Apo Reef

Christmas 2018 was not the highlight of my life, as so many of the things I write about are.

Just as my husband was returning after a 4 month stint of living halfway across the world from me (a stint that would end up being an unexpected 1.5 years), my Dad fell terminally ill. In truth, he effectively chose his own death by throwing away his meds, refusing dialysis and remaining staunchly stubborn (as he does) on this very final decision. One week before we were scheduled to fly to Taiwan for yet another epic NYE trip, we canceled, booked tickets from Guam to Maryland and flew home just in time to reach my father on his passing at 64 on Christmas Eve.

As one of many jobs I have held in the Air Force, one of the jobs I held in Guam is “the installation mortuary officer.” As a part of this very vital role, I received a call any time there was an Air Force death on the island. My role was to ensure the surviving family received the proper entitlements, understood the services available and ensured their loved one received the appropriate honors for their time served. At the point where I received this more personal call, I had dealt with over 20 cases in 1.5 years on the island of Guam. One could say at that point I was so saturated with death and dying that I was able to handle the weight of my fathers passing as just another, more personal case. Though I was spared from the more difficult, practical issues of state executor by my Uncle.

The weight of 2019 stayed with me through the entire year. While I received news that I had gotten my dream job, I was faced with more difficult life decisions – more separation from my spouse, family planning challenges and an unanticipated second deployment. It had been a while since I lived day to day, filling my day with as much work as possible as a coping mechanism to simply survive.

Naturally, when faced with such a life crisis, I turned to filling the void with adventure in the form of travel. 

My sister and I had already planned to take an epic trip to the Philippines in January 2019. Part 1 of that trip was a liveaboard catamaran sailing out of Puerto Galera to Apo Reef, the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world — it is only beat out by the largest contiguous coral reef, the Great Barrier reef in Australia.

This was my second time to the Philippines, first outside Manila. On my second trip to this incredibly vast country, I fell even more in love with it, wondering why travel has not caught on similar to the likes of Thailand or Vietnam. Equally inexpensive, but less trodden by westerners, the Philippines is an expansive country with over 8,000 islands as a part of its vast archipelago. While Tegali and English are the official national languages, there are hundreds of different dialects spoken all over the islands with many traditional, remote villages to explore. By far, we only touched on a sliver of this vast country.

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Picture: Dive sites along Apo Reef. We hit nearly all of them throughout the 3 days eating, diving, repeating.

My sister is a marine biologist, avid diver and lover of all things ocean. I care less about specific marine life and more about the adventure to accompany trip. Naturally, a catamaran leaving out of Puerto Galera was the trip for us. We flew into Manila only days after our fathers funeral. To say a trip out to sea was necessary is understatement; healing reflection felt under the soft waves of the ocean was exactly what we needed. Little did we know soft waves were not in store for us the first night on the catamaran.

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Sailing out into the ocean on a large sailboat sounds great right? Well not when you are going against the current for 32 hours. My sister and I bunked together and had to walk through the small kitchen to get to our room. Halfway through the night on our trip out to the reef, I woke up to the boat rocking so hard it was splashing water into the cabin from the two tiny port holes. My sister was frantically trying to plug the water spilling onto our clothes proclaiming that the Philippines would eventually kill us (this was not the first story on our adventure).

Luckily there were no deaths, though half of the 8 divers on the liveaboard spent the night in the bathroom rather than their bunks. I personally felt like a true pirate being thankful that we had beds rather than stacked hammocks as I had seen so many times in the movies. The next morning, the waves calmed and we arrived safely on the sheltered banks of Apo Reef.

The next 3 days were pure heaven – especially compared to the ride out to the reef. We were up at sunrise, dove, ate a beautiful breakfast, dove, lunch, dove, dinner and an optional night dive. By the time the day was over you were in a relaxed sense of zen from being rocked in the waters softly to sleep.

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I made several attempts to get a picture of what sunrise, sunset and expansive night sky looked like from the middle of the ocean, but neither my iPhone nor GoPro give any view justice. Looking up at the clear milky way, reflecting on what we had been through, put the whole world in perspective. There is truly no feeling like it; diving was one thing, but being above board, so far away from civilization was a remoteness that is somehow strangely peaceful. The only sound was the lapping of water against the boat; the only view is the horizon; stars and the sun are your main entertainment. Somehow it all lulls the mind and soul in the same way that meditation, or quiet rainfall makes you feel at peace with the way the world works – and in this moment – I needed to be at peace with how the world worked.

Our catamaran adventures were not totally over though. By day 3 out at sea (and probably because we had the unfortunate experience of having to walk through the kitchen to get to our room), it became apparent that the entire catamaran had an uninvited guest – cockroaches. In a way, I was not overly surprised – makes sense that would be a common issue, but just added to the hilarity of the overall experience. Good thing my stomach has an iron lining; there were no protests from the group when we safely arrived back on shore on day 4.

We spent a few extra days in Puerto Galera then took a seaplane back to Manila. Out of the many options to get to Puerto Galera (or any of the islands in PI), I would highly recommend this mode of transport. Philippine Airlines gets you to many of the larger spots. Air Juan (company we took) is a smaller seaplane operation; it will get you to the tourist spots on smaller island locations for about $50pp more – and hours less – than multiple ferries and buses.

Diving is just one of the many things you should do while in the Philippines – and Apo reef is just one of many world class dive locations. Diving was also just Part 1 of our epic Philippines adventure. Part 2 took us into the northern part of the main island of Luzon.

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If traveling to Puerto Galera – here is our itinerary

How to get from Manila to Puerto Galera

We chose the taxi option straight from the airport in Manila straught to Batangas Pier (about 2 hour ride). You can pre-book for a set cost of  around ~3000php ($55) total, which we split 4 ways with our group.

From the pier catch the Mindoro Island ferry (1-1.5hr ride) to Muelle Peir (Balatero Pier closer to white beach) Note: Ferries stop running at 1630 – something to watch your timing. You will not want to spend the night around the pier area…

White Sand Beach, Puerto Galera

Where we stayed: Victorias bed and breakfast. I would highly recommend this BnB; it is inexpensive and very personable. Breakfast is served on the balcony by Victoria herself. She randomly let us try local fruit, gave us tips on where to go and was always available for any questions we had. We felt more at home here than we have many places we stayed.

When choosing where to stay there are two beach options in Puerto Galera: White Sand beach or Sabang beach. We chose White Sand beach for the quieter evening and based on reviews of the BnB (which did not disappoint).

Activities in Puerto Galera (2 days)

Depending on your beach bum status, I you do not need more than a week in Puerto Galera itself. We chose the below activities out of the many to do. See a good overview here.

Puerto Galera Island Hopping Tour

How To Access: You can make arrangements for an island hopping tour in Muelle Port, Sabang Pier or White Beach. Local fishermen usually take groups of tourists.

Fees: about 30 USD for a chartered boat for 8 persons; additional 12 USD per person for additional activities

Coral Garden, Giant Clams and San Antonio Underwater Cave

Iraya Mangyan Village

Address: Talipanan, Puerto Galera, Occidental Mindoro

How To Access: From White Beach in Puerto Galera, hire a tricycle for a round trip as no regular public transport is available.

Websitehttp://www.ayalafoundation.org/the-beautiful-nito-baskets-of-the-iraya-mangyans/

Liveaboard – Apo Atoll Reef

We chose Spirit of Diving for our liveaboard. Though inexpensive (about $1Kpp), I would give the company a 3 out 5 stars. Not the best, but we were one of the first groups to try it out so it may have improved with time.

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Happy exploring!

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