5 Amazing Dive Sites in the Philippines
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Diving in the Philippines: 5 of the Best Diving Sites for Newbie and Experienced Divers
Diving is awesome. Have you tried it? If not, you should. And if you have, you know just how easy it is to find diving in the Philippines – a nation made up of thousands of islands. Indeed, there are few places that are better suited for diving. We’re talking about tropical islands here, warm water, a profusion of dive shops and schools, and a wide spectrum of gorgeous marine life. Choosing your ideal Philippines dive sites might seem overwhelming if you’re a Philippines newbie. So we’ve done our fair share of diving in the Philippines and have put together this guide to some of the best Philippines dives sites.
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Best diving in the Philippines: It’s all subjective
So how does one pick the best diving in the Philippines – is that even possible? Short answer: no. Long answer: it depends on what you like, from the type of underwater environment to the conditions, even including the overall ‘package’ when you factor in the diving-related experiences out of the water. Before traveling to the Philippines, we have done extensive research about what other divers perceived as highlights, and combined that, flexibly, with our intended route. After having explored various dive destinations, I can safely say that each place offered a unique highlight (or highlights). And, while our dive route didn’t include all of the go-to Philippines dive sites, all of our dive destinations turned out to be amazing. In the following sections I’ll go over each place to give you an idea of what to expect. Please note that none of the dive shop mentions were sponsored. What you’ll read are my honest reviews.
Diving Siquijor: Perfect for Reef Lovers
Wanting to combine diving with a bit of chilling and exploring, so diving in Siquijor seemed like a logical choice. We were intrigued by the presence of various marine sanctuaries and protected areas around the island, and the fact that this isn’t a very touristy or busy island. The dive shops are fewer and farther in between than on Coron, for instance. On the upside, lack of mass dive tourism means you’ll likely get a more personalized experience, compared with dive shops that handle dozens of customers every day. So, if you like a very chilled out diving experience without too many big groups coming through, you’ll be in the right place here.
We Went diving with: Sea Pearl Divers
After comparing a few shops, we decided to dive with SEA PEARL DIVERS – and were more than happy with that decision. The vibe of the island, the close-knit and flexible setup of the dive shop, and the general ease of getting around to explore led to us booking 10 dives each. This was perfect for having a relaxed week-long dive stint, with some breaks in between. The dive shop itself is family-run, and the staff makes sure everything works like clockwork before and after getting out of water, meaning the shop is uncluttered and clean. Jay and Valerie are doing a fantastic job of keeping their equipment in tip-top shape (the best maintained equipment I’ve seen to date) and their customers happy. Do note that there might be a bit of walking involved – the water level on the beaches on that side of Siquijor is often very low, meaning the boats can’t get very close to the shore. Watch out for the sea urchins!
Dive Sites around Siquijor
The 10-dive package let us explore various marine sanctuaries and some beautiful walls. Diving here was, all in all, my favorite. I like colourful reefs and plenty of tropical fish and critters, and the dive sites here most definitely delivered. You won’t see any big stuff here, but the abundance of turtles, batfish, sea snakes, shrimp, and moray eels, among many others will make you happy if you like your marine life colourful, your water warm and calm, and your reefs with moderate profile.
Where to Stay
Staying in or around San Juan proved to be the most convenient place getting around and taking advantage of various amenities and restaurants in the area. There is a handful of hostels, homestays and high-ish end resorts to choose from. We were very pleased with Coco Homestay, located about 1 km away from the dive shop. Staying several nights might get you a small discount (especially in low season), and the guest kitchen (free to use) gives you the option to have a nice home-cooked meal. This is something we really appreciated after being on the road for several months. Motorbike rental is available too, and the family who runs the place is very friendly and accommodating. Ask for the mango cake while there – you won’t regret it. For solo travellers/hostel seekers, Czar’s Place seemed to be the most popular joint – mainly due to their lively scene and music nights. Monkey Business is another chilled out backpacker favorite – with huge plus points for their awesome restaurant with live music. Look for JAP Tourist Inn in San Juan if you’ve got a slightly bigger budget. As a a bit more polished mid-range hotel, the rooms there start from 1,000 pesos/night in low season.
Diving in Malapascua: Thresher Shark heaven
I loved Malapascua! So easy-going, small, but with lots of options to eat and sleep for cheap, not to mention memorable diving. The highlight here is the possibility to see thresher sharks. These live suuuper deep in the sea but come up every morning to get cleaned by their little symbiosis partner fish at a depth of about 25-30 meters. More on that in a bit.
Who we went diving with: Dan’s Dive Malapascua
As you might expect, the Thresher Shark capital of the Philippines is a diving hot spot with dozens of dive shops and schools. There are big-name companies and little family-run establishments. Something for everyone. We decided to follow the same tactic as before and selected a locally-owned and run small business, Dan’s Dive Malapascua. It was just slightly cheaper than the other options on the island, but what we liked was that diving with Dan’s Dive felt like being part of a small family. Valerie was so kind to us, helping us out with our packed lunches for the Gato Island trip, and giving me some medicine when I came down with an allergic reaction even though she only had a few for herself. We did around 7 dives each with Dan’s and experienced diving with various guides. They were all very knowledgeable and made sure we got the most out of each dive. My only gripe was with the masks the dive shop was using. They were all the same brand/style and none of them really fit my face. So, I spent a lot of time underwater trying to make it fit well enough.
The diving in Malapascua
Obviously, most people come here for the thresher sharks. And they are VERY cool. But – I’m not gonna lie – the process is a bit painful for three reasons. For one, you have to be at the dive shop at the crack of dawn (usually around 4 am). Secondly, there’s no guarantee that you will see the sharks when you go. And, finally, it can get really crowded under water. Our first thresher dive sucked not just because we didn’t see any sharks, but also because the site was just PACKED with divers. I’m talking 30+ people and, in parts, quite inconsiderate divers making their way down, bumping into you, taking your spot… you name it. On the other hand, it’s worth it to give it a try again. The sharks are AMAZING and definitely a sight you won’t forget. Unfortunately, I was too excited/at a crappy angle and didn’t manage to snap a very sharp pic of the sharks.
Besides the thresher shark dives, we did a handful of dives around the island and did a trip to Gato Island. Malapascua proper was rich in critters, from sea horses, to cuttlefish, to giant schools of catfish, nudibranches, moray eels, lionfish, you name it. The currents there tend to be strong though, and the visibility was not great when we were there, maxing out at 10-12 meters, on average. This was a bit of a downer. On the other hand, it gave the place an eerie, but oddly cool vibe. Like a different planet.
Gato Island was definitely a trip worth making, too. We did two dives there and, even though the visibility wasn’t amazing (again), we saw some gorgeous bamboo and whitetip sharks. The swim-throughs there were lots of fun, too. The only downside was that it was also crowded when we went. So I’d advise to NOT do a Gato Island diving trip on a weekend if you can choose. Instead, opt for the weekdays to avoid the weekend crowds.
For accommodation on Malapascua, we chose Mar and Ems Bamboo Cottages, just a few steps away from the village market. This was an excellent budgets choice with a fantastic location. The bamboo huts here are simple, but provide enough room for two and a private bathroom. The outside terrace is an excellent place for winding down, and there is loads of space to air dry your clothes, too. The Malapascua Budget Inn is a great choice for solo travellers and/or hostel fans. Also located near the market, you’ll be right in the thick of it and, and the hostel also organizes events for guests like movie a nights and the occasional dinner. Villa Sandra is another sought-after guesthouse. Though we didn’t stay there, their vegan/vegetarian restaurant was amazing, with an undeniably chill vibe. All of the people we met who stayed there had good things to say about this hostel. On the other hand, if you don’t care too much about diving and prefer to be close to a gorgeous beach, check out Chaniva Joy Island View Apartments near North Beach. We spent a night there and found it super convenient and like a home away from home, thanks to the spacious room and a full kitchen. The hot shower was a plus too!
