Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Jack Jackson
THE PHILIPPINES HAS A GLORIOUS COLLECTION of coral reefs, many with strong currents and pelagics. Warm water and great visibility is the norm. It lies in a region where scientists believe that most of the Pacific’s marine organisms evolved. There has been some coral bleaching on very shallow reefs. Some of the reefs damaged by man are recovering after the banning of destructive fishing methods.
Most reefs have better conditions than would normally qualify as muck diving. With keen observation and concentration it is possible to find unusual creatures. However, because there is such good diving nearby, these macro diving opportunities had previously been overlooked. Pygmy sea horses, Flying Gurnards, Harlequin Ghost Pipefish, Clown Frogfish and Harlequin shrimps can be seen at Puerto Galera, Malapascua and Anilao. Shipwrecks are the main features of Subic Bay and the area off Busuanga/Coron. Whale Sharks can appear almost everywhere in season.
Pandan Island, a marine reserve off Sablayan on the west side of Mindoro Island, has diving from shallow coral gardens to deep drop-offs. It is only 32km (21 miles), or 90 minutes away from Apo Reef (not to be confused with Apo Island off Negros Island). Once the Philippines’ most famous diving destination, Apo Reef is slowly recovering from blast fishing. The strong currents ensure that there are many sharks, turtles and Manta Rays.
WWF-Philippines is studying Dugongs at Club Paradise on Dimakya Island north of Busuanga and they are also found off northern Palawan. Boracay and the multitude of resorts both sleepy and sophisticated on and off Negros, Cebu and Bohol have everything divers appreciate. Malapascua Island, a new sleepy destination off the northern tip of Cebu, is known for Manta Rays, between June and January, and Thresher Sharks all year round at what is believed to be a cleaning station. A good all-round site, like many others in the Philippines, it is gaining a reputation for macrophotography.
Northern Palawan has two top quality ecoresorts, El Nido on the west and Club Noah Isabelle on the east. Club Noah Isabelle, on Apulit Island is in a no-fishing area in Taytay Bay. It is not yet in the mainstream of Philippine diving, but due to fishing restrictions it has many impressively large Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, groupers and trevallies.
At Moalboal the body-shell of a kit-plane has been deliberately sunk for divers, just west of Copton Point.
Southern Leyte has just about everything around Tancaan Point and Limasawa Island. However, some dives have depths and currents best suited to experienced divers. Vast coral gardens and plenty of fish, turtles and sea snakes make this a popular area.
Liloan Point, Santander, at the southern end of Cebu is a favourite with Japanese divers where the currents enable lengthy drift dives and produce Whitetip Reef Sharks. Offshore, Sumilon Island and Siquijor Island are attracting divers again. Sumilon has interesting walls and lots of fish, while Siquijor has large basket sponges, healthy stony corals and it teems with fish. Apo Island, between Siquijor and Negros, is a marine sanctuary that is fully protected once more. Whitetip Reef Sharks, Bumphead Parrotfish, trevallies, Picasso Triggerfish, turtles, Manta Rays, a large Anemone City and seeded giant clams are just a few of the treats found here.
The remote reefs in the Sulu Sea such as Tubbataha Reefs, offer superb diving, strong currents and a multitude of reef and pelagic species including Guitar Sharks and Manta Rays. T he dark volcanic sand of Camiguin Island belies a beautiful island with great variety of diving including turtles and rare Clown Groupers. At the northern tip of Mindanao’s Zamboanga del Norte, Dakak is one of the most beautiful resorts in the Philippines, but it is suffering due to concerns about Abu Sayyaf terrorist activity. On the east side of Mindanao Island, the Gulf of Davao southeast of Davao City has two sunken World War II Japanese shipwrecks in the waters in front of Pearl Farm Resort. The waters south of Pearl Farm Resort together with Sarangani Bay south of General Santos City have some of the best coral gardens in the world, but parts of Sarangani Bay are being spoilt by sediment from commercial fish farming. In the far southwest of the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago has good diving among reefs damaged by blast fishing, but at present the Abu Sayyaf terrorist activity puts them out of bounds to tourists. The islands off Jolo have the best diving in this region, including the wreck of a Chinese junk that has been salvaged of its porcelain, while reefs around Tawi-Tawi have the most coral damage.
Nitrox and recreational technical diving are now available from the larger dive centres.
NORTH PHILIPPINES DIVE SITES
The poor relation of Philippine diving for visitors, the island of Luzon is highly regarded by local divers. North of Manila, La Union at the northern end of the Lingayen Gulf, is a thriving tourist resort. The departure of the American forces from Subic Bay means that its wrecks are now open to divers. South of Manila, Anilao is a good diving destination in its own right as well as being good for muck and macro diving.
The main interests at La Union are the American M10A1E tanks that were dumped near Fagg Reef 1, 4km (2 miles) offshore, north of Poro Point at the end of World War II. Three are together at 40m (130ft) and another is roughly 20m (65ft) to the east.
Other popular sites include Caves 4 on Research Reef and VOA 2 (the reef by the Voice of America relay station). Robert’s Reef 3 runs out from the point south of VOA. 14-Mile Reef (Big Reef) 5 has almost everything because of the strong currents.
Despite the poor visibility often produced by typhoon rains and siltation from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Subic Bay is sheltered enough to be dived in any weather. Though murky outside, visibility inside the large wrecks is good if the sediment is not disturbed and the wrecks are ideal for penetration and technical penetration diving. The better wrecks for diving have been buoyed underwater to make it harder for the local fishermen to find them. The bay is policed to stop people stealing from the wrecks and divers require permits, but despite this there has been some illegal salvage of the wrecks by locals. Turtles still nest on the beaches.
