Diving with the turtles of Apo Island

Apo Island has one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the country. It is also home to green and hawksbill turtles.  Photos and videos by TANYA LARA

Let me begin by saying that the turtles of Apo Island are as awesome as you’ve seen in pictures and the experience of swimming with them a thousand times more.

The question I’ve been asked a lot is: Where is Apo Island and how do you get there?

Apo Island is located in Negros Oriental province with the airport in the capital Dumaguete City, about an hour away. Both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Dumaguete.

You can go to Apo from the city, but I stayed in Dauin, a town 40 minutes from Dumaguete by land and another 30 minutes by boat to Apo.

Why Dauin? Because it’s nearer and the town is lined with dive resorts that do trips every day to Apo. By “dive resorts,” I mean they have swimming pools deep enough for a diving course whereas the city hotels don’t. Plus, they have all the equipment you need and are staffed by experienced instructors and dive masters.

The accommodations in Dauin range from cheap to expensive; from boring concrete hotels to native shacks and high-end resorts with manicured gardens.

I stayed at Atmosphere Resort, which is on the high end of the scale (hey, it was my birthday!), and very nice. When I was filling out the check-in form, the staff noticed it was my birthday and everybody was extra nice to me. Maybe they also thought it was weird (or sad) that I was traveling alone (I get that a lot everywhere!).

Even though I was certified by PADI six years ago, I didn’t have my ID and they never allow you to dive without it unless you take an intro course. But I had already done open water in Mactan, Cebu and Governor’s Island in Hundred Islands (literally with the then governor of Pangasinan and I don’t remember how that happened).

Then I stopped diving, then I lost my ID when my wallet was stolen. And I really enjoy snorkeling, so I never bothered renewing the license.

My favorite picture because this turtle is so Zen! I named her Julia… you know, “Julia, ocean child…”

This time, when I was asked to sign up for diving, I told them the situation and Mark of the dive center said, “We can just look it up on PADI’s website.”

I said, really? Yes, really!

Dive instructor Lor was assigned to me and he said in Tagalog, “Diving will come back to you, it’s like riding a bike.”

I said, “I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

In the morning, it was only a Japanese couple from Yokohama and I that were going to Apo with a full boat crew and two dive instructors.

We were going to two sites, an hour-long dive each. At the first, “Chapel” (because it’s in front of a church on Apo Island), we saw a giant turtle not too far from the shore. The water wasn’t very clear, perhaps because it had just stopped raining, and also because the turtle was kicking about on the seafloor scattering sand.

Later, we saw two or three other turtles, about two feet long, and swam with them up close.

Amazing markings. Up close, its head resembles a snake’s.

You do NOT need to go diving to swim with the turtles. You can snorkel with them because, whether they stay in shallow or deep waters, they eventually swim to the surface to get air.

The boat crew knows where the turtles hang out and they spot them easily from afar. Lor would tap me on the shoulder and point to a turtle and I’d be like, “Where?” Their green shell (which changes color when you’re up close) really blend with the sometimes-green, sometimes-blue water.

The first turtle I swam with got me so excited that I literally opened my mouth to smile and took in water in my regulator. Towards the end of the first site, I thought, okay, I’m good. But Lor spotted two others and we swam with them till my throat went dry from the filtered oxygen.

Then there was another turtle that we chased…and another. I felt like a child again, like I was opening presents from my grandfather on Christmas morning!

It was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had.

The second dive site, “The Rock,” was even more spectacular and the water was so clear. While we were having coffee and biscuits that the resort had packed for us, we watched several turtles coming  up to the surface for air.

At one point in the water, Lor said I should give him my camera so he could take a picture of me with the turtles. I said okay. But when we were swimming with them again, I didn’t want to stop filming for a selfie.

I was swimming so close I could have touched them but didn’t of course, I didn’t want want to scare them away, but one turtle kept looking over to his side as if knowing he was being stalked!

The thing that struck me most was the color of their shell. From afar, you think it’s just green but it’s actually so colorful. It’s bright red and brown, and their heads look like a snake’s. The markings on their head and fins are so defined underwater it was like watching HD TV.

So, how much does it cost to go to Apo Island? It depends on your resort. The cost of the refresher course, Apo Island tour and two dives was almost P10,000 (US$200) at Atmosphere.

Snorkeling gear is free, you just pay for the boat tour. Like I said, you don’t need to go diving to swim with the turtles, the only advantage is you can swim with them for a long time when they’re about three meters deep or so.

There are many hotels, resorts in Dauin and Dumaguete. At Atmosphere, the cost for two nights was P23,000 (US$450) with airport transfers. I wanted to go to the whale sharks in Oslob but there was no group to join and it was way too expensive to go solo (P13,000 or $260). I literally told the staff, “Nababaliw ka ba?” (Are you crazy?)

Unlike in Coron or Boracay, it’s not as simple as walking to the beach and hiring a boat for island hopping. But I asked around and there are cheaper alternatives from independent tour operators that will collect you from your hotel, take you to Cebu, and then bring you back at the end of the day.

