Traveling is not just about enjoyment, education, or enrichment, but also carries with it responsibilities.
Tourists, for example, are expected to responsibly connect with nature and leave no trace. This includes being mindful of the locals’ well-being.
In Zamboanga, strong efforts are implemented by the local city government to balance the natural beauty, livelihood, and ecosystem within protected areas.
For instance, tourists must not bring single-use plastic waste such as wet wipes, zip locks, snack bags, and wrapped candies before visiting the island. Cigarettes, even electronic ones, are not allowed. On top of that, only 500 tourists are allowed to visit per day based on its carrying capacity limit as stipulated in its management plan.
These strict ordinances may sound a bit too much. But once you set foot in the protected area, you will understand why these efforts made Sta Cruz island one of Mindanao’s prime examples of ecotourism.
One of the most visible expressions of Sta Cruz’s green efforts is its Yellow Boat Adventure.
It is open to the general public but must be arranged by Zamboanga’s Protected Area Management Office (PAMO). An environmental advocacy program that started in 2015, it managed to put an end to illegal fishing and deforestation of mangrove trees.
“We designed community-centered initiatives. An alternative livelihood for the community. Before, the fishermen would cut the mangroves and sell them as Christmas trees,” says Richard Aliangan, Superintendent of the Protected Area Management Office, managing office of the Great and Little Sta Cruz Islands Protected Landscape and Seascape.
The local government then partnered with Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation to educate the community about the harmful consequences of mangrove deforestation and dynamite fishing.
The organization donated yellow boats painted with words, bagong pag-asa (or new hope). The boats addressed a livelihood gap as paddlers were allowed to use them, whether for hunting fish or accommodating tourists visiting the lagoon.
People residing in Sta Cruz Island were also trained to properly handle ecotourism programs, biodiversity projects, selling of trinkets and souvenirs. These eventually generated sustainable income for the community.
Yellow Boat Adventure
“When you talk about nature, sometimes it sounds cheesy,” Aliangan jokes. “But we want people to be close with nature and appreciate its inherent beauty. So we insert humor in the narrative as we showcase the things that the lagoon offers.”
The one-hour Yellow Boat Adventure or Lagoon Tour starts with a guide welcoming tourists to the 100-hectare naturally-grown mangrove territory.
To preserve the habitat, only a quarter of it is open for guests to explore. The mangrove farm serves as the first line of defense against storm surge. “And on normal days, kindergarten for small fishes,” Aliangan adds.
Fourteen different species of mangrove trees can be found in the lagoon, the most abundant are the “Bakawang Babae” and “Bakawang Lalake.” You will be able to know the difference between the two, as the guide willingly educates tourists about the mangrove species.
The “Bakawang Babae” or female mangrove trees have wider leaves that produce multiple flowers in a single stem. Meanwhile, “Bakawang Lalake” or male mangrove trees have pointed leaves and they only produce two flowers on a stem.
As the flowers mature, they asexually reproduce propagules. Once a propagule falls from its parent tree, a new mangrove tree is bound to develop.
The lagoon is visibly teeming with seagrass and one square meter of it is already equal to 10 liters of oxygen literally giving you a breath of fresh air. Also, expect to interact with Cassiopea or Upside-down Jellyfish during the tour.
This jellyfish swims with their oral arms and tentacles pointing upward, toward the light. No need to worry because Upside-down Jellyfish are non-poisonous and you will be guided on how to properly handle marine life.
“It should be handled with TLC or tender loving care. When getting the jellyfish from the bottom, make sure it only floats from your hand but not above the water. You may flip it if you wish, turn with care, and let go. Don’t flip it like pancakes though,” Aliangan kids.
Tourists will also get to experience proper harvesting of Lato and have a taste of it freshly plucked from the seafloor. Lato, also called Sea Grapes, are like a bunch of tiny green grapes, eaten fresh or as an appetizer mixed with tomato, onion, vinegar, and pepper.
Throughout the tour, you will appreciate the sound of crickets, as if you made a front-row seat reservation to nature’s orchestra. Other species such as Flying Foxes, Blue Starfish, and Egrets can be found at the mangrove farm as well.
Migratory birds and endangered avian were identified at the lagoon by enthusiasts and ornithologists such as Far Eastern curlew, White-vented whistler, and Beach stone-curlew.
The lagoon also serves as a nesting ground for marine turtles. So expect the Yellow Boat Adventure to end with a traditional Vinta ride. Any watercraft that are disruptive to surface water such as speedboats, jet skis, and banana boats are banned from the island.
The Yellow Boat Adventure is at Php300, and the boat can accommodate up to two passengers. There is a guide fee of Php 300 for every five Yellow Boats rented.
Richard Aliangan’s Calling
Aliangan has been managing the area for more than a decade and the ecotourism movement not only brought visitors to the area but also provided livelihood to the community. Around 50+ families, from paddlers, boatmen, guides, and operators living in Sta Cruz Island are being assisted by the movement.
Bringing travelers to appreciate what the local tourism office is doing, while giving the community an opportunity to earn and improve their lives is more than just a job but a calling for Aliangan.
“Everything you see here in operation comes from the heart, comes from passion. Managing this is really personal. This is more than just a profession because this is something that we started from scratch. And now we are being used as an example for other areas wanting to start ecotourism. It has become a part of me, my passion, my life. For me, Sta Cruz Island is everything,” Aliangan shares.
As Aliangan reminisces how his love for Sta Cruz Island started, he began to share the condition of the island before. He tells how he noticed that there were no guidelines about trash, that hundreds of alcohol bottles were being left by the tourists.
“I’m too appreciative of nature, I was really affected.” Then Aliangan had the chance to work with the marginalized community residing in Sta Cruz Island. “It was then I saw the opportunity to help.”
Paddles on pause
During the COVID-19 pandemic, while tourism greatly affected the main livelihood of the community, Aliangan is grateful for the solid linking with kindhearted Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and private individuals.
“We are thankful for the regular donations. We even have a Zamboangueno diver who owns a shopping center and he would hire our paddlers, knowing we don’t have guests here during the pandemic. And that was very touching,” Aliangan states. In a way, the community was covered in terms of loss.
The island’s battlecry can be seen written on sign boards within the island, “Nature protects if she is protected.”
Aliangan clarifies that the motto started as his personal belief. With mangrove trees, it serves as a protection from tsunamis and storm surge, and if it gets cut, you lose defense from these natural disasters. But if you protect the trees, they will soon protect you.
“The bottomline, the capital of tourism is nature. Pleasure and nature can co-exist if you know how to manage properly where it ends and where it begins. Luckily, here at Sta Cruz Island, we were able to set the parameters and we are consistent with what we want to implement,” ends Aliangan.
Other fees and How to Visit
The jump off point to Sta Cruz Island is Paseo del Mar, a 10-minute tricycle ride from Zamboanga International Airport.
Given the safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic, only 100 fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to visit the area every Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7 A.M. to 2 P.M.
Travelers must reserve in advance through the Sta Cruz Island’s registration counter at Paseo del Mar or by calling +63 905 601 6316, preferably 30 days before visit. They may also inquire through Facebook, by visiting Islas de Sta Cruz.
For the fees, roundtrip boat rental from Paseo del Mar to Sta Cruz Island is Php1,000 good for a maximum of 10 passengers. The Entrance Fee is Php 20 while Terminal Fee is Php 5 per tourist.
Costs are subject to change and government-imposed fees will be given to tourists upon receipt of their reservation schedules.
Manifest forms and a summary of expenses will be sent via email. Each tourist must download the Stay Safe App and submit a copy of their valid ID and COVID-19 vaccination card. Failure to accomplish the form means no reservation. Agreement to Sta Cruz Island’s rules and regulations must be signed as well.
The management of Sta Cruz Island offers different boarding times, 7 A.M to 11 A.M. There is an assembly time of 30 minutes before boarding for reiteration of dos and don’ts.
Travelers may stay at the island from 7 A.M. until 2 P.M.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Region 9:
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; firstname.lastname@example.org
(062) 990-2100; email@example.com
0930-061-1690 / 0997-745-2957; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Explore Zamboanga City responsibly by making sure that you comply with the province’s health and safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Ensure that you have acquired travel authority at https://s-pass.ph/ prior trip. Bring a copy or screenshot of this along with your vaccination card and valid ID upon arrival.
For the latest travel information about Zamboanga, you may visit their official website or Facebook page. You may also review updated safety protocols and requirements on Philippine destinations at www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel