Ever fancied donning your fins and swimming with millions of fish? I discovered a teeming tropical reef only metres from the beach in Moalboal, the Philippines, where I immersed myself in a hypnotic spectacle of seemingly infinite flashing silver sardines. The sardine run is a once in a lifetime experience – if you're keen to act like Ariel for a day, read on to find out how. 

Sardine run diver wearing a wetsuit and flippers swims along the surface of the water. The photo is taken from below, showing a huge school of silver sardines circling around the diver
Diving with the sardines in Moalboal © John Cuyos / Shutterstock

Why go to Moalboal, Cebu?

Picture this: jungle-clad pathways giving way to a stretch of white sand and a smattering of beachside bars looking out over turquoise waters. Yes, Moalboal really is this idyllic.

With a multitude of islands to pique your interest (over 7,000), basing yourself in the Philippines can be as overwhelming as it is enticing. If, like for me, majestic marine life is your bag, the region of Cebu is your go-to hub. Boasting myriad diving and snorkelling sites – from swimming with polka-dotted whale sharks to exploring enigmatic wrecks – the islands here are synonymous with underwater sanctuaries.

Cebu Island is the region’s heart – a favoured jumping-off point to its surrounding isles. Before setting sail, I made a beeline to Moalboal on the island’s western shores. After a (sweaty and slightly convoluted) local bus route from Cebu City, I was raring to get into the water.

What is the sardine run?

Over a decade ago, Cebu’s sardine run was reportedly non-existent, and their sudden appearance at Panagsama Beach is a mystery. Regardless, the Moalboal community have welcomed the effect their fishy friends have had in the area. No mass fishing is permitted, but local fisherman can use small wooden boats to fish with just a hook and line and the sardines have encouraged more people to visit the area each year.

The annual sardine migration along the east coast of South Africa might be more recognised, but coming to Moalboal is notably different. Development and tourism remains relatively slow, so during my visit in April I was one of a handful of people diving the reef.

Why would I want to swim with sardines?

So sardines aren’t your quintessential tropical fish. These scaly creatures are more likely to conjure up images of fish markets or squeezing onto your commuter train. Instead, envisage luminescent, ethereal figures swirling beside you, against a deep blue backdrop.

For the entire hour I was scuba diving with them, the fish looped in mesmerising undulating formations. The shoals of sardines move through the ocean like flocks of starlings, often creating spherical shapes known as bait balls in order to trick their predators. And, conveniently for spectators like me, they rise close to the ocean’s surface to stay warm and to feed on plankton.

An aerial shot of Filipino boats floating on clear blue waters along the coast of Moalboal, Cebu. There is a narrow beach and colourful houses on the land.
Moalboal is a bit off the beaten track, but worth the journey © Avigator Fortuner / Shutterstock

Snorkelling or scuba diving?

Whether you’re a dexterous deep-sea specialist, a budding freediver or a mellow snorkelling enthusiast, the sardine run is suited to all aquatic abilities. Much of Moalboal’s appeal to ocean explorers is the reef’s ease and accessibility. The tide is usually calm with a lack of current, and the weather conditions are steady in the right season (November to April).

If snorkelling is your preferred method, you’re in luck. You don’t need a boat – because of the proximity of the reef to the shore and the sardines swimming close to the surface, you can simply wade out. And if you have your own equipment, it’s totally free! Alternatively, hire a mask and snorkel from a beach bar or shop, there are plenty to choose from.

There are benefits to scuba diving the reef, however. It was soothing drifting along the current and getting closer to the shoals – and visibility is more guaranteed. Diving gave me a chance to navigate and explore 12m of the 70m-deep reef’s plunge, as there's plenty more than sardines to see. Life on the reef itself is bountiful; adorned by colourful corals, I witnessed breathtakingly diverse shapes and hues in marine life such as floating nudibranchs, solitary squid and cobalt-blue starfish.

A close up shot of an underwater, colourful reef with a variety of wildlife
Diving and snorkelling in Moalboal is gorgeous all year © blue-sea.cz / Shutterstock

When to go

There’s no need to wait patiently for hours on end or hire a guide to be able to witness this wildlife spectacular. The run is easy to locate by the reef drop-off, and can pride itself for being an almost permanent feature – you can find the sardines here almost every day of the year. Just make sure to avoid the rainy season (from June to October) when planning a visit. My visit in April was balmy, with great visibility and warm waters.

Local life

After a day’s watery antics I whiled away the languid evenings of Panagsama at beach bars and eateries, often with a cool glass of Red Horse beer in hand. And I ate my way through varying menus of Filipino fare, from creamy adobo curries over steaming rice to pungent pots of sizzling salted prawns. 

A range of guesthouses and hotels sit a stone’s throw away from the beach. I stayed at Mayas Native Garden; an intimate, rustic hideaway with five well-sized native nipa huts surrounded by gorgeous wild gardens.

A shot of the blue pool at the bottom of Kawasan Falls, Cebu with a few people swimming in it. The blue waters are surrounded by lush greenery and we can also see the small waterfall.
Head to nearby Kawasan Falls once you've had your fill of fish © Z. Jacobs / Shutterstock

Where next?

Further inland, Kawasan Falls is just a 45 minute drive away from Moalboal. The colour of the water is as vibrant as it looks in pictures and I spent an afternoon happily bathing in the waterfall’s pool.

If you’re seeking some earthly grounding after your aquatic pursuits, head to fun-loving Bohol for zip-lines and hiking thrills. A visit to this interesting isle wouldn’t be complete without meeting the world’s smallest primate in the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary – as big-eyed and adorable as you’d imagine.

Pining for some relaxation? The Camotes Islands are remote and quiet. I was wowed by Mangodlong Paradise Beach Resort’s affordable luxury, where I topped off the trip with afternoon massages and basking on their private beach that I managed to have all to myself!

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