SABLAYAN, OCCIDENTAL MINDORO, PHILIPPINES — Was there a point in your life where you just wanted to cast yourself in the sea of fate with only a backpack behind you?
I was lucky enough to have a 12-day vacation brought about by the Holy Week and the scheduled preventive facility maintenance at my workplace. I kept looking for new things to do and luckily, I stumbled upon a random Facebook post/event from some backpacker I do not know. The destination is Apo Reef, scheduled on the 3rd of April. I have long wanted to do diving but the cash that is needed for it is just not yet for me. So maybe, snorkeling in this area will still be a good idea and perhaps have a close encounter with a sea turtle.
Apo Reef is a coral system situated on the western waters of Occidental Mindoro, Philippines. The reef and its surrounding waters are protected areas administered as Apo Reef Natural Park, which is considered as Asia’s largest atoll-like reef next only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is a 34-square kilometer reef that serves as a habitat for more than 400 marine species such as sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, sting rays and other tropical fishes and invertebrates.
Although the place looked amazing, I felt a hint of hesitation to go. I had several thoughts running on my head: I do not know these people; this would be my first travel without the comfort of knowing someone I know is with me; will my timid attitude fit this kind of set-up?
All of those thoughts while typing “Sama na ako.”
Then, I have subconsciously clicked the POST button.
The Long Road to Sablayan
The original meeting place was suppposedly in Dimple Star Bus Terminal in Cubao. However, because of several Holy Week superstitions, bus schedules were cancelled. Good thing that Jay, the one who had organized the event, quickly found a van-for-hire few days before the event. The new meeting place was in Pasay City. Since I will be coming from Bulacan, I have to wake-up early. The problem was I rode the wrong bus, so I came late. I was almost left behind because they thought I will not be coming. Can’t blame them. Haven’t given them any contact info aside from my Facebook account. Good thing, they were not yet too far, so I was able to catch up. When I went inside the van, silence is evident. Apparently, they knew only one or a few from the group. I, on the other hand, knew no one. According to Tanya, one of my co-travelers, solo backpacking doesn’t necessarily equate to being alone. Traveling with strangers, or people you don’t initially know, may be regarded as travelling solo. We were raised by our parents to not talk to strangers. But when it comes to traveling solo, talking to strangers (safely) can be one of the most interesting moments of your travel. As someone who is naturally timid and quiet, I think this experience would gradually force me out of my comfort shell and into the thick of things.
When we reached the Batangas Port for the 10:00am RORO bound for Abra de Ilog, we found out that the trip was also cancelled. The next RORO to leave is at 3:00pm. There is a RORO bound for Calapan at 11:00am, but since this route will concur additional land travel, the group opted to wait for the 3pm Abra de Ilog trip. The shipping lines assured as that the 3pm trip will push through whether there would be passengers or none. It was already 4:30pm and there was still no sign of the rusty RORO from Besta Shipping Lines. We have long lost our hope to view the sunset while in Parola Park in Sablayan. After few confrontations to the shipping lines, we board the ship past 9:00pm. Yes, past 9:00pm. Although there were such inconveniences, I was still thrilled of what awaits me in Apo Reef. We arrived at Emily Hotel in the town of Sablayan at aroud 4:00am. We still did checked-in for a badly-needed 2-hour sleep, to power up all of our gadgets and powerbanks and for a place to stay before we head out to the sea.
Ate Norie (I hope I’m right), the staff from the Municipal Tourism Office of Sablayan came to the hotel to assist us and collect the necessary payments. You should contact the tourism office prior to the trip. You can reach Ate Norie at +639284659585. It is a good thing that the tourism office manages and control the tours so that fees are standardized at reasonable rates. Boat rental is around PhP10,000 (good for 15 persons) for 48 hours. Entrance and environmental fee is PhP 270. If you do not have a tent, you can rent one for PhP 150, good for 2 pax. Snorkeling gear can be rented at PhP 100. But I suggest you bring yours if you have one especially during peak seasons, as the number of gears they have may not completely accomodate the large influx of tourists. If you would need a tour guide, I recommend our contact guide, Jheremy Daingdingan. You may contact him at +639072537405. He is organized when it comes to his craft.
Several from the group went to the nearby market to buy our foods and items needed for camping. During our boat travel, we were joined by a group of 3 travelers to split down the boat fee. Talks are needed during this ride as you might get bored by seeing nothing around but the sea.
Welcome to Apo Island!
