24 September 2019.
Long picture-perfect beaches and remote aquamarine bays make the Philippines a dream destination for any sun and ocean loving traveller, but for many visitors, it’s what lies in the depths of its ocean that attracts them to this sprawling archipelago anchored in the Coral Triangle.
Pristine reef and enormous wrecks conceal a kaleidoscope of macro oddities while remote atolls and offshore islets are patrolled by vibrant fish life, deep-dwelling sharks and a plethora of the large curious creatures that truly make the Philippines a world-class dive destination.
For the average traveller who just loves to dive, many of these locations will provide a perfect mix of lively beach town and excellent affordable diving. For the old-hands, you’ll discover some of the world’s best dive sites which are only accessible by liveaboard.
Whatever level you’re at, these are the best places for diving in the Philippines.
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After a week in Indonesia’s incredible Komodo National Park, Malapascua was my very first stop in the Philippines.
Admittedly, the reef here is nowhere near as good as you’ll find elsewhere in the archipelago, but that’s hardly the reason divers flock to this remote sand-rimmed isle wedged off the northern point off Cebu. Instead, it’s for a glimpse of the elusive thresher sharks that glide through the gloomy depths of Monad Shoal. This dive means an early wake-up along with a spectacular sunrise on the water and you will need to be Advanced Open Water certified or complete a Deep Adventure Dive with an instructor.
Sharks aside, Malapascua has a number of other beautiful dive spots, like Gato Island, which is home to lush soft coral gardens and is fondly referred to as ‘nudi city’, an accurate description given the abundance and variety of nudibranch species that inhabit the area.
Best For |
Thresher sharks and macro life, like nudibranchs
Dive Malapascua With |
Evolution is the top-rated dive operator on Malapascua and has excellent facilities so you can be sure you’ll receive the best service, but what I loved most was their commitment to environmentally responsible dive practices. This is a crucial part of their business ethos and is incorporated in a variety of ways, such as minimising plastic waste, dive site cleanups and a strict ‘no-touch’ policy to help protect the fragile marine environment.
Devotion Divers is another operator that came highly recommended to me and provides excellent service. They also offer discounts for stays at various accommodations in town.
How To Get To Malapascua |
Getting to Malapascua is a rather long-winded affair from just about anywhere, but is best reached from Cebu City. From the North Bus Terminal, take a bus or van to Maya Port where you’ll need to transfer to a ferry. Buses start at 200₱ (€5.70) and take anywhere between 4 and 6 hours, while a minivan will cost upwards of 250₱ (€7) and take around 3 hours. Ferries leave every half hour until 5 p.m. and cost 100₱ (€2.80).
Or you may prefer to save yourself the hassle and get a direct private transfer from Cebu (city or airport) to Maya Port instead. See transfer options here.
Where To Stay |
Malapascua Budget Inn | A great budget option on Malapascua with spacious, spotless dormitories complete with a light, powerpoint and curtain for each bed, air conditioning and lockers. The staff are incredibly helpful, there’s a small chillout area and the local market is just a few steps away.
AABANA Beach Resort | A decent budget option for those wanting to avoid the hostel scene, Aabana offers private ensuite rooms right on the beachfront at the far end of Bounty Beach. Facilities are simple but breakfast is included.
Tepanee Beach Resort | Set on the far tip of Malapascua, Tepanee offers a tropical island hideaway with access to a private beach, onsite restaurant, spa, gym and dive shop. Rooms are simple and colourful with a balcony facing toward the garden or ocean.
Other Things To Do On Malapascua Island |
After an early morning dive, Malapascua is a perfect place for lazy sun-drenched beach days. Take a day trip to Kalanggaman Island, tour Malapascua’s remote beaches, take in a magnificent sunset across the water and enjoy a barbecue dinner and happy hour cocktails at the local market, to the soundtrack of discordant karaoke, naturally.
Just 10-minutes from Moalboal sits Panagsama Beach, a village of dusty roads lined with local eateries, hipster cafes and dozens of dive shops all jostling for position on the waterfront. It’s a wonderfully laid back place that oozes backpacker vibes; the kind where you come for a day or two and end up staying for a week.
Just off the shoreline, you’ll find Moalboal’s most famous attraction – the million-strong sardines that pulse and undulate in their endless synchronised dance. It’s certainly possible to snorkel here and enjoy the spectacle from above, but better is to sink down and watch the shimmering cloud of fish move in unison from below, darting and rolling with each minuscule change in the water column.
