Bohol is famous for its crystal clear waters and abundant marine life and attracts scuba divers from all over the world to its many dive sites. With two small kids in tow, we weren’t able to make use of all these fabulous dive sites, but we could do the next best thing: take a Bohol island hopping tour.
This Bohol day tour began with dolphin watching and took us to two of the most popular Bohol tourist spots: Balicasag Island and Virgin Island Panglao, a sandbank in the middle of the ocean. This Bohol island tour is definitely a must-do activity if you are visiting Bohol Island Philippines.
Dolphin Watching Bohol
Our Bohol day trip started early, at around 6am. We met Rodel, our Bohol tour guide from Betterman Tours on Alona Beach and hopped aboard our traditional Philippines fishing boat and headed out to sea. I was relieved to see that they had good quality life jackets for the kids – as I have found this can be a rare occurrence on tours in Asia.
Dolphin watching tours typically start early, as sunrise is the best time of day to spot dolphins, so if you are visiting Bohol with kids, it’s a good idea to bring along a few snacks as you will likely need to leave the hotel before breakfast.
As we were visiting during Easter time (Holy Week), it was peak season in Bohol and everywhere was heaving with tourists. This even included out at sea! I guess dolphins are one of the most popular Bohol tourist attractions. I counted another 30 boats alongside ours, circling the waters, with all passengers’ eyes glued on the water in search of movement.
Despite the heavy traffic, our prayers were answered and a pod of dolphins soon appeared, breaking the surface and weaving in and out of the boats. The chase was on and we all set off with our cameras wielded. With so many boats I was worried that our view would be continually blocked – but eventually our luck turned as the dolphins chose our boat to swim alongside, much to the kids utter excitement! (Unfortunately I was also too excited watching them to get a very good photo.)
Snorkelling Balicasag Island Bohol
With our spirits high from our encounter with the dolphins, we made our way to Balicasag Island, the next stop on our Bohol tour itinerary. This marine sanctuary is just a 30-minute boat ride from Alona Beach and is one of the most popular places to visit in Bohol with divers and snorkelers.
We parked up at the beach and transferred to a small outrigger canoe to head to the reef, with the ever-smiling and cheerful Jong Jong, who was excellent with the kids – patiently helping them in and out of the boat and sitting with them while we snorkeled some more without them.
Unfortunately for us the main section of the marine sanctuary reef was cordoned off during our Balicasag Island tour, and not accessible to snorkelers. This meant that all the boatloads of people were restricted to the outer edges of the Balicasag Island marine sanctuary – and one corner in particular.
I had mixed feelings about this – obviously it was disappointing for us to be squeezed into a small area, snorkeling alongside the masses – but on the other hand, I was pleased to see that the authorities are doing something to protect the reef, as you could easily see how it was being damaged.
The shallow water meant that people were standing all over the coral in their water shoes and flippers – quite alarming when you consider how many people there were. I hope they can manage to save the reef and avoid it becoming a victim of tourism in the Philippines.
Despite the crowds of people here for Balicasag Island snorkelling, it was hard not to be wowed by the visibility and the marine life here. Water clarity is unbelievable and there was a huge variety of fish to see.
But what we really wanted to see – was turtles! Balicasag island is known as where to go in Bohol to see turtles, so we asked Jong Jong to help us out with our mission. He loaded us back in his canoe and guided us further along the coastline. Here, not only did we have the whole area to ourselves – but we saw so many turtles! It was such an amazing experience.
The water was beautifully clear so you could see them from the boat, before jumping in to swim alongside them. (Excuse my not very good photo, I left my GoPro charger behind!)
Note: There is a Balicasag Island entrance fee, which may or may not be included in your tour. You will also need to bring your own snorkelling gear on the Bohol island hopping tour. We hired ours from our hotel, or you can also hire it on Balicasag Island.
The sand on Balicasag Island is not as soft as other Bohol island beaches – but it is a nice beach for a stroll looking for shells, spotting sea stars (you will need to wear water shoes) and we even spotted a huge turtle swimming along the shoreline from the beach!
Virgin Island Bohol
After lunch at the Balicasag Island Dive Resort, we jumped back in our boat to head to another Bohol tourist destination, Virgin Island. Also known as Isola di Francesco, this island is divided into two parts (walkable between the two at low tide).
The first part of this Virgin Island of Panglao, where most visitors head to, is the sand bar – a long stretch of pure white sand in the middle of the ocean. The water around is shallow enough to wade around, although you will need to wear your water shoes as there are many sea urchins around.
Here you can hang out on the sand, search for chocolate chip sea stars, buy a coconut from one of the stalls set up on the beach, or indulge in some fresh straight-out-of-the-water uni (edible sea urchins) like our boatmen did.
From here we headed to the second part of the island, usually skipped by tour groups. Virgin Island is privately owned by an extremely religious businessman, who has created a ‘spritual retreat’ here, dedicated to Saint Padre Pio de Pietrelcina, a huge statue of whom greets you as you alight on the island. I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. You have to see this place to believe it.
At first glance it is just a white-sanded tropical island – until you see the enormous statue of Christ on the cross in the water – and the boatful of statue disciples. The entire island is strewn with religious statues – including trees filled with angels. If you like the unusual and quirky, then definitely include this in your Bohol day tour itinerary.
We organized our Bohol island hopping tour through Bohol travel guide company Betterman Tours. You could organize a much cheaper Panglao island hopping tour with one of the boats on Alona Beach – but beware that the ‘cheap’ tours often have hidden extras.
I have read many reports of people arriving at Balicasag island, then being charged environmental fees, boat fees for snorkeling, additional charges for looking for turtles, lunch etc. Our tour was fully inclusive, and very reasonable.
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Note: Mum on the Move were guests of Betterman Tours for the Island Hopping Bohol Tour for the purposes of writing this review. This in no way influenced our review, and all opinions are honest, and our own.
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