Among the wrecks, the Hell Ship Oryoko Maru, 6 400m (1312ft) west of Alava Pier, has been flattened by explosives for navigational reasons. Now a tangled mass forming an artificial reef, it has good marine life. The Seian Maru, 7 between Alava Pier and the northern end of the runway, lies on her port side in 27m (89ft). The cavernous holds are easy to penetrate and marine life is good.
The massive World War I protected cruiser, the ex-USS New York 8, was scuttled in 1941 and now lies on her port side west-southwest of the Seian Maru 7 at 27m (89ft). Most impressive are the large 20cm (8in) guns that are still in position and intact. There is an abundance of soft corals, sponges and hydroids, lionfish, triggerfish, Spotted sweetlips, Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays, fusiliers, batfish and big groupers. A landing craft 9 sits upright at 35m (115ft) between the southern end of the runway and Grande Island. The freighter El Capitan 10 lies on its port side by the inner channel marker buoy of Ilanin Bay. The gunboat San Quintin 11, which was scuttled by the Spanish to protect them from American attacks in 1898, lies between Grande Island and Chiquita Island.
The close proximity of Anilao to Manila, 124km (77 miles), makes it a popular centre for day and weekend trips. Most of the diving consists of coral slopes or steps of small dropoffs and shallow coral gardens among sandy patches. The smaller fish and invertebrate life is profuse. Some marine sanctuaries have been set up and nearly all the dives are good, though many can have fierce currents.
Easily circumnavigated in one dive, Ligpo Island 12, west of Ligpo Point, is not for novices when the currents are running. There is a small drop-off and a cave on the east side and an underwater seamount on the west side, which slopes off deep. Pelagic species are common. The Cathedral 13, off Bagalangit Point, is a marine sanctuary and is probably the best-known Philippine dive site. It has been seeded with coral from elsewhere and is now teeming with fish, due to fish feeding. The site resembles a roofless cavern between two seamounts and has a small cross, planted at 15m (50ft) by the ex-Philippine President Fidel Ramos, in 1983 and blessed by Pope John Paul II. There is everything here, including huge frogfish (Antennariidae). Mainit Point 16, Cazador Point on the charts, is exposed to currents and the wind. Rocks break the surface and form mini dropoffs from 5m (16ft) to more than 30m (100ft). The marine life is plentiful and varied, including Whitetip Reef Sharks resting in a cave. At Red Rock 17, on the east side of the Calumpan Peninsula, there is an underwater coral mound. Beatrice Rock 14, at the northern end of Maricaban Strait, is an exposed series of short drop-offs with channels in between from 5 to 27m (16 to 89ft). There are large barrel sponges, black, soft and stony corals, anemones with clownfish, turtles, Blue-ringed Octopuses, nudibranchs, sea stars and dense populations of reef fish.
Kirby’s Rock 15, on the northeast face of Caban Island, protrudes above the water. On its shoreward side it drops to 5m (16ft) and then the reef slopes upwards to the shore with good coral cover, fish and macro life. On the seaward side the rock drops as a wall to 20m (65ft) before shelving off on sand with coral patches. This wall is rich in marine life, including Gorgonian Sea Fans, Feather Duster and Christmas Tree Worms, nudibranchs, flat worms and sea cucumbers.
Bonito (Culebra) Island and Malajibomanoc Island are marine sanctuaries with coral heads on sandy slopes, which descend from 6m (20ft) to 24m (79ft).
Just south of Anilao on the island of Mindoro, Puerto Galera is the Philippines’ busiest diving destination and with good reason. Famous for its diversity, it has everything divers could wish for except the largest sharks. There is diving of all standards, from easy dives for training and novices to high-voltage dives in strong currents and some deep dives where large animals are encountered. In recent years several wrecks have been sunk for divers, technical diving has become common and world record depths have been attained. The region was already known for its macrophotography, but some operators have been looking harder and finding most of the creatures that muck divers enthuse about, including frogfish, ghost pipefish and Harlequin Shrimps. Scientists have studied the area since the University of the Philippines Marine Biological station was set up in 1934. The UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme declared it a marine reserve in 1974.
VERDE ISLAND PASSAGE
There is a myriad of good dives over a wide area, of which only a few can be highlighted here. Straight out from Batangas Channel, Sweetlips Hole (Marcus’ Cave) 18, is best suited to technical divers with recent deep experience. Sweetlips Hole is at 45m (150ft), where it is good to watch the action of resident shoals of batfish and sweetlips. At Marcus’ Cave, Whitetip Reef Sharks rest on sand at 50m (165ft), while many other species of fish shoal around. The cave contains a memorial stone to Marcus, although he did not die diving.
At Hole in the Wall 19, just west of Escarceo Point, divers allow for the currents and descend several stepped drop-offs to the hole in the wall at 12m (40ft). The hole is coated with multicoloured sponges and crinoids and teems with reef fish. Northeast of Escarceo Point, The Fish Bowl 20 is an advanced dive within a bowl-shaped depression at 40m (130ft), where divers observe Whitetip Reef and Grey Reef Sharks, large tuna and shoals of many species including Rainbow Runners (Elagatis bipinnulata) and Oriental Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus). Nearby, The Canyons 21 is for advanced divers. Divers drift past Hole in the Wall, race over several small drop-offs covered with soft corals and sponges, pass two smaller canyons en route to the main one, which is teeming with fish, including Six-banded Angelfish (Pomacanthus sexstriatus), Royal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) and Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator). Divers are eventually swept onto a 1.5m (5ft) anchor, where they can muster before letting go to be swept away in the current and decompress in open water after this high-voltage drift dive. Southeast of Escarceo Point, The Big Rock (The Atoll) 22 is an atoll-shaped rock 15m (50ft) wide, rising from 33m (108ft) to 21m (69ft), with many species of fish including lionfish and Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays.