Diving in Coron: Wrecks galore
Ten days of our 6-week stay in the Philippines were on Palawan. So we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dive a bunch of shipwrecks off of Coron. Located north of Palawan, Coron is the flagship wreck diving destination in the Philippines, and offers, in my opinion, some of the best diving in the Philippines. Check here for some flight options into Coron.
First off – there are a LOT of dive shops in Coron. The main side effect of it being so popular for wreck diving also means that you’ve got a fair share of first-timers or even discover scuba divers trying their hand at seeing some underwaters sunken boats. Take that as you wish – a pro or a con – but it’d say it’s both a blessing and a curse. You see, the more dive shops populate a place, the more competitive the prices get. For us, Coron was pretty much the cheapest destination, with a package of a 3-dive day tour (including lunch) for 3,000 pesos (just before the start of high season). On the other hand, if you’re not careful about what company you dive with, you’re less likely to have an intimate/personalized dive trip in places as busy as Coron. This is simply due to the sheer volume of visitors the dive shops seek to accommodate.
Our dive shop of choice in Coron: Umali Dive Center
We chose to dive with Umali Dive Center, which was one of the few dive shops in Coron that works with local dive guides and instructors. This was important to both of us as we always support places that give local staff an opportunity to work in industries that often tend to be western-run. Additionally, training and employing local divers means that the message about marine life conservation, reduction of plastic waste (which is a huge issue in the Philippines) and pollution will have a much wider reach in local communities.
The dive shop itself has a bit of an old-school flair, with an old-timey dive helmet and various nautical decoration. The downstairs at Umali is stocked with well-maintained dive equipment. This shop was one of the two places in the Philippines for me where the suits, the boots, the fins – the everything – fit to a T on the first try and did not throw off my weight. Our dive guides were well-versed in navigating the wrecks, and everyone in the group was well taken care of both underwater and on the boat. The lunch they prepared for us was absolutely delicious. The ride out to some of the wrecks can take a while, so be ready to soak in the scenery.
The dive sites in Coron
We limited our diving in Coron to just one day trip, during which we went to two wrecks and one reef. The maximum depth we went to was around 24 meters, though the second wreck was in so shallow that you could clearly see the stern from the dive boat above. The surface/moderate level of penetration gave us lots of stuff to look at, like the periscope, old kitchens, boardwalk, and, oddly, shipwreck toilets. The reef we went to was absolutely gorgeous and in good shape. You can see a variety of small tropical reef fish and critters, like boxfish, triggerfish, and angelfish.
Where to Stay if You’re diving in Coron
As budget travellers, we found it a bit tricky to find cheapo accommodation options with a good quality. Compared to other places around Southeast Asia, like Hoi An, Vietnam, Inle Lake in Myanmar or various destinations around Indonesia, where you can get a very nice basic room for under 15 USD, we had to make a few compromises here. Especially since there seemed to be no middle ground between really basic and way over budget. We ended up staying at Coron Guapos, which offered small but comfortable private rooms with shared bathrooms (of which there were more than enough). Both aircon and fan options are available, and there is an inner courtyard/seating area with plenty of space to hang out – or hang-dry your seawater-soaked bits and bobs.
Dumaguete Diving: Dip your feet into macro photography
Dumaguete is still a little bit under the radar for divers. The crowds tend to flock to high-profile places like Coron or Malapascua before they consider stopping on Negros. Still, the appeal is growing, and it is evident by the presence of many dive shops in and around Dumaguete. One big reason is the proximity to Apo Island, which I’ll go over in more detail separately. But before you rush off on that Apo Island trip, know that Dumaguete can hold its own as a dive destination. Rich in sand-dwelling critters and nudibranches, this area is perfect for those trying their hand at underwater macro photography.
