LAMAVE Adventures: A Turtley Awesome Trip to Apo Island (Part 1)

I woke up very early hoping to have a quick bus ride from Cebu City to Dumaguete since I was told that the travel would last more than 6 hours. As I hopped in a cab, I left an anxious smile to my classmate Krai, who housed me for a night, since it was my first time to journey alone over Visayan Islands. I brought with me four luggages—vexing for a long travel I reckon—and rode one vehicle to another, which was a discomfort at that time. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. at the South Bus Station and needed to wait for the bus that would go straight to Dumaguete. I took my breakfast in the terminal and after an hour and a half of waiting, I finally managed to get a comfortable seat on the bus.

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Me and Krai

The travel lasted for six hours and I finally arrived in Malatapay waiting for upcoming passengers who would ride with me across the sea. As I stand on its shores, I gazed upon one of the Philippines’ well-known community-managed marine reserves, a microcosm of the rich Philippine seas—the Apo Island. It is known for its diverse marine ecosystems, which are favorite sites for divers, and recently became a must-see tourist attraction because of its marine turtles. Yes, marine turtles or locally known as Pawikans are a guaranteed sighting in the area and they were the reason why I am headed to the island.

In April 2016, I happened to read an opportunity posted by Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, the Director of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Project Philippines on Facebook. It was a month-long scholarship for their Marine Turtle Tourism Interaction Study in Apo Island, Dauin, Negros Oriental in May 2016. Confident with my concurring experiences in research and advocacy works, I boldly applied and was fortunately got accepted. It was a momentous time for me knowing that LAMAVE was not a dream anymore. I’ve always wanted to be a part of their team; in fact, when I was still a Marine Biology student, I liked reading the works of LAMAVE, especially about whale sharks. It fascinated me a lot and would want to work with them someday. And that someday finally came. Never did I imagine that I’d be visiting Apo Island, not for a vacation but to work as a researcher of LAMAVE.

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The first photo I took when I was leaving for Apo Island

I boarded the boat with a French-Arab family and a few locals from the island. Since it was late afternoon, I expected to have a rougher ride, but it didn’t worry me for I have done oceanographic surveys during the Southwest Monsoon in Sarangani Bay. As we navigated forward, the shores of Malatapay faded while on the other side, Apo Island welcomed me with its limestone formations and contiguous stretch of white shores. The dark blue waters became shades of turquoise as we approached the shallows. While they were docking the boat, I took a quick glance of the circumambient people hoping that I would find someone wearing a LAMAVE shirt. Dashed, I jumped out of the boat and the boatman handed me my belongings. When I turned around, I saw a tall, slit-eyed man approaching and eventually reached out his hand and uttered Ethan. I knew then that he was a colleague.

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The sea turtle team: (from left) Ethan, Ivan, Monty, and me

Ethan, a BS Aquatic Biology student from Western Philippines University, introduced me to our two other teammates: Ivan, a BS Marine Biology graduate from Visayas State University and was an instructor of the same school, and Monty, an English MS Astrophysics graduate from the University of Sheffield and also our team leader. Ivan was a flamboyant lad and I knew then that we’d go along with each other because of our common interests as both Marine Biology graduates. On the contrary, Ethan was a serious-type, brother-figure, who talked few words yet enough to make me feel welcome. The coyness of Monty caught my attention, and if I would best describe him, he was reticent. He was selective of his words yet spoke like a learned man as he is. It’s like anytime he would speak about the physical nature of the cosmos and other celestial bodies. Although I kind of struggled following his northern English accent, it gave me the challenge to converse with him more often.

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A typical sunset in the island

As we all walked to our quarter, I noticed the picturesque scenery of the sun kissing the horizon—the clouds stretched long across the sky and were embellished with hues of orange and shades of blue. Ivan and Monty hurriedly spotted a perfect position, and from their vantage point, they both captured the spectacle of sunset on their cameras. Tourists walked along the shore as they enjoyed the breaking of astronomical twilight, the cold touch of wind was ironic to the fiery skies up above us. We’ve reached our two-storey quarter, which was being renovated at that time, and settled for a bit before we did the hours of works and acquaintances until the electricity went off at 9:00 p.m.

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Photo was taken by another team member, Simon Hilbourne

It was a very tiring day and we all went to our respective place to sleep. I was offered to sleep on an airbed—the best thing I’ve had on that day. I positioned the bed in the balcony so that the fresh cold breeze from the sea would complement its comfiness. I was about to drift off, but the vast stillness of impenetrable umbra and its astral display of diverse constellations were too sublime not to be gazed upon. For a moment, I realized that tomorrow is the beginning of a month-long island adventure with LAMAVE. And as I closed my eyes, the breaking of waves became a soothing lullaby to that peaceful darkness.

To be continued …

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Finding Nemo: Story of a Marine Biologist

There is an abounding life under the ocean horizon – this is what the movie Finding Nemo taught me.

3324_fp_FWB_FindingNemo_19082013It has been 11 years since I saw him on television — the curious, cute, and high-spirited Nemo. He was taken away from his home anemone and got separated from his father. Yet, despite distance and hindrances, they still managed to be reunited. 

Although it was just a movie, I was so moved and inspired by the story of Nemo that I have embarked my own adventure to find him. I was in Grade 4 when I decided to be a Marine Biologist because I know it was one easy way I can see Nemo up close. It was not easy knowing that my family rooted for me to become an Engineer. But I must say, my passion was stronger than their will. I spent 7 years preparing myself to be a marine biology student by reading books and watching a lot of documentaries about the marine environment. It was such a fun thing to do when I was growing. I was like the odd one out because my friends used to play and watch sci-fi movies during leisure hours while I sit in the corner reading books about marine science. I remember having damselfishes caught from a nearby brackish stream as pets before while others have mollies, swordtails, and goldfishes in their aquariums. And when going to the beach, others enjoyed swimming through the waves, while I fascinated myself with small fishes swimming around the towering mangrove roots. As a kid, I wasn’t afraid to explore. Thanks to my inherent curiosity, I became a little biologist before.

