The Zamboanga Peninsula is home to many natural wonders and one of these breathtaking destinations is Once Islas, a group of eleven islands managed by the local Sama Banguingui people.
Once Islas is a nature reserve that became an ecotourism spot back in 2018 in an effort to showcase the beauty of its islands and provide livelihood for its locals.
Huraida Malik, one of the guides at Once Islas, shares the story of each island and their efforts to maintain the site’s natural resources.
To those wondering if there really are 11 islands or if the name ‘Once Islas’ is just a way to pull in tourists, Malik is quick to provide clarity. “They really are eleven,” she declares. She then proceeds to name each of the islands, which have an assigned number from one to eleven.
The sequence is based on the order you visit or pass by the islands during the full cruise.
“I live on Sirommon island,” she proudly shares. “The inhabited islands are Buh-Buh, Kabugan, Lampinigan, and Sirommon.”
Counting to Eleven
The islands offer many activities and noteworthy sites. Although, not every island can be visited. Most are only passed by the boat tour for a close look. Malik explains that it’s better to not dock on the other islands for conservation reasons.
The three islands that guests are allowed to visit are Sirommon, Baung-Baung, and Bisaya-Bisaya.
Malik also notes that to maintain the island’s conditions, guests are reminded to not leave anything such as single-use plastics. “Whatever trash or waste you bring into the island, you take it with you when you leave,” she shares.
This rule also works the other way. “All the natural beauty that you see here, stays here. You can’t take anything with you from the islands,” Malik continues as she points to the sand, shells, and corals around her.
The conservation efforts extend to the islands’ inhabitants. Malik explains that when the islands were declared an ecotourism site, it was agreed that no new houses were to be built.
“To maintain the islands’ cleanliness, whatever number of houses that were already built stopped there.” She elaborates that in building more houses, you build more bathrooms, which contributes to more waste.
Also, each island is assigned a local warden who owns and maintains their respective islands. The wardens report any concerns to the local government, such as trash and security issues.
Malik shares some fun facts about the islands that guests can’t visit. Such as Sallangan island, the first island of the cruise, being named after the jellyfish that surround its shores.
The next island, Lambang-Lambang, is sort of like a twin-set. Malik explains that its name means ‘stepping.’ Its two component islands are connected by shallow waters that you can easily traverse. “You don’t have to ride a boat, you just have to step across,” she adds.
Kabugan island is home to a large bat population. Hence, its name was derived from the Sama Banguingui word for bat, kabug. Similarly, Lampinigan island is known for its wasps, which are called lampinig in their local language.
Islands of Interest
After passing the first few islands, tourists will reach Sirommon Island. The fifth island is also the first one you step foot on. The largest of the Once Islas, Sirommon has a large white front beach area along with small cottages for guests to rent (Php150) for day trips.
Its clear waters make it an ideal snorkeling site. Its shallow waters stretch far off the shores, providing a lot of space to look at the marine life.
If the tide is right, the island features a sandbar that can be accessed at peak noon. “The sidebar is wide, and when you get to visit it you’ll see it’s surrounded by various colored starfish,” Malik adds.
Malik shares that due to its size, the island is assigned two wardens, one for the front beach and the other for the back. The smaller back beach has a diving site, some treehouses, and mini mangroves.
The back beach also houses a small wharf that faces a small islet named after Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos, colloquially called the “Mudjie Wise Key” islet. Dr. Santos is a prominent Filipino scientist who identified over 400 fish species around the island. His work led to the local barangay honoring him with the namesake islet.
Sirommon is also home to wild orchids that only bloom a few times each year. It’s also a nesting ground for the local hawksbill turtle population, laying their eggs around the time of July.
After exploring Sirommon, the cruise continues, passing through another set of islands to view from the boat. The sixth island, Panganak, is a small island close to Sirommon. “Panganak is named as such because it is the child of Sirommon. Being so close to the largest island, it’s seen as its anak (child),” Malik explains.
Baguias and Buh-Buh are the next islands coasted through. The former is known for its shining white sand when the sunlight hits it in the early morning. On the other hand the latter’s name is a contraction of the Sama Banguingui word for aunt, babuh-babuh.
Simoadang is known as the “healing island,” because it was home to the local healer. It now houses the local cemetery.
Next stop is Baung-Baung island. Similar to Sirommon, it also features white sand beaches. Malik notes that once you dock onto the island, you’ll notice that its shore waters are deeper, making it an ideal diving spot for tourists.
Baung-Baung is named after a small coconut shell used to store trinkets such as seashells.
The island also has a hiking trail which leads up to a viewing deck that provides a gorgeous view of Bisaya-Bisaya Island, the eleventh island.
The last stop of the full island cruise, Bisaya-Bisaya Island, features many unique alligator-like rock formations, along with a natural infinity pool that is accessible at low tide. “Every night, the water in the infinity pool is naturally replaced because of the crashing of the waves at high tide,” Malik shares.
One of the smaller islands, its perimeter is trekkable in under 15 minutes. This quick hike gives you a full view of its unique rocky terrain, punctuated by the island’s white sand beach.
Malik adds that although Bisaya-Bisaya is the last island you visit in the full cruise, it is the first stop of the BiBa cruise. This cruise only includes Bisaya-Bisaya and Baung-Baung.
Guests can avail of a lunch feast on the island prepared by the local community. The spread is composed of grilled freshly caught seafood such as yellowfin tuna, blue crabs, squid, lapu-lapu, and spider shells. Priced at Php350 per head, it also includes rice, fruits, and fresh buko juice.
A Dedicated Effort
More than being a local guide for tourists, Malik shares that she has been a peace advocate for the local Sama Banguingui of Sirommon island since 2006.
She began her humanitarian work during a time of unrest in the region. “There was no one to represent them during talks and meetings, so I came in to help.”
Malik also helped in educating the women on the islands.
She adds that women didn’t have much access to education because they’re assigned to only work at home. “I just wanted to be of help to them. If I won’t volunteer to assist them, who will?”
When the city declared Once Islas as an ecotourism site in 2018, Malik was brought back to be a guide to educate visitors of the island’s beauty and heritage.
“Before it became a protected area, illegal fishers would engage in dynamite fishing which killed most of the corals and aquatic life,” Malik reminisces on the struggles they’ve had in preserving the islands’ natural resources.
“Now when you dive here in Sirommon you can see the corals have grown back along with the return of fish and clams,” she shares with a wide grin.
Rates and Reminders
A visit to Once Islas must be coordinated with the local tourism office prior to your trip, as they only allow 200 visitors per day.
An entrance fee (Php100) and environmental fee (Php100) is charged per head. On top of this, a guide fee of Php300 can cover for groups of five people.
Depending on the tour package you avail, the ferry fee (good for a group of 5) can cost Ph2,000 for the full island cruise or Php1,200 for the BiBa route.
Payments are usually made before the trip to avoid any delays and to secure your slot. Once Islas is only available for day trips from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M.
Getting to Once Islas
On the day of your reservation, you can take a public bus or rent a private vehicle from Zamboanga City proper to reach the port, which is an hour’s ride away.
You can also avail van services at the airport that can take you straight to Brgy. Panubigan to be oriented and begin your boat ride to the islands.
All tourist destinations in Zamboanga City have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel, Apple Store, or Google Playstore.