Pretty in Pink: The Mystical Sta. Cruz Islands of Zamboanga

Jun 2, 2013


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One of the most famous landmarks of Zamboanga City is a pair of coral islands barely four kilometers from downtown Zamboanga City.


Sta. Cruz Chico



According to my grade school classmate Icelle D. Borja, now a historical researcher specializing in Zamboanga lore, “the islands were named Santa Cruz because they lie in the crossroads on the way to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) when the Spaniards first mapped out the two isles on April 6, 1598.


“My archival research led me to a rare Spanish Survey Map of Zamboanga dated c (1885) with Serial Doc. No. 280 571 No. 1831 showing the Town of Zamboanga with the two Santa Cruz Islands of Zamboanga City. The big Sta. Cruz island lies directly below a cross based on their Map,” Ms. Borja writes in an article posted in


Officially known as the Great (Sta. Cruz Grande) and Little Sta. Cruz (Sta. Cruz Chico) Islands Protected Landscape and Seascape, the 1,877 hectare (4,640 acres) was officially declared a protected area by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources  (DENR) through Proclamation No. 271 on April 23, 2000. (PAWB).


Earlier, the late President Ferdinand Marcos declared the two islands as a National Park (P.D. #654 issued Feb. 4, 1975) including its foreshore and ancient Muslim burial grounds. P.D.#1801 issued on Nov. 10, 1978 further declared the area as a tourist zone and marine reserve under the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) now known as the TIEZA (Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority).


Sama Bangingi family grave plot in Sta. Cruz Grande


Tourism and airline officials have organized trips by travel writers from Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga to benchmark the new air route between the two cities established by Cebu Pacific Air late last year.  Cebu Pacific flies from Cagayan de Oro to Zamboanga three times a week every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. At present, CEB operates 60 domestic and 32 international routes. A new international route is scheduled to start on October 7, 2013 between Manila and Dubai. The first group of travel journalists from Zamboanga visited Cagayan de Oro last November 27-29, 2012 while Kagay-anon travel writers returned the favor last Feb. 12-14, 2013.


I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the latter group. I grew up in Zamboanga City and had been living in Cagayan de Oro for the past 32 years. In between, I  never had the opportunity to revisit this famous pair of islands which we used to frequent during my high school and college days so I was looking forward to see how it’s fared during the lifetime I was away.


During my salad days we used to take our rides from the Lantaka Hotel-by-the-Sea but the embarkation point has now been moved to the Paseo del Mar which is a definite improvement over the old one. Even the boats are now bigger, compared to the outrigger pump boats we used to take. The waves were bigger in the afternoon and it was an adventure in itself coming back to Lantaka with the little boats (3-4 passengers only compared to the big 16-seater boats of today) dipping in between the wave troughs that you lost sight of the mainland and appeared to be on the brink of sinking. But the Sama boatmen were experts and always brought us home safely albeit sometimes wet.


It was late in the morning when we embarked at Paseo del Mar for Santa Cruz Grande which is the only one open to the public, with Sta. Cruz restricted (as a military facility). After an uneventful 15-minute ride we arrived at Santa Cruz Grande. Situated some 4 kms (2.49 miles) from downtown Zamboanga, it boasts of the only pink sand beach in the Philippines. The red color comes from bits of the red organ pipe coral (tubipora musica) mixed with its endemic white sand.


Red tube organ corals

Red tube organ corals color Sta Cruz Grande's sand pink


The Basilan Straight links the Sulu and Celebes Seas, making it a natural channel for fishes moving from one sea to the other. The underwater scenery here can be spectacular. According to my cousin Philipp’s (who now calls Florida home) website, Zamboanga and Santa Cruz Islands were frequented by German and Italian tourists who called it their hidden paradise in the little Spain of Asia during the late 1960s and early 1970s, which is affirmed by my grade school and high school classmate Romel Racho whose family used to run the local Baron’s Travel branch.


Cirrus clouds over Sta. Cruz Grande


Our guide told us Sta. Cruz Grande was formerly uninhabited since it was the traditional burial grounds of the Samal Dilaut. They are the ocean going Sama (“dilaut” refers to the ocean).  The Sama Dilaut are traditionally sea gypsies and houseboat dwellers.  Recently they have been semi-nomadic, often living out at sea for days, weeks or months, but gradually adopting the lifestyle of their Sama brothers and building their homes on the coastlines of the Philippines and Malaysia.


