Beneath the Blanket - Apo Island
Divernet

Stalking fish is never easy, and at Rocky Point I find it particularly frustrating. This is not because of a lack of fish, but because there are too many. Enormous, disorganised shoals of pyramid butterflyfish and surgeon fish fill the water column, constantly snapping at the plankton.
     Rocky Point is the southernmost tip of Apo Island. Growing fish spill out of the sanctuary to the north and move into the stronger currents off the point. Coral cover is almost 100 per cent, with an incredibly healthy variety of hard corals.
And thats the other problem - with such great coral cover, the fish just keep moving. Rarely is their movement localised to isolated coral heads. Nine times out of 10 I am trying to focus on a fish only to lose it as it blends in with its friends. I know how a hungry barracuda must feel.
     The boats are bancas, canoe-style hulls with twin bamboo outriggers. They range from one-man fishing bancas with paddle power to double-deck passenger ferries with diesel engines salvaged from trucks, and make quite good dive boats.
    Drifting along the north side of the island, I see that the reef is different again, with coral outcrops and tightly packed heads on a slope of dark, volcanic sand. There are bright orange and yellow cup corals, the usual featherstars, small table and cabbage corals, and an incredibly busy horde of fish. I am torn between getting close to the reef and staring into the blue for barracuda.
    Alvin, my dive guide and buddy, makes a turtle sign. It takes me a few glances to pick the creature out from the dark sand. I loop round and sneak in. Its not too nervous and I get four shots off before it flaps lazily away. Alvin deflects it back towards me and I intercept it for a couple more shots.
    snake-hunting on a later dive, but here a sea snake is working its way in and out of the coral.
    It doesnt swim off or hide, it ignores me. I have time to wait for it to get its head out of a hole and slither along.
    The next distraction is a shoal of jacks. I would normally stop and admire them, but I have ODd on jacks on a previous dive, with hundreds packed shoulder to shoulder at Mamya Point on the east side of the island.
    As we pass them I can just make out three large barracuda in the distance. I try to get closer but they stay a good 10m away. This wont be a barracuda day, but who cares Ive enjoyed turtle, sea snake, gorgeous reef and hordes of colourful fish. When Alvin asks what I want to do for a second dive, I just smile and say: Same again.
    Apo is a small volcanic hump rising five miles off the southern tip of the larger island Negros. The marine reserve began as a project of Silliaman University in 1985. The islanders took some convincing, but are now firmly in favour. Fish stocks and catches are up, and they have the bonus of jobs and diving tourism income.
    Anchoring is prohibited except from two beaches where the locals launch their bancas. Fishing is restricted to single lines and fish traps. No nets, no long lines and certainly no dynamite or cyanide. Off one lagoon is a total sanctuary area, with no boat traffic and a limit of eight divers per day.
    Alvin and I go for an early dive to get the sanctuary to ourselves. From the surface we see the usual morning current drifting along the wall. Our boatman cuts the bancas engine and drifts parallel to the beach.
    Alvin checks the transit and we roll in. It is only a few metres deep and we are on a group of coral heads known as Clownfish City. A dense carpet of anemones covers tens of square metres of reef, with sprigs of live coral poking through.
    Most coral heads have clouds of resident anthias or damselfish, but here we find a cloud of aggressive clown anemone fish. As I aim my camera I have to fend off bold attacks on my fingers.
The resort was designed and built by UK diving instructor and ex-builder Paul Rhodes. From the beach it looks like the house that Jack built, climbing the hill higgledy-piggledy in a series of terraces.
    Everything is designed to make good ecological use of available resources. There is a general chilling-out terrace, the restaurant/bar terrace, and rooms with balconies overlooking the beach.
    There is no fresh water on the island, only a brackish well unsuitable for drinking. Each room has a trough of the local ground water and a scoop, which is used to fill the hand-basin, flush the toilet, or pour over your head for a shower. Its simple and it works.
    On the subject of plumbing, I am impressed that the floors are graded to drain properly. It might sound silly, but I have lost count of the number of tropical hotels where a puddle of water collects in the corner of the bathroom floor with nowhere to go!
    I am amused by the technical extremes. One room under construction will be an Internet cafe, yet there is no mains electricity here to run air conditioning. The rooms just open out onto the balconies, allowing air to circulate.
    Beds have nets to keep insects off. Lights, ceiling fans and the all-important sockets for charging camera batteries run from a generator.
    The resort is named Libertys after Pauls wife. Her great-great-grandfather was the first to settle on Apo Island and many of the 650 inhabitants are cousins of some sort, the rest being married into the family. Alvin is one of her many brothers.
    It is this close-knit community that protects the marine reserve.
    Dive centre bars are usually sociable places where travelling divers swap tall stories, and this one is exceptionally so. The laid-back atmosphere is infectious and I make new friends over drinks, dinner and games of Scrabble (I blame my poor performance on too many vowels).
    As I watch the sunset through the palm trees I am reminded of the Eagles Hotel California. Though I can check out any time I like, I just dont want to leave.



Anemone
Anemone City on Apo Island
anthias
anthias at Apo
turtle
turtle at Apo
a
a good way to travel short distances is the Jeepney
boarding
boarding a banca

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Domestic flight with Air Philippines or Cebu Pacific from Manila to Dumaguete on Negros for $45 each way. Allow three hours to transfer from Manila international airport to the domestic airport and check in. Jeepney from Dumaguete to Malatapay and banca to Apo island can be arranged through the dive centre.

DIVING:Pauls Diving on the main beach charges $19 per dive, 0063 35 424 0888,e-mail: apo@mozcom.com

ACCOMODATION:A one-horse town - Libertys is built into the hillside above the beach. Room rates are from $4 for dormitory accommodation to $19 for en-suite double room with fan.


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