Scuba diving in El Nido, Palawan has long centered only around Bacuit Bay, off the coast of the town center, where divers can encounter sea turtles, giant pufferfish and schools of yellow snapper above a large patch of cabbage coral. More adventurous diving experiences, however, can be had along the less-visited eastern side of El Nido.
Established in 2017, Dive Sibaltan pioneered scuba diving in Imorigue Bay, off the coast of Sibaltan village, 41 km northeast of El Nido town. It is the first and only dive center in eastern El Nido. The biggest attraction here is encountering reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) at a sandy shoal, located roughly 7 km offshore.
They congregate year-round – almost on a daily basis – at a dive site called Saan Ka, where the rays hang out at cleaning stations to have themselves groomed by small fish. Suitable for both beginner and experienced divers, this exceptional spot was discovered by the dive center with the help of local fishermen.
For the past five years, Dive Sibaltan has also been working closely with environmental non-profit LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines) to study the local population. Since monitoring began in 2019, more than 40 individual manta rays have been identified in the area.
Spending the night at the secluded beach villas of Eco Sanctuaries, I departed Nacpan Beach at 6:30 am to drive my rental scooter over to eastern coast via the northern highway, passing by beautiful countryside and lookout points along the way. I arrived at Dive Sibaltan in less than an hour. The final stretch to the dive center involved driving my scooter over the sandy shore of Sibaltan Beach. This coastline was largely undeveloped with only a few low-key beach resorts. The morning sun was rising above the bay, bathing the the beach in glorious sunshine. I instantly fell in love with the serenity of the place.
The dive center is tucked away along the forested coast, comprised of a main concrete building where the reception area is located, an open-air shack where equipment is prepared and cleaned, and three bungalows for overnight guests. Our dive group comprised of four Polish divers, French dive guide Mathieu, and myself. Before setting out on our boat dives, our group underwent a briefing, where we went through the Code of Conduct for Manta Ray Interactions to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for both divers and mantas.
It took us only 15 minutes to reach the manta dive site – a sandy shoal just off the southern end of Binulbulan Island, the northernmost island of Taytay (though most maps show that it is part of Linapacan). Imorigue Bay borders three municipalities – El Nido, Taytay and Linapacan – and the islands off the coast of Sibaltan are shared among them.
Our dive guide and the boatmen scanned the surrounding waters, as the speedboat slowed down over the dive site. Unfortunately, no mantas could be seen. The dive site’s name, Saan Ka, is Filipino for “Where are you?” which perfectly suited the situation. Without the assurance of spotting mantas from the boat, Mathieu offered to take us drift diving elsewhere, and return to the manta site for our second dive. On the other hand, he also told us that it’s still possible to encounter the animals even when they weren’t spotted from above. We decided as a group to try our luck and push through with our dive.
We geared up and back-rolled into the water. The visibility wasn’t top-notch due to the strong tidal currents that stir up the sandy seafloor. We descended to the seafloor, and Mathieu led us to the first of four cleaning stations in the dive site. Cleaning stations are locations where large aquatic animals congregate to be cleaned by smaller creatures. At Saan Ka, the cleaning stations are mounds of hard and soft coral teeming with reef fish in an otherwise desolate seafloor.
We carefully knelt on the bottom next to the coral patch, peering around for something to appear. After waiting for almost 10 minutes, nothing. We swam over to the second cleaning station for another stakeout. Along the way, encounter a green sea turtle feeding on the paddle weed that sparsely carpeted the seafloor. At the second station: still no mantas.
With no sight of a single manta almost halfway through the dive, I resigned to the idea that we won’t be encountering one. I distracted myself by observing smaller creatures living in the sandy bottom like the symbiotic pair of the sailfin blenny and bulldozer shrimp, or the small pufferfishes bobbing over small dunes.
Mathieu beckoned me a posse of glass anemone shrimp. He placed his hand next to their anemone home and the tiny translucent creatures would move over to the back of his hand. I did the same, and found the sensation of tiny pincers nipping at me to be quiet amusing! I’ve seen these creatures many times before but this was my first time to observe this interaction!
Finally, we reached the last two stations, which were next to each other. Two Polish divers already knelt in front of the coral patch, excitedly pointing at a shadowy figure. I could hear their muffled gasps. Oh yes, it was a reef manta! In the turbid water, I could barely see the majestic animal flapping its wings, as it circled over the bommie. Manta rays and other species visit cleaning stations to have parasites and dead skin removed by cleaner wrasse fish. We observed the animal for a few minutes from a considerable distance as to not frighten it away, before moving on to the last cleaning station, which harbored another manta.
The a bigger individual seemed less wary of our presence, circling much closer to us. Then, it flew higher above us, casting its silhouette against the rays of sunlight beaming down from the surface. It was a magical sight. As we ran out of air, we returned to the first cleaning station for our safety stop. As we were about to surface, a third manta – or perhaps one of the two we saw earlier – arrived to bid us farewell. We watched it from above as we delayed our surfacing from the dive.
After an hour-long surface interval, we decided to dive again in the same spot. By around noon time, we descended next to the first cleaning station to find a single manta ray. It was most likely the same one we left behind at the end of our first dive. Unfortunately, the visibility worsened on our second dive, as the current soon became stronger. We could no longer easily keep ourselves in kneeling position, and had to lay down completely on the bottom. After having spend some time observing the main show, we allowed the current to carry us on a mild drift dive across the shoal towards a busy coral reef that was exploding with life.
Recognized as a separate species in 2009, the reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) is smaller than the giant oceanic manta ray (Mobula birostris). They grow to a disc size of up to 5 meters (16 ft) but the average size commonly observed is 3 to 3.5 meters (11 ft). Unlike its ocean-going cousin, it is found primarily in coastal waters within the Indo-Pacific region. Aside from the Philippines, it is regularly sighted in Hawaii, Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, Bali, Komodo, Maldives, Mozambique and Australia.
This was my third time to dive with manta rays, after seeing them on two separate trips to Nusa Penida, Bali in 2013 and 2017. The manta sites there are next to rocky cliffs, so divers often bob around in the push and pull of the ocean surge while waiting for the manta rays to circle by. The Sibaltan dive site, on the hand, was a calmer, more comfortable dive but the sandy environment takes a toll on the visibility, especially when the current picks up.
While manta rays can be frequently seen in a few other places in the country like Manta Bowl (Masbate) and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Palawan), what sets Sibaltan apart is that it’s friendly to beginner divers with its shallow depth and light currents. Our dives at Saan Ka had a maximum depth of only 14 meters – well within the 18-meter limit of an Open Water Diver. Not only are other manta dive sites in the country less accessible, but they also require an Advanced Open Water Certification due to deeper dives and strong currents.
After our two dives, we were ready to celebrate our sightings over lunch. Our speedboat ferried us to an empty beach on the southwestern end of Binulbulan Island, where we had our fill before returning to the mainland.
Dive packages at Dive Sibaltan start at ₱4,000 for two guided fun dives for licensed scuba divers. First-timers who want to try out scuba diving can avail the one-day Discover Scuba Diving program starting at ₱4,800 for two dives. Their Open Water Diver course can get guests certified in a minimum of three days for ₱23,000. The dive center can also arrange private island hopping tours. For the complete list of services, please visit their website.
How to Get There
From Puerto Princesa City: take a shared van (₱700) from San Jose Terminal to Sibaltan via El Nido town, or charter a private van (₱6,000 per way). Travel time is at least six hours.
From El Nido town: take a shared van (₱200) from El Nido Transport Terminal (Corong-Corong) to Sibaltan, or charter a private tricycle (₱1,500) or van (₱2,000). Travel time is around an hour.
However, the cheapest, most practical, and most adventurous way to get around El Nido is to rent your own scooter, which are widely available at the town proper for ₱500 per 24 hours (excluding fuel). I rented my Yamaha scooter with helmet from a sari-sari store across Lime Resort at Corong-Corong. Contact Joel at +63 9282927058.
Address: Sibaltan Beach (between Carmelita’s Homestay and Floresita’s Beach Resort), Barangay Sibaltan, El Nido, Palawan
Contact Numbers: +63 9952723499 or +63 917 5340737