PANDAN ISLAND 23 AND APO REEF 24
Further south, off the west coast of Mindoro, Pandan Island has been declared a marine park by the local government and is proving to be another top diving region with 80 per cent coral cover.
Pandan Island is only 32km (21 miles) from Apo Reef, a large, offshore marine sanctuary with everything from good corals to large sharks. The whole northeast side of the reef consists of drop-offs and overhangs where sharks and shoals of large fish gather while the northern, eastern and southern sides have steep walls with turtles and pelagic species including Manta Rays.
A large spread of islands in the central Philippines, the Visayas is known for calm waters, sun-drenched, palm-lined, white sand beaches and diving all-year round.
BORACAY, CARABAO AND MANIGUIN ISLANDS
Lying just north of Panay Island, Boracay’s White Sand Beach was cited the best in the world in The BMW Tropical Beach Handbook. The diving is as good as the beach with many varieties of soft, leathery, whip, Tubastrea Cup, black and stony corals, large barrel sponges and abundant fish life including sharks, Manta Rays, turtles and sea snakes. Nearby, Carabao Island to the north and Maniguin Island to the southwest are equally good.
Northwest of Guiniuit Point, the northwest point of Boracay, Yapak 1 26 and 2 25 are the divemasters’ favourite sites. A wall, covered in healthy marine life, rises to 30m (100ft). Out in the blue, Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse and Grey and Whitetip Reef Sharks are common; Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks, Manta Rays and Eagle Rays are sometimes seen. The south side of Crocodile Island 27 has a drop-off 60m (200ft) long, dropping from 7m (23ft) to 25m (80ft), with prolific soft corals and gorgonias. Laurel 1 28, on the northeast side of Laurel Island, has soft corals, Tubastrea Cup Corals and prolific fish and invertebrate life. Buruanga 30 and Black Rock 31, off the west face of Panay Island, are very good. West Wall 29, on the southwest face of Carabao Island, has a wall 200m (656ft) long. Maniguin Island 32, 48km (26 nautical miles) southwest of Boracay, has massive reefs and abundant marine life, including Bumphead Parrotfish, Eagle Rays, Spiny Lobsters and caves containing sleeping Whitetip Reef and Nurse Sharks.
The bridge of the armoured cruiser USS New York. Launched in 1897, renamed USS Saratoga in 1911 and USS Rochester in 1917, she was finally scuttled in Subic Bay in December 1941.
CEBU - MALAPASCUA ISLAND
Malapascua Island, off the northern tip of Cebu Island, is a new destination making a name for itself as a base for muck and macro diving and a Thresher Shark cleaning station. The nearby marine sanctuary of Gato Island 33 has everything from sea horses and frogfish to sea snakes, bamboo and larger sharks and spectacular caves and rock formations. The seamount of Monad Shoal 34 rises from deep water to 15m (50ft), with many large fish and sharks, but is particularly noted for sightings of Thresher Sharks, which peak from May to January. With spectacular overhangs and walls, shoals of tuna, jacks and barracuda can be seen here.
CEBU - MACTAN ISLAND AND THE NEARBY ISLANDS AND TALONG AND CAPITANCILLO ISLANDS
Mactan International Airport has made Mactan Island 37 the most developed resort area in the Philippines. The better ones encourage marine conservation and professionalism. The better dives are on steep drop-offs with some walls and caves. Strong currents are the norm. Spear-fishing is still common near Mactan Island, but Capitancillo 35, Talong 36 and Cabilao Island 52 have good fish life.
CEBU - MOALBOAL AND PANAGSAMA BEACH
On the southwest coast of Cebu, 3km (2 miles) from Moalboal town, is Panagsama Beach 38. Apart from Badian and Green islands, most of the accommodation is relatively cheap. The diving is good along Panagsama Beach, Badian and Sunken 40 islands, but the main attraction is further offshore at Pescador Island 39. Barely 100m (330ft) square and 6m (20ft) high, this coralline limestone island is a microcosm of all that is good in the region. Surrounded by deep water, the narrow coral reef slopes gently to between 3m (10ft) and 9m (30ft) before dropping vertically as a wall to 40m (130ft). There is almost everything here: caves, crevices and overhangs are covered in Tubastrea Cup Corals, colourful soft corals and Gorgonian Sea Fans. The sponges are covered in alabaster sea cucumbers. Shoals of sweet-lips, surgeonfish, snappers, fusiliers, anthias, catfish, chromis, jacks, damsels and Moorish Idols abound. Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and Whitetip Reef Sharks are in deeper water. Whale Sharks are often seen both here and along the beach.
Near Santander at the southern tip of Cebu, Liloan Point 41 has strong currents. The best diving is west of Liloan Point. There are sandy slopes with large rocks and coral heads that are drift-dived down to 25m (80ft). There is a good variety of reef fish, Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and Garden Eels are common and Manta Rays appear from March to June. Further out from Liloan Point the currents rage across a wall that goes down to 60m (200ft). Known as The Wall of Death 42, this site is only for experienced divers.
