Who wants to swim with a shimmering swirling cyclone of silvery sardines? You do! Awesome. Pack your bag and head for Moalboal on Cebu Island, Philippines. This is one wildlife encounter that is straight out of Discovery Channel’s Blue Planet. It is exhilarating and frankly unmissable if you are in the area.
Why were we there?
Laura had set me a few swimming challenges in preparation for doing a PADI Open Water course. I needed a big distraction to take my mind off challenge number two. And, a million metallic minnows seemed to fit the bill.
Paul’s Swimming Challenge #2
I sailed through part one with ease. I swam with turtles on Apo Island. We snorkeled with several of these gorgeous beasties for hours but they were easily within my shallow water swimming comfort zone. Part two would be psychologically more challenging. I had to swim over a deep dropoff. I would be staring down into the terrifying deep blue Abyss, which I had singularly refused to do on my last opportunity on Pulau Hatta in the Banda Islands. There was a dark blue line drawn in the sand (well, ocean) and I could not cross it!
Why the challenge? I am tired of being a dive widower, while Laura is out exploring the weird and wonderful oceans. But, it would be laughable to pay money for a PADI course if I won’t even swim in over my head!
So, what’s so cool about a bunch of sardines?
Like you, I was skeptical that the humble sardine would be responsible for one of the most thrilling experiences in Southeast Asia. Even better, it is free.
The last time I encountered a sardine it was crammed into a tin with three of its siblings sadly drowned in harissa. It was so unloved it remained at the back of the food cupboard for a year until all other supplies had run out. I now have big love for sardines and I will never eat one again. Given how many millions you see off the beach in Moalboal, it is clear the locals feel the same way since they are curiously absent from restaurant menus.
Sardines have been attracting tourists to this tiny town for years. A few years ago they swirled around Pescador Island a few miles off-shore. You had to hire a boat and snorkel a ways off shore.
Locals used to fish the shoals and the numbers dropped. Almost overnight they disappeared. Hoteliers and restaurateurs figured their cash cow had gone forever. A few months later the shoal reappeared just off the main town beach. Bonanza!
The local headman had a quiet word with the fishermen and the message got out that they weren’t to fish the shoals anymore. This makes good environmental and commercial sense. If tourists will pay good money just to hang around a place to look at the fish why go to the hassle of killing and selling them?
First impressions of Moalboal were not great. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were harangued by tricycle drivers. The main beach is 4km from town. The main strip along the coast is fairly ugly. There is little in the way of beach and the strip is ragtag bunch of poorly constructed hotels, dive shops, and restaurants. Our hotel the first night, Anthony’s, was an overpriced dark brutalist construct. Not very inviting. There is a real shortage of budget accommodation at popular places in the Philippines and the good value places get booked out way in advance. We were in Moalboal over a weekend, which made the accommodation situation even worse. Things were so grim I was beginning to think that maybe the shoal would turn out to be a bunch of discarded sardine tins!
We dumped our bags and headed out for lunch. OMG! How things can change quickly when you are in Asia. Over lunch, Laura said to me while gazing over my shoulder, “What if you could get a cold IPA right now?”
“Fat chance,” I said.
“Turn around,” said Laura.
I turned around. The restaurant across the street had a big sign advertising craft beer from Cebu. There is a goddamn craft beer bar in Moalboal! This place is f#@king amazeballs!
OK. The advertised IPA was not on tap. But, the Pale Ale was a rather tasty and zesty offering. At 5 times the price of the local pisswater it better be. Revived, I went to bed happy.
We snorkeled and dived with… sardines!
No matter how you say it, swimming with sardines does not sound sexy. Sexy is swimming with mantas. Or, whale sharks. They will show up later, but first prepare to have your minds blown by oily sandwich fillers!
On our second day in Moalboal, we rented a life vest for me, donned our snorkel gear and headed out to the water. After gliding past the obligatory ten plastic bottles, two used diapers, and a few empty cigarette cartons we were soon confronted by large numbers of yelping non-swimming locals being dragged through the water by their long suffering guides. To add to the fun, we had to dodge the support craft of the aforementioned non-swimmers, which did their best to approximate rush hour traffic in Tehran.
This is nature watching at its absolute best. Not! After dodging the traffic we hit the drop off and saw our first sardines. There were a few swirls here and there but I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was.
I was still petrified about swimming over the abyss, so with barely disguised contempt Laura swam off into deeper waters. Leaving me to part-panic and deal with the noisy locals.
