As promised, here is Part 2 of my tips on planning and making the best of your Apo Reef adventure, based on my trip with friends over two weeks ago. Here’s Part 1 to those who have not read it yet. See also our expense breakdown at the end of this post.
5) DO find out how to properly interact with wildlife, especially the pawikans.
Amid the hot and humid night, we slept on the sand under the stars and was woken up around 2 am by an oncoming pawikan (sea turtle) – I think she was almost three feet in length! I was not sure if she was able to successfully lay eggs, but she was on her way back to the sea. And then I did something I am not proud of – I took photos of her using flash just before she entered the water.
I found out the next morning from our friend and trip organizer and much later at the tourism office that pawikans don’t like light and noise.
Actually, that morning, there was a smaller pawikan who was unsuccessfully able to lay eggs during the night even after digging several times. Our cook told us it was because a rowdy group kept crowding around the turtle and taking photos of it using flash.
While I wish the tourism office had given all Apo Reef visitors a more complete wildlife interaction briefing, I realize that as travelers, we have to step up, research beforehand, and ask questions, to ensure that the amazing wildlife and natural attractions we encounter now will still be there when other people – possibly our children and grandchildren – come to see them.
She was beautiful, but tired from dragging her weight across the sand and several egg-laying attempts. If only I could carry her to the sea, I would.
She was almost weightless once her flippers touched water, though. It was though the sea carried her.
6) DO be prepared for sea lice underwater and sand mites on the beach. Bring insect repellent for the sand mites, which can get nasty when you’re camping. Be prepared for sea lice when snorkeling too. If you are prone to skin allergies, bring anti-allergy medication. Vinegar is also a good first-aid measure for stings. Some of us with minor stings no longer applied it, though.
Don’t swim or snorkel without a top. A snug rash guard is best so that sea lice won’t get caught inside. While some sources online say swimming close to naked is best to protect yourself against sea lice, our travel companion who had his shirt off while snorkeling had the most reddish marks and itching. He had to take allergy meds when he got home.
7) No matter what your guide says, DO wear a life vest if you’re not a confident swimmer. It was low tide, and our guide from Sablayan tourism office led us straight to the water for snorkeling, prompting me to ask, “Don’t we need life vests?”
He assured us that the waters were shallow. Also, the boat with the life vests was several meters away so we did not get our vests anymore.
We had to walk for a while on ankle-deep waters and carefully avoid stepping on corals and sea cucumbers. Even in waist-deep waters, we snorkeled to avoid stepping on soft corals. After some minutes, though, the water deepened. With the shore already far away, I decided to suck it up. I know how to swim, but my endurance is weak. I stepped on rocks or hard corals to rest (I found out much later after the trip, to my dismay, that even hard corals, not just soft corals, can be damaged if you step on or touch them too). I took my time resting to fully re-charge before the next round of snorkeling, as I did not know where my next rest stop would be. There were several times when I came close to drowning as water filled my mask and the next rock I could hold on to or step on seemed far away.
Wow! I’ll take a picture. Oh, wait, I’m drowning!
To my horror, the rest of the group was already several meters ahead of me. I called out, and one of my friends came back for me. He, too, was not a very strong swimmer, though, and also had to look out for himself. Eventually, the group pushed far ahead of me, leaving just me, my below average skills, and the open water. (Later, I found out that some of my other travel companions struggled in the waters too, with them frantically searching for footholds.) Which brings me to my next suggestion:
8) DON’T assume you will automatically get the same treatment and efficiency you would get in developed tourist areas. Instead, DO ask for specific assistance.
Having snorkeled in tourism-developed areas like Palawan, where a guide looked out for every one in our group, as well as in less developed ones like a rural municipality in Cebu, where I was closely guided by a friend of a friend, I somehow assumed that our guide in Apo Reef would look out for the safety of each one of us.
Unfortunately, he did not even check on me when I was left behind for several meters; my arm raising and waving were futile. Eventually, when I grew tired, my companions became mere spots in the distance.
