When I was a college freshman back in 2006, one of my first major academic requirements was a position paper. While my classmates chose topics like euthanasia, divorce, and abortion, I wrote about banning commercial fishing in the Visayan Sea. That was the first time I had ever heard of Apo Island. (Not to be mistaken as Mt. Apo or Apo Reef. Video of Apo Reef by Jayvee.) I read article after article about the successful conservation efforts being done there. In my then-cynical mind, I was like, “OWSSS??? Di nga?! Could it be?! Is that possible in the Philippines?!” Since then, I had been dreaming about diving there, operating on the assumption that to see is to believe.
Sometime in January, my dad received an invitation to go to Dumaguete (more on that later). I freaked out and said, “CAN I PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE GO WITH YOU?” He replied, “Why do you think i cc’d you my letter? Kasi isasama kita — so you can dive in Apo Island!” MYGHAD! KABOG. I love my dad!
Two months later, my thesis and I headed to Dumaguete! FIVE-YEAR TRIP IN THE MAKING! I arrived on a cloudy Saturday morning. The original plan was to head to Apo right away. Unfortunately, the waves were HUGE. White caps all around. To my disappointment, my dad and Sir Alex, our most gracious host, said we couldn’t dive. Too dangerous. Sunday would be my last chance. I spent the entire Saturday sending good vibes to the universe. THE LAW OF ATTRACTION. I called upon God, Allah, Buddha, and every fallen eyelash, four-leaf clover, pixie, fairy godmother, and even the manananggals in the nearby Siquijor (joke lang).
My petition to the universe worked! At 5 AM on Sunday, Sir Alex texted me that the waters were calm. PAK! Mother Earth never lets me down. True story.
And so, Sir Alex and I left Dumaguete a little past 6 AM. We got to the dock at around 7. I was SO lucky because a group of 4 was headed to Apo, so I hitched with their boat. If not, I would’ve paid something like 1, 600 because I was alone!
Apo Island did not disappoint. To borrow words from Tita Noemi‘s daughter, “The entire cast of Finding Nemo was there.” (Minus Bruce the great white, of course.)
look down and you see tiny sand eels
look up and you see all kinds of fish like confetti in a Coldplay concert
i spy a lion fish!
these fish are always interesting to watch because they swim vertically
what is… DILATED PUPILS? ALAM NA. i’ll have two of whatever you’re having, buddy!
graceful sea sssssssnake
we followed this marine turtle for awhile
watched the school of fish go by (spot marine turtle behind)
there he is! he would be the first out of three turtles that day.
the corals. ridiculously beautiful abundance of corals.
these are soft corals, but they remind me of lettuce! underwater lettuce!
these were so pretty. i can imagine my friend david making paper cut-outs of these :)
more corals! WALANG KATAPUSAN.
In between dives, I walked around the shore and talked to some locals. I saw this little boy. He made a sailboat out of used Styrofoam and plastic. Cutie pie.
I asked Mario, my dive master, to tell me the story of Apo Island. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he, like most of its residents, would use destructive fishing methods. “So you were a dynamite fisher?” I asked. ”Oo, pati muro ami, cyanide… Lahat.” I died a little inside. Not-so-fun fact: one tablespoon of cyanide can damage 15 hectares of coral reefs. AAAAACCCCCCKKKKKKK. But then they noticed that the fish were disappearing rapidly and NOT COMING BACK. Which means that everything you just saw in the pictures did not exist. I can’t even…
Soon enough, a team of researchers, graduate students, and scientists from Silliman University took notice and began the conservation efforts. The group was led by Dr. Angel Alcala. He is like THE godfather of marine biology in the Philippines, and the first Filipino environmentalist to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award. The initial efforts were met with a lot of resistance. Understandably so–I mean, how do you tell a community that has lived that way forever that their source of livelihood will be labelled as a no-take zone, right? The team went on; they taught the fishermen the basics of reef ecology, scuba diving, and snorkeling. The fisherfolk didn’t even know that the corals were animals; they thought they were just rocks. Over time, the local community set up a co-op and began alternative livelihood programs: weaving, t-shirt printing, sarong-making, and the like.
I was getting teary-eyed listening to the locals speak about what the island meant to them. It was like listening to proud parents talking about their newborn babies. Since the ’80s, their catch has TRIPLED and divers from all over the globe go there. In Mario’s dive shop-resort, I also talked to a middle-aged German couple and Swiss guy, Andreas, who had been staying there. Andreas was there to finish his dive master course. All three of them loved the Philippines so much! The couple told me how they had been all around the Philippines eleven years ago (including Bantayan!). Now that their kids were done with college, they returned to explore more islands. I asked them how Apo Island was like back then. Sabina, the wife, said, “People are more friendly now. Back then, they were quite shy. Now they’re all smiling, greeting me, ‘Hi Ma’am!’ ‘Good morning Ma’am!’ And now there are so many stray dogs!” (Kailangan din daw nila ng RH Bill. Hehe.) They told me that I was lucky to be Filipino :) WORD.
Apo Island now holds 400 species of corals, and over 650 species of fish. Divers and snorkelers aren’t even allowed to wear gloves underwater, so that we won’t touch and (potentially) destroy the corals and anemones.
The current during dive two was so strong, so we did drift diving. This means we had to just go with the flow-LITERALLY. Drop in and ride the movement.
big fish, small fish
according to Jayvee, this is an old “critically endangered” hawksbill turtle. WOW.
while stalking the turtle, i saw this underneath me. it was about as big as my thumb.
and off it goes.
another camouflage-ing fishie. can you see it? :)
and of course, the staple “I FOUND NEMO!” picture
just keep swimming, swimming, swimming!
Thinking about this place makes me warm and fuzzy inside. On the way back to Dumaguete via Mario’s boat, we even saw a manta ray flip on the surface. WOWOWOWOW. I know I say this all the time, but I’ll never get tired of saying it: the Philippines is worth diving for. Apo Island serves as a model for the rest of the country. It proves that we don’t need to destroy the environment to benefit from it. It also proves that nature provides a free meal–if and only if we learn to control our appetites.
P.S. Because I was diving in Apo, I didn’t get to see my dad receive his honorary PhD from the Foundation University, so I’m posting his picture instead. He is now a doctor-attorney.