Philippine surfing is at once a haven for virgin beaches and a sensational hotspot for wannabes and experts from around the world. Sure, there’s Waikiki, San Diego, or the Gold Coast — but being a large tropical archipelago has its perks, particularly in possessing a treasure trove of scattered surf spots quite unlike anywhere else. Yet few would know that the origins of Philippine surf culture would come from a Vietnam War-era Hollywood film.
The Apocalypse Now Connection
Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now is regarded as one of the most powerful war films ever made, yet it was also a production said to have paved the way for Philippine surf culture. Set in Vietnam, the Francis Ford Coppola-directed film was actually shot in the northern town of Baler, then a fishing town known more as the site of a major Spanish colonial siege.
It was here where one of the main characters Colonel Kilgore would say one of the film’s most memorable lines, ‘Charlie don’t surf’, referring to the enemy Viet Cong, while persuading his fellow troops to ride the waves.
From there, locals watching along the sidelines would be inspired by what the cast and crew were doing, even picking up the boards they’ve left behind long after filming was finished.
In an interview with BBC, Baler native Edwin Nomoro says “When the filming finished, some of the crew left their surfboards behind, and my friend and I picked up the boards and taught ourselves how to surf… We’ve been surfing ever since.”
Nomoro, along with other locals, would figure out how to use these left-behind surfboards. They would then turn this newfound passion into a way of living, part a rising scene that gained attention from surf enthusiasts outside of Baler, and eventually big-ticket hotels and resorts — very different from the humble town where Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen once stayed.
Baler, Siargao, and Other Emerging Surf Spots
Today, Baler is noted as the ‘birthplace of surfing in the Philippines’, with sandy breaks perfect for beginners, as well as a historic charm and mountain scenery that will draw in even non-surfers.
Other destinations have sprouted across the country as well, spanning everywhere from the North of Luzon to the island of Mindanao. Now, Filipinos are flocking to areas like La Union, where they can choose from an abundance of affordable surf schools to learn how to catch a wave.
Down in Mindanao, many are also heading onto Siargao, which has emerged as a party island of sorts, distinct from the more laidback Baler. Here, one can stumble upon stretches of empty beaches, glistening lagoons, and lush mangroves. Yet the most talked about is Siargao’s Cloud 9, a right-hand reef break cited by Conde Nast Traveler and CNN as one of the world’s top surf spots. With almost no sand breaks, the area is ideal for intermediate to advanced surfers. Non-surfers in the meantime can enjoy the numerous bars, clubs, and restaurants found all throughout the island.
Surf competitions have also gained Siargao global publicity, with events such as the Siargao Cloud 9 Surfing Cup attracting thousands of foreign and local surfers annually.
For the inexperienced, Zambales is a convenient getaway, being only a three-hour drive from Manila. With a swell that never gets too large, it’s a place for beginners and intermediate surfers to easily sharpen their skills. Plus, its gorgeous mountain terrain makes for a scenic backdrop.
Government and Environmental Attention
With rising tourist numbers, the Philippines’ Department of Tourism (DOT) has paid attention to the potential of surfing as a major industry. According to DOT Director of Tourism Standards Maria Rica Bueno, they intend to accredit numerous surf camps and resorts, while professionalizing surfing instruction in the near future, based on a set of national criteria that will undergo further public consultation.
To make this happen, the DOT has partnered with the Australia-based Academy of Surfing Instructors, and its local chapter the Academy of Surfing Instructors Philippines. Together, they plan to supervise instructor certification courses, in the hopes of elevating the quality of surf education in the country.
Yet this boom has also raised concerns from several environmental advocates. In a forum organized by the Asian Institute of Management, Joey Cornelio, Head of Operations of the Philippine Surfing Academy says, “If we are going to develop surf tourism we need to work on the environment first… I don’t think the instructors can handle the number of students.”
Indeed, roadmaps are needed to further establish a profitable yet sustainable surf culture here in the Philippines — with the guidance of foreign expertise, as well as environmental watchdogs. For now, the thrill of the wave remains, and it can be found all across the Philippines.