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Apo Reef – An Undiscovered Jewel of the Philippines

Apo Reef – One of the Best

Apo Reef is a relatively unknown natural beauty, even for seasoned travellers to the Philippines. Chances are that they will know it as a diving paradise in a remote area accessible only on expensive live-aboard trips. Sablayan, a coastal backwater on the island of Mindoro that is the jumping-off town to Apo Reef, is virtually unknown to everyone. Well, almost everyone. Choose to read and finish this article, and you will get to know more about it yourself.

Thanks to vast improvements in infrastructure on Mindoro, Apo Reef is now more accessible than it ever was. The unknown little town of Sablayan may just be winding up to be the next big thing in Philippine tourism.

Apo Reef is the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It lies in the middle of the South China Sea about two hours west of Sablayan by motorised bangka (a Philippine outrigger boat). Most divers agree on one point about this magnificent reef: that Apo is the top dive site in the country with the only real competition being the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, which is even more remote than the Apo Reef, and is many hundreds of kilometres away. Tubbataha Reef also misses out on top position for the fact that it is only accessible for a few months each year. Maybe in the years to come, infrastructure will improve drastically, and we may be able to access both reefs on an equal level, but that day is, quite unfortunately, not in the near future.

Apo has a mind boggling variety of fish, with dogfish tuna and huge schools of jacks patrolling the depths just off the reef alongside shoals of barracudas and white-tip, black-tip and reef sharks. In the shallower waters, you might wander upon nurse sharks having a light doze and eagle rays. Trail giant Napoleon wrasses and Hawksbill sea turtles, spot moray eels peeking out of the rock formations and part dense schools of blue mackerel scad. If you are lucky, you may even see schools of glistening dolphins leaping and shimmying around the bangka on your way to and from the reef.

The impressive and diverse array of marine life is not a very common sight at other dive sites in the Philippines, which are better known for their corals and colourful macro (small marine) life. On that note, the macro life at Apo Reef is also splendid, as you will see a dizzying kaleidoscope of hard and soft corals, luminescent anemones and nudibranches, pygmy seahorses, pipefish and an eclectic collection other wondrous small creatures.

Civilisation at last!

Until quite recently, there were only two transport options if you wanted to visit Apo: Either pay through your teeth for a live-aboard dive safari operating out of the town of Puerto Galera in eastern Mindoro or out of Coron town in Palawan province south of Mindoro; or you could travel to Sablayan on your own and take a boat out to the reef with Pandan Island Resort, which was the region’s only dive operator for many years. The latter option was not for everyone. The coastal road to Sablayan was notoriously underdeveloped and required a long, grinding bus journey from the nearest ports: Abra de Ilog to the north, or the provincial capital San Jose to the south. Getting to the town of Sablayan from Manila required a full day of back-breaking travel, whether you take a plane, bus and/or ferry.

Apo is now more accessible, as some positive changes have come to this area at last, to the delight of many seasoned divers. The western coastal road is mostly paved, and comfortable and regular air-conditioned buses now travel straight to Sablayan from Manila via car ferries that chug from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, to Abra de Ilog. Although it is still a nine-hour trip, it is much more comfortable, and a far cry from the potential health risk that it was. In what is better news yet, daily early morning flights to San Jose, located two hours south of Sablayan by bus or air conditioned minivan, mean that you can leave Manila in the morning and be diving on Apo Reef on the same day.

From the one dive operator in the past, the industry has grown to accommodate the influx of divers, as they get several dive operators to choose from, including the reliable Sablayan Municipal Ecotourism Office, with which you can up with a group for a full day of snorkelling or diving. With a group of ten or more divers, you will pay only about 4,300 pesos per person for three dives, rental on all the equipment, and boat transport to and from the reef. The diving is phenomenal year-round, but the crossing to the reef can be rough in the peak rainy season (July to September) and from December to February when the northeast monsoon winds are at their strongest. The water is generally the flattest and gives you the best visibility from late March to May.

Apo Reef – Not just for experienced divers

If you are still reading this article with a sense of “Why should I read about this? I am not a diver”, consider yourself lucky, as you do not need to be a diver to enjoy the charms of Apo Reef. Many parts of the reef lie in shallow areas, and it may be the only place in the Philippines where even snorkelers stand a strong chance of having an encounter with sharks. Add to that the fact that within the atoll-like reef system are picturesque islands that are mid-ocean pit stops for a variety of migrating seabirds, non-divers have almost as much reason as divers to be excited about the magnificent Apo Reef.

The main island, named Apo Island – not to be confused with the better known island of the same name off the island of Negros in the central Philippines – is a beautiful palm-fringed land ringed by golden sand and home to an emerald-green interior lagoon embraced by a wealth of mangroves, which provides a rich environment for its many animal dwellers. Dive boats stop on the island and travellers can spend some time drifting in the lagoon on a makeshift bamboo raft, lounging on the perfect beaches and exploring the mangroves. You can also arrange to stay the night in the hammocks at Apo Island’s open-air park ranger station through the Sablayan Municipal Ecotourism Office. This is an experience like no other, as you get to sleep under a canopy of a billion or more stars twinkling above.

Sablayan, the small town that acts as a jump-off point, has an entirely different kind of appeal. Between San Jose and Sablayan lies the 750 km² Mount Iglit-Baco National Park, the last known wild habitat of the tamaraw, a critically-endangered wild bovine. There are numerous hiking opportunities in the park, including the ascent of the 2,364m-high Mount Iglit. The loincloth-wearing indigenous Mangyan people who populate Mindoro’s virtually impenetrable interior offer serious explorers a chance to visit one of Southeast Asia’s most isolated tribes. Closer to Sablayan is the Sablayan Prison Farm where, among other surreal eco-experiences, you can go bird watching with prison guides. Visits to all of the above can be arranged through the Sablayan Municipal Ecotourism Office.

As we have mentioned before, the Philippines is a country with a rapidly developing tourism industry. It has not reached the levels of its regional neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam as yet, but this diverse country is getting some great attention due to its many wonders – natural and man-made – and destinations such as the Apo Reef are a shining example of the kind of attraction that can make Philippines one of the most sought-after destinations in Southeast Asia. Mabuhay Travel serves as a cog in the tourism machine of the Philippines, offering cheap flights to Manila and other major cities in the country. Call us, email us, contact us through the website, or even live chat with a member of our travel team; however you make contact, make your booking today to make use of this wonderful opportunity to seen an unblemished coral reef – a diver’s paradise and an exceptional eco-tourism location even for non-divers.

Adapted from an article written by Greg Bloom on the BBC Travel website
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I’m a friendly and hardworking person who strives to be better in whatever I put my mind to. I love to travel and experience different cultures around the world. Coming from an attractive town in London. I been in this field for the past few years and have loved where it has taken me. I acquired a talent for writing and I’m the latest articles writer for Mabuhay Travel Blog.

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