On the eve of Earth Day, I was fortunate enough to find myself on one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, enjoying happy hour at El Nido Miniloc Resort, when a petite college-aged woman quietly started setting up a projector and a microphone. I watched as she proceeded to interrupt the crowd of honeymooners and vacationers to excitedly inform us about the resort’s eco-responsible efforts. She spoke over the clinking of glasses with tiny umbrellas, the various bubbling languages and laughter, and the whispering of newlywed couples, confidently wrapping up her presentation by inviting guests to join the staff the next morning for a variety of Earth Day celebrations, including a beach cleanup.
I was the only person to turn up at 8:15am, which was disappointing but not surprising. But that’s where the disappointment ended. Along with a boat full of resort staff, I got to pay my small respects to this particular, and particularly glorious, corner of Earth.
While taking part in these Earth Day activities was awesome, it was also a somber reminder of how far we have to go, especially as tourists. “Responsible tourism” is on the rise, but there needs to be a stronger demand for eco-sensitive resorts and tour companies, which starts with travelers knowing their own impacts, voicing their expectations to service providers, and voting with their wallets. Earth Day is a great start, but at the end of the day, it’s barely a drop in a very beautiful, but very deep bucket.
The sun begins to rise over Palawan, Phillippines, on April 22, 2013.
A banner over us
A banner waved out front of the “scuba shack” at El Nido Miniloc Beach Resort the day before, announcing the coming Earth Day events to honeymooners and high-end vacationers. That night, Macy, the hotel’s environmental officer, interrupted Happy Hour to inform guests about all the activities that would be taking place, as well as the year-round efforts of the hotel.
The crew gathers
At 8am on April 22, the off-duty staff of Miniloc Beach Resort gathered to begin the Earth Day festivities. All staff at the El Nido resorts are required to take a course on environmental practices when they begin employment. The staff attending on this day were on their day off, volunteering their time of their own accord. I was the only hotel guest to attend.
The staff, clad in neon green life jackets and flip flops, and with one jug of water to use to refill bottles throughout the day, head out to sea on a speedboat, which will drop us at the traditional banka boat we'll use for the rest of the day.
Macy, the staff Environmental Officer, looks toward the horizon as we travel 30 minutes to Dilumacad Island, better known as “Helicopter Island” for the shape it takes from a distance. Macy has been working for El Nido Resorts as their EO for six years, during which she began, and has nearly finished, her Masters in Environmental Science. Her final thesis will be on coral bleaching, an effect of global warming.
Whatever it takes
Rather than dock directly at the beach, and risk running the boat along the coral, staff abandon ship and swim to shore.
Under a minute
In about thirty seconds on Dilumacad Island, handfuls of cigarette butts and styrofoam have already been gathered. Tourists dock at this island by the hundreds every day to snorkel, suntan, and take in the view, but unfortunately many leave behind trash and plastics that harm the ecosystem.
Ironically, a reusable water jug is washed ashore. Staff, in the background, continue to comb the shores for newly arriving waste. (Don’t worry, the jug was picked up.)
Cliché, but necessary
One of the major tenets of El Nido Resorts' Environmental Inititive is to “Leave Only Footprint.” Cliché, but apt, as tourists arrive here by the thousands in a “vacation mindset” -- paying little to no attention to the negative effects they can have on the environment they’ve entered. While the El Nido resorts are luxury abodes, the company has no qualms with directly educating, informing, and correcting its guests when it comes to protecting the beautiful, but sensitive, islands of Palawan.
Over 100 flip flops have washed ashore, just on this beach, in the last year. Consider that there are 7,109 islands in the Philippines -- that’s a lot of flip flops. El Nido Resorts has built its own materials recovery plant, as none existed on the mainland, so that they can recycle, reuse, and correctly dispose of materials like plastic flip flops.
