Dubbed as the Queen City of the South, Cebu is a tourism hub in the Philippines where you can visit well-preserved 16th century Spanish landmarks like the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino and the triangular shaped Fort San Pedro. Located 572 kms (355 mi) south of Metro Manila, this Central Visayan island in the Philippines is also a haven for ocean sports enthusiasts who can take advantage of Cebu’s expansive coastline and neighboring islands.
But for us divers, the real beauty of Cebu is hidden beneath its waters. Cebu hosts some of the world’s best scuba diving sites. As your aircraft slowly descends towards the runway of Mactan-Cebu International Airport, take a peek at the window and you will have a glimpse of what to expect from your diving adventures in Cebu.
And from the moment you land at the tarmac, you are just 15-minutes away from the nearest dive site.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- Why you should dive in Cebu
- The best dive sites in Cebu
- The best accommodation in Cebu
- The best time to dive in Cebu
- Swimming with whale sharks in Cebu: Is it ethical?
- The best dive schools in Cebu
- Freediving in Cebu: An overview
WHY VISIT CEBU?
Cebu is a paradise for scuba diving. This statement is not just uttered by foreign tourists, but by local divers as well. While there are other diving destinations in the Philippines, Cebu stands out when it comes to scuba diving for several reasons: it has several amazing diving sites, the water conditions are highly conducive for diving (crystal clear water where visibility could exceed 30 m/100 ft and tropical warm water temperature averaging at 30OC/86OF), and a well established diving industry.
This means that in every dive spot, there are several dive shops operating that will cater to all your diving needs like scuba certification, equipment sales, rentals, boat rides and guided tours. In fact, you don’t need to bring your own equipment. All you need to do is just to be in Cebu, choose a dive site and the next thing you know, you are already underwater interacting with its marine wildlife. In short, it is very convenient. This is on top of the fact that locals can speak English.
Another unique feature when you go diving in Cebu is that your dive boat is not made up of a fiberglass dinghy boat or the inflatable rubber boat. Boat diving in Cebu involves the use of a “Banca” which is a locally made wooden boat with bamboo outriggers that offers ample space for you and your equipment. You’ll have the luxury to walk around the deck.
THE BEST DIVE SITES IN CEBU
Cebu has a long list of amazing dive sites. What we will be presenting in this section is a short list of what you can explore in a week’s time.
Marigondon Cave in Mactan Island
Location: 15 minutes away from the airport
Max Depth: 40 meters (131 feet)
Remember a while ago when we said that once you land in Mactan-Cebu International Airport, you are just 15 minutes away from the nearest dive site. Yes, this is literally true since the airport is situated near the coast surrounded with fringing reefs. While Mactan Island is dotted with numerous dive sites, we highly suggest you go cave diving in Marigondon.
Situated right in front of a popular 5-star beach resort and hotel, you will start diving following a vibrant reef that leads towards the reef ledge at 10 m (30 ft) deep. You will then make a direct descent along a wall of soft and hard corals while riding along mild to moderate current. Once you reach 27 m (90 ft), you will see the upper limit entrance of the cave and you will be amazed to see how big this cave is where its lower entrance limit is at 40 m (131 ft). The cave’s massive diameter tunnels in horizontally for 20 m (60 ft) where you will feel dwarfed by the cave’s immensity once you are inside. Do not forget to bring an underwater torch so that you can see the vibrant-colored sea fans attached to the walls of the cave that has become the shelter of numerous sweeper fish.
Reminder: safe exploration of the cave only involves the vast 30-m wide cave tunnel and you need to turn around once the tunnel starts to constrict. You also have constantly monitor for your air and a mandatory safety stop is required for this dive.
Since you are already here in Mactan Island and may want to do a second dive or if you have a dive buddy that does not have a deep diver certification, there are alternative sites that you can visit like the Kon Tiki House Reef. Although the site has a vibrant reef system, Kon Tiki House Reef is known for Muck Diving with a maximum depth of only 20 meters (60 feet). You and your dive buddy can enjoy macro-photography where you can choose from a wide array of subjects like nudibranch, pipefish and clownfish taking refuge in the gentle swaying of sea anemone tentacles. There is even a popular reef resident that has become a superstar of this site: a giant yellow frogfish that loves to display itself on top of artificially deployed structures like the remains of a small aircraft and a dingy boat.
Pescador Island in Moalboal
Location: 88 km (55 mi) southwest of Cebu City
Level: All levels of certification
Max Depth: 30 m (100 ft)
After a 10-minute boat ride from mainland Moalboal, you will arrive at the rocky island of Pescador, a marine park. After your banca has tied to one of the mooring buoys, you will usually do a giant stride entering a shallow reef crest at 4.5 m (15 ft) deep. At first, there’s nothing much to see, but the underwater scenery will slowly change as you reach the reef ledge where it will transform from a barren sandy rubble substrate to a healthy reef filled with corals, sea fans, and barrel sponges. At the tip of the ledge is a vertical limestone formation famous for wall diving. Your divemaster will usually lead you to the Cathedral which is a series of cracks and crevices filled with thousands of tropical fish such like damselfish, moorish idol, parrotfish and snappers.
Swimming further east in the island allows you to see the famous Sardine Run in Moalboal. Unfortunately, due to a massive earthquake that struck Cebu in 2013, only a small percentage of the sardine population stayed in Pescador Island. But don’t worry — your Sardine Run experience in Moalboal just got a lot easier. A big chunk of the sardine population has migrated near the coastline of mainland Moalboal just fronting the hotels and resorts. .
Sidetrip: If you happen to be in Moalboal, do not miss to visit Kawasan Falls. Located 25 km (15 mi) south of Moalboal is the town of Badian where the famous 40 m (131 ft) waterfalls can be found. This is the perfect spot to do your surface interval where you can do a half day tour and go canyoneering or bathe in its refreshing and cool waters.
Monad Shoal in Malapascua Island
Location: 116 kilometers (72 miles) north of Cebu City
Max Depth: 30 meters (100 feet)
If you are looking for the big boys of the deep, then head out towards the northern coast of Cebu in an island called Malapascua. Diving in Malapascua is literally an early morning business where you need to wake up before dawn, hop in to your banca and travel for an hour towards Monad Shoal. You should be in the water before the sun rises and reach the mound to observe and interact with Thresher sharks. In some instances after your shark interaction, some have seen the passing by of manta rays where they are usually curious with your presence underwater and may come close to your group.
If you want more shark interaction, you can head out 16.5 km (10 mi) northwest of Malapascua Island in an uninhabited rocky island call Isla de Gato (or Gato Island). It will take you just a few minutes to spot a shark in Gato Island. As you enter the water, nurse sharks can be found everywhere. But they are not moving. Instead, they are usually resting on the sand and taking refuge under the limestone shade of the towering structures of the island. There is also another marine species that has become a big attraction in Gato Island: Sea Snakes. Although they are highly venomous, they only hunt small fish. Just make sure you keep enough distance and try not to make any movement than can provoke them.
WHERE TO STAY IN CEBU
Address: Marigondon, Mactan Island, Lapu Lapu City, 6015, Cebu
Constructed on an 11 hectare (27 acres) palm grounds, this 5-star hotel resort is just located right in front of the Marigondon Cave and a few minutes boat ride to Kon Tiki House Reef. This luxury resort features state of the art accommodation with an island-influenced decor and full butler service. Aside from the beachfront, you can take a dip at the lagoon style outdoor pool. And the best part is that they have an in-house full service dive shop.
Address: Panagsama Beach, Moalboal, 6032, Cebu
Constructed on an elevated cement pavement that is overlooking the Tañon Strait, it features twin bedroom, double room and family room all equipped with its own veranda that gives you an unobstructed view of the sea. It has an in-house dive shop that can cater to all your diving needs. And mind you, the famous sardine run is just a few steps away from your veranda.
Address: Bounty Beach, Malapascua, Daanbantayan, 6013, Cebu
Surrounded by natural white sand and built just a few meters away from the beach, Evolution Diving Resort is the number choice for divers staying at Malapascua Island. All their bungalows have a nice view of the beach and naturally shaded by palm trees. Their in-house dive shop is considered one of the best in Malapascua Island. On top of diving in Monad Shoal with the thresher sharks, they can take you to go wreck diving at 2 historic spots: the Dona Marilyn and the Mogami Maru wreck.
THE BEST TIME TO GO DIVING IN CEBU
Diving in Cebu is literally a year-round activity. Waters are generally calm and clear which makes it highly conducive for diving. However, note that the Philippines has an active monsoon season where Cebu is primarily affected by the southwest monsoon which runs from June to October –making the seas rough and turbid. This is on top of the occasional tropical storm that usually forms towards the end of the year.
Outside these months, divers will surely love the water conditions of Cebu. In fact, if you are not going for a deep dive, then using a wetsuit is optional. The local fad is just to wear a rash guard and board shorts.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO SEE IN CEBU
Cebu has it all, from the smallest marine creature up to the largest fish in the world. Each of its dive sites feature a signature species. For example, Kon Tiki and its nearby reefs is loaded up with tiny critters like nudibranch, frogfish and pipefish–making macro-photography a big hit.
For a swarm, the reefs of Moalboal has been the refuge of millions of sardines tightly grouped into a school.
For the big stuff, of course nothing beats the thresher sharks and manta rays in Malapascua Island. If you want to see and interact with the largest fish in the world, the southeastern tip of Cebu has whale sharks.
SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS IN CEBU: IS IT ETHICAL?
Oslob was once a quiet municipality in the southeastern tip of Cebu. This all changed when a fishermen accidentally encountered a whale shark feeding on his days catch of anchovy. Since then, whale shark tourism started to grow where it has attracted hundreds of tourists on a daily basis.
Tourism is good. However, we would like to comment on how the largest fish species in the world are being handled in Oslob. First, in order for the whale sharks to stay in Oslob, they have to frequently feed the whale sharks with small fish like anchovies. Second, operators don’t prevent tourists from touching the whale sharks as part of the interaction. And lastly, they feed and draw the whale sharks very close to the shore where they are at risk of coming in close contact with the reef.
Whale sharks are wild marine creatures. They are not pets. They should not be fed since they have the natural capacity to look for their own food. They should be left behind and not to be touched as touching them may disturb their natural behavior and may place the snorkeler in danger should a snorkeler get hit with one of their. Lastly, drawing the whale sharks close to shore is a very ugly plan since they may hurt themselves as well as damage the surrounding reefs. Whale sharks are open-water dwellers, not reef residents.
THE BEST DIVE SCHOOLS IN CEBU
Certifying Agency: PADI
Address: Marigondon, Mactan Island, Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu
7 Seas Dive Center is a PADI 5 Star Dive Center offering Discover Scuba Diving Program and full certification courses from Open Water up to Divemaster. Even if it is the official dive shop provider of Plantation Bay Resort and Spa, both hotel and non-hotel guest can sign-up for their certification courses and fun dives where they offer guided tours in Marigondon Cave, Kon Tiki House Reef and to nearby islands of Olango, Nalusuan and Hilutungan islands. You can even sign-up for their amazing wreck diving experience where you can explore the remains of a passenger ferry that sunk just off the coast of Lilo-an.
Certifying Agency: PADI
Address: Moalboal Cebu
Savedra Dive Center is the official dive shop of the Savedra Beach Bungalows in Moalboal Cebu. This is a spacious and modern dive center offering PADI courses from Open Water, Tec Rec, Specialty Courses and Divemaster. They have instituted the Seven Seas Dive Academy where you can now enrol and become a PADI Dive instructor. On top of their guided tours in Pescador Island and nearby reefs of Moalboal, they also offer the Visayan Dive Safari where you can go diving in Sumilon Island in the southeastern tip of Cebu and Apo Island in Dumaguete City.
Certifying Agency: PADI
Address: Malapascua Island, Cebu
Evolution Dive Center is a PADI 5-star Dive Resort in Malapascua Island and is the official dive shop provider of Evolution Diving Resort. While they can cater to non-divers where you can take their open water certification course and for divers wishing to continue their diver education program where you can enrol in the advanced certification up to divemaster level, Evolution Dive Center specializes in technical diving where they are famous for their trimix and CCR rebreather diving.
FREEDIVING IN CEBU
Freediving is fast becoming a popular sport in Cebu where freediving shops and schools are already open in Mactan Island and Moalboal.
Located 25 minutes by taxi from Mactan-Cebu International Airport is Freedive HQ. Set on an overlooking limestone cliff, you will have an instant access to deepwater where you can choose to freedive from 10 m (30 ft) all the way down to 100 m (330 ft) in clear, tropical waters. You can even get certified as a Level 1 Freediver, Level 2 Advanced Freediver and Level 3 Master Freediver under a RAID or SSI certification course. Moalboal has its fair share of freediving, where two establishments offers AIDA training courses: Freediving Philippines and Savedra Dive Center.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
At the end of the day and just in case you want more amazing dive adventures, you have to remember that Cebu is a tourist hub. It has all the infrastructure to take you to nearby diving destinations such as the hammerhead territory of Cabilao Island and the black coral laden reefs of Balicasag in Bohol or the humongous school of jacks in Apo Island in Dumaguete. Just in case you want to bring back some goodies (we call it “pasalubong”) to your friends and family back home, we highly suggest you pick the sugar-coated otap and the sweet dried mangoes. Or if your friend is in to music, Cebu guitars are one of the best in the world.
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