43 SUMILON ISLAND
The first marine sanctuary in the Philippines covers the entire west side of Sumilon Island where the reef flat goes over a drop-off at 18m (60ft) down to sand at 35m (115ft), with good stony corals, black corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans and some small caves. There are lots of juvenile fish. The east and south sides are sandy slopes with coral heads and the marine life includes Garden Eels, sea snakes, turtles and Manta Rays. The currents can be strong.
Typical of the mixed stony corals at Pescador Island off Moalboal, these are mainly Lettuce Corals (Montipora).
44 DANJUGAN ISLAND - NEGROS
The Philippines Reef and Rainforest project was launched to conserve Danjugan Island in 1994. A small island off the west coast of Negros Island, it was purchased by the project and volunteers set about studying it, removing alien species on land and allowing underwater species to regenerate. There is a profusion of Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals, gorgonias and sponges and sizable areas of stony corals. There are rare Peppermint Sea Cucumbers (Thelenota rubrolineata). Shoals of angelfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish, dam-selfish, Moorish Idols, jacks, fusiliers, unicornfish and triggerfish are common. Anemones with clownfish are plentiful; on the sand are sea stars and sea cucumbers. Green and Hawksbill turtles can be seen.
DUMAGUETE/SIBULAN - NEGROS
Off Sibulan, Tacot 45 is a seamount rising from a depth of 23m (75ft) to 13m (43ft). The site attracts large pelagic species as well as reef fish. There are some big Gorgonian Sea Fans, boulder corals, Acropora table corals and plenty of crinoids. Southeast of Sibulan, at Calong-Calong Point 46 the reef slopes for 2.5km (1.5 miles) with coral heads from 4m (13ft) to 24m (79ft), where it becomes a sandy bottom. There are many varieties of soft and stony corals, some large Gorgonian Sea Fans and barrel sponges. Most local reef fish are represented here, including lots of pufferfish and Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays. Both sites have strong currents.
APO ISLAND - NEGROS
Not to be confused with Apo Reef off Mindoro, Apo Island off Negros is one of the many success stories of Philippines diving. Destructive fishing ceased completely here in 1997. Silliman University staff helped organize the local people into marine management committees who set up marine reserves, including a no-fishing sanctuary. Aided by municipal governments, residents have continued to prevent reef damage by fishermen and divers, both within and outside the sanctuary. Divers and snorkellers must register and pay a small fee, may not wear gloves and there is a limit of 15 divers, including three dive guides. Bancas (boats) must use the fixed moorings where provided and may only use anchors in designated areas. Larger boats must use the moorings.
The rare Red Lined or Peppermint Sea Cucumber (Thelenota rubrolineata) can grow to nearly 1m (3ft) long.
At Rock Point 49 the prolific fish life includes many clownfish in anemones. East of Rock Point, the marine sanctuary is a mixture of walls, slopes with coral heads and sandy patches with black corals. Clams have been seeded on the western side and turtles and Manta Rays are common. Mamsa Point 50 slopes to 25m (80ft) with a mixture of stony corals, black corals, whip corals and prolific fish life. South of Olo Point, Cogon Point 51 slopes to 20m (65ft), followed by an overhanging wall to 30m (100ft) with good stony corals, Tubastrea Cup Corals and abundant fish life. The slope at Olo Point also has Whitetip Reef Sharks and shoals of jacks. Coconut Point 48 usually has a strong current on its slope to 40m (130ft). The currents attract fish, barracuda, sweetlips, jacks and tuna, groupers, surgeonfish, fusiliers, triggerfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, moray eels, lionfish, scorpionfish, Vlaming’s Unicornfish and Whitetip Reef Sharks.
Siquijor Island has great diving, but it can be tricky to land in parts because the water is very shallow near the beach. There are many large basket sponges, healthy stony corals and it is teeming with fish.
At the northern end of the southwest arm of Siquijor Island, Tonga Point 47 has a slope down to 12m (40ft), then a drop-off down to more than 40m (130ft), with spur and groove coral formations, Acropora table corals, lettuce corals and Gorgonian Sea Fans. Offshore from San Juan town it is much the same, with the addition of Ribbon Eels.
PANGLAO ISLAND, ALONA BEACH, BALICASAG, PAMILACAN AND CABILAO ISLANDS - BOHOL
Located off the southwestern tip of Bohol, the coralline limestone island of Panglao is joined to the mainland near Tagbilaran by a causeway. It is known for its quiet beach resorts, especially along Alona Beach. Offshore, Balicasag, Pamilacan 57 and Cabilao Islands 52, have some of the best diving in the Philippines. The diving is varied with coral gardens near the surface, but the main attraction is the steep walls with caves and crevices that harbour rich fish and invertebrate life. Out in strong currents, they also have large pelagic species, Manta Rays, Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks and Whale Sharks. The diving bancas (boats) here tend to be larger than elsewhere because they are used for diving safaris as far afield as Camiguin Island and Southern Leyte.
Balicasag Island, 6km (4 miles) southwest of Panglao Island, is a microcosm of the best diving in the region. On the south, from the buoy, outside Balicasag Dive Resort, is 400m (440yd) of marine sanctuary. Vertical walls over deep water in strong currents mean healthy reefs with pelagics including Scalloped Hammerhead and Whale Sharks. The Southwest Wall (Rico’s Wall) 54 has a coral garden on a shelf from 7m (23ft) to 11m (36ft), then a wall to 35m (115ft). At the eastern end there is a huge shoal of Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus) where this dive joins Rudy’s Rock 55. The Southeast Wall (Rudy’s Rock) is much the same, except that Green Turtles are found here. The northeast slope, Black Forest 53, is a fast drift dive where, below 30m (100ft), there are forests of black corals.