According to Ms. Borja, “in the Pre-Hispanic period the two Santa Cruz Islands were the sacred burial grounds for the Sama, Badjao and other local: ethnic groups in the area. Some local Sama-Zamboangueños know this island simply as ISLA. Musa Jimlaniand Bahaya Sahiyal said they call the islands Pagkubulan – a place to bury their dead or a burial place.”


“Sama-Zamboangueños based in Rio Hondo, Cawa-Cawa and in the West coast area of Sinunuc, and Caragasan bury their dead in Santa Cruz island. The Sama-Badjao culture and their belief system indicate that they bury their dead near the sea shore since they are a sea-faring people living in the coastal areas”. The term Badjao has become the more commonly known name for the Sama Dilaut in the Philippines although they prefer to call themselves asSama.” 


Snorkeling and scuba diving among the coral gardens especially of Sta Cruz Chico are excellent, though the coral gardens in Sta Cruz Grande have been degraded, unlike in my college days when you could see all sorts of tropical fish not five feet from the pink sand shores. TIEZA maintains huts and bathroom facilities for picnickers and beach volleyballers so there’s lots to do for sun and beach worshippers.


However, the most fascinating places for me in Sta. Cruz Grande are its ancient burial grounds of the Sama Dilautand its mysterious inland lagoon.


Although Ms. Borja said the Zamboanga City Council has issued an ordinance forbidding further burials on the island, our guide showed us recent graves which include plots belonging to one family or clan. It is fascinating to see the intricately carves sundok (gravestones), miniature wooden boats and kubol (grave plots) leading far inland to the island, indicating their ancient age.


According to Ms. Borja who made them the subject of her masteral thesis, sundoks are wrought from selected first class hardwoods which are specially carved by a local artisan. Aside from hardwoods, they come in stone, granite, porous corals, adobe, and also boat-like symbols with outriggers and the vinta itself as gravemarker replete with the “saguan” (paddle)  as vessel for the soul’s travel to the afterlife complete with his personal accoutrements such as cigarettes, clothes, the betel nut (nga-nga) chew accessories, lime, palm nut (areca) buyo and cola leafs placed in the vinta.


“There are female and the male sundoks: male sundoks have phallic poles carved on all sides and painted with bright colors while female sundoks come in flat fern-like fronds intricately carved, sometimes embellished with combs and appliqued with mirrors indicating feminine accessories.


In some areas they are zoomporphic symbolizing a fish , a dolphin, or a sea cow, and the Kura-horse which in their belief system carries one’s spirit to the nether world. On some islands I found anthropomorphic sundoks which look like mushrooms in the form of a man or woman.


Sundoks which were the cultural  items of Ms. Borja for her thesis are now on display at the Musee du Quai Branley in Paris as part of an ongoing Philippine Exhibit.


“The three on exhibit are authentic old-style sundoks which have been exposed to harsh weather and the elements, thus the colored pigments are gone. If paint is available they color these and put these on the graveyards. Variety is like the thumbprint, no two sundoks are the same. I have encountered hundreds of these types around Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and have documented all of them.”


Other locals tell me the graves even include those of ancient Mandarins who could not bury their dead in Zamboanga during the Spanish times since they were not local citizens. Unfortunately, these graves have reportedly been pillaged by some unscrupulous grave diggers who have found ceramic ware and other valuables such as an 18-inch Ming plate allegedly sold for P36, 000 to one of the present candidates for the senate. Tsk, tsk, tsk, TIEZA should secure these graves more closely else even those of the Sama Dilaut be ransacked by these rascals.


The inland lagoon is another fascinating place for visitors to explore. We had to do this in our boats at noon time since that was when the high tide came in and made it possible for our big boats to enter the lagoon. The mangrove trees are a fascinating sight in themselves and the quiet broken only by the chirping of the birds is better experienced first-hand than described in words. Our big boats were unfortunately unable to venture further inland so we saw the famous fruit bats hanging from the trees in broad daylights from afar but apparently they could discern us even at that distance and set up a din and racket of protest against the intruders who dared disturb their slumber.    


Even for these last two alone, I know I’m going back there someday. There’s a lot more to these islands than meets the eye, and you know because you feel it in your bones.

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