This article is written by Justin Carmack from Critter Hunter. Justin is an American Expat living in Dauin, Philippines for the past five years. We worked together on this post to share all the knowledge he’s gained diving Philippines waters for the past five years.
My name is Justin, and in this guide, I am going to show you the top places to SCUBA dive in the Philippines, and if, by the end, I haven’t completely sold you on the fact that this country should be at the top of every diver’s wishlist, I will have failed miserably.
Years ago I landed in the Philippines as an underwater videographer, always on the hunt for rare and exotic creatures, beautiful reefscapes, and pristine old shipwrecks. Although my expectations were high, I was still completely blown away.
I’ve now spent the last 5 years exploring the vast biodiversity of the marine ecosystem around the country, logging in many hundreds of dives, and yet I still find things on nearly each dive, that I have not encountered before.
I get a ton of questions about where people should SCUBA dive around the Philippines, and of course, it really depends on what you are looking for.
This guide might feel a little biased toward muck diving and macro critters, just because to me they are as interesting as they are numerous.
However, I will be listing every dive location I know in the country, whether it is well known, or barely discovered. I’ll let you know what to expect there, and you can decide for yourself where to plan your next dream trip!
In the documentary above, I covered a few great sites around the Philippines, and it gives you a small insight into what the country has to offer as far as marine species sightings!
Top Dive Destinations in The Philippines
When it comes to professional underwater photographers and videographers, Anilao is probably the most famous and well known in the country.
Every year in Anilao there are lots of underwater workshops and classes, as well as photography competitions.
The reason why?
The excellent muck dive sites with more exotic species than you can see in a lifetime.
Best known for: It’s almost all macro around Anilao, with regular sightings of octopuses, frogfish, rhinopia and more, but locals like to call Anilao the nudibranch capital of the Philippines.
Destination location: Batangas Province on Luzon Island
I mentioned Anilao first because it is not just world-class muck diving, but it also super close to Manila, which will be your first stop when entering the country. The same thing applies to Subic, which is even closer to the capital. It might not be as well known for its muck diving, but offers a little bit of everything else.
Best known for: There are actually a lot of WW2 Japanese shipwrecks around Subic Bay, all worthy of exploration. Subic is also popular for locals and expats in Luzon, for its convenience.
Destination location: Southwestern Luzon
If you’re heading down to Cebu, you might want to explore the large marine reserve around Mactan Island. That Olango Marine sanctuary could be arguably the best macro diving in Cebu, even with other heavy hitters around the island.
Best known for: Tons of great dive sites just less than an hour boat ride from Mactan, with countless nudibranch and other cool creatures. Its worth a visit when visiting Cebu City.
Destination location: Visayas Province on Cebu Island
Diving in Malapascua really needs no introduction, as it’s one of the most famous dive destinations in the country. People come from all over the world because of the unique opportunity to dive with thresher sharks at Monad Shoal. But you would really be missing out if you didn’t also dive around Gato Island and all the other reef/critter sites.
Best known for: Malapascua dive operators can ALMOST guarantee thresher shark sightings on every dive. Not many places in the world can say that.
Destination location: Visayas Province on Cebu Island
When you are driving north from Cebu City, you get to Malapascua. But if you drive the opposite direction to the Southern Tip of Cebu, you will arrive in Moalboal. Moalboal has a little of everything, from reef-sites, macro critters big fish schools and even a little plane wreck. The highlight might just be Pescador Island, just off shore.
Best known for: The Sardine Run, which is a huge ball of sardines that live there year-round, and where divers can be fully engulfed in the school.
Destination location: Visayas Province on Cebu Island
Dauin is a huge favorite for me, and actually where I am based now, filming nearly every day. The main reason I love diving in Dauin is because of the huge amount of macro critters, that I can find on any dive site in the area. But when I need a change from seeing countless interesting species, I can take a break and take a boat the 45 minutes to Apo Island, where there is some of the most healthy reef in the country, dotted with lots of turtles.
Best known for: Superb muck diving, famous for frogfish & nudibranch. Don’t forget Apo Island day trips for lots of reef & turtles.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Negros Island, Negros Oriental.
Want a destination that is just a short ferry ride from Dumaguete, and is a little less-known and explored?
The Island of Fire and black magic has a few good dive resorts, that can take you to lots of great sites that you are sure to have all to yourself. Get off the beaten path in Siquijor, and explore some waterfalls while you’re there as well.