Who we Went diving with: Thad’s Place
Being budget travellers, the prospect of free or cheap accommodation is something that’ll make your ears perk up and attention to focus on just how and where to go to get it. While randomly researching Dumaguete diving, we stumbled upon a diving/workaway/cultural exchange program about 30 minutes away from Dumaguete, called Thad’s Philippines Dive and Cultural Exchange. Thad, originally from Hawai’i, has been running this place for several years with the aim of giving young locals an opportunity to train to become dive guides and thereby get their hands on a job that will sustain them well into the future. The guests at Thad’s Place can either treat it as a workaway (there are many long-term projects to get into) or simply come there to dive and be guided by one of Thad’s trainees – who will then be paid per head. The cost of diving is very attractive, too, starting at 800 pesos for the house reef dive. The accommodation is free (yes, you read that right), in a dorm shared with up to 20-ish people (the number fluctuates). You contribute 1,000 -1,500 pesos per week towards food, and therefore you can grab whatever cooking supplies you need from the kitchen. Plus, Thad cooks sometimes – and does it VERY well. And! There are adorable dogs on the property.
All in all, it feels like one big family of divers. You can choose to dive or skip a day – up to you. Chill in the hammock, or do a night dive at 10 pm, or simply hang around and do nothing. “Easy-going” is definitely an understatement when describing Thad’s place – it’s some serious chill time.
What to see underwater when Diving in Dumaguete
Diving in Dumaguete was different from our previous locations in the Philippines – and also from many we dove in Indonesia and Thailand. And that’s a big part of the reason why I liked it. Besides dozens of nudibranch types, you can see lots of small shrimp, crab, eels, and stone fish, scorpionfish, razorfish, cowfish, flounder, and also the occasional seahorse. The house reef in front of Thad’s is gorgeous. Find loads of small tropical fish and several turtles, and enjoy the stunning night dives, with crabs, giant cuttlefish, and the occasional octopus if you’re lucky.
Our dive experience also included two dives around Dauin, about 15km away from Thad’s Place, near two piers. The coral we saw on the pillars was gorgeous, and I was surprised at the number of sand and coral dwellers we saw.
Apo Island Diving: Baby,This is what you came for
Apo Island is one of the go-to diving destinations – and for a good reason. The visibility is amazing, the coral is healthy, and you’ll see too many things to count underwater. Since it’s so close to Dumaguete, you can choose to do a 2 or 3-dive day trip with a Dumaguete-based dive shop. The other option is to stay on the island proper. We chose option one since we enjoyed staying and diving at Thad’s Place.
We chose to do the Apo Island diving trip with Harold’s Diving, which included 3 dives, boat transfer, dive guides, equipment, and a lunch at 3,300 pesos per person. The boat was spacious, and there was free coffee and snacks (bread with delicious coconut jam) provided. The trip took roughly 20-30 minutes, which gave us just enough time to eat and then suit up. Along with two other diver friends, we were the only divers among the 25 or so people – the rest came only for snorkelling. This worked out fine for us, as we had plenty of dive guides between us to be well taken care of.
The dives here were a definite highlight for me. We had great conditions and visibility, saw lots of turtles up close, as well as 2 amazing frog fish. The purple/grey one, seen at a depth of 28 meters, was the first frog fish I’ve seen ever and, as I came to understand, was huge compared to the ones we saw later on our trip in Malapascua. A giant school of jack was another awe-inspiring experience during our Apo Island diving trip. Just look at them flow!
All in all, the Apo Island diving trip with Harold’s was good, but I kind of wish we actually had stayed on the island and had the time for more diving. Hitting up 3 dive sites seemed to do the island a bit of a disservice, plus Apo itself seems like the right place to relax and recharge: small, chilled out quiet. On the dive tour side of things, we were all very happy with the dive guides and had some good conversations at the back of the boat about diving in the Philippines. I do wish the lunch had been a bit better, though. The pre-boxed noodles with a few veggies and a boiled egg paled in comparison with the other lunches we had on other diving and snorkelling trips. Apart from that, everything ran according to schedule, and Harold’s staff was even kind enough to drop us off at the bus stop on our way home.
