Our Reality: Surf Instructors and Surfing Lessons in Siargao Island and the Philippines

April 3, 2018

My Reaction to Karen Davila’s Facebook Rant

by Elaine Abonal


Surfing as a sport is still in its early stages in the Philippines – compared to other countries like Hawaii or Australia, surfing is still NEW. In the last five or more years, surfing has grown in popularity – making it the new thing to do when you visit a beach or surfing destination. What once was an activity only “hardcore” people did where you had to drive far or trek to hard-to-reach destinations, surfing is now accessible to more people because of more roads, more flights, more surf resorts, surf tour packages, surf camps, surfing brands, etc. It has become popular and “cool.” Everyone wants to be a SURFER – although not everyone is interested in putting in the “real work” and learning what surfing really is about.

Siargao Island, which is a remote island in the south of the Philippines on the Pacific side, has always been known to be a surfing destination for professional surfers. It is where international competitions are held hosting pro surfers from around the world. I personally visited Siargao in 2005 only after 3 years of surf lessons because I knew and researched that it was not easy to learn here, that surf lessons were not available, that all breaks to surf at were reef breaks, that some surf spots were only accessible by boat, and that it was a remote island far from any conveniences of bigger cities – meaning I had to be careful not to get into any major accidents. I have been blessed to see the beauty of Siargao from the last 13 years when everything was wilder, more pure, when there were no roads nor the comforts of the city,  surfing spots were empty, there was no internet and no social media. It was real island life.

There has been a BIG change in the last 6 months in Siargao island – especially for the locals, the surfers and the state of tourism here. There was the release of the SIARGAO movie making surfing and in my opinion, Siargao look “cool to party at” and photogenic for the younger generation as well as the change of FIVE flights per DAY, which once was two flights per week. And there is of course, social media where beautiful photos and experiences are shared by the hundreds and thousands per day.

I have read the negative experience of news reporter Karen Davila in Siargao online – since it has been shared thousands of times and numerous friends have tagged me and have asked my opinion on the whole issue and what was stated.

My thoughts, opinions and what I have to say here 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 in the past 5 years.

  1. First of all, 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. It is unfortunate that Karen Davila’s son David had an accident and had to go through having poor access to a good hospital and immediate and proper care. But see – this is our REALITY. Money IS being spent on a sports complex, on roads, on lengthening the airport runway, on building unnecessary sea walls, on more flights, on more resorts, restaurants, and stores YET there is still no proper hospital here.

I have spent the night with my boyfriend in the said Dapa District Hospital (read post HERE) to take care of our friend who had a HEAD / BRAIN INJURY. A surfer friend of ours (and many other locals) have DIED because the hospital was not equipped to help extreme cases and emergencies. I have assisted a tourist and spent an entire day at the Emergency Room of the Dapa Hospital because he broke his upper arm during a surfing accident in Cloud 9. I’ve brought a friend to the Health Center in General Luna because he hurt his hand (he thought it was a sprain, but he actually broke bones) but it was empty and nobody was there to help.

Tourists, expats or people with money or that can afford it go to either Butuan, Cebu or Manila to go to a proper working hospital. Majority of the locals though, just have to make do with what is here, live with the frustration of the state of their health care and hope that they get better somehow – preferably at home where it is actually more comfortable.

Karen Davila’s son David was “lucky” that he only got scratches and that he would fly back to Manila to get even better care if needed. People who live here unfortunately don’t have that “luck” or privilege. Some people can have major accidents but end up stuck here. Also most, if not all of the people who need to go to the local hospital – whether their head is bleeding or not – do so on a motorcyle or a tricycle. She was also lucky that she was a VIP and that her son was rushed to the hospital in a CAR – which to us isn’t a right, but a luxury on this island.

I agree with this part of what she said. YES, something should be done about all this. 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 EVERYDAY 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 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.

Siargao Island’s Dapa District Hospital’s REALITY.