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The scenic Lemlunay Resort

My childhood ended inspiringly, but entering high school was a challenge. I was introduced to different studies that have caught my interest. I backslid from my love for marine biology while I enjoyed learning history, chemistry, and geometry classes in school. I almost forgot how Marlin and Nemo found each other and remembered only that they were clownfishes. While I was getting pulled away from my passion, there was someone who always reminded me of how beautiful life undersea is. He was an uncle from Davao and occasionally visited GenSan with his family to meet with close relatives.

We always had side trips to beaches every time they visit. And one significant experience I’ve had with him was our trip to Lemlunay. The place is a 40-minute ride from GenSan proper and is an expensive resort by local standards. It is actually a resort on top of a cliffy limestone and known for its infinity pool and appetizing menu. But what is best in Lemlunay is its rich undersea life as the water down the resort lies a drop-off wall with swaying fan corals, vibrant big reef fishes, turtles, and much more.

Anyway, we visited the resort and had a mouth-watering lunch of seafood before snorkelling around the unspoilt reef. Seeing marine life up close fuelled more my passion and commitment to marine science. It was an awe-inspiring moment to see giant clams, surgeonfishes, stonefishes, and sea krait. And I met two prominent Finding Nemo characters, Gil and Deb/Flo the first time! Gil is a moorish idol (Zanclus cornotus) while Deb/Flo is a three-striped damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus). Unfortunately, I did not find my very elusive Nemo, but still, I never lost the ardency of finding a way to meet him. 

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This is how we do fieldwork in Marine Biology (It was a sandy bottom, no corals were stepped on)

It was an experience I hold dear when I took the entrance exam in MSU-General Santos. The university is the only one I know that is near and that offers BSc in Marine Biology. Thank the stars, I passed it and got enrolled in the program! I am so proud of myself for I have successfully got what I really wanted despite the temptations I faced. Being in the marine biology program was not an easy adventure. People have asked questions like ‘sayang ka kay Fisheries lang ka’ (such a shame you’re just a Fisheries major) and ‘unsay trabaho ana? sa canning?’ (What will you do when you graduate? Canning?) and they’re driving me up the wall. Sometimes I got rude thoughts of how poor their science background was without knowing what marine biology is. 

So much for the fuss, and I want to go over to my diving experiences. Together with some marine biology students, we took our diver’s license in 2013 at South Shore Divers in Davao. It is not really required to have one if you’re in the program but for me, the license completes the whole marine biology experience. It takes a thousand words or more to describe my the feeling and to sum it up — diving is like the bridge to Terabithia, a whole new world full of amazing life and wonders! Another thing, diving is an expensive hobby haha.

I did not fully enjoy the underwater view in Samal Island probably because we only dove 20ft below, so I badly want to experience the prominent ‘Tinoto wall’ of Sarangani. Summer of 2013, a good news came when my dive instructor Sir Emman invited me to have a fun dive in Tinoto Wall. At the drop of a hat, I texted yes for it was an opportunity I shouldn’t miss. I immediately called a close friend, Almyrrha, and persuaded her to save money for that dive. 

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The Tinoto Wall dive with our dive instructor and his friends

I know that Tinoto Wall has a lot to offer to satisfy a thalassophiliic like me. The day came, and I met two foreigner divers together with Sir Emman and Sir Elmo. It has been two months since I last dove and I got so excited because it was my first time to dive deep down the famous wall of Tinoto. Cold waters started filling my tight wetsuit as I froze with excitement. At the reef crest, I saw a lot of reef fishes, not to mention the vibrant corals around. Together with my dive buddy, we descended deep down to 60ft. The water was cold, the current was moderate, and the visibility was high — it was a real dive experience. We were sandwiched between the schools of fishes while we swam ahead to view the wall’s magnificent marine life. It was like in a museum where you watch paintings attached on the wall designed with fan corals swaying back and forth, vibrant green and black crinoids, and much more. But what captivated me most was a dancing anemone with three orange-colored fishes with white stripes outlined with a fine black line. I described it clearly because it was the time I finally see my Nemos! Everything froze, as these fishes swayed back and forth with the anemone.  They were really cute and I couldn’t really articulate the feeling of seeing them up close. During that time, I experienced a love at first dive moment with them. Although it was a short time because I needed to get going, I can still say that my 7 years of waiting was very worthy of the experience.

Seeing Nemo was the first in my bucket list and there are still hundreds of it that I have to do. My quest had given me the unique experiences that a marine biology student can only have. Nemo let me walk on tidal flats with hundreds of sea urchins, get stung by jellyfishes, swam with venomous sea kraits, and rode big waves. Retrospecting the last 11 years of my life, It was my very passion that taught me to be patient. In April 2015, I finally finished my Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology with honors, and currently working on a US Embassy Manila-funded project about marine turtle conservation education in Sarangani Province.

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Wrong ‘okay’ sign and a very destructive buoyancy problem, sorry Coral 😦

Finding Nemo deserves all its awards for making me this far. I may have found Nemo, but my life never ends there. I was destined to have a life full of adventures, and I know there’s much more abounding life underwater that Nemo wants me to see. What I need to do is to just keep swimming