Style/Travel Diaries

Thresher sharks welcome me back in Malapascua—and how

The only place in the world where these rare, beautiful animals are regularly seen. Spend your tourist money in the PH

The elegant thresher shark, a screen shot from a video by Liyun Bai at Monad Shoal, Malapascua, Oct. 17, 2021

The author (middle row, right, with red bandanna) with her friends and the Devocean crew making the ‘shark’ sign

It’s not easy to go on a thresher shark dive in Malapascua.

First off, your best bet is an early morning flight from Manila to make the most of the day. Landing in Cebu City, you hire a van to transport you and your gear another four hours to Maya Port on Cebu’s northernmost tip, then cross the Visayan Sea on a big banca to get to this tiny island, about 7 km and half an hour’s boat ride away. Malapascua itself is tiny, about two-and-a-half kilometers long, and is part of the municipality of Daanbantayan.

And then, you have to get up at the ungodly hour of about 4:30 am the next day to get on a boat, gear up, and be in the water at sunrise, about 5:30, at Monad Shoal, another half an hour’s big banca ride from Bounty Beach. (And I mean a big banca, with lots of space for dive gear, a toilet, and breakfast!)

Sunset on Bounty Beach, Malapascua

The area’s top dive site is nothing spectacular at first sight, just a large expanse of sand and some dead coral (evidence of years of dynamite fishing). On this trip, the visibility wasn’t very good either, no thanks to the previous evening’s rain.

Still, we come. That’s because for years, this shoal, made up of accumulated sand and sediment about 80 feet deep at its edge before dropping off for fathoms, has been a diving phenomenon—the only place in the world where rare, beautiful thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) are regularly seen.

These animals, classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are so named for the long, scythe-like tails that make up half of their total length, which could extend to six meters. That graceful tail is used to whip schools of fish, stunning them, before the shark feeds on them

In Malapascua, the sharks come up from the depths to the shoal, an identified cleaning station, to get groomed, actually, in a most interesting symbiotic relationship. Tiny wrasse pick at the parasites in the sharks’ gills and even their teeth, coming away unharmed, as the bigger animals slow down and cruise in shallower water to enjoy the salon services. Afterwards, they dart back into the depths.

I first went to Malapascua some 15 years ago, when Maya Port was just a pile of rocks, and there were only two small resorts with no running water. That time, we lay on our bellies in a row on the shoal and watched the shy sharks swim by; breaking ranks was strictly not allowed so as not to scare them away.

Some Europeans who had made Malapascua home had to fly back to their original cities, to find work to fund their operations here

This time, I returned to an island lined with resorts, although still just recovering from the pandemic, a disaster that shuttered many establishments. The locals talked about how some Europeans who had made Malapascua home had to close or scale down for a while and fly back to their original cities, to get jobs or find work to fund their operations.

Marcus Benders, managing owner of Devocean, the five-star PADI dive center that organized our trip, remembers how everyone thought the pandemic would be over in a couple of months. “After a while, I figured I had to do what was needed and open up,” he says. He also tells of many locals forced to find work on commercial fishing boats for two weeks or so at a time—and who  returned with hands raw from pulling in nets.

Indeed, like on many tourism-based islands, the people of Malapascua suffered.

Devocean Divers is worth every cent, an efficient operation run with a lot of heart, as the crew is capable and friendly, offering coffee, warm towels, and snacks, and carefully setting up your equipment for you. Our divemaster Bjorn was an absolute riot (but is originally from Bohol himself, all-Filipino despite the name).

Since spotting a thresher is a natural phenomenon, there are no guarantees, and there’s a chance you might not even see one. Lucky for us, we did spot them on three dives on Saturday and Sunday—such that we booked another trip out to Monad for Monday morning, before we drove back to the city.

Another shark swam leisurely across a sandy table while we watched from the edge—’parang sushi bar’

That was when we got really lucky. A thresher dive is the perfect illustration of the adage, “Good things come to those who wait.” Criss-crossing the shoal on earlier dives rewarded us with quick sightings, but this time, as we hovered patiently over a drop-off at about 75 feet, two sharks came really close, enough for us to see the fish picking at their undulating gills, the huge eyes accustomed to darkness at depth, and yes, that remarkable tail. A few minutes later, another shark swam leisurely across a sandy table while we watched from the edge—“parang sushi bar,” as my friend David later described, the light hitting the shark’s skin, making it glimmer like a mirror.

It was one of those underwater moments you won’t easily forget, and my friend Annie got it on video.

With the threshers stealing the limelight, Malapascua’s other wonderful dives are often overlooked. There’s Gato Island, a 45-minute boat ride away, where we swam through an underwater cave filled with fish and wonderful light, and spotted a big white-tip reef shark hiding under a rock. On our first day, having missed the chance to do the morning dive, we enjoyed the lovely soft corals at Lapus Shallow by mid-afternoon, and went on a delightful night dive at Ka Osting, 10 minutes away, where all kinds of critters awaited in the seagrass—cuttlefish, squid, crabs, flying gunards (bottom-dwelling fish with wings), and some beautiful Spanish dancers, large and colorful sea slugs that can undulate through the air.

To end our trip, we thought North Point would be just a so-so dive, but were amazed at more sightings, including sea slugs and nudibranchs in many incredible colors.

The Devocean dive shop on Bounty Beach

Since our days started so early, we would be back on land by noon or 1 pm, have lunch on the boat or at Devocean, then snooze in the afternoon in our clean and inexpensive resort, Hippocampus, located right beside the dive shop for maximum convenience. Then we would step out only at 5 pm for an early dinner at Ristorante Angelina, a Malapascua institution since 2005, serving excellent pizza and pasta made by an Italian chef.

Ristorante Angelina’s to-die-for Frutti di Mare pizza

We thanked Marcus for the great service and the wonderful dives, and all he asked, of course, was that we spread the word that Malapascua is open, and the threshers are still there. “Think of diving here as some way to extend help, but getting something in return,” says this dive instructor who first arrived in Bohol 16 years ago before relocating to this extraordinary island.

So once more, do your patriotic duty. My friends and I now call ourselves “opportunistic divers,” grabbing every chance, when restrictions are eased, to run out of town for a much-needed, sanity-saving change of scene.

Try not to think of the United States and other open countries just yet, and spend your tourist money on local destinations that need help to rise up again. World-class diving, excellent food, fun people, the big, beautiful blue sea, and the enigmatic thresher sharks—they’re all still in Malapascua.

(Check out this amazing snippet from a video taken by Liyun Bai.)

Check out www.decoceandivers.com, or email [email protected].

Read more:

Swimming with the sardines—Bohol is my dream come true

I’m missing BTS in LA

I needed this dive trip to Bohol—as much as Bohol needed me

About author

Articles

She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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