Apo Island is where the camp was set-up. No camping is allowed for the nearby & smaller Apo Menor Island (islet) since it is pimarily made up of rocks. Apo island is the largest island in Apo Reef and has a lighthouse, white beach, lagoon, mangrove forest, and karstic rock formations.
Drowning Myself in Awe
Snorkeling is one of the major activities when you are in Apo Reef. When the boat is moving, you can hold on to ropes attached to the bamboo grid beside the boat. This way, you would get dragged and see everything underneath (of course with your mask and snorkel on) while the boat is on the way the best snorkeling areas. Luckily aside from the colorful corals, schools of fishes, and swarms of jellyfish, we saw on separate occasions, a reefer shark and two sea hawks (pawikan).
When we were in the snorkeling site, I strapped on the life vest. Not a swimmer. Back in college, I was notorious for dropping PE subjects, and Swimming is not exempted. Swimming around the area was already enjoyable and what more of those that lies beyond. No problem though since the vest was tightly tucked. Fairly enough, the world underneath is not to be underestimated.
Swimming back to the boat was quite hard though because of the buoyancy of the vest and of the opposing current. When back near the boat, I thought of trying swimming without a vest; tried it and it felt great. I managed to float and swim in front of the boat. For a non-swimmer, there is an explainable euphoria in a simple achievement like this. Got too proud of myself that I tried swimming downwards to get a closer view of the corals. That’s when seawater started to fill the snorkel and when panic seeped in. That wet-and-dry feeling of saltwater irritating your nasals and your throat. That desperate gasp for air. It is hard when two of our natural instincts compete: the instinct to breath when in agony of running out of air, and the instinct not to breath underwater. When chance to surface came, I raised my hand and called for help. No audible words came out and the sea swallowed me again. Calmness was defeated by panic. No one might have seen me. Blocked by the boat’s bow, I was out of their field of vision. When the water bobbed me, I tried shouting again. Instead of asking for help, the phrase that came out was “teka lang”. No idea why that phrase. But gurgled it a few times. Some noticed me but they were just looking. Apparently, it looked like I was just calling others to share my underwater finds. In a span of a few seconds they have realized someone was drowning, and the boatman have dove to fetch me. The whole scenario was just a few seconds but it felt like it was one of the longest seconds of my life.
Did I got traumatized? No. Can’t get enough of the world under the sea. Still did snorkeling the next day. 😛
Sunset at the Lighthouse
Apo Reef Light was established to warn ships of the shallow reefs in that part of the Mindoro Strait. It stands 33.5 MASL with an octagonal frame. Seeing the broccoli-like forest of mangroves and the lagoon in a dark orange hue felt serene. I have always loved the sunset. If I could visit Apo Reef sometime in the future, I would want another sunset.
I believe socials will not be complete without a hint or dash of alcohol. The night was thus capped with music and rounds of brandy. One by one, the drinking circle decreased as the night progressed. At the end of the drinking session, the four of us who were left standing decided to wait for sea turtles to pass by the shore and lay eggs. When we reached a far end of the beach, drunkenness sipped in. I fell asleep.
The next morning, the group found a trail in the sand. Was there a turtle that laid eggs in the area? Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t.
Apparently, I was dragged from the far end of the beach back to the campsite. (And that’s how a human pawikan was brought to life).
The group though, saw a real turtle in the morning. But according to them, the turtle didn’t lay eggs as it was disturbed by other tourists.
One reminder: people should let the turtles lay their eggs first before swarming around the animal and taking pictures. Our friends are shy and tend to abort what they’re meant to do on the shore if people will disturb them. Stop being selfish and let the turtle do its shenanigans.
You may refer to the general guideline for turtle interaction posted by Save Philippine Sea.
I missed the real sea hawk in the morning. I missed the sunrise. I even brought a rotating device just for a panoramic timelapse video of the sunrise, only to be left untouched in the bag. The hangover was too strong. After the headache faded away, we tried the lagoon. A stroll on the bamboo bridge amidst the mangroves will lead you to the bamboo-and-polystyrene raft. I was hoping to see a manta ray, but the animals didn’t want to see us.
Uulit pa ba?
Yes, definitely. Still longing for that romantic sunset at Apo Island. Plus the sea hawk and the sunrise that I have missed. Really enjoyed this adventure with these new friends.
The author wandered Apo Reef on April 3-5, 2015. Credits to Mark Morales for most of the photos.