The Philippines’ 7,107 islands are the stuff of divers’ dreams. That’s not hyperbole: explorer Jacques Cousteau described Palawan as the most beautiful place he ever saw. Turn your oceanic fantasies into reality by ticking off these top 10 dives, where tropical fish, thresher sharks, subterranean wrecks, flame-bright nudibranchs and magnificent mantas await.
1) MALAYAN WALL, TUBBATAHA REEF, PALAWAN
In the middle of the Sulu Sea you’ll find the Unesco-listed Tubbatha Reefs National Marine Park, home to a rainbow-coloured cast, including 500 species of reef fish, plus reef sharks, tuna, turtles, barracudas, mantas and groupers. Visiting VIPs – whales, hammerheads and thresher sharks –aren’t uncommon; there are also more than 350 species of neon-bright coral to gawp at. The reef begins at a depth of 15m, sloping 10m down, then dropping 50m; strong currents mean drift dives are most common. To reach Tubbatha, you’ll need to hop on a liveaboard and time your visit between mid-March and mid-June (the seas are too rough to attempt crossing in other months). When you’re drifting around the shallows meeting the finned, flamboyant locals, you’ll understand why the site has been nominated one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Palawan is the Philippines’ least populated region – and arguably its the most photogenic, too.
2) MONAD SHOAL, MALAPASCUA, VISAYAS
To maximise your Monad Shoal adventure, pack your underwater camera, get an early night and hop out of bed way before 5am. At this time of day, local thresher sharks like to use the sunken island as their cleaning station: obliging reef fish remove parasites from the sharks’ bodies and generally spruce them up a bit. (Don’t expect the reef fish to give you a haircut or pluck your eyebrows, mind.) Mantas, devil rays and eagle rays also head here for the same treatment; additional thrills come courtesy of pygmy seahorses, mantis shrimps and jewel-bright nudibranchs, whose bodies are emblazoned with eye-widening geometric patterns. Currents can be strong, but there’s nothing here to faze confident beginners and seasoned divers. Don’t miss Shark Point and Shark Wall: this is the only dive site in the world where thresher-shark sightings are a daily occurrence. Malapascua is a tiny island eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu: thanks, in part, to the bonkers-beautiful Bounty Beach, it’s increasingly perceived as the next Boracay. Get there now, before everyone else does.
3) CROCODILE ISLAND, BORACAY, VISAYAS
Resembling a giant croc from a distance, Crocodile Island is considered to be Boracay’s best dive site (quite some claim, given the standard of its other ones). The island is just south of Boracay, accessed via a 15-minute boat trip from White Beach, and suited to diving all year round. Items for your tick-list include sea snakes, nudibranchs, lionfish, moray eels, scorpionfish and lobsters; the huge gorgonian feathery fan corals are also likely to make your eyes widen, thanks to their intricate, lace-like branches. The dive site has a sloping wall where elaborate canyons and caves are hidden, decorated with sponges and coral, and home to elusive lobsters, who lurk lazily in the nooks and crannies. The shallow, crystalline waters mean the site is well suited to beginners.
4) SAHARA DEEP, DAUIN, VISAYAS
Thanks to its black volcanic sand, the Dauin Coast is ridiculously rich in marine life, making it a rewarding spot for muck dives. Start with Sahara Deep, one of the deeper muck diving sites, where colourful cuttlefish, frogfish, crabs, shrimps, flat worms, ghost pipefish, devilfish and other macro maestros flit and dart about, enlivening their own underwater dramas. Extra atmosphere comes courtesy of the car and boat wrecks that act as the marine life’s nudibranch-bedecked mansions. Underwater photographers will be spoiled for choice when it comes to muses, with such photogenic models darting around. It’s also worth doing a drift dive at Sahara Reef in the right currents, keeping your eyes peeled for swooping sea turtles and shimmering schools of fish. The Dauin Coast is 14km south of the city of Dumaguete, in the in the province of Negros Oriental.
5) OKIKAWA MARU WRECK, CORON BAY, PALAWAN
One for historians as well as wannabe mermaids and mermen, this dive site is home to the largest wreck in Coron Bay: mighty Okikawa Maru, a civilian tanker sunk by an American air raid in September 1944, during the Second World War. Okikawa’s resting position, at a depth of 26m, makes it perfect for divers, who can either flit around the wreck’s exterior, admiring the hard and soft corals, or swim into the wreck’s interior. Access the engine rooms via the propeller shaft, explore the oil storage holds and drift around the blast crater and the crew’s berthing decks. You’ll share the wreck with groupers and sweetlips; moderate to strong currents also attract shoals of schooling and reef fish. Coron is the third-largest of the Calamian Islands, in the province of Palawan.
