The Philippines have a reputation for incredible diving and once you start to do your research, you realise that most of the dive sites in the Philippines offer something unique, which means you really can’t just stop at one or two.
That’s why I decided to visit on an extended visa and to sample quite a few locations before deciding which I preferred for my divemaster training (DMT). I anticipated this would take one month for the travel and two for the DMT. How wrong I turned out to be…! In reality it took me over two months to visit the main diving spots in the Visayas and Palawan, by which point I’d changed my mind about staying in the country for more diving. More on that later, but first here’s a rundown of the places I tried out.
DIVE SITES IN THE PHILIPPINES
PANGLAO, NEAR BOHOL
Panglao has a lot going for it. First of all, it’s relatively easy to reach from Manila. Just a short flight to Tagbilaran and a half-hour ride in a habal-habal, and you’ll find yourself on Alona Beach. This resort is a little pricier than some, but you can still find affordable accommodation if you search hard enough. I actually stayed a couple of kilometres from the main beach in a place called Danao because I wanted to dive with the highly rated dive school Equation. Although I don’t regret choosing them, in retrospect I think I would have enjoyed myself more if I’d based myself in the centre of town. Two of the best dive sites in the area are beside the islands of Balicasag and Pamilacan. The first has beautifully clear waters and a huge variety of flora and fauna. The latter is a stunning place to disembark for a walk along its pristine beaches. We even saw dolphins on the return journey. Also highly recommended is Loboc on mainland Bohol. It’s the perfect place to try stand up paddle boarding and to watch fireflies after the sun has set.
MALAPASCUA, NEAR CEBU
Malapascua has made a name for itself as one of the prime dive locations in the Philippines for one big reason – thresher sharks. These beautiful creatures regularly visit a feeding station about an hour from the island and if you can bear to drag yourself out of bed for a 4:30 am briefing, your efforts are almost guaranteed to be rewarded with close encounters. You should be advanced certified or at least have your deep dive specialty, as the ‘viewing area’ is past 30 m. There are some other fun dives in the area, especially around Gato Island, where white tips frequent the tunnels and coves. The insanely colourful mandarin fish can also be seen in these waters, frequently mating. There isn’t a lot else to do besides diving on Malapascua. You could walk around its circumference in a day. It attracts a friendly crowd though and you will probably pick up new friends on your dive boat to enjoy some sunset beers with.
Moalboal, on the west coast of Cebu Island, is a really fun place to stop off for a few days. About 3 km from the main city, there’s a beachside village called Panagsama with a concentrated selection of bars, dive centres and accommodation. It’s a good place for backpackers to socialise and there are some great activities in the area besides diving – especially canyoning at Kawasan Falls. There are two main reasons to scuba dive in Moalboal. Pescador Island has good visibility and a huge diversity of marine life, both big and small. We saw frogfish, nudibranchs, miniature crabs, an octopus that inked and loads of curious turtles. In over 60 dives it’s the longest list of species I’ve logged anywhere in the world. And then there’s the ‘sardine run’ – an enormous shoal that feeds en masse, pulsating through the water as one huge dark cloud. A big advantage to diving in Moalboal is that the dive sites, though limited in number, are only a stone’s throw away from your accommodation, leaving you with more spare time to explore the area in between dives.
APO ISLAND, NEAR DUMAGUETE
Apo Island is one of the Philippines’ best locations for diving. The fact that a large proportion of the reef has been designated as a marine sanctuary means that its corals are in extremely good condition. In fact they’re the most texturally diverse and colourful I’ve ever seen. There’s a good variety of marine life, and the visibility is usually excellent. From the northernmost tip of the island, there are also two very exciting drift dives. As a brief stopover, Apo Island is perfect for divers, but as a longer-term dive course location it’s a little too remote. It’s more common for people to sign up with a dive school in Dumaguete or Dauin and to visit the dive sites on a day’s boat trip, although limited accommodation does exist on the island itself. Choppy seas can also be an issue here, especially as it’s a long journey back to the mainland. The island is beautiful so don’t forget your camera.
I had a preconceived image of Boracay as a backpacker haven and party island. I was half right. Arriving on New Year’s Eve, I found it to be ridiculously busy, with bars and restaurants all gearing up for a long evening of fireworks, drinking and dancing. It doesn’t just attract backpackers though. Locals, foreigners, the old and the young, the super rich and the ultra budget travellers all come together to experience the island’s sunsets, boat rides and late-night beach entertainment. In my short time there I played charades with famous Filipino actors and gatecrashed a few karaoke nights. Even though it has undoubtedly lost some of its charm through overdevelopment, it’s a welcome change from some of the quieter locations where it’s hard to meet anyone at all. Unfortunately, scuba diving in Boracay is definitely not the best. I would almost go as far as to say it’s not really worth it. Yapak – its most famous site – was a disappointingly brief dive, thanks to its depth. The visibility was poor and we didn’t see much marine life, and still our divemaster raved about what a great dive it had been when we surfaced. This told me everything I needed to know.