There surely must be budget given by the tax payers to the government that can be given to health care instead of creating infrastructure in order to create  more cash. People here need SAFETY and HEALTH CARE. We need CLINICS, DOCTORS, NURSES and VOLUNTEERS.

I am glad that somehow Lifeguards were stationed in the past days at Jacking Horse and ordinances were made. But my hope is that it actually PUSHES THROUGH and that this is still an actual concern not only during Holy Week or during the International Surfing Competition, but every day of the year.

  1. It is true that there are no strict requirements for the whole of the Philippines by resorts to have a specific certification to teach and push people in the water to learn how to surf – be it in La Union, Baler, Zambales, Siargao, etc. As I’ve mentioned, 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). Training and certifications around the country are few and rare and have only started in the last couple of years. They are expensive. I had to fly to Bali to get my ISA (International Surfing Association) training and Certification. I don’t even know if there is a government budget for this.

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. Some of the surfers here have been certified recently by ISA (International Surfing Association) and I also remember Paolo Soler coming here to do training with ASI (Association of Surfing Instructors) a few years ago. Older competent local professional surfers mentor the newer younger surfers should they want to teach – as I see with the local boys I surf with (Carlito Nogalo and the Botiti Boys). SISA – Siargao Surf Instructor Association (apologies, I need to double check this) exists as well as LUSC (La Union Surf Club), and other surf groups in the country that are trying to make surfing more organized.



Whenever we do lessons with Surfista Travels for example, especially with children, we invest in life vests and even soft top surfboards. We have the parents sign a waiver form making sure they are AWARE of the dangers that are involved in surfing. We ask and make sure that the child is comfortable in the water, if they’ve surfed before and their limitations. We conduct very detailed basic surf theory on the beach and have a safety signal to end the lesson in case we find conditions unfavorable for the surf lessons (whether it be the tide, number of people / crowd in the line up, weather, current, discomfort of the student). And most importantly – when we have children as students (especially children with special needs as I have done several times with my friend Luke Landrigan in La Union several years ago), we have 2 instructors per child. One pushes the board and the other is a catcher as we are well aware of the limitations of the child compared to an adult. This is how we and other locals have done it for several years in the Philippines.

Junrey Taoy, one of the surf instructors of Karen Davila’s sons, has expressed his apologies on his Facebook (see here) saying that he was very sorry about everything that happened, that his friend Jocol got scared and disappeared and admits their mistake of not getting catchers. I know and have surfed with Junrey and I also feel that it is unfortunate that this happened with him and that the whole incident can endanger his, his friend’s and other locals’ futures of being surf instructors because of a very emotional rant of a mother who made hasty generalizations which was broadcasted to the whole country.

I know that the problem of habal habal drivers teaching when they don’t know what they are actually doing has existed especially during peak season of Holy Week. We have talked about this with other resort owners. Knowing that this situation exists, I think it is FIRST, the responsibility of the RESORTS to recommend well trusted and well known local surfer instructors. Being in a surf destination where the main activity is surfing, resort owners or managers should research well and even experience themselves who the best people on the island are to get surf lessons from.

Second, I also feel that it was Karen Davila’s responsibility as a parent of a child with autism, to have done research on who the best people are to get lessons from for her son on the island. Because as mentioned, maybe the resort focuses more on being a luxury resort instead of knowing much about surfing.

We have had parents who have asked around and researched about the best instructors specifically for children. They ask where we have learned to surf, how long we’ve been teaching, if we have any experience with children. Parents were also always around and watched their child, bringing their own first aid kits with them knowing that minor accidents could happen.

Would you choose or hand over your child to a random person if they were taking swimming or scuba diving lessons? No. More so with SURFING. Surfing is an extreme sport where it is done in the middle of the ocean on reef breaks (if in Siargao) and therefore with even more chances of risks. As a parent of a child with autism, I feel that you must be more picky with whom your child will learn surfing from and know much more about the risks involved.

