Snorkeling with clown fish at Apo Island, Philippines

First Trip to Apo Island: Exploring Dumaguete



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In May 2004 I visited Apo Island, a tiny former volcano located about 45 minutes by pump boat from a small fishing village south of my Peace Corps site in Dumaguete. In 1986, the forward thinking residents of Apo Island teamed up with the Silliman University Marine Lab to establish a marine sanctuary. Since then the island has become synonymous with sustainable eco tourism in the Philippines, and has even become a model for best practices in creative solutions to difficult problems facing the Philippines today. We stayed at the community based Liberty’s lodge, a simple hotel set perfectly into the steep volcanic hill of the bay. We were lucky enough to dive in the Apo sanctuary, which was a psychedelic kaleidoscope of brightly colored corals and an incredible diversity of fish species.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    We caught our pump boat from Malatapay Beach, about a 45 minute boat ride from Apo Island (the small outcropping from the sea in the top right corner).

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    As a testament to its volcanic past, craggy outcroppings of ancient lava flows jut from the sea as you approach the beach landing on the island.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    As soon as we arrived, we went snorkeling in the Apo Island marine sanctuary. The residents of the island collect a 100 peso (a little less than $2) entrance fee to pay for the maintenance of the sanctuary. We had only been there a few minutes when we found this large school of jacks cruising the coral wall drop off. I snapped this photo because the living blue ribbon of fish below reminded me of the painting on the cover of Yann Martel's Life Of Pi.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    This fish is a member of the sweetlips family and is supposed to be great to eat. According to the residents of the island, the juvenile fish will live within the boundaries of the sanctuary until they are large enough to be sold to the market. Fish catches for the resident fishermen have been increasing every year since the sanctuary was established.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    The main dining room at Liberty's lodge was quiet and felt very homey. There were a few other visitors from Europe staying while we were there, and everyone ate in the dining room together. Liberty grew up on Apo Island and has made her community based lodge into a cornerstone of the local community. Employees at Liberty's are all from the island and are eligible for scholarships and even a retirement pension.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    From left: Rob, Jason and Daniel at dinner in Liberty's dining room. Rob and Daniel are from my Peace Corps group, Jason is a volunteer from Britain.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Another photo from Liberty's dining room.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Our room had the usual laundry list of tropical bugs, and even included a dense swarm of flying ants which the geckos gobbled up eagerly.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Once it was completely dark, we went out for some night snorkeling. I actually preferred swimming with the light off because I wanted to see the phosphorescent plankton that live in the warm seas of the Philippines. When they are disturbed they give off a bright greenish glow. Since there are literally millions of them just floating in the current, even swimming a short distance will disturb many thousands of them. When I waved my hand underwater in front of my mask they appeared in psychedelic bursts, making it look like constellations were coming out of my fingers. I went to sleep that night imagining what a whale must look like swimming through a glowing trail of plankton on a moonless night.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    The next morning, we woke up to do our first dive on the island just off the beach in front of Liberty's lodge. We took a short boat ride to reach the dive site.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    We dove with Mario, the barangay captain (pronounced bar-ung-guy) on Apo Island who is also a dive master. Mario had an amazing eye to spot all the hidden creatures on the bottom of the sea. He pointed out this lionfish to me; the lionfish is one of the more dangerous fish indigenous to the reefs here. They are a member of the stonefish family, and their long fins are razor sharp and loaded with a potent poison that inflicts excruciating stings. In extreme cases they can cause paralysis and death. I gave this fellow a wide clearance when I swam away after taking this photo.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Another member of the stonefish family, the scorpionfish is also another tough customer to avoid getting too close to. Their camouflage in the low light of the ocean depths makes them extremely hard to see. Like the lionfish, they are also very poisonous and can inflict painful and life threatening stings if you step or bump into one. To me, they also look a lot nastier than the lionfish, so I wanted to include this close up photo of this fellow's head.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Another shot of the same scorpionfish; he generally will lie camouflaged and motionless while waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim nearby before he will snatch and eat them.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    While they are also poisonous, this nudibranch doesn't inspire the same sort of undersea terror that the lionfish and scorpion fish do. They are very colorful and we found an amazing variety of different species living on the reefs at Apo Island.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    This lizardfish looks like he should have legs and be perched in a banana tree happily eating bugs.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Erica clowning with the clown fish. This is actually an anemone fish, but I think he must have liked to see his reflection in Erica's unusually colored mask.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    I was looking under some coral heads for eels when I found this colorful ray hanging out with his good buddy, the sea cucumber. Sorry, I'll try to stop anthropomorphizing these entries!

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    From left: Erica, Mario and Daniel. Since taking over as the barangay captain on Apo Island, Mario has repelled efforts to add larger, more environmentally damaging and unsustainable hotels. He has also found the time to spearhead a highly successful family planning program on the island to ensure that the population does not exceed Apo's ability to support them. Oh, and he's also a great dive master.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    We found this clown fish in his anemone at the edge of the coral wall. Clown fish give off a special coating that makes them immune to the potent stings of the anemone, allowing them to avoid being eaten by predators. You will never find a clown fish swimming in the open ocean, and in fact they rarely stray far from the symbiotic protection of their anemone residence.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Even though the anemone is a living, moving animal, the clown fish will raise their families inside this slowly crawling submarine home.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    This fellow turned out to be a great subject for the camera.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Yes, like I said before, I did enjoy "Finding Nemo".

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    As I passed by this small ledge, I noticed the puffer fish hiding inside.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    This moorish idol was hard to photograph because he usually had his tail pointed towards me as he sped away.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    The clown fish city: Seemingly hundreds of brightly colored anemone fish have taken up residence on a relatively small coral outcropping giving this area its name.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    I considered checking out how much the rent is at the clown fish city.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    The thriving metropolis under the sea.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    These two brightly colored pufferfish were hovering a few inches apart just staring at each other.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    As we neared the coral wall drop off, we again found the school of jacks who maintained their characteristically tight formation while I took this photo.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    The jacks seemed used to the awkward finned visitors and allowed me to swim quite close. I even took a short video, which I can hopefully figure out how to post here sometime in the future.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    After the dive, we hiked up to the summit of Apo Island to see the light house. The larger island in the background is my current home; Negros Oriental. Dumaguete, where I am assigned, is located up the coast to my left in the photo.

  • Apo Island - May 2004

    Apo Island - May 2004
    Unfortunately the trip had to end and we woke up to catch our boat in the morning. A tropical storm nearby had raised the surf, but our experienced boatman navigated the channel to deliver us home with no problems.