Swimming with sea turtles

“MITAKUYE Oyasin” – an old Native American adage which means “we are all connected” very much reflects my experience over the weekend.

Sea turtles are unique creatures, they travel around the world to feed in specific spots and come back to their birth-island to lay eggs. How sea turtles live their life gives me a picture of how small the world is and how connected places are.

Swimming with the sea turtles at Apo Island Protected Landscape and Seascape was the highlight of my learning exchange trip organized by Communities First-Creative Initiatives for Development between the communities of two exemplary conservation sites: Apo Island in Dauin, Negros Oriental, and Danjugan Island in Cauayan, Negros Occidental. The locals involved in the nature tourism and environmental education programs of Danjugan were brought to Apo Island last weekend for an opportunity to learn best practices in conservation and share strategies in addressing challenges that both islands face.

What’s truly special is that Danjugan has been a nesting and mating site of green and hawksbill sea turtles while Apo Island is known for the same species feeding in its reefs almost year-round. During the exchange, we also met three young marine biologists on a research project by the Large Marine Vertebrates (Lamave) Project who are taking ID photos of the turtles at Apo Island as their facial and carapace marks are unique for every individual. It is an interesting study since the ID data may help us discover if a sea turtle we find nesting, mating, or swimming around Danjugan or anywhere else in the Philippines (or even the world!) could have stopped to feed at Apo Island.

One of the best moments during this learning exchange was when a couple of Fisheries scholars, and an aspiring marine biology scholar who are mentored by the Danjugan Environmental Education Program (Deep) were taught the methodology of turtle photo ID by Lamave so that the scholars could also conduct the same method back home.

Aside from swimming with sea turtles, the trip had many more inspired moments where locals showed us around Apo Island while discussing their community life, history, views on conservation and tourism, and their fears and hopes. Although Danjugan itself doesn’t have a human population (as the community members involved in Danjugan’s programs come from the mainland communities across from it), it also faces scenarios of marine trash, fisheries decline, coral bleaching, sea level rise, among many others. Apo Island through the efforts of its Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) is the model of community-based tourism in a well-managed marine protected area (MPA). It is from Apo Island’s story where local stakeholders from other MPAs in the country can truly see what conservation means for a sustainable future for their communities.

When I co-founded Communities First in 2016, we wanted to focus on community voices on social concerns, and my concurrent journey working for the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCFI) helps both NGOs bring in the mindset of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development into this work.

One thing that warms my heart from this exchange is that our leaders in PRRCFI and the PAMB of Apo Island Protected Landscape and Seascape appreciated the initiative of Communities First by financially supporting the event. Expenses of the Danjugan team in going to Apo Island were paid for by the foundation and the Apo Island’s team visit to Danjugan later this month will also be covered by their PAMB. Organizations and government agencies taking in monetary responsibilities and investing in the development of their human resources, for me, is a good indication that the initiative is not only a welcome strategy, but is recognized as a good approach in development work.

On top of this, the trip is also part of the #1Earth campaign by the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) with the support of the United States (US) Embassy of Manila through small grants implemented by friends at Hatch Eco Ideas Inc. The people who led, facilitated, and made the Danjugan-Apo Islands Learning Exchange possible were alumni themselves of exchange programs under YSEALI and the US Embassy.

One of these alumni is a key resource person for Apo Island Michael Araula, a young councilor of the municipality of Dauin. The immersion was better-rounded because of his inputs, as his father was the mayor of Dauin when the municipal ordinance that declared Apo Island as a locally protected area was passed. (This was before it became part of the National Integrated Protected Areas System or Nipas).

As we use the Apo Island’s sea turtles as symbols for community-based tourism and conservation, I meditate on the human communities living in the rural coasts of the Philippines, with the deeper intent of the phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin.” It is also a prayer for harmony and oneness between humans and all the rest of nature.

Sea turtle species are much older than Homo sapiens, and they have survived whatever made dinosaurs extinct, but we could push them to extinction if we don’t take care of their habitats, if we don’t ensure that policies are in place to protect their species, and if we don’t ultimately realize that their welfare is ecologically connected to our own human lives.

I pray that the human, turtle, coral, and all other living communities of both Apo and Danjugan Islands and everywhere else in this world thrive in harmonious interconnectedness amid climate change and other threats to life on this One Earth.
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