The Philippines offer a wide variety of dive adventures from spectacular coral reefs to highly intriguing macro and muck diving. In Anilao much of the local flavor is a blend of both reef and muck diving providing some of the Indo-Pacific’s finest points for critters. Here’s a sampling to just what I mean.
It took a few minutes for Edgar, my dive guide, to locate our quarry. There it was, sitting right out in the open on the sandy bottom—my first paddle-flap rhinopia (Rhinopias eschmeyeri), and a red one at that!
In the dim ambient light at a depth of 70 feet, I expected the fish’s full-body red coloration would appear green. Instead it had a more purple tint. This fish’s lack of visible spines on the pectoral fins may account for its common name: the paddle-flap scorpionfish. The scientific name, rhinopias, is inspired by the upturned, snout-like mouth. When viewed from the side, the fish’s profile is somewhat reminiscent of a rhinoceros.
Because of their bright coloration, which can range from orange, yellow and pink, to red, purple and blue, paddle-flaps are easier to spot than other scorpionfish. But that doesn’t mean they are easy to find. This is because, like all members the rhinopias family, they are pretty darn rare; a fact that has put them on the A-list for underwater photographers.
Suppressing my excitement, and trying to leave nothing to chance, I set to work shooting my cooperative subject from every angle while at the same time varying the lighting for additional effects. In short order, I banged off more than 150 images. Or was it 200? Then, all too soon, my computer insisted that it was time to go up.
Back on the boat, my host Mike Bartick, from Crystal Blue Resort, grinned at me like a teenager challenging me to a dare. “Well Stearns,” he said, “now that you’ve had your Rhinopias cherry popped, how about we see what you can do with some magnificent shrimp gobies.” For Anilao, this would be the tip of the spear.
I made my first trip to Anilao in 2008, since then I have been back twice more with plans of coming back in 2018. Through it, I had already amassed a huge library of images from hairy frogfish, Ambon scorpionfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, Bobbitt worms to, and oh yeah, even a Ceratosoma alleni nudibranch laying a mass of bright blue eggs.
The Lay of the Land
When I first visited Anilao, I did not know what to expect. My first impression was that the region was surprisingly populated with a large number of small dive resorts mingled between private homes and a small village or two nestled against the backdrop of heavily forested hillsides. Along the shoreline were fleets of bancas–traditional Filipino style fishing boats with outriggers on both sides for stability, which struck me as an odd choice to use for dive boats. However, after the first day out on a banca I realized they are a good platform for this style of diving.
I later learned that the peninsula’s once-quiet fishing villages were discovered by the Philippine’s local diving community in the early 1990s. As the country’s economy thrived, a number of beachfront dive lodges sprang up in response to the growing numbers of divers making the drive from Manila.
Another decade would pass before Western tourists began to take note of what the region had to offer. This change came about when an enterprising local photographer named Scott “Gutsy” Tuason started publishing photos taken in the waters of Anilao. In 1999, a coffee table book co-authored by Gutsy was published, showcasing the amazing creatures he photographed. After that, the word was out, and Anilao went from a local dive spot to an acclaimed international destination.
Geographically, Anilao occupies a large portion of the Calumpan Peninsula, a mere 60 miles down coast from the international airport in Manila, on the Philippines capital island of Luzon. Here, the Peninsula along with its neighbor Maricaban Island, separate Balayan Bay to the north from Batangas Bay to the south. Due to the close proximity to the Verde Island Passage, the region is subjected to tidal forces that push and pull huge quantities of nutrient-rich waters through the Maricaban Straights between these two points of land.
With the exception of Beatrice Rock by Sombrero Island (a site I will get to later) the coral reefs are not particularly pretty here either. This is because what lies below the surface is not reef, but a realm largely comprised of sand and rubble with scattered boulders and heads of coral. Following the same topography of the adjacent shore, bottom contours take a sloping relief down to depths of 80 – 90 feet with some dropping off well past 150 feet.
In terms of water clarity, while I would not equate the vis as ever appearing “crystal blue”, there have been days where I have seen it jump up into the 70-80 foot range, the rest of the time between 30 and 60 feet with a green tint. For underwater photographers this isn’t really an issue, as the focus is more directed on the high diversity of small marine life that thrives here rather than shooting reef panoramas.
