Mention the Great Barrier Reef and everyone knows about it. Ask a group of divers about the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and dozens of stories come out. Mention the Apo Reef and you get many blank looks.
The Apo Reef sits in the South China Sea of the Philippines and is one of the most important reefs in the world. It does not consistently appear on the list of the world largest reefs, but most experts rank it as the world's second largest contiguous coral reef system. While a well-known dive destination among local divers, it not widely known outside of the Philippines.
This is mostly due to the reef being isolated, however, improved infrastructure is making it more accessible. The Apo Reef National Park centered around the reef was founded in 1996, and the reef is the largest reef system in the Philippines covering over 1150 square kilometers or about 450 square miles.
Naturally beautiful, its geography features include two atolls with internal lagoons that are teeming with marine life. There are three small islands in the park, however, none are inhabited. The Mindoro Strait forms the western edge of the reef and the shores of Occidental Mindoro the Eastern.
Overfishing and destructive practices almost destroyed the reef before it was made a park. Today it is seen as fully recovered. Biomass has risen from less than 10 tons per square kilometer to over 75 tons. What does this mean for divers? At high noon, the reef will be completely in shadows from the fish above them.
What makes diving Apo Reef so extraordinary and desirable?
Why is the area so popular with divers from across the world? All good questions... There are many reasons to make the effort to visit this area. The Apo Reef is in the heart of the coral triangle, and scientists in the area say it has is the most biodiverse coral reef in the world.
The Apo Reef exceeds the Greater Barrier Reef in the number of fish species and still has healthy populations of species that are near extinction else where. The Napoleon wrasses, for example, is a fairly common sight around the reef but non-existent in most locations it once was found.
Six of the seven species of marine turtles are found in the area with the endangered Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) the most common. Marine mammals such as the endangered Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris), and Risso's Dolphins (Grampus griseus) are often around the reef.
The reef is made up of two atolls.
Across the reef, you will find excellent hard and soft corals as well as a range of marine life. Visibility is generally considered unlimited with the water being crystal clear and, the depths range from five to about ten meters.
Macro-photographers will have excellent conditions and numerous species of nudibranches, seahorses and other small subjects add to the color and variety. The reef is colorful with tropical reef fish of over 385 species being identified together with 85 invertebrates.
Apo Reefs internal lagoons are a good place to find some larger fish and sea turtles. The sandy bottom at around twenty meters is often used as a resting place. The conditions in the lagoon are normally very calm and is great for divers of all skill levels.
As great as the reef and lagoons are, divers are equally drawn to the edge of the reef and to the three islands and the steep walls. Being fed by the currents of the Mindoro Strait, these walls are covered in large specimens of coral and sponges and rich with marine life. Large pelagic species are always found there.
Each dive site has its own personalities and marine life that favors them. Barracuda are often found hanging under ledges as are the four species of shark common to the reef. The walls that surround the fringe reefs of the islands are generally for more advanced divers as the currents are strong and conditions change rapidly.
The currents on the walls of the reef itself are more manageable and sites can be found for divers of all still levels. Depth and buoyancy control on the walls are critical. The water is so clear and the light drop off so subtle that divers can easily do deeper than their target depths.
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When is the Best Time to Dive Apo Reef?
Diving Apo Reef can be done all year round. It is important to note that the journey to the reef itself can be more challenging from July to September, which is the area's rainy season. Also, from December through February, the area's northeast monsoon winds are strongest.
There is no place to stay within the National park. The Municipality of Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro is the closest municipality to the park and the location of the park's headquarters. It has no schedule air service and, the nearest airport is four hour bus ride away.
Sablayan has a number of resorts and, it is about 20km from the reef, there is a small resort on Pandan island near the edge of the park.
Most divers that dive the Apo reef, do it as a part of a trip that includes Coron or Puerto Galera. A number of liveaboards depart from Palawan include Coron and Apo Reef in their sailings. Puerto Galera is a world class diving location near the Verde Passage about 130 km south of Manila.
Check out these Liveaboard operators who offer dive trips to Apo Reef
A couple of hours bus ride and a short ferry will see them from the international airport to the perfect waters of Puerto Galera. Many of the dive centers in Puerto Galera have ties with resorts around Apo reef and can arrange direct transportation. A few liveaboards also depart from here.
What about these great Apo Island Resorts I heard about?
You will often hear comments on how great the diving is at Apo Island and the wide range of resorts available. This is a different island than the Apo Island of the Apo reef. Apo Island of Negro Oriental is an outstanding dive destination, however, it is 500 km south of the Apo reef.
The island has an outstanding reputation both locally and internationally for its wall dives and drifts. Apo Island is located roughly 25 km off Dumaguete City which is the capitol of the province Negro Oriental in the central Visayas region.
In addition to the resorts on the island, many dive operators in Dumaguete offer dive packages with accommodation including day trips to APO island.
When diving Apo Island, you will find walls loaded with an abundance of colorful corals. Expect to encounter: Moray Eels, Fusiliers, Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Scorpionfish, Midnight Snappers, Diagonal-Banded Sweetlips, different species of Surgeonfish and different Nudibranchs.
Diving around Apo Island can be done year round but is best between March and May, as the visibility will be best because the water will be very calm and flat.
The most efficient way to get to Dumaguete is via Manilla or via Cebu by plane. From Manila there are two daily flights direct to Dumaguete airport with Cebu Pacific and takes about 70 minutes. From Cebu City there are 3 flights per week to Dumaguette which take approximatly 40 minutes.
Editorial note: Be sure you respect the marine life by keeping your distance and not touching the corals. Take photos while respecting the creatures in their natural habitat without disturbing them. Please read the scuba diving code of conduct
Have you been to Apo Reef or Apo Island? Let us know in the comments below
Article written by Rutger Thole who is an avid scuba diver and loves to travel, dive and write about scuba diving. Based in Amsterdam he runs bookyourdive.com and at least twice a year he plans a dive trip of the beaten track.