If you have never seen a huge sea turtle, you should head to Apo Island in Southern Philippines. Unlike monuments or mountains, wildlife encounters do not come with guarantees. Weirdly, the Philippines turns this notion on its head. Apo Island, a speck in the Visayas just south of Dumaguete, was the first of several marine life areas in the Philippines that came up with the goods!
Laura throws down a challenge: see a turtle
Laura challenged me to push on with my swimming and snorkeling skills. I had to see turtles, swim over a drop-off, and see some big pelagic fish. We had a bet and this was one I really wanted to win.
The Philippines is a huge country of 7000 islands, but we only had three weeks to travel there. It took us ages to sort out an itinerary and we wanted it to be all killer and no filler. We knew that the Ifugao Rice Terraces would be a guaranteed hit, but where should we go for the best underwater action? It would be a bummer to travel for a couple of days and find out that the resident Horny Spotted Dork Rays had moved on for the season.
I just missed seeing turtles in the Indonesian Banda Islands because I stayed too far away from the dropoff where the turtles hang out. With our trip slowly winding down, we knew opportunities would be scarce. We can thank the forward-thinking residents of Apo Island for giving the the slam dunk opportunity to check off item number one.
How can you be sure you will see turtles at Apo Island?
Have an enterprising local entrepreneur who persuades the local fisherman that there is more money to be made in the long run protecting the sea life rather than fishing the waters to death. Turtles live for decades and tourists will pay top dollar to come and visit them year after year.
But how do the Apo Island fishermen earn their keep?
Well, they still fish for small catches to feed the locals and tourists. But, they earn the bulk of their cash guiding tourists in the newly founded Marine Sanctuary and running boats back and forth to the mainland.
And, does that work?
It does in the sense that there are now areas dedicated to maintaining a strong population of turtles. And from what we could see, the scheme is bringing in plenty of tourists and their money. But, sometimes the commercial activities detract a little from overall wildlife encounters. The guides are not always as environmentally sensitive as they should be. There seem to be fees and charges at every turn, which can be irksome.
We had originally planned to spend 5 days at Apo Island and snorkel and dive with Mario’s Homestay, the local budget hostel and dive shop. However, once we figured out our Philippines strategy we changed our plans at the last minute and ended up staying at Liberty’s Lodge, the expensive option on the island. There are not a lot of accommodation options on the island, so making last minute plans can be expensive in high season.
To be honest, five days would have been way too much time. Laura wasn’t impressed with the diving around Apo island. And, after a couple of sessions of snorkeling with the turtles, you have pretty much exhausted your options for activities. The beach is not pretty and you can walk round the island in a couple of hours.
Liberty’s arranged our transfer from Dumaguete and our boat from the tiny port village of Malatapay. The crossing is extremely choppy and if you are prone to seasickness, you are guaranteed to puke. For sure, everyone on the boat gets drenched.
Give me your f#@king money
If you fart on Apo Island someone will probably charge you for the privilege! As soon as you set foot on the island, you are presented with a bill for ‘environmental protection’. Unlike the vast majority of hotels in Asia, even the relatively expensive Liberty’s Lodge charges for water refills. Moreover, the vaunted turtle sanctuary is roped off and you have to pay for a guide to escort you around every time you enter. We am happy to pay a one-off fee on entering the island for environmental protection, if this discourages locals from destructive practices like overfishing and dynamiting. But being forced to pay for a guide in order to snorkel in a 300 square meter area seems harsh. Especially as you can dip your head in the water and see three huge turtles immediately!
So, what are the guides for?
At first, we thought that the guides were on hand to ensure you don’t molest the turtles or damage the coral. But, no guide can cope with the marauding idiocy of the average Chinese tour group on the island. They prod selfie sticks in the faces of turtles and stamp all over the coral. The guides do not reprimand them or request they leave the sanctuary. Worse still, the guides themselves often leap from coral to coral rather than swim.
Laura reckoned that most Chinese tourists were just scouting out spots to fish for endangered sea creatures to help them with their erections or vigor! If you think this is harsh, consider that a common theme to our favorite wildlife encounters of the trip has been the species’ plummeting numbers due to Chinese demand for food or traditional medicine. Sharks are killed for their fins, mantas butchered for their gills, hornbills caught for their casques as an elephant ivory substitute, and so on and so forth. Demand for endangered species is widespread throughout Asia (Vietnam is another serious offender) but much of the illegal wildlife trade flows into China.
Can you please stop bitching and give me the good stuff?