* * *

Second most asked question: Why are there so many sea turtles in Apo Island? It’s because it has one of the most  diverse marine ecosystems in the country, and this allows them to feed there.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium modeled its Wild Reef permanent exhibit after Apo, from the sound of the waves breaking on the beach to the 400,000-gallon tank with sharks. Yes, sharks, too. The Japanese diver said that when he first went to Apo, he saw whale sharks (which normally feed in Donsol or Oslob).

Like many places in the Philippine archipelago, dynamite and cyanide fishing almost wiped out the fish populations in the 1980s — until conservationists, marine biologists and NGOs intervened.

I remember writing a story for a book on marine life in the early 2000s and interviewing experts and photographers that were helping in the early stages of transitioning these islands into tourism destinations.

It wasn’t easy. How were they to convince fishermen who relied on such practices for their livelihood to stop and let the fish population grow because there was more money in tourism — and in the meantime how were they supposed to feed their families?

But the conservationists did the impossible! The waters of Nasugbu, Batangas; Coron, Palawan (which became a tourism hot spot only in the early 2000s because of divers); and Apo Island are now protected by the locals themselves.

Atmosphere Resort in Dauin. The town is 30 minutes to Apo Island by boat and 40 minutes by land from Dumaguete Airport.

In the case of Apo Island, it was the marine biologists of Siliman University in Dumaguete that led the conservation movement. Apo was declared a marine sanctuary in the 1990s and for more than 30 years, its marine life has been thriving.

The boat crew told me that a few years ago, the coral reef was much more beautiful but it’s been damaged by relentless typhoons. I heard the same story in Coron.

I was talking to a lady from the UK a few months ago and she mentioned she honeymooned in El Nido and Coron and was blown away when she swam in the latter’s marine sanctuary.

She initially thought “marine sanctuary” meant people cannot go there. Yes, you can — but no one can fish there. And in the case of Coron’s Siete Pecados (a place I love for snorkeling), scuba diving is prohibited because the corals are so shallow you could damage them with your tank.

I’ve seen how locals in Palawan, Bohol, Cebu and Apo Island are so protective and it makes me so happy that they see these waters as their own to protect for today and the future.

* * *

The swimming pool and beyond. The waters of Dauin are rich with corals and fish.
Dauin beach is nothing special, but what’s under is — a colorful, thriving house reef.

Third question: Palawan or Apo Island? That’s a tricky one because they’re two different experiences.

After I posted my turtle videos on Instagram, I got this question from friends and strangers abroad who were planning a trip to the Philippines.

So, here’s the long, logical answer.

The Philippines has 7,107 islands. Palawan alone has 1,780 islands but the province is scattered vertically. Coron is at the northern tip, the nearest to Manila, and El Nido is about six to 10 hours by boat or land and capital Puerto Princesa is even farther. Palawan has three airports, and if you pick the wrong one it’s actually easier (but not cheaper) to fly back to Manila and then fly again to the right airport.

Apo Island, on the other hand, is located in Negros Oriental (not be confused with neighbor Negros Occidental) with the airport in Dumaguete.

From Dumaguete’s port, you can catch ferries to the southern tip of Cebu (for whale sharks in Oslob and thresher sharks in Malapascua), which is a shorter trip than from Cebu City or Mactan Airport itself.

My sad point is that Philippine islands are not well connected — you almost always have to fly back to Manila as starting point.

My sadder point is that domestic flights are not cheap. We locals often rail against this fact because it’s actually cheaper to go to Hong Kong for the weekend than to Boracay or Palawan, unless you plan it months in advance. Flying to Caticlan (Boracay) can cost as much as US$200 (or $300 during high season) and so does Coron or El Nido.

Final answer: If it’s your first time to the Philippines, go to Palawan, specifically Coron (Busuanga airport). It has everything that El Nido has — the limestone cliffs, lagoons, lakes, marine sanctuaries, hot springs and deserted beaches — but El Nido doesn’t have Coron’s World War 2 shipwrecks, 24 of them for diving or snorkeling.

I love El Nido, too, with Nacpan Beach just half an hour away. But Coron has Kayangan Lake, which is the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen, and gorgeous white-sand beaches against the limestone cliffs.

Go to Apo Island if you’ve seen limestone cliffs rising from the waters (in Thailand or Vietnam) because the turtle experience is something you cannot get in Palawan.

Apo’s location also lets you explore other provinces such as Bohol with its gorgeous Chocolate Hills, rivers, tarsier sanctuary and Balicasag, which I really enjoy snorkeling at. Dumaguete is also close to Siquijor, which is famous for its beaches and voodoo witches. And Cebu is accessible by ferry, no need to fly back to Manila.

Apart from the whale sharks, Cebu’s southern tip has Kawasan Falls. I haven’t been there but you’ve probably seen these Gatorade-color falls and people canyoneering or jumping off a series of cliffs to finally arrive at the falls.

So…Coron for first-timers because you can easily spend a week there; and Apo Island if you want to explore nearby islands by ferry.

But if you want nightlife, fiery sunsets, parties and unbelievable powdery white sand, then head to Boracay. It’s the island we locals all adore and hate for what it’s become but we keep coming back to anyway.

But that’s another story.


4 thoughts on “Diving with the turtles of Apo Island

  1. You swam with the turtles? So, mabagal ka rin mag swim, Tans? Awesome pictures and video! Wish I could dive, too! The only thing I know is how to dive into a bowl of ice cream.


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