Perhaps there had been a cool breeze that night, dissipating the day's humidity from the air, making it more comfortable to sleep. Perhaps there were some souls still up that night, finishing the last of the day's chores, moving about in the soft glow of candlelight or under the gentle beam of moonlight. Perhaps that night began as serenely and restfully as others before, until a long-dormant fury finally, violently awakened...
"On May 15, 1754, at about 9 or 10 o'clock in the night, the volcano quite unexpectedly commenced to roar and emit, sky-high, formidable flames intermixed with glowing rocks which, falling back upon the island and rolling down the slopes of the mountain, created the impression of a large river of fire.
"The columns of fire and smoke ascended higher than ever before, increasing every moment in volume, and setting fire to the whole island... All this was accompanied by terrific lightning and thunder above, and violent shocks of earthquakes underneath.
"We left the town, fleeing from this living picture of Sodom, with incessant fear lest the raging waters of the lake overtake us..."
|Lake Taal, ca. 1734|
"Soon afterward I resolved to visit my beautiful town of Taal; nothing was left of it except the walls of the church and convento... Thus the beautiful town of Taal remains a deserted wilderness and reduced to the utmost misery, while once it was one of the richest and most flourishing places.
"The worst of all is, that, the mouth of the river Pansipit having been blocked, the lake is rising and invading the towns of Lipa and Tanauan..."
The people of Taal, Lipa and Tanauan eventually rebuilt their towns at a safer distance from the volcano, leaving behind ruins such as those of the original Basilica of St. Martin de Tours (the present edifice is considered the largest Catholic church in Asia) to be found above ground today. Meanwhile, what are believed to be the remains of Tanauan can be seen (mainly by experienced divers) beneath the opaque waters of the now-renamed Lake Taal. But no manmade site can compare to the natural wonder at the center of it all.
The Evolution of a Delicacy
|An island within a lake |
on an island...
First of all, Lake Taal is a veritable geologic matryoshka doll: an island (Vulcan Point) within a lake (Crater Lake) on an island (Volcano Island) within a lake (Lake Taal) on an island (Luzon) [see image]. If that weren't enough, it also holds the distinction as the only habitat on earth of the sole species of exclusively freshwater sardines - Sardinella tawilis.
As Fr. Buencuchilla recounted, the massive eruptions of 1754 severely narrowed the once-wide channel of the Pansipit River that connected Lake Taal to Balayan Bay and the sea beyond, and subsequently trapped marine species within. As a result, the saline lake, no longer being fed by sea water, eventually transformed into a freshwater body to which formerly saltwater fish, such as the sardines, had to adapt in order to survive.
Today, Lake Taal tawilis are a popular delicacy prepared in different ways, such as smoking (tinapang tawilis), stewing in vinegar (paksiw na tiwilis) or deep-frying, and eaten in its entirety, head to tail. I recently munched on the latter, dipping them in vinegar with chilies, and found them to be satisfyingly crisp, tasty and as addictive as fish-shaped french fries. I had barely licked the last bit of flavor from my fingertips before I was craving more. Wanting to learn about what was sure to be my new favorite snack, I went a-Googling . . . and promptly lost my appetite with this single phrase:
"As with all species consisting of a single population in one location, a local extinction event will most probably lead to species extinction."
|Fish pens on Lake Taal|
But for once, I am happy to admit being duped - it turns out that the flavorful fried fish I was munching was more than likely an impostor. Like Kleenex and Q-Tips, the tawilis 'brand' name has become a generic term, allowing pseudo-tawilis (other saltwater sardines) to be found in abundance at local wet markets and grocery store chains for relatively low price. Some will say that consuming these counterfeit Clupeidae is therefore not an authentic tawilis-eating experience and they are correct. But it would be difficult to swallow authenticity at the expense of the very survival of such a unique species. So instead, I will savor the amazing true story of Lake Taal as I enjoy some ersatz tawilis. I'd call that a happy ending for all.
Maso, M.S. (1911). The Eruption of Taal Volcano - January 30, 1911. Report from the Weather Bureau. Manila: Bureau of Printing
|Volcano Island, viewed from Tagaytay cliffs|
Active Taal Volcano is the larger land mass behind the smaller cone