An expert's top 10 dive sites in the Philippines

Award winning underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason lets us in on his favorite dive spots in the country, from Anilao in Batangas to the Sulu Sea

Photos by Gutsy Tuason

Our insider guide Gutsy Tuason describes the Philippines as one of the best dive destinations in the world. "It is part of the coral triangle, which means it has one of the most, if not the most bio-diverse marine ecosystems on the planet." Malapascua Island, off the northern tip of Cebu, is one dive spot he holds especially dear. "I think it's probably the only place on the planet where you could consistently see thresher sharks in the wild". Other places close to his heart are Anilao in Batangas and the Sulu Sea. 

1 Anilao, Batangas

Mainit Point

Dive spot Mainit Point.
The Draw Good chance to see sharks, mostly whitetip, blacktip, maybe grayreef, whaleshark if you’re lucky. And pelagics like tuna, jack, the bigger fish.
Depth Anywhere from 20m to 50m.
Level of difficulty 9 out of 10, depending on the current.
Best time to visit All year round except when there’s a typhoon.
How to get there Mainit Point is about 10 minutes away by boat  from San Teodoro, Batangas, where dive resorts like Balai or Planet Dive are located.

Dive spot Cathedral.
The Draw Fish feeding, lots of colorful reef fish, some good macro life like nudibranches or eels.
Depth 10m to 20m.
Level of difficulty About 3 out of 10. Occasional strong current, but generally a good place for beginners. “Probably 99 percent of the divers certified in Manila who did their check-out dive in Anilao for sure tried Cathedral in one of their dives,” according to Tuason.
Best time to visit All year round except when there’s a typhoon.
How to get there About five minutes by boat from Aquaventure Reef Club and from Acacia Resort, and about 10 minutes away from Club Ocellaris

2 Tubbataha Reef, Sulu Sea

Tubbataha Reef

Dive spot Shark Airport in North Island. Tuason calls it the sandy area and prefers the shallow part because it’s got nice white sand,  good lighting and marine life to see.
The Draw Beautiful white sand filled with coral bommies and coral outcrops, schools of fish and all sorts of fish activities like some cleaner wrasse cleaning bigger fish, plus sights of sleeping turtles, sharks (whitetip, reefshark, tigershark, leopardshark, and the shovelnose ray, which is a half shark, half ray that’s pretty rare).

Says Tuason: "Some of these you have to be lucky to see. For sure, you’ll see greyreef, whitetip, and maybe blacktip. If you go early in the morning, you can sometimes see sharks feeding. Lots of underwater surprises in store. Unfortunately, the last time I saw a shovelnose ray was in a market in Puerto Princesa, dead. I’ve never seen a shovelnose since 2002 and I’ve been to Tubbataha every year since then. I used to see them a lot more often in Tubbataha in the early 80s."

Depth Shallow, only about 3m but with an abrupt drop off, the deepest of which is about 20m.
Level of difficulty 2 out of 10. But if there’s a current and you keep going with the current, Shark Airport turns into a washing machine,
which makes it a 10 out of 10 in difficulty. Diving in Tubbataha is generally for experienced divers. If the Amihan or the northeast wind is blowing hard in Tubbataha, sometimes the boat can’t cut across the waters.

Warns Tuason: “There are certain spots in Tubbataha where you sometimes won’t be able to dive like Black Rock and Bird Island. These spots are exposed to the Amihan and when the wind gets very strong, the big waves don’t allow the boats to moor in the mooring line. And there’s a spot on Bird Island called washing machine, where, like Black Rock, the currents can get quite crazy. For Black Rock, it’s tricky. It’s an easy dive up to a certain point. It starts with a wall that gradually flattens out. And then all of a sudden, when you get near the corner, it slopes and you get the down current that takes you out. So even if it starts as an easy dive, if you don’t know the spot, all of a sudden there’s this current that will just take you down the slope that doesn’t have a  wall. A wall current will just move you along the wall and it’s pretty easy and you can go up to a different level. But this one takes you out so you have to fight your way back to the shallow  area. Or you can just let it take you and you pop up in the middle of the ocean. Hopefully the boat will pick you up. But try to avoid that.”

“Black Rock is an 8/10. Not a tough dive. You just have to be with an experienced guide. For Washing Machine, it’s about an 8 or 9 as  well. But then the part before that is probably a 2.”

Best time to visit March to June. “The one dive destination that has a distinct season really is Tubbataha and that’s because you’re eight to nine hours away from the nearest land. If something crops up there, it’s a long haul back. Generally speaking, diving in the Philippines is all year round. In other places, if it rains, it rains. It doesn’t really matter.”

