How Siargao Is Shifting to Fishing and Farming Amid the Pandemic, As Captured by Eduardo Zobel

IMAGE Eduardo H. Zobel

On the island of Siargao, people are returning to nature. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has broken the world order, has affected the island’s community in a different way.

“It is undeniable that what our world is going through right now seems to be pulled from a science fiction film. However, at the very least, it has given us all time to think about how we are living and how we are purposing our lives,” says artist and photographer Eduardo Herrera Zobel, who finds himself in Siargao during the extended community quarantine.

Stimpy's Island

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel.

Slowing Down Time

Though much of the world is living through strange times, Zobel describes the days in Siargao as peaceful, slow, and idyllic. 

The empty beach of Guyam Island

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

Hours are spent on working on projects uninterrupted and days are filled with reading, meditating, doing yoga, playing music, and cooking. “Not having to be anywhere else than where I am has given me the space and time to design my life how I like to live it,” he says. 

Preparing home-cooked meals, in particular, is “a rare blessing” and something that begins outside the kitchen—in the waters of Siargao. Zobel shares how he has reconnected with something from his childhood: spearfishing. “Not only do I heal in the ocean while doing so, but most days, I reach sunset with a full plate of freshly caught fish, which for me is absolutely amazing,” he shares. 

Returning to Siargao

Before the quarantine was enforced, Zobel was in La Union for a private pilot examination with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines. The test was canceled and soon the lockdown was announced. With Clark International Airport about to close, Zobel hopped one of the last flights to Siargao. “It was the right choice to make!” he says. 

The quarantine has allowed people to be more present in the moment.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .
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He returned to Siargao because it is close to his heart. Zobel first visited the island 10 years ago to teach his brother how to surf, something he wished someone had done for him when he was young. Over the years, the artist spent more time in Siargao until he found permanent residence, first at the house of Bravo Resort owner Alex Gari (in exchange for the space, he played music at the resort) and now, at a place of his own in Manilao. 

Locals have returned to the bounty of the sea and land for food.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

The photographer describes the inimitable magic of Siargao in how it has “developed organically,” built slowly over time “not by large corporations but rather, by individuals who connected with the land, the waves, and the environment itself.” 

“Here, on the island, we have had a rich environment that, for now, has provided us with most everything we need to get through the current global situation,” Zobel muses. “At the same time, it has raised an immense amount of awareness on the question: How self-sustainable are we, and how are we living our lives?”


Adjusting to the New Normal

Like the rest of the world, Siargao had to adapt to life in lockdown, the new normal that has arisen because of the pandemic.

The famous waves of Siargao are now devoid of tourists and surfers.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

But even in quarantine, the waves, “the spiritual sanctuaries” of the community, as Zobel describes them, called. And so, without transportation to the beach, people made their way to the island’s famous surf breaks, paddling for hours or walking on dry reef during low tide. It was worth it. Without the throngs of tourists taking photos or learning how to surf, the beaches and waves were naked, occupied only by a handful of people—something that hasn’t happened in decades, the resident shares. 

Stranded on the island, Nuki helps optimize the community's vegetable distribution system.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

Residents Mark David Pintucan and Iris Aroa promote an inclusive economy that benefits the local community.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

“I was able to share some of my favorite waves in the world with just a few of the natives and best friends. It was sublime, to say the least,” Zobel says. “I can still feel the smiles we all were wearing through this magical pocket of the island.” 


The experience was short-lived. As quarantine must be followed, local police took the surfers from the waves to the police station. They were released the next day. “However, it was enough of a statement to make us repurpose how we are investing our time and efforts until we are all safe to roam the world again,” he says. 

Shifting to Farming and Fishing

Though surfing is suspended and movement restricted, Zobel looks to the bright side, noting how the community where he finds himself in lockdown is surrounded by nature, something that crowded urban cities need right now. “I am happy to say that most of us live somewhere where we can step outside and feel the sun,” he says. 

Mark, co-founder of Lokal Tabo, holds up one of the farm's seedlings.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel.

Permabeds of natural greens at Bayatakan Farm

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

The community appears to be in good spirits, too. Zobel describes the people as “happy to be alive,” content with the quiet and peace, and filled with a positive outlook—“compassionate, caring, forgiving, and forward-thinking.” In these strange times, they are not falling to despair or anger or worry, choosing the help themselves and, more important, those in need instead. 

He reports how the community is investing in sustainable farming to make sure vital needs are met and people remain strong and healthy to fight off disease. “Putting our hands into the soil has also been one the most positive outcomes of this situation,” he says. Siargao farms like Lokal Tabo and others are operating daily to provide the community with the fresh produce, which Zobel says he pairs with his catch from the sea like lapu-lapu

Saruq flies in the air with his fresh produce from Lokal Tabo.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

Residents go home with their basket of greens

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel.

The photographer, himself, has contributed to COVID-19 relief, sending a 50-kilogram sack of rice to people in the community. But what happened next surprised him: “By night time, villagers had sent me a massive platter of fresh, red huge crabs! How did this even happen? I was the one supposed to be helping them out and I ended up having a full seafood feast with my island brothers and sisters!” 

Putting Things Into Perspective

The worldwide pandemic has put into sharp focus the things that matter most: food and home, family and relationships, life and freedom, and our very place in the universe. 

Zobel remembers an unforgettable fishing trip: In search of food, he and his friend Mingu ventured toward “an extremely healthy reef” and, when Zobel jumped into the water, he was greeted by the colors of the corals, as well as “a family of very decently sized sharks” that was protecting this particular ecosystem.

'I have learned to be happy with the important things in life and to be very grateful for what I've been blessed with,' says Zobel.

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel .

He was holding a speargun, from which a fish was hanging, when he spotted a man-sized shark. “I stared at it, mesmerized, and watched it blissfully roaming the ocean bottom,” Zobel recalls. “However, I soon realized it caught an interest in me.” The shark circled underneath him and then swam to the surface. 

Zobel wasn’t sure if the predator was marking his territory or interested in his catch, but when the shark was a meter or two away from him, it swam off. “Nevertheless, that finely tuned creation of earth put me in my place!” he says. Later, Mingu caught a giant trevally or talakitok, which became their meal, filling their bellies, giving them happiness, and offering them a lesson, as well. 


Mingu with his catch of the day, a giant trevally, also know in the Philippines as talakitok

Photo by Eduardo H. Zobel.

“We have grown to believe we are huge as human beings,” Zobel says, “however, the truth is that we are this miracle of life living in a glimpse of space and time when put into the right perspective.” 

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Clifford Olanday
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