I have always considered myself a water person, except when you are referring to floodwaters. I love the beach more than the mountains. So to kick-off my birthmonth this year, my decision to explore Apo Reef Natural Park in Occidental Mindoro did not come as a surprise.
Apo Reef Natural Park is the country’s largest coral system located along the Mindoro Strait. Its 34 square kilometer area reef system is a protected area and it is a popular weekend camping and diving destination. Most of Apo’s feature is submerged with only three islands breaking above water - Apo Island, Binangaan, and Tinangkapan. The reef is about two hours through calm waters, on a good day, from Sablayan. It is a favorite weekend beach destination because it gives you the opportunity to... uhmmm... well, let us just go and hit it.
Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro
After a three-hour RORO trip from Batangas Port and another three-hour van ride from Abra de Ilog, we rolled in to the quaint little town of Sablayan. This small town has its own touch of history and a handful of attractions, apart from Apo Reef Natural Park, that will definitely satisfy your thirst for nature and adventure.
Luckily, our Apo adventure did not start smoothly as planned when the Coast Guard did not allow our motorized banca to sail off to Apo Reef. It gave us the opportunity for a sneak peek of Sablayan.
Our group camped out at Sablayan Adventure Park. The park was good enough for that quick beach fix considering that we were taking our chances to Apo Reef the next day. The stretch of black sand and the view of the two islands of Pandan would have made a good backdrop for a sunset shot. But the gloomy weather did not give us that shot. We were able to explore the cove where we got a view of the inter-island zipline.
Too bad though that the rains confined us in our open huts in the afternoon but the sneak peek gave me the idea that I should check out Sablayan soon.
Off the coast of Sablayan are two islands - North Pandan and South Pandan. These islands are popular among travelers for their own unique attractions. South Pandan is the endpoint of the inter-island zipline that crosses from mainland Sablayan.
North Pandan Island is the more popular destination among tourists because of its unique tourism draw. The white sand shoreline of the island is inviting but the real adventure lies under its waters, just a few meters from the shores. This is one of the few Philippine spots where you can enjoy the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles!
It is a very humbling experience swimming with these gentle creatures. I enjoyed observing sea turtles munch on sea grass before it slowly rises up for air. I enjoyed snorkeling and spotting four sea turtles during our run. I also chanced upon a small manta ray floating with the current.
Tourists have to be cautious when swimming with sea turtles. Make sure that you do not touch or disturb the sea turtles in their natural habitat. Observe them only from a distance.
Apo Reef Natural Park
We sailed early in the morning to Apo Reef Natural Park. We enjoyed the sun breaking out from the horizon. Midway through the trip, a rain cell loomed ahead. It was wonderful to view a rain cell in the middle of the sea. It literally had curtains of water that shielded Apo Reef from our view. The view of the rain cell was both amazing and scary.
As we passes through the cold rain, we felt the warm air blowing from the reef. The three islands and shallow reefs of Apo came into full view. Tinangkapan is a shallow reef where migratory birds transit through but it is off limits to tourists. Binanggaan is an island characterized by limestone rock formations jutting out from the sea.
The biggest island in the reef system is Apo Island. It stands out for its white sand shoreline that dot its coastline. Its towering lighthouse stands out from the green foliage of the island.
Guests need to register at the tourist center. Behind the center is a tourist facility being constructed where guests can rent rooms for those intending to stay overnight. If you want to rough it up, you can choose to pitch a tent. Chilling by the beach is the best way to enjoy the island. And to complete the Apo Reef experience, tour guides can give you a walking tour of Apo Reef to showcase the natural beauty of the island.
Apo Reef Mangrove Bridgeway and Forest
A 15-minute hike from the tourist center will bring you to a flourishing mangrove forest at the heart of Apo Reef Island. The mangroves thrive in the island’s lagoon. A bridgeway was built that allows guests to navigate through its lagoon waters to the central view deck area of the mangroves.
The viewdeck gives you a panoramic view of the still waters of the lagoon and the surrrounding mangroves. The saltwater lagoon is also the home of sea creatures and, if you are lucky enough, you might be able to catch ::a glimpse of a small shark gliding in the waters.
Apo Reef Rock Formation
A short hike from the bridgeway is another white sand beach cove that you can lounge around. On a good day, it is probably a good place to chill and take a dip... away from the weekend crowd.