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. Nicky Blancada. All (and more) whom I have watched, surfed with, and witnessed take care of their students with utmost attention.


Together with my training and experience, I have personally become a better SURFER and SURF INSTRUCTOR because of locals in Siargao. They have kept an eye on me, kept me safe, given me tips, encouraged me to surf better and saved me when my leash snapped and I lost my board. I have seen many of them also get injured, sick or tired doing their best and making sure their students are safe and HAPPY – teaching in the cold during the monsoon without proper thick surf suits or in the direct sun during summer without having access to rashguards or sunscreen or hats or sunglasses (anyway that’s a whole different topic!)

Main point: Karen Davila has brought out the fact that we need professional surf instructors (which we actually do). But like I said, surfing is new to this country and we are working our way towards that goal slowly. We also have to admit that it is our responsibility as surfing students, parents, 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 do 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. 

  1. The statement, “The attitude of some instructors on Cloud 9 is ‘Ay nasugatan…’ and stare at you like it’s absolutely natural. No panic, no rush, just local chit chat like it happens all the time, and it’s not that big a deal. Safety clearly isn’t top priority.”

First, I understand that as a parent, everything that happens to your child is a huge deal. Yes, Karen Davila’s son had big scratches across his chest and I can imagine it would be heartbreaking and something no mother would ever want their child to experience. Showing more concern from people would have been comforting.

But the fact of the matter is – minor scratches, blood and bruises DO happen when we surf – especially on a reef break which is pretty much everywhere in Siargao Island. When we go surfing, we also run these risks: stepping on sea urchin, getting stung by jellyfish, scratching our feet in coral reef, getting hit by our own surfboard, getting hit by someone else’s surfboard, spraining our ankle, losing a tooth, dislocating our shoulder, getting super sore and tired the next day, etc. You get the picture. All these can happen. It’s all part of the game. Like I said, surfing is an extreme sport and learning in Siargao is not the easiest break to learn on.

In cases where major accidents happen, I found that the locals were very immediate and selfless in their help. On one situation when a bodyboarder broke his arm when the waves were big in Cloud 9, I saw Cloud 9 or Siargao locals help to get a surfboard, put the guy out of harm’s way, have someone call for an ambulance and stay with him the whole day until he got flown out to Cebu. I have also seen the locals immediately help and get a surfboard to help carry a girl who cut her heel to the clinic or hospital. I have heard of stories of injured people on the side of the road being helped by locals. All of these people are tourists and strangers to those Siargao locals who helped. They just wanted to help because it was the right thing and because we want to keep the community and each other SAFE.

I feel that it is unfair to describe the local people as uncaring or people who don’t think and just “stare” when something grave actually does happen.

As surfers or as people who live here who are used to the “wilder” life, we know when something is a big deal and not a big deal. As mentioned in a comment I read by someone who lives here, when “poor” people or locals here get abrasions, we just let it heal. Going to the doctor for scratches or cuts is not a right but instead a privilege or luxury that is only experienced by the rich / celebrity / VIP.

The whole fiasco was indeed a good wake up call. It has created conversation and hopefully change in the governmental level in terms of SAFETY, MEDICAL HELP and HEALTH CARE for the island not only for tourists but also the locals – those who need it the most.

It is my hope somehow with all of this that someday, blame isn’t just pointed out when things go wrong but responsibility not only for our own actions or choices, but for each other. 

I also hope all this will serve as good LESSONS for tourists and travelers going to remote islands and surfing destinations – whether you are a parent or not. Know that when we travel to a new destination, we have to know what is there and be prepared with the situation. We can’t expect everything to be perfect when we get there.