I also found out from our organizer that we were supposed to have two guides for our group of 12, but the tourism office only assigned us one.
While the Sablayan tourism office has many basics covered like tour arrangements, boat transfers, camping essentials and preparing itineraries, it seems they are still a bit green on safety observations and wildlife interaction briefings.
So, to be sure, ask for specific help or assistance. This tip also applies in general to less developed areas for tourism, unless you are going with a professional tour agency using their own guides or diving with professional dive centers.
9) DO relax and enjoy the scenery. Despite the hassles and inconveniences we experienced, I would say nature spoiled us with her sights. After the hot and sticky ro-ro ride, I was in awe of the moon lighting a pale yellow path on the dark water just before dawn. On the two and a half hour-boat ride to Apo Island, we saw the sea in different brilliant blues, and deep waters so clear we could see their sandy bottom. And, on the island, we were treated to a sunset, a moonrise, and a sunrise. So we drank it all in – and took photos, of course.
Clear, clear waters on the way to Apo Island. This was also our last snorkeling spot before we went back to the mainland.
We passed by rock islands like this one too, and saw a flock of migratory birds that looked like white flags against the blue sky (not in this photo). Apo Island and Hunter Rock stood like beautiful mirages in the distance.
Fiery treats from nature – sunset (top) and sunrise (bottom) at Apo Island.
10) DO make the most of each moment. And, DON’T forget to bring your sense of humor! Savor each moment, especially if you are just there on a short weekend trip. Since there was no electricity at night, our group used that time for some bonding. We drank brandy and orange juice, traded stories, and answered questions like “What work would you do for free?” and “What work would you not do even if you were paid millions?”
When we rushed to the mainland to catch the 230 pm bus only to find out our schedule was moved hours later, some of us explored Sablayan’s bright red and yellow hanging bridge. We could feel the bridge dipping then rising as motorbikes passed, as a hanging bridge usually does.
Sablayan’s hanging bridge – beautiful to look at but a challenge to walk on.
Part of the experience in crossing this bridge is navigating through traffic of passing motorbikes and people. Sadly, though, there are some holes like this (right photo) on the floor. You have to be careful.
During the long wait, we also cooled ourselves with shakes bought in a carinderia-like store near the tourism office. Our organizer innocently quipped to the staff, “Balita ho namin dito ang pinakamasarap na shake sa Sablayan.” (We heard that you have the best shake in Sablayan.) The staff looked pressured for a moment, then went on to prepare our Php35 shakes. We laughed at our friend’s prank and enjoyed the amazingly delicious shakes (mine with chocolate bits in them) – way better than the more expensive pearl shakes and milk teas in Manila. So we had the best shake in Sablayan after all. If you are curious to taste this shake for yourself and you are coming from the tourism office, face right then walk straight. You’ll see the store, with their list of shake flavors prominently displayed outside. They are also diagonal to the plaza and stalls in front of the tourism office.
All in all, we had fun despite the series of unfortunate events. If you are planning your own trip to Apo Reef, I hope this write-up helps. Below is also the breakdown of our expenses:
Bus from Alabang to Sablayan: Php850/head
Bus from Sablayan to to Alabang/Pasay/Cubao: Php800/head (We’re not sure why it’s cheaper)
Tricycle rides around Sablayan (Sablayan tourism, pier, hanging bridge): Php10/head for each ride
Boat to Apo Island and back: Php8,000 (Capacity: 15 people max. We were 13.) There are smaller boats good for ten people for Php7,500.
Food: Php200/meal, courtesy of Tourism (We had six meals)
Entrance fee to Apo Island: Php225/head
Tent rental: Php300/tent
Additional: Fish, canned goods, fruit, booze – Php1,000
We each spent a little over Php4,000, except for one of us who came directly from Occidental Mindoro.
Living it up in Apo Island despite trip mishaps Photo by Dong Ho
Read Part 1 of this series here.