The Philippines Critterfest
The main attraction of Anilao is not the reefs; it’s the critters.
Divers and underwater photographers can tally up impressive critter lists on the dive sites around Anilao. Favorites include anemonefish, cuttlefish, blue-ringed, mototi and wonderpuss octopus, pygmy seahorses and ghost pipefish. There are also countless species of wrasses, including flasher wrasses, scorpionfish, frogfish, crabs, shrimp, and of course nudibranchs.
When it comes to invertebrates, Anilao is arguably nudibranch central. To quantify the abundance of these colorful sea slugs, Crystal Blue Resort stages an annual two-week long census event known as Slugfest. In 2016, the event was overseen by one of the most renowned nudibranch researchers in the world, Dave Behrens, and participants documented a total of 591 different species of nudibranchs. Three turned out to be newly-identified species. In his recently published book on Indo-Pacific Nudibranchs and Sea Slugs, Behrens went so far as to label the Verde Island Passage as the “center of marine diversity” in the Coral Triangle.
Ready, Set, Coral, Rubble, Sand and Muck
Anilao has over 55 named dive sites. Travel to these sites depends somewhat on where you are staying. For example, if you are at El Pinoy Resort, the site known as El Pinoy is right out front. And it’s a site known for alleni nudibranchs. One of the specimens I found and photographed here was caught in the process of laying a baby-blue ribbon of eggs on a rock.
Around the corner of Cazador Point, on the Batangas Bay, the dive site Secret Bay further epitomizes what Anilao is all about. Dropping on the expanse of bland-colored sandy bottom, might leaving you wondering what on earth I am doing here? Yes, this is a bona fide muck dive where a sweeping search of the seabed will yield a treasure trove of critters from a funky looking hairy frogfish or an Ambon scorpionfish, coconut octopus and wunderpuss to a wide variety of shrimp gobies and nudibranchs.
For even more muck, there are sites such as Anilao Pier, which unlike Secret Bay is predominantly flat and shallow, with depths between 10 and 20 feet. The bottom here is soft, comprised of sand and silt, and the real magic doesn’t begin till well after sunset. Many savvy divers don’t to start their dive until after 9 pm, when the night crawlers have fully emerged to hunt and forage.
Among the usual suspects found around the pier are the Bobbit worms (Eunice aphroditois), a nightmarish looking creature an inch or so in diameter equipped with scissor like jaws atop a pearly iridescent body. Should an unsuspecting fish meander too close, the worm’s jaws will spring shut in the blink of an eye, cutting their prey nearly in two.
Other fascinating muck denizens include the bottom dwelling bobtail squid, which has a jewel-like green and blue body, and seldom grows bigger than a small grape. Another flamboyant find is the gurnard lionfish, which has to be one the most spectacular-colored member of the Scorpaenidae family.
Not far from Anilao Pier, Matu Point offers a somewhat different topography. Here, a bare rock face rises above the surface and drops to a shallow underwater wall, which transitions to a series of boulders lining the bottom. Although this site is extensively lacking coral or sponge growth, Motu Point can be a highly productive spot to visit. Descending the sloping face of rock, we discovered numerous fire urchins that were home to pairs of Coleman shrimp and zebra crabs.
Some of the more distant sites across the Maricaban Straights such as Red Palm, Bethlehem and Kirby’s require a boat ride of anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. On the Maricaban Island side of the straights, nearly all of the bottom contours are more coralline based with whiter colored sand bottom and lively heads of coral all the way down a sloping profile to depths of 70 to 90 feet.
A boat ride to the outlying islands of Sombrero and Caban presents some of the most spectacular seascapes in the area. During the tide change, strong currents sweep across Beatrice Rock’s submerged reef setting it ablaze with clouds of orange and purple anthias that come out to feed, creating an epic rainbow-like scene against the reef’s bright backdrop. I found that the contrast with the muck dives near the shore couldn’t be more pronounced, emphasizing the appealing diversity in the region’s diving conditions.
For the best diving experience in Anilao, it pays to develop a good rapport with your guides. These folks are not divemasters tasked with leading groups on a holiday tour around the reef. I’m referring to guides with a hunter’s mindset, and a strong desire to seek out the subjects you are most interested in. If your thing is shrimp gobies, get ready, because your guide will do everything within his or her power to engage you with every species of shrimp gobies that can be found—and there are more than 40. If it’s nudibranchs you want to find, look back to the comments about Slugfest.