The seamount Cervera Shoal (Spaghetti Shoal) 56 rises to 12m (40ft), 15km (9 miles) east of Balicasag Island. Its name derives from the black-and-white sea snakes (Laticauda colubrina) and is often called Snake Island.
The northwest side of Pamilacan Island 57, 23km (14 miles) east of Balicasag Island, is a drift dive with prolific marine life, including Manta Rays.
West of Bohol, Cabilao Island 52 is known for an advanced deep dive off the northwest point, where Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks can be seen in December and January. Drifting either side of the southwest point there is abundant marine life, including Gorgonian Sea Fans, all varieties of sponges, Ribbon Eels (Rhinomuraena quaesita) and Garden Eels (Heteroconger hassi).
A new location for Philippines diving, Southern Leyte has beautiful coral gardens and drop-offs. The coral gardens are mostly in pristine condition and where they are not, the quality of the corals improve with depth. As diving here is new, the fish are curious of divers. The 3km (2-mile) coral garden on the west side of Tancaan Point 58 can produce five separate dives. The current can get too strong for photography, but it is still a great drift dive. Fish and invertebrate life is profuse, including huge sea snakes and Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) from November till June.
A large shoal of Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus) circling where Rudy’s Rock meets the eastern end of Rico’s Wall.
BUSUANGA, CORON AND THE CORON WRECKS - CALAMIAN ISLANDS AND MAINLAND PALAWAN
For many years the wrecks around Busuanga Island, particularly in Coron Bay, were one of Philippine diving’s best-kept secrets, because Coron was difficult to reach. However, the transport problem has been solved and it is now more accessible. A miniature version of Truk Lagoon, the area is littered with World War II Japanese shipwrecks that were sunk by Task Force 45 carrier-based aircraft on 24 September 1944, in preparation for the American landing on Leyte. Most of them are auxiliary fleet rather than warships. Many of these wrecks have now been found in recreational diving depths. Strong currents are rare.
Coron Island has spectacular scenery, with imposing limestone cliffs, tiny isolated beach coves and freshwater lakes. Apart from live-aboard boats, the diving in the south is from relatively cheap accommodation, while Club Paradise has luxury resorts in the north.
The diving is not all on wrecks, though these are the reason why most divers would come here. Dimakya Island 59 has a particularly good house reef. Cayangan Lake 70 contains creatures of both salt and freshwater and is fed by a hot spring. As divers go deeper it gets very hot. Gunter’s Cathedral 73 is a delightful hidden cavern with an underwater entrance for experienced divers to explore.
As at Fondeado Island 90 off mainland Palawan, it is sometimes possible to find Horseshoe Crabs - living fossils of our world millions of years ago.
CORON’S WRECKS AND SITES
Just off the beach on the east side of Malajon Island, the Black Island Wreck 61 sits upright, but down the sandy slope from the shore. The bow rests on the bottom at 32m (104ft) and the stern at 20m (65ft). The origins of this 45m (150ft) coastal vessel are not known. It is teeming with small bait-fish and larger reef fish.
On the outer edge of the Lusteveco Company’s pearl farm, south of Concepción village on Busuanga Island, lies the Concepción Wreck. For some time it was believed that it was the Taiei Maru, but recent researchers think that it is the Okikawa Maru 62. Lying almost level with a slight list to port, this oil tanker is a good wreck for penetration with the main deck at 16m (52ft) and a maximum depth of 26m (85ft). There are good corals, sponges and fish including the ubiquitous lionfish and scorpionfish.
The Akitsushima 63 is one of the few true warships among the Coron wrecks. Lying between Lajo Island and Manglet Island, this 148m (487ft) flying boat tender lies on its port side in 38m (125ft) of water with the starboard side at 20m (65ft). The ship can be penetrated with care, but this is an advanced dive due to the depth. Large groupers lurk in the hull and shoals of barracuda, tuna and snapper are found along it.
At the southern end of Lusong Island there is the shallow wreck of a Gunboat 64. The stern breaks the surface at low tide. The name of the wreck between the northern ends of Lusong Island and Tangat Island is not known. A 137m (450ft) Japanese Freighter, the wreck 65 lies on its starboard side in 25m (80ft) of water with the port side at 12m (40ft). A pretty dive, the port side hull has many large lettuce corals, black corals and sea anemones with clownfish. The abundant fish life includes Golden Rabbitfish (Siganus guttatus). South of this unknown wreck, the 158m (520ft) Japanese Freighter, Kogyo Maru 66 lies on its starboard side at 34m (110ft) with the port side at 22m (72ft). South of the Kogyo Maru, the 147m (482ft) Japanese refrigerated provision ship, Irako 67 is almost upright in 42m (138ft) of water with the main deck at 34m (112ft). Because of the depth, penetration is an advanced dive, but the superstructure has soft corals, sponges and profuse fish life.
There have not been any terrorist incidents around the Busuanga/Coron areas and they are thought to be too far north to experience trouble, but as a precaution all security has been increased. Much further north, El Nido and Club Noah Isabelle have got together with the National Police, the Philippines Coastguard and the Philippines Armed Forces to increase boat patrols and security around their resorts, diving areas and the airports they use. They have set up permanent radio contact with each other and other members of the Palawan Tourism Council and Club Noah Isabelle has installed a radar detection system.
