El Nido on the tropical island Palawan is one of the premier scuba diving destinations in the world. Conservation efforts have been going on since 1983 when El Nido gained the status of a Marine Reserve Park, which has maintained the rich and varied underwater world of the area.
When going scuba diving in El Nido, you can expect to see all sorts of beautiful underwater creatures, such as parrotfish, sea turtles, moray eels, stingrays, giant clams, and lots of different coral.
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Diving in El Nido, Palawan
Things to know when planning an El Nido diving trip
How to get to El Nido
There are two ways to get to El Nido from Manila: you can take a direct flight or travel via Puerto Princesa (flight + bus/minivan).
Direct flight from Manila to El Nido
A direct flight from Manila to El Nido only takes an hour, however, these flights are quite expensive (around €125 one way).
Flight from Manila to Palawan + bus/minivan from Puerto Princesa to El Nido
Most backpackers, including myself, take a plane from Manila to Puerto Princesa and travel overland from Puerto Princesa to El Nido (230 kilometers). Cebu Pacific has daily flights and is very affordable, we only paid €25 per person!
Once you have arrived in Puerto Princesa you can take a bus or a minivan to El Nido. We did both, we took a bus on the way there and traveled back by minivan.
Puerto Princesa – El Nido by bus
- Departs from: San Jose bus terminal (you have to take a tuk-tuk to get there, keep in mind this will also cost you around 100php, depending on your negotiation skills).
- Bus ticket: 380-480php
- Duration: our bus trip took 8 hours plus 3 hours waiting time, so 11 in total.
El Nido – Puerto Princesa by minivan
- Departs from: Corong-Corong bus terminal, on the southside of El Nido
- Minivan ticket: 600-700php
- Duration: our minivan trip took 6 hours, so it was much faster than the bus.
Neither the bus nor the minivan journey was particularly comfortable and both involved a lot of waiting and stopping along the way.
I’ve only heard similar stories from everybody who traveled to El Nido, so it probably doesn’t matter much which company you book, the journey won’t be the best part of your El Nido scuba diving trip.
That being said, once you’ve arrived in paradise you quickly forget about the hassle…
Where to stay in El Nido
Many people visiting El Nido, including myself, are backpackers traveling the Philippines on a budget. There is plenty of budget accommodation available, both dorms as well as cheap private rooms.
For those with bigger budgets, don’t worry, El Nido offers some excellent mid-range and luxury hotels as well.
- Best budget hotels in El Nido: Aquing’s Place, Camp Talusi Hills
- Best mid-range hotels in El Nido: Sea Cocoon Hotel, Frendz Hostel El Nido, Focus Rooms
- Best luxury hotels in El Nido: El Nido Resort (Miniloc Island), Nacpan Beach Glamping
Important note: during peak season (or special holidays like Chinese New Year) it can be very busy in El Nido. If you are traveling during these times it’s best to book ahead!
What is the best time to go scuba diving in El Nido?
The best time to go diving around El Nido is from March until May. During these months, visibility is the best (10-30 meters) and the water temperature is between a comfortable 26- 29°C.
While visibility is lower between December and February (3-10 meters), this can be a worthwhile time to dive in El Nido as well as you may encounter manta ray and whale sharks. The water temperature is a bit lower (between 24- 26°C).
Is diving in El Nido worth it?
Yes, absolutely! The dive spots around El Nido were phenomenal. The coral was incredibly varied and we saw a lot of cool fish during our dives, like a lionfish, several blue-spotted stingrays, groupers, yellow tale barracuda, and we also found Nemo.
We also saw several sea turtles which had been a bucket list item for Frank for many years. Our scuba diving instructor told us that during a dive in January he saw a whale shark! This is definitely something that’s very high on my wish list, but only when I can see one in its natural habitat.
What are the best dive spots around El Nido
There are lots of dive sites around El Nido, with varying depths and conditions. We went to the following dive sites during our PADI course in El Nido:
• South Miniloc
• Twin Rocks
• Nat-Nat reef near Cadlao Island
Is diving scary?
I had been asking myself this very question before setting out on our 5 month trip around the world.
You see, diving was something Frank, my husband, really wanted to do. He had been snorkeling for years during our previous holidays and when we were planning our trip this was one of his few requirements.
