Anilao the birthplace of scuba diving for the Philippines
Just a few hours away from the bustling megacity that is Manila, exists a place that is tranquil, quiet and red hot for divers. Anilao is not only the birthplace of scuba diving for the Philippines but it is also the place where many new divers from Manila finish their checkout dives. The sandy shallow dive sites have spawned thousands of divers over the years, learning their essential skills and how to breathe underwater for the first time. The irony of this is that the same divers then spend the rest of their dive careers travelling outside of the Philippines in search of that one special dive destination.
Anilao is one of those unique places that offer divers a perfect mix of healthy coral reefs teaming with colourful fish, pinnacles, small walls, coral gardens and yes, some of the finest macro diving one could ever hope for. One of the questions I field a lot is what camera gear should I bring, wide-angle or macro, my usual answer is, “Bring it all”. And why not, with direct flights to Manila from almost anywhere on the planet, the generous international luggage weights of most carriers allow for this. When visiting Anilao, there are no more connecting flights to worry about, no ferries, no hassles, no problem.
View of the bays from the razorback ridge called Gulagad Baboy, which translates to Hogs back. This is only a short 3-hour hike or 10-minute drive, depending on your preference.
The name Anilao, comes from a very small township. In the “old days”, Anilao was where people would go to hire a local boat, park their cars and head to their private house or maybe one of the few dive resorts that existed at that time. Eventually, the road further extended and became a national highway which snakes along the ridge-line of the peninsula. The entire area is now known as Anilao which basically covers all of the 45 or-so dive sites within reach of the Balayan Bay, Batangas bay and Maricacaban island.
What makes the Anilao peninsula so unique is a perfect storm of natural elements combined together in great geological proportions. The combination of the nutrient-rich ocean driven currents of the Verde Island Pass which are fed from the Western Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, seasonal wind and ancient volcanic activity. These abstract components come together, fusing something seen in very few places on the planet, and is continuously changing.
Consider the Verde Island Passage as the massive pumping heart of a complex marine bio-system. This massive pumping heart is fed by the arteries of ocean driven waterways. These strong tidal flows pump the blood that exchange’s gasses with the two deep-set bays as if they are massive lungs. Slowly inhaling at every incoming tide bringing in fresh oxygenated water, then exhaling the excess of nutrients back into the main arteries of the pass to be blended back together and circulated once again.
Both of the bays (Balayan and Batangas) being deep-set, create a massive eddy system allowing the different planktonic subjects the opportunity to settle, shelter, feed and gain strength, further populating the reefs. Both of these bays play an important role by providing the needed shelter for larval fish, spawning and other crucial developmental needs of marine life both in and outside of the bays.
Strong trade winds also come into play here blowing from the east for approximately 4 months of the year and then the west for another 4 months pushing the top layers of water against the current, enhancing the already present upwellings. These natural elements work together to mix the nutrients of the colder deeper waters with the warmer surface layers transforming the VIP into a huge blender, distributing eggs, spawn and other free-drifting organisms throughout its path. These combined elements make Anilao rugged during the offseason but helps to keep the reefs healthy and vibrant all throughout the year.
Verde Island Sits at the east end of the pass (Not considered as a part of Anilao) and Sombrero island sits at the west end of the pass. It is here at Sombrero that several current lines converge and where the divided waterways of the VIP once again reunite and combine with the tidal flow of the Balayan Bay, creating some very strong current lines during the full and new moon cycles.
Diving at sombrero will remind you of diving in a magazine cover as so many of them have been shot here. The sunlight penetrating the shallow waters and current swept walls. Schools of small triggerfish moving from one place to the next with some unknown urgency. Small barracuda, big mouth mackerels, colourful Anthias feeding in the current, busy cleaner wrasse, yellow snappers, sea turtles, flamboyant nudibranchs, pulsing xenia coral wow, impossible to explain it all and even harder to photograph.
