corals

Snorkelling off Bohol Island

There are three options where you can go snorkeling and enjoy the underwater world of this beautiful island. The best options are snorkeling on the islands of Balicasag and Cabilao. You can take a tour to Balicasag Island or rent a boat with a captain. Getting to Cabilao Island will be a little more complicated, but its coral reefs deserve your attention. You can also go snorkeling at Alona Beach if you have enough time.

Let’s take a look at all three options in detail.

Balicasag Island

Balicasag is a tiny island in the southwest of the Bohol region in the central Philippines. It is more popular with divers who like to dive deep vertical walls. But there are fantastic hard coral gardens at shallow depths available for snorkelers.

There is only one place to stay on the island. This is Balicasag Island Dive Resort which is worth booking in advance. Otherwise, you will have to settle for visiting this island on a day trip from nearby Alona Beach, located on the small island of Panglao near Bohol. The distance from Alona beach to Balicasag island is 4 kilometers.

The big problem is to find a tour operator that will take you to decent places in Balicasag. It seems that all inexpensive tourist boats only go to a particular area where there are many opportunities to spend extra money, but snorkeling is not so exciting. An alternative would be to hire a private boat with a captain for the whole day.

Snorkelers who ride dive boats are always poor relatives of divers and just get what they are given. The places you visit are selected for divers, not snorkelers. Luckily, Balicasaga’s best diving spot is also the best snorkelling spot, so on at least one of your dives, you’ll probably be in a better spot. But the other two dives may be in places that are not so good for snorkelers. You have to accept it. The price of a tour with divers is only 400-600 pesos.

If you have the money, it’s worth doing a normal trip with your own skipper and boat so you can choose where to go. When you negotiate the price, make it clear that you want to go precisely to the island’s west side, near the dive resort, and make sure the skipper agrees to take this route. Depending on its size, such a boat will cost 3000 pesos or more for the whole day.

The best snorkelling spots (marked in yellow on the map) on Balikasag Island are located on the island’s western side, with a steep wall for divers and a shallow reef surface of 1-3 meters with lots of hard live corals. Soft corals are also found but to a lesser extent.

There are many turtles here, especially in the sandy areas. So even if you are in a “bad” area for snorkelling, there is still a good chance of seeing a turtle. And the “bad” snorkelling areas can be pretty decent.

Near Balicasag Island you can see a lot of different fish. You may meet: the well-known clown fish (Nemo, Amphiprion) hiding in anemones, all kinds of surgeon fish, various butterflyfish and many others.

The high season is from December to May.

Cabilao Island

Cabilao is a tiny island off the west coast of Bohol. There are plenty of snorkelling spots around this island, and you have the opportunity to see fantastic coral gardens. You will see not only a variety of hard corals of all kinds of colours and shapes but also a lot of well-preserved soft corals. This is worth seeing with your own eyes! You will be able to see a vast number of all kinds of reef fish of different sizes. Around the island of Cabilao, you can meet giant turtles, napoleon fish and barracuda.

In addition, you will encounter much smaller, but no less bright and expressive fish, such as the spotted lionfish and the royal angel and many others. You will catch the eye of the starfish “Crown of Thorns” and many other starfish of various incredible colours that will not leave you indifferent. Depths along coral reefs can range from 2 to 6 meters.

The coral reefs in the northwest corner of Cabilao are worth seeing. This corner is the best place for snorkellers, but deep sea freedivers and scuba divers can also find beautiful places in other parts of the island.

Tourist bases are located in gently sloping sandy beaches, so it is easy to get to the sea in these areas. However, if you explore further, note that 70% of Cabilao’s coastline is rocky cliffs, so you won’t be able to get in/out of the water where you please. People have made stairs in the rocks to access the sea in several places. If you use them to get out of the water, be aware that they can lead you to someone’s back garden.

If you’re looking for the best, head to the area between Bamboo Reef Resort and Polaris Dive Resort. The corals here are mainly located 3-5 meters from the water, and their condition is pleasing to the eye.

The beaches are not great for swimming, and the resorts are generally not very comfortable, so this place is not for everyone. Still, if you are not picky about housing, then Cabilao is an excellent place for snorkelling and diving.

Cabilao Island has a pleasant village atmosphere. Cabilao is best known to divers. There are four shabby dive resorts on the northwest corner and one on the northeast corner.

Where to stay on the Cabilao Island

Most of the diving contingent is placed in dive resorts at about 4,000 pesos per person. As budget accommodation, you can find “non-diving” hotels offering bungalows for 1200 pesos. A couple of families in the villages rent rooms for 600 pesos.

The northwest corner would be the best choice as it has the most accommodation, and snorkeling is by far the best on the island. On the 150-meter strip of the beach, there are several medium-sized dive resorts. The beach is ok but not great for swimming – there are grass and coral fragments in the shallow water but the snorkeling is fantastic. The best diving spots are located 200 meters from the beach.

Dive resorts have restaurants, but apart from that, there are almost no options for dining outside the hotel.

How to get to Cabilao

Getting to the island is not easy, but everything is in order. The seaport and airport of Bohol have located a few kilometers northwest of the island’s capital – Tagbilaran. Public transport to Cabilao Island departs from the “Dao Bus Jeepney Terminal”, next to the Island City Mall, 3 km north of Tagbilaran Center, and you will probably need to use private transport: taxi, habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) to get to the bus station from Tagbilaran Airport (or from the pier). Buses leave from a complex located 100 meters northeast of the shopping center – they, here, call this bus station an integrated terminal.

