As the largest atoll in the Philippines and boasting the title of the world’s second-largest adjoining coral reef system, it’s clear to see why Apo Reef is a hugely popular destination. Tourists and scuba divers from all over the world flock to this area in the western waters of Occidental Mindoro Province in the Philippines, and it’s almost certain that none of them leave disappointed by the fantastic sights available in the area.
Renowned for presenting a myriad of vibrant colours thanks to the walls, corals and colourful tropical fish in the region, diving at Apo Reef is sure to be a highlight in any diver’s lifetime. Apo Reef is famous for its steep vertical walls offering dramatic drop offs down to 30 metres, and some to as deep as 80 metres. The Apo Reef Natural Park is home to large schools of jacks and tuna as well as larger pelagics such as hammerheads, reef sharks, turtles and manta rays. The innumerable dive sites in the region are each as good as the next and are well-suited to all diving levels.
The easiest way to get to Apo Reef is from Pandan Island, which also boasts a number of its own dive sites ranging from shallow coral garden sites to sites with deep drop-offs.
Marine Conservation in Apo Reef
The Apo Reef has been a natural park and protected area since 1996, and boasts 34 square kilometres of coral reef in pristine condition, not to mention a wide variety of marine life. Fishing has been prohibited in the area since 2007 and an entrance fee to the park is now charged to visitors with the aim of generating funds to support the people who previously relied on fishing as their livelihood. Although the fee is higher than normal even by Filipino standards, the funds also go towards protecting and maintaining the natural park which is of utmost importance for future generations. Visitors are charged different fees based on the activities they will be doing and whether they are local or foreign: for a 48-hour pass for general visitors and snorkelers, the fee is P225 per person for locals and P450 for foreigners. For a 48-hour diving pass, the fee is around P2100. Similarly, the Pandan Island Marine Sanctuary was first established in 1991 and now includes the entire reef area and has a full-time ranger to patrol and protect the park.
Best Diving Destinations in Apo Reef
For coral enthusiasts, look no further than Apo Island for an array of stunning corals thriving in their natural environment. Stag corals, soft corals, brain corals, fire corals and large table corals can all be seen here on the reefs. The northern side of Apo Reef is usually visited by only the more experienced divers due to strong and unpredictable currents being the norm in this area.
To the west, sloping reefs make for an easy and relaxed diving area better suited to beginner divers. The eastern and southern sites of Apo Island offer sheer drops to impressive depths and present the chance to see large pelagics such as hammerheads, manta rays and turtles. In fact, Apo Reef is a recognized turtle sanctuary and turtles can almost always be seen when diving in the area.
For experienced divers looking for an exciting experience, the site known as Apo 29 is sure to provide a thrill. This 25 metre blue water dive is often accompanied by strong and unpredictable currents, but the variety of marine life is very impressive around this underwater mound.
Shark Ridge is a site that ranges in depth from 10 to 50 metres. On the north-east side of the reef, the site features a dramatic drop with a number of overhangs where gray and white tip reef sharks can often be seen. Schools of snappers, barracuda and turtles are also frequent visitors to this site.
A number of wreck sites are available near Busuanga Island and it is best to visit these with a reputable dive company in order to get the most out of the experience. Busuanga is the largest of the hundreds of islands that form the Calamian Group of Islands, which was the location of the Invasion of Leyte in 1944. A fleet of Japanese vessels was attacked here after being spotted by a US reconnaissance plane and this caused more than 20 ships to sink to their watery demise around Busuanga Island. Many of these wrecks are accessible to beginner divers as they are relatively shallow wrecks, starting at 8 metres and not going any deeper than 40 metres. The visibility isn’t fantastic in this area, usually within the region of 10-15 metres and some of the wrecks are exposed to tidal currents, making it important to time your dives accordingly.
A number of dive sites are located close to the shore at Pandan Island’s House Reef, with many of these sites making ideal first dives for beginners thanks to their shallow depths (most are less than 20 metres deep) and close proximity to the shore. There are some deeper dives around Pandan Island, with Barracuda Deep and Napolean Wall ranging between 30 and 45 metres. Regardless of depth, dive sites around Pandan Island boast great marine life sightings including moray eels and sand eels, surgeon fish, trigger fish and sting rays. Eagle rays, Napolean wrasse and massive barracuda measuring up to 1.5 metres can all be found at the deeper dive sites.
Another great location for diving is Coron Lake, a fresh water lake located less than 20 minutes from the sea. The lake has two thermo clines, jumping from 28°C to 25°C and back again. The lake has some very interesting and unique underwater flora which is worthwhile seeing.
Getting to Apo Reef
The closest international airport is Manila Ninoy Aquino International which receives a number of international flights from all over Asia and the rest of the world. From Manila, it is necessary to catch an internal flight to San Jose (Mindoro) airport and from there you can get to Pandan by either prearranged transfer or public bus via Sablayan. The public busses in the Philippines are known as jeepneys, and these are a cost-effective, comfortable way to travel around, especially in the warmer weather thanks to air-conditioning. Jeepneys will travel from Manila to Sablayan four times a day, however they only depart once they are full, so it is recommended to allocate plenty of extra time when planning your journey. Once in Sablayan, a water taxi will take you to Pandan Island.