Beatriz, is another area of the Sombrero island reef complex that is fully exposed to the intersecting currents. The main wall area and fingered canyons can create a swirling vortex style current, caution should be exercised when diving here but it is well worth the effort.
The entire Verde Island Passage is at the centre of the coral triangle and both Beatriz and Sombrero are the perfect place in Anilao to get an example of what this actually looks like. While much of the earths shallow reefs have been affected by global warming and coral bleaching, the cooler waters that wash over the reefs in Anilao have so far protected them.
Kirby’s is an all-time favourite of mine. Its basically two pinnacles, one of which protrudes from the surface. The lower pinnacle is more like an underwater island, sloping away to the depths. The area is covered with bright yellow sea cucumber’s which seem to thrive here and no place else. The current runs along the wall and through the tight space created by the underwater island, the reefs are thriving with every inch of space covered in life.
While the coral gardens are certainly nice to drift through, its the sandy substrate that holds the real secrets of Anilao. These seemingly featureless sloping seabeds nestled between the reef systems, offer some exciting if not legendary critter experiences.
Consider first that this tiny little peninsula is home to more than 1,000 described nudibranch species on its own, and you will begin to get a picture of the interesting fauna that exists here.
What really makes the macro sites such a favourite is the abundance of ornate subjects that are camouflaged so well within their habitat that a guide is nearly mandatory for finding them. Some Nudibranchs appear as nothing more than a wad of white thread all bunched together on the reef, while others are so large that they resemble hard coral. The slug known as the Miamira alleni has become one of the must-see subjects when visiting Anilao.
At a glance, the hairy frogfish seems as innocuous as a ball of algae. Nevertheless, their appearance allows them to ambush their prey by remaining perfectly motionless. Once a victim enters into the strike zone, the hairy frogfish deploys its oversized lure. The movement excites the fish with the promise of a quick meal and as it moves in for the kill, the hairy frogfish inhales the fish using a quick gape strike. The mouth of the frogfish is so large and opens so quickly that it creates a vacuum of water, pulling in its victim entirely, before they are even aware of being in danger.
Its subjects like the hairy frogfish that are so difficult to find that have made the dive guide’s services such a necessity in Anilao. Over the years Anilao has developed it’s own society of “Macro Spotters” to ensure that quality guides are well trained in the art of critter hunting. The guides assist divers and photographers to locate and observe the subjects that they want to see or photograph. The best dive guides in Anilao are all local’s, born and bred and no one knows these dive sites better then they do.
If the critters on the substrate aren’t enough for you then stay up late and try a little of the local nightlife, blackwater diving.
Recently, blackwater diving has become yet another layer added to the diving element in Anilao offering photographers the ultimate in photo-ops. Imagine drifting in the night sea, using a downline of lights to attract some of the oceans most guarded secrets. Planktons and their predators, larval fish and settling subjects that use these two bays as a nursery. If the coral gardens, and much diving aren’t quite enough then the blackwater dives will certainly send you into overload. get up early, stay up late, dive, eat, sleep, repeat.
Timing is everything for Anilao and the best diving can be seasonal. Plan to visit from Mid-September through Mid-June for the best topside conditions. The water is the coolest (22º) in February while May is considered the high season also offering the warmest waters (29º). Resorts can be hard to book last minute so plan your trips accordingly and don’t forget, when you are trying to decide which camera gear to pack, bring it all!
Crystal Blue Resort is located at the heart of Anilao, Philippines overlooking the picturesque Balayan Bay. A comfortably appointed resort dedicated to divers and underwater photography.
Enjoy our chef prepared meals, private dive boats, professional guides and the warm family atmosphere that makes our resort so special.
- 16 impeccably clean AC rooms
- Dedicated camera room
- House reef
- Nitrox included in all dive packages
- Blackwater diving center
- Private airport pick ups and transfers
- Free WiFi
- Maximum 4 divers per boat
- Professional Photo Instruction | Workshops
Article written by Mike Bartick
Photo Credit: Mike Bartick