Swim up close to a whale shark, frolic alongside dolphins, come face to face with the bashful dugong, dive inside an underwater cave, explore a sunken shipwreck, plumb the depths of the sea and probe its hidden wonders – if you’ve always wanted to do all these things and more, then take a trip to the Philippines, one of the best diving destinations in the planet.
The Philippines is as much of a paradise underwater as it is overland. The stark beauty of its aquatic landscapes and the sheer immensity of its marine life is overwhelming. Within its crystalline waters, countless species of marine flora and fauna flourish in remarkable wealth, wonder, and wildness.
After all, the Philippines’ 7,641 islands lie within the Coral Triangle – the region of the Earth that encompasses the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste. The Coral Triangle is the global center of marine biodiversity, so-called the Amazon of the seas, and the Philippines is at its very heart.
Besides its high concentration of marine biodiversity, the Philippines has a vast range of natural and man-made environments that indulge every manner of scuba diving – blue hole diving, cave diving, deep diving, drift diving, muck diving, night diving, wall diving, and wreck diving, among others – fully justifying its renown as one of the most spectacular diving destinations on Earth.
Here are some of the top dive sites in the Philippines. Note that these are not ranked, but rather arranged alphabetically:
The coastal village of Anilao lies along the southern end of Batangas, about a two-hour drive from the capital Manila. While the village itself is rather unremarkable, it is its underwater scenery and biodiversity that make it one of the best places to visit in the Philippines. The surrounding waters are teeming with marine life – among the richest anywhere in the globe – of which nudibranchs and rare fishes are especially numerous and diverse.
Anilao has gained international fame as one of the best dive destinations in the country, with many diving-dedicated resorts arrayed along its shores, and world-class competitions and workshops held every year. Indeed, its accessibility, wealth of marine life, and variety of diving environments – many of which are friendly to novice divers – have earned it the nickname The Birthplace of Scuba Diving in the Philippines.
Favorites among the abundance of dive sites in Anilao include Cathedral Rock, a roofless rock cavern akin to an underwater ampitheater. Originally barren, the area has been seeded with coral from elsewhere. Descending divers are met with swarms of angelfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, Moorish idols, parrotfish, and wrasses, among others.
Eagle Point has plenty of small reef fishes, sponges, nudibranchs, and crinoids. Sepok Wall is mantled with gorgonian sea fans and other soft corals. Basura, teeming with frogfish, ghost pipefish, Bobbit worms, harlequin shrimps, mimic octopuses, seahorses, cuttlefish, rare nudibranchs, and other aquatic critters, is an excellent spot for muck divers and underwater macrophotographers.
2. Apo Island
PROVINCE: Negros Oriental
Apo Island lies off the southern coast of Negros Oriental, hemmed in on all sides by the Bohol Sea. The island and its surrounding waters are a world-renowned diving and snorkeling destination, and ranks among the top dive sites in the Philippines.
The marine habitat around Apo Island is vast. It is home to over 650 documented species of fish, and around 400 of the 450 species of coral in the Philippines are found here, ranging from tiny bubble corals to massive gorgonian sea fans and brain corals. Sea turtles are particularly common. The aquatic environment around the island is rigorously protected by the local community.
Popular dive spots in the area include Largahan, where multitudes of macro life – nudibranchs, flatworms, frogfish, scorpionfish, clownfish, and eels, among others – are regularly sighted. Baluarte is home to sprawling hard and soft coral formations, and diverse marine life include numerous species of reef fishes, green turtles, and banded sea kraits.
Immense colonies of clownfish or anemonefish, nicknamed the Clownfish City, reside among the sweeping fields of anemones at the Marine Sanctuary and Protected Seascape, where diving is strictly regulated. For experienced divers who can manage strong currents, huge schools of jacks are often seen at Mamsa Point; while trevallies, mackerels, tunas, barracudas, anthias, snappers, and fusiliers are common sightings at Coconut Point.
3. Apo Reef
PROVINCE: Occidental Mindoro
Off the western coast of Occidental Mindoro is the Apo Reef, the largest contiguous coral reef system in the Philippines and the second-largest in the world. The reef and its surrounding waters are protected as the Apo Reef Natural Park.
The Apo Reef ranks among the top dive sites in the country, featuring crystalline waters, an incredibly high concentration of marine wildlife, and a variety of diving environments including steep walls and sheer drops.
Strong currents at the North Wall bring into the scene jacks, trevallies, tunas, grey and whitetip reef sharks, and other pelagic fish, even elusive hammerhead sharks, with occasional hawksbill turtles. Ego Wall is adorned with sea fans, sponges, and soft corals of diverse shapes and hues. Mabuti Wall, a favorite haunt of blacktip reef sharks and moray eels, also houses great numbers of Moorish idols, porcupinefish, and groupers. Hunter’s Rock is a mating spot for thousands of sea snakes.