Nearby Pescador Island offers up a very different experience, with steep walls that plunge into darkness, brightly coloured corals and a few caves and swim-throughs to explore. Moalboal’s beautiful marine sanctuaries are also worth a visit with Tongo to the south and Tuble up north where you can find pygmy seahorse, ghost pipefish, turtles, orangutan crabs, octopus and plenty more alongside healthy corals. A small offshore plane wreck is another popular site.
The clear waters around town also support a large community of marine turtles which can easily be viewed by snorkelling off the beach.
Best For |
Sardine run along with beautiful corals and macro life in marine protected areas
Dive Moalboal With |
Cebu Dive Centre has such a good reputation that they’re virtually always fully booked, even in low season, so be sure to get in touch in advance. Their affordable rates also make them an attractive option for those on a tight budget or looking to join a course.
I went with Savedra, which also has an excellent reputation along with friendly and knowledgeable dive guides, decent equipment and several options for dives throughout the day. They are quite a bit pricier than elsewhere in town, though discounts are available for multiple dives.
Best Time |
Sitting on the west coast of Cebu, Moalboal is relatively protected and is possible to dive all year round. However, as a popular stop on the Philippines’ backpacker circuit, high season means the small town gets absolutely swamped with visitors. If you prefer a quieter vibe, avoid the November to May rush.
How To Get To Moalboal |
Buses depart regularly from the South Bus Terminal in Cebu City, generally bound for Bato. The trip takes around 4 hours depending on traffic and costs around 150₱ (€4.20) for a bus with air-conditioning. At Moalboal town, you’ll need to take a tricycle for the short trip to Panagsama Beach which costs 150₱ per trike.
Otherwise, it’s possible to take a private transfer from Cebu, either directly from the airport or from your accommodation. See transfer options here.
Where To Stay |
Though everyone refers to Moalboal itself, you’ll actually want to base yourself at Panagsama Beach.
Titanic Nipa Huts | Looking to escape the bustle of the centre, I stayed at these cosy bungalows set a short way from town. It’s a simple, laidback and budget-friendly place, breakfast is available and you can snorkel alongside turtles just a 1-minute walk from the property. As with much of Moalboal, internet is patchy at best.
For the full range of guesthouses in Moalboal, see here.
Other Things To Do In Moalboal |
Diving in Moalboal is not the only reason why this small town is so beloved. Nearby attractions like the emerald cascades of Kawasan Falls and staggering views at Osmeña Peak also make excellent day trips. It’s possible to reach Kawasan Falls independently by local bus, but way more fun is taking the canyoning tour which sees you slithering down natural slides, jumping off rocky perches and basking in the insanely blue pools. It’s also possible to pair this with the short hike up Osmeña Peak which is not all that easy to reach independently. See the best tour options here.
Despite its name, Panagsama actually doesn’t offer much beach access as the reef begins right on the shoreline. If you’re in search of a patch of sand, head 10-minutes north to powdery shores of White Beach.
Dumaguete is a bustling city and a major hub for Negros Oriental, while Dauin is a sleepy town 20-minutes to the south, wedged beneath the jungle-clad mountains and the sea. Both make an excellent base for your dive adventures depending on what you’re after.
The silty seabeds strung along this pocket of coastline make the area heaven for muck diving, if that’s your thing, though I think I’m slowly realising I’m not quite sure it’s mine. Still, curious divers will find plenty of cool little critters lurking amongst the sediment like seahorses, frogfish, ghost pipefish, flamboyant cuttlefish, and the list goes on.
Shallow shore dives also make it easily accessible for every level of diver, while it’s also a great place to learn to dive or hone your macro photography skills.
For those seeking more action, however, nearby Apo Island makes an excellent day trip, but more on that below.
Best For |
Dive Dauin With |
Choosing to stay in Dauin, Bongo Bongo Divers was the obvious choice. They’re a young, social bunch who run a well-organised dive operation with spacious facilities and offer a range of budget-friendly accommodation for divers. Dive courses are also very reasonably priced if you’re looking improve your skills, while day trips to Apo Island are excellent value and make for a fantastic day out (so good, in fact, that I went twice!).
If you’re basing yourself out of Dumaguete, you may prefer to choose a local operator in town.
Get There |
Dumaguete is easily accessible via the Sibulan airport which receives daily connections from elsewhere in the Philippines. If you’re travelling from the southern part of Cebu, such as Moalboal, you can arrive via a combination of bus and ferry. See this guide for the full route.
Where To Stay |
Bongo Bongo | As well as diving, Bongo Bongo offers excellent value accommodation set amongst a lush garden and right by the beach. Facilities include basic dorms and private rooms and a communal kitchen for guests, while day trips and social events are organised regularly.
Located just 40-minutes from Dauin, Apo Island was one of my absolute favourite places for diving in the Philippines.
