Danjugan Island: Wild Heart Sanctuary

The work that has been put in Danjugan for close to 30 years now give us an insight into what can be done to the rest of Negros’ natural treasures.

A soothing sight for eyes blurred and strained by screen time is the Moray Lagoon, a cinematic spot in Danjugan Island. The thick green foliage that frames one of the island’s five lagoons provides a fresh backdrop for different bird species crisscrossing overhead. A blue-green bird flits across to one side, and then a yellow-bodied flyer emerges from another corner. Later, Dave Albao, Executive Director of Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI) would help a birdwatching neophyte identify these as a collared kingfisher and black-naped oriole.  Fifteen minutes of staring at this view will make you recognize some seven distinct bird species out of the 72 found in the island. Look below and the clear lagoon reflects the same abundance: a school of spotted snappers, another group of cardinalfish with stripes, a full-grown family of gusao or mullet fish, and when lucky, a peppered moray eel after which the place is named. Danjugan, a thirty-minute boat ride from mainland Barangay Bulata in Cauayan, Negros Occidental, is a coral-fringed island that rests in the Sulu Sea.

Danjugan Island advocate Carmela Ellaga confirms that what is seen above also reflects the state underwater, like how bioluminescent plankton mirror a starry night. “Pero kun kalbo ang kabukiran, ang sa dalum, patay man” (If the mountains are denuded, then what’s under the sea is just as dead). But here in Danjugan, nature enjoys a healthy balance, explains the 23-year-old who, as a certified Scuba Schools International (SSI) Freediver, has the sustained strength to go deep and linger underwater sans scuba tanks, and has the edge to truly know the state of the island’s aquatic resources.

Vlogger Kayzie Zepeda explores the depths of Danjugan Island and rediscovers things she has long forgotten about – catching the sunrise, creation, simple joys. Photo by: Kayzie Zepeda

Recently, Carmela’s work as a Community Officer in the PRRCFI, which manages the island, has caught the attention of former US First Lady Michelle Obama, and three international nonprofits collaborating for girls’ education as a strategy to combat climate change: Girl Rising, the Girls Opportunity Alliance at the Obama Foundation, and the Malala Fund. Together with four other young women from all over the world, Carmela was featured by Global Citizen, a movement that works to end hunger by 2030 and is behind the crowd-drawing Global Citizen Festival that has, through the years, brought the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Coldplay, Rihanna, and Stevie Wonder to perform for a cause.

Carmela, a resident of Barangay Bulata just across the island, is one of the graduates of PRRCFI’s Danjugan Island Environmental Education Program (DEEP), which was a multi-year series of all-expense-paid, three-day interactive “camps” as learning opportunities for public school students. Its counterpart is the Marine and Wildlife Camp, a paid camp that young people can enroll in. The DEEP camps are exclusive to public school students but the Marine and Wildlife Camps do accommodate deserving youth to fill up the subsidized or free slots. In both camps, students learn how to identify fish and observe them underwater; they learn how to name birds by sight and by sound; they are taught to behold seagrasses with the same reverence for sunsets.

Wade through the calm Moray Lagoon and its verdant mangroves on kayak. The Moray Lagoon is named after the Moray eel that makes an occasional appearance in this side of the island. photo by: PRRCFI

On the last night of her first camp experience in 2013, Carmela, who was 14 years old then, vowed to stop burning plastic. This was a painful shift for a busy rural household like Carmela’s that typically relies on burning plastic to hasten the kindling of firewood for cooking.

This is the very consciousness imbibed by the graduates of the DEEP and Marine and Wildlife Camps, and the many who have been touched by Danjugan. Dave reveals that Carmela’s camp classmates, and countless camp alumni, have chosen to pursue careers in environment-related fields, in advocacy and nonprofit work, and in the sciences of marine biology, fisheries, agriculture and forestry, in general.

See what going back to basics can do to your soul. At the Moray Lagoon’s open-air eco-cabanas, sleep with child-like trust under a mosquito-net canopy.

Thus, with conservation, climate action and capacity building as its focus, PRRCFI maintains: Danjugan is not a resort. It is a wildlife sanctuary. But what does that even mean?

“When we visit Danjugan, we witness how species thrive in their natural habitat and that’s what we want to protect, that’s what we want to ensure for a sustainable future for our planet,” Dave shares. As a wildlife sanctuary, the sea turtles nesting at the eponymous Turtle Beach, the chocolate-colored scrubfowl that lay their eggs in the sand, the reef sharks, bats, and coconut crabs flourish without fear of being fished, poached, shot, or disturbed, he adds. As nature’s perfect classroom, campers and guests learn from Danjugan’s Camp Manual and Workbook that “all life forms are important,” thus, unlike other beaches, the island prohibits bonfires, collecting shells and corals, or mindlessly plucking plants for souvenirs. The interactive camp manual developed by Kaila Ledesma Trebol further reads, “Let us leave with Danjugan what is Danjugan’s.”

Danjugan Island has more than one beach, more than one lagoon, more than one ecosystem thriving in its womb. Visiting for a day wouldn’t be enough for sure!

Meaningful travel

Visiting Danjugan then is not a typical weekend getaway, but a meaningful travel experience, especially in the time of COVID-19, when days are precious as they are uncertain. Meaningful travel to Danjugan invites guests to a commitment to go beyond self, and protect the natural heritage of Negros. "What we do in Danjugan gives us an insight into what we can do for Negros, the whole island of Negros," Dave emphasizes. Currently, PRRCFI works on a project called ProCoast funded by the German Federal Government through the development agency GIZ. With Carmela as Project Officer, ProCoast helps establish mangrove eco-parks and other biodiversity conservation efforts to protect typhoon-prone coastal areas in Cauayan, Sipalay, and Hinoba-an, the three southernmost communities of Negros Occidental. This is one concrete way by which PRRCFI undertakes to replicate Danjugan’s journey in preserving the natural heritage of Negros.

Danjugan invites you to meaningful travel where it’s not just comfort that you seek, but the fulfillment of stepping up to your role as a steward of nature.

And that journey is moving. Dave elaborates that Danjugan is where “you experience something profound that connects you deeper to your natural heritage; anyone who has come to Danjugan returns home with a sense of interconnectedness and responsibility.”

The mangrove forests in Danjugan are key to the rich biodiversity in the island. Even just one visit to Danjugan Island makes you an invaluable partner in keeping Negros’ environmental heritage intact.

Still, the personal benefits of visiting Danjugan are immense, that it’s another level of self-care. At Typhoon Beach, a no-signal zone, phones are of no use. Lying in a hammock facing the Sulu Sea will rock you to sleep, allowing you the luxury of a long nap you’ve never had in a while. Following the coconut crab trail will bring you to another cheek of the island where the silence may awaken long-forgotten, pent-up creative spaces in your soul. A deep dive into pristine waters washes your mind clean of worry. Finding a seahorse in the shallows, or discovering that a creature as spectacular as a Spanish dancer nudibranch exists, just breaks your heart open to such truth, goodness, and beauty. And there are more nooks to discover – the bat cave, the Tabon and East beaches, the watchtower, the mudhouses. Indeed this gem of an island is not just a refuge for wildlife, but for wild hearts. Where you are moved to connect with nature, Danjugan Island is wild heart sanctuary.

Text by: Krystel Marie Santiago
Photos and Video by: Unit A Creatives

Facing the Sulu Sea, Typhoon Beach is the part of the island that withstands the worst storms. But its structures, the Nudibranch bar and the mud-houses, are intelligently built to be typhoon-resilient.

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