Surfing is still a growing sport in the Philippines. In the past five years or so, it’s become more accessible thanks to improved roads, more people traveling into the country, the emergence of new surf resorts, camps, and even brands.
Meanwhile, Siargao, a remote island in the south of the Philippines, has always been a surfing destination for the global surf community. When I first visited Siargao in 2005, I had just three years of surfing under my belt. I knew surf lessons weren’t readily available, most waves were reef breaks, and that a lot of surf spots were only accessible by boat — all this on a remote island far away from the conveniences of a large city. I couldn’t be careless and needed to avoid potentially dangerous accidents. It was real island life.
Recently, the experience of news reporter Karen Davila in Siargao shed light on the issue of safety and health for people on the island. She shared her now highly-publicized story of the “first-time trip to Siargao GONE WRONG,” placing her young son in a surf lesson through a local resort, who then returned in less than an hour with a terrible case of reef rash.
My own thoughts and opinions are based on what I have experienced as a surfer in the Philippines for the past 16 years, as an ISA certified surf instructor, and as someone who has been surfing, living, and working with the locals in Siargao for five years now.
First, the people who live on the island are thankful someone has shed light on the issues of safety and health on Siargao. It is unfortunate that Karen Davila’s son David had a terrible accident and the stresses of poor access to medical care. But this is our reality. Money is, in fact, being spent on a sports complex, on roads, on lengthening the airport runway, on building unnecessary seawalls, on more flights, on more resorts, restaurants, and stores, yet no access to a proper hospital still.
I have spent the night with my boyfriend in the Dapa District Hospital. A friend of mine died because the hospital was not equipped to help extreme cases and emergencies. I have assisted a tourist and spent an entire day in the emergency room when he’d broken an arm at Cloud 9. I’ve even brought a friend with a broken hand to the hospital, only to find nobody was there to help.
Oli and I spent the night and the morning at Siargao’s hospital taking care of a friend who sustained a head injury from a fall from skateboarding. The hospital experience is far from paradise. These are some of the things I’ve observed: Island Life Reality at the Dapa District Hospital: – Underpaid / unpaid / understaffed / tired cranky Doctors & Nurses – X-Ray machine with no one able to read the results, no CT scan, etc. – No toilet paper, towels, facetowels, pillows, blankets, bedsheets – you have to bring them yourself. – No fans – bring them yourself. – Dogs digging through trash in the hospital in the middle of the night. – Dirty unsanitary bathrooms. – Patients and caretakers sleep on the same bed because there is nowhere else. – Not enough beds for all the patients. Where will the next patient go? – The nurse asking me to put the thermometer and check the patient myself. It’s our choice to live here and deal with the reality of coming to live on an island away from comforts and technology of the city. But the Siargao “boom” is real – it is here now. Companies and businesses are spending so much on infrastructure and on more flights to get more tourists and business in. But proper professional HEALTH CARE is what this island needs the MOST. I pray money and funds also go to this or a proper hospital in Siargao island. Not everyone can afford or have the time and luxury to fly to Manila or Cebu in a heartbeat. Next “proper” hospital is in Butuan. Around 6-8 hours travel from here. Thankfully with the help of kind people and friends, our friend is now in Manila getting proper care and treatment.
Tourists, expats, and people with money can go to either Butuan, Cebu, or Manila for a proper hospital. A majority of the locals, however, have to make do. Karen Davila’s son was lucky he only suffered scratches and had the resources to fly to Manila for better care. The Davila family was fortunate to be VIPs rushed to the hospital in a car — something that is a luxury to most here who would have to make their way to an emergency room by motorcycle or tricycle.
I do agree with one part of what she said. Yes, something should be done about all this. I agree that government budget should be allocated to the district hospital — for both the tourists and locals who live and work here. Honestly, the people who call Siargao home need it the most. I agree that there should be a clinic and a nurse in General Luna and different municipalities every day and at all hours. The Dapa hospital is understaffed and unequipped with medicine, instruments, and sufficient beds for patients. The nurses and doctors there are tired, overworked and underpaid.
It is true that there are no strict requirements or specific certifications to teach and push people into waves. As I’ve mentioned, surfing in the Philippines is very new and as a country, we have not arrived at that level of professionalism you’d expect in a place like Australia. Adequate training and certifications are expensive. I had to fly to Bali to get my ISA (International Surfing Association) training and certification, and I don’t even know if there’s a government budget to accommodate something like this.
There are certified surf instructors in Siargao. It’s unfair to the professionals, the certified instructors, and the community here for Karen Davila to paint a different picture on an international scale. Older, competent locals mentor the younger surfers and organizations like Siargao Surf Instructor Association, La Union Surf Club, and others are working to make the sport more organized and safe here.
