(Part 1 of 3)
Every time we descend into the deep blue and breathe for graceful buoyancy, the world changes before us.
Myriads of life forms that can be seen only underwater present to us an alternative existence, one that reminds us how vast, ancient and unexplored the ocean is.
Dives may take us to coral reefs older than our grandparents, or allow us to encounter animals bigger than ourselves.
These experiences become meaningful as we take a deep appreciation of each dive trip as a gift. We know we are at the mercy of our diving tank’s air supply, and of the depth gauge reminding us of our limits.
Every second underwater is an opportunity to marvel at life. When we were still learning how to dive, we must have told ourselves to relax for breathing and buoyancy, so that we don’t waste air from our tanks.
We’ve learned to maximize our time and air so that we could witness more.
In this exploration of Philippine dive spots, we seek inspiration to connect more intimately with the marine world.
The intimacy with these places begins with following their stories and nurtured when we finally make those dives.
This world-class destination is found in most diving itineraries not without reason.
Apo Island covers 74 hectares of land area, located seven kilometers from the municipality of Dauin at the southeastern tip of the larger Negros Island.
The closest city to plan travels with is Dumaguete, a tourists’ popular jump-off point to many destinations in the Visayas region.
Dauin is also a dive mecca with muck-diving spots.
Apo Island is known for its reefs’ stunning coral gardens with 100 percent live hard coral, and sea turtles almost
everywhere oblivious to the divers around them.
Realizing the long years it takes for corals to build reefs that pulse with activity and color, dive sites around Apo Island will humble any diver in awe and love for these landscapes.
The popular Mamsa Point features walls and slopes with rich benthic life, and a school of jacks circling the site, giving it its name (“mamsa” is the local word for jack).
Another favorite is the Chapel, where a steep slope leads to a large wall with overhanging rock formations and hidden caverns, with patches of gorgonian sea fans and sightings of tuna and barracuda.
Fish and invertebrates are abundant around Apo Island, and aside from sea turtles, there are sharks and manta rays visiting the reefs.
As the island itself is volcanic in origin, geothermal activity causes streams of bubbles to rise from black sand in some of its dive sites. These never fail to amaze any diver – whether a beginner or advanced. Aquaria around the world have based their tropical marine exhibits based on Apo Island’s coral reef habitats.
Behind the scenes to behold at Apo Island’s reefs is the story of one of the country’s earliest marine sanctuaries (established in 1982) beset by challenges of whether its protection and management could effectively engage local fisherfolk.
Undoubtedly due to the island being a national protected area, reef health draws tourism and sustainable livelihood for the Apo Island community.
And due to the nature of marine protected areas, surrounding reefs can help recover damaged reefs such as the marine sanctuary of Apo Island which was hit by typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
What makes Apo Island really special is the continuing journey we share with its community in keeping their environment healthy and teeming with life, for a network of benefits that include food security for the locals and an economy sustained by tourists.
It is not a perfectly crafted setup, as destinations like Apo Island deal with the delicate balance of conservation and mass tourism.
But your dives in protected areas like Apo Island incur user’s fees, and though they may be small, they do go a long way and could significantly contribute to ensuring Apo Island’s corals, turtles and numerous residents remain protected.
From Apo Island, the opposite side of Negros mainland is home to another marine conservation milestone.
Danjugan Island is a wildlife sanctuary with a fringing reef declared as a marine protected area.
Accessed from Bacolod City through a four-hour drive, the small limestone island covers 43 hectares, hosts an incredible biodiversity relative to its size.
Its human population remains at zero. The unique story of Danjugan goes back to 1994 when a group of divers raised funds to purchase the island in order to save it from further destruction.
Its priority is to provide refuge and habitat for wildlife – birds, mangroves, giant clams, reef sharks, and nesting sea turtles, to name some.
What strikes anyone visiting the island and diving/snorkeling at its reefs is the carrying capacity being respected in its tourism program.
There is not much dive boat traffic or hordes of tourists coming and going.
Tourism around Danjugan is designed to be a very low impact, curated as an authentic ecotourism and environmental education experience.
There is often a feeling that you have an entire private island to yourself, and it inspires you to truly connect with nature, understand, love and protects it.
Each visit or dive contributes to the work being done by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation in the fields of biodiversity conservation, community development, and education.
The philosophy of Danjugan affects the diving practices around it, as conservation is the utmost concern and not a burgeoning economy around diving operations.
It is one of the best places in the Philippines to learn about how we could participate in the movement of marine conservation, through its many Marine and Wildlife Camps scheduled year-round, for both the youth and adults.
Meaningful dives and lives
In our journeys in the world of diving, we could get caught in the current of checking off the most dive sites on recommended lists.
What we hope is that your trips don’t only mean making it to these destinations, but sincerely making a connection to the wildlife, communities, and stories of these dive spots.
On your next descent, may you remember that conservation and tourism converge in responsible diving, and have the power to transform our lives on land.