Meet Fe Raguindin, the park superintendent overseeing Apo Reef the largest atoll-type reef that stretches across 34 square kilometers of shimmering waters off the island of Mindoro.
She may not be the typical tough-talking enforcer, being soft-spoken and seemingly cool-headed. But don’t be misled by her meek and friendly gestures. She had gained a reputation of being ‘no-nonsense’ enforcer in her job.
Indeed, divers have found the Apo Reef a favorite destination, with its having being vast but shallow lagoons with smooth sandy bottom and home to over 375 species of fish, which live and breed in the coral reef habitat.
The reef also lies near the northern tip of the Coral Triangle, the world’s center of marine biodiversity and a global priority for conservation.
The park superintendent said she would do anything to protect the reef as haven for marine life and a natural sanctuary of birds and endangered plant species.
We can’t just allow anyone to destroy again the place, now that it had regained its natural beauty,” said Raguindin, as she recalled having been part of the first batch of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) team which was deployed to stop dynamite fishing and other illegal activities that led to the destruction of corals and marine life in the area in 1994.
That same year, the Apo Reef had become part of the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project (CPPAP). In 1996, it was finally declared a protected area under the category of a natural and its surrounding waters a “buffer zone.” All forms of fishing were banned in the area.
One morning, while joining the park superintendent in one of her routine patrols on board the DENR speedboat, she was informed by a park ranger that they noticed that a Malaysian-registered luxury yacht was docked off the main island for several days, although it had requested for only a 48-hour visitation permit.
She immediately took hold of the speed boat, rushed to yacht, and approached a Filipino crewmember, who confirmed that they were on their fourth day in the reef to accompany foreign scuba divers. He claimed it was also their first time in the place.
The park superintendent then summoned the yacht’s captain, a Eurasian with an Australian accent, and demanded that they comply with the requirements, or they were to be escorted out of the protected area.
“If we become lenient (to these visitors), most of them would leave without paying, “she later said. “If they want to dive, then they must abide by the rules.”
Enjoy, but follow the strict rules.
According to Raguindin, all vessels need to secure a visitation permit before they are allowed to stay at the reef. They are charged P2,040 for foreigners, and P1,650 for locals for every 48 hours of stay.
She noted that their rates were actually reasonable, compared to profits from the tourism business that had thrived in the coastal town of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro which had jurisdiction over the reef, and Coron in Northern Palawan. These two areas were known jump-off points to Apo Reef.
It was gathered that local tour organizers even standardized their rates. Board rentals were also uniformly priced at P10,000 per 48-hour visit and most visitors found it more economical to rent their diving gear from the area.
From January and February this year alone, Raguindin said her office had already collected over P1.7 million from the visitors, in which 70 per cent will be retained for the operations of the protected area. It was almost half of their total collection in 2014 when their “peak” season would still start in March and end in May.
Being a natural park and protected area, visitors can dive in designated areas and their vessels can dock near the main island, but they are not allowed to fish or get any “souvenir” from the place, including the propagules that scattered around the natural mangrove plantation.
“Enjoy viewing the coral reef habitat without touching or standing on corals to avoid damaging the fragile ecosystem,” said the PASU guidelines.
When on land
The largest – and most diverse of the park’s three islands is the 22-hectare Apo Island, which serve as rookeries for migratory birds and other wildlife species. The island boasts of a 10-hectare mangrove forest surrounding a lagoon near the center of the island, which serve as a bird sanctuary, especially of the endangered Nicobar Pigeons.
The sandy beaches of the main island also serve as nesting area of the green and hawksbill turtles, which were listed, along with the coconut crab, the giant clams, the smooth top shells, the giant triton, bottlenose dolphin, the spinner dolphin, the reef shark and the manta ray, as “threatened or near threatened species” of wildlife in the natural park.
Meanwhile, non-divers are advised to “enjoy viewing the islands’ living resources (e.g. birds, trees and plants) and non-living environment without touching or trying from the walking trails or walk board to avoid damaging the fragile terrestrial ecosystem; refrain from collecting living or dead shells, sea stars, or any other inhabitants; refrain from collecting living or dead plants.”
All visitors also need to “refrain” from feeding the wildlife. “These animals are wild and capable of feeding themselves, “the DENR guideline noted.
The main island housed a modern lighthouse, which was built in 1999 which replaced a rusting lighthouse that the Americans constructed in 1901 to warn ships of the hidden reef.
Also noticeable were the ruins of the two bungalow structures, which were built in 1905 as main quarters of the US Coastguard, which used to man the reef.
Lately, the DENR was tasked to complete the construction of the P10 million lodging house, which the Department of Tourism started a few years ago.
According to Park Superintendent Raguindin, the Apo Reef is just beginning to be enjoyed by non-divers. The government, she said, is ready for it provided that they “don’t break the rules” to preserve’s the area’s delicate environment.