Philippines' Apo Reef is a coral reef system situated on the western waters of Occidental Mindoro province in the Mindoro Strait. It is the world’s second-largest contiguous coral reef system, next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the largest in the country. Its diverse corals are approximately 34 square kilometres (13 sq mi) of reef where different species of fish, marine mammals and invertebrates thrive. The reef and its surrounding waters are protected areas administered by the Apo Reef Natural Park (ARNP). It is one of the most popular dive sites in the country.
The Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources submitted the reef to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for consideration as a World Heritage Site in 2006. The marine park then opened for tourists to help generate funds for its protection as well as provide an alternative livelihood for hundreds of fishermen in the area.
The Apo Reef Natural Park, as of March 2015, was one of 19 sites included on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List of the Philippines. This simply means that the government intends to consider the sites on the list for nomination in the future.
How We Got There
We were with a group traveling from Manila. It was a Fri-yey! We gathered at JAC Liner bus terminal in Pasay then took off aboard Ceres bus bound to Batangas Port at around 11 PM. After two hours, we have reached Batangas Port, quite early for the first ferry trip to Abra de Ilog. Then at around 2 AM, we were aboard Montenegro RORO which took us approximately three hours to reach Abra de Ilog. At Abra de Ilog port, there is already a pre-arranged van waiting to take us to Sablayan. We have reached Sablayan after another less than three hours.
Other Options For You To Get There:
Book a flight to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. Cebu Pacific and Zest Air are the common airlines that fly regularly to San Jose. Then it will just be a short tricycle ride to terminal where buses bound to Sablyan are. Or you can just get on a van directly from the airport to Sablayan, tho going on a bus is much cheaper.
Other By Land / Sea
Hop on RORO (Roll-on/Roll-off) buses that go straight to Sablayan, like Dimple Star buses with terminals in Sampaloc and Alabang. You can also find one in Cubao bus terminal. It costs higher tho.
After having breakfast at the public market, we changed to our ready-to-get-wet attire. Short habal-habal ride took us to where the rented boat to Apo Reef is waiting. And yes, we are not there yet, as the boat ride takes more or less 3 hours to get to Apo Reef. Let’s just say that getting there is one of those things that are hard to get but once you get it you’ll say that it is definitely worth it.
What We Saw and Experienced
With that long boat-ride, we're lucky to have sightings of a group of playful dolphins along the way. I just recently learned that it is called a “pod”, thanks Google.
We stopped off Binangaan Island to snorkel. Upon researching about this island I found out that the main geographical feature of Apo Reef is submerged, but three islands mark it on the surface: the Apo Island, Apo Menor (locally known as Binangaan) and Cayos del Bajo (“Keys of the bank”, locally known as Tinangkapan). All these islands are uninhabited.
Apo Menor or the Binangaan Island is a rocky limestone island located near the western end of Apo Reef, about 2.4 kilometres.
After snorkeling at Binangaan Island, we headed to Apo Island. Nope, not the one you have in mind in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. Apo Island, the largest among the three, is a 22 hectares island with mangroves and beach vegetation. It is separated from Apo Reef by a narrow, deep channel.
We are welcomed by the serene beach with fine white sand.
There are no accommodations at the Apo Island. I could say that it is not for someone who seek the comfort of a hotel room. As the island is uninhabited, there are no stores, not even a clean acceptable comfort or shower rooms. You have to bring everything you need, especially when you're planning to stay overnight, including food, utensils, drinking water, tents or hammocks, flashlight, and snorkeling gears if you have your own. I suggest you bring insect repellent too.
We pitched our tents at the camping area. There are already many campers when we arrived. According to a local, the tourism office has recently limited the number of Apo Reef campers to 104.
After having our lunch and resting for a while, we’re off to discover more of Apo Reef.
Our pictures don’t justify what we actually saw there. Being non-divers, we only snorkel a part of the reef while gripping on a rope attached to the running boat.
It was our first time to see baby sharks in the wild. We have encountered various fishes of various sizes, mostly the kind we have never seen before in their natural habitat, one is the Giant Napoleon Wrasse. We are wowed by the colorful coral reefs which seem to be never-ending. We’ve come across also some dead parts of the reef, sadly due to typhoon Yolanda according to our local guide.
Going back to the island, we walked our way to the inland lagoon. Surrounded by mangroves, there you can ride the raft while enjoying the scenery.