While I wouldn’t call myself a daredevil, I do love outdoor activities like hiking, camping, sailing, and skiing. But I wasn’t sure if I would like diving…
The reason I wasn’t sure was that as a child I was very claustrophobic. I never stepped into an elevator, I was scared in confined spaces and a (what was supposed to be fun) family trip to the Caves of Han-sur-Lesse in Belgium had me kicking, screaming and crying the entire tour (mind you, I was 5 years old). Not so much fun for all the other people on the tour.
I was afraid that diving would make me feel claustrophobic as well, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong! Diving is pure freedom! Well, besides the air and depth restrictions;-).
But diving is the best, it feels like you are flying. Floating weightless through the water, no sound but your own breath and surrounded by colorful fish, the underwater world is truly a universe of its own.
So if you are unsure about diving as well. give it a try! Take a Discover Scuba Diving Course, where you’ll learn the basics of diving and get to explore the riches of the marine environment of El Nido.
If you like it, get your PADI Open Water (read more below). If you don’t, well, at least you tried!
PADI Open Water Course information guide
If you want to get your PADI Open Water diving certificate, El Nido is a great place to take a course. While it’s not the cheapest place to get licensed, compared to many other countries it’s still a good deal.
What’s more important, there are several dive schools with a good reputation and during your course you immediately get to experience the fascinating underwater world, instead of spending most of your time in a swimming pool.
Below you can read more about our PADI Open Water Course, what it was like and how much we paid for it.
How much does a PADI Open Water Course cost in El Nido?
We paid 19.800PHP (€350/$400) per person for our 3-day PADI Open Water Course. I paid with my credit card because I didn’t have that much cash on me. The exchange rate I got was pretty terrible so we ended up paying €820/$920 for the two of us together.
This is certainly more expensive than other places in Southeast Asia where you can get your PADI, such as Koh Tao. Nevertheless, I don’t regret spending this money for one second and feel that we definitely got a lot of value for our money.
The dive spots in El Nido are amazing and better than Koh Tao (where I did my advanced PADI course).
Summary of the program of our 3-Day PADI Open Water Course
Our PADI course consisted of a 3-day program. Below you can find our day-to-day program and activities.
As you can see in the table, our PADI Open Water Course included:
- Theory and exam: learning bout scuba diving theory with an exam to test your knowledge.
- 2 Confined Dives: these can take place in a pool, but in our case, they took place in shallow water near a beach. During these dives, you’ll focus on practicing your dive skills.
- 4 Open Water Dives: during these dives, you can enjoy your wonderful surroundings and get more experienced as a diver.
Read more details about our El Nido PADI Course below.
Day 1: Theory
The first day was a full day of studying for our theoretical exam. From our dive school, El Nido Puro Divers, we received our PADI Open Water book and a DVD-player with movies covering the same material as the book. There are 5 sections in the PADI Open Water book (6 if you count the introduction).
On day 1 of our PADI course we studied chapter 1-3 in our book and watched the accompanying videos. Each section of the book ends with a couple of exercises, which helps you test yourself and make sure you know the material. The material is not difficult but it does require focus and concentration.
We studied in our room, I suggest finding a place that helps you to stay focused without any distractions (so a bar might not be your best option).
Personally, I found it very important to understand how things work underwater. Knowing what to expect and how to deal with potential problems made me feel more confident about going diving.
In the afternoon of day 1, we met up with our dive instructor Lenoel and went through the theory. Lenoel answered all our questions and tested our knowledge by asking us about the materials we studied.
Day 2: Confined Dive #1, Open Water Dives #1 and #2 and Exam
I was super excited about this day as we were going diving for the first time in our lives! Around 9 am we hopped on the boat of El Nido Puro Divers and headed to our first dive spot near Helicopter Island for Confined Dive #1.
On the beach of Helicopter Island our dive instructor Lenoel explained how all our equipment worked (which we learned about in the book and saw on the video, but repetition is key in helping you remember).
And then we walked into the water, strapped on our gear and descended to the sandy ocean floor. We were just 3 meters below the surface but we were diving nonetheless!