Research on what kind of beach you are going to – Is it a sand bottom break or a reef break? If you want quality surf lessons and to ensure that you are SAFE, CHOOSE the most qualified person or group for the job and make sure the recommendations come from a trusted source.  Also again, do your research. Ask or research what kind of island or destination you are going to – Is it child friendly? Is it as developed as big surfing cities like in Australia or Hawaii or is it a remote island in the middle of the Pacific ocean south of the Philippines where really – everything is still being built and don’t even have the BEST for their residents much more for visitors? Is the hype accurate or is it all just how the outside perceives Siargao to be instead of what it actually is (a surfing destination filled with reef breaks for more experienced surfers)?

I also hope that this EDUCATES people that being a “surf instructor” is also a real high risk job. Surf instructors are teachers on an extreme level – subjecting ourselves to so many things we cannot control (the ocean, weather, currents, etc.) putting not only students but ourselves at risk to anything that can happen.

And to be honest, SURF INSTRUCTING in this country isn’t going to make any of us rich. In fact, this is the only source of income for many of the locals who have entire families to feed. It’s hard to judge these “non certified people who just want to earn 500 pesos.” Many and most of them are simple people living simple lives relying on this income as a way to feed their families. What they earn is not just pocket money for shopping. Also, they don’t earn P500, they earn only half since the other half goes to board rental and some of them have to spend on gasoline whenever they pick up their students.

I, and so many others, teach surfing because we have a passion to share our love of surfing, because we want to teach our students the right and safe way, and because we feel that doing what we love for other people in this country is our own way of contributing and of giving the PHILIPPINES a good name.

I hope for a better future for professionalism of surf instructing not only in Siargao but the whole of the Philippines, that resorts and the local governments give the locals the SUPPORT, TRAINING or even equipment that they need so they could be better and more equipped surf instructors, and that tourists realize and respect a very serious job with little pay.

This is the sport and gift of REAL surfing: we get scratched, bruised, travel to remote destinations to find the perfect wave despite the risks because we LOVE it. We love the feeling of riding a wave, of being exposed and one with nature, the power of the ocean, and the things we cannot control. We learn everyday from every mistake and every mishap yet we go again and again and again. We get back up every time we wipe out. And as surf instructors, this is what we try to share and impart to our students. We want to share what it feels like to be “stoked” and we find happiness in being part of people’s amazing and memorable experiences in the water and in the surf. We are all trying our best here.


I’d like to introduce myself in case you don’t know who I am – I am Elaine Abonal, owner of Surfista Travels. I first started surfing in 2002 in La Union and have traveled around the Philippines and the world for surfing – like La Union, Baler, Zambales, Quezon, Lanuza, Catanduanes, Mati, Pagudpud, etc. I have also been to Bali, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the US, Australia, France, and there are still many places I have yet to visit. Surfista Travels started in 2012 and first did surf trips to La Union and Baler but now we are based in Siargao island. We focus on surfing lessons to those who join our tours and Surfista Camps. My first visit to Siargao island was in 2005 and I have been coming back ever since. I’ve seen the surfing culture grow in the Philippines and especially in the last 5 years in Siargao island where I have been residing. Together with chosen locals, especially Carlito Nogalo and the Botiti Boys, Surfista has had hundreds of students of different ages and from around the Philippines and different countries.

 I went to Bali, Indonesia in 2016 to get my certification from the International Surfing Association – the Olympic accredited association for surfing around the world. We were trained how to do first aid, pass a Lifeguard Saving Test and got trained on how to teach surfing PROFESSIONALLY and SAFELY. It also means that I have the accreditation to teach surfing around the world should I choose to do so. I choose to use and share what I have learned and stay at home in the Philippines.

I have learned so much about surfing from locals in many surf destinations around the Philippines – La Union, Baler, Zambales, Catanduanes, and Siargao. They have kept me safe and have shared their waves and love of surfing at their home breaks. They are my heroes. And that is why I was compelled to write this article – to give them a chance of explaining their / our realities, to give them a voice because not many of them do, and most of all because besides them being my heroes, they are my friends. 


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