Swim with sea turtles: Apo Island's family-friendly adventure for your bucket list
The Philippine pawikan or giant sea turtle is a glorious sight up close.
I never imagined I would be able to swim with one, much less more than a dozen. I also wasn’t sure my 7-year-old would find the courage to snorkel in the open water to see them. But both little miracles happened in Apo Island this year.
Apo Island surprises, first with its shockingly clean and clear turquoise waters, then with the rich coral and sea life beneath... most noticeable among them, the giant sea turtles.
As we approached the tiny island off the coast of Dumaguete, just as my son and I were putting on our masks and snorkels the first time, a pawikan swam up to our boat. We would have been content just seeing this one, but after the awesome welcome, many more turtle encounters followed.
Green Turtles of all ages have turned the waters surrounding the Apo Island in Negros Oriental into their feeding ground. There were so many that after an hour of swimming, we stopped counting. Note that Green Turtles are considered an endangered or threatened species worldwide.
We met seemingly older, slower moving turtles with barnacles on their shells. Then we saw these two young ones playing in 4-foot-deep water.
The turtles spend most of their time eating sea grass and algae but after some minutes, swim up to the surface for a breath of fresh air. It’s a joy to watch them open their flippers and gracefully swim to the surface. They are powerful swimmers.
We also caught a few hiding out among the coral, surrounded by colorful little fish that feed on algae that stick to the turtles’ shells.
Green Turtles are, in actuality, brown. They (very unfortunately) received this name because their cartilage and fat turn green when made into soup! No worries though, there is no turtle consumption on Apo Island. Part of the island has been a Marine Sanctuary all the way since 1982 – a pioneering sanctuary set up by the community itself with the aid of a Silliman University marine biologist.
After 40 whole years of protection -- the coral has grown, the fish are plentiful and the turtles seem completely unafraid of humans, even big groups of them. One even has to take extra effort to move away from the turtles (you’re not supposed to touch them) as they can get curious about snorkelers and cameras.
I cannot express the joy of actually swimming with the pawikan in the wild. The experience is exhilarating and best of all, can be shared with the whole family.
What makes this adventure child-friendly (for older children, not toddlers) is that turtles can be seen very close to shore… so much so that the divers in Apo Island reportedly encounter fewer turtles than the ordinary swimmers and snorkelers!
When turtle watching with children, take the time to get them used to the water. Make sure they wear a life vest and mask fitted to their size. Life rings are also available for extra protection and so the guides can pull tired little swimmers along.
To keep extra safe, my son wore a life vest and stayed inside a life ring. As a first-time snorkeler, he wasn’t sure he wanted to look down into the water. Still, after a little encouragement, he finally put his head down, started to breathe through the snorkel, and discovered an entirely new world underwater.
I brought him a mask and snorkel from home but there are many for rent on the island itself. The island tourism team provides equipment and guides for a small fee. Meanwhile, if you ride a boat from your beach resort, there will also be a guide to watch over your snorkeling group, especially the younger and more senior members.
My son and I swam with turtles all morning. At what we thought was the end of our adventure, while we were walking towards the beach in waist deep water, we met one more turtle up close. The kid was so amazed he didn’t want to take his head out of the water!
It’s one thing to talk about marine conservation and protecting animals and another to have a child experience for himself how turtles can thrive when people take care of the sea. Apo Island is beautiful as a result of this community effort.
We left the island not just with unbelievable, instagrammable turtle selfies but with a feeling of pride that the people here have preserved this gem of the Philippine Seas.
Apo Island is easily accessible from Dumaguete City, and there are currently several daily flights to Dumaguete from Manila and Cebu. You can use Dumaguete as your base, as it has many new hotels. You can also enjoy a tour of Silliman University, a stroll down the famed Boulevard, and a bite of their famed Silvanas before your Apo Island tour.
For families, it's better to book accommodations among the many beach resorts in the town of Dauin, about 15 km from Dumaguete, and just a 40-minute boat ride away from Apo Island. Some of the Dauin resorts have their own boats with daily tours. If yours does not, you can take a tricycle to Malatapay Sea Port where many boatmen await in the morning. You can book a small private bangka to Apo Island good for three persons for P3,500 from 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM (which is when boats head back to the port to avoid choppy waters). If you’re part of a bigger group, the larger private boats can go for P5,000 a day.
On Apo Island itself, the tourism office offers guides and snorkeling equipment for standard rates. Should you wish to have GoPro photos and video with the turtles, they charge for camera rental and provide videographer guides as well. All the photos in this article were shot by our guides. They took beautiful pictures.
Photos courtesy of Nessa Valdellon, Aldi Alabata, Snorkeling Guide of Atmosphere Resort and other Apo Island tour guides.