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Guide to diving in Moalboal, Philippines
Diving in Sardines

Anqi Lim

Would you like to dive with millions of Sardines?

See them swirling around in a huge Bait Ball!

Most divers know about the famous sardine run in South Africa. This is where, during a limited time period usually in June and July, the sardines migrate through this area, creating a once in a lifetime experience diving with them.

What most people are not aware of is that they do not need swim in cold water with dry suits in South Africa just to search for the sardines. Because this sardine phenomenon is almost guaranteed in the warm tropical waters of the Philippines.

And the best thing is that you do not need a boat to reach the huge schools of sardines. Simply swim out or walk out during low tide and you will find them just right off the beach in the small town of Moalboal, Cebu, in the Philippines.

Moalboal, a scuba diver’s paradise

Moalboal is a scuba diving mecca that still retains its laid-back charm. Tourism development has remained slow and steady, with most of the tourist amenities like dive centers, resorts, restaurants and bars found on Panagsama beach. At first glance, Panagsama beach seems like a small stretch without much of a beach, only a rocky shoreline, but that’s because the beauty lies beneath – in the ocean.

Before shore diving in Philippines

The beauty lies beneath here at Moalboal – Photo: Anqi Lim

During my visit in August 2014, it is here where the sardines congregate, forming huge schools right at the reef drop-off on Panagsama beach. Just 20-30m from shore, the reef drops sharply down to over 30m to as deep as 70-80m. Shore diving is easy here, with numerous dive centers dotting the coastline, enjoying the easy access and convenience to wall diving at their doorstep.

Read: 36 Reasons to Go Diving in The Philippines

The sardines are the main attraction here. Watching the huge clouds of sardines creating different shapes and forms with the spectacular reef wall as the backdrop, is a definite must-do for underwater photographers and scuba divers. Accompanying the sardines are sometimes thresher sharks hunting if you are lucky!

Free diving into a sardine ball

Diving into a Sardine Ball – Photo: Paul Cowell

Freediving with Sardines

The sardines experience is best enjoyed not just by scuba divers, but freedivers as well.  We entered the water only with masks, snorkels and long fins to experience the magic of the sardines by freediving.

Swimming out from shore, first we were met with healthy coral life with colorful soft and hard coral and tropical reef fish like the anemone fish, damsel fish and fairy basslets, then approaching the drop-off, clear blue waters with amazing visibility and the spectacular drop off.

The highlight was penetrating the huge sardines shoal while freediving, diving right into the school of sardines and watching them disperse and then congregate. This is nature at its best.

Scuba diving with sardines in Philippines

Diving on the Reef with Millions of Sardines – Photo: Paul Cowell

Are the sardines always in Moalboal?

It’s a mystery why the sardines stay in Moalboal. Unlike the sardine run in South Africa where the sardines follow a migratory path, the sardines in Moalboal used to be in Pescador Island, a small island just 15 minutes boat ride from Panagsama beach. Now they gather at the beach of Panagsama, making it a great shore dive.

However this is still under the order of nature, as the sardines have taken short breaks in the past, intermittently disappearing from the shores of Moalboal occasionally.

The local community welcomes the sardines. The local fishermen row out from shore with their small wooden bancas (boats) and fish for sardines with their hook and line, just enough to feed the family and sell in the market and restaurants.

No net fishing is allowed here.

In this way, the community and environment live in harmony as the locals recognize what a huge draw the sardines are for tourism.

Diving inside a bait ball

Diving inside the Sardine Ball – Photo: Anqi Lim

Dive sites and marine life

Besides the sardines, Moalboal has over 12-15 dive sites (mostly wall dives) and marine sanctuaries to keep underwater lovers busy, including the famous Pescador Island and other dive sites in front of White Beach and in the south in Tongo bay.

There is also an airplane wreck in the north of White Beach at around 22 meters.

Other marine life include friendly turtles which are always a common attraction, and the weird and wonderful such as frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, pygmy seahorse, electric clam and you can also see mandarin fish during sunset dives.

Diving in front of Huge Sardine Bait ball.

Diving Besides Huge Bait Ball of Sardines – Photo: Paul Cowell

How to get to Moalboal, Philippines

The best way to get to Moalboal is to first fly into Cebu city. Cebu is served by a international airport, the Mactan-Cebu International airport.

Alternatively, fly into Manila international airport and from there, many domestic airlines connect Manila to Cebu. From Cebu, it is an easy 2.5 hour drive to Panagsama beach, Moalboal.

A private car transfer can be arranged usually with the resorts in Moalboal.

Or if you are looking for a more budget option and don’t mind a slower ride, take the yellow Ceres bus liner from the south bus terminal in Cebu city for just a fraction of the cost.  To get around Moalboal, there are motorbikes for rent or many tricycles (habal-habal) to get you to the main town where the pharmacy and ATM are, or to visit the nice sandy beaches of White Beach where the more expensive and exclusive resorts are located.

Underwater photographer in Sardine Ball

Taking pictures of Sardine Bait Ball – Photo: Anqi Lim

When to dive and diving conditions in Moalboal

Moalboal can be visited year round. The best time is between the months from November to April, which is the high season. May to October is the low season or the rainy and typhoon season, although compared to most parts of the Philippines, Moalboal is sheltered and does not have much of a wet season except for passing typhoons or the occasional low pressure systems that can cause more rain.

Most of the time it is nice and sunny, and diving conditions are ideal year round.

Water temperature is usually high around 29-30° Celsius and visibility is at least 20 to 30 meters.

Have you tried diving with the Sardines in Moalboal? Share your experience in the comments below!