Best known for: No crowds, untouched reefs, unexplored potential dive sites, big schools of barracudas, and tons of macro.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Siquijor Island
Sipalay is quite the trek to get to, with the closest airport being at either Dumaguete or Bacolod (4-5 hours away by car). Is it worth the trek? Unlike the trek to the mostly unexplored Siquijor, there really isn’t much to do out of the water in Sipalay, but the diving is great. There are great sites such as Mad Max and a pier, and lots of potential to discover more as it is developed more.
Best known for: More dive operators are coming to Sipalay, and the infrastructure improving. Because of this and it’s untouched dive sites, Sipalay will be one to watch out for in the future.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Negros Island, Negros Occidental.
Geographically, Puerto Galera is very close to Anilao, just across the bay in Mindoro. One thing I like about PG is that, although you need boats to get to sites, they are all close by and quick to get to. I also noticed that if you look at a map, there is a ton of coastline in the area, with relatively few designated dive sites, meaning there are tons more to explore.
Best known for: Macro! PG is very similar to Anilao, with countless small critters to dive with, but it is also only 45 minutes to Verde Island, with its world class healthy reefs.
Destination location: Oriental Mindoro, Mindoro Island
Romblon is a favorite for many divers and underwater photographers, as well as people who just generally love macro critters! This island is a muck diving paradise, with countless critters on every dive. Imagine the great number of species in the huge area of Anilao, all compacted into a relatively small area of Romblon Island.
Best known for: You will be encountering more species than you could see in a lifetime, including nudibranch, rhinopia, cephalopods, and much more, but they are also well known for having lots of the ultra rare Melibe Colmani nudibranch, or skeleton nudi.
Destination location: Province of Romblon, Romblon Island, next to Tablas and Sibuyan Islands.
Donsol isn’t a well known dive location for the macro critters, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a lot of new dive sites to be discovered. What it is known for is being one of the few destinations in the Philippines where you can find the big pelagic. Here you can find wild whale sharks, mantas, dolphins and more.
Best known for: Your dive operator will definitely take you to a site called the Manta Bowel during the seasons, where there is a cleaning station for the giant mantas.
Destination location: Province of Sorsogon, island of Luzon.
Ticao is a small island located somewhere in between Donsol and Romblon, and kind of gets the best of both. Although it is not as recommended or famous as Romblon, it does have it’s fair share of great dive sites.
Best known for: Ticao is a bigger island than Romblon, with it’s own little airport, and is usually a jumping off point for taking the ferry to Romblon or other nearby islands. You can also take day trips to Donsol area and dive with the big stuff.
Destination location: Masbate province, near the Bicol Peninsula & the Ticao Pass.
Boracay is of course world renowned for being Philippines premier beach and party destination, and not really a place to go if you’re in the country for diving. But it does actually have a few good sites, and a few operators to show you them. So if you’re already in Boracay, you might as well go explore.
Best known for: Mainly beaches, but if you ask nicely, and are an advanced diver, you might be able to convince your dive shop to take you to an offshore big-pelagic dive site, that they do not offer to the every-day client.
Destination location: Western Visayas region, Island of Panay.
Coron probably needs no introduction, but in case you weren’t aware, an entire Japanese WW2 fleet was sunk in the bay here, and many are within dive depths, as well as a few of the American bombers who sank helped sink the ships, and then ran out of fuel.
Best known for: Coron Bay has one of the biggest concentration of shipwrecks in the world, and that will likely keep you busy. But if not, ask your shop to take you to Barracuda Lake, where you can dive in the volcanic heated waters… Which is super weird.
Destination location: Palawan Province, Coron Island.
Just a ferry ride away from the main island of Coron, Culion is an up and comer island for diving, that is very unknown to most. Although largely undiscovered, I am seeing some photos coming out of the island from divers, who are finding some awesome creatures, and discovering new sites all the time.
Best known for: Did you know that culion Island was actually a leper colony, set up by the Americans? There is still a leper museum on the island, you can visit in between dives.
Destination location: Province of Palawan, Culion Island
El Nido is the most visited destination in Palawan, and for good reason. They have awesome beaches, beautiful island hopping, and a huge number of dive locations in the area. With so many dive sites offshore, there is a huge variety of different things you can see.
Best known for: Everything! From big school, muck dives, sharks, caves drifts and more. TIP: Do not take the island hopping A, B, C tours if you’re a diver, because your dive tours will take you to the same islands, but you’ll have them for yourself, instead of in big groups.
Destination location: Province of Palawan,Northern tip of Palawan Island.
