Apo Reef

The Spectacular Underwater Beauty of Apo Reef

If you’re looking for the most magnificent diving site, Apo Reef in Occidental Mindoro, Philippines tops the list.  A well protected coral reef system,  it is considered  the country’s largest and world’s second with a total area of 34 square kilometers in triangular shaped formation.  The government with its duty to safeguard nature’s wealth, has declared it as a Key Biodiversity Area for the overall preservation and conservation of its utterly rich marine life.   The reef and its water surroundings are now popularly referred to as  Apo Reef Natural Park.   Its area is uninhabited, but it’s open for visitors who want to experience nature’s breathtaking beauty and wonder.

Apo Reef’s geographical characteristic is submerged in cool blue waters.  It has three known islands:  the Apo Island, Apo Menor and Cayos del Bajo.  Each offers a different kind of setting and unique features.  Apo island has rich vegetation while Apo Menor is comprised of limestone rocks.   Whereas, Cayos del Bajo’s grounds are actual coral rock formation.  These islands are great for some hideaway fun and offer one of a kind adventuring experience.

Apo Reef is situated around 28 kms. west of the nearest coast of Mindoro island.  It has two big coral reefs separated by a deep channel with a 30 meter depth.  It’s a home to an abundant marine life that reaches close to 300 kinds of species that include a wide variety of fishes and other colorful sea creatures.

Apo Reef’s diverse coral system is stuffed in a triangular shape formation that runs 26 km from north to south and has a width of 20 km.  Two lagoon systems can be explored located north and south of the area.  The north one is shallow, it’s only 10 meters deep at its maximum and its coral reef formation can be seen come low tides.  The south lagoon is relatively deeper with a depth reaching 30 meters.  Limestones and corraline sand are abundant and add drama on its much admired picturesque landscape.

Its astounding features are often compared with that of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  Its breathtaking underworld beauty is a sight to behold.  Diver’s paradise is how others refer to it.  Its flour like sand, amazingly clear waters,  calm waves, tropical fishes, raw coral resources, panoramic views and tranquil surroundings are obvious evidences that capture the adventurous hearts of diving aficionados.

This is a must see place for great underwater explorations.  Let’s have a tour.

Travelling to Apo Reef

From Manila, daily flights are available going to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro.  It will take 45 minutes and upon reaching San Jose’s airport, you can take a bus, rented van or jeep going to Sablayan, which is around 2-3 hours of land travel.

If you want to reach it by sea, you can take a RoRo (roll on/ roll off) ship in the Batangas City pier which is around 40 kms from Manila. Traveling time is around 3 hours. If you want to reach it faster then take a fast ferry with a 11/2 hour traveling time.

Some pre arranged tour operated boats can also be an option.  It’s available in Manila, Batangas,  Puerto Galera and Boracay island.

Basically, you have to reach Sablayan first, before going to Apo Reef.  Sablayan is the nearest destination and a jump off place going to Apo Reef.

Sablayan

Found at the heart of Occidental Mindoro, this is where the Apo Reef Natural Park is located, which undoubtedly is Sablayan’s main attraction.  Sablayan is the Philippine’s biggest municipality and one of the leading ecotourism destinations.

This place is tremendously rich in bodies of water.  Scenic lakes, rivers and waterfalls are scattered within its area.  Learn the rich culture and tradition of the its people, the Sablayenos, by visiting numerous museums and parks.

Aside from the beauty of its place, Sablayan also prides in the hospitality and caring nature of its people.

Going to Apo Reef, you can have a tour that is managed by Sablayan’s local government.  Fixed rate applies to a boat tour that can accommodate 12 – 15 people and costs 8,500 pesos during daytime and a staggering 9,500 for a night trip.

It is best to stay in a rented tent in Apo Reef  for even a night.  However, if you choose to be in Sablayan proper;  several hotels, inns and apartelles are ideal resting places.

