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MALAPASCUA ISLAND – NO ONE TRICK PONY

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

The Philippine island of Malapascua is famous for one thing, the best place in the world to see thresher sharks. While diving with thresher sharks was an incredible experience, we quickly discovered that this island is no one trick pony and offers the diver a diverse range of underwater experiences.

 

Located off the northern end of Cebu, about three hours’ drive from Cebu City, Malapascua is an island you will fall in love with as soon as you see it. Only two kilometres long, the island is surrounded by blue water, studded with palm trees and the location of numerous dive shops and dive resorts. We recently spent a week on the island diving with Thresher Shark Divers, one of the most professional dive operations on Malapascua, and staying at their associated accommodation, Tepanee Beach Resort, a great spot with comfortable rooms, its own private beach and cabins that overlook the ocean.

 

Thresher Shark Divers have a well-equipped dive shop, offer a range of dive courses and operate three large traditional banca dive boats. They employ over sixty local staff, including half a dozen eagle-eyed dive guides that are a pleasure to dive with. Each day four dives are scheduled, with the first one at sunrise. This requires you to get up at 4.30am, a bit of a shock to the system when on holiday, but believe us you don’t want to miss this dive as this is sunrise with the threshers!

 

Boarding the dive boat in the dark at 5am coffee is the first thing that most people head for. A half hour journey east and you arrive at Monad Shoal, an isolated sea mount. With the sun still hidden behind the hills of nearby Leyte we descended into the dark blue water. Our guide Wilbert then led us to the edge of the reef, at 14m, and we settled down to wait. Even though it was dark, the visibility was around 30m. Peering down the sandy slope the reef fish were just emerging to the start their day and we could see thousands of garden eels swaying in the gentle current.

 

Suddenly we could see something larger rising from the depths, as it got closer we could tell it was a shark, a shark with very large eyes and an incredible elongated tail – a pelagic thresher shark. The shark was almost 3.5m long, half of that was just its tail. It was quickly joined by two other thresher sharks that proceeded to parade in front of us for the next ten minutes. These sharks normally live in deep water, but visit Monad Shoal each morning to get cleaned by the diligent cleaner wrasse.

 

It was an amazing experience to watch these majestic sharks slowly cruise over the cleaning stations, with over a dozen cleaning stations found at this site in depths from 14m to 33m. It was hard to tell how many sharks we saw each day, but it was quite common to be watching three sharks at once. Each day was also different; sometimes they would come in closer to the divers, while other times they stayed in the distance. A couple of times they appeared behind us in the shallows, and one even buzzed us while ascending the mooring line.

 

The thresher sharks of Monad Shoal were first discovered over twenty years ago, after being regularly captured by fishermen. According to the dive operators more sharks are now seen than ever before, as the site is now protected, with each diver paying a fee that employs rangers to do nightly patrols. All the dive operators on Malapascua visit Monad Shoal each morning, with about a dozen dive boats crowded on one site. Fortunately Thresher Shark Divers have their own site so there is never a crowd.

 

After the sunrise dive many people head back to bed, but the morning and afternoon dives around the island are well worth doing. Over a dozen dive sites are found around Malapascua and we enjoyed everyone we did. The corals at all sites looked quite healthy, as moorings are used, and while we didn’t see many large fish, we did find a wonderful range of reef fish, invertebrates and especially critters in depths to 25m.

 

At Bantigue we saw mantis shrimps, shrimp gobies, razorfish and lots of lionfish, while at Deep Rock there were nudibranchs, orang-utan crabs, cuttlefish, anglerfish, porcelain crabs and mushroom coral pipefish. North Point was one of our favourites, as it had a wall covered in beautiful soft corals and the bottom was covered in fire urchins, which were home to zebra crabs, squat lobsters and Coleman shrimps.

 

On alternate days Thresher Shark Divers also operate two dive day trips to nearby sites that includes lunch. At Calanggaman Island we did two brilliant wall dives, seeing lovely corals, schools of fish, turtles, barracuda and some great critters, including pygmy sea horses, ghost pipefish and blue ringed octopus. We also did a great dive on the Dona Marilyn, a 100m long ferry that sank in 1988 in a typhoon with the tragic loss of 389 people. The wreck rests on its side in 33m and is completely covered in black corals, sea whips, soft corals and sponges, and home to masses of fish. We did a lap of the wreck, swimming around the masts and peering into rooms, but mostly admiring the corals and fish.

 

The most popular day trip is a visit to Gato Island. This small island is surrounded by wonderful coral gardens and home to a diverse range of species. There are many caves and ledges to explore here, including a 30m long cave that goes right through the island. In depths from 10 to 25m we found sea snakes, cuttlefish, sea horses, squid, moray eels, crabs, shrimps, prolific reef fish and a great range of nudibranchs.

 

The last dive each day, if you still have the energy, is a sunset dive at Lighthouse Reef. Only 12m deep, you enter the water at twilight to watch the nightly mating dance of the spectacular mandarinfish. Then it is off to explore the coral gardens where you will see brittle stars, shrimps, crabs, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, shells, sleeping fish and over a dozen sea horses.

 

We had a wonderful week at Malapascua and left with fond memories of the thresher sharks and the other incredible marine life found around this island, but we know we will have to return as there are still more reefs, wrecks and another sea mount with hammerhead sharks that we didn’t have time to explore.

 

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