You will need to ask where your bus is at the bus station. The nearest town to Cabilao is Loon, 4 km from the turn to Cabilao. Buses used to stop at Loon, but now they continue north (to Calapa, Toubigon, etc.). If you find a bus to Loon, you are in luck. But to be more sure, you can also say “Sandingan Island” to double-check.

The bus fare is around 30 pesos. Befriend the conductor guy and ask him to tell you when you reach Sandingan Island (not Cabilao – this will most likely confuse him). Sandingan Island is the gateway to Cabilao – and you must cross it first. Buses follow the main road to Bohol, passing the turnoff to Sandingan, so ask the driver to drop you off on the main road at the junction. The junction is just behind the bridge that crosses a large river. There will be a small crowd of habal habals (motorcycle taxis) next to a bamboo hut on the side of the main road. It would help if you got to the city of Mokpok on the northwest corner of Sandingan Island.

From Mokpok, small 8-seater bangkha boats sail two kilometers across the strait to the east side of Cabilao Island. Their destination is usually the city of Talisay in the southeast of Cabilao, but it may also be Kambakis on the northeast corner, depending on demand. The boats only leave when all the seats are filled with passengers, apparently you have to wait a long time until enough passengers show up. The seat costs 25 pesos. But you can buy two or three seats to speed up your departure. The driver does not care how many people are on board as long as he receives the required amount. You can also charter the entire boat for around 300 pesos.

On the island of Cabilao, habal-habal drivers will be waiting at the Talisay and Kambakiz marinas. You will have to get to your hotel by habal habal anyway, so it doesn’t matter which pier you arrive at. A habal habal ride across the island to your resort should cost 20-30 pesos, but the driver will charge you twice as much (because he has to return to the pier again (!). I think that some dive resorts can pick you up from the jetty by car if you book the transfer in advance.

You will need to tell your habal habal driver where you are going. There doesn’t seem to be a proper name for the Northwest Corner. Some maps refer to it as “Pantudlan”, but this may be met with blank stares as, technically, that is the area’s name. The word “Polaris” seems to work. It’s the name of the most famous dive resort in the northwest corner.

A boat runs from Cabilao to Argao (on the east coast of Cebu) twice a week on market days (Tuesdays and Saturdays). She leaves Cabilao in the morning (9 am) and returns in the middle of the day when the locals have finished buying and selling at the market in Cebu. The boat is alarge, with 40 seats, bangka. The fare is 120 pesos. Boats depart from the beach where the main road turns sharply to the right to follow the coastline, about 1 km south of the city of Argao.

The high season is from November to April.

Alona Beach

Alona Beach is located on the southern part of Panglao Island, which, in turn, is very close to Bohol Island and is connected to it by bridges. This beach is not particularly famous for snorkeling, but several places are worthy of your attention. The real reason to go there is to take a day trip to Balicasag.

Alona Beach is a long (800 m) thin strip of soft yellowish sand surrounded by restaurants and dive resorts. The bay outside is filled with small boats with two outriggers – bangkas, mainly used to bring divers and day-trippers to Balicasag Island, located 6 km to the southwest. There are a few snorkeling spots in the bay, but you should avoid peak hours from 8 to 9 am and 3 to 5 pm when boats move around a lot.

The most exciting areas for snorkeling are to the left and right of the beach and the central part opposite the beach. Here you can find very picturesque soft corals.

Underwater currents are not strong. The cliff usually has a weak current; most often directed from west to east, but sometimes in the opposite direction. From the beach, you can determine the direction of the current by watching the anchored boats pull towards their moorings. You won’t be swept away by the current – shallow waters at both ends of the bay, so you can swim into the shallower waters and walk back. But there is no current inside the bay.

Your biggest concern is the boats. Bangka boats are noisy and slow, so they can be avoided if you are vigilant. Please don’t rely on boat drivers; it’s hard to spot snorklers in choppy waters. It’s incredible how much a fluorescent tip at the end of a tube or a fluorescent bathing cap helps. Be vigilant while swimming!

Alona Beach is decent enough, but not that special. Unfortunately, most of the hard corals are dead. The reef goes far from the shore – about 150 meters and is located on the other side of all these boats.

Alona Beach is located on the southern part of Panglao Island, which, in turn, is very close to Bohol Island and is connected to it by bridges. This beach is not particularly famous for snorkeling, but several places are worthy of your attention. The real reason to go there is to take a day trip to Balicasag.

Alona Beach is a long (800 m) thin strip of soft yellowish sand surrounded by restaurants and dive resorts. The bay outside is filled with small boats with two outriggers – bangkas, mainly used to bring divers and day-trippers to Balicasag Island, located 6 km to the southwest. There are a few snorkeling spots in the bay, but you should avoid peak hours from 8 to 9 am and 3 to 5 pm when boats move around a lot.

The most exciting areas for snorkeling are to the left and right of the beach and the central part opposite the beach. Here you can find very picturesque soft corals.

Underwater currents are not strong. The cliff usually has a weak current; most often directed from west to east, but sometimes in the opposite direction. From the beach, you can determine the direction of the current by watching the anchored boats pull towards their moorings. You won’t be swept away by the current – shallow waters at both ends of the bay, so you can swim into the shallower waters and walk back. But there is no current inside the bay.

Your biggest concern is the boats. Bangka boats are noisy and slow, so they can be avoided if you are vigilant. Please don’t rely on boat drivers; it’s hard to spot snorklers in choppy waters. It’s incredible how much a fluorescent tip at the end of a tube or a fluorescent bathing cap helps. Be vigilant while swimming!

Alona Beach is decent enough, but not that special. Unfortunately, most of the hard corals are dead. The reef goes far from the shore – about 150 meters and is located on the other side of all these boats.

Thanks for reading!
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