Diving in the Philippines
Written by Andy Davis Photography by Jun V Lao
Deep shipwreck diving instructor and Philippines resident Andy Davis shares his experiences of the incredible variety of world-class scuba diving opportunities available for visitors to this tropical paradise.
The Philippines has a wealth of attractions for those who visit, many of which are recognised through prestigious international awards or through UNESCO World Heritage Site designation; the ancient rice terraces of Banaue, the chocolate hills of Bohol, the underground river north of Puerto Princesa, and the opulent beach-side spa resorts of Boracay.
My passion in life is the ocean and what lies beneath it. The Philippines has a well-deserved reputation as a divers' paradise, and it was this that initially caused me to venture to the country after several years travelling and diving across the length and breadth of Southeast Asia.
The Philippines forms the eastern edge of what biologists refer to as the 'golden triangle', an area of ocean containing the highest marine biodiversity on the planet. The azure seas and vibrant coral reefs fringing the Philippines' 7,107 islands offer not only an aesthetic treat for visitors, but also an unparalleled opportunity for connoisseur underwater explorers to record encounters with some of the rarest and most spectacular undersea creatures on the planet.
My first diving experience here was on a trip to Palawan Island, just a short air transfer from Clark Airport. Jacques Cousteau famously described Palawan, the emerald-draped karst islands located southeast of the capital island of Luzon, as "the most beautiful place I ever explored". High praise indeed, from a man so well travelled amongst the most beautiful coastal regions of the world.
As a student of history and having spent my formative years diving to the shipwrecks synonymous with the United Kingdom coastline, I was eager to see what the Philippines had to offer for wreck-diving enthusiasts. The answer was a lot. The two main centres for wreck diving are the sunken Japanese fleet at Coron, Palawan and Subic Bay, near Clark. Both locations offer visitors easy access to more spectacular sunken wrecks than they could hope to explore in single visit.
The short trip from Clark to Subic Bay is one of my favourite drives. The modern expressway snakes through dramatic dragon-toothed volcanic hills and lush lime-green rice fields dotted with ubiquitous water buffalo, white storks, and bamboo-thatched farmers' huts. In the rear-view mirror, Mount Pinatubo rises imposingly over the flat plains of Pampanga province. The journey should take less than an hour, but succumbing to the temptation to pause and enjoy the dramatic landscape can easily result in a longer transit.
Subic Bay has a long and turbulent history as a military harbour and has always played a central role in events involving the Spanish, Japanese, and US occupants, which helped define the modern Philippines. One result of this is that the sea floor in and around the bay contains a tapestry of historically significant sunken vessels ripe for exploration and adventure.
The signature dive in Subic Bay, and my particular favourite, is upon the enormous USS New York armoured cruiser, the former pride of the US Navy at the turn of the 20th century. The leviathan-like wreck, resplendent with house-sized gun turrets and propeller blades that dwarf a man, lies at rest on its side just five minutes' speedboat ride from the shore.
Slowly descending the anchor line, the top of the vast man-made structure comes into view 20 m below and inspires me with awe and interest simultaneously. As I fin slowly along the many decks of the ship, my mind is drawn to reflect on grainy black-and-white photographs of smiling, white-starched sailors who once stood upon this rusted metal as they traversed the great oceans.
As with most shipwrecks, the vessel now flourishes as an artificial reef, having attracted the growth of splendid hard and soft corals, providing shelter for schools of rainbow-coloured tropical fish and a cleaning station for passing open-ocean creatures, like formations of graceful eagle rays.
Heading two hours' drive south from Manila, the coastal province ofBatangas offers an entirely different underwater experience. This is where divers from the capital city flock to at weekends. Secluded, boutique scuba resorts dot the rugged coastline and offer immediate access to lush coral gardens, many of which have been designated as protected marine park areas.
These waters will dazzle visitors with a spectrum of reef fish, curious turtles, and passing giants, like manta rays and whale sharks. However, the real attraction is on a much smaller scale. Batangas is world renowned for the opportunities that it offers to underwater photographers, particularly those who equip themselves with macro lenses and flash.
Diving sedately across the volcanic sands of the invitingly named Secret Bay, a treasure trove of the weird and wonderful creatures is presented to visitors. An eagle-eyed local guide is critical here, as many of these underwater rarities are expertly camouflaged or smaller than a fingernail. Hairy frogfish can pass unnoticed as weed-covered pebbles. Mimic octopus rehearse a repertoire of poses, in imitation of their fellow reef inhabitants. Nudibranchs, the vibrantly coloured kin of sea slugs, often called 'the butterflies of the sea', can be seen in greater numbers and in more variety than in any other place on Earth.
Diving in Batangas is like being invited to take part in your own TV nature documentary. It is a true underwater safari. Even the most novice scuba diver will fill their log book with sightings of exotic wildlife: encounters that remain only a 'bucket list' ambition for those divers who never had the chance to visit the Philippines.
Located several hours' drive south of Cebu City, Moalboal offers another spectacular underwater experience: diving with millions-strong schools of sardines. Lee Butler, PADI Course Director at Savedra Dive Center, runs scuba lessons and daily trips to the sardine-run at nearby Pescador Island. On these dives – a much sought-after underwater experience – scuba enthusiasts can immerse themselves within the enormous swirling balls of fish, challenging all sense of perception and scale. Moalboal is also a popular departure point for trips to the famous Apo Island Marine Park, where sightings of enormous whale sharks, locally known as 'Butanding', are very common.
Take a short boat ride north from Cebu Island to experience the tropical idyll at remote Malapascua. The island offers divers a unique balance of relaxation and high-adrenalin excitement as it is world famous for being one of the few places on the planet to reliably observe rare and majestic thresher sharks at close quarters. Matt Reed, instructor/owner at Evolution Divers, offers daily trips to the Monad Shoal, where the sharks congregate for early morning cleaning, along with a host of other pelagic creatures, such as manta rays and whale sharks.
Distance: 7,292 km
Flight Time: 9 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: Two flights a day