Siargao, After A Wipeout

  • Apr
  • 5

Siargao, After a Wipeout

So much has been said about the island following the recent surfing incident. We pass the microphone on to its residents.

There’s trouble in paradise. After the recent surfing accident involving journalist Karen Davila’s son at Siargao’s Jacking Horse area and the subsequent blowup that followed her Facebook post, a spotlight is now trained on the surfing paradise’s lack of medical facilities and instructor regulation as local government units scramble to keep tourists reassured. Due to the uproar, the aforementioned surf spot was ordered temporarily closed by the governor of Surigao del Norte. The governor has also issued an executive order requiring all mayors in Siargao to provide 24-hour medical assistance to the public.

Much of the conversation that has led to these actions has revolved around criticisms towards the island’s lack of infrastructure for tourists, but these realities remain well after they leave Siargao.

On her blog, surf instructor and Surfista Travels founder Elaine Abonal has published a response to Ms. Davila, offering a resident’s perspective of the situation.

To further shed light on the daily realities of life in this world-class surf island, GRID asked Siargao residents Gianni Grifoni, owner of Kermit Siargao surf school and resort, and Niño Barbers, board member of Siargao Tourism Operator Association and Siargao Island Surf Association, and owner of Bayud Boutique Resort, about their take on the issue: How the local community continues to grapple with the conditions, and what their recommendations are for moving forward.


Photograph by Sonny Thakur

Elaine Abonal, ISA-certified surf instructor and founder of Surfista Travels surf school.


Elaine Abonal: A lot of people who live on the island and the locals are thankful that finally, someone has shed light on the issue of safety and health in Siargao island. The whole fiasco was indeed a good wake-up call. It has created conversation and, hopefully, change in the government level in terms of safety and healthcare for the island, not only for tourists but also the locals—those who need it most.

I agree that government budget should be allocated for the district hospital not only for the tourists, but for the locals that live and work here, that need it the most especially since not everyone can afford nor have the possibility to leave the island. I agree that there should be a clinic and a nurse every day in General Luna and different municipalities because the Health Center we know of is only open during certain hours, not on weekends, and most of the time it’s empty. The Dapa hospital is understaffed, is unequipped with medicine, instruments, and sufficient beds for patients that are there. The nurses and doctors there are tired, overworked and underpaid.

There surely must be budget given by the taxpayers to the government that can be given to health care instead of creating infrastructure to create more cash. We need clinics, doctors, nurses, and volunteers.

Surfing in the Philippines is very new and we have not as a country arrived at that level of professionalism in surfing yet (compared to France or Australia for example)…However, there are certified surf instructors in Siargao island. It is incorrect and unfair to the professional surfers and certified instructors here to have that statement shared on a national and international level. I think it is the responsibility of the resorts to recommend well-trusted and well-known local surf instructors. It is unfair and even insulting to say that all local surfers are unprofessional, that there is no requirement to be certified, no system of vetting trainers, that “anybody who surfs in Siargao can train in Siargao… Anybody with a surfboard who wants to earn P500 an hour can train. Period.” There is Surfista Travels. Carlito Nogalo and the Botiti Boys. Kermit Surf Camp Gwapitos Team. Very Good Nice Surf School of Jun Jun Nogalo. Jing’s Surf Camp. Matanjak Boys. Aye Catulay “Carding” and his team. All (and more) whom I have watched, surfed with, and witnessed take care of their students with utmost attention.

We have to admit that it is our responsibility as surfing students, parents, and enthusiasts to learn from the best and from those who are qualified, to find those to who have been recommended by people who already got lessons and to research about the risks involved whenever we want education in a new sport or endeavor in a new and remote destination. Accidents could be avoided if we make the right and educated decisions in the first place. We all have a choice in what situations and whose hands we put ourselves and loved ones in. (Read Elaine’s full post here).