On the outskirts of the reef is Shark Ridge, a sheer wall-drop covered in gorgonians and seething with masses of angelfish, hawkfish, damselfish, and surgeonfish. Whitetip reef sharks, jacks, tunas, and turtles are regular sightings here, with random visits from mantas, devil rays, and blacktip and grey reef sharks.
4. Blue Hole
The Blue Hole lies off the northeasternmost tip of Tablas Island, the largest island of Romblon, well within the rich waters of the Sibuyan Sea. It is a fairly recent find, and thus far the only blue hole ever discovered in the Philippines. It remains one of the less popular dive sites in the country, though it is by no means less beautiful, thus why it deserves a spot among the top dive sites in the Philippines.
The entrance to the Blue Hole is a volcanic chimney some five meters beneath the water surface. The chimney is about six to eight meters in diameter, and descends to a depth of roughly 25 to 30 meters. It then opens out to a massive underwater chamber. Here, numerous camelback shrimps and lobsters flit in and out of the cracks. Sharks at times rest within the smaller caves, while giant morays, bigeyes, stonefish, and scorpionfish seek refuge among the crevices.
The exit from the underwater chamber leads into an extensive reef along open water. In the deep blue, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, mantas, eagle rays, jacks, tunas, barracudas, and other large pelagics cruise along. The reef is filled with corals and sponges of various colors, along with many species of reef fishes and aquatic critters.
5. Boracay Island
The tropical paradise of Boracay is best known for its stunning white sandy shores and sparkling turquoise waters. But the island is as much of a haven for divers as it is for beach bums and sun worshippers.
The crystalline depths of Boracay abound with a number of spectacular dives sites. Yapak 1 and Yapak 2 are separate walls descending from a depth of 30 meters to 70 meters. Barracudas, stingrays, white tip and grey reef sharks, dogtooth tunas, groupers, Napoleon wrasses, and giant trevallies are par for the course here, with odd appearances from the rare Mola mola. The wall at Hinugtan is clad with gorgonian sea fans, and soft and hard corals. All about are schools of jacks and shoals of groupers, along with snappers, angelfish, and triggerfish.
Tulubhan Reef, with its shallow depths, mild currents, and relaxed atmosphere, is an excellent site for novices. Its brilliant coral gardens are alive with colorful marine life, including butterflyfish, parrotfish, moray eels, sea snakes, cuttlefish, sea cucumbers, and feather stars. Angol Point is another choice spot for beginners, with vivid coral formations and numerous colorful reef dwellers. A wealth of macro life makes this site a favorite for underwater macrophotography.
Coron, a living tapestry of Nature woven of emerald isles and sapphire waters, is also one of the most impressive dive sites in the world and ranks among the top dive sites in the Philippines. It has gained international fame for the World War II wrecks that lie well-preserved beneath its crystalline waters – the remains of several Japanese Imperial Navy ships that were sunk by the U.S. Navy in 1944.
The wrecks, which remain mostly intact, include the Akitsushima Maru, Irako Maru, Kogyo Maru, Kyokuzan Maru, Nanshin Maru, Okikawa Maru, Olympia Maru, Terukaze Maru (hitherto the East Tangat Gunboat), and the Lusong Gunboat.
Amidst the submerged metal ruins, marine life pulses in a rich and colorful profusion. Angelfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, batfish, surgeonfish, soldierfish, puffers, tangs, sweetlips, fusiliers, groupers, snappers, wrasses, trevallies, turtles, and sea snakes, among others, are common sights. All kinds of soft and hard corals mantle the sunken decks and hulls.
Another famed dive site in Coron is Barracuda Lake, a brackish lake nestled among limestone cliffs on the northwestern shore of Coron Island. Barracudas are said to inhabit the lake, hence its name. It is among the most unusual and remarkable dive sites in the Philippines, housing fascinating underwater features and formations, including haloclines and thermoclines.
7. El Nido
El Nido, so-called Heaven on Earth, is as much of a paradise underwater as it is overland, with crystalline waters, a range of diving environments, and a veritable cornucopia of aquatic life, earning it a spot among the top dive sites in the Philippines.
Nat Nat, a fringing reef with sandy patches off the southern coast of Cadlao Island, is a macrophotographers’ paradise, with numerous species of corals, fishes, crinoids, nudibranchs, seahorses, and other macro life.