As this was Confined Dive #1, we did several exercises, like taking out our regulator, flooding our mask and emptying it again and using each other’s alternative air supply.
Even in this relatively ‘boring’ part of the sea (no coral, obviously, otherwise we would damage it by stepping upon the coral) there were still plenty of fish swimming around and I was super excited about the pretty underwater world.
Important note: don’t ever step on coral, you will kill and destroy it!
We stayed below the surface for about an hour and a half doing all sorts of exercises before we ascended and hopped in the boat to visit the next dive spot: Miniloc!
This is where we took our first Open Water Dive! We didn’t have to practice any skills but could focus entirely on the amazing surroundings.
After a delicious lunch with lots of fish, rice, and some vegetables we headed to our last dive spot of the day, which turned out to be our favorite because we saw a sea turtle!
We also saw giant clams which shut it you clap near them and underwater plants that shrink when you carefully move the water close to them, it was fascinating!
After 3 dives we were pretty tired, but our day wasn’t over yet! Back in El Nido town, we studied the rest of the day for our PADI Open Water exam which we took that evening. Luckily we both passed!
Day 3: Confined Dive #2 and Open Water Dives #3 and #4
Another wonderful day of diving lay ahead of us and I couldn’t have been more excited about the amazing experience of the previous day.
At our first dive spot of the day, we did our Confined Dive #2 and practiced the last skills, like taking off our BCD under water and putting it back on and taking off our mask and putting it back on.
I have been wearing contacts since I was 12 (I used daily contacts on dive days) and I was a little worried this would be a problem, but it really wasn’t!
If you wear contacts like me, just keep your eyes closed when you take off the mask and ask your buddy to stay very close to you while doing this and help you if necessary.
After putting your mask back on you just have to blink a lot to get the salt water out of your eyes, but that’s also true if you don’t wear contacts.
After completing all necessary skill exercises for Confined Dive #2, we were free to roam the reef for a little while before getting back to the surface.
Back on the boat, we sailed to our next dive spot, Puglugaban, where we saw a lionfish, parrotfishes, two sea turtles, and lots of different coral. After 45 magical minutes we had to resurface, but this was such a great dive spot!
After lunch, it was time for our fourth and final Open Water Dive at Nat-Nat reef near Cadlao Island. Last, but certainly not least as we got to see Loro, a 1.50-meter leatherback turtle who is estimated to be at least 150 years old!
About El Nido Puro Divers
Overall, I was very happy with our PADI Open Water Course with El Nido Puro. We were the only two students, which meant we had our instructor, Lenoel, all to ourselves and could ask everything we wanted.
This also meant we only had to wait for each other to finish the required exercises, leaving more time for ‘regular’ diving!
Our dive instructor Lenoel was great! He was fluent in English, patient, explained everything clearly and if we didn’t understand it, he explained it again or better yet, he showed us what to do.
I never felt unsafe underwater as Lenoel was always checking to see how we were doing. Which we always responded to with the ‘yes, I am okay’ signal as you can see in the picture below.
The equipment we used was in excellent condition and there were always spare items on board, like back-up snorkels and weight belts.
The boat was a traditional Philippine boat, with the floaters on the side. Lunch was usually prepared on deck and very tasty with lots of fish, some vegetables, pork, and of course plenty of rice.
The El Nido Puro Diver shop is located in the middle of El Nido, check their Facebook page for more information.
The one thing I feel could be improved about the course was a bit more time to practice how to assemble our gear and in which order to perform our necessary buddy checks. We did check our gear and each other’s, but we didn’t follow a standard routine.
And we only learned how to assemble our own gear when we went diving on Tioman in Malaysia. So even though it is very convenient to have your gear assembled for you, I find it important to know how to do this myself.
Diving is all about safety, so there is no such thing as a stupid question or being too careful. After all, better safe than sorry!
PADI Course El Nido: in conclusion
After getting our PADI Open Water, we did a lot more dives. We went diving at the Perhentian Islands, got our PADI Advanced Open Water at Koh Tao, Thailand, explored the wonderful underwater world the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and many other spots.
Have you ever tried scuba diving? Share your experience by leaving a comment below!
If you have more time to spend on this beautiful island, also read these about these excellent things to do on Palawan.
This post was updated in June 2020.