Given the number of tourists that traverse the shores of this island, the resort decided to take strides to protect the turtle population that returns here each year to lay eggs. These handmade boxes are placed over unhatched turtle eggs to protect them from the elements -- tourist and predator alike. It's one man's glorious job to watch for the eggs to hatch, and then release the hatchlings to begin their tiny, adorable journeys to the sea.
Garbage day, island-style
The resort has set up a cabin on the island, where one man arrives each day to do two things: protect the aforementioned turtle eggs, and pick up trash that washed ashore the previous day. Here, staff are moving the trash to bins and bags so it can go to the resort’s own materials recovery plant to be sorted and properly disposed of.
No walk in the park
The staff transport the garbage from the cabin back to the banka boat, as more tourists arrive to enjoy the beach.
Two tourists from South Korea pose for a classic beach pic on the shores of Dilumacad. The island sees hundreds of visitors every day, which means a welcomed boost to the economies near these destinations, but a potential threat to the very ecosystems they’re arriving to enjoy.
Oh yeah, it’s Earth Day
Not all tourists have tunnel vision. This Australian popped over to see what all the activity was. Macy fills him in on the ongoing projects on the various islands, skims over the issues they face, and reminds him that it’s Earth Day. “Oh yeah!” he shakes his head, “I knew that. This is really cool.”
The staff takes a needed break from the sun as they wait for the rest of the garbage to arrive. The resort staff is comprised of 95% locals, with only 8 hailing from Manila. They’re protective of their home and all the beauty it contains, which is why they’ve given up their day off to help keep it as close to perfect as it deserves to be.
Load it up
The garbage is hauled onto the official Banka Boat of Earth Day. Their banner flies over the side, in hopes of reminding passing tourist boats to respect the ecosystems here (and anywhere).
Besides being an eyesore on the beaches, garbage has many other very serious effects: smothering or destroying coral reefs, which take hundreds of years to form; becoming choking hazards for dolphins, turtles, whales, and other creatures; and forming plastic deposits that hurt microorganisms, throwing a wrench in the food chain.
Given the number of plastic bottles just gathered, it makes sense that everyone involved toted along reusable bottles. Except me (insert sheepish tourist face). At the resort, bottled water is overpriced on purpose, to motivate vacationers to purchase a reusable water bottle and refill it at the free water stations. With the sometimes oppressive heat, and number of activities available, it’s not surprising that plastic bottles are a mounting issue.
Fifty shades of blue
I’ve seen a lot of bodies of water, but these were some of the most colorful I’ve ever crossed. From colbalt, to mint, to postcard-aqua, to completely clear. Equally important to keeping these blue waters clean and healthy is protecting fresh water resources. The resort requires all non-drinking, non-cooking water to be desalinated ocean water. According to Sustainable Tourism, a village of 700 in a developing nation uses 500 liters in a month. Meanwhile, the average UK citizen uses 150 liters of water per day. For the average luxury hotel, it's an unbelievable 1800 liters per person, per day. Any way you look at it, protecting water is a priority to these coastal communities.
Garbage with a view
The front of our boat is loaded with bags of garbage, which I peer over as we pass by the Limestone Cliffs. These cliffs have been formed over thousands of years, shaped by running water and wind, surrounded by reefs and clear, shallow waters. While the other boats around us are gunning it into the extremely sensitive ecosystem, we pass by to head to another beach for cleanup.
The right thing to do
This is what one year’s worth of garbage from just one beach looks like. The Philippines has 7,109 islands, and more than 3,000 beaches. When I asked Macy why -- why does a resort and its staff even care, when it requires so much effort, and cost -- the answer was simple: “It’s our home. It’s just the right thing to do.”
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Kate Siobhan Mulligan is a Vancouver-Based writer, photographer, seeker of social justice, Beatles expert, coffee snob, and trophy wife. She also operates and travels with The Giving Lens, blending photography with humanitarian aid. In her spare time she enjoys surfing, craft beer, more coffee, and her husband. (And, for the record, it's Gaelic and it's pronounced "Sha-Vaughn")