The dive sites around Dilumacad Island (Helicopter Island) are home to trumpetfish, titan triggerfish, juvenile pinnate spadefish, and snappers, along with schools of fusiliers and yellowtail barracudas, and green and hawksbill sea turtles. Eagle rays, cowtail stingrays, flying gurnards, and dragon seamoths visit sometimes. The Underwater Tunnel, a cave dive site found here, houses ringed pipefish, map puffers, lionfish, scorpionfish, moray eels, and banded coral shrimps.
The colorful and shallow coral gardens south of Miniloc Island teem with reef fishes, ribbon eels, and nudibranchs. Schools of big-eye snappers and barracudas, and tunas and mackerels drift along. Turtles are plentiful.
North of Miniloc are Twin Rocks, famed for its bluespotted ribbontails and stingrays, hence its nickname Stingray Airport; and North Rock, the northernmost of the Tres Marias Islands, sought for its pelagics – jacks, barracudas, blacktip reef sharks, eagle rays, and mantas, among others. The beautiful Wall of Entalula Island is covered with sea fans, sea pens, and numerous diverse critters.
8. Mactan Island
Mactan Island, where sprawling resorts and skyscraping hotels rise along white sandy shores and crystalline waters, is also one of the top dive sites in the Philippines, boasting of an array of exceptional dive spots.
Suitable for novices are the shallow regions of Kontiki Reef, which house colorful corals where shoaling reef fishes and numerous other critters live in remarkable abundance. Its profusion of macro life makes it ideal for underwater macrophotography. At night, divers come to see shrimps, crabs, and sea snakes crawl out of their lairs.
The Shangri-La Marine Sanctuary is known for its brilliant and healthy coral formations. Angelfish, bannerfish, blue tangs, butterflyfish, clownfish, goldfish, harlequin sweetlips, lionfish, parrotfish, pipefish, puffers, rainbowfish, silver batfish, soles, and wrasses are common here, along with schools of jacks and barracudas.
Bluespotted stingrays are the main draw at the Nalusuan Island Marine Sanctuary, though schools of angelfish, groupers, snappers, sweetlips, and triggerfish vie for the same attention. The Hilutungan Marine Sanctuary boasts wildlife in riotous display, where swarms of batfish, black snappers, drummers, jacks, parrotfish, ribbon sweetlips, and surgeonfish, as well as turtles, jockey for position in front of the divers’ cameras.
The wreckage of a small airplane, now covered in corals and crawling with critters, awaits wreck divers and underwater macrophotographers at Tambuli.
9. Manta Bowl
The Manta Bowl is a vast bowl-shaped depression beneath the waters of Ticao Pass, the strait known to have one of the world’s highest concentration of plankton. This world-renowned dive site has earned its name, and its reputation as the Manta Ray Capital of the Philippines, for the manta rays that gather here in massive numbers.
The Manta Bowl is a natural feeding and cleaning station for manta rays, which are drawn to this region to feed off the plankton-rich waters of Ticao Pass. They are afterwards cleaned by hordes of remoras and cleaner wrasses. Besides mantas, this site also attracts other big fishes, notably whale sharks, hammerheads, thresher sharks, and tiger sharks. Accordingly, the Manta Bowl is hailed as one of the top dive sites in the Philippines.
The shallowest part of the Bowl is at Rock Point, an underwater landscape of rocks and ridges, hard and soft corals, and plenty of reef fishes. This is the best spot for close encounters with mantas and whale sharks. Mantas and thresher sharks are also seen at Tamis Rock.
Behind Rock Point is Shark Apartment, where blacktip and whitetip reef sharks are regularly sighted resting beneath huge rocks and corals. On the Bowl’s western side is Tuna Alley, a veritable highway for huge schools of skipjack tunas.
The town of Moalboal on the southwestern shores of Cebu is synonymous with spectacular diving. All along its coastline is an array of stunning dive spots, including the Ronda Marine Sanctuary, Tuble Marine Sanctuary, Kassai Reef, Oscar’s Cave, Savedra’s House Reef, Mandarin Fish Observation Point, Talisay Wall, Tongo Marine Sanctuary, and the Sampaguita Reef. All feature numerous species of diverse marine life. There is even an Airplane Wreck sunk on purpose to create an artificial reef.
The more popular dive sites are clustered around Pescador Island, a protected Marine Park off the western coast of Moalboal. A true diver’s paradise, the resplendence of the coral gardens here and the immensity of aquatic biodiversity is overwhelming. Sea turtles abound here, while whale sharks drop by on rare occasions Underwater caverns and tunnels are plentiful, of which the most prominent is called the Cathedral.
