A small town called Moalboal in the south of Cebu, secretly keeps its beauty tucked beneath – in the ocean. Don’t be fooled by its rocky shoreline, for what you will see and experience underwater will blow your mind! Moalboal attracts scuba divers, underwater photographers and freedivers for one simple reason – the easy access to excellent coral reef for diving right from the shore. The big attraction and star here are the huge sardines shoals, gathering right at Panagsama beach, where the main stretch of dive shops, resorts, restaurants and bars are. You don’t need to travel all the way to South Africa to see the annual sardine run in cold freezing water, because the sardines are here in the warm tropical waters of Moalboal, Philippines! Just come see for yourself!
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 29-30deg Celsius and visibility is at least 20m to 30m.
Enjoy sunset from Panagsama Beach
Places to stay in Moalboal:
Panagsama Beach is where the main stretch of tourist amenities are and the more affordable accommodation options are here as well. As the area of Panagsama beach is quite small, you do not need to worry about getting around, walking is the easiest! You will find your way around easily in less than a day.
- Moalboal Backpacker Lodge is the easiest and most affordable option for lone travellers and backpackers who are on a budget. Dorms and private rooms available from 275 pesos.
- Pacita’s Cottages is situated right in the middle of Panagsama Beach, with large rooms both fan (800pesos) and aircon rooms available in a pretty garden setting and a beachfront area to laze around and watch sunset.
- Ivonne’s Beach Apartelle is situated in the south and has both fan and aircon rooms with hot water and wifi. From 700 pesos.
- Other accommodation options are around 1500 pesos to 1800 pesos for a comfortable air-conditioned room with hot water. Tipolo Resort, Marina Village Beach Resort, Maya’s Native Garden are some good choices.
For those looking for white sandy beaches, head up north about 7km from Panagsama beach to the beautiful White Beach.
Sandy shores of White Beach
Here the accommodation options are limited to the more high-end resorts. The most affordable way is to camp at Bigsand Resorts and Campground. For just 200 pesos you get a small tent enough to fit 2-3 people or bring your own tent and just pay for a minimal ground rental fee to use the camp facilities. You can expect to enjoy the serenity and tranquility here, and still have access to the reef wall just off White Beach. Most resorts have their own in-house dive centers that can arrange scuba diving for you. Or just simply swim out with your mask, fins and snorkel to enjoy the corals and marine life.
Things to do in Moalboal:
Moalboal is an underwater paradise. The coral reef of stretches just 20-30m out from shore and then drops off spectacularly to over 30 – 70m deep. This creates excellent wall diving with colourful hard and soft coral, amazing gorgornian sea fans and barrel sponges. Turtles are commonly seen swimming close to the wall, and let’s not forget the sardines! The sardines can be found just off the shore near Chilli Bar, a popular bar with pool tables and a great place to have a drink during sunset. You often see dive boats and small local wooden bancas or fishing boats at the waters edge there. The shoal of sardines will amaze you!
Sardines shoal just off Panagsama Beach
- SCUBA DIVING: Scuba diving is definitely the best way to explore the underwater world here in Moalboal. With numerous dive shops dotting the shore, it is recommended that you take a walk and pop in to find a dive center suitable for you. Most of the diving here are wall dives. Mild current and excellent visibility in the waters of Moalboal make it also an ideal place to take a scuba diving certification course for those who have yet to venture underwater. Pescador Island is a famous dive site just 15 minutes away by boat and is a popular dive site not to be missed! If you are lucky, you just might spot some thresher sharks hunting the sardines! For some dive center options, Cebu Dive Center is situated close to the sardines shoals and have affordable rates for fun dives. Savedra Dive Center is one of the busier operators, while Blue Abyss Dive Center provides an excellent dive resort facility with rooms and restaurant and a great staff.
View photos of the sardines in the Philippines on the photographers and authors website here.
Dive boat heading to Pescador Island
- FREEDIVING: For those looking to ditch the scuba tanks, Freediving is an extreme sport that has caught on here in Moalboal due to the easy access to depths from shore. Experience the freedom of breath-hold diving or apnea, diving down into the deep ocean in a single breath. Moalboal has become a popular location for both experienced freedivers and beginners who wish to learn the techniques of this sport. AIDA freediving certification courses can be arranged at Freediving Planet, a freediving school situated just opposite Moalboal Backpacker Lodge. The best way to enjoy swimming with the sardines is by freediving. Watching the schools of sardines separate and then disperse and gather again to form different shapes and forms white freediving can be the most incredible experience of a lifetime.
- BEACH BUMMING: Beach bums, don’t be put off by the rocky shoreline of Panagsama Beach. Take a tuktuk or rent a motorbike to head up north just 7km away to White Beach. Here you can lay on the nice powdery sand and relax the day away from the tourist crowds. On weekends though, White Beach can be crowded with the locals and families from Cebu city. Don’t forget to bring your mask, snorkel and fins because the coral reef off White Beach is simply amazing. If you are likely you just might see a whale shark white snorkeling!
Amazing underwater paradise – the reef drop off just meters from shore.
- WATERFALLS: A little distance south of Moalboal, towards the village of Badian, is the refreshing Kawasan Waterfalls. This makes a splendid day trip especially by motorbike from Panagsama. Entry is only 10pesos though there might be many local guides who will offer to take you upstream for a tour of the falls for a different price should you choose to follow them. Take a refreshing dip here!
- WHALE SHARKS IN OSLOB: It is easy to get lost here in Moalboal exploring the underwater world. However if you want to head somewhere else, you can take a day trip (1.5 hours) to Oslob to see the whale sharks. Here you get an up-close and personal encounter with the gentle giant, the largest fish in the world, the whale shark. This whale shark experience encounter is made possible because the locals feed the whale sharks uyap (shrimp). Whether this feeding practice is beneficial for the whale sharks remains a controversial topic, but one thing is for sure, tourism is exploding in Oslob due to the whale sharks. Entry fee for a 30-minute snorkeling session with the whale shark is 1,000 pesos for foreigners from 6am to 12 noon only.
Getting to Moalboal?
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 for those 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 (120pesos). Drop off in Moalboal town where you can find the pharmacy and ATM, and take a 15min ride on a tuktuk or motorbike to Panagsama Beach.
Where to go next?
From Moalboal, most tourists head back to Cebu city to catch a boat to Bohol or head north to Malapascua for more scuba diving, or head south from Moalboal to Dumagete.
Author Bio: Anqi Lim is an avid traveller, freelance scuba diving instructor, freediver, photographer and videographer. Born in the city of Singapore, she has explored much of Southeast Asia, and has also been based and living in Bangkok, Philippines and Indonesia. Her passion for the underwater world has kept her travelling not just within Asia but also to the Caribbean waters of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. Now she is enjoying being based back in the warm tropical waters of Asia. You can find some of her work on her website QI Studios.
All photos in this article and on the QI Studios website are copyrighted to Anqi Lim.