said. “We don’t how. It’s in God’s hands.”



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