Zamboanga is no exception to being mistakenly connoted as one of those ‘chaotic’ cities in the country just because it is in Mindanao. I, too, feared Zamboanga at first, but that changed the moment I set foot in the city and experienced what it really has in store for me, for us. And do you know what welcomed me there? Different kinds of bombs. I was bombarded with happiness, with tears of joy, with belongingness, with peace, with vibrant streets, with protected islands, and with beautiful locals.
But I can’t blame you if you get scared. Honestly, some locals are scared too, because like you, they don’t know. They don’t have the courage to know their city and islands, which often leads to misconceptions. With the help of the beautiful people of Zamboanga, I found out about the Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands, among others.
“Bakit po sinasabi ng ibang locals na nakakatakot dito? Eh hindi naman pala,” I asked Richard Aliangan, senior tourism operations manager of Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands Protected Landscape & Seascape, as we rested our weary selves by the beach. “Ang reason, kasi ako mismong tiga dito, hindi ko alam ang about sa Sta. Cruz Island,” he bagan. “Kaya ang isa sa mga projects namin dito for the information campaign, we will go to schools. We will go to young professionals’ areas like workplaces. We will go there and we will give them presentations about the island para kapag may nagtanong, alam na nila. So it will now be replaced with knowledge, not hesitation kasi hindi nila alam. These is the knowledge that you should know para matanggal sa isip natin yung takot.”
And to help disseminate the information, here are a few things you need to know about Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands.
Sta. Cruz Island is a protected reef island in Zamboanga. It was named as such because the Spaniards are believed to have erected a ‘Sta. Cruz’ or holy cross in the island before they went to the mainland.
“Spaniards are known to name places after saints. Sta. Cruz is not a saint. Sta. Cruz means the island of the holy cross. Ang mga Spaniards usually—this is from what I have observed—pag pinapangalanan nila yung isang lugar na ‘Sta. Cruz’ or holy cross, it means doon nila nilalagay ang cross. So I suspect, meron silang tinayong cross dito before they got to the mainland,” explained Richard.
It is divided into two parts: Great Sta. Cruz Island and Little Sta. Cruz Island, collectively known as Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands Protected Landscape and Seascape. Both islands are abundant with organ pipe corals, or simply red corals that are responsible for turning the sand into pink as it mixes with white.
“Pag namamatay yung organ pipe coral, yung kanyang shell ay nagkakaron ng coloration tulad ng red, orange, and when this one will naturally breed out with continuous movement of the sea, namimix siya sa white corals. Red corals usually thrive in very deep areas, mga 30 ft. and below,”
Great Sta. Cruz Island
The Great Sta. Cruz Island is a recreational zone that’s open to public for a minimal entrance fee of PHP 20, and terminal fee of PHP 5. In the future, an environmental fee of PHP 75 will be imposed for the betterment of the island.
Though the Great Sta. Cruz Island has crystal clear waters, underwater explorations like snorkelling and diving are yet prohibited as the island is still undergoing a rehabilitation program. Activities are then limited to sightseeing, swimming, side-tripping to the lagoon and occasional sandbar, and the best thing: to purely feel the golden, peaceful vibe that’s contrary to the often misleading information about the island.
The island can hold up to 500 visitors at a time. It has huge cottages and Bani trees perfect for setting up your hammocks. Fresh catch of seafood like fish and crabs are available at the island that’s good for a boodle-style meal by the beach.
To reach the island, coordinate with the Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands Protected Landscape & Seascape Management Unit at Paseo del Mar. Boat rentals are for PHP 1,000 and are good for 1 to 10 passengers. The island is only open to public until 2 PM.
Little Sta. Cruz Island
Meanwhile, the Little Sta. Cruz Island is not open to public. It is declared as the strict, protected zone where only researchers, environmentalists, and marine students with permits are allowed to enter. Back in 2012, the island suffered from terrible illegal fishing that destroyed the once flourishing underwater world of the Sta. Cruz, which is now slowly regenerating to its former grandeur.
A few kilometres away from the island is the sandbar that occasionally pops depending on the tide.
Sta. Cruz Island Lagoon
A 10-minute pump boat away from the Sta. Cruz Island is its well-kept lagoon. Here, five beautiful things await your coming: Sama Bangingi tribe, a smack of stingless upside-down jellyfish, flying foxes, mangroves trees, and walo-walo snakes, also known as one of the most venomous snakes in the world with venom that’s believed to be 10x stronger than a cobra’s.
“Yung pink sand ng Sta. Cruz Island is more like the face sa profile picture ng Facebook, but this is the heart and soul ng island. Nandito po yung entire core ng ecosystem,” said Richard.
The land of the Sama Bangingi tribe is the starting point of the lagoon exploration where yellow boats are waiting to tour you around. The tribe is one of the friendliest tribes in south. Everyone, especially kids, are very welcoming to the guests. They are even all smiles to the cameras! In the next two years, the Department of Tourism is hopeful to include their community in the island tour of Sta. Cruz. Outreach programs and projects are in place to help the families residing there.
Apart from the tribe, a burgeoning lagoon with sea grasses where walo-walo snakes freely swim in, age-old mangroves where flying foxes or huge bats rest, and a smack of upside-down jellyfish will also welcome you here. Unlike the stingless jellies in Sohoton Lagoon, Surigao, jellies here flourish all year round and behave in an upside-down manner, hence the name.
Sta. Cruz Islands and lagoon blast so much potential, tourism and ecosystem wise. And if this is not enough, maybe booking a flight is the best thing to do right now. After all, great things are always on the other side of ‘fear.’
“So merong treasure dito, sir?” a visitor asked. “Merong treasure dito. The island itself is a treasure,” said Richard. We all cheered in amazement.