Diving Apo Reef and Pandan Islands

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Apo Reef and Pandan Islands, Philippines


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Country: Philippines  Area: Philippines

Water Temp: 26 - 31°C (79 - 88°F)

Visibility: 5 - 40m (16 - 131 ft)

Depth Range: 5 - 40m (16 - 131 ft)

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Apo Reef is the largest atoll in the Philippines and the world's second largest single coral reef; clearly this represents a significant attraction to tourists and divers alike. The Apo Reef Natural Park was given Protected Area status in 1996.

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The park is famous for its corals, walls and vibrant marine life with large schools of jacks and tune and large pelagics like Manta Rays, Reef Sharks and Hammerhead sharks. This forty square kilometre big atoll offers uncountable dive sites and a good chance to see sharks and other pelagics.

Divers generally either take a Live Aboard out of Coron or Busuanga or do day trips/safaris from main-land/island based dive centers.

Pyramid butterflyfish, Apo Reef, Credit

The Pandan Islands provide some of the easiest access to the Apo Reef - Apo Reef can be reached from Pandan by boat within 90 minutes. The dive sites around the Padan Island vary from shallow coral gardens to deep drop-offs on the north side, ideal for all levels. The local resort has a fully equipped PADI dive shop offers dive courses for all levels.

From this area you can also embark on four to five day dive safaris to Busuanga (Coron) to dive the WWII Japanese wrecks.

Marine Conservation

The Apo Reef is a protected natural park and in 2006. Thanks to a survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature, fishing within the reef was prohibited in 2007 with the aim that the marine park, and the local fishermen, could generate revenue through tourism. 

The Pandan Island Marine Sanctuary was established first in 1991 through the private initiative of the Pandan People and with the help of the German Development and the Municipality of Sablayan (30'000 inhabitants). Since 2001 the complete reef area has been included and since November 2002 the Municipality (MENROE) has employed a fulltime park ranger who patrols the area.

Mangrove, Credit


The Philippines Climate is gnerally tropical and therefore hot and humid all year round.

The Dry Season; December to June is divided in a cool season from December to March and a hot season from April to June. The Wet season from July to November, . 

April and May can be the best time of year to do multi-day dive safaris to the outlying reefs; due to the transition period between the North-East and South Monsoon;  the sea is often completely flat. It is also the best time of year to try your luck diving with Manta Rays. During this period however the temperature can rise above 35º Celsius as there is not much wind at this time.

Toward the End of May the rains stats and brings cooler temperatures. The rain usually appears on otherwise decent days with an hour or two of rain, usually in the afternoon. There is usually one very wet month in a year during which it rains almost non stop; typically during either July, August or September.

Typhoons are common in the Philippines, mostly between May and December, however as most form in the Pacific Ocean, this area of the Philippines is generally less affected.

Honda Bay, Credit

·         Babysitter –Service

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Liveaboard & Boat day-trip diving at the Apo Reef

Apo Reef is famous for its marine life and drop-offs, which are mostly vertical walls down to 30 - 80 meters. The Apo Reef is reachable by many dive centers in the local area. Apo Reef is an atoll of 40 square kilometres and offers a large number of dive sites and a good chance to see sharks and other pelagics. Turtles are also very common.

The reef is famous for its marine life and drop-offs, which are mostly vertical walls down to 30 - 80 meters.

Because conditions on Apo Reef can be difficult some centers (like North Pandan Island resport) a check-up dive can be mandatory for divers with less than 100 logged dives. This is generally a sensible precaution for the saftey of you and your dive partners!

Apo Reef, Credit

The Apo Reef has been declared a marine park and an entrance fee has to be paid by each visitor (see 'Tips' for costs). The fee is larger than usual in the Philippines but the Marine Park is well looked after and out of all the money you spend on a trip - this fee will add the most value to keeping the Apo Reef in the future.

Dive sites on Apo Reef

Apo Island
There dive sites around Apo Island provide some of the best diving for coral lovers. The reefs show a variety of corals including brain corals, huge table corals, fire corals, stag horns and a wide variety of soft corals. To the north, east an south of Apo Island the dive sites consist of many sheer drops when many pelagics and turtles can be seen. Over the past few years Hammerhead sharks and Manta rays have been seen here more frequently.

On the Northern side the currents can be unpredictable which makes it a difficult dive site for beginners. The western side is more of a slope than a shre drop-off providing an easier diving environment. Apo Reef is a marine park and there is a turtle sanctuary and a ranger station on the Island.

Shark Ridge
Shark ridge is generally between 10 and 50m deep. The North-East side the reef is essentially a long sheer drop (with many overhangs) and thanks to this it is common to see Whitetip and Gray Reef sharks as well as turtles, barracudas and schools of snappers.

Porcupinefish, Apo Reef, Credit

Apo 29
Apo 29 is a true blue water dive and is only really suitable for experienced divers. The currents can be unpredictable and, at times, pretty strong. The sive site is essentially an underwater mound sits about 25 meters below the surface.

Livaboard trips typically leave from Coron or Busuanga or Pandan.