A must-see spectacle is the so-called Sardine Run. Sardines often gather in vast numbers, but here in Moalboal, they gather in the hundreds of thousands – even millions! – forming gigantic “bait balls” that move to and fro seemingly as one. Their movements are sudden, yet simultaneous, almost in perfect sync. When predators – mackerels, tunas, even thresher sharks – close in on the sardine balls, prepare for a thrilling and breathtaking spectacle!
11. Monad Shoal
Monad Shoal is a sunken island nearly eight kilometers east from the island town of Malapascua in Cebu. It is about a kilometer and a half-long, submerged at a depth of 20 to 27 meters from the surface. Seemingly unremarkable at first glance, it is in fact one of the most iconic diving destinations in the world and among the top dive sites in the Philippines.
Divers troop to Monad Shoal for its main attraction – thresher sharks. Thresher sharks – lamniform sharks with unusually long thresher-like tails or caudal fins – are extremely elusive by nature, preferring the deep waters so that sightings of them are uncommon. But in Monad Shoal, thresher sharks can be seen consistently just before and during sunrise. It is the only such place in the entire world, hence its nickname Shark Point.
Monad Shoal is a natural cleaning station for fish. Thresher sharks come here in the early hours to get serviced by bluestreak cleaner wrasses and other cleaning fishes. The Shoal also has other interesting clients – devil rays, eagle rays, and to a lesser extent, manta rays and hammerheads.
Beyond thresher sharks, the Shoal is an excellent spot for underwater macrophotography, with an extensive reef wall alive with corals, reef fishes, crinoids, nudibranchs, and crustaceans.
12. Panglao Island
The paradisal Panglao Island, a favorite of beach lovers and sun worshippers, is also a favorite of divers and snorkelers. Many of the island’s dive sites are situated along its white sandy shores, closely hugging the coastline.
The Alona House Reef is a sloped wall covered with corals and anemones, with numerous small fishes and nudibranchs. Arco Point, dubbed Hole in the Wall, is an underwater cave teeming with butterflyfish, cardinalfish, groupers, sergeant majors, and wrasses, with nudibranchs, shrimps, and lots of macro. Doljo Point has two coral-mantled walls, where tunas, reef sharks, and barracudas are sometimes sighted, along with rare glimpses of mantas, hammerheads, and whale sharks. The Habagat Wreck is a sunken boat with colorful fishes shoaling about.
Further out is Balicasag Island, where divers can get up close to numerous sea turtles, witness a veritable Black Forest of black corals, and see countless species of fish and other marine creatures in wild abundance.
Southeast of Panglao is Pamilacan Island, known for its beautiful reefs and its vast collection of marine life, and its Marine Sanctuary where dolphins and whales can be spotted. Massive colonies of sea snakes at Cervera Shoal have given it the nickname Snake Island.
13. Puerto Galera
PROVINCE: Oriental Mindoro
Puerto Galera lies along the northern bays of Oriental Mindoro. Besides white sandy beaches and a vibrant nightlife, this tropical idyll offers some of the finest diving in Asia.
There are over 40 dive spots, including Monkey Beach, a gently sloping reef covered with a profusion of corals inhabited by small reef fishes, Christmas tree worms, feather stars, moray eels, and turtles. The Dry Dock is an artificial reef fashioned from steel and plywood, now home to lionfish, puffers, porcupinefish, sweetlips, batfish, surgeonfish, groupers, and snappers. Shark Cave affords divers with sightings of whitetip reef sharks resting at daytime amongst smaller fishes.
The Twin Wrecks is a twin-hull catamaran sunk to create an artificial reef. The Sabang Wrecks are three submerged boats inhabited by swarms of batfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, surgeonfish, scorpionfish, stonefish, frogfish, lionfish, and squirrelfish, with lots of macro – perfect for macro-lovers and photographers.
The Pink Wall is a massive overhang mantled with pink soft corals, hence its name. Nudibranchs are the main draw among the diverse life at Sinandigan Wall. Ditto for Dungon Wall. The Canyons offer a world-class exhilarating drift dive where veteran divers are swept by powerful currents into three incredible canyons brimming with marine life.
14. Subic Bay
Subic Bay’s claim to fame is its incredible trove of wrecks – around 19 battleship and warplane wrecks lie beneath its waters, many of which belong to the World War II era, while some date back even further.
Doubtless the most popular wreck is the USS New York, a massive American battleship built in 1891. She served in several wars before being scuttled in World War II to prevent capture by the Japanese. She remains mostly intact, along with her four eight-inch guns, at 117 meters among the largest and most impressive wrecks in the Bay.
The wreck of the USS Majaba, a supply freighter of the US Navy dubbed as the El Capitan, is often used for wreck diving training, and an excellent spot for photography.
