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The undiscovered Jewel of the Philippines

The diving paradise of Apo Reef and the neighbouring town of Sablayan may just be the next big thing in Philippine tourism.

Mention Apo Reef to seasoned Philippines travellers and chances are they will tell you about a distant diving paradise accessible only on expensive live-aboard trips. Mention Sablayan, a coastal backwater on the island of Mindoro that is the jumping-off town to Apo Reef, and most likely they will greet you with a blank stare.

But thanks to greatly improved infrastructure on Mindoro, Apo Reef is now a lot more accessible. And fairly unknown Sablayan may just be the next big thing in Philippine tourism.

Apo Reef, the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, lies in the middle of the South China Sea about two hours west of Sablayan by motorized bangka (a Philippine outrigger boat). The consensus in most dive circles is that Apo is the top dive site in the country, the only real competition coming from the even more remote Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, many hundreds of kilometres away, which is only accessible for a few months each year.

The quantity of fish at Apo is mind boggling, with dogfish tuna and huge schools of jacks patrolling the depths just off the reef alongside a parade of barracudas and white-tip, black-tip and reef sharks. In the shallows, you might scare up sleeping nurse sharks and eagle rays, trail giant Napoleon wrasses and Hawksbill sea turtles, spot moray eels peeking out of the rocks and part dense thickets of blue mackerel scad. You may even see schools of dolphins leaping and shimmering around the bangka on your way to and from the reef.

Such an impressive and diverse array of pelagic life is unheard of at other dive sites in the Philippines, which are better known for corals and colourful macro (small marine) life. But the macro life at Apo Reef is also splendid — a dizzying kaleidoscope of hard and soft corals, luminescent anemones and nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses, pipefish and other wondrous small creatures.

Closer to civilization
Until recently there were two ways to visit Apo: you could shell out 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 independently and head out to the reef with Pandan Island Resort, which for years was the region’s only dive operator. The latter option took some determination. The coastal road to Sablayan was notoriously bad, requiring 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 Sablayan from the capital Manila required a full day of back-breaking travel via plane, bus and/or ferry.

Now all that has changed. The western coastal road is mostly paved, and comfortable air-conditioned buses now come straight to Sablayan from Manila via car ferries that chug from the Philippines’ main island, Luzon, to Abra de Ilog. It is still a nine-hour trip, but much more comfortable. Better yet, daily early morning flights to San Jose, two hours south of Sablayan by bus or air-con minivan, mean you can leave Manila in the morning and be diving on Apo Reef the same day.

Once you reach Sablayan, there are now several dive operators to choose, including the reliable Sablayan Municipal Ecotourism Office which can set you up with a group for a full day of snorkelling or diving. With a group of 10 or more, you will pay only about 4,300 pesos per person for three dives, full equipment rental 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 flattest and the visibility is best from late March to May.

Not just for divers
Of course you do not need to be a diver to enjoy the charms of Apo Reef. Much of the reef lies in shallow water, and it may be the only place in the Philippines where even snorkelers stand a strong chance of seeing sharks. Also within the atoll-like reef system are picturesque islands that are mid-ocean pit stops for a variety of migrating seabirds, giving twitchers almost as much reason as divers to be excited about Apo Reef.

The main island, 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 palm-fringed beauty, ringed by golden sand and home to an emerald-green interior lagoon embraced by mangroves. Dive boats stop on the island, and travellers can spend the 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.

Then there is Sablayan, which has an entirely different kind of appeal. Between San Jose and Sablayan lies the 750sqkm Mount Iglit-Baco National Park, the last remaining refuge 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, and 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 quirky 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.

While tourism in the Philippines remains a trickle compared with Southeast Asian brethren like Thailand and Vietnam, and air links to western Mindoro are still infrequent, you should consider visiting now to experience the full effect of Apo Reef’s untouched magnetism.

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