The wreck of a wooden fishing boat in relatively shallow water just south of the entrance to Coron’s Cayangan Lake. It is festooned with corals and sponges that grow quickly in these warm waters.
A lionfish (Pterois volitans) positions itself with the sun above it, like an aircraft in a dogfight, as it hunts among the superstructure of the Black Island Wreck, which teems with bait-sized fry.
West of the southwest end of Tangat Island, the wreck that used to be called the Tangat wreck has now been identified. Known as the Olympia Maru 68, she is a 137m (450ft) Japanese freighter lying on her starboard side at 25m (80ft), with the port side at 12m (40ft). This site is a good introduction to wreck diving for novices and has good marine life. It is still not known what the 40m (130ft) East Tangat Wreck 69 actually is. Lying at the southeast side of Tangat Island, partly salvaged and listing to starboard down a sandy slope, the stern is at 22m (72ft) and the top of the bow at 3m (10ft).
The rotting remains of a wooden fishing boat 71 lie in 12m (40ft) of water a few hundred metres southwest of the entrance cove to Cayangan Lake on Coron Island. The 35m (115ft) vessel has lots of marine life and is perfect for novices’ early dives.
Cayangan (barracuda) Lake 70 is a freshwater lake fed by a hot spring 30m (100ft) inland from the centre of the northwest face of Coron Island. It can be reached by a short but easy rock climb, though a second trip may be necessary for equipment. Diving is in freshwater that becomes hotter and hotter with the descent. Around the perimeter, salt and freshwater mix and barracuda, Golden Rabbitfish, snappers, catfish and several species of shrimp and shellfish are seen.
There is a good Coral Garden 72 a few hundred metres northwest of Calis Point, the south point of Coron Island. Gunter’s Cathedral 73 is north-northeast of Calis Point. Underwater, in a wide, open cavern in the limestone cliffs, a narrow, dark channel in the floor leads to the Cathedral cavern. En route are Spiny Lobsters and cowrie shells as divers swim towards a gleam of light and come out at the bottom of a chamber 20m (65ft) high, with shafts of sunlight descending from a large hole in the roof. Novices should fix a safety guideline from outside because it is easy to stir up sediment, making it difficult to see the way out again.
One of the many large Marbled Groupers (Epinephelus polyphekadion) in Taytay Bay. They feed mainly on crustaceans and occasionally on small fish.
The north and south ends of Delian Island 74, 5km (3 miles) east-northeast of Calis Point have good shallow diving and snorkelling over coral gardens with many small reef fish and shoals of immature fish. Framjee Bank 75, 19km (12 miles) east of Bocao Point, the southeast extremity of Busuanga Island, is a sunken bank in 5m (16ft) of water; so it can be difficult to find without either a local boatman or GPS. The corals are poor, but when the currents are running large pelagic species come in to feed. Sharks, tuna, Rainbow Runners and trevallies are common. About 37km (23 miles) southeast of Coconogon Point (the northeast point of Busuanga Island) there is good diving on the west, south and east sides of the southern of two rocks 50m (163ft) high, called Brown (Butulan) rocks 76. They are 2km (1 mile) south of Bantac, Calanhayaun and Lubutglubut islands. The rocks are a breeding ground for Cuttlefish (Sepia pharonis) and occasionally have Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks. Reef sharks and Guitar Sharks are found on the west side of Tara Island 77, 29km (18 miles) northeast of Coconogon Point.
Another top dive is the Kyokuzan Maru, also known as the Dimilanta Wreck 60 because it is close to the shore of Dimilanta Island. This 152m (500ft) Japanese freighter lies almost upright in 43m (131ft) of water with the main deck sloping from 22 to 28m (72 to 92ft). Almost intact and easily penetrated, there is a milky-white, mist-like haze being released by the cargo in some holds. WWF-Philippines are conducting research on Dugongs (sea cows) at Club Paradise’s Dimakya Island 59.
The Government of the Philippines proclaimed Bacuit Bay a marine reserve in 1991 and the protected area was expanded to include parts of the municipality of Taytay, on the other side of Palawan, in 1998. It is now known as El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource, a special zone for conservation. This is an attempt to protect what is considered by many conservationists to be one of the last ecological frontiers in the Philippines.
This coral scene is made up of Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals, a Gorgonian Sea Fan (Melithaea squamata) and a feather star.
BACUIT BAY, NORTHWEST PALAWAN - EL NIDO
El Nido, at the northwestern tip of Palawan, is named after the nests of swiftlets (Collocalia fuciphaga) found in crevices on its limestone cliffs. These nests, nido in Spanish, are used to make bird’s nest soup. Small entrepreneurs built the original resorts, but it was the Ten Knots Development Corporation, under the name El Nido Resorts, that fully advertised the region’s potential as a tourist paradise. It took over others and today has exclusive resorts on Miniloc, Pangulasian and Langen Islands. These up-market resorts offer more than 20 sites from gradual slopes to drop-offs and walls where turtles, dolphins, whales, Whale Sharks and Manta Rays have been seen.