Striking colour-washed walls roll into vibrant coral gardens creating a brilliant backdrop for the array of marine life that inhabits this corner of the Philippines. Turtles are frequent visitors, while you can also expect to see giant frogfish, nudibranchs, sea snakes, electric clams, swarms of shimmering jackfish and plenty of macro life if you take the time to look.
As well as being a fantastic day out for divers and snorkellers, Apo Island is also a prime example of a community-led initiative where conservation and tourism go hand in hand. Formerly, fishing was the main source of income for this small community, often employing destructive techniques like dynamite fishing, cyanide poisoning and indiscriminate netting which caused the condition of the coral to deteriorate leading to a drastic decline in fish numbers. Then in 1985, the community banded together to establish the Apo Island Marine Reserve, one of the first in the Philippines, which over time allowed the reef and fish populations to recover, transforming it into one of the best dive destinations in the Philippines today.
Best For |
Beautiful hard and soft corals, macro life, plenty of reef fish
Dive Apo Island With |
I visited Apo Island with Bongo Bongo Divers in Dauin (see above) who offer an excellent value day trip that includes three dives and a delicious lunch on their spacious banca boat. Trips are usually run every day in high season (October to May) and every other day during quieter periods of the year based on numbers.
How To Get To Apo Island |
Apo Island is easily visited on a day trip from either Dumaguete, Dauin or Siquijor. For an extended dive adventure, Apo Island is also a key stop for a number of Philippines Liveaboards. Many start and end in Dumaguete, taking in the underwater highlights of the Visayas region with stops at many of the Philippines dive sites mentioned in this list.
If you’re a wreck enthusiast, Coron and the armada of world-class wrecks that lie on its seabed are most likely the thing you’ve been holding out for.
Smattered across the narrow channel between Busuanga and Culion Islands lies nearly a dozen shipwrecks that, much like the Solomon Islands, are the result of sustained WWll conflict between the Japanese and US military forces. Narrow swim-throughs and tight passages make these sites fun to explore, though many are more suited to advanced divers.
Barracuda Lake is another fascination spot and despite having very little in the way of marine life, is well worth a visit. The spectacular cliffs you see above the water plunge into the eerie depths of the lake and as you drop down, passing through the thermo and haloclines where the water temperatures soar to 37 degrees, you’ll discover a curious mirage-like surface shimmering before your eyes where the salt and freshwater layers collide.
It’s a dive that’s all about fun and dive guides usually allow plenty of time to play with the fine bed sediment and practise your moonwalk – the Neil Armstrong kind, not the Michael Jackson, a distinction that had me well confused before seeing it in action as I imagined us attempting to do the MJ slide in flippers across the sharp rocks.
Best for |
WWll wrecks and Barracuda Lake
Dive Coron With |
I went with Corto Divers and would happily recommend them. Despite our wreck dives being cancelled several days in a row due to the stormy weather, they always kept me informed and offered an alternative. Boats were spacious and well set up for diving, lunch was great and a cheeky post-dive beer is always a nice touch.
Seasonal rates here are competitive and they organise a standard dive package which includes stops at Barracuda Lake and two wreck sites giving you the best of both worlds.
Best Time |
Technically you can dive Coron all year round, but as I learnt the hard way, the occasionally violent rainy season weather can swiftly put an end to your plans. As the main channel is exposed to the ocean, the coast guard is at liberty to ground all boats if large swell rolls in.
Best plan your trip from November through May to avoid disappointment. Visibility is best December to March.
How To Get To Coron |
Coron can be reached by plane or boat from a number of destinations within the Philippines.
Coron’s Busuanga airport sits around 30 minutes from the town centre and receives daily direct flights from Manila, Puerto Princesa, Cebu and Caticlan (for Boracay). Find the best flight deals here.
Every Friday, the 2Go ferry sets sail from Manila bound for Palawan, stopping at Coron and Puerto Princesa before making the return journey on Sunday. It’s a long trip but if you’re on a tight budget it can work out cheaper than flying. A fast ferry also connects Coron with El Nido. Check ferry timetables here.
Otherwise, you can start your dive trip early with a Liveaboard departing from Batangas, crossing the spectacular Apo Reef before bringing you to Coron Bay. Search all Philippines Liveaboard here.
Where To Stay |
Dayon Hostel | A decent budget choice offering small rooms and a large rooftop terrace that makes a lovely place to chill out and meet other travellers. As with much of the Philippines and especially in Coron, wifi here isn’t great. See rates and availability here.
Bay Area Coron | This charming guesthouse in the centre of town receives excellent reviews from guests who love the delicious breakfast, the helpful staff and the homeyness of the rooms. See rates and availability here.