In my own business, we’ve invested in life vests and soft top surfboards. We have the parents sign a waiver form making sure they are aware of the dangers involved in surfing. We ask and make sure that the child is comfortable in the water, if they’ve surfed before, and what their limitations are. We conduct very detailed, basic surf theory on the beach and have a safety signal to end a lesson in case conditions make an unsafe turn. Most importantly, when we have children as students (especially children with special needs), we have two instructors per child. One pushes the board and the other catches them. This is how we and other locals surf schools have done it for several years in the Philippines.
Junrey Taoy, one of the people involved in the lesson, has expressed his apologies for what happened that day, acknowledging their mistake of not having a “catcher” available for the session. I know and have surfed with Junrey personally and it’s unfortunate that this single incident can endanger a person’s future, their livelihood, and their ability to make a living in a place like Siargao thanks to the emotional rant of a mother who made hasty generalizations that were broadcast to the entire country.
Like many others have expressed, I also feel it was Karen Davila’s responsibility as a parent of an autistic child to research the best instructors on the island. I’ve worked with many parents that were diligent, asking where my instructors learned to surf, how long we’ve taught surfing, and if we have experience teaching children. Many of these parents also stayed nearby and watched their child, with some even bringing their own first aid kits, fully aware an accident could happen. As a parent of an autistic child, I feel one must be more picky with whom their child learns to surf with and know much more about the risks involved. Would you choose or hand over your child to a random person for swimming or scuba diving lessons?
It is unfair and even insulting to paint the picture that all local surfers here are unprofessional, that there are no requirements for certification, no system of vetting trainers, or to suggest that “anybody who surfs in Siargao can train in Siargao.” I have personally become a better surfer and surf instructor with the help of the locals in Siargao. They have kept an eye on me, kept me safe, given me tips, encouraged me, and saved me when I was in danger. I have also seen many of these people get injured, sick, or just tired while doing their best to make sure their students are safe and happy.
I understand that as a parent, everything that happens to your child is a big deal. I can imagine it would be heartbreaking to see your child with scratches across their chest — something no mother would want their child to ever experience. But the fact of the matter is scratches, blood, and bruises are a reality of surfing, especially over a reef. Stepping on sea urchins, getting stung by jellyfish, scratching our feet on coral, getting hit by our own board, and getting hit by someone else’s surfboard all come with the territory, whether you’re experienced or taking your first lesson.
In my experiences, I’ve found that locals are very urgent and selfless in their efforts to help, which is opposite to the picture Davila’s painted of an “ay nasugatan” attitude among the locals when her son was hurt. This has ranged from locals getting an injured surfer or bodyboarder out of harm’s way in heavy surf at Cloud 9 to rushing a young girl to the hospital when she’d simply cut her heel. The people here do want to help tourists because it’s the right thing to do and because we want to keep the community and each other safe. It’s unfair to characterize the local people here as uncaring.
As surfers and as people used to the “wild” life on this island, we know when something is a big deal and when it’s not. When “poor” people in Siargao get abrasions, we just let it heal. Going to the doctor for scratches or cuts is not a right but a privilege and a luxury that is only afforded to the VIPs.
This whole fiasco was indeed a good wake up call. It’s given me hope that someday the blame won’t just fall when things go wrong, but responsibility will be taken for our own actions. I also hope all this will serve as a lesson for tourists and travelers visiting remote islands and surfing destinations. Know that when we travel to a new place, we have to be prepared. We can’t expect everything to be perfectly safe for us when we arrive. Research the beaches you are going to. If you want quality and safe surf lessons then choose the most qualified person or group for the job by taking recommendations from a trusted source. And finally, I hope this shows people that being a surf instructor is a real high-risk job. Surf instructors are teachers on an extreme level, subjecting ourselves to many things we cannot control, putting not only students but ourselves at risk.
And to be honest, surf lessons aren’t going to make any of us rich in this country. This is the only source of income for many of the locals who have entire families to feed. It’s unfair to judge these “non-certified people who just want to earn 500 pesos.” What they earn is not just pocket money for shopping. I and so many others teach because we have a passion to share our love of surfing. We believe that doing what we love and sharing it is our own way of contributing and of giving the Philippines a good name.
This is the real gift of surfing: we get scratched, bruised, and travel to remote places looking for the perfect wave because we love it. We love the feeling of riding a wave, of being one with nature, the power of the ocean, and the things we cannot control. We learn every day from our mistakes yet we go back again and again and again. We get back up every time we wipe out. A surf instructor is someone who shares this experience with their students. We want others to know what it feels like to be stoked and we find happiness in being part of amazing experiences in the water.