EL NIDO, PALAWAN
El Nido was the only location I seriously considered settling in to do my DMT. It has a great balance between good diving, beautiful scenery and a lively social scene. While the visibility wasn’t the best I’d experienced, it was decent enough and the huge variety of marine life we saw more than made up for it. Massive cuttle fish, a big shoal of yellow snapper and an electric clam were some of the highlights. Another advantage to diving in El Nido is that you spend the whole day out on a boat cruising between limestone karsts reminiscent of Halong Bay. The water is usually calm and reasonably warm too. I inquired about doing my DMT with Palawan Divers, who I’d had a great time diving and learning to freedive with, but unfortunately the course was booked out until June.
Every dive addict who visits the Philippines should give Coron a try. Famous for its WWII shipwrecks, it’s an adventure playground for advanced divers. You can wind your way in and out of the old rooms and passageways, identifying engines, machinery, portholes and ladders with your flashlight. Outside the wrecks, there’s a decent amount of coral buildup, which has attracted some marine life too. Another dive you really have to try is Barracuda Lake, which has sudden temperature changes between 24 and 38 degrees, and loose sedimentation on the bottom that your guide will probably fool around in. If you have time, there are also some beautiful island hopping spots in the area. Coron itself isn’t too pretty and the WiFi was non-existent for three whole days when I was there, but the fun below the ocean’s surface more than made up for the town’s shortcomings. Give Rocksteady Dive Centre a go. They tend to attract a younger, more fun crowd than most schools.
PUERTO GALERA, MINDORO
The main beach in Puerto Galera is called Sabang. On first sight, it appears to be a fun and bustling touristy town with a lot of bars, resorts and, of course, dive schools. The beach isn’t your typical sandy paradise, but the rocky outcrops and seaweed add character. Sabang also has the huge advantage of being really easily accessible from Manila. It’s just a couple of hours by bus and an hour and a half by boat away (nothing by Filipino standards). Why then, you may ask, didn’t I stick around for my DMT? Unfortunately, it’s one of the seediest places I’ve ever been to. So-called ‘girly bars’ line the streets and lady boys and prostitutes are everywhere. I still wanted to give diving a chance, but unfortunately, after prearranging it in person the day before, the divemaster didn’t even bother getting out of bed to meet me. I don’t doubt many visitors use diving as an excuse to mask their real intentions for stopping by. I was also told by a few locals that if you’ve dived elsewhere in the country, Puerto Galera really isn’t that good, so I cut my losses and left.
OTHER DIVE SITES TO CONSIDER
Doing so much diving throughout the country gave me the chance to talk to a lot of experienced divers about their preferred locations. As is often the case, the highest-rated sites are the most expensive and least accessible. If I’d had the resources, there are three more places I would have loved to have checked out.
Apo Reef is located between the islands of Busuanga (where Coron is) and Mindoro (where Puerto Galera is). It’s commonly cited as having some of the best diving in the country, but to experience it you have no choice but to join a liveaboard. These usually range from around four days to a week, with some tagging on a few wreck dives in Coron at the end. Prices start from around US$1000 and go up much higher than this if you want better accommodation. Trips leave on specific dates and book up fast, and in my experience, most providers don’t bother replying to emails, so it can be very frustrating organising something.
A few divers recommended Leyte. It’s less popular with tourists than the Western Visayas and Palawan, and it’s home to over 30 marine protected areas. You have a great chance of seeing whale sharks, as well as pygmy seahorses and a huge variety of corals.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is Tubbataha Reef. Located in the Sulu Sea about 100 km east of Palawan (10 hours from Puerto Princesa by boat), it was only discovered in the 70s. CNN has listed it as one of the top eight dive sites in the world. Sharks, turtles and manta rays are frequently sighted and visibility is usually between 30 and 45 m. As with Apo Reef, you can only visit by liveaboard, and prices are even higher – up to US$4000. The dive season lasts between mid-March and mid-June and you may need to book up to a year in advance.
After spending two months travelling through the Philippines, I decided not to do my DMT in the country. It’s a huge time commitment as well as a big hit to the finances, and there simply wasn’t one place that stood out enough for me to be confident I’d want to live there for so long. Having visited places like Koh Tao in Thailand and Utila in Honduras, I’d always imagined my DMT to be a fun, shared experience in a lively location. Despite some stunning beaches and unique dive spots, the country is still not that popular with backpackers, and this makes it a more expensive and more challenging place to travel or settle in. Another issue for me, as a blogger, was that the Philippines has shockingly bad WiFi. You can spend hours each day trying out various cafes and restaurants, ordering things you don’t really want, as you search in vain for a connection. I was told afterwards that connecting to a VPN service with servers in the Philippines would have helped, but I found out too late for it to have helped. The good days I had were really good, and the generosity of a select few locals will never be forgotten, but for me, it was time to move on.