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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 mountain seen in the distance across a swath of ocean and obscured by palm trees.

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 enjoy. 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, these techniques didn’t create a bounty of fish (or other wildlife) to benefit future generations.

A small, mountainous green island amidst a blue ocean.
Blacktip reef sharks are viewed through the branching arms of bright yellow coral as they cruise the deep blue waters of their Wild Reef habitat at Shedd.

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 of the reef.

A small clownfish sits among the fleshy fronds of the anemone it calls home.

A bright orange clownfish nestles among the stinging tentacles of anemones.

A mandarin dragonet twists to face a camera. Its right orange tail and back fins are visible behind its shockingly blue front fins and brightly yellow-spotted head.

The tiny, but colorful, mandarin dragonet.

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 harm 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.
Green sea turtle Nickel has powerful front flippers that she uses to travel quickly around her Caribbean Reef habitat.

Green sea turtle Nickel at Shedd Aquarium.

A closeup of the head of a ribbon eel. There is no visible transition between the eel's head and neck, though the bright yellow coloring around its mouth and eyes stands out against the light blue color of its body.

A ribbon eel in Shedd's Underwater Beauty special exhibit.

  • 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 eel ripples by you like a living ribbon.
Corals swirl in a wide array of colors and textures in the deep blue waters of the Maldives.

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.

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 Reef exhibit 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 Reef or the Underwater Beauty special exhibit. Bon voyage!

-Ashleigh Braggs