THE LAST TIME I WAS HERE, the roof was ripped right off my head as the most powerful storm ever to make landfall left me (briefly) homeless. And yet, here I was once again, back in the Philippines and ready to embark on a diving road trip.
Why? Because the diving is exceptional and I was keen to get back into the waters of the Coral Triangle, the zone of highest marine biodiversity in the world. The Philippines sit right in the middle of it.
The country, comprising more than 7000 tropical islands, has a royal flush when it comes to diving, with options to cater for every taste. I was with my girlfriend, her dive-crazy dad and her less-dive-crazy mum. Our plan was to do a 10-day trip through the Visayas region, starting out from Cebu City.
Dive-gear packed into the truck, we wasted no time in heading to our first dive-spots.

The small island of Mactan is connected to Cebu City by bridge, and is the closest dive location for those landing in the Philippines’ second city. In fact the airport itself is on Mactan island, so it was the best place for us to make a quick stop and get back into the dive groove.
Scotty’s Dive Centre, based out of the Shangri La hotel, is a diving institution in the Philippines and provided us with top-notch service throughout. We started with a gentle dive on the house reef which, although now protected, does bear the marks of decades of human activity.
Nevertheless, we were now back in the Coral Triangle, where the marine life even on average sites would be the envy of many others. I got excited as I spotted a pipefish, and grunted to our local guide Bernie. He seemed nonplussed, and I soon realised why - the site was littered with network pipefish!
Soon we started bumping into nudibranchs, those gloriously colourful slugs of the underwater world. Then, dancing frenetically with its face down, a juvenile harlequin sweetlips. Bertie remained quiet; he had bigger plans in store.
As we reached 20m on the slope he signalled us over and pointed out two fantastically ugly painted frogfish side by side. For a check-dive, this one was a great start.
At the tail-end of our trip we would return to Scotty’s for three more dives, and be treated to more frogfish sightings. The diving in Mactan is not world-class, but it is good for a quick dive on your way in and out of the island of Cebu.

Our next stop was Moalboal, a municipality that has thrived since embracing diving tourism in the 1970s.
About three hours’drive from Cebu City to the west coast, you can either stay at the busier hub of Panagsama or in nearby Saavedra, which has a nicer waterfront and several resorts that cater for divers.
We preferred the idea of beachy seclusion, so ended up staying at the Blue Orchid Resort. It’s a small place with 20 rooms, a nice pool, a small dive-shop and a boat. It sets a decent standard and is one of many accommodation options in the area.
Blue Orchid’s biggest selling-point is its house reef. At low tide it can be accessed only via a precarious path laid out right through the corals. It’s a tricky shore entry, but once navigated a diver’s paradise lies at your fin-tips.
The reef quickly slopes off from the shallows and is filled with an abundance of healthy soft corals. The type of underwater landscape I have only ever seen in south-east Asia, it fills you with hope for the future of our oceans.
In among this healthy reef you will find an abundance of small critters, as well as bigger marine life.
The luxury of a house reef is that you can dive it pretty much any time, and it was close to sunset that we would have our most memorable dive.
The sky was changing from blues to purples, and I was having a great time looking for anemonefish and their homes. These shy yet aggressive characters never seem to get boring and I was particularly pleased to find three false clownfish (you know, Nemo) with their anemone stylishly balled up.
I was happy, but the dive became unforgettable when we started encountering green turtle after turtle. Best of all, they welcomed our presence and even swam with us awhile as we made our way along the sloping reef.
We were keen to explore some of the most famous dives too, and so boarded a traditional bangka the next day to explore Pescador island and Moalboal’s very own “Sardine Run”.
The current was running as we sank down along a dark, rocky wall. The drift provided an exhilarating ride for a few minutes and then slowed as we rounded a corner, allowing us to explore some of the caverns carved out of the rockface.
In one particular section, three gaps in the wall create an eerie-looking skull, enabling divers to swim in and out of the mouth- and eye-sockets.
It’s the type of dive on which you might hope to see a good few pelagics, but it proved disappointing in terms of numbers of fish sighted.
As we ended the dive in the shallows, the reef around the island was in a bad state, with lots of bleached, dead and broken coral. Pescador is the most dived location in Moalboal, but based on this experience I was less impressed than I had anticipated.
But for the next dive we moored up just off the shore in Moalboal and found something pretty special. Visibility looked iffy as I looked down from the boat, but when we dropped in the greenish colour seemed to split – we had disturbed the huge layer of sardines that swam from just below the surface down to 10m.
Apparently net-fishing of the sardines had been banned and they now thrive at a site that can be shore-dived by scuba- and freedivers alike.
This is a special dive-site, and I’m already yearning to go back.