Miniloc Island has a marked dive trail established by the University of Edinburgh at the southeastern side of the island. Depths range from 12m (40ft) to 25m (80ft). Fish-feeding occurs at 18m (60ft) in front of Miniloc Resort84, with habituated fish such as groupers, trevallies and Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse. There are drop-offs from 24m (79ft) to 33m (108ft) with rich fish life at West Miniloc 81 and 24m (79ft) to 36m (118ft) at West Entalula82. Submerged reefs such as Picanayas 79 15m (50ft) are common. Dilumacad 78 has a cave wide enough for two divers at 12m (40ft). At the west side of South Guntao Island, Destacado Rocks 83 is the deepest dive in Bacuit Bay. The depth can reach 45m (150ft). The southern tip of Pangulasian Island 85 has rich marine life and, northwest of Miniloc Island, Tres Marias 80 often has turtles and Manta Rays.
TAYTAY BAY, NORTHEAST PALAWAN - CLUB NOAH ISABELLE
An up-market resort offering diving among other facilities, Club Noah Isabelle on Taytay Bay’s Dragon Island of Apulit, gives a percentage of its income to various island ecosystems and a programme to conserve the remaining Dugong (sea cow) population. As with El Nido, the main clientele are South Asians, so the resort’s rental equipment caters for the South Asian body-size. If you require fins to fit a larger foot, take your own.
The ban on fishing within one mile of Apulit Island has had its effect on sites outside the no-fishing zone, as larger species and food species are common. Apulit Front 88, 140m (460ft) south of the resort’s main boat jetty, is used for fish-feeding, which has resulted in an impressive gathering of large Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, Marble, Peacock and Coral Groupers, jacks and trevallies, as well as a myriad of smaller fish. West of the west beach, Ghosting87 is a submerged reef between 6m (20ft) and 15m (50ft), recovering from blast-fishing and displaying a surprising variety of fish. Well away from Apulit Island, isolated rocks, such as on the west side of Nabat Island 86, have walls continuing steeply down to sand and harbouring everything from nudibranchs to Gorgonian Sea Fans and big fish. Despite being outside the no-fishing limit there are huge trevallies, Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, Bumphead Parrotfish, lionfish, pufferfish, angelfish, but-terflyfish, batfish, snappers and soldierfish.
PUERTO PRINCESA - CENTRAL PALAWAN
The diving around Puerto Princesa itself is mainly used for training novices. To the north, Fondeado Island 90 and Panglima Reef 89, together with Table Head Reef 91 to the south, have slopes to small drop-offs and can have strong currents.
SULU SEA AND MINDANAO
The Sulu Sea has countless isolated reefs and islets with world class diving. Many sites are strictly live-aboard destinations and some of them can only be visited for four months of the year for weather reasons, but large animals are guaranteed. The best-known reefs for diving are the Tubbataha reefs, 182km (98 nautical miles) southeast of Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island, which together with Jessie Beazley Reef, make up the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park.
THE SULU SEA - JESSIE BEAZLEY REEF - TUBBATAHA REEFS - BASTERRA REEF - ARENA ISLAND - CAVILI ISLAND AND CALUSA ISLAND
The Tubbataha reefs consist of two large reefs, with inner lagoons, separated by a 7km (4-mile) channel. At low water there are several sand cays. South Islet has a solar-powered lighthouse at the southern end. The wreck of the Delson is high and dry on the reef, east of the lighthouse. Jessie Beazley Reef is 23km (14 miles) northwest of North Islet. Basterra Reef is 93km (58 miles) southwest of South Islet, with the wreck of the Oceanic high and dry on the east side. Arena Island is 89km (55 miles) northeast of Tubbataha North Islet. Cavili Island 103 is 9km (6 miles) northeast of Arena Island 104, Calusa Island 102 is 19km (12 miles) west-northwest of Cagayan Island. All these reefs consist of vertical walls or steep drop-offs, rising from great depths and teeming with fish. Currents are strong and often reverse during a dive, so be sure to have several methods of attracting your chase boat’s attention when on the surface.
Jessie Beazley Reef 92 has a rich coral slope from 5m (16ft) to 10m (33ft), then a wall to 40m (130ft). The reef top is covered in lettuce and leathery Sarcophyton corals and teems with small reef fish. The walls have everything from huge Gorgonian Sea Fans, barrel sponges and Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals to Whitetip, Blacktip, and Grey Reef Sharks. There are many large shoals of fish.
Schooling (Pennant) Bannerfish (Heniochus diphreutus) over Basterra Reef. Adults school above the bottom to feed on zooplankton, but juveniles sometimes act as cleanerfish on larger fish.
This violet or purple fire coral (Distichopora violacea) can inflict a mild sting. It is found in crevices or under overhangs or roofs where there is strong water movement.
On Tubbataha Reef’s North Islet, the North Face 93 has a sandy slope with coral heads to 15m (50ft), before dropping as a wall to great depths, with Guitar Sharks, Variegated (Leopard) Sharks and Manta Rays. The East Face96 Southwest Corner 94 and Southeast Corner 95 are similar with large Gorgonian Sea Fans and soft corals below 30m (100ft). True Giant Clams, Leopardfish Sea Cucumbers and Tawny Nurse Sharks are just some of the prolific marine life.
On Tubbataha Reef’s South Islet, the North and Northeast Ends 97 slope to 10-20m (33-65ft), then become walls down into the depths. The South, Southeast and Southwest Ends 98 are similar, but with a larger area of shallow reef top.
Basterra Reef is very small with diving similar to that of Jessie Beazley Reef, but with even more fish action. At the North End 99, beginning at the wreck of the Tristar B, there is a gentle slope to 10m (33ft); then a wall into the depths. Around the wreck the coral is damaged by blast-fishing, but plenty of fish shelter against the wreck and 50m (165ft) away the reef is rich again. The East Face 101 has better stony corals, as does the South Wall 100, which also has countless large pelagic visitors.
