SAGAY CITY – Dawn breaks ever so faintly in the Carbin Reef, the swath of midnight-blue sky turning dark orange as the sun’s early rays finally break through.
From a distance, two fishing boats bob up and down as their occupants do some early morning line fishing in the waters around the reef’s almost ethereal, creamy white, tongue-shaped sandbar.
My companions and I were warned about sleeping in the “lighthouse” of the Sagay Marine Reserve, actually a concrete box-like watchtower without walls, set in the middle of nowhere. Instead of drowning in water, we might drown in the strong sea breeze while we slept.
As expected, only the Bantay Dagat (Guardians of the Sea), who were used to the whooshing of the winds, were able to sleep. We creatures of comfort had eyebags the following morning—but this was a small price to pay for two days and a night of discovering Sagay City, an emerging ecotourism destination in northern Negros Occidental.
After checking out the sights and sounds of this component city, 84 kilometers north of Bacolod City or about an hour-and-a-half drive away, we found that the Sagay Marine Reserve and the islands and reefs around it are its best tourism assets.
Breakfast in garden
Before going off to the reserve, we had breakfast at the meticulously landscaped Sagay City Garden and Living Tree Museum, which has a fusion of flowering plants, shrubs and palms.
A major project of the Sagay Ladies Circle and the city government, the garden was uncharacteristic of a supposedly sleepy locale. The Sagay City Garden, which is near the Balay Kauswagan (House of Progress), is a sprawling hotel-cum-convention center. It has its own swimming pool and a lawn large enough for parties and conventions.
Sagay happens to be one of the fastest growing cities in northern Negros Occidental, yet it retains its strong cultural and heritage flavors with the annual Sinigayan Festival, Produkto Sagaynon Display Center, and the construction of the Museo sang Bata sa Negros—the first hands-on and interactive children’s museum outside Manila.
A few meters from the Museo sang Bata is the sail-off point to the much-vaunted Sagay Marine Reserve, cited as 2003’s Best Aquatic Resources Management in the Philippines by the Department of Science and Technology and the Philippine Center for Aquatic and Marine Resources Development.
Underwater eye candy
After dropping off our stuff at the Carbin Reef, we proceeded to the Panal Reef for snorkeling. The marine reserve boasts of 60 genera of hard, black and soft corals, and five species of giant clams, some as wide as one meter.
Splashing around and peeking at the underwater wonders of the simpler kind were enough to whet our hunger for a “sea-escapade.” It dawned on us that we’d probably need a week of daily gallivanting to check out the 32,000-hectare reserve’s rich marine resources mentioned in its brochure.
These resources include more than 250 species of reef and pelagic fishes, four species of marine turtles, five species of the endangered dugong you can find among the ten species of sea grass covering 3,000 hectares, and 78 species of Macro Benthic Algae.
While all that underwater eye candy was awesome, more impressive, though in a different way, were the swaths of mangroves we passed by on our way to the Molocaboc Island to check out its innumerable decorative shells and huge clay jars used for storing water.
The reserve has 500 hectares planted to 33 species of true mangroves and 10 mangrove associate species. More than 100 hectares are reforested areas.
Such marine wealth could not have been preserved if Sagay’s leadership did not stop the wanton destruction in the nick of time.
In the late 70s, former mayor and later Rep. Alfredo Marañon initiated the conservation and management of the dying coral reefs with the help of the Silliman University Marine Laboratory headed by Dr. Angel Alcala, former environment secretary.
Marañon’s efforts bore fruit in 1995 when some 32,000 hectares of Sagay’s territorial waters were declared Protected Seascape under the National Integrated Protected Area System. On April 14, 2001, this same area became the Sagay Marine Reserve through Presidential Proclamation No. 592.
In 1997, the reserve was given the Galing Pook Awards for Top Ten Innovative Programs on Marine Conservation and Protection.
“Political will is the main reason for Sagay’s success and when we became a city in 1996, we managed the funds for our many projects focusing on the environment, education and economy,” said former mayor Leo Rafael Cueva, who has worked as executive assistant to former mayor and now Gov. Joseph Marañon III.
At Molocaboc Island, fringed by lush mangroves, white sand and clear waters, 73-year-old Amado Tajanlangit, a retired Bantay Dagat, tells the story of how he became “predator-turned-protector.”
“I used to do dynamite fishing myself, using ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and this went on for 20 years. By 1967, we were getting poor catch but we still kept on doing dynamite fishing,” said Tajanlangit as he sat under the shade of a tree.
It was only in 1983 when the dynamite fishing stopped as the nearby Carbin Reef was proclaimed fish sanctuary. This was later expanded to include the reefs of Panal, Maca and the fringing reefs of Molocaboc.
“There are so many kinds of fish—all kinds in the sanctuary. At first, the sanctuary affected our livelihood and then we just got used to it. Those of us who used to do dynamite fishing became members of the Bantay Dagat,” said Tajanlangit.
Now the mangroves and corals are growing back and the catch is more bountiful. Tajanlangit says they still catch the occasional dynamite fishermen from Cebu; they impound the boats and file cases against the perpetrators.
Island of jars
Anyone who has a thing for observing typical Philippine island life will find Molocaboc fascinating for the tiny details that its 4,000 residents take for granted.
It is surprising to know that this beautiful island does not have fresh water, and so all around at the backyard of every house, you see huge earthen jars the height of a 10-year-old child.
Far from being a decorative piece or a cultural oddity, the jars are actually rain catchment for drinking water and precious washing—otherwise, residents would have to gather more shells and catch more fish to afford fresh water delivered to the island for P15 per five gallons.
“Despite the water problem, people won’t transfer to Sagay because the livelihood here is good,” said village councilman Antonio Pasaylo, who added that the government was finding a way of bringing them freshwater through underwater pipes.
For example, how about gathering daily 11 varieties of seashells and selling these at P48 per kilo? And to think there’s an endless supply of shells spread out in 10 hectares in Molocaboc!
If an islander doesn’t like her skin turning terra cotta from fishing or shell gathering, she always has the option of staying indoors and boring holes into shells or stringing them to be sold to Cebu’s shell craft makers.
For an island hopper, however, it is already adventure enough to be anywhere at the Sagay Marine Reserve and gazing at the seascape, speeding by mangroves, checking out shells, and swimming in undulating blue-green waters.
Molocaboc, Carbin Reef and the other areas of the reserve are a great site for immersions and study tours for anyone who want to get insights on the beauty and conservation of the Visayan Sea.