Dumaguete & Apo
After three days in Moalboal we headed to Dumaguete. The coastal route down through the southern parts of Cebu is a visual feast, so we took our time in reaching Santander, from where we took a ferry across to the island of Negros.
We arrived at Thalatta Resort in time for a hearty dinner cooked up by its Swiss chef. Next day we got through all the practicalities at the excellent in-house dive centre, and headed to Apo island.
Apo has been declared a marine reserve and is one of the most famous dive-spots in the Visayas. There is a small community on the island and a couple of dive shops but it is typically accessed by boat from Negros.
The first dive at Chapel failed to live up to our high expectations. It was adequate, with patches of very healthy corals and sightings of a snowflake moray eel, banded sea krait and a marble complex shrimp, but it lacked the wow factor, and overall just wasn’t very fishy.
Our excellent guide Nadi sensed that we were a little underwhelmed, and for dive two picked the site he considers the best around the island: Coconut.
This was more like it! We dropped into a good-strength drift and within minutes had spotted a day octopus hanging out on the reef. I love octopuses, so we pretty much could have surfaced then and I would have been content, but Coconut had plenty more treats in store.
As we raced along in the current we passed a green turtle, a school of bluefin trevally, a giant trevally, big red snapper and a huge map puffer – all with the backdrop of a beautiful healthy reef. This thrilling dive was one of the highlights of the trip.
Back at the resort a different but no less interesting dive experience awaited us. Just off the shore of the hotel is a black-sand, muck-diving paradise.
Muck-diving, for the uninitiated, can appear dull at first as you stare out at the expanse of sand. As your eyes grow accustomed, however, you start spotting all the weird and wonderful creatures and fish that have adapted to this habitat.
Muck-diving is the ultimate underwater treasure-hunt.
Our first dive to this house reef embraced a who’s who of muck-life – a thorny seahorse, ornate ghost pipefish, Spanish dancer nudibranch, flamboyant cuttlefish and a multitude of frogfish.
I have a major soft spot for muck-diving and would treat myself to four more dives on the house reef the next day!

Our next visit was to the most secluded spot on our road trip. The 30-minute ride to little Cabilao island was made with the bangka belonging to Polaris Dive Resort, which was founded by the Bauman family in 1998 and has been growing little by little ever since.
Many of the guests we met return every year and swear that these are the healthiest reefs they have encountered. I’m not one to limit my diving to a single location but can vouch for the warm welcome, relaxed atmosphere and high-quality diving.
All around Cabilao, the reefs extend out before dropping off steeply as sheer walls. These walls are stuffed with all manner of bright corals, sponges and seafans. Overall, Cabilao’s reefs are in great shape, and as diving is the island’s primary business the resort is taking good care of them. If you’re into wall-diving, you’ll love this location.
What will stick with me particularly are a night dive on the house reef and a site called Cathedral.
Our guide Michael grew up on Cabilao. He greeted us warmly and his friendliness was matched by his passion for diving and the local marine life.
On our initial night-dive Michael provided my first encounter with two incredible marine species. First came the swimming anemone, a tentacled spaceship spinning through the jet-black water as it relocated to a better home. Next was the golden wentletrap, a bright yellow snail less than an inch long that uses its long snout to feed on tube coral.
Best of all, we were treated to the unique spectacle of this underwater alien abseiling its way down the wall using spider-like thread!
Cathedral started out as a regular wall dive, but the highlight came in the shallower second half of the dive, where the sea had carved out an intricate set of wide tunnels.
Small breaks in the rock let through rays of light that bathe the sandy bottom and lead you through the system. In one section, the high ceiling and windows of light created an ethereal scene that resembled an underwater shrine.
It was one last great dive on a trip of many, but unfortunately the time had come to head home. The Visayas region is a kaleidoscope of world-class diving and we had only scratched its surface.
As with most successful blockbusters these days, I’m pretty sure a sequel to our road trip will be coming soon.

GETTING THERE: Cathay Pacific flies from London to Cebu via Hong Kong, or get there via Manila with Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific. Road transfers can be organised by the dive operator or resort.
DIVING: Mactan: Scotty’s Moalboal: Many options depending where you stay. Dumaguete: Negros Divers, www.negros Cabilao: Polaris Beach & Dive Resort,
ACCOMMODATION: Mactan: Options for all budgets. Moalboal: Blue Orchid can be booked via Agoda. Dumaguete: Thalatta Beach & Dive Resort, www.thalatta CABILAO: Polaris Beach & Dive Resort,
WHEN TO GO: Year-round but driest and warmest November to May.
MONEY: Philippines peso.
PRICES: Return flights to Cebu cost just under £700. Customise trip from there.
Visitor Information: