Apo Island: Preserving a Marine Heritage

Apo Island: Preserving a Marine Heritage

With hundreds of species of corals and majestic sea creatures ranging from green sea turtles to great barracudas, it’s no wonder why Apo Island, located off the town of Dauin in Negros Oriental, is recognized as one of the top 100 diving spots in the world. Both international and local tourists flock to the island to swim alongside turtles and octopuses, and other undersea fauna that consider the surrounding seas of Apo Island sanctuary.

Alas, the seas of Apo Island have long been in danger of overfishing and other illegal fishing methods. This prompted Silliman University in Dumaguete City, capital of Negros Oriental, to take the initiative starting in the late 70s to preserve the marine life of Apo Island. This eventually resulted to the establishment of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary in 1982. Theirs was a response to the dwindling of the island’s natural splendor.

In recent years, the diving community, island residents, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have been the main proponents of safeguarding the marine sanctuary, raising awareness about its protection. This is especially critical at a time of “revenge” travel, with tourism on the rise post-pandemic.

For Negrense Leslie Ong, a move from Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, to Dauin in 2023 opened her eyes to the beauty of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary. “A marine sanctuary,” Leslie explains, “is an area that is protected by law through guidelines, like ‘No Take Zones’, designed to protect the habitat of the species within the sanctuary.”

Working as a freelance dive instructor for various resorts in Dauin has given Leslie a firsthand look at what she’s passionately protecting. “The coral reef is home to 400 species of corals out of 450 found in the Philippines, and over 650 species of marine life, including green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles. By protecting the reef, we are protecting all these marine species as well.”

With ongoing restrictions to prevent overfishing, residents have turned to managing eateries and souvenir shops to capitalize on the influx of visitors to Apo Island. In 2005, many residents banded together to earn a living as tour guides and renting out diving equipment. They formalized their association in 2010 as the Apo Island Snorkeling Equipment Rental & Guide Association (ASIERGA). The 300-plus members of ASIERGA, all trained by the Department of Tourism in environmental laws and guest protocols, serve as the welcoming faces of Apo Island, briefing tourists on what to do and not do when swimming with the undersea creatures.

(left) AISERGA - Apo Island Snorkeling Equipment Rental & Guide Association.

(right) A local selling souvenirs on the island.

Additionally, the local diving community is actively protecting Apo Island. Known as the Negros Oriental Dive Association (NOrDA), it is comprised mostly of expatriates operating resorts and dive centers. Suffice it to say, they are stakeholders in maintaining the undersea beauty of Apo Island. There is concern that the recent influx of tourists can potentially damage the coral reefs, but NOrDA’s Magnus Nielsen chooses to look at the positive side: “I believe that by bringing people out, they can see what’s worth preserving, so promoting good habits, sustainable diving, and responsible behavior will encourage more people to protect what we have. I think tourism and conservation can go hand in hand as long as it’s done properly.”

According to Severino Partosa, DENR’s representative on the ground, approximately 3,000 tourists visit the island monthly. The numbers could more than double, as they did before the pandemic. Partosa is responsible for regulating and enforcing laws in the marine sanctuary and the surrounding seas. He takes this responsibility seriously, ensuring strict rules and guidelines for tourists, divers, and even fishermen from neighboring locales. Recently, his team intercepted and apprehended several fishermen conducting illegal compressor diving, handing them over to Dauin authorities.

(left) DENR representative Severino Partosa.

(right) NORDA Board Member, Magnus Nielsen.

Partosa stresses the local community’s role in preserving their home’s natural wonders. At the end of the day when the divers and the local government units, and the tourists have gone, it’s the 1,200 residents who will remain to safeguard Apo Island. “If they will give their full support to the preservation and maintenance of the island under the supervision of the DENR,” Partosa says, “I think we can get our goal and objective for the coming years.”

Thanks to the efforts of the local community that started over 40 years ago, Apo Island now boasts one of the best-preserved and most biodiverse coral reefs in the Philippines. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in preserving the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary. Illegal fishing remains an issue, and unaware tourists risk accidentally damaging the corals. Even the devastation caused by Typhoon Sendong in 2011 required the shutting down of one dive site to enable the regrowth and restoration of its coral reefs.

Work at Apo Island shows that heritage is not about the past. And neither is it PR fluff. It is about the present task to continually protect and preserve natural resources for the economic benefit they bring. From tourism. From fishing. Apo Island tells us, the call for heritage work can spread like wildfire. When a tourist posts an image of Apo Island on his social media account, and because of it others come and visit, bringing in more income for the locals, more support for its preservation, we realize that no matter how far we are from Apo Island, we are a part of its ecosystem.

Article by: John Mari Marcelo

Photos by: Grilled Cheese Studios / John Mari Marcelo

Underwater photos and videos: Leslie Ong / Kenneth Lee Materum

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