For all other accommodation in Coron, search here.
Tubbataha is the holy grail when it comes to diving the Philippines. What’s more, it’s often considered among the best dive destinations in the world and is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Made up of twin atolls anchored in a remote corner of the Sula Sea, the reef here is dressed in vibrant corals, plays host to swarms of reef fish and large pelagics, is frequented by plenty of the big stuff and boasts exceptional visibility, often more than 30m. Strong currents can make for challenging conditions though.
Tubbataha is accessible only by liveaboard and for just few months each year.
Best For |
Practically everything – plenty of the big creatures including several shark species, whale sharks, manta rays and turtles, as well as a diverse array of large pelagic fish and reef fish, brilliant coral walls and plenty of macro life. Plus, great visibility to top it all off.
Dive Tubbataha With |
Only a handful of liveaboard vessels visit this isolated pocket of reef for the few months that it’s open and so places onboard are extremely competitive and sell out months in advance.
Ocean conditions also mean Tubbataha is better suited to advanced divers and so many liveaboards require a minimum number of logged dives, often between 50 and 100.
Best Time |
Tubbataha Reef is only open from March to June.
How To Get To Tubbataha Reef |
All liveaboards depart from Puerto Princesa, the gateway to Palawan, which is easily accessed via plane. Find the best flight deals here.
Other Things To Do In Palawan |
Often listed among the most beautiful islands in the world and with a wonderful combination of perfect beaches, untamed jungled and dramatic sea cliffs, be sure to allow some extra time to explore the island before or after your liveaboard.
See this Palawan itinerary for more ideas for your trip.
Chances are you’ll be spending a night or two in Puerto Princesa before or after your trip. Check accommodation options here.
Not to be confused with Apo Island, Apo Reef is nestled off the coast of Mindoro Occidental and is considered to be the second largest reef system in the world.
Expect to find beautiful displays of hard and soft corals along with rich marine life including several species of turtle, reef sharks and hammerheads, manta rays and dolphin. Strong currents are common.
Set 3 hours by boat from Sablayan, dive day trips here can be long, but thanfully the area is also visited by a number of liveaboards for most of the year.
Best For |
Corals, marine turtles, sharks and manta rays
Best Time |
Diving is possible year-round but is best from December to June. Rainy season can make this already remote area even harder to access and strong winds during the early months of the year can make conditions unpleasant.
How To Get To Apo Reef |
Apo Reef is best accessed via Sablayan on the south-west coast of Mindoro which can be reached a few ways. There are daily flights between Manila and San Jose from where you’ll need to get a 3-hour bus to Sablayan. From Manila, it’s also possible to take a combination of bus and ferry for which you can buy a single ticket for the entire journey.
There, you can take a jam-packed diving day trip or overnight trip out to the reef. Otherwise, a select few liveaboards also visit Apo Reef as part of a longer itinerary between Coron and Batangas.
Where To Stay |
It’s far-flung location means there are very few options for accommodation in Sablayan. Check rates and availability here.
If you love muck diving and macro-photography, then chances are you’ll love Anilao. Set just 3 hours from Manilla, it’s one of the most accessible dive destinations in the Philippines, while gentle currents and shallow dive sites make it a good spot for beginners.
The original dive destination in the Philippines, PG offers plenty of variety for divers with muck sites, beautiful coral sites patrolled by reef fish, sharks and small critters, wrecks and exhilarating canyon drifts. Sitting on the northern tip of Mindoro, it’s another place that’s easily accessible from Manilla with many dive sites focussed around the Verde Islands.
Topside, beautiful beaches make it a great spot to kick back when you’re not in the water.
Romblon is a spot often left off these lists for diving in the Philippines, but it’s a place that pops up constantly in some of the diving groups I’m in online. Located off the east coast of Mindoro, it’s another great location for lovers of muck diving and macro photography, though there’s a few patches of reef as well.
After three months diving in South East Asia, the Philippines was unfortunately the first place where unpleasant stories of the industry began to emerge. Often, they were of dive incidents that were completely avoidable and thankfully were all resolved without serious consequences.
Now, of course, that’s not to imply that it’s all bad, there are many excellent, reputable and well-managed dive shops scattered around the country, but it is a stern reminder to always read the reviews of the companies you choose to dive with. Choose long-standing operators with an excellent safety reputation, check their gear to make sure it is up to standard, ask about the conditions of the dive sites like strong currents and maximum depths, know your own limits and never feel pressured to go beyond what you’re comfortable with and always stick with your dive guide or buddy.
All the dive operators listed here were ones I personally dived with during my trip to the Philippines and wouldn’t hesitate to dive with again, or those that have come highly recomended to me, both in person and online.