Niño Barbers, owner of Bayud Boutique Resort:


Niño Barbers: There are already a lot of rules [in Siargao] that we always talk about and discuss. The number one problem are the LGUs. Without their support, no one can move forward, [and as of now] we don’t even have a lifeguard or medical assistance. Without them helping us, nothing’s gonna happen. All these needs, like the hospitals, et cetera—we’re all on the same page, all of us resort owners, business owners, we all need these things. Even the residents need to beg for a hospital! The government should be providing that for the locals. That’s so basic. There are so much funds: there’s PHP1.3 billion coming in and nothing [has] happened. Facilitating projects and bringing it to the locals is what’s needed.

Regarding the surf instructors: it is the responsibility of the resort owners to get certified surf instructors who have undergone proper training and education for their guests. There has to be a partnership of local surf instructors with the resort owners so they can work together… A lot of surf instructors here are not even really surf instructors. Sometimes they’re just tricycle drivers or habal-habal drivers who teach surfing to earn more money. They don’t even have proper education or training. It’s really a team effort for resort owners, surf instructors, and the LGU.

This incident has created really bad effects here, especially for the surf community. After that, the tourists just don’t trust [the instructors] anymore. They are questioning them. But, at least people are asking questions now: Are you certified? Is this safe? People are more aware. Resort owners are now looking for proper surf instructors. They should really be aware when learning for the first time, especially.

Personally, all of this really boils down to the LGUs. If the LGU is strict about implementing the laws of the island, executing ordinances for surfing, this wouldn’t happen… Without their help, we cannot move forward as a community. We want to implement rules but we can only do it with their help. We cannot move forward… A lot of people have died due to major accidents and there’s no hospital or proper medical assistance here. At least give them a fighting chance to live. We lost a friend last year from a motorcycle accident. You have to travel three hours by boat just to get proper treatment. They have to set aside political stuff, whatever political stuff with the other family, it all boils down to the LGU. There’s no help. We feel so helpless talaga. Wala talaga. We’ve been discussing with them for so many years already. It’s still the same. It’s really a wake-up call for everybody, it’s a domino effect.

Gianni Grifoni, owner and founder of Kermit Siargao surf school and Gwapitos.


Gianni Grifoni: This is not the first time an accident has happened in Siargao. I’m somehow thankful that because this happened to someone influential, it has exposed what’s really going on in Siargao. Without her, nothing would have changed so drastically.

We have had several guests involved in accidents and always there were no ambulances present. We used our van to bring patients to the hospital which had no doctors—that’s what’s happening daily in Siargao. But this time, after the incident with Karen’s son, the very next day there was a lifeguard, a parked ambulance, and a nurse on duty at the Jacking Horse area. The same day, the LGU closed Jacking Horse, a beginner’s surf spot, saying that if they closed the area then surf accidents would not happen anymore. What happened was that the beginners were brought to more dangerous surf spots. So, they opened Jacking Horse again. This was a knee-jerk reaction from the LGU; they just want to show the media that they are doing something, but what they’re doing is making things worse. They should have consulted STOA (Siargao Tourism Operator Association) and SISA (Siargao Island Surf Association) about what to do, plan it wisely, and implement it.

In Kermit’s surf school, all the instructors have been trained with the help of SISA. All instructors must pass first-aid training and CPR. There are even three grades of teaching, depending on the skills of the instructors:

Level 1 areas
Jacking Horse, small Quicksilver, and G1
Level 2 areas
small Quicksilver, Dako Island, Pesangan
Level 3 areas
guide at Cloud 9, Stampies, Rock Island

As of now, I know that Kermit/Gwapitos, Botiti Surf School, Surfista Travels, Jing from Jing’s Place Homestay, Harana Surf Resort, and private instructors Usot, Manette, Babal, and Carding are certified by the International Surfing Association (ISA). But nobody on the island is certified to teach kids with special needs. Resorts should check where they hire their instructors; sometimes, people hire a habal-habal driver just to pay less.

It’s a good thing also that Karen exposed the waste management problem which is so bad right now. DENR came in and tried to implement rules that were never implemented before by the LGU. All those things were supposed to be done a long time ago, before selling Siargao as a prime tourist destination and trying to fill up the island with more tourists.

Now, with all the changes and sudden reactions you see that it’s not easy to have a business in Siargao. My hope, and all the hopes from Siargao stockholders, is that this sad accident will help to make Siargao a better place and become more organized.


Photograph by Sonny Thakur