Just down the highway from El Nido, is a much quieter, lesser-visited place called Port Barton. More backpackers come here, as it’s less crowded and more remote, yet still has lots of beautiful beaches. Of course, just like everywhere in Philippines, there is always chances to do some diving.
Best known for: The diving infrastructure is of course not as big as EL Nido or other established destinations, but that also means tons of chances for explorations and discovery, on the already remote island of Palawan.
Destination location: Province of Palawan, northern tip of Palawan Island.
Most people coming to Palawan will arrive at the capital airport in Puerto Princesa, and then head out for a long drive to El nido or fly to Coron. But there is actually some dive sites all around the area, or a day trip away from the city, that are definitely worth a visit. PP is also the main hud for joining liveaboards to Tubbataha.
Best known for: There are more dive sites being discovered all the time, since this is such a huge area. But did you know that you can dive with dugongs? The Philippines doesn’t have too many left, so this might be your chance.
Destination location: Province of Palawan, southern end of Palawan Island.
You didn’t think I was going to forget diving around Bohol, did you? Most people head to the beaches of Panglao, for the beach/party/dive combo, but for something a little more remote and more exotic, I highly recommend exploring Anda. There are tons of cool critters to be seen here.
Best known for: Artificial reef planting is going on all over the place, with resorts doing some great projects to conserve the area. Of course there is great muck diving here with sightings of blue ring octopuses, mimics, flamboyant cuttlefish and much more.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Bohol Island.
Panglao is probably the most visited location in Bohol Island, because of its nice beaches, bars, resorts, and of course tons of day trips, in and out of the water. You can go see the Chocolate Hills, visit the tarsiers, and then go do a tons of great diving. From Panglao you will be able to take boat trips to some of the famous islands in the area.
Best known for: Offshore island that are pristine, world-class dive locations. These islands are worthy of their own category, but I will just list the best here: Pamilacan Island and Balicasag Island are NOT to be missed, as they have better diving than any site around the mainland.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Bohol Island.
I’m not about to forget Leyte, and even though it’s a big area, possibly the best bang for the buck is around Sogod Bay, which probably has the best SCUBA infrastructure, and designated dive sites. I’ve seen great macro/muck diving in the area, as well as chances to dive with whale sharks.
Best known for: I’d say that Layte, and Sogod Bay is both known for being able to see wild whale sharks (unfed), as well as lots of muck sites for all those exotic critters you want to see in the Philippines.
Destination location: Visayas Province, Leyte Island.
There isn’t a lot I can really say about Sarangani Bay, because the dive scene and infrastructure is basically nonexistent. But I have been seeing a lot of great research and photos coming out of the area, so diving here is very high on my list. There are so many dive sites to still be discovered here, and assuredly new species as well.
Best known for: This remote location in Mindanao could be where you can describe a new species for science, or at the very least, photograph one. I believe the very first mushroom coral pipefish was discovered in the bay.
Destination location: Mindanao Province, near the city of General Santos
Tubbataha Marine Park
Arguably, I saved the best for last. Of course, you can only dive here in a small window each year, and you need an expensive liveaboard to get there, but it’s worth the hype. This is one of those highly protected underwater UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one of the top dive destinations on the planet, comparable to Galapagos and Cocos Island.
Best known for: The big boys. This is the best location in the country for being about to find pelagic. You’re almost guaranteed to see whale sharks, mantas, hammerheads(!), white and black tip sharks and much much more.
Destination location: Palawan Province, located 150km southeast of Puerto Princesa City.
Best Times For Philippines Diving
It is the either dry or the wet season in the Philippines. The wet, also known as the monsoon season, is from May to October and a dry season from November to April.
Although you can travel and dive the Philippines year-round, choose between November to April for the perfect weather. Even though the dives are always great, you might get a little seasick from wave action on the boat in monsoon season.
Liveaboards in the Philippines
Liveaboard diving in the Philippines offers divers an incredible way to experience everything the Philippines has to offer, including some of the most exclusive and hard-to-reach places like Apo Island and Tubbatana Marine Park.
These cruises are certainly pricey, but really make out to be an incredible experience.
Make sure to check out our guide if you’d like to learn more about liveaboards in the Philippines.
In the end, I don’t really think it matters where you go, as long as it is in the Philippines. All of the critter photos and videos above were taken by me, and I think you can see why I am now based here, diving year-round!
It’s the perfect destination for new divers, experts, underwater photographers, marine biologists and everything in between, and will surely fulfill your dream dive trip expectations.
See you out there!