With a world-class international airport, the accessible island province of Cebu in central Philippines has been drawing scuba divers from all over the world since the 1970s. It is one of the first scuba diving destinations in the country. Popular areas to dive are Mactan Island in Metro Cebu (close to the international airport), Moalboal in the south for sardines and coral walls, and Malapascua in the north for thresher sharks. But if you’re looking for a beautiful yet uncrowded place to dive look no farther than Camotes, a group of islands reached by two-hour roro ferry from Danao City, 34 km north of Cebu City (See “How to Get There” section below for details). Camotes has coral-rich walls and sea mounts, muck sites for macro photography, and even advanced wrecks for technical divers.
In between dive excursions, one can enjoy the diverse tourist attractions on Camotes like white-sand beaches, cave pools, waterfalls, Spanish-era churches, and cliff-jumping resorts. Located between Cebu and Leyte, Camotes is comprised of three main islands: Pacijan (Municipality of San Francisco), Poro (divided into the municipalities of Poro and Tudela), and Ponson (Municipality of Pilar). One can drive between the first two islands because they are connected by a mangrove-lined causeway.
Earlier this month, I revisited Camotes Islands and went scuba diving for two days with Camotes Fun Divers, the oldest existing dive shop on the islands, to discover the best dive sites in the area. They have an information kiosk right along Santiago Beach – where most of the accommodations are clustered – at Pito’s Sutokil & Bamboo Rock Resort, while their equipment room is located at Camotes Backpackers Hostel, 700 meters away from the beach. A majority of the 21 dive sites of Camotes are located in San Francisco, off the southern coast of Pacijan Island, and around Tulang Island in the north. Most of them are boat dives from Santiago Beach.
Wall Diving at Tulang Island
On the first day, I joined a French and a Dutch diver for a day trip to Tulang Island off the northern coast of San Francisco. The small island is better known for Tulang Diot Beach, but also has coral walls along its northwestern side. From Santiago Beach, where Camotes Fun Divers is based, it takes around 90 minutes travel time to get to Tulang Island. We left at around 8:30 am and arrived at our first dive site, Parola Point, at 10 pm. Along the way, we had nice views of the limestone cliffs and pockets of white-sand beaches along the western coast of Pacijan Island.
We geared up and barrel-rolled off the boat, plunging above the drop-off. I was the last one in the group since my right ear wasn’t equalizing and I needed to descend slower than the others – a typical occurrence for me on my first dives. We finned along the coral wall to right side, descending to a maximum depth of 22 meters. I was impressed by the coral growth on the vertical wall. It reminded me of Pescador Island in Moalboal, but with larger corals and sponges. Along the way, we swam next to large sea fans, tube sponges, and barrel sponges. Damselfish and anthias populated the drop-off, congregating around hard branching corals and featherstars.
Halfway through the dive, we stopped by an opening along the wall, and gingerly swam through a U-shaped swim-through cave. Towards the end of the dive, as my dive guide and I, neared the topside, we swam through a beautiful colony of sea fans, before encountering a large but shy green sea turtle that swiftly swam away upon noticing our approach for the safety stop.
After our dive at Parola Point, we spent our hour-long surface interval at Tulang Diot Beach where we bought some cheap lunch by the beach. We returned to the western wall for our second dive at Cloud 8 Reef, which had several remarkable colonies of bush-like black corals. It was my first time to see a lot of these rare and endangered corals on a single dive! The other divers spotted another green sea turtle, but I missed it. I was too busy ogling at the beautiful wall and spotting nudibranchs like Goniobranchus kuniei and a banded sea krait searching for food.
Tulang Island is also the site of an advanced wreck for technical divers. On December 15, 1990, M/V Boholana Princess, a ro-ro ferry traveling from Cebu to Ormoc, collided with the island and sank. Fortunately, no casualties were reported. The wreck rests almost upside down at the bottom of the western wall at the depth of 55 to 72 meters, and can only be explored by specially trained scuba divers.
Night Muck Diving at Seahorse Point
After letting a late afternoon shower pass, I returned to the boat with the crew for a night dive off the western coast of Pacijan Island. We traveled for around 15 minutes to Seahorse Point, near Hemi’s Slope, where we descended to a sandy bottom at 12 meters. We were muck diving at night! A favorite of macro photographers, muck diving involves scouring sandy or silty environments in search of obscure yet fascinating critters. The dark seafloor, lit only by our torches and my video light, was strewn with an army of longspine heart urchins (Maretia planulata), whose oval-shaped, bone-white shells we often see on the beach.
