It was almost summer, the air was fresh and invigorating. But as we strode past the powerful bridge to head to the coastal community where our chartered boat was parked, the ominous storm clouds cloaked the sky. Like the rest of the locals, we hurry like ants to cross to the other side of the land. With a gloomy weather like that, I was prepared to be disenchanted.
I whispered a prayer for the unforgiving humidity to be lifted. After almost 2 hours of bone-rattling ride through the wobbly sea, an atoll with powdery white sand emerged. On its storm-sculpted coast a lonely white sentinel stares out to the cerulean waters.
“So this is Apo Reef,” I murmured.
At First Sight
It is no surprise that Apo Reef in Occidental Mindoro blossomed as every diver’s dream. Hailed as the largest adjoining reef in the Philippines and the second largest in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), Apo Reef offers one of the best SCUBA diving spots in the world. Apo Reef Natural Park is made up of 3 islands: Binangaan Island, Cayos del Bajo Island and Apo Island, the largest one where we stayed at.
When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by park rangers manning the atoll. To ensure the conservation of the marine protected islands (it was declared a Tourism Zone and Marine Reserve in 1983), as well as the safety of the tourists, we were briefed as to what we could do and could not do during our stay.
Unlike other famed attractions in the country, tranquility abounds here. There are no signs of exotic resorts, no houses, just mysterious crannies to explore, mangrove forest full of life, unpredictable clouds and the deep blue endless sea – which makes camping ideal.
Because my friends and I aren’t divers, we settled on snorkeling. As we toured the snorkel spot island (including a wreck of a fishing boat) on a small boat, we saw strangely-shaped rocks and rugged cliff spearing out of the sea nearby.
Aside from two shallow shipwrecks, Apo Reef also harbors gorgeous coral walls, coves and reef drops that are home to a staggering variety of marine life. It boasts of approximately 400 myriad corals and 500 different species of multi-colored fishes. Dolphins are sometimes spotted playing around here too! And if you are lucky enough, the turtles and manta rays might swim with you.
Meandering in the Wilderness
At daybreak, the first things you will hear when you wake up in Apo Reef are the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore and the cooing of endemic birds. As in any other isolated islands, the days move lazily here. This pace encourages long walks along shady forest trails opening suddenly onto white sand beaches – ideal for mellow introspection.
Though Apo Reef is an underwater paradise, you don’t need to be a diver to savor its beauty. By exploring it on foot, you can appreciate its divine wonders and fascinating character. Our reliable guide showed us other ways to enjoy the island. (You don’t actually need a guide to explore the reef but it won’t hurt to help and give back to the locals as it serves as an alternative livelihood for these people.) We followed a sun-dappled bamboo bridge framed by green shrubs and trees with strangely prehistoric looks rising to a leafy canopy beyond sight. The pathway led to perhaps the island’s most unusual feature – a shallow lagoon fringed by glorious mangrove forests cutting through the island. The bridge concluded at a make-shift dock, where a small feeble raft constructed out of bamboo patiently waited for us. We hopped on it as our guide slowly maneuvered towards the middle of the lagoon. The waters reflected the mangrove trees stretching towards the sun.
But the best place to view these mangroves is from the white-washed lighthouse. This modern structure is located where the old lighthouse from the Spanish colonial period used to stand. It proudly stares out to the sea as if it owns the entire island. We carefully climbed its steep stairs hoping to catch an amazing view of the surroundings and we were not disappointed. The tropical breeze gently kissed my face and swayed the crammed mangrove trees rising above the island. The view on top of the lighthouse was superb – the azure sky meets the sea on the horizon as if the world ends there. I could stay there on top for many hours just to gaze at the beauty that surrounded us and listen to the incessantly pounding of the waves. Often my restless nature prefers actions to silence, but the island thought me otherwise.
The last of the sunlight bathed the tawny sands and the mangrove forest. We dashed hurriedly to catch a glimpse of one of the best sunsets I have seen to date. The timid sun teasingly hid in the clouds but the sky was illuminated by rays of pinkish and tangerine curtain-like lights. On the other side of the island, the colossal moon was slowly ascending, as if there is a war between the two mighty gods. As dusk finally settled, the moon lit up the tranquil sea.
To get to here, check out my Apo Reef Travel Guide .
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