A couple of minutes later, Laura shot back like a torpedo. She grabbed my arms, gesticulated forward, and began to drag me over the edge. Pride kicked in pretty quick so I brushed off her supporting hand and swam over the Abyss. Astonishment soon replaced the panic.
Out of the Abyss, swirled the most incredible sight I have ever seen. Vast clouds of silvery slithery little beasties swarmed all around us. There were millions of fish beneath us, whirling around like a giant tornado. I swear JJ Abrams had dropped in with a CGI team to create scenes for Star Wars Episode 666. I was utterly mesmerized. Beyond the tornado, there was nothing but the deepest darkest blue. I was curiously unconcerned. Had I at last got over my fear of ‘spontaneous sinking’? (Yes, I truly believed I would sink even with a life vest on). Why hadn’t I done this months ago? Damn! The sights I must have missed out on.
A million fish. One mind
The shoal seems to move as one mind. It’s utterly alien and quite extraordinary. Pretty soon you work out that you can f#@k with them and get them to move in ever evolving complex patterns. Laura must have been laughing her head off watching me pretend to be a shark and corral the fish into tight swirling balls. Or, lurch into the center of them and watch a giant hole open up in the shoal like the eye of a storm. On occasion, the shoal formed giant ribbons as they shimmied away from us. Weirdly, they never seem to get freaked enough to bugger off elsewhere.
When the sun penetrates the depths, the edges of the shoal light up. It really is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
I saw the odd diver down below the shoal and thought, ‘I can do that!’. I saw a freediver lying on her back taking photos a few meters down for several minutes. I definitely ain’t doing that!
Laura had to practically wrestle me out of the water. As I swam to shore I realized I had been swimming so manically that my legs had cramped up. Doh!
The sardine shoal from below
Laura signed up for a diving session with the sardines. And, this is what she has to say.
Snorkeling with the sardines was amazing enough to make me want to get the view from below. All the dive shops in town offer sardine shore dives for around $30. That afternoon, I suited up and my dive guide and I walked across the street, waded into the water, and sank below the surface. It was even more incredible to see the sardines from several meters below the surface. You can really appreciate the three-dimensional shapes that they form when you’re right among them. A few times, I paused midwater and watched the shoal converge, swirl, and disperse above me. I could almost hear David Attenborough’s gentle narration to the hypnotic scene.
The coral wall didn’t compare to Bunaken or the Bandas, but there was a fair amount of macro life with enough weird stuff to provide contrast to the sardines. I’ve never been that excited by macro stuff, but it was cool to see a frogfish and an orangutan crab for the first time.
More sardine snorkeling
There is not a lot to do in Moalboal so after Laura’s dive we went back in to snorkel some more. There were fewer boats and local tourists around in the late afternoon so it was a lot less hectic. The light was beautiful too.
So, is it worth it?
Yep! From our perspective, many of the places in the Philippines have one and only one major attraction. However, that one attraction was invariably unique and extraordinary. Laura’s dive guide couldn’t think of another place where huge sardine shoals like this are so accessible. Again, this is usually the world of the open water diver. In our ‘all killer, no filler’ approach to travel in the Philippines, Moalboal was another place that came up with the goods. Even better, it gave me my first real experience of swimming over unfathomable depths. And, I loved it!
- The sardines! A magnificent spectacle.
- The Last Filling Station Cafe. Great breakfasts (Muesli, Fruit, Yoghurt) and dinners (Eggplant Adobo and Coconut Chicken with Basil were both heavenly and good value).
- Maya’s Native Garden had decent craft beer from Cebu City
- Neptune Diving (Professional and friendly outfit. 1200 pesos for a shore dive)
- Moalboal Backpackers Lodge. We stayed here our second night. (Friendly, if a tad overpriced)
- There’s not much to do in Moalboal apart from the sardine run
- Accommodation was overpriced
When We Were There
April 2-3, 2016. The weather was good. We are told that the sardine shoal is present year-round.
Getting there: Apo Island to Moalboal in one day by local transport.
It took us most of the day to get from Apo Island to Moalboal. The boat from Apo to Malatapay on Negros took one hour and cost 300 pesos. The jeepney from Malatapay to Dumaguete bus station took one hour and cost 30 pesos. We took the Ceres Bus to the port at Tampi, another hour or so. We jumped on the Maayo RORO ferry to Bato on Cebu island. Again, that took an hour. We grabbed lunch at the port in Bato. Then, grabbed the Cebu City bound Ceres Liner bus to Moalboal, which took around 3 hours. Finally, we hopped in a tricycle for the last 4 km to Pangsama Beach. The tricycle probably cost more than the bus and ferry combined! Sharks.