Calusa, Cavili and Arena Islands are less remote and have drop-offs rather than walls. The reef tops have been blast-fished, but because drop-offs are not good for blast-fishing, these are still healthy.
Camiguin Island is just off the northwest coast of Mindanao, but is usually reached from the Visayas and often dived as a safari by Visayan operators. It is one of the most beautiful destinations in the Philippines, with hot springs and seven volcanoes. Most of its beaches are dark volcanic sand. The pristine environment received an environmental travel award, but the island was hit badly by typhoon Lingling (also known as Nanang) in November 2001. Shallow reefs have been damaged, but the fish and invertebrate life and the deeper corals are unaffected.
Northwest of the main island, White Island 105 is a large submerged reef near the visible sand cay of the same name. A gentle slope of stony and soft corals from 6m (20ft) to 26m (85ft), its countless fish include the rare Clown Grouper (Pogonoperca punctata). West of Camiguin Island, several dives are close together: Tangub Bay 106, Tangub Hot Springs 107, Old Volcano 108, Sunken Cemetery 109 and Canyons 110. These dives cover lunar-like terrain, with volcanic rocks on dark sand. There is a slope from 3m (10ft) to 35m (115ft) with lots of fish, sea stars and turtles and Spanish Dancer nudibranchs out at night.
Southeast of Camiguin Island, Kabila 111 slopes from 3m to 35m (10ft to 115ft) with rich marine life. To the northeast, Mantigue (Magsaysay) Island 112 has small walls with abundant corals and fish. North of Mantigue Island, Jigdup Reef 113 has a slope with ledges from 3m (10ft) to 35m (115ft) on the east side. On the west side is a wall from 3m (10ft) to 40m (130ft), with small caverns, prolific fish life and Manta Rays from December to March.
Mindanao is the Philippines‘ second-largest island after Luzon. Mountainous, it is popular for trekking, its picturesque lakes and interesting tribes. There has been tension between central government and some Muslim groups, with terrorist activity at Pearl Farm Resort and General Santos City, but security has been increased considerably.
Off Dapitan Bay, Dakak has several dive sites along the coast and around Liuay Rock 121 that are fine for novices, but the better sites are at Tagolo Point 120 and the offshore islands and reefs.
At Silinog Island, the reef drops beyond 40m (130ft). The west side has gentle slopes and coral thickets, with many species of invertebrates, pufferfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, snappers and groupers. The east side has Cesar’s Reef 117 to the north and Octopus 118 to the south. For experienced and technical divers there is Conrad’s Wreck 119, an old liner lying at 55m (180ft) with its highest point at 40m (130ft).
Aliguay Island slopes beyond 40m (130ft) as sand with coral heads. The shallows on the west are ideal for novices or muck diving. On the east side, Eskuelahan 114 and Romy’s Reef 115 have strong currents.
A family of False Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris) outside their host anemone (Heteractis magnifica), which closes as the light dims in the evening.
The northeast of Challenger Reef 116, a submerged reef ascending from the depths to 38m (125ft), has prolific marine life, but is only for experienced divers. Tagolo Point 120 descends beyond 40m (130ft) and has strong currents attracting pelagics.
DAVAO PEARL FARM
Pearl Farm Beach Resort has two World War II wrecks 122 123 in front of its accommodation, which can only be dived if you are staying at the resort. There are several other dive sites around Malipano and Talicud Islands.
The furthest buoy from Pearl Farm jetty marks a 40m (130ft) Japanese Freighter lying on sand at 35m (115ft) with a mast from 20m (65ft) to 27m (89ft). It is an easy ship for experienced divers to penetrate. The nearest buoy to Pearl Farm jetty marks a 35m (115ft) Japanese Freighter lying on its side at 28m (92ft). Both wrecks have rich marine life.
At the southwest side of Talicud Island, Mansud Wall 125 is one of the best dives in the Gulf of Davao. Usually sheltered, it slopes gently to 10m (33ft), then drops to sand at 30m (100ft), with good corals and fish life including shrimpfish, sea snakes and snake eels. At the Southeast side of Talicud Island there is a 4km (2-mile) stretch of good Coral Gardens 124 sloping gently from 5m (16ft), which has been declared a marine sanctuary.
Sarangani Bay has a wealth of good diving that has barely been touched. There has been some blast-fishing and, more recently, sediment from fish farming, but large areas are pristine. Many of the dive sites are accessed from private land so you require permission and a key to the gate.
On the west side of the bay north of Partridge (Tampuan) Point, Lautengco 129 has a gentle slope to 10m (33ft) before the reef drops off into the depths. Deeper down the stony and soft corals are good. There are large Gorgonian Sea Fans, feather stars, sea stars and a variety of fish species. Partridge (Tampuan) Point 130 and Tampuan Wall 131 are similar with prolific fish life, including clown-fish in anemones and Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse and good coral gardens.
On the east of the bay, north of Tango Point, North Kapatan 126 has a deeper slope of sandy gullies and coral heads to beyond 40m (130ft) with abundant fish life and Notodoris minor nudibranchs. South Kapatan 127 is similar with many varieties of sea stars and nudibranchs. South of Tango Point, Tango Glan 128 has a steeper slope and more Porites coral.
Chuuk is worth exploring with a local guide. The lush tropical vegetation hides a treasure trove of World War II memorabilia.
The Rock Islands, 200-odd islets strewn across the 80km (50 mile) lagoon between Koror and Peleliu is a network of bays, channels and coves, perfect for exploring by kayak.