Biri Island Northern Samar
From afar, the rock formations on the eastern side of the island of Biri directly facing San Bernardino Strait appear like palaces of gods and goddesses, or majestic cathedrals of intricate design fashioned by artistic geniuses of Renaissance.
Up close they are even more spectacular – like giants coral sculpture rising from ocean depths and locking in place for a grand otherworldly stage in the midst of sun and sea. It is very much like walking into an enchanted moment in another place and time, into the abode of the gods, with an enclosed nature pool and elaborate wall designs that fascinate the mind captivate the spirit.
The Biri rock formations are a masterpiece of nature created by undersea tectonic plates that shifted and moved due to earthquakes that, according to scientists, occurred more than five million years ago. For poets and artists, they shelter a secret paradise. For the deeply spiritual, they are architectural creations of a higher being. But for the Birinon, they are part of home.
The island of Biri is not populated by gods for sure. It is home to ordinary mortals with ordinary lives mostly confined to tilling the soil, sailing off to sea to fish, and raising their families. They may not always have enough for their physical and material needs, nor idle time drawn from hours eking a decent living, to fathom what’s beyond where the sun loses itself into the sea at dusk and where bigger islands hover above the horizon.
The island they awaken to each day is part of the Balicuatro group – island-towns and islets drawn together by their geographical closeness and shared historical past. Their history revolves around the Spanish era Galleon trade, the predecessor of today’s more complex, multi-dimensional international trade and commerce.
Biri, originally known as Tingiao Island, used to be under the jurisdiction of the 16th Century relic town of Capul, and much later, Bobon. The name Biri is said to have come from the Spanish word barrer – to sweep. It was the order yelled by the ship captain upon first sighting the island of Samar – a command most welcome to the galleon crew because it meant they were to tidy up the ship and clear the decks in preparation for a port landing. It was the end of weeks and months at sea, and a reception awaiting them on land before they proceeded to their final destination in Manila or Cebu.
Another version claims “Biri” was derived from the Spanish word virrey or viceroy, the title of the highest government official who ran a colony or country for the monarch or king of Spain. While the Philippines was managed by a governor-general during the Spanish period, the appointing authority for the position was El Virrey or the viceroy of New Spain or Mexico, where galleons would their voyage.
The island was a former a sitio of Bobon, which in turn belonged to the pueblo of Capul. It was converted into a new and independent municipality through Republic act No.5500, sponsored by the late Congressman Eusebio B. Moore and passed by Congress on June 21, 1969, thus becoming the 21st municipality of the Province of Northern Samar, More than 400 years after the settlement’s founding.
Biri is a quiet and idyllic rural town that thrives on fishing, farming and coconut production. It depends on natural rainfall to irrigate its arid lands. With the absence of irrigation systems to nourish farmlands and limited capital resources to engage in fishing or mariculture , Birinons travel to nearby Lavezares in mainland Samar to supplement their food stocks, medicines and other essential commodities.
As a matter of practice, there is only one trip each day from mainland Samar to Biri Island and back, with boatmen charging irregular fares, depending on the number passengers. Regular commuters find this schedule too tight and expensive, so they have to plan their trips carefully to ensure that they have enough provisions, especially food, until their next trip. The town of Lavezares has strategically built a public market neat the port to capture this regular wave of buyers from her closest island neighbor.
The rock formations would have been a private paradise for the Birinons if not for filmmaker Chito Roño, who made them the backdrop and setting for top grossing commercial films, introducing the dazzling nature sculptures not only to Filipinos but the world.
There are still no man-made development projects in the area, except for a long wooden footbridge running from the shore to Bel-at, the second most popular rock formation after Magasang. The span is designed to allow visitors to get close to rock formation without having to negotiate the coastal waters, which rise and fall with the tides.
Bel-at is not as imposing as Magasang. Its beauty lies in the detailed features of the rocks, such as the natural concrete slabs serving as walking platform the shallow natural swimming pool, and the fine details of it rock-solid walls.
When the tide is low, usually in the early morning, visitors can wade from the beach to the rock formation in clear ankle deep waters. The experience is rare and exhilarating, but rubber footwear is necessary when crossing on foot o the rock formations because tiny underwater rocks and corals are rough and sharp.
On summer nights when the moon is full and high, Birinons swear it is possible to hike form one rock formation to another, and catch sight of tiny silvery creatures flashing around as in a giant oceanarium.
During the rainy season, usually from October to February, one can only watch from a distance as huge sea waves relentlessly pummel the rocks, exploding in giant plumes of foam and spray.
It is not likely for anyone to miss the Magasang Rock Formation, a serpent-like giant reef facing the sea, seemingly recoiling and poised to strike or preparing for takeoff while its lower rear side is still submerged at sea. It looks like the Sphinx, with intricate broad strokes of lines and
Spaces chiseled b y a master sculptor. The top edge of the formation is a solid plate, like a ramp designed for a scene in the animation movie Lion King.
Magasang and Bel-at are just two of six major rock formations close to Biri Island. The other four are Magsapad, Macadlaw, Puhunan, and Caranas. There are more scattered around the island, but they are considerably smaller. Visitors also lured to Sitio Cogon, ideal for surfing and swimming from September to December.
According to enduring folklore, the mysterious islets are home to the sea goddess Berbenota, who guards the treasure island of Biri. The legend is also mentioned in the book of Jesuit author Fr. Francisco Alcina, chronicling the life and times of the Visayans in the 1600s.
Berbenota is believe to be a serina or mermaid who guided or misled ship captains and fishermen – depending on her whim – during the Galleon trade and continues to dwell in the depths of Biri Island, just below the rock formations.
An intriguing custom among young folk in search of a faithful life partner is to climb to the highest point of the rock formations and call out to Berbenota, seeking the goddess’ intervention in a love-match for mortals. The response of the waves – furious crashing or softly caressing – is said to be her answer.
Biri Island is accessible via a 45-minutes boat ride from the port of Lavezares. The rock formations are on the opposite side of the island, facing the Philippine Sea, and just a 10-minutes ride on a habal-habal (motorcycle) from the poblacion.
Lodging and home stays for overnight visitors are available under different budgets and circumstances in the poblacion, but there are no dwellings or facilities close to the rock formations. Those planning to spend more time in the company of the rock fortresses need to bring their own stock of food and water.
There are no structures on the beach across the rock formations either, just a wide expanse of white sand where local fishermen anchor their small bancas after a day’s harvests at sea. The island’s remote location is both a boon and bane for a town under pressure to preserve its natural charm and beauty, while at the same time challenged to attract more investors and guests.
But the treasure that is Biri is measured not by its age and face value. Resorts and other amenities may still be forthcoming, but even without them the rock formations are alluring enough. Their grace and beauty have been defined by the ebbing and cresting of ocean waters, providing nature’s own upkeep and preservation of a sacred sanctuary by the sea.