6) NAPANTAO, SOGOD BAY, SOUTHERN LEYTE
Napantao may be Sogod Bay’s oldest marine sanctuary, but it’s certainly ageing gracefully: expect coral-covered rocks in myriad hues, graceful gorgonian fans and myriad marine life. Flamingo-pink anthias flutter in the waters like scattered rose petals and spongy-looking frogfish in vivid pops of orange, green and yellow cling onto the walls. Thanks to a strong current, whale sharks, whitetip reef sharks, Spanish mackerel, tuna, clown triggerfish and other pelagic species often pop by. The dive begins at a depth of 12m, plunging to around 50m. Southern Leyte province is in the Eastern Visayas region, with Maasin City as its capital.
7) HUNTER ROCK, APO REEF, MINDORO
In June and July, join the amorous sea snakes who congregate here to get it on underwater. In addition to lusty sea creatures, Apo Reef – a designated National Park, since 1996 – is home to green turtles, hawksbill turtles, more than 500 different coral species and 300-plus fish species. (Sharks and mantas sometimes join the party, too.) The reef is 20km off the west coast of Apo Island; strong currents mean it’s a challenging (but rewarding) spot, best for confident divers. Hunters Rock, 10 miles north of Apo Reef, looks like the contents of a giant’s jewellery box, thanks to its flower-coloured corals and vivid sea snakes. The pinnacle reaches up to the surface and provides a home to schools of jackfish, butterfly fish, clownfish and sweetlips. The region is best between December and May (the dry months), but you can dive here throughout the year.
8) SECRET BAY (MAINIT POINT), ANILAO, BATANGAS
Don’t worry, Secret Bay isn’t so secret that you can’t actually find it: Mainit Point is the pearl of Anilao, a protected marine reserve that offers unrivalled underwater macro photography. It’s pretty special for muck diving, too: ranked as the world’s third-best spot, after Lembeh Strait in Indonesia and Mabul Island in Malaysia. Night dives at Secret Bay are the best way to experience the local marine life, and are likely to result in sightings of octopus (blue-ringed, wonderpuss and mimic), gobies, ghost pipefish, bobbit worms, hairy frogfish, shrimp, crabs, cuttlefish, nudibranchs and more. The dive starts at a depth of 6m on dark sand, then drops 20m down to red pebble shingle, making it a great site for beginners.
‘Marine Planet is the first scuba-diving travel show that promotes marine conservation and features diving enthusiasts and ocean activists, whilst showcasing the world’s most beautiful destinations from a different perspective – underwater. Marine Planet’s latest shoot was in the Philippines; our first stop was Cebu.
Marine Planet has travelled around the world, diving in the Maldives, Zanzibar and Egypt to name but a few. What we experienced in the Philippines surpassed our expectations – the health of the coral reefs, the diverse species of marine life and visibility. Because of this, the biggest advantage of diving in the Philippines is accessibility. There is so much beauty right off the coast, where there is no need for hour-long boat rides. You can walk straight in and enter a whole new world.
Our shoot in Moalboal was one of the most memorable. We went there for the sardine run but found that this diving destination has so much more to offer. The dive team at Magic Island Resort opened our eyes to different wonders of south-western Cebu. Coming across hawksbill turtles in the pristine coral gardens was like bumping into an old friend in the street – sheer and utter delight! And a glimpse of them sleeping in a rocky alcove during a night dive was a privilege after seeing the theatrical display of mandarin fish flirting in the moonlight. Moalboal is a hidden gem, but the staff and dive team at Magic Island Resort make you feel like you have more than one jewel in your hands.
With only the surface scratched in Cebu, Marine Planet will explore this enchanting archipelago further with the next stop in Bohol or Palawan. Marine Planet video features on diving in the Philippines will be released later this year on www.marineplanet.tv, for updates and promos, follow @marine_planet on Instagram.’
Ayesha Durgahee, British television journalist and a former correspondent on CNN International
9) BLACK FOREST, BALICASAG, BOHOL
Balicasag Island is just off the coast of Panglao Island near Bohol, luring snorkellers, divers, beach bums and dolphin enthusiasts alike. Striking forests of black coral with vivid lemon-yellow tips at depths of 30m earned this dive site its name; 10m further down, you can expect to encounter a colony of garden eels, as well as Napoleon wrasse, barracudas, groupers, tuna, corals, reef fish and more. There can be strong currents around Black Forest, so divers are encouraged not to stray too far from their dive master.
10) THE CANYONS, PUERTO GALERA, MINDORO
Puerto Galera isn’t short on dive sites: there are more than 30 to pick from, but if you can only flipper around one, make it the Canyons. Gargantuan gorgonian fans and raspberry-coloured corals cover the trio of eponymous canyons, whose walls and overhangs lure in schools of barracuda, trevally, sweetlips, batfish, drummers and snappers. If you’re lucky, your visit might coincide with that of a resting shark, octopus or turtle. Strong currents and a maximum depth of 30m make this site better for confident divers than beginners (who have plenty of other sites to chose from in Puerto Galera, including Coral Garden, Batangas Channel and Pink Wall).