Bus and ferry schedules are likely to change without warning, so don’t panic if you need to adapt your planned route on-the-go. If you are in any doubt or need any help, just ask a friendly local. Many of the Filipino people speak or understand English, so communication shouldn’t be too difficult. As always when you are travelling abroad, be aware of con-artists and those with ulterior motives – whilst locals are generally friendly and welcoming, some may not have the best intentions. Don’t flash large sums of money around when on the street and don’t accept offers to change money in the streets either.
To get to the Apo Reef itself, which is located 40 kilometres from the mainland, divers usually opt for a liveaboard experience from Coron or Busuanga or Pandan. It is also possible to take a day trip on a boat from the Pandan Islands which takes at least 90 minutes. Local dive operators located on the coast will help to arrange day trips or dive safaris to Apo Reef if they are one of the operators that visit Apo Reef. Alternatively, thanks to the Filipino people being a friendly, helpful nation, you are almost guaranteed to receive helpful advice from the coastal dive operators on how best to get to Apo Reef from where ever you are.
Where to Stay in Apo Reef
To stay as near as possible to Apo Reef, visitors usually opt for the resorts on either Pandan Island or accommodation options at Sablayan such as Apo Reef Club.
Since Apo Reef can sometimes present quite difficult diving conditions, some of the resorts require divers to undergo a check-up dive, especially for those with fewer than 100 logged dives. This safety precaution is a worthwhile measure for both you and your diving partners as health care facilities and decompression chambers are not easily accessible from this area.
The resort on Pandan has a fully-equipped dive shop to cater for divers’ needs and also offers dive courses for all levels. There are even bubblemaker and discovery dive options for children at the Pandan house reefs. Other resorts also offer these types of services, as well as babysitting services, so it is best to enquire before booking if these are services you are interested in. It is also highly recommended to book early if you plan to stay in a popular resort or highly populated tourist area, especially if you plan to visit in peak season. Although there is not much to speak of in terms of nightlife, there are a number of local restaurants in nearby Sablayan where you can also experience the friendly and welcoming Filipino culture. The private island of Pandan features one bar and a restaurant serving a blend of European and Filipino cuisine. If you choose to visit for lunch or dinner, expect a grand buffet complete with fresh fish, meat, seasonal fruit and vegetables and tea and coffee.
Dive safaris depart from a number of areas in the region and will go to Busuanga and Coron to allow divers access to the many WWII Japanese wrecks here.
Apo Reef and the mainland offer a number of non-diving activities too such as trekking, swimming and cave exploring, not to mention the stunning waterfalls and beaches in the area.
For those looking to get the most out of the outdoors, it is worthwhile taking an overnight camping trip to Apo Island, where you can also enjoy the magnificent views from the Apo Reef Lighthouse. Visitors are spoilt for choice here, with a number of white sandy beaches perfect for relaxing at Apo Island, Pandan Grande and Pandan Pequeno. Trekking opportunities include a number of mountains and hills such as Mt. Agsuli, where you’ll find the Carungcaban Cave that is well worth exploring. There’s also the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park, which is home to the endangered tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo. Another popular trek is to Malatongtong Falls, where you’ll need to step over stones (as the local name translates) in order to reach the beautiful waterfalls. Once there, visitors will be amazed by the stunning scene of water cascading down into pools from a height of 6 metres. There is also the option of trekking to Panduracan Waterfalls.
When to Visit Apo Reef
In general, the islands of the Philippines have a tropical climate with hot and humid weather all throughout the year. There are certain seasons that experience hotter temperatures and wetter conditions, however, and it is best to understand these general weather patterns so as to better plan your diving trip.
December to June is the dry season in the Philippines, however this is subdivided into a cool dry season and a hot dry season. The cool dry weather can be expected from December to March, whereas April to June often brings hot and dry conditions, with temperatures sometimes soaring to above 35°C! Most visitors looking to do multi-day dive safaris or liveaboard trips will come to this area of the Philippines in April or May, when the north-east and southern monsoon seasons are transitioning and the sea is calm and flat due to low winds. Manta rays are also common during these months.
The wet season runs from July to November and can bring with it month-long rains especially in July, August or September. Outside of these months, rain is occasional and usually only in the late afternoon for a few hours. The rainy months also bring with them slightly cooler temperatures and the possibility of typhoons. Although typhoons are more common out in the Pacific Ocean, they do affect some areas of the Philippines, but Apo Reef and the surrounding areas are lucky enough to not be hugely affected by these typhoons.
One thing to consider aside from packing the appropriate clothing is the presence of mosquitos, which varies at different times of the year. Visitors should ensure that each room has a mosquito net as a minimum precaution, and buying repellent beforehand is a good idea too.