Apo, a rugged nugget in the Visayan Islands, is no ordinary dive resort. This 72-hectare lump of volcanic rock is the Philippines' case study of how local communities can best manage their coastal resources. In 1985, community education field-workers at neighboring Silliman University proposed to the 720 islanders some alien ideas. Stop the dynamite fishing, and the yield will increase. Turn the island into a marine reserve, and watch the tourists flock. But convincing the fisherfolk was not easy. Ecotourism? The well-meaning field-workers might as well have come from outer space.
At 16, Apo-born Alvin Pascobello joined a team that went door-to-door to sell the proposals. Over the next few years, the program gradually took shape: the coast was mapped, laws passed and support swelled. Finally, a marine sanctuary extending 500 m offshore was established, policed by village women who took eagle-eyed pride in enforcing the no-fishing ban. "Poachers got shot at," deadpans a resident. Earlier this year, just as his hard work began to pay off, Pascobello, then head of Apo's coastal resource management project, lost his own battle with liver cancer at 32.
Today, with its two dedicated diving resorts and fish-friendly ethos, Apo is a very different place. Marine catches have doubled, the seafaring community has prospered, and the neoprene-clad visitors who regularly arrive on Apo's sandy shores are warmly welcomed—then issued a strict list of dos and don'ts: no more than 15 divers and eight snorkelers a day in the marine sanctuary, a fine of $2,000 for speargun fishing, and no gloves (divers are less likely to collect the potentially poisonous live corals with unprotected fingers).
Apo's seas have thrived correspondingly. "There are more than 200 species of coral, all of them in pristine quality," says Alan White of Party for One Ocean, a coastal resource management project in the Philippines. Aside from the marine sanctuary, Apo has about 11 dive sites with the usual submerged suspects: big hawksbill turtles, sea snakes and silver- striped mangrove jacks (or snappers). The grins on divers' faces say it all. "That was brilliant!" gushes a British tourist, flopping onto a bench after his third submersion of the day. If the island rhythms lull you into listlessness—and there is some serious hammock swinging to be done—one prime snorkeling spot can be reached a mere five strides from the main beach in Apo village. Just wade in chest deep and, well, watch.
When fingers go wrinkly, there are always scenes of rustic village life to enjoy. End to end, Apo is a manageable hour-long stroll. In the main hamlet of Cogon, fishermen make bubuk, or bamboo traps, girls wash clothes by the village well and a banana leaf-festooned baby Jesus rests in the local chapel. At dusk, activity at the open-air pool tables shifts up a notch and friends gather at family compounds to watch Tagalog movies. The island has two low-key guesthouses that quiet down around 11 p.m., and, thankfully, there are no plans to develop more. Try the Kan-upe for some serious cocooning and ethnic chic or the hilltop Liberty's Resort for glorious sunset views over the reefs.
Diving in Apo won't break the bank and is especially good value when compared with other spots around Asia. Paul's Diving, a professionally run outfit, charges $19 for a boat dive. To get to Apo, landlubbers can take the scenic coastal route to Liloan from Cebu city, then a series of short boat rides. Alternatively, there's an easy Supercat ferry jaunt from Cebu to Dumaguete, then a brief hop on a banca, or Philippine outrigger. Foodwise, both Paul's and Kan-upe offer meals, but Apo's chefs aren't known for their culinary imagination. Then again, as fisherman Autor suggests, winking, there is always pungent kinilaw, the local vinegar-and-salt-spiked version of sushi. But after logging a couple of dives, even the tastiest fish appear better alive than dead.