Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Located in the Coral Triangle, the Philippines’ over 7,000 islands offer visitors with stunning underwater sights and rich marine biodiversity. If you are up for diving amid vast and colorful corals, swimming near schools of fish and diverse marine life, or strolling by a white beach, why not visit the Apo Reef Natural Park?

The Apo Reef Natural Park, or Apo Reef, covers 15,799 hectares of marine area and 34 square kilometers of subtriangular reef off the coast of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro. It is a key biodiversity area in Mindoro and home to the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world. 

First declared a marine park in 1980 and a natural park in 1996, Apo Reef belongs to the Philippines’ protected areas (PAs) under Republic Act 11038 of 2018. It belongs to the 113 legislated PAs throughout the country. As a protected area, Apo Reef is set apart and protected for its rich biodiversity and ecological importance. 

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Amid Islands

The Apo Reef is named after its being off or away from the shore. Around 33 kilometers away from Sablayan, it is the largest atoll-like reef in the country. Most of it is underwater, making Apo Reef an incredible site for visitors who enjoy snorkeling or diving, and marveling at marine life. 

Apo Reef is bound by three islands—Apo Menor, a rocky limestone island; Cayos del Bajo, characterized by its rocky coral formations; and Apo Island, the largest of the three and one that is covered by mangroves and beach vegetation. 

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Two lagoon systems, outlined by narrow reef platforms, separate Apo Reef. The reef’s 30-meter deep channel runs on fine white sand and patches of corals under the deep blue water. Rippling waters rest against a background of terrestrial vegetation. 

“The diversity of nature in Apo Reef offers a different experience to our tourists,” Protected Area Superintendent (PASU) Krystal Villanada said. 

The Biodiversity in Apo Reef

Apo Reef is a haven to an impressive diversity of birds, mammals, corals, fishes, and other marine life, some of which are endangered or near threatened. 

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Apo Reef features 63 groups of closely related species of corals, about half of the entire 119 recorded genera in the world. The coral gardens of Apo are vast, colorful, and teeming with life. 

Divers can take a glimpse of some of the 481 species of fishes in Apo Reef, including the Napoleon wrasse, locally known as “Mameng.” The Napoleon wrasse is a big, green and blue coral fish and it is the biggest of the wrasse family. There are also damsel and butterfly fishes, angel fishes, groupers, snappers, and trevallies, among others.

In the channel, reef sharks may be spotted. Gray reef, hammerhead, and white or black tip sharks may be found in deeper parts of the Apo Reef. The rare short-finned pilot whale as well as whale sharks may be spotted in the channel between Apo and Binangaan Islands.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

The Apo Reef is also home to rare green and hawksbill turtles, and specific endangered dolphins such as bottlenose, Risso’s, and spinner.

Brittle stars, starfishes, sea urchins, sponges, clams, and rare shells add to the incredible underwater sights in Apo.

Visitors can also explore parts of the lush 10-hectare mangrove forest in Apo Reef through a mangrove trail. At the center of the forest is a lagoon, home to baby sharks and sting rays. 

Across the vegetation of the natural park, there are around 46 species of flora including ipil-ipil, agave, and coconut. 

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

The Apo Reef Natural Park is also a key area for migratory birds, part of the 100 bird species recorded in Apo as of January 2022. Among these birds are the Chinese grosbeak, little ringed plover, and Philippine magpie-robin. The large beach thick-knee and blue-green Nicobar pigeon, both near threatened, have also been seen in the area. 

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Activities in Apo Reef

The Apo Reef Natural Park offers an array of activities for visitors and with its biodiversity, an incredible experience for underwater and wildlife enthusiasts.

Visitors can ride boats and hop across the islands in the natural park. They may also raft in the calm waters of the lagoon. 

Designated zones of crystal blue waters await scuba and free divers as well as those who enjoy snorkeling. The coral gardens with fishes, turtles, and other marine life are breath-taking. 

The mangrove trail lets visitors explore part of the century-old mangrove forest. Visitors can also stroll along the white beach. 

Specific sites in Apo Island let bird watchers see migratory, rare, and resident birds. 

Tents and hammocks are provided for those who would like to camp in the natural park. At night, visitors can stargaze. To see the natural park from above, visitors may go to the lighthouse. 

Visitors are also encouraged to join conservations efforts in and for the area. Every morning, tourists may take part in the coastal cleanup. Visitors may join rangers, too, in pawikan conservation. 

Any visit to the Apo Reef Natural Park requires booking with the Tourism Office of Sablayan three to seven days before the visit. The best times to visit is from February to mid-June, and from the last week of September until early November. 

Visitors are advised to enjoy nature with care and caution, and are not allowed to take souvenirs from Apo Reef’s natural resources. The Tourism Office observes Green Fins, a set of best practices for responsible marine tourism. These practices include no touching of corals and use of reef-safe sunscreen. Insect repellant sprays are also not allowed to be used in the area. Visitors are asked to minimize reliance on single-use plastics, and to carry their trash.  

Tourists will have to bring their drinking water when visiting Apo Reef, and may advise their boatmen if they need fresh water. 

Ways to Get to Apo Reef

From Manila, visitors may take a plane ride to San Jose, Mindoro. From San Jose, they may take a van to Sablayan where there are boats that may take them to Apo Reef. There are also buses from Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange, or PITX, that travel straight to Sablayan.

Those visiting Coron, Palawan may avail themselves of a tour to Apo Reef Natural Park. 

Private yachts or boats from the Subic and Manila Yacht Clubs may also get to the natural park after confirmed booking. 

Government efforts to conserve Philippine PAs 

Currently, there are 247 PAs under the NIPAS, 113 of which have been legislated, 13 have been proclaimed by the President, and 120 remain as initial components of the System. The NIPAS was established by virtue of Republic Act 7586 or the NIPAS Act of 1992, and amended by Republic Act 11038 or the Expanded NIPAS (ENIPAS) Act of 2018.

NIPAS is the classification and administration of all designated PAs to maintain essential ecological processes to preserve genetic diversity, to ensure the sustainable use of resources found therein, and to maintain their natural conditions to the greatest extent possible.

The year 2022 marks the 90th anniversary of PA establishment in the country through Republic Act 3915 that was enacted on 1 February 1932. In line with this, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Tourism (DOT), and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) signed a joint declaration to support the celebration of the Year of the Protected Areas or the YoPA Campaign, which promotes Philippine national parks.

The DENR, through its Biodiversity Management Bureau, and the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of UNDP Philippines, in partnership with the DOT and DILG, are working together to promote protected areas under the NIPAS. They are also working with other agencies at the national and local levels to ensure effective conservation and sustainable management for national parks nationwide.