March 4, 2024

Just like forests, mangroves are said to protect islands from the destructive wrath of typhoons and storms. These can be natural and manmade but best when kept pristine as vanguards of aquatic life like non-sting jellyfishes and starfishes. What’s more these are attractions for visitors and guests with programs that give livelihood and opportunities to the island population of more than 200.

In these parts, the forests are meant to sustain lives by charging the water tables, and keeping the streams potable for households and irrigation canals but the equation of livelihood here has reduced the necessary factors of trees and water to zero and only agriculture and mining as the numerical digits. Could tourism be a sustainable venture just like Santa Cruz Pink Sand Island and Lagoon in Zamboanga City in other parts of the country?

Located four kilometers across Zamboanga City in the Basilan Strait, this island is said to be some 300 hectares wide and the lagoon some nine hectares, if memory serves me right from the tour guide’s spiel.

We were perhaps the most profitable group for the day having some 20 members. We were ferried to the Grande Island by four boats and taken directly to the lagoon tour, the reason being, the early morning sun is not as punishing as the noon heat.

We were let off on a beach where the island dwellers lived and where many yellow boats painted with Bagong Pag-asa were uniquely designed with front and back a seeming flat portion like a seat and in the middle two horizontal planks as seats for passengers.

These boats have no out-riggers because these would not be feasible in the lagoon tour where boats are made to float side by side while lectures are given on pertinent data. These according to the guide were designed and donated by Gina Lopez of the ABS-CBN Foundation and the Yellow Boat organization as source of income for the paddlers. These boat men and women who operated the vessels in pairs were ideally supposed to be students so that they could earn their allowances for the week.

The guide notes that there are two dominant types of mangrove trees, the male and female. Called ‘bakawan’ in the vernacular, the mangroves have yet to find the third type, the ‘baklawan’, the guide made us giggle. He also notes that there are no alligators in the lagoon because they are now called honorable which evoked a burst of laughter. In stops along the way, the female mangrove tree was identified with rounded leaves while the male ones with pointed tips. He pointed out that these also fruited in different ways, the female having clumped berries and the male single ones.

As we meandered around the clumps, we were brought to a wider circular area where he asked us to look in the clear water for the brown and white jellyfish that we could allow to rest in our palms while submerged. He said that we could not lift them above the water lest they die.

And indeed, for the braver, they scooped the lifeforms in their hand. I made the excuse that I had lotion and alcohol in my hands that could poison them. We were told not to touch the seagrass that shaded the sea creatures because these are sharp and can cut. As a bonus, the bountiful supply of seaweeds in the water were available for snacking while we were rowed around. These were deliciously crunchy and salty. 

We were set down on a short sandbar outside of the jellyfish and starfish enclave to try and sail a vinta. This was another part of the tour in the lagoon. Then we were rowed back to the village and were allowed to mingle with the children. Here the handfuls of sand had red specks from shells and corals that gave it a pink hue. Indeed, the shells that one picked from the shore had hues of red and pink. These were from the coral reef that surrounded the island. These shells were also made into refrigerator magnets that were sold in the other side where the sandbar was wider and longer. They also earned from making souvenirs and selling pearls and other trinkets.

Other residents regularly patrol the lagoon according to our paddlers, to clear the plastic garbage that might find their way into the mangrove forest where the lifeforms abound. They have agreed to protect the area that should give them livelihood for their lifetime. – Nonnette C. Bennett