It is not every-day that one gets a chance to visit the second largest contiguous coral reef system in the world. Of course, there is the largest – the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – but that’s even more difficult and even more expensive to go to. The Apo Reef is right here in our archipelago, and all one needs to do is to wait for the right timing to visit the Philippine premier marine and nature’s park.
And so when my friend JP Cruz, owner and operator of Vagabond Pinas, a tour and sight-seeing company that organizes adventure trips on weekends, posted on his Facebook account that he is organizing a trip to Apo Reef, I contacted him immediately. After receiving the trip itinerary, the list of things to bring, I finally replied to him to count me in. A do-it-yourself Apo Reef adventure is possible but expensive if you are going there solo; joining travel operators like JP’s is more practical and makes it less stressful as they take care of everything including contacts, permits, land transportations, RoRo [roll-on roll-off] transfers, boat reservation, guides, camping provisions and meals. All I needed to do was pack up my backpack, park my car at the Batangas Port and wait for them to pick me up on the way to Mindoro.
Apo Reef is probably the Philippines’ best eco-tourism destination. Located 15 nautical miles or 28 kilometers west of the nearest coast of Mindoro, it is a nature’s paradise, under water and above water. It belongs to the municipality of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, and is administered by the Sablayan Tourism Office and the local office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The Grand Apo Reef covers an area of 34 square kilometers, but the whole protected areas or the Tourism Zone and Marine Reserve covers an area of over 27,000 hectares. In 1996, Apo Reef was declared by then President Fidel Ramos as a Protected Natural Park. In 2006, it was submitted by DENR for consideration in UNESCO World Heritage sites listing.
How to get there
The gateway to Apo Reef is Sablayan, but getting to Sablayan is not easy. The quickest way to reach Sablayan is to take a 45-minute flight from Manila to San Jose, and from there take a two-hour van rice to Sablayan. But this is not practical as flying to San Jose means arriving in Sablayan by mid-day and then staying overnight there as the boats for Apo Reef
are only allowed to leave very early in the morning. The more practical alternative is to take the Dimple Star bus that leaves its Cubao or Pasay terminal at 6 pm/7pm. The bus goes directly to Sablayan via the 10 pm Montenegro Shipping RoRo Ferry. One way fare is about P800. Another way is to take any bus going to Batangas Port, then take either the 10 pm or 2 am boat to Abra de Ilog (takes 2.5 hours), and finally, a UV Express van to Sablayan (takes another 2.5 hours).
In Sablayan, the boats for Apo Reef must be coordinated with the local Tourism Office. Cost of boats for overnight trip is between P8,000 to P9,000, depending on passenger capacity. The trip to Apo Reef takes between 1.5 to 2.5 hours. The Tourism Office requires that all visitors hire a local guide. The office can also arrange for camping requirements and meals.
But for those who prefer the convenience of joining an adventure group may contact Vagabond Pinas (mobile phone 0917-852-2845) and check for its schedules for Apo Reef. The company’s van leaves Bonifacio Global City at 8 pm on Friday night and returns to Manila on Sunday night.
What to see, what to do
As the boats for Apo Reef should leave Sablayan very early in the morning by 7 am when the sea at Mindoro Strait is still calmer, the adventure trip to this marine park somehow follows the same itinerary.
Taking the midnight ferry from Batangas to Abra de Ilog means arriving in Mindoro port at 2 am, and from there it’s another two- to three-hour trip to Sablayan. In Sablayan public market, there are several stalls that are open by 5 am where one can get last-minute supplies like mineral water and extra food. There is also one carinderia (small local eatery) that offers hot arroz caldo for P25 served in a large bowl.
From the public market, it’s a short drive or tricycle ride to Sablayan pier where the boats for Apo Reef are anchored. After checking permits and getting clearances from the coast guard (they will not allow the boat to sail when there’s a gale warning), the boat will be allowed to take the 15-nautical mile trip to Apo Reef.
The first stop is called Banderang Putol. It is a small sand bar surrounded by an expansive coral garden. The next destination is the Binanggaan Coral Garden in Apo Menor. The Apo Menor Islet is the second largest island in Apo Reef and is primarily made up of rocks.
The next activity is to sail to the Main Island or Apo Grande. Along the way, expect to see the acrobatic feats of the resident school of dolphins.
The main island is easy to explore as there are established paths. One of its attractions is the glistening new light house. This was built on the same spot of the original lighthouse built on the island in 1903. The lighthouse warns the ships sailing through the shallow reefs of the imminent dangers. Visitors can climb to the new lighthouse’s view-deck and get a 360-view of the whole island.
Another interesting attraction on the island is the mangrove forest and the secret lagoon inside the mangroves. Migratory birds are said to stay in this forest during winter in the northern hemisphere.
On a certain time of the year, sea turtles come to Apo Grande to lay their eggs.
Divers stay in Apo Reef for days exploring its underwater attractions.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are no cottages in the island except those reserved for park rangers. So the only choice for those staying overnight is to camp out using tents and hammocks. Toilets and baths are also quite basic and the only place to clean up is when the visitors return to Sablayan.
Food is also “bring-your-own.” Park management discourages bringing of fresh seafood, particularly those caught from the waters surrounding Apo Reef.
Finally, there is a Code of Conduct that all visitors must follow while inside the park. It consists of about 10 rules. There’s this one rule that always amuses every visitor: “Refrain from feeding the wildlife. These animals are wild and capable of feeding themselves.” Simply put: no hotdogs for wildcats!