N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
MALAPASCUA ISLAND – A DESTINATION WITH IT ALL
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
We love a dive destination that has a bit of everything, and Malapascua Island in the Philippines fits that bill perfectly. This small island off the top end of Cebu has pretty reefs, unusual critters, shipwrecks, a brilliant cave dive and also something very special – thresher sharks!
We recently spent a wonderful week on Malapascua Island diving with Thresher Shark Divers (TSD) and staying at the lovely Tepanee Beach Resort, which has air-conditioned rooms that overlook the ocean and a great restaurant attached. TSD are one of the most professional dive operations on the island and offer a range of dive courses and visit a diverse range of dive sites around the island and beyond.
Three times daily TSD run boat dives to sites around the island, and all of these sites have one thing in common, great critters. At Bantigue we explored a sandy bottom dotted with coral outcrops in depths to 20m. Here we saw pipefish, mantis shrimps, squid, razorfish, scorpionfish, shrimp gobies, nudibranchs and numerous anemones. We enjoyed 15 to 20m visibility around the island in the warm 29°C water.
At North Point, Deep Rock and North Wall the corals were very colourful, including beautiful soft corals, and we also saw an abundance of reef fish, but we had the most fun at these sites exploring the rubble and sandy bottom looking for smaller stuff. Fire urchins, sea whips, anemones and sea stars are found here, and hiding on or amongst them we saw zebra crabs, squat lobsters, Coleman shrimps, dragonets, nudibranchs, orang-utan crabs, hermit crabs, flatworms, cuttlefish and pipefish. But a special find at Deep Rock was a group of mushroom coral pipefish, the first time we have seen these unusual small white fish. Of course we wouldn’t have seen half of these critters without our brilliant guide Wilbert, one of six local guides employed by TSD that are worth their weight in gold.
Another local dive we enjoyed was the sunset dive at Lighthouse Reef. This one could be called the ‘Peeping Tom Dive’ because at the start you watch the twilight mating dance of the colourful Mandarinfish. We watched these dazzling fish for the first ten minutes then left them in peace to explore the coral gardens at this site. This reef is only 6 to 12m deep, but buzzing with crustaceans and molluscs, but the highlight was a dozen sea horses clinging to the coral.
As good as the local dives were around Malapascua, they paled when compared to the day trips we did. At Calanggaman Island we did two dives exploring a sheer wall covered in black corals, gorgonians, barrel sponges and sea whips. We enjoyed 30m visibility as we drifted along this wall, seeing pelagic fish and another collection of critters, this time pygmy sea horses, ghost pipefish, longnose hawkfish and a blue ringed octopus.
However, the best day trip was to Gato Island. This tiny island is riddled with caves, including a 30m long cave that goes from one side of the island to the other. This cave was a bit like a tropical version of Fish Rock Cave at South West Rocks, with walls covered in sponges and tubastra corals, and home to many crustaceans, echinoderms and molluscs. White tip reef sharks often shelter in the cave, but they eluded us, though we did find a lovely sea horse and a shy white-spotted bamboo shark. Around Gato Island are beautiful corals in depths to 25m where a diverse range of species can be found including cuttlefish, sea snakes, pipefish, catfish, sea horses and a great collection of nudibranchs.
Three shipwrecks are located in the waters near Malapascua. We only had time to dive one, but it was incredible. The Dona Marilyn was a 100m long ferry that sank during at typhoon in 1988 with the loss of 389 people. The ship now rests in 33m on its side and is completely covered in corals and small fish. We had a wonderful dive exploring the wreck, and while the ship can be penetrated we found enough on the exterior to keep us occupied.
At any other dive destination we would have been happy with the dive sites we have already mentioned, but Malapascua also has something special – Monad Shoal. This sea mount is dived at dawn each day, requiring a 4.30am rise. It is well worth missing out on a sleep in, as each morning at dawn pelagic thresher sharks rise from the depths to get cleaned.
It was an amazing experience to see these incredible sharks up close, some of them where 3.5m long with a tail almost 2m long! The sharks are seen at several cleaning stations at depths from 14m to 31m and each morning we did this site we saw anywhere from two to six sharks. But that’s not all as we also saw pelagic fish, garden eels and two pygmy devil rays while exploring Monad Shoal.
We had a brilliant time at Malapascua Island and could recommend it to any diver, and next time we go we might even dive the other sea mount where they see hammerhead sharks!
The day after we left Malapascua the island was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the largest storm ever recorded. While there was extensive damage on the island, no one was seriously injured, unlike in other parts of the Philippines. Within days many of the dive centres and resorts reopened and have reported that there is little or no damage to the local reefs. The best support they can receive is for you to visit Malapascua, as this will help to rebuild the island, as many of the locals lost their homes.
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