How to get there Take a liveaboard from Puerto Princesa City to the Tubbataha National Park. From the mooring area, the sites are  about five minutes away by chase boat.

3 Negros

Dauin

Dive spot Dauin.
The Draw Macro life, all the critters. Resorts based here usually have house reefs, which are actually the best places to dive. Sanctuaries where barangays don’t allow people to go fishing are also good to explore.
Depth Mostly shallow, about 20m and above.
Level of difficulty 2 out of 10. Doesn’t require an expert diver.
Best time to visit Almost all year round.
How to get there Dauin is the mainland part of Negros Oriental and is where most of the resorts are situated. Try Atmosphere Resort. Dauin is about an hour away by land from Dumaguete City, about an hour and 15 minutes’ flight from Manila.

Dive spot Clownfish City in Apo Island.
The Draw A coral head with every square inch covered by sea anemones and clownfish.
Depth Anywhere from 15m-30m.
Level of difficulty Generally 2 out of 10. Best for beginners and advanced divers.
Best time to visit All year round as long as weather permits your boat to cross from the mainland of Negros to Apo Island.
How to get there It’s about 5-10 minutes away by boat from Apo Island. Take a day trip or stay in an Apo Island-based resort. Try Apo Island Beach Resort. Apo Island is about an hour’s boat ride away from Dauin. 

4 Mindoro

Verde Island

Dive spot Fishbowl, Puerto Galera.
The Draw Sharks, schooling fish, large seafans, colorful reef and fish life.
Depth Ranging from 40m-50m. “They don’t usually take people to Fishbowl. It’s just too deep. When they teach scuba diving, the trainers don’t usually allow students to go past 120ft, which is about 30m. There’s no underwater police there so you can do whatever you want really. But if a resort’s taking you and you have an open water [licence], and you say you want to do Fishbowl, they’ll check you out first on a different dive site and see how you are when you are diving. And if they think you are skilled enough, they’ll probably let you dive Fishbowl.”
Level of difficulty 8 or 9 out of 10. “Definitely for experienced divers. If the currents are strong then it’s a blue water ascent because you have no choice. And you’re in the Verde Island passage so the current can take you way out there in the open water. That’s pretty much deep diving on air.”
Best time to visit All year round except when the water’s rough.
How to get there Take a commuter bus from Manila to Batangas port for about three hours. Almost all major bus lines have regular trips to Batangas port or you can hire a car from Manila to Batangas Port for about P4,000 (US$84). Try Avis Rent a Car. From the port, take an outrigger boat to take you directly to Sabang Beach, where Fishbowl is less than a 10-minute boat ride away.

Dive spot San Agapito Point, Verde Island.
The Draw Schooling antheas, fairy basslets, schools of jacks, large gorgonian seafans, practically every rock that’s filled with coral. Good pelagic and macro life. A good chance of seeing sea snakes. The site is actually a pinnacle and you dive around that. You can’t explore the whole pinnacle in one dive. You’ll probably need a couple more dives.
Depth Anywhere from 8m to 40m.
Level of difficulty 6 to 8 out of 10, depending on the current. A bit of an advanced dive as currents can get strong here.
Best time to visit All year round except when the water’s rough.
How to get there From Lea Beach in Batangas, it’s about an hour-and-a-half boat ride away.

5 Balicasag, Bohol

Balicasag

Dive spot Barracuda Point.
The Draw Big schools of barracudas, seafans, some nice corals, good visibility, and sometimes some nice macro life like nudibranches.
Depth About 20m.
Level of difficulty 4 to 5 out of 10. For beginners and advanced.
Best time to visit All year round depending on the waves.
How to get there If staying on Balicasag Island, no dive spot is more than five minutes away by boat. If staying on Panglao Island where most of the resorts are, it’s about 40 minutes away. To get to Balicasag from Cebu, go to Alona Beach in Bohol, a jump off point to the island. Ride a two-hour ferry from Cebu to Tagbilaran, then take a tricycle to Alona Beach.

6 Coron, Palawan

Club Paradise

Dive spot “Two things for Coron. There are the World War II wrecks that most people go for. And I’m a big fan of wrecks. But personally, my favorite spot in Coron is the house reef of Club Paradise resort. For shipwrecks, Kogyo Maru is one of the highlights in Coron. It has the clearest water (best visibility). You can even see a car trapped inside the cargo hold.”
The Draw Club Paradise house reef with its turtles, schools of jacks, cuttlefish, jawfish, and for the lucky few, dugongs or seacows.
Depth 10 to 12m maximum.
Level of difficulty 1 out of 10. For beginners and everyone else.
Best time to visit All year round. But sometimes, during Amihan or the northeast monsoon (anytime from November to March), the wind is very strong and the waves are coming in right smack on the house reef and you are not allowed to dive.
How to get there About a 30-minute banca ride from the main town of Coron in Palawan, about an hour’s flight from Manila

7 Moalboal, Cebu

Moalboal

Dive spot Pescador Island.
The Draw Frogfish, barracudas and other pelagics, sometimes whalesharks passing through.
Depth 10 to 12m maximum.
Level of difficulty 5 out of 10. For beginners and advanced.
Best time to visit All year round for diving. No particular season for whaleshark sightings. The passageway in between Moalboal and Pescador Island is like a highway of whalesharks.
How to get there It’s about a 20-30 minute banca ride from Moalboal. You can reach Moalboal from Cebu in three hours. Ride a bus from the Cebu City South Bus Terminal for about P110.

8 Sarangani Bay, Mindanao

Sarangani Bay

Dive spot Gutsy’s Reef (Tuason discovered this reef, thus the namesake).
The Draw Cabbage corals, seafans, schooling surgeonfish, giant trevallys, whitetips, reef sharks.
Depth A deep reef straight down to about 30m with strong current.
Level of difficulty About 8 out of 10. Definitely for experienced divers.
Best time to visit “It’s just recently been discovered so can’t tell yet”.
How to get there It’s near the border of Sultan Kudarat. Jump off point is General Santos City, from where you drive by land to Maasim. From Maasim, it’s a two-hour boat ride to Sarangani Bay. Contact Lemlunay Resort to get you directly to Gutsy’s Reef as this site is not publicly charted. From Manila, you can take a Philippine Airlines flight to General Santos City, which takes about one hour and 15 minutes.

9 Apo Reef, Mindoro

Apo Reef

Dive spot Ranger Station.
The Draw Coral gardens, colorful reef fish, turtles, sandy area, clear water. A very photographic place. You’ll see schools of pygmy devil rays if you’re lucky as their appearances are quite unpredictable, and hammerheads and dogtooths.
Depth Anywhere from 10 to 50m.
Level of difficulty 3 out of 10. Beginners can dive here but going down to the 50m depth is not recommended.
Best time to visit All year round as long as there’s no low pressure and/or typhoon in the area. Liveaboards usually schedule trips there from November-June. Club Paradise, if weather permits, does overnight trips via a big basnig or local watercraft all year round.
How to get there By liveaboard (try Expedition Fleet) from Batangas or via a big banca or boat from San Jose, Mindoro, or a banca from Club Paradise in Coron, about a four-hour travel on a good day. 

10 Malapascua, Cebu

Monad Shoal

Dive spot Monad Shoal.
The Draw “You go for two things: thresher sharks and manta rays. You see the sharks early in the morning but it can be dark and a torch would probably just scare the shark off.”

“I’ve always been intrigued by sharks. But I’ve always known that thresher sharks are deep water sharks and you don’t usually see them near the reef so I never really went to look for them because I always thought that if you see a thresher shark, it would probably
be some jack-off-chance, chamba type of thing. But when I heard that there was a place in Malapascua where you could see thresher sharks, I immediately went there, and went there again, and again, and again. I’ve been there about eight times just to keep shooting
them. I still don’t have my dream shot of it or what I call the money shot.”

Depth Deep reef straight down to 18m then slopes to about 25m.

Level of difficulty 5 out of 10 because it’s straight down. Not a place where you can gradually go up. So once you’re straight down, sometimes you might have to come up with a blue water ascent or ascending when there’s no reef around and you’re in the middle of the blue.

Best time to visit All year round diving with the thresher sharks. Manta ray season is from June to December
How to get there From Cebu, take a three-hour land drive to Maya town, then some 20-minute banca ride to Malapascua Island.

About Gutsy Tuason

Our insider guide Gutsy Tuason won the Palme d'Or award at the 27th World Festival of Underwater Images in Antibes, France for his portrait of Anilao, Batangas, an underwater community of fishes, eels, worms, crinoids, and soft and hard corals. He was born in Sydney, but spent most of his childhood in the Philippines. He has been diving for about 36 years now and has logged in more than 4,000 dives, half of which were in Philippine waters. 

Interview by Monica de Leon

Read more on thresher shark sightings in Malapascua

Read more on diving in Malapascua 

Read more on diving in Tubbataha

Originally published in InFlight Traveller August to September 2009. Updated January 2016