The Philippines is a diver’s dream in many ways- it’s got the goods to entice biodiversity lovers, coral fanatics, and underwater photographers. With more than 7000 islands in its archipelago (some large, some tiny- and sometimes uninhabited), the Philippines offers a huge array of diving opportunities. Adding to its qualifications, it is one of the few countries which lies within the Coral Triangle, a hotspot of biodiversity and conservation efforts; this geographical area boasts more than 500 species of coral and over 2000 species of fish.
The Philippines’ underwater topography consists of many fringing reefs and a few atolls, the most notable of which constitutes the World Heritage Site of Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. On those of the country’s reefs that have been spared destructive human impacts because of low population density or successful conservation projects, it’s possible to witness 100 percent hard coral cover, in unbelievably diverse shapes, colors and sizes. These reefs truly look like blooming gardens. Some of the best opportunities for ambient light photography present themselves on reefs which lie just below the surface, and these can be found in many diving areas around the country. Slopes and walls also abound.
The Philippines is also world-famous for macro-diving, thanks, again, to its location in the Coral Triangle. Coral Triangle diversity means that alongside diverse species of coral and fish, charismatic invertebrates flourish in the thousands (they’re so plentiful that many don’t have names yet, and are still in the process of being scientifically categorized). These include nudibranchs, sea slugs, colorful shrimps (like googly-eyed mantis shrimps, and dancing anemone shrimps) and crabs (like the hairy orangutan crab and spotted porcelain crabs), eels, squid, octopus, pygmy seahorses and ghost pipefish.
To top it off, some very charismatic large animals call the Philippines home in a special way. Thresher sharks regularly visit Monad Shoal near the island of Malapascua, giving divers a reliable chance to witness rarely seen deep-water creatures. Whale Shark populations migrate through and feed in Donsol, Oslob, and sometimes Southern Leyte, while manta rays visit Ticao Island in Masbate province. Turtles are also plentiful, and a high diversity of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) inhabit the Tañon Strait between Cebu and Negros.
Where to Go
Tubbataha: Experienced divers looking for liveaboards should seriously consider visiting the Tubbataha National Park in the Sulu Sea, where sharks, corals, and bountiful schools of fish thrive, far from the impacts of human industry and food consumption.
Negros: On the island of Negros, which is split into eastern and western provinces, some of the most famous and accessible Philippines dive sites attract a high volume of divers every year. These include the muck diving mecca of Dauin, the coral gardens and turtle habitat at Apo Island’s longstanding protected sanctuary, and the reefs and islands near Sipalay on the west coast of Negros.
Cebu: Off the northern tip of Cebu, the island of Malapascua offers a unique opportunity to witness elusive, unearthly but incredibly beautiful thresher sharks as they rise from the inky depths to visit shallow cleaning stations. The island Mactan next to Cebu City offers improbably high quality coral reef diving, and Moalboal on the southwestern coast of Cebu is famous for swirling masses of sardines. The town of Oslob on the southeast coast draws hordes of tourists for its Whale Shark interactions, but be wary of the impact of your patronage; the local tour operations are being seriously criticized by conservation groups and various government offices for endangering both sharks and visitors through crowded boat traffic and wildlife feeding.
Mindoro: Puerto Galera on the northern tip of Mindoro is a mecca for shipwreck-lovers, and it offers great reef and macro diving as well. About 40 kilometers from nearby Sablayan province lies Apo Reef, the other huge atoll area with plentiful sharks and impressive coral.
Palawan’s most famous dive areas are the archipelago of El Nido, on the northern tip, and the island of Coron. El Nido’s shallow coral reefs enjoy incredible hard coral cover and great visibility, but the influx of tourists, many of whom want to splash their way toward El Nido’s hidden lagoons (usually trampling coral along the way) is starting to make visiting El Nido a depressing and stressful experience. Coron is famous for World War Two wrecks, most of which are in shallow, accessible waters (some even snorkel-friendly!).
Luzon and Masbate: Anilao, a dive area in Batangas province in the south of Luzon (the island which also holds Metro Manila) is another world-famous muck diving site. On small Ticao Island off of Masbate province, a dive site called Manta Bowl offers a good chance of seeing the winged giants. In the town of Donsol, within Bicol province, you can find more ethical Whale Shark encounter programs; shark feeding is not practiced here by the operators.
Bohol, Siquijor, Camiguin, and Southern Leyte: all offer well-regarded coral reef sites, some of which draw divers with one charismatic creature or another (pygmy seahorses in Cabilao, Bohol, for example).
When to Go
Seasons vary depending on exactly where you are in the Philippines. Diving is possible year-round in most places, but if you want the best chances of good visibility, try to visit during dry times, or at least check with dive operators at your destination to get their opinion on local conditions.
As for Whale Shark, thresher shark, or manta ray seasons, information varies based on one’s source (and the animals’ shifting schedules), so it’s best to contact local dive centers for information before you plan your trip.
- Cebu, Mindoro, Palawan, Batangas, Masbate, Donsol, Siquijor: Dry from November through April/May, more rainy from May/June through October.
- North Cebu, Bohol: Drier from November through April/May, but with a bit more rainfall throughout the year than the above areas.
- Southern Leyte, Camiguin: Drier from May through October/November (with rain still possible), very wet from November/December through February, and variable in March and April.
- Tubbataha: The liveaboard season runs from March through June.
All in all, the Philippines has enough varied and high-quality underwater environments to make it a paradise for any diver, specially for UW photographers. You could spend years in the country and never exhaust the opportunities to expand your skills, capture beautiful images, and explore wildly different kinds of habitats, each with their own unique creatures. What’s more, there are, even now, plenty of unexplored areas in the country- if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path, you might be rewarded with discoveries of incredible sites, and you’ll be the only one there!