OK. Straight after lunch we donned our snorkel gear, hired a life vest for Paul, and coughed up the loot for a guide. After the guide spent 90 seconds trampling over coral that will take 150 years to regrow, we spotted our first turtle. We are usually skeptical about places that promise wildlife encounters. At best, we expect to see one beast whizz by 15 meters away and disappear. However, at Apo Island there is a turtle to be seen at every turn.
The first one we saw was a huge old green turtle. It was at least 4 feet from head to tail. It was pretty mellow too. Not even the attentions of a huge party of selfie stick wielding tourists could distract it from the important business of chowing down seagrass. Usually when a turtle eyeballs you, it heads in the opposite direction but not the Apo Island posse.
Turtles have no gills, so they have to surface to breathe. Big Boy was surrounded by people so he chose me to barge out of the way to get air. I got a pretty good slap from one of his flippers. That taught me to get too close.
Turtles are kind of like the cattle of the seas. They are docile, doe-eyed, and love eating tons of the green stuff. In fact, the whole roped off (more correctly, buoyed off) sanctuary area was a meadow of seagrass. This made me a tad suspicious. I was beginning to think that the locals had hacked out the coral to allow clear access to the grass to keep the turtles close to shore. We headed out to the edge of the sanctuary and saw tons of very healthy coral. Judge for yourself!
We didn’t want to join in the harassment of the old boy so we swam into deeper waters to find a turtle of our own. Nobody in the tour group could swim, so this was a good strategy. It didn’t take long to find more turtles. We swam around with several for an hour or so. They really are truly beautiful creatures. Their shell markings are really stunning and each one is distinct. And, they are truly graceful swimmers.
For nervous swimmers, the sanctuary is great since it is in a bay which shelters swimmers from the choppy waters around the island.
The guide comes up trumps
I have bitched about the guide a bit, but to be honest he seemed very proud of the turtle sanctuary and he seemed very keen to show off more of the area. He encouraged us to swim out deeper and dragged us out to some areas of lovely coral. He was pretty adept at spotting wildlife, so in some senses he was worth the money. For a novice deep water boy like myself, he was also a reassuring presence. Although, I suspect I was a better swimmer than he was!!
Once is never enough
This is what I have discovered about snorkeling! You are never satisfied with one session at a place. It is kind of addictive. Especially, when you start seeing really big beasties.
Laura went diving the next day. It didn’t measure up to any dive she had done in Indonesia! By all accounts, the visibility was pretty poor and there weren’t any large fish of note. Laura may be a novice diver, but she already has a good eye for knowing when a place needs more exploration. Apo Island was not one of those places despite having the reputation of being one of the Philippines’ premier dive destinations.
Anyways, when the snorkeling is this good, why pay a premium for going deeper? In the afternoon, we headed back in with the turtles. I rented a life vest again but we went without a guide and swam around and beyond the boundaries of the sanctuary. We saw just as many turtles and, having been given the lay of the land by the previous day’s guide, we explored far and wide. OK. We snuck into the sanctuary once too. There were so many people in the water that nobody could tell if you were guided or not.
There weren’t too many other notable fish. A few of your typical reef dwellers such as parrotfish. However, we did see two squid copulating. They change color a lot while they are shagging. And, by the speed at which they zoomed off, they don’t like being caught at it either!!
There are lots of boats coming and going around the sanctuary so be aware of what’s around you.
Apo Island itinerary: two days max
You could quite conceivably spend days swimming with the turtles, but after two we were done. The somewhat grabby attitude and less than stellar food at Liberty’s Lodge didn’t sit well with us, so we decided not to linger. After all, there are many other places in the Philippines that offer amazing marine wildlife encounters. So, what would be next? Thresher sharks? Whale sharks? Massive swirling shoals of sardines? Hoobly Hobbling Sharks? Sadly, the Chinese have butchered all of them for Shark Tooth Dimsum!
- Swimming with huge sea turtles
- Pretty coral gardens
- The Seaview room at Liberty Lodge was very charming
Getting there and away
Liberty Lodge arranged our transfer from Dumaguete city to the island. The taxi cost 350 pesos and the boat from Malatapay 300 pesos. The taxi ride was one hour. The sea crossing was also one hour.
Going back, we paid 300 pesos for the boat and 30 pesos each for the jeepney back to Dumaguete.
The Seaview room at Liberty Lodge cost 3000 pesos full board for two persons. Expensive, but options were limited at short notice.
Marine protection fee: 100 pesos each
Turtle sanctuary guide: 300 pesos per group
Life vest hire: 100 pesos
Diving at Liberty’s Lodge: 1200 pesos per dive