After the photo-ops that lasted longer than the raft ride, we headed to the Apo Reef lighthouse. Apo Reef Light is the island's 110-foot tall white tower with solar-powered lights.
People are allowed to climb up the tower to see the 360 degree view of the island.
It is also the spot in the island to best watch the sunset.
As darkness starts to unfold, we went back to the campsite, washed up then had dinner. By “washed up” I mean we had to pump water from the deep well and took our bath outside. That or just sleep with your salty skin on.
Dinner was served under the starry sky, literally starry. Having stayed in the city, I haven’t seen such starry night for a long time. Ah unfortunately we don’t have a good photo of it. Thankful for the good weather, we indulged on stargazing before calling it a day.
The next day we woke up into this gorgeous sunrise. Still, we’re blessed with a very good weather. I guess, just like us, seeing the sunset and the sunrise at the island is one of the reasons why thrill-seekers choose to stay overnight despite the hassles. It is so worth it.
After having breakfast, we’re off to Pandan Island. We’re about to stop over on a known sandbar but unfortunately it is still high tide when we got there. So we headed to Parolang Putol, which I believe is part of the Cayos del Bajo Island.
In our experience, it was hard to get in there because of the low tide at that part and the boat can’t get near it. We had to swim and walk through the shallows of mostly dead corals which would not be possible for you if you are not wearing anything on your feet. Adding the pressure of not touching or stepping into the live ones, which is a must practice for everyone. Please.
Describing Parolang Putol, it’s like a very small islet of piled up dead corals. But when we dived in to its surrounding waters to snorkel, we are in awe.
The place is literally a coral garden.
More of Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro
Our adventures did not end there at Parolang Putol. We then headed to Pandan Island to chase some sea turtles. We actually did not anchor on the island to avoid paying the larger entrance fee. We just got to the area where our guide said is the sanctuary for sea turtles. And they did not disappoint. We literally chased Master Oogway, majestically swimming there.
And again with our many firsts, seeing stingray in the wild. Hardly seen at first since it tried to hide by covering itself with the ocean floor sand. Maybe sensing our presence, it swam away. There are also many other fishes we feasted on (with our eyes only), among were the humongous parrot fishes and the Giant Napoleon Wrasse. We don't have a good photo of them, but this is what they look like.
We just couldn’t get enough of the sea, its wonders and treasures. And we ought to discover more after this!
It was Sunday about lunch time when we returned to Sablayan town proper from Pandan Island. We washed up and had our lunch then took off to Parola Park, just 15 minutes away from the market. Located there at Parola Park is the Sablayan zipline adventure, the world’s longest island-to-island zipline. It costs 500 pesos per head for one-way if you are a tourist and 300 if a Sablayan local. There will a boat waiting at the other end to take you back to the mainland for 30 pesos per
The islands are also overlooking from the park.
And before we finally head back to Abra de Ilog port going home, we stopped at Panikian Lake in San Agustin to watch the sunset.
As the sun bade goodbye, we bade our goodbyes too from the beauty and awesomeness Sablayan has offered us during our stay. With the prayers that may all these wonders be continuously protected and preserved.
With the slightly heavy hearts and exhausted body, we traveled back to Abra de Ilog port and boarded the Montenegro RORO back to Batangas Port. We arrived at Manila at around 2 AM Monday and rested with the wish of being able to come back again and discover more of the Apo Reef and the rest of Occidental Mindoro, hopefully we can try scuba diving by then.
We are tour joiners, hence the pre-arranged van from Abra de Ilog to Sablayan and the already waiting rented boat. Below is just to give you the idea on how much approximately you will be spending excluding the food:
Bus from Pasay terminal to Batangas port: 168 x 2
Montenegro RORO fare from Batangas Port to Abra de Ilog: 260 x 2
Terminal Fee: 30 (Batangas port) + 10 (Abra de Ilog port)
Van from Abra de Ilog port to Sablayan: 200 per head x 2
Habal-habal: 10 x 2 (No need if you know the way since it is near)
Boat: Depends on how many you are in the group, small ones can cost 10k according to our local guide. We highly suggest you go in group
Tent rental: 200 (good for two)
Snorkeling gear rental: 200 per head
Apo Reef Marine Park fee: 325 (non-divers)