As I come into my fourth year living in the Philippines the chance arose to finally check off Apo Reef from my Philippine diving bucket list. I have heard a lot about Apo Reef over the past few years. I read that it was like a mini version of Tubbataha in some articles. I have spoken to divers who have said it’s the best diving they have done in the Philippines, so the reputation is there. I have been lucky enough to visit Tubbataha twice in the last 3 years and will go again in April 2016. I was really keen to find out for myself if it would even be possible to topple Tubbataha from its perch as being the best ‘big stuff’ diving location in the Philippines.
Marco Vincent dive resort has been visiting Apo Reef for the last couple of years; their 82ft diving vessel Big Beth is perfect for small group dive safaris. The boat can sleep 8 people comfortably and has everything you need for the 4 night trips down to Apo Reef. All trips come inclusive of full board meals and 12 dives over 3 days. The crew will take care of your every need during the trip including even helping you put your fins on before you enter the water, what more can you ever need?
As the sun disappeared and the stars came out it was time to depart. The fire dancers and music from White Beach slowly drifted away as we headed along the coast of Mindoro. The only light that could be seen was the glow of the bush fires from the local farmers who were clearing ground for fresh crops. It was a time to get to know my fellow divers on the trip who came from Italy and the US. After a few drinks it was time to get some rest. Our night navigation was smooth to Apo as the western coast of Mindoro is protected from the wind during the diving season which runs from Feb – June each year.
We awoke to the most beautiful sun rise; the sea was so calm it was like we were almost on a duck pond. The chef did a great job with a great selection of breakfast foods. Bacon, eggs, ham, sausage, toast oh and the Philippine breakfast staple garlic rice.
With the boat secured on the mooring, boat manager Carl gave his first dive briefing. After that we kitted up and make our first splash of the trip. Within seconds I was convinced that we were in for a good trip, the water was warmer than Puerto Galera at this time of year and the visibility was well over a hundred feet/30 meters. I was also very happy to see that the corals were in great shape. The dive got off to a great start as I was filming my first Hawksbill turtle of the trip in the first 2 minutes of the dive.
The majority of the dives have a very similar topography as Tubbataha. The top reef is on average around 20ft/ 6 meters and then you have a beautiful wall that drops down so deep in some places that you can’t see the bottom. The walls are covered in hard and soft corals and there is plenty of sea fans. The protected sites around Apo Island are the healthiest with spectacular hard coral gardens which are covered in schools of small tropical fish species like Anthias, fusiliers and Damselfish. The Outer reefs are a little more weathered with the winter waves hitting the shallow reefs hard and damaging species like Stag horn coral. There are some sites which have been affected by dynamite fishing over the years. With rangers now in place year round on Apo Reef let’s hope that over the coming years we will see the damaged areas make a full recovery and look like the sites closest to Apo Island.
There are some dives sites which were absolutely fantastic and rivaled what I have seen in past trips to Tubbataha. North Corner had some current which bought in Tuna, Giant Trevally and a school of Jacks. I saw the biggest fattest Grey Reef shark of the trip and there was 5 white tip sharks frantically hunting on the edge of the wall. As we drifted on the top reef I lost count of the number of white tips that were resting in the sand channels, there was also a school of Bump head parrotfish messing up the visibility by munching on the coral. When the currents switch to the other side then you can usually see a repeat performance on the South Corner of the island.
Shark airport was another great chance to see many White tip sharks resting on the sandy bottom, I counted 15 in total. We had the added bonus of seeing some large cuttlefish who hung around for some good video footage. We encountered a school of Great Barracuda at Cordes wall which was also a highlight of our trip, on the same reef there was a large Napoleon wrasse. We did a night dive in front of the Ranger station which was a chance to see the White tips and Black tips in feeding mode. At night they don’t seem to be bothered by your presence as in the day time. There is not so much macro life on the reefs so I would probably leave your macro lenses at home, you can concentrate on wide angle subjects. I did see some Nudibranch but all very common and can been be seen on most reefs in the Philippines.
Other interesting marine life that we saw during our trip was a large Marlin that was leaping out of the water. We had large schools of tuna in a few different places making the surface of the water boil. There was a lot of large moray eels found hidden in the crevices on the walls. One had his mouth wide open being cleaned by a wrasse. There was Hawksbill turtles on most of the dive sites, the Green turtles not so common. Now what about the big, big stuff I hear you ask. We didn’t have any luck to see a Manta Ray or Whale shark during our trip. I spoke to one of the park rangers, who is also one of the dive guides on the island. He said that sightings are not so common but you never know your luck. He also told me that they saw a Hammer head shark the day before we were there so if it’s your lucky day then you do have a chance to see the giants of the ocean.
So as I came to the end of my first trip to Apo Reef I asked myself is it close to the diving in Tubbataha? I would say it’s a close second but does have massive potential to improve its standing. With 38 square kilometers of Marine Park to explore there is a lot more to be discovered. So if you are happy to see plenty of Sharks, Tuna, Giant Trevally, Turtles, Moray eels, Napoleon wrasse and schools of Barracuda then I would definitely put Apo Reef on your diving bucket list. I’m already trying to plan for another trip in the near future to explore a little further.
Also for cost I would say that Apo Reef is a little easier on the pocket, with the 4 night trips leaving from Marco Vincent dive resort you don’t even have to get on a another plane from Manila which is a bonus. Marco Vincent dive resort runs trip to Apo Reef from February to June each year. They also have some trips that circle the Island of Mindoro and visit the wrecks of Coron. You can of course have a look at www.mvdive.com for all the details.