By SOL VANZI
Manila was, for centuries, considered the jewel of the Orient, with Manila Bay as its precious stone. Considered as the best natural harbor of East Asia, Manila Bay has always been the center for trade, hosting the country’s biggest shipping ports as well as ferry terminals, fish port, and yachting marina.
In modern times, its orientation toward the South China Sea allows the Philippines to benefit from the current trend of interaction, development, and trade with the rest of the world.
With an area of 1,994 square kilometers, its coastline of 190 kilometers touches Las Pinas, Paranaque, Pasay, Manila, Navotas, and several towns of Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, and Bataan.
Right after World War II, Manila Bay was a major attraction for tourists, divers, sports fishermen, sailing enthusiasts, maritime historians, and treasure hunters.
The clear, deep waters between the Yacht Club and the South Harbor were a veritable underwater war museum, a graveyard for hundreds of sunken battle ships and aircraft, their barnacle-covered parts jutting out at low tide like grim reminders of a bloody conflict that destroyed the city.
On summer weekends Tatay took me and a younger brother fishing with simple hook-and-line among those wrecks, using a neighbor’s borrowed banca. We kept our catch alive in a bamboo basket immersed in seawater. To augment our catch, Tatay gathered large tahong (mussels) and tabulog (pen shell scallops) from the bay’s floor.
The bay’s blue-green water was so clear and clean we could see schools of red lapu-lapu (grouper) and silver buwan-buwan (tarpon) playing with the bait before they bit and got caught.
We stayed clear of divers who spear-fished for a living. Our banca was also disallowed near areas where divers were trying to recover millions of gold and silver coins dumped in the bay at the start of the war before the Japanese occupied the city.
By the 1960s, the submerged vessels were finally cut up and removed, sold as scrap iron when metal prices went up as the world economy picked up.
An unforgettable attraction in the 1950s involved colorful outriggers taking sightseers and lovebirds on romantic sunset and night cruises. Docked behind the Quirino grandstand, the dozen boats were retrofitted large fishing vessels painted like jeepneys and equipped with seats like tourist buses. Loud music blared from huge speakers. Flags and buntings waved from the dimly lit upper deck, where couples enjoyed relative privacy.
Tatay and his brothers operated four of the biggest boats, which were popular for the meriendas cooked and served on board. Named after my cousins Charmaine and Boning, the brothers’ fleet enjoyed brisk business until one of them caught fire at midsea, killing a score of passengers. Authorities stepped in, sending the boats back to fishing.
Pollution started to foul the bay in the 1970s, as squatters’ shanties sprouted along the waterways, rivers, and esteros. Silt and solid waste blocked the flow of water and caused perennial floods.
Today, thanks to public awareness and government action, Manila Bay is showing signs of renewal. Although swimming and bathing in its waters is still discouraged, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has declared that fish caught in the bay is safe for human consumption. The government has also begun strict implementation of the Clean Water Act and closed establishments without waste water treatment facilities.
Perhaps one day soon, Manila Bay will once more provide generations with sweet memories.