Puerto Galera

Found in the northwesternmost part of Occidental Mindoro and 130 kms. south of Manila, Puerto Galera is a famous vacation destination among many people.  It’s known for its little beaches and scuba diving spots within its vicinity.

The most popular of its beaches are the Sabang Beach and White Beach.  You can have luxury that is affordable by staying in a first class accommodation.  Party till the morning for it has an active nightlife with bars, pubs and restaurants teeming the place.  Puerto Galera is a top technical diving destination in the whole of Asia

You can reach Apo Reef through some pre arranged boat rides from Puerto Galera.  You can talk out the price with the boat operators plying their trade in the area.

For the more daring ones, you can dive your way through going to Apo Reef.  This is about 125 kms. away to the east.

Pandan Island and Coron

You can also access Apo Reef through Pandan island, which is the nearest dive operator and where diveshops organize diving safaris going to the reef.  From Pandan island you can reach Apo Reef in around 90 minutes using canoe type boats with names “M/B Karla” and “M/B Raindbow’s End”.

There’s a strict guideline in Pandan Island.  Divers who wish to participate in divesafaris going to the reef must undergo a capability check.  This is mandatory for all divers with less than 100 logged dives and it’s done to assess a diver’s skills.  Apo Reef sometimes has harsh conditions and thus a thorough check on the diver’s capabilities is a must, to ensure safety and welfare.  The distance from Pandan Island to Apo Reef is about 20 kms. away.

Coron is another top diving spot located in Palawan.  This is another jump off point going to the protected reef.  You can arrange a liveaboard trip going to Apo Reef.  An operator in Busuanga island named DIVECAL can make it all possible for a fee of around 20,000.00 pesos or roughly $450.00.   This includes transportation, park fees, equipment, food, park fees and eleven dives.

Apo Reef: a diver’s paradise (A complete guide to diving spots and what to see)

The three main islands within Apo Reef offer numerous diving spots.  You can really have a good time here as different sea creatures will accompany your extraordinary diving adventure

Apo island

The largest island with a total land area of 22 hectares (54 acres).  It has mangroves and a lush vegetation.  The majority of its ground is very sandy and a deep channel separates it from Apo Reef.  It is near Busuanga Island on its western side.  Apo Island is where you can find the Apo Reef Light that gives warning to ships navigating the areas close to the strictly protected Apo Reef.

There are a number of diving sites around Apo Island with depths reaching 10 to 60 meters.   Different varieties of corals are found in the area like brain corals, fire corals and stag horns.  Currents differ on the waters surrounding Apo Island.  The northern side is notoriously known for its unpredictability that even expert divers act with so much precaution.  Its western side is good for amateur divers where the sea grounds slope gradually rather than the dreaded drop off.

You’ll never run out of diving places here and the most known ones are:

Boularte diving site

A nice diving site that measures up to 150 meters long with a maximum depth of 35 meters.  Perfect for divers who are beginning to learn the craft as the water currents are gentle to moderate.  You can see clearly through its crystal like waters down to 25 meters deep.  It has colorful corals and overhangs.

What to see:

Diving from its top to bottom means an encounter with different fish species.  Lionfish, small reef fish, sea snakes, groupers and other reef fishes abound in this dive spot.  Better take a dive lamp to get a fuller view of its soft corals.  The small caves and overhangs give shelter to a lot of fish fins and nudibranches.

Coconut Point dive site

Its general water setting is gradually sloping and has a depth of 5- 35 meters.  Only experienced divers should be allowed here as strong winds, high waves and strong currents are its trademarks.  Drift diving is at its peak here.  Due to its unusually strong downward current, divers are advised to take a quick descend down to its bottom of 30 meters and slowly work your way going up.  A small sand slope can be seen and avoided half way through your dive, which makes it all exciting and truly worthwhile.

What to see:

Its strong currents will prevent you from seeing small fish creatures.  Instead then, bigger fish varieties are common sights like mackerels and tunas.  Different species of sweetlips, parrotfish and trigger fish can also be seen down in its bottom depth.

Cogon dive site

One of Apo Island’s favorite diving spots.  Its steeping slope provides a challenge to any brave hearted diver.  Visibility is quite good and clear up to 35 meters deep with the current classified as being moderate to heavy.

You have to be technical on your approach when you take your dive here because the sand slope and its changing currents create tricky situations even to the best divers around.

What to see:

Diving here is like diving in an aquarium.  Very colorful species of different kinds are so cool to see like butterfly fish, banner fish, trigger fish and the big variety of sweet lips and Spanish mackerels.  Whip corals are abundant in the area so are jacks and huge tunas.

Largahan,  Apo Island

Has a maximum depth of 30 meters and characterized by a flat slope intrinsically covered with colorful corals.  The waters are calm and the currents are generally mild.  Coral blocks come in different sizes and its bottom is sometimes shaken by volcanic activities that create bubbles coming from its sandy ground.  Its shallow waters suit beginner divers.

What to see:

Its large volume of corals is home to a wide variety of fishes.  You can see a lot of reef fishes, sea snakes, scorpion fishes and even turtles wandering.  Other species include puffer fish, lion fish, parrot fish, and trigger fish.  Flatworms, nudibranches and sea plants are also present.  Its tremendous number of underwater life and a chance to have that “bubble bath” make Largahan a must try diving spot.

Mamsa Point, Apo Island

A diving site known for its strong currents.  It has a steeping slope and reaches to a maximum depth of 38 meters.  It’s shaped like a long reef and about 200 meters long.  Novice divers should be aware of its very powerful downstream current which can wash you away from the island.

What to see:

Sea snakes are regular visitors of this dive site.  The corals are mainly hard corals where you can find mackerels and trigger fishes.  Seaweeds and other sea plants can be seen at the top of the reef.

Marine Sanctuary Dive Site

Visibility is good down to its maximum depth of 20 meters.  Highly fits a beginner diver because of the absence of current, and if ever there’s one, it will be very gentle.  You can find company with fishermen doing the traditional methods of fishing like using hook and line, bamboo traps and gill nets.

What to see:

You can find black corals when you start your descent.  Lots of table corals and staghorn corals.  This dive site is known as clownfish city because of the unusually large volume of clownfishes you can find beneath its waters.  Some other sea creatures include trigger fish, sea snakes and black Anemone fishes.

Kan-uran Point, Apo Island

This area has a depth that reaches 40 meters down.  The current is generally mild but sometimes occurrences of  strong downward currents happen.  It has a rich biodiversity which makes it one of the best diving spots and makes divers marvel at its great underwater beauty.  A popular wall dive that boasts of overhangs and ledges.

What to see:

Has panoramic hard and soft coral gardens.  Diving means head on encounters with Midnight Snapper, Surgeonfish, Bignose Unicornfish and filefish.  Its sandy part of the wall is where Nudibranchs and Sailfin Gobies stay.

Chapel Point, Apo Island

Named after a Church that can be seen overlooking the area.  It has gentle slopes and a sudden drop towards its big wall.  Having a high tech underwater gadget enables you to take great photos with all the dazzling fishes and corals surrounding you.  It reaches to a depth of around 30 meters with a mild current that’s perfect for any diving exploration.

What to see:

Tube and finger sponges are present along the wall with Gorgonian Seafans that shoot out from volcanic rocks.   Corals with golden colors are a sight to behold as the sunlight hits making them shine gloriously.  Ledges are cove to Clearfin Lionfish and Moray Eels.   Midnight Snappers and a school of Silversides hide in a small cavern.

Gorgeous hard corals, Ribbon Eeel, Sailfin Shrimp Gobies and Bluefin Trevally are waiting for you down there.  Branded Sea Kraits and big green colored turtles make their way in the clear waters meeting you halfway.

Apo Menor and Cayos del bajo

Apo Menor and Cayos del Bajo are the two other islands within Apo Reef’s area.  Local people call  Apo Menor islet as “Binangaan”.  Its ground is made up of rocky limestone with little vegetation.  You can find Apo Menor about 2.4 kilometers from the east of Apo Island.

Cayos del Bajo on the other hand is the smallest of the three.  Its northern side is full of dry rocks which are visible during low tides.  Generally, its grounds are made up of flat coral formations which make it bumpy and rough as you walk your way through.

Let’s have a quick rundown of some of the known dive sites on the outer reef of Apo Menor Islet and Cayos del Bajo

The Shark Ridge

It got its name from the horde of black and white tip sharks frequenting its waters.  Its depth is between 10- 50 meters and sudden drops are many that divers should be aware of.  It has caves and overhangs where a lot of sea animals dwell.

What to see:

Turtles and manta rays can be encountered.  Groupers, eels, lobsters and with a few hundreds of sea creatures flourish in its depths.  A feast to the eyes of adventurous divers.

The Hunter’s Rock

Located 20 kilometers off the west of Apo Island and is quite a dangerous place for inexperienced divers because of its strong currents.  Better find a buddy or an expert guide if you want to take its challenge.

What to see:

Divers will encounter  a rock crest whose top is visible from the water’s surface.  Its area is dreaded for poisonous sea snakes that usually show up during the summer season.  A home for sharks, trevallys, a hundred species of tropical fishes which include butterfly fish, clownfish and sweetlips fish.  Its natural coral formation is strikingly beautiful.

Apo 29

Others call it Barracuda Hill as it seems to be a meeting place for barracudas and sharks.  This diving site should only be explored by skilled divers because of the unpredictability of its water currents.  It reaches a maximum depth of 38 meters.

What to see:

When you take your dive, find a spot to provide you shelter as schools of sharks and barracudas pass by and take interest  in whatever they see.  If you have a high tech gadget, you can catch a lot of shark movements and actions.

Merope Rock

Situated 10 miles west of Apo Island and can be accessed when you go to  Busuanga island.  It has an underwater mound where divers love to play around.   A wall can be found on its eastern side where the presence of sea creatures is highly visible like sharks and mackerels.

What to see:

An excellent diving site that plays host to a wide variety of aquatic life.  This includes trevally, barracuda, tuna and sharks.   Its superb coral and sponge structures serve as a home to the most colorful fishes in this part of the sea.

Peculiar sea creatures and unique corals you can find in Apo Reef

There are a thousand kinds of marine species that found their existence in Apo Reef.  You’ll be totally amazed upon seeing the underworld kingdom, truly dazzling and majestic.

This is one place in the world where all God’s sea creatures are put in one piece of heaven like beauty.

Quick stats on Apo Reef’s Flora and Fauna

There’s a stratospheric number of different flora and fauna that are found in Apo Reef.  For the record, there are 47 species of different birds,  6 species of reptiles, 7 species of mammals, 200 species of corals, 385 different kinds of fishes, 78 marine invertebrates, 46 species of terrestrial plants, 7 seagrass, and 26 algae species.

This is why the Philippine government exerts all effort to fully protect, preserve and conserve this amazing number of nature’s wealth and beauty. 

A list of corals and fishes commonly found in Apo Reef:

1)  Zebra Lionfish      

A resident of Apo Reef’s coral houses.  You can find them even in knee deep water to depths that reach 30 meters.  It’s a carnivorous fish with venomous spines, fanlike pectoral fins and thin tentacles over its eyes.  It has brown and red bars on its body with a spot on its gill cover.  They swim very slow and peaceful in nature, but you should watch out for them because they can be dangerous with poison on their spines.

2)  Blue Ring Octopus

Highly colorful with their yellowish skin, has blue and black rings.  They are small and serene, but has very dangerous venom that can kill even humans.  They usually hide in crevices and feed on small crabs and shrimps.  Divers on Apo Reef must stay clear of this creature.  When they are disturbed, the brown patches on their skin darken and signals a quick attack.  Though small in size, divers should be aware of its highly venomous arsenal.