Wreck Diving

Busuanga Island is the biggest island in the Calamian Group of Islands that consists of several hundred islands. It was within this Island Group that a Japanese support fleet for the 'Invasion of Leyte' was spotted by US reconnaissance plane and was attacked shortly after in 1944. During the attack more than 20 ships were sunk providing a variety of interesting wrek diving. 

None of thse wreks are in water over 40m (130ft) and some of the wreks are in much shallower water (as shallow as 8m - 25ft). Visibility tends to be around 30 to 40ft (10 - 15m) and some wrecks are exposed to tidal currents. It is worth diving with an experienced dive company as they will know how to navigate these wrecks making it more accessible for beginners.

Corals, Credit

Shore Diving: Pandan Island & Coron Lake

Coron lake, located about 20 minutes from the sea is a fresh water lake that has two thermo climes (25C, 25C & 28C). This lake as unique flora and a special atmosphere.

Pandan Island - Dive sites are within a short distance from the beach with a variety of diving from the House Reef with dives between 2 - 20m, 'Napolean Wall' and 'Barracude Deep' with depths between 30-45m. You can see a wide variety of marine life including surgeon fish, trigger fish, coral trouts, stingrays, moray eels, sand eels, cuttle fish and an occasional turtle. In the deeper dive sites Eagle rays and Napoleon Wrasse with Barracudas up to a size of 1.5m. You can see more on the Pandan Island resort website.

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Getting to the Apo Reef

The Apo Reef is about 25 miles (40km) away from the mainland so the only way to reach it is by a boat trip which takes 90min (Pandan) or more depending on where you leave from.

Dive Centers that take visitors to the Apo Reef are located all along the near-by coast - you should be able to either get a transfer arranged by the dive center you book with, or get more details instructions for the best way to get there from them.

Japanese surgeonfish, Credit

To get to Pandan

The nearest international airport is Manila Ninoy Aquino International and you can fly from there to to San Jose (Mindoro). From San Jose (Mindoro) airport you can get to Pandan either by a prearranged transfer or using a public bus (known as a jeepney) via Sablayan. There are air-con busses from Manila to Sablayan four times a day.

Pandan Island, Credit

From Sablayan you can take a water taxi to Pandan Island.

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Going out at the Apo Reef 

As the Apo Reef is situated 40km out at sea there is not much of a bar and club scene. You may find restaurants or nearby towns like Sablayan (depending on who and where you book your holiday with) but generally people travel here for the outstanding diving and beauty of the natural areas.

Sunset, Credit

North Pandan
Since Pandan Island is a private island there is only one bar and one restaurant on the island. The restaurant serves a blend of Filipino and European cuisine. Lunch and dinner are generally buffet style and offer a variety of fresh fish and meat with vegetables, seasonal fruits and coffee or tea.

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Other Activities 

Again, depending on where you stay there are various other non-diving activities you typically find at a tropical beach location. You can also explore the small towns on the mainland, for example Sablayan and get a feel for the friendly Filipino culture.

Ready to Sail, Credit

Other activities - Mainland and Apo Reef

Trek and swim to matatungtong and Panduracan Waterfalls
Enjoy the white sand beaches of Pandan grande, Pandan Pequeno and Apo Island
Spend an overnight stay in Apo Island camping
Vist Apo Reef Lighthouse
Treck Mt. Iglit-Baco Nationao Park - a santury for endangers Tamaraws
Treck the hills of Mt. Agsuli
Explore Carungcaban Cave

There are good trecking opportunities - for example you can trek to the Matatungtong and Panduracan Waterfalls or visit the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park which doubles up as a sanctury for Tamaraws (a rather cute endangerd Dwarf Buffallo) .

Other than diving the Apo Reef you can also spend a night camping on Apo Island or you can visit Apo Reef Lighthouse (it is not that beautiful in itself - but the views are good).

Family Activities and diving for Children

-  Babysitter Service available at some resorts; enquire before you book!
-  Bubblemaker and discovery dives for children are also available at some resorts - typically those like at Pandan that have house-reefs and shore diving availability - again enquire before you book!

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Travel tips

If you are travelling on your own, you may find that schedules for ferries and buses often change - or don't exist - jeepneys (local busses) for example only leave when there are full, so make sure you allow some time for the unexpected and use it to meet some of the friendliest people in the world.

Mosquitos will vary at different times of the year - take the sensible precautions like buying repellant and ensuring your room has a mosquito net.


For key resorts/tourist areas - book early in high season!

Park fees

The marine park has different fees based on activities
For Snorkeling/general visitors: (48 hours) the fee is P225 per person for Filipinos and P450 for foreigners.

Apo Reef Marine Park fee 1700 P (2013) per diver for 48 hours.
Apo Reef Marine Park fee 2100 P per diver for 48 hours. 

For Divers: P1700 (2013) per diver for 48 hours - this is likley to go up to P2100 per diver for 48 hours in 2014. 


A few words about safety: The Filipinos are a very friendly and helpful people, however, as in all tourist places, Manila has it's share of crooks and con-artists!

Avoid changing money in the streets and be cautious with strangers inviting you for a drink or a party or to their house. If you have more money than you need with you, don't show it. With a little bit of common sense, unpleasant experiences can easily be avoided.

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