Bottom line, by working closely with your guide, you are likely to tally up at least a few dozen types of creatures you have never seen before. If anything, you will run out of dive days before you run out of subjects to photograph. Fortunately, bottom time isn’t in short supply, and most area dive operations really understand how to cater to critter hunters and underwater photographers, granting them liberal amounts of time in the water—often 70 minutes plus per dive.
The real limiting factor on most dives is your personal air consumption rate and the realities of no decompression limits. My average bottom time on most sites at Anilao ran from 75 to 87 minutes, with a few that ran a bit beyond 100 minutes. This was possible by using nitrox and starting each dive at the deepest point, then working my way up to the shallows.
With an abundance of world-class critter diving, a huge variety of dive sites suitable for everyone from beginners to advanced divers and photographers, and some stunning seascapes also within range, Anilao truly should be on diver’s A List of destinations. One thing that I am certain of on my next trip to this diving Mecca is that I will almost certainly add even more exotic and colorful critters to my imaging life list.
Because visibility is seldom exceptional, a fisheye like a Tokina 10-17 (for DX crowd) or an 8-15mm (for the FX shooters) would be the best choice. Plus, subjects like painted, warty and giant frogfish (all of which are found there) make for close focus wide shots. Beyond that, it’s predominantly macro all the way. As to how serious you want to get; you could shoot conventional with a 55 or 60mm or go all out with a 105mm paired with something like a Nauticam SMC-1 magnifier.
There are a limited number of sites near Anilao that would justify wide-angle options. One of the most doable, other than Beatrice Rock, is Twin Rocks, where two massive coral-covered boulders rise from 20 feet to nearly touch the surface. The faces of these rocks are carpeted with large and colorful soft corals and bright clumps of crinoids in every hue. Adding to the scene are the fireworks-like splashes created by the swarms of anthias, wrasses and butterflyfish that circle the site.
Marine Protection Not an Easy Task
Overfishing remains a problem in the Philippines, but this island nation is making progress on the conservation front. As far back as 1991, Anilao has made significant moves to protect the area by setting up three Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the stretch of water that separates the mainland from the island of Maricaban. Known as Cathedral Rock, Arthurs Rock and Twin Rocks, all three MPA’s are maintained by committees of local villagers, who are tasked with the governance to ensure no fishing or anchoring takes place in those protected areas.
Tourism now helps support the local economy, and a large number of former fishing boats now carry divers instead. Illegal fishing still randomly takes place, but I give credit where credit is due; there are many caring fast learners in the Philippines. They recognize the benefits that dive tourism can bring, and are working diligently to strike a better balance that favors long-term sustainability rather than short-term gain.
Getting there: Getting to Anilao is perhaps one of the easiest regions in the Philippines get to. The point of International entry is Manila’s International Airport, also known as Ninoy Aquino International Airport (airport code MNL). Depending on your arrival time you can stay overnight at a nearby hotel or immediately take the two-to three-hour road transfer to Anilao on the Calumpan Peninsula.
Conditions: The prime season for diving Anilao falls between October and June. If you don’t mind slightly cooler water temperatures, which can drop as low as the mid 70’s °F / 21°C, January through March on into late April can be the most productive months for finding creatures. By the time May rolls in, water temps generally hover around 80°F / 26°C in the shallows, (rising as high as 86°F / 30°C in June through August), forcing a number of species to go deeper.
Though the Philippines are in the tropics, Anilao will sometimes experience cool upwellings, dropping water temps into the low 70’s °F / 21°C. With that in mind, I highly recommend packing at least a full-body 3mm wetsuit with a hooded vest for summer (May through Sept), or a 5mm version during the months from December through April to ensure comfort during full days of multiple dives.
Dining: Outside of a chosen resort, most bar and restaurant options are not easily accessible. Other than packing a good book, most divers I have encountered follow their full day of diving with photo transfers and camera prep for the next day, and chatting with their dive buddies during meals. After that, many find it more appealing to do a face plant in bed instead of exploring the bar scene. To take in the cultural scene, you might want to plan an extra day or two in downtown Manila, as there is plenty to explore.