A sea urchin fish, among sea urchin spines.

A sea urchin fish, among sea urchin spines.

Magical Malapascua

Each morning at around six, the 24m-long Filipina outrigger Exotic 3 scoots out to Monad Shoal, putting divers in the water soon after first light. Divers then settle on the sea mount at 23m and wait for the sharks to arrive.

It is here that thresher sharks come at dawn to be cleaned by dozens of wrasse. Malapascua is believed to be the only place on the globe where scuba divers can reliably encounter these rare sharks. Manta, mobula, and eagle rays also regularly visit Monad Shoal to be cleaned of parasites.

This morning, I’m exploring the seamount with Toto, a Filipino dive master. Suddenly, Toto points to something ahead, which I can’t quite see – the water is too green and too dim. But then, abruptly, the huge shape emerges. It has an enormous barrel belly, a silver sheen and a super-long tail. It’s a thresher shark. It slows up, almost to a full stop, looks at us, then flicks its tail and disappears as quickly as it arrived. The size of its belly indicated that it was either pregnant or had eaten plenty of fish the night before. The encounter took no longer than 10 seconds, but will remain with me as long as I live.

Thresher sharks grow to almost 8m in length.
Thresher sharks grow to almost 8m in length.

Thresher sharks are pelagic, living in tropical and cold temperate waters worldwide. They grow to almost 25ft in length and have a lifespan of 19 to 50 years. The heaviest thresher on record weighed over 340kg. Threshers feed on mackerel and small tuna by encircling schools and stunning them with whips, or thrashes, of their long tails.

LEAPING LEVIATHANS

From the mackerel shark family, threshers are known to leap from the ocean, like makos. But they are also said to be very shy. “The last few minutes of the dive are very important,” says Toto. “This is when we often see the threshers.

Leaping Leviathans

“The first and last boats are often the ones who see the sharks, as too many divers scare the sharks away,” he explained.

The trick is to breathe very slowly when the sharks arrive, as the bubbles can spook them. Threshers are full of surprises though, and divers must be sure to keep looking over their shoulders in case they appear right over a stunned diver’s head.

Summer is the peak diving season in Malapascua, but winter is best to see the sharks, as there are fewer divers around. Dive masters Toto, Tutong and Paul have hosted film crews and underwater photographers from all over the globe, including those from National Geographic and Club Marine.

Later, on another dive, two threshers arrived and started circling in front of us, before passing behind us and continuing to circle just a few metres away. My Nikon camera whirred hot. It was an amazing adrenalin rush; the threshers are Malapascua’s biggest drawcard, but what impressed me equally was the richness of the soft coral reefs.

Dik de Boer, a Dutch national, and his Filipina wife, Cora, started the first dive resort on Malapascua in 1997. They first checked out the island, north of Cebu, in 1996, after reading about it in a Lonely Planet travel guide.

The Exotic Dive Resort has three vessels in its fleet, all staffed by knowledgeable crew.
The Exotic Dive Resort has three vessels in its fleet, all staffed by knowledgeable crew.

Dik still remembers seeing his first thresher with his friend, Mikael Person, in 1997. Over the years, and with the help of local fishermen, they also found two Japanese World War II shipwrecks and a Manila-Cebu ferry that was already known to the locals as a great dive. With this selection of scuba dives on offer, Dik and Cora set up the Exotic Dive Resort. Over the years, they expanded the operation to include three large dive boats and, to allow the divers to spend longer periods of time underwater, a nitrox facility.

Gato Island is full of surprises and every dive had something new to offer.

On a gentle tide at North Point, a diver can drift over soft coral gardens filled with anemones, clownfish, commensal shrimps, harlequin shrimps, white cowries (often seen on the pale soft corals), butterfly fish, lionfish, ringed pipefish and juvenile harlequin sweetlips. At 18m there’s an overhang adorned in soft coral, thorny oysters, sponges and a large, grey frogfish. There’s also a black frogfish, which has been seen ‘walking’ with its pectoral fins.

A tiny cowrie shell at the Tapilon shipwreck, Tapilon Island.
A tiny cowrie shell at the Tapilon shipwreck, Tapilon Island.

A commensal shrimp (centre of picture) living on an anemone.
A commensal shrimp (centre of picture) living on an anemone.

Mating mandarin fish at Lighthouse Reef, Malapascua.
Mating mandarin fish at Lighthouse Reef, Malapascua.

A 50-minute boat ride from Malapascua, Gato Island is like something out of a Harry Potter movie; a short, sharp rocky island rising from what seems like the middle of nowhere in the South China Sea. Nesting seabirds scoot around the island and a colony of flying foxes camp in rainforest trees, while kingfishers flit in and out of the sea caves. Gato is constantly bathed in ocean currents, which create the soft coral canyons and rock formations that surround the island. The waters also give life to pygmy seahorses and a multitude of rare nudibranchs. Nudibranch egg clusters were everywhere – I have never seen so many bizarre nudibranchs.

There’s a guard’s house on the sheltered side of Gato, with a sign saying ‘Sea Snake and Marine Life Sanctuary’. True to the sign, there are lots of sea snakes, especially at three to five metres. Some of my best sightings included a large banded sea snake, a coral moray and a flighty silver eel. Gato Island is full of surprises and every dive had something new to offer, such as porcelain crabs and squadrons of squid.

Banded coral shrimp, Gato Island.

Banded coral shrimp, Gato Island.

A sea urchin close up.

A sea urchin close up.

The Tapilon, believed to be a Japanese shipwreck, is located at 29m off Tapilon Island (hence the name). Broken into three or four segments, the Tapilon is still a rewarding dive, boasting ghost pipefish, black coral trees, and immense schools of small barracuda.

A highlight of one of my dives was the time spent with the multi-coloured mandarin fish at the lighthouse dive site. The trick is to arrive before dark and find a colony of mandarin fish, then wait and see what happens. As it starts to get dark, the larger males begin chasing the females. Once together, the pairing rises up off the coral for a few seconds, before discharging sperm and eggs into the sea. It’s a magical scene, matched only by the phosphorescence in the ocean at night.

House Reef is a 12m artificial reef created by Dik and the locals, including Edgar, Exotic 3’s captain. An exciting array of marine animals has made their home amidst the bits and pieces on the sandy seafloor. It’s fascinating to see the variety of marine life using different types of artificial reef structures. Sea urchins have colonised the roof and bonnets of two jeepneys, squid lay eggs in the suspended bunches of tree branches, large sweetlip hang out below the bamboo structures and an orange frogfish lