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Diving into a Philippine coral reef

A legend says one day, many, many years ago, the sky and the sea quarreled. As the conflict intensified, the sky hurled soil at the sea. The soil bubbled to the surface, forming thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean. We call these islands The Philippines. Slightly larger than the state of Arizona, this country in Southeast Asia includes 7,641 islands. Today, we’re visiting just one: Apo.

A vivid orange fish with black markings

Like many islands, Apo offers the sun, sand and salty ocean sought after by vacation-starved travelers. However, what makes Apo Island special is the incredibly diverse animal life found here and, perhaps more importantly, the protections the wildlife here enjoys. But diverse corals, incredible sea turtles, and unbelievable fish species weren’t always a part of Apo’s story.

Once upon a time, in Apo, fish were scarce. The fishing community who relied on fishing for their livelihood had to go further away from home to find fewer fish. The cyanide fishers used to stun fish or the dynamite that blew up the coral reefs where the fish made their homes–all employed with the purpose of forcing fish out of hiding–made fish easy to catch, but, strangely, didn’t create a bounty of fish (or other wildlife) to benefit future generations.

From the nearby island, Negros, a solution arrived. A local university introduced the fishing community to the concept of marine protected areas. The fishers agreed to establish a “no-take” marine sanctuary 20 percent of their fishing grounds to allow local wildlife to recover and reproduce. They would fish, sustainably, in the other 80 percent. The result? Wildlife flourished. Apo is lauded as one of the best managed reefs in the Philippines. Not only can the residents make a living from their reef from fishing, but also tourism.

Travelers like us, flock to witness the beauty of colorful fishes, majestic sea turtles, hundreds of coral species as divers or snorkelers. We’re fortunate to find Apo open and in good condition. Over the years, violent storms due to climate change have damaged portions over the reef.

Paying the fee to enter Apo Island to snorkel or dive in the marine sanctuary, we contribute to keeping the sanctuary in clean and in good condition. Beneath the surface you witness an arresting ballet of biodiversity and interconnectivity.

  • You see an unbelievable variety of corals–long and skinny like tree branches, round and bulbous like brains, leafy like plants, rocky like stones, knobby like door handles, flat like and thin, like tortillas.
  • Around present-day Apo Island turtles are the stars of any underwater experience and you have never seen so many sea turtles in one place. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles abound here. The turtles safely graze in the sanctuary, eating sponges and harmful algae that tend to overgrow and damage corals.
  • Bright orange and soft pink clownfish nestle among the stinging tentacles of anemones. You might not get close enough to spot a clownfish sharing a morsel of food with its host.
  • Winding through the water, a banded sea snake appears to practically float.
  • You peek closely at a rock to find a flamboyant cuttlefish trudging across the sand, with psychedelic yellows, browns and pinks radiating down its body.
  • Passing a small cave, you spot a moray eel wedged between a few rocks. Its mouth pulses open and close, pumping water over its gills, waiting patiently for prey to pass by.
  • Two colorful dragonets do light battle over a small patch of reef territory.
  • With a little more patience, led by your guide, you’re able to spot ribbon eels. The first time you find one peeking out of a sandy burrow. However, the second time, the ribbon eel ripples by you like a living ribbon.

Whether you live kissing distance from a reef or missing it dearly from thousands of miles away, you can make a difference for the animals you met on your trip.

Buy sunscreen that’s safe for reefs. 

When you’re shopping, look for sunscreens without oxybenzone or octinoxate, chemicals that have been proven to degrade reefs. Both Hawaii and Key West have voted to ban the sale of sunscreens with these ingredients. Click here to learn more about reef-safe sunscreens in an article by Consumer Reports.

Inquire about the sustainable practices at your hotel. 

Apo Island has committed to being a zero-waste city, meaning they recycle and upcycle as much as possible. When you leave the island, you’re encouraged to take your waste with you. Understanding that travel has the potential to deepen the negative impact on our planet, an increasing number of hotels have committed to reducing waste in their own operations and addressing the impacts of climate change.

When you visit the Wild Reefexhibit at Shedd Aquarium, you can spot examples of items people who make their living from the Philippine reef reuse–from pop bottles to fishing nets to old goggles.

And of course, take the time to reacquaint yourself with all the animals that rely on the coral reef community–from eels that hide in reef crevices to the fishes sporting unbelievable colors to sharks that keep the reef in balance in either Wild Reefor the Underwater Beauty special exhibit. Bon voyage!

-Ashleigh Braggs