By Albert Balbutin Jr.
Danjugan Island is a 30 min bangka ride from the island of Negros, the latter named by the Spanish colonizers after whom they perceived were “dark-skinned” peoples of the island.
There we met Tikyo Pardillo, who has worked on the island for the past 10 years after graduating with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management or HRM. Back then and today, HRM professionals aim for resorts with infinity pools or 5 figure-per-night price tags. Tikyo however has instead made this 30 minute bangka ride his commute. His workplace and home within a 3 kilometer radius.
Sometime during the 1980’s Danjugan Island’s previous owner would ask for portions of one’s catch whenever neighbors fished on or along its shores. Later, the owner made plans to cut one of the island’s tallest trees, which was also home to a nest of white-belllied sea eagles. The Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI), then bought the tree to prevent it from being cut down.
After raising enough money, PRRCFI bought the island from the previous owner and the Danjugan Island Nature Tourism Program was born. Three special management areas or SMAs full of coral reefs and giant clams would be established, while seasonal fishing, permits, and trainings were coordinated with the local government and the area’s fishers.
Danjugan Island is a “sanctuary, not a resort,” explains Precious Gaurana, Danjugan’s Island Manager. Upon our arrival Precious shares that we are now sitting in a marine Key Biodiversity Area, an area scientifically known for its array of unique and threatened species. It is areas like Danjugan where humans help sustain the environment that feeds them and the community. No resort or company, with shareholders to satisfy, would have had the wherewithal to make the leaps and bounds PRRCFI has done to ensure such natural bounty was enjoyed sustainably.
A walk, and swim, with Tikyo
When Tikyo first started work at Danjugan he helped propagate mangrove seedlings on the island for planting on other areas in Negros. We walk past the mangrove trees considered “mother trees” or mature trees from which fruit or seeds fall and are collected for a nursery or for planting elsewhere.
He shares tidbits like this as we traverse most of the island’s 1-kilometer-plus stretch of empty but biodiverse lagoons and white sand beaches lined with dead logs, seaweed, and an occasional plastic bottle or four.
He shows us stands of pandan trees, related to the pandan that Filipinos know and love in desserts and drinks. However these are herculean in comparison, a close relative with spiky leaves that spiral upward unopposed and free alongside Botong trees with beautiful pom-pom-like flowers. Tikyo shares the Botong are locally known as Balubitoon.
We walk past one lagoon, then another, where water lies stagnant but mangroves and their roots wrangle up from the whitish soup lined with small bubbles on the surface with unidentifiable fish and other species wriggling underneath.
Tikyo leads us to the Bat Cave. I liken him to Bruce Wayne. Tikyo’s wealth of knowledge on the island comparable to Wayne’s material wealth.
“Don’t touch the railings,” he warns. They’re full of bat poop. Less than 5 meters away is a slowly developing cyclone of bats inside the cave, their chirping grows louder and more frequent. I realize they have been disturbed by our presence. At the bottom of the Bat Cave is a clear pond. I cringe at the thought of falling in.
After the Bat Cave we reach a blue-green lagoon bordered by limestone, bamboo bridges, and mangroves. Nestled inside are facilities for group trainings on the island’s biodiversity; a skeleton of a dolphin that had beached years ago hangs in one of the multi-use rooms. Bottles of preserved species sit in one corner while maps, notices, and other infographics hang on an opposite wall.
Tikyo leaves us to gather snorkelling gear; our adventure about to unfold further. As we wait we take obligatory selfies and photos in the lagoon. We can’t take anything with us but pictures, as the old environmentalist adage goes. My partner urges me to write about it, and I make mental notes of what I think should be said.
Endowed with rubber booties and snorkelling masks, Tikyo leads us into the lagoon’s exit to the sea; an entrance to one of the island’s SMAs mentioned earlier by Precious. We wade into the sand and seagrass, float forward, and before we know it we are “flying”.
