Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Mactan Island, Philippines
Visited: December 2018
Mactan Island, Philippines is often thought of by travelers as little more than an entry point into central and southern Philippines. It is home to the Cebu-Mactan airport, which is the second largest airport in the Philipines, with more than 6-million travelers coming and going in 2018 alone. Many divers do not consider Mactan a real scuba diving destination. However, it is an excellent place to find affordable diving, accommodations, food, and transportation.
For those coming from somewhere nearby, like Singapore, Seoul, Taipei, or Hong Kong, direct, inexpensive flights to Cebu airport take only 3-5 hours, making it ideal for diving over an extended weekend, or even for the day for those who are journeying on to see more of this beautiful country.
Tambuli airplane wreck
All dive sites in Mactan are located along the eastern coast of the island. Many shops will take you directly from the shore, which is ideal if you are watching your budget. Shore diving in Mactan is cheap, easy and particularly rewarding for muck divers.
The coral gardens off these shores are stunning and inhabited by a unique variety of creatures. Nudibranch lovers will be thrilled at the many different sea slugs they can spot. On my recent visit, the number of pipefish hanging around was staggering. I have been diving throughout Southeast Asia for 3-years now, and I have never seen so many pipefish in one place.
Even the usual suspects, like moray eels and scorpionfish, seem more dynamic here. Perhaps, because there is so much life, it is sometimes hard to know where to look first.
This giant frogfish I spotted was hands down the most incredible creature I encountered. He was an unbelievable sight, camouflaged to match the giant soft coral he had perched himself upon, minus the ruby red blotches. I couldn't take my eyes off him and only swam on when the threat of deco was upon me, forcing me to shallower waters.
This time I dove with Jameson from Mactan Scuba Dive Center, between Kontiki Point and Tambuli. They charge PHP 1100 / USD 20 for a shore dive and equipment, and PHP 1600 / USD 30 for a boat dive. It was a great day, and I would dive with them again. They are also located near hotels, restaurants, etc., and will pick you up from where you're staying if it's a reasonable distance away.
The more dives you do, the lower the price gets. If you have your own equipment you will save there as well. This pricing is similar to most shops in the area. If you are looking to dive for the day, you might consider not just the price but what it includes, like lunch and any Marine park fees.
Weird little crab
If the Marine park fees are included in the price ask if you will actually be going to the Marine Park. If budget is not a concern the difference is typically not that great, if it is, you may want to consider a shop that charges separately for the fees if that will save you money.
Anemone mushroom coral
I did some diving at the Talima Marine Park during my first visit to Mactan. Most of my memories are of groupers, sweetlips, giant sea fans, and very chill diving. The Marine Park is a protected area. However, the heinous act of dynamite fishing in unprotected areas continues in the Philippines and on that day we could hear it nearby. This is obviously devastating to the environment and terrifying when you are diving. It is important to note that the dive community does come together to clean and protect the ocean and international pressure to end dynamite fishing in the Philippines is on the rise.
I was also attacked by a titan triggerfish and her mate later that day when a group of us inadvertently swam too close to their nest. That was some scary shit, and writing this I realize how terrible it sounds, but, overall, I have great memories of diving that day despite both these experiences. My husband/dive buddy came to my rescue, and we eventually scared it off and escaped from the titan triggerfish.
Mactan has become such a popular destination among South Koreans that flights between Cebu and Seoul arrive and depart nearly every hour. Many tourists come to stay at the resorts along Lapu-Lapu beach where eating, sleeping, and recreation can all happen in the same place. This "convenience" comes at a premium and can be very isolating as there is not much else in the area that is reachable without a car.
Everything is more expensive if you go the resort route, local taxi drivers even charge an additional 100 pesos to pick you up and another to drop you off. Booking your dives through a resort means you can expect to pay more as well. A resort might make sense for older travelers or families with children, but for divers and budget travelers, this is not the best way to go.
Filipinos appreciate delicious food and you can eat well here without breaking the bank. It is a meat-centric diet, so vegetarians may find it challenging and vegans even more so.
There are plenty of more affordable hotels, homestays, and hostels in Lapu-Lapu City that allow you to stay near the beach and everything else you may need. You will find cheaper diving, food, alcohol, and transport away from the resorts. Tuk-tuks, jeepneys, and metered taxis are easy to find. You can also download the Grab app to call a car. If you do not want to enter your banking details, just select pay by cash. Taxis are metered, so do not agree to a fixed price and make sure the meter is zeroed out at the start of your ride.
Mactan is a great place to be a kid
Cebu and Mactan are known for lechon (roast pig). You can find this dish everywhere from roadside shacks to sit down restaurants. If budget and time allow, Rico's is probably the most famous place in Cebu for lechon, and it is also near the airport. You can order to take-away.
For the most part, this is an easy travel destination. The diving is scenic and relaxing, making it an excellent place for a long weekend or quick stop during an extended holiday.
A well camouflaged scorpion fish
You can dive in Mactan year round, but conditions are best from November to May. Monsoon season is June through October.