The San Quentin, a Spanish warship scuttled during the Spanish-American War, is the oldest wreck in the area. Now covered with soft corals, sponges, and crinoids, she is currently manned by a diverse crew of marine creatures.
The SS Oryoku Maru draws divers with her grim history. Infamously known as The Hell Ship, this World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war transporter has earned notoriety for the gruesome horrors inflicted upon the Allied prisoners on board.
15. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is situated in the midst of the Sulu Sea, at the very heart of the Coral Triangle, 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan. It is a 97,030 hectare-Marine Protected Area, encompassing the North and South Atolls of the Tubbataha Reef and the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The immensity of marine life in the Tubbataha is astounding. Within its bounds dwell no fewer than 600 fish species and 374 coral species – half of all coral species in the world! Fourteen species of sharks, and 13 species of dolphins and whales live here. The Tubbataha is a nesting site of endangered green and hawksbill turtles, and a breeding ground of over 100 species of birds.
The Tubbataha is the undisputed diving Mecca of the Philippines, and among the most remarkable and marvelous diving destinations worldwide.
The Reefs house numerous dives sites with varying environments. On the northeastern end of the North Atoll are the Shark Airport and the Washing Machine. The Shark Airport features a wall reef with a sandy bottom where scores of whitetip sharks rest, resembling planes readying for take-off at an airport. Among the sea whips and gorgonians mantling the wall are gobies, angelfish, hawkfish, anthias, and damselfish. Large pelagics, including whale sharks, pass by often.
The Washing Machine is known for its fast, powerful currents which sweep divers in many different directions over a number of gullies. The strong currents convey a vivid parade of jacks, tunas, giant trevallies, and barracudas, along with smaller fishes including triggerfish, butterflyfish, anthias, Sergeant Majors, bannerfish, and sweetlips.
On the southern end of the North Atoll is Amos Rock, a gentle slope ending in a vertiginous wall adorned with sea whips and sea fans. Napoleon wrasses, Moorish idols, angelfish, surgeonfish, fusiliers, groupers, snappers, and mackerel share this dwelling with eagle rays, gray and whitetip reef sharks, and other large pelagics. Sea turtles pay regular visits.
Other dives sites within the North Atoll include the Terraces, Seafan Alley, Malayan Wreck, Wall Street, and South Park.
On the northeastern tip of the South Atoll is Black Rock, a gently sloping plateau occupied by nurse sharks and gray and whitetip reef sharks, along with titan triggerfish, surgeonfish, and rainbow runners. Guitar sharks, leopard sharks, hammerheads, tunas, barracudas, and jacks cruise along in the open.
On the southeastern end of the South Atoll lies the Delsan Wreck, a small sunken ship now populated by a myriad of micro life – nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs, tiny reef fishes, etc. Frogfish, sweetlips, and snappers are par for the course here, while reef sharks and eagle rays, as well as sea turtles, are regularly sighted. A yawning fissure in the nearby coral, known as The Cut, is 30 m (98 ft) deep and is teeming with marine life.
Other dive sites within the South Atoll include the T Wreck, Ko-ok, Southwest Wall, Staghorn Point, and Triggerfish City.
The smaller Jessie Beazley Reef also offers spectacular dive sites and a profusion of colorful marine life. Mantas, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, tunas, groupers, barracuda, and mackerel are common, along with vast populations of reef fishes and nudibranchs.
Isolated and remote, divers can reach the Tubbataha Reefs only through a ten to twelve-hour ride on liveaboards issuing from Puerto Princesa, and only during April to June, when the seas are calmest, the skies clearest, and the water clarity highest.
16. Verde Island
Verde Island lies between the islands of Luzon and Mindoro, surrounded by the crystalline waters of the Verde Island Passage. The marine biodiversity in the area is exceedingly prolific – the richest in the entire Coral Triangle, and indeed anywhere on the globe! Its vast wealth of marine life has earned it the title Center of the Center of the Marine Biodiversity of the World.
Accordingly, Verde Island is home to superb diving. One of the most popular dive spots in the area is The Wall, a vertiginous wall descending 70 meters into the depths, clad with gorgonians and other colorful corals. Batfish, emperors, surgeonfish, and small reef fishes, along with banded sea kraits, abound. In the open water, pelagics – tunas, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, mantas, and eagle rays – cruise along.
For advanced divers who can handle powerful currents, there are two premier dive sites. The first is The Pinnacle (the Drop Off), a massive underwater reef jutting above the surface and teeming with marine life in riotous display. The second is The Washing Machine, which affords veteran divers with an exhilarating drift dive through forceful currents over a maze of seven canyons all brimming with colorful aquatic wildlife.