The ocean floor below us changes from rocky sand, to seagrass, then to coral within a few meters. A field of branching coral appears and goes on endlessly into the deep dark blue. Clownfish stare up at us from their anemone homes while other species dart back and forth as we glide above them. Giant clams larger than my torso reveal soft blue tissue inside, while some snap closed as fish brush by. Above the surface small bangkas are catching fish using the appropriate gear; they catch livelihood and nourishment blessed by the coral nursery we find ourselves gliding over. It is the coral ecosystem that continues to provide people the wide array of marine biodiversity and source of food in the area. This weekend tourists like my partner and I have already made bank deposits, contributing to local tourism.
Tikyo leads us back to the island, where we are welcomed by the island’s feathered residents. Like spy’s on approach to a foreign shore, we swim quietly, then crouch as we land on the beach.
He spots two Tabon scrubfowl. Could they be digging in the sand for crustaceans, or digging to make a nest (tabon means to cover)? And just a few meters away was the island’s only Beach Thick-knee, a bird that birdwatchers come to Danjugan to see. Tikyo adds that this particular bird may have arrived last year possibly led off its course during a storm. Since then it has never left. I entertain the thought of doing the same.
Later in the day, Tikyo brings out two large kayaks. My partner and I hop in one, with Tikyo in the other. We head northward up the island this time, enjoying the view of the coast; greenery springing forth from limestone and boulders kissed by blue and green waves.
We approach an opening in the island: the entrance to the north lagoon. Suddenly the water is calm. Above us something glides diverting our attention from the sudden sand and seagrass a foot or so below us. It perches on a tree just a few meters away and above; it is our first glimpse of a Stork-billed kingfisher, its large reddish beak fit for a king. It watches us as attentively as we watch it.
Deeper into the lagoon traces of seaweed and dead ocean flora are dispersed and slowly swirling at the center. Unfortunately, so are plastic bottles, snack packaging, and styrofoam. Even in this far off pocket of water and life more than 3 kilometers away from “mainland” Negros island, plastic discards still find their way inside one of Danjugan’s secluded lagoons. Before we think to do so, Tikyo is already picking up trash via kayak; we follow suit.
There are no sounds of jeepneys, motorcycles, and karaoke on the island. The noises on Danjugan are waves, distant patters of raindrops on the leaves, and different calls from birds. Though I’m around bird scientists often, I have yet to learn to identify many species let alone from their calls. With Tikyo’s help, we spot White-breasted woodswallows, Emerald doves, Olive-backed sunbirds, Black-naped orioles, Pied fantails, White-collared kingfishers, and Asian glossy starlings.
Come home to Danjugan
On our last day, Tikyo shares with us the remainder of his stories, some of which I’ve already shared here. Most of which I invite you to learn yourself upon your own visit, hopefully sooner than later. He shares that a windmill is in the works to supplement the island’s solar panels. The only two panels put up in the two decades of the sanctuary’s existence. In the midst of plastic, sanctuary upkeep, and much-needed advancements, more work is to be done.
Danjugan Island celebrates 25 years this year. I continue to wonder how a small group of people can work this long sustainably. I’ve seen just a few of the difficulties NGOs face during my 6 years as a member of the Haribon Foundation. This is a long time for millennials looking to get their feet wet, but a mere blip for the veteran environmentalists who have seen people and projects come and go, live and die.
On the back of Tikyo’s shirt reads “Come home to Danjugan.” The phrase is almost everywhere here. I’m reminded that these people continue this work because they see Danjugan as a home, and not a vending machine.
Whether it is an island, our workplace, our country, or our planet. These are not places where we can continue to take and consume without consequence. To live life as luxurious as possible. To live life to the fullest.
These are places with limits, that science can and continues to measure. And with everyone’s help we and our descendants will continue to have a place to come home to.
Visit Danjugan Island
Thank you to Jo and Chinkin who informed us of this island soon after their own visit. Thank you to Tikyo Padillo and Precious Gaurana for the knowledge and history on the island. To Ate Daidai for all the delicious food, and all other staff we encountered but did not get to meet.