The leftmost side of the cove are rock formations that you can explore. Do not expect towering formations as a backdrop. Rest assured that you get a dramatic backdrop of the rockies and waters crashing on its crevices.
American Barracks Ruins
We continued on with our island exploration, working on the other side of the island. As we headed towards the island’s iconic structure, we passed by the ruins of an American-period installation on the island.
Our guide said that the remains was once part of a barracks that the American built in the island. The structure deteriorated in time with its exposure to natural elements. Unfortunately, the local government moved to construct new structures in the island. This left the structure to deteriorate further.
Apo Reef Light
The towering lighthouse is the iconic structure of Apo Reef Island. It is the most visible man-made structure as you approach the island. The lighthouse serves as a guardian for seafarers traversing its waters.
The 110-foot lighthouse is quite a challenge to climb for those who have fear of heights but the 360-degree view on its deck is absolutely amazing. You can get a full view of the island’s lagoon, limestone rock formations, mangroves, white sand shores, and the blue waters that surround it.
I struggled heading up and moving around the view deck but the view was something that I could not miss out. It was just awesome!
An Underwater Treat
After trekking and hiking around Apo Reef Island, our group was treated to an amazing underwater exploration. We were first asked to don our snorkeling gears for a “guided snorkeling tour”. By that, we all took our own space along the motorized banca’s “katig”. We were asked to hold on to the rope handles and for the next 30-minutes were treated to amazing underwater views.
The underwater scene of Apo Reef was colorful and was just teeming with marine life. The view of its coral reefs and underwater cliffs kept me amazed during the guided tour. Our guide said that if we are lucky, we might be able to catch a glimpse of a shark. That thought lingered in me and it added both excitement and fear.
Our tour ended along a coral garden where we had a grand time snorkeling with the resident schools of fish in the area. It was fun swimming around with these sea creatures in their natural habitat.
And then luck rolled in when a small shark swam in to join the fray. It was then that I realized that one of the boatmen used an empty water bottle to create a sound underwater that attracts sharks. Again, we kept our distance while observing the shark in its natural habitat.
A “Come Again” Surprise
You could really feel the energy of everyone as we headed back to Sablayan. Everyone was elated with the adventures and the encounters that we just experienced. We were tired but everyone in the group kept sharing how good they felt about the experience. This was definitely one for the books... except for one thing. We were all looking foreward to meeting the dolphins. Unfortunately, the waters were a bit choppy when we came in so the dolphins were not anywhere to be found.
As we were about to exit the reef, a pod of dolphins gave us a sweet farewell show. They raced alongside our motorized boat in three’s. A couple of dolphins knew how to impress us by leaping out of the water. This had us excited and cheering and the dolphins returned our cheers by entertaining is more.
And as quickly as they appeared, they went on with their usual routine, leaving us with smiles and excitement. It was definitely the best way to end summer and I could not ask for more.
Post Travel Notes
As we dashed towards the RORO that was about to leave, I recalled how our Apo Reef trip was full of turns and curves. It was a trip that had everyone anxious because of the weather and yet it was interestingly fun. We knew what we were in and that we all found our ways on coping up with the situation. I mean, trips are not bound to be perfect and it is all about properly handling the situation. Kudos to FB travel organizer, Penguin Backpackers, because they pulled it off nicely.
Apo Reef Natural Park is a charmer. Its diversity above and below is enough to excite any type of traveler. What makes Apo Reef stand out is the experience of being one with nature. It is the experience of having to see God’s creation at its finest in their natural habitat. Our joy is also experienced by them just like the joy that we shared with the dolphins. The calm nature of sea turtles evokes the same to those who watched it glide. It makes you realize that we all have to work together to keep our world better and that our actions impact even the smallest creature in our world.
Getting there: One can take a 3-hour RORO trip from the Batangas Port to Abra de Ilog. You can then take a bus that passes through the town of Sablayan. Once you are in Sablayan, you need to coordinate with their tourism office for your trip to Apo Reef. You can also contact Kuya Jovy at +63920 8879370 to assist you.
You can also check out the FB page of Penguin Backpackers for their scheduled organized trips to Apo Reef Natural Park. Rest assured that they will handle all the arrangements from Batangas Port and back. All you have to do is enjoy the whole trip.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.