3)  Mandarin Fish

A small, bright colored fish that belongs to the Dragonet family.  It eats fish eggs and sea worms.  Very popular in saltwater aquariums and abounds in Apo Reef’s shallow waters.  Commonly comes in blue color with some shades of gray and black.

4)  Big Eye Trevally

They are Apo Reef’s inhabitants of its deepest area that can reach down to 50 meters.  One of the most common fish species that come in great schools.  It can be distinguished by its color, has a dark dorsal fin and a white tipped lobe.  It can grow to around 120 cms. and weigh in a few kilos.  They moved in numbers and very slow but become active during nighttime.  This is the favorite fish of Apo Reef’s fishermen because they can be easily caught using a simple hook and line.

5)  Hairy Netted Hermit Crab

A quite interesting sea creature.  Its claws and legs are dark red in color.  It has a netted pattern with bristles all around, yellow eyestalks which has four dim stripes.  It commonly eats algae and grow normally to around 2 inches in length.  Apo Reef is rich with all kinds of crab species, but this particular crab stands out because of its looks.

6)  Staghorn Corals

An endangered coral species that flourish within the area of Apo Reef.  They are very sensitive and can be easily broken.  They have antler-like branches that grow in tangled looks.  It has small  round cups that stick out in its surface.  Its common colors are brown or yellow brown with little tips on its branch.  It’s found in Apo Reef from depths of 5- 40 meters and covers quite a large area of the reef.  It has a scientific name of “Acropora Cervicornis”.

7)  Great Star Corals

Known scientifically as “Montastraea Cavernosa”.  Great Star Corals form massive formation and domes which can measure over 5 feet in total diameter and thrive in colonies in Apo Reef’s moderate depths.  This is the most common corals within Apo Reef and can even be located up to 35 meters down.  Huge polyps serve as the cover of its colony making it look green or yellow- brown in color.

8)  Elkhorn Coral

Can be seen in Apo Reef’s shallow reef bottom.  They have brown or yellow brown color with a white corallites outline.  Its branches are wide and flat, like that of a moose or elk’s antlers.  These corals are especially delicate since they are located just a few meters down the waters.  The task force operating to ensure Apo Reef’s corals is always on guard to take care and protect these almost visible coral species.

Some useful Advice and Recommendations

    • Better to travel in groups to save some money.  Boat rental commands an expensive price.  The local government or tourism office can put you in other groups of visitors for you to get it at a cheaper cost.
    • Bring all the supplies that you can carry.   Apo Reef is an isolated and remote place, you don’t expect to find stores that sell your necessities.  Bring clean water for drinking, a flashlight for emergency purposes and lots of food to satisfy your hunger.
    • Expect a very humid weather.  Don’t be surprised when you’re sweating all around.  Apo Reef is where the sun shines at its hottest.  Even the evenings are hot and you’ll find it quite uncomfortable to get a good night’s sleep.
    • The best time to snorkel/dive is during the early morning.  The ideal is between 5- 7 am where fishes are out to find their food.  This is also the period where Apo Reef’s waters are at its calmest.
    • Don’t bring your high end cell phones and gadgets.  Firstly, it can get wet.  Secondly, there’s no reception signal all over Apo Reef.  It’s almost 3-4 hours from the mainland and there are no signal towers built in the area.   Just bring your waterproofed camera to capture those fantastic moments underwater.
    • Don’t bring a lot of cash, atm or credit card.  Bring a considerable amount to pay for rentals and services, but not too many as you don’t really need it.  There are no shopping malls or nice stores to spend your money for.  Atm or credit cards are of no use because they don’t have machines out there.
    • Avoid getting corals or any species that are under protected status.  Apo Reef was opened for you to see and admire nature’s wonders, not to take or have a piece of it.  You might be penalized and have to shell out some money when they catch you.  Worse, you can land in jail for stealing a highly preserved and protected government property.