Did you know that every year on June 16th is World Sea Turtle Day? Sea turtles are one of the most ancient creatures on earth. They have been swimming around in our oceans for over 110 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs.
It’s surprising how easily you can spot several turtles swimming freely just a few meters from the beachfront. You don’t even have to be a good swimmer or diver to have a close encounter with these wonderful creatures because they can be seen in clear shallow waters about four feet deep. They stay there because they feed primarily on seagrasses and algae which are abundant in the shallows.
These marine turtles seemed not disturbed by groups of gawking snorkelers like us who wants to have a photo swimming together with them. Watching the turtles grazing on seagrasses for food was wonderful and even more when swimming alongside with them – I’m amazed by how large they are. The small younger ones usually swim away from us.
When playing with these lovely creatures, be mindful not to touch them because you can be fined if caught — this was mentioned in one of the information boards.
While reading the information board about sea turtles (pawikans), our guide Salde mentioned that two species of turtles are seen regularly in Apo Island which are the green sea turtles and also a few hawksbill turtles.
Rarely seen are the leatherback turtles, which might be spotted only during deep dives. He said that a long time ago, a leatherback turtle once saved a drowning tourist by letting him ride on its back and brought him back to the shore.
Aside from enjoying the sea turtles, we also had a great time snorkeling at the nearby coral gardens.
Apo Island is recognized as one of the top diving sites in the world for its incredible marine biodiversity and excellent underwater visibility.
Dumaguete-based Silliman University Marine Lab conducts frequent studies in the area, making it a well-documented sanctuary with more than 400 species of corals and over 650 species of fish.
Apo Island is the oldest community-managed marine reserve in the Philippines. Thanks to biologist Dr. Angel Alcala who led the establishment of the sanctuary site back in 1982 after three years of convincing the local community of the importance of having it as a protected area.
The presence of coral reefs is an ecological health indicator of marine life. If left unprotected, our children might never witness and benefit from our marine wealth due to years of destructive fishing, pollution and also from climate change.
Sadly, we did not get to visit the marine reserve because it was closed since 2013 for rehabilitation. The corals were severely damaged and washed ashore by typhoons Sendong and Pablo in 2011 and 2012 respectively, decreasing the presence of fishes by a staggering 50%.
With more strong typhoons hitting our country, it may take several more years for the coral reefs to recover and for the marine reserve to be open to public visitors again.
But even if the marine reserve is closed, you can dive or snorkel in other areas and it’s well worth visiting.
I had never seen so many sea cucumbers close together before. You can find them clustered underwater in the white sand area. Some have spikes to scare potential predators. I love eating the cut sea cucumbers (locally known as ‘bat’) in vinegar with ginger, chili red pepper, tomato, and onions. It looks the same with the vegetable cucumbers which I also love eating in vinegar dip. So when I saw a close bunch of sea cucumbers which are marine animals, it filled me with awe — Wow, I see a garden of cucumbers under the sea!
We also had a close encounter with a yellow-lipped sea krait or the banded sea snake, locally known as walo-walo, which are venomous but generally non-aggressive. They usually stay at the bottom and rarely attack unless it feels threatened. But you should never get too close to them even if they look cute with those black and white stripes — their bite is lethal.
We only snorkeled for about three hours, but it was already an experience of a lifetime. After visiting Apo Island, I’m dreaming of going to Turtle Islands in Tawi-Tawi. Here goes the dreamer in me again!
Be a responsible snorkeler/diver/visitor
Some things to remember while enjoying Apo Island Marine Turtle Sanctuary:
- Be mindful and don’t touch or ride turtles because you can be fined when caught with these acts considered as harassment, a strict protection ordinance for these endangered species.
- Do not buy or sell turtle products and souvenirs made of sea shells and coral stones. Locals are prohibited from selling such products made from marine life.
- Avoid touching the corals, especially the soft corals. Don’t let your feet reach the sea floor because there are some corals that can sting or cut you.
- Don’t throw your trash just anywhere. Plastic wastes can be mistaken by turtles as food. Plastic straws, cups, bags etc. can be pretty harmful to these poor ocean creatures. Dispose garbage properly or better yet bring them back to the main island and throw properly. Also, I had seen many glass bottles on the rocky portion of the beach, with some shards that can cut. Improper garbage disposal explains why plenty of sea glasses are found in the area.
- Eating green sea turtles is an absolute NO because they are now considered an endangered species. The Philippine Coast Guard caught a Chinese vessel carrying many pawikans to be sold in their mainland because turtle meat is considered an exotic and expensive culinary delicacy and an aphrodisiac.
- Take care of yourself by protecting your skin with SPF 30+ sunblock lotion that is ocean-safe or by wearing a rashguard.
When buying a sunscreen, choose one that has an ocean-safe formula or labeled eco-friendly or says reef-safe. Don’t use lotions that contains oxybenzone / octinoxate / octocrylene / butylparaben / 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC) etc. These can bleach the corals and can kill some reef organisms. Also, avoid using aerosol sunscreens which most likely contain these harmful chemicals.
If you’re not comfortable with the sticky feeling of lotion on your skin and wants to avoid the hassle of re-applying after a couple of hours, better wear a long-sleeved rashguard. Aside from protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful effects, it also provides some warmth while diving or snorkeling. Additionally, it will keep you safe from the threat of jellyfish stings. Plus it helps prevent sand or salt from rubbing your skin which can cause dryness and irritation.
- Never forget to stay hydrated. Drink enough water before and after swimming under the sun. Have fun!