Moalboal Diving: Sardines, Walls, and more walls
There’s really no reason NOT to visit Moalboal. It’s conveniently located on Cebu, near one of the most frequented tourist airports, offers great diving (and snorkelling), and has loads of additional activities. The only downside is – it’s quite touristy. I’ll be honest: we were a bit shocked at how packed the place was, second only to El Nido in regards to the number and size of tour groups that get chauffeured in daily. The upshot is, though, that Cebu island in general has plenty of areas to visit. So once you’re done with Moalboal, catching a bus to anywhere else on Cebu island is incredibly easy.
Now, it’s not all bad. Lots of tourists also means lots of choice in accommodation and amenities. Plus, with diving in Moalboal being so well-known due to the famous sardine run, you’ll have more than enough dive shops to choose from.
Who we went diving with: Nelson’s Divers
We invested good 3-4 hours in checking out and talking to different dive shops around Moalboal. And we’ve seen it all – from shops that take groups of absolute beginners down to see the sardine run, to high-end resorts with incredibly bloated prices. Being budget slow travellers and all, we went with Nelson’s Dive Shop. Nelson’s claim to fame is that it was the very first local-owned dive shop on Panagsama Beach. The owner, Nelson, being none other than the former local mayor. My favorite thing about this shop were their suits and masks. Never have I had a better-fitting dive mask than here, oddly enough from a completely unknown brand called Unity. And everything else fit perfectly as well. No weirdly buoyant suit, no messin’ around with fins that are too big… it all fit like a glove. On the downside (though this is subjective), it’s a big shop that sees a lot of turnover, so you won’t have that familiar feeling. But once on the water, we were never more than 10 people on the (sizeable) boat, and always just the two of us to one dive guide. And, while many other shops in the area see a lot of one-timer group clientele, Nelson’s seemed to have a good mix of course-takers and seasoned divers, which was the right atmosphere for us. The only minus point we experienced where their somewhat leaky regulators. No big leaks, but still irritating to have to spend extra time on checking and reassuring before descending.
Moalboal Dive Sites
There are two highlights in the area: Sardine Run and Pescador Island. To be honest, you don’t even need to dive for the sardine run – snorkelling would be enough since it’s just off of Panagsama beach and not very deep. However, it’s a VERY nice feeling to dive with the sardines. A completely different perspective to be surrounded by thousands of moving slivers of metal. Even with less than stellar visibility, you’ll be in love with the sight.
Pescador island is the other go-to destination, even more so if you are into macro photography. It’s about 15 minutes away and offers drift dives along gorgeous walls. You can see various crustaceans, small and big, and lots of hard and soft coral with small and medium-sized tropical fish in moderate quantities.
The dives sites around Panagsama beach are similar: lots of walls. So if you’re a wall lover – this is the place. Tobies, puffers, trumpet fish, and pipefish abound, and you might even spot a handful of turtles (although the nicest ones we’ve seen was while snorkelling).
Finding your favorite diving in the Philippines
All of the Philippines dive sites we visited were amazing. Each offered something slightly different, whether it was a unique underwater environment, never before seen critters, amazing customer service from the dive shop, or an unforgettable overall vibe. I found myself being mesmerized by unassuming sites in Dumaguete that I would never expect to come through with an interesting dive and loved the overall experience in Siquijor. My first diving love, the Gili Islands in Indonesia, remain by forever highlight, though. Perhaps because it was my first experience, who knows. But, perhaps the next dive site will knock me off my feet in the same way. Budgeting-wise, you can get an amazing value for the money you spend for diving in the Philippines and is comparable to Thailand or Indonesia. Most of our dives set us back around 20 USD, and you can manage to reach a similar or lower price tag if you’re ready to do multiple dive packages and negotiate a little. Visiting in low season helps as well. What was your favorite dive experience so far? Share your thoughts in the comments below!