Denver, my guide, was quick to spot animals hiding in the sand such as crustaceans – glass anemone shrimps, box crabs, blue swimming crabs – and bottom-dwelling fish like longsnout flatheads (Thysanophrys chiltonae) with their eyes poking out of the sand. He also spotted my first-ever hummingbird bobtail squid (Euprymna berryi)! It was tiny, and was quick to bury itself in the sand, so I wasn’t able to take a crisp shot of this lifer. Nonetheless, I was extremely delighted by the encounter. I was also able to spot a little dragonfish (Eurypegasus draconis) on my own, scurrying above the sand with its lavender pectoral fins on display. Finally, we came across a harlequin anemone crab (Lissocarcinus orbicularis) tucked next to an anemone, clutching its purse of eggs, and a spiny devilfish (Inimicus didactylus) with venomous spines, employing the lower rays of their pectoral fins as legs to crawl across the seafloor.
Coral Gardens of Southern Pacijan
In contrast to the beautiful weather we had the previous day, the following morning was overcast and rainy. Despite the gloomy weather, we pushed through with our scheduled dives along the southern coast of Pacijan Island, close to Santiago Beach. The first dive was at Hanazono Wall, named after the Japanese word for “flower garden”. The rising tide and northeast monsoon winds made the sea conditions a bit choppy, but we were greeted with calm waters with little to no current as soon as slowly descended to the bottom.
We eventually reached the top of the wall at 27.2 meters – so deep! – where we spotted a school of trevally, and decided to stay on the topside where the visibility was better. Due to the depth and the rainy weather, the coral wall was dark and turbid. On the topside reef, we spotted not-so-common flatworms in various colors: Pseudoceros laingensis, Pseudoceros lindae, and Pseudoceros liparus. Usually mistaken for nudibranchs, which are mollusks without shells, marine flatworms are, well, flatter and move faster than sea slugs. The dive guide coaxed out a large peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) from under a coral bommie. It was a beautiful fully grown specimen but I kept my camera at a distance as this crustacean can deliver powerful, lighting-fast punches!
The second morning dive was just further east from Hanazono Wall at coral-laden seamount called Cherry’s Rock. Mark, my dive guide, and I spent the surface interval on the boat. The surface condition was calmer as we started our second dive, where we descended to around 18 meters. Upon reaching the bottom, I spotted a well-camouflaged bivalve called a flag-pen shell (Atrina vexillum). Mark identified commonly seen species of nudibranchs like Chromodoris willani and Chromodoris annae. My favorite part of the dive was swimming across a massive colony of finger coral, which formed a small hill.
For fun dives, a single boat dive with rental equipment to dive sites near Santiago Bay or Himensulan is ₱2,900, while a single shore dive at Tulang Island, inclusive of boat transfer from Santiago Beach is ₱2,900. For non-divers, a Try Dive experience (pool or from Santiago Beach) is ₱2,550. Their PADI Open Water Diver Course (3-4 days) is ₱22,500. See below for complete price list of scuba diving services at Camotes Fun Divers.
Address: Santiago Beach, San Francisco, Camotes Islands, Cebu, Philippines
Contact Number: +63 9164518574
How to Get There
Camotes Islands is a two-hour roro ferry from Danao City, north of Metro Cebu. Take a northbound bus (₱50, non-aircon) from SM City North Bus Terminal and alight at Sands Gateway Mall in Danao City, where the ticket counter and waiting lounge of Jomalia Shipping is located. The ferry line travels between Danao City and Consuelo Port (San Francisco, Pacijan Island) . From Consuelo Port, it’s a 30-minute ride by habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) or tricycle to Santiago Beach.
A practical and cost-efficient way to get around Camotes Islands is to rent a scooter. Camotes Island Scooter Rental (Tel. +63 938 649 6913 )offers rental scooters with bike helmets for only ₱400 per day, exclusive of fuel consumption. For guided tours by motorcycle, tricycle or multicab, contact Camotes Island Tour Guide by Lance.