Our first Earthquake experience in the Philippines

Earthquakes happen every day, some can have immensely tragic outcomes and despite my travels to a number of Earthquake prone countries I’d yet to experience one for myself. Until visiting the Philippines in February 2012.

Earthquake cebu philippinesThe 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines are born from a number of volcanos, all linked to the “Ring of Fire”, a chain of tectonic plates and volcanos stretching right round the Pacific ocean. The same ring caused both the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand and Japan in 2011. While there are daily tremors in any earthquake prone country, most go unfelt. In fact we were told the last major earthquake in the Philippines was some 12 years ago. Lucky us!

Panglao Island, Bohol

panglao islandThe beautiful island of Bohol was always high on our list of places to visit. As well as doing a homestay in the town of Anda to the east, we also wanted to visit the equally beautiful island of Panglao, a short drive over a bridge to the south of the capital city, Tagbilaran. Panglao is a popular tourist destination with some quiet and idillic resort hotels offering some great diving opportunities. We’d be a fool not to spend a few days enjoying the filipino hospitality and scenery.

In fact we enjoyed it so much we ended up spending 5 nights here before deciding to move on and start 2 days of travel by bus and boat to Boracay. While checking out of our luxury resort hotel, the Bohol Sea Resort we stood at reception waiting for our bill to be totalled, the receptionist leaning against the high desk as she calculated our extravagant 5 days. I too leaned on the desk to watch and felt a slight movement in the desk from side to side, my arms moving left and right. I imagine, like many people’s reactions to earthquakes, you first look for a more rational explanation. Was the desk on wheels? Was the receptionist moving it as she leaned against it? A quick look at the floor and I realised there were no wheels. Was I dizzy? Maybe it was me who was wobbling? It all seemed more obvious than the possibility of an earthquake.


bohol sea resort panglao

I first realised it was an earthquake about 5 seconds later when the tall fan behind the receptionist started to wobble, quite violently, at least for a fan! Nobody was moving it, the desk was still moving! I stood up straight and said “I think this is an earthquake”. Deborah laughed thinking surely I was mistaken, the young receptionist laughed nervously, thinking I was right. As soon as you realise that you’re experiencing an actual earthquake it all becomes so obviously. We physically felt the ground “sway” or “occilate” back and forth, around 1 foot (30cm) or so. As you naturally try to compensate to remain standing you feel as though you’re instantly drunk, trying to control alcohol impeded legs.  Thankfully in Bohol the earthquake wasn’t as strong as near the epicentre, not able to knock you off your feet but enough to make you feel sick and need to sit down!

Fight or Flight? Naaar!

panglao island divingThey say your instincts usually kick in during an emergency, the “fight or flight” responses that help us humans make quick decisions. Unfortunately neither of those things kicked in for us. More confusion, followed by being frozen to the spot, observing it rather than panicking and running away from the building we were in. I wonder whether that’s a common response as the very idea of the ground around you, billions of tonnes of earth, trees, buildings and cars, being moved back and forth in such a way seems incomprehensible.

While the strange sensations of everything moving gave us an indication that it was an earthquake, one piece of evidence showed us the real power of what was occuring. While nothing was broken in our hotel, we watched as the water in the swimming pool, sloshed from one end to the other in a increasingly powerful wave. I’m glad we weren’t in the pool at the time (or anyone else was for that matter) as the water splashed out of the ends of the pool and ran down the paths and steps, flooding the nearby area.

We left the hotel, surprised by what had happened but assured by the hotel manager that their buildings were strong and earthquake proof. We headed to the port in Tagbilaran, Bohol, to catch a fast boat to Cebu City. Just moments after buying our tickets we looked up at the departure board to see the word “CANCELLED” being applied to every boat. I overheard a conversation with a clerk that mentioned the word “tsunami”. Not something you want to hear when you’re at a ferry port!

Tsunami warning!

tagbilaran ferry terminalLike a true 21st century 30 something I jumped on twitter with my iPhone and started searching for “earthquake” and “tsunami”. Thousands of tweets were pouring in, mostly retweeting information about a tsunami warning that had just been given after a strong aftershock, some 5.6 in magnitude. Believe me it’s a scary thing to read when you’re stood by the coast line, looking at boats bobbing about on the sea. Wondering if at any second the water will start to receed and you’ll need to run for your life. An escape plan started formulating in my mind, I refreshed twitter every few seconds checking for people experiencing an actual tsunami in Cebu or other neighbouring islands. All the while keeping one eye on the sea outside the window incase we needed to start running.

After an hour or so an all clear was tweeted, the warning was lifted and thankfully no tsunami came. Unfortunately the ferrys remained cancelled, our tickets were refunded and we had to find a hotel for the evening in Tagbilaran and try again the next morning. Whether intentionally or not, our hotel was fairly “up hill” from the port, something I was thankful of should anything happen over night. Funny the things you think in such a situation.

Our first Earthquake

It was our first ever earthquake experience, confusing at first, a novelty second, followed by freakish and alarming, then a tsunami warning at the end to really put the wind up us.

The earthquake on the 6th February was 33km below the sea between Cebu and Negros. Measuring 6.7 in magnitude it was the largest earthquake in the Philippines for 12 years. Unfortunately claiming the lives of 40 people. Our thoughts go out to the families and friends of those affected. For more information visit the USGS website.

Have you ever experienced an earthquake?

Where in the world were you and what was you experience? How did it feel? What happened to your travel plans? We’d love to hear your story.


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