Travelers are chiefly drawn to El Nido – a five-hour drive north of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan – to explore the dramatic seascape of Bacuit Bay, comprised of 45 islands and islets. The scenic beach town is the jumping off point for island-hopping boat tours that take tourists around the bay, visiting lagoons, hidden beaches and snorkeling sites. The breathtaking beauty of Bacuit Bay, however, extends far beneath its crystalline shallows.
Declared a marine reserve since 1991, Bacuit Bay also harbors outstanding dive sites for scuba divers of all levels. The bay is now part of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, which covers over 36,000 hectares of land and 54,000 hectares of marine waters. Guarded by towering limestone islands, the protected waters have calm conditions, great visibility, and light currents, making it suitable for first-timers and novice divers.
Established in 2002, Palawan Divers is the one of the pioneering dive centers in town. The five-star PADI facility offers various courses for those who want to be certified and fun guided dives for licensed divers. First-timers who wish to try scuba diving can avail of Discover Scuba Diving (DSD), a single-day program for adults and children (at least 10 years old), where scuba diving basics are introduced before going on supervised shallow dives.
All established dive sites in El Nido town are located offshore, so divers typically head out on a day trip to visit them. Unfortunately, there are no interesting shore-entry dives in the locality. After gearing up and huddling together for a quick brief, we took a short walk from the dive center to El Nido Beach, where we boarded the Palawan Divers’ dive boat Irawadi that would take us to the three dive sites we’d be exploring for the day. Our dive group for the day comprised of experienced divers, first-timers taking DSD, and students finishing their courses.
Passing by imposing limestone cliffs of El Nido town and Cadlao Island, we reached our first dive site in less than half an hour. It was sunny day, and the shallows around Entalula Island was illuminated in vibrant hues of turquoise and aquamarine. With our boat docked next to the rugged shoreline, we back-rolled into the inviting waters. As expected, I had trouble equalizing my right ear on my first dive, especially since I haven’t dived for a long period of time. My previous dives was almost a year before with Kuya Jom’s Crib in Catmon, a new dive destination in Cebu. In spite of my excitement, I had to remind myself to descend slowly to the sea floor, where I spotted my first critter: a venomous devil scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) perfectly disguised as an algae-covered rock.
Our group finned over to the coral drop-off, where we descended along a wall decorated with whip coral. At around 13 meters deep, our dive guide Ryan motioned us to approach a small ledge, where he set down his torch which lit up a reddish critter wedged within the wall. It was a pair of electric clams (Ctenoides ales)! This bivalve gets its name from the highly reflective tissues that look like electrical sparks when illuminated. This was the highlight of our first dive. We returned to the topside of the reef, where I came across a day octopus (Octopus cyanea) hiding between corals before our safety stop.
Our outrigger boat headed over to Miniloc Island for our next dive. Located between the islands of Miniloc and Shimizu, South Miniloc is the most popular dive site in Bacuit Bay. We descended onto the topside reef teeming with damselfish and other small reef fish. This was a busier reef compared to the previous one. Minutes into the dive, our dive guide points out a ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita) peeking out from beneath its coral home. Swimming farther out, we reach the main attraction of the dive site: a patch of large cabbage corals inhabited by a swirling school of yellow snapper (Lutjanus lutjanus). While still a sight to behold, the schools have significantly reduced in numbers in recent years (probably due to overfishing during the pandemic lockdown).
Another wonder hovered above us. A starry pufferfish (Arothron stellatus) reaching almost a meter in length was cruising above the snappers. It seemed to be accustomed to divers since it didn’t easily scare away when I approached to photograph it. It was a largest pufferfish I’ve ever seen! I now understand why South Miniloc is a favorite among divers. Surprises big and small await at every corner. Before our dive ended, Ryan spotted a pair of ornate ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) cleverly camouflaged between the tendrils of a yellow feather star.
After our second dive, we spent our surface interval enjoying lunch onboard the boat before continuing to our third island for the day. As soon as we anchored along the western end of Helicopter Island, we immediately spotted what draws divers here. A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) surfaced behind our boat for a breath of air. The island is the best spot to encounter these marine reptiles. After plunging into the water, we immediately found three sea turtles feeding on paddle weed on the sandy bottom. They were comfortable with our presence, and we could observe them very closely. We could practically lay right down next to them, watching them munch on seaweed. This was my closest encounter with green sea turtles since snorkeling with them years ago in Apo Island, Negros Oriental.
After hanging out with the turtles for nearly 15 minutes, we swam further down the sandy slope, eventually reaching a coral reef. Here, we encountered a massive green sea turtle resting between coral heads. Three remoras or suckerfish were attached on top of its shell, which was probably more than 1.5 meters in length. I’ve encountered green sea turtles several times before and this was largest individual I’ve ever seen. Unlike the smaller ones we encountered earlier, this giant was wary of our presence. After a few minutes, the big turtle had enough us and, swimming away, vanished into the deep blue. Exploring the rest of the reef, our dive guide showed me a small porcelain crab (Neopetrolisthes maculatus) tucked in a sea anemone, and a skittish blue-spotted stingray (Neotrygon kuhlii) farther out. We ended our dive by returning to the sandy slope, where we spent more time observing the turtles before surfacing, returning to the boat, and calling it a day of awesome diving!
Guided fun dives are ₱4,300 for two dives and ₱4,800 for three dives, inclusive of full gear rental, guide fees, boat travel, lunch, snacks and drinks. Their Discover Scuba Diving (1 day) is ₱5,400, while a PADI Open Water Diver Course (3 days) is ₱23,500. Visit their website for complete rates.
All visitors to Bacuit Bay, including divers, are required to pay the Eco-Tourism Development Fee (ETDF) of ₱200 per person. This “eco-tax” is valid for 10 days, so keep the receipt for succeeding dive trips or island-hopping tours.
Address: C. Hama St, Barangay Masagana, El Nido, Palawan
Contact Number: +63 9177743211
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/palawandivers