As divers, we’re often compelled to push further into the most remote regions in search of the next hot destination. But, sometimes, it pays to stick a little closer to home.
Anilao is the birthplace of scuba diving within the Philippines, and still the country’s most accessible dive destination, offering something for every diver and a barrage of bucket-list marine life.
Just three hours south of Manila – traffic dependent of course – Anilao is, without doubt, one of the most accessible diving destinations in the entire country. And, with such a convenient location, it’s hardly a surprise that this small peninsula was the birthplace of scuba diving in the Philippines, and the site of the country’s very first dive centre in 1966. Some 50 years later, the industry’s respect and admiration for Anilao’s underwater world has endured, if not grown. The spot remains a staple among Manila-based divers and has built itself a strong reputation as a rival for many of the world’s most iconic dive destinations.
What makes diving in Anilao popular?
But, Anilao’s popularity is not just a case of convenience. This destination is accessible in other ways, offering plenty to divers of every experience level – including beginners. As a result, the dive centres and underwater guides can cater to every need, whether you’re a beginner, tech diver, underwater photographer, or marine scientist. In fact, with such well-established dive tourism, and shallow, gentle slopes full of life, many travellers consider Anilao to be the ideal place to complete a Discover Scuba Diving or Open Water Diver certification. These same calm conditions, abundant marine life, and experienced dive shops also make it a perfect place to hone your photography skills, and the town now hosts a variety of international diving events, competitions, and workshops.
Thankfully, and despite its obvious popularity, Anilao’s underwater world continues to thrive, helped by a network of protected marine areas dotted throughout the Verde Island Passage. Visitors will find around 50 dive sites waiting to be explored, most lying less than 30-minutes from shore, and all packed with an array of interesting marine life. Divers can find blue-ringed octopuses, along with both mimic and wonderpus octopuses, as well as frogfish, Rhinopias, pipefish, turtles, and much, much more.
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Why Anilao’s diving is so diverse
Anilao lies on a small peninsula between Balayan Bay and Batangas Bay, in the centre of the Verde Island Passage – one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Large bodies of water are squeezed and filtered through this channel every day, creating currents and tidal flows that swirl along the shoreline and sweep back and forth between islands. On their journey, these rich waters deposit larvae and nutrients from elsewhere, helping to establish and nurture vibrant pockets of life. Sheltered areas, such as the bays on either side of Anilao, are particularly fertile spots, creating eddies within the currents and capturing plenty of food and larvae as it passes. As a result, almost all of the most sought-after juvenile fish and critters can be found here, helping Anilao tussle with other destinations such as Lembeh and Mabul to be crowned as the top muck diving destinations in Southeast Asia, if not the world.
While Anilao is undeniably most famous for its muck and macro experiences, that is far from the end of the story. The topography and substrate here is as varied as it gets, with brown, black and red sandy bottoms standing in stark contrast with rocky reefs, impressive drop-offs, and current-swept peaks and pinnacles. Vibrant, multicoloured crinoids are everywhere, and between 20 and 40-metres deep, Anilao also offers some unique soft coral forests, where patient divers can find rare critters such as seahorses and Rhinopias. And, don’t forget to peel your eyes from the reef once in a while, as impressive species such as barracuda and trevally can be seen hunting in the deeper sites, while turtles cruise back and forth, and reef sharks skulk past in the distance.
Nudibranch capital of the Philippines
You might wonder why on earth anywhere would willingly be known as the slug capital of the Philippines, but Anilao’s nudibranchs are not your average slugs. These incredible shell-less mollusks come in a seemingly infinite spectrum of vibrant colours, bizarre shapes, and surprising sizes – with the smallest species measuring just 4mm, and the largest reaching lengths of more than half a metre. The mesmerising, abstract beauty of these creatures, and the challenge of finding them amongst the coral and silt, have made nudibranchs a firm favourite among divers. While the patience and skill required to find these cryptic creatures lends itself to underwater macro photographers and seasoned divers, their unique appearance and electric colouring never fails to impress, regardless of experience.
Incredibly, the humble dive destination of Anilao is home to over 600 individual nudibranch species – meaning you’re all but guaranteed to see something new. In fact, with a little concentration, you’re likely to find many stunning species in a single dive. Many sought-after specimens are found in Anilao, including Costasiella sp.3 (Shaun the Sheep), Thecacera sp.2 (Pikachu), and the ‘holy grail of nudibranchs’, the Melibe colemani (Ghost Melibe), to name just a few. Of course, Anilao’s local dive guides are the resident experts when it comes to spotting these well-camouflaged critters, with many seeming to possess an almost innate ability to hone in on specific subjects.
Night diving in Anilao
The highlight of each diving day in Anilao often occurs once the day is almost done, with a kaleidoscope of critters appearing once the sun has set. Snake and catfish eels, goblinfish, sea hares, ghost pipefish, blue-ringed octopuses, and mandarinfish can all reveal themselves unexpectedly within the inquisitive beam of your torch, dancing amongst sea pens, sea squirts, and beautiful soft corals.
Anilao’s unbeatable blackwater diving
Blackwater diving is the inevitable progression for seasoned divers looking to take their passion for macro to the next level. Once the sun has set, a long, weighted line is dropped from a float into deep water. Lights are strategically-placed along the length of the line, usually around ten-metres apart, attracting a variety of marine life from the surrounding darkness. While you will likely know some of these creatures, chances are you’ve never seen them like this before, because blackwater diving often attracts larval forms of common species! Anilao is one of the few places that offer this kind of experience, and it is best left to experienced divers due to the likelihood of currents and the lack of visual references.
Bonfire diving in Anilao
If floating above hundreds of metres of dark open water isn’t for you, Anilao also offers a more grounded alternative. Bonfire diving involves lights being placed on the sand, at a depth between 10-20-metres, pointing towards the surface. Divers then lie in wait, as larval creatures emerge from the shadows. But remember, where there’s sand, there will be worms!
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As you’d imagine, Anilao Pier is in the town itself, on the northern coast of the peninsula. With an average depth of just five-metres, this is a classic pier dive that normally offers the best experiences at sunset or after dark. The interesting thing about Anilao Pier is that its inhabitants appear to come and go in seasons, so you never really know what you’ll see until you drop beneath the surface. At times, you might encounter different octopus species here, and a week or two later, the dive might be dominated by gurnards, stargazers, and rays. There’s truly no knowing what you’ll find here on any given day, and that’s exactly why divers love it.
Cathedral is an artificial reef, near Bagalangit on the peninsula’s western side, created by transplanting live corals onto two previously barren rocks. The centrepiece is a large cement cross, blessed by Pope John Paul II, and placed between the two rocky outcrops by ex-President General Fidel V Ramos. Cathedral’s artificial reef has been a massive success, and around one quarter of Anilao’s nudibranch species have so far been spotted here. You’ll also find Moorish idols, butterflyfish, clownfish, angelfish, triggerfish, and pufferfish here, along with swirling clouds of surgeonfish and damsels.
Also known as Mainit Muck, this is one of the most renowned muck diving sites in Anilao. Located on the peninsula’s southeast tip, the site features a wide sandy area sloping down to a depth of 40-metres. As you’d expect from a classic muck site, there’s little in the way of scenery, but the diversity of critters that can be found here is nothing short of exceptional. Mantis shrimp, gobies, wonderpus octopus, nudibranchs, seahorses, ghost pipefish, frogfish, and Coleman shrimp are all frequent finds, with squid, cuttlefish, and bobbit worms appearing after dark.
Located near the peninsula’s southern point, Twin Rocks is a popular shore dive, so called for a thriving coral garden and bustling macro ecosystem which has developed around two huge underwater boulders. Photographers will have a field day, with ribbon eels, nudibranchs, clownfish, damsels, found in abundance, as well as mantis shrimps, Coleman shrimps, and porcelain crabs. But there’s plenty of wide angle opportunities too, with some interesting topography, schools of jack, snapper and barracuda, and tons of turtles.
Sombrero Island sits off the northwest tip of Maricaban Island and is a true kaleidoscope of colour beneath the surface. The varied topography includes tumbling piles of boulders, tunnels, and some nice drop-offs reaching depths of around 25-metres. Soft coral can be seen everywhere you look, along with gorgonians, black coral, beautiful staghorn gardens, and decorative yellow crinoids adding to the display. Rainbow runners and amberjacks can sometimes be seen schooling, while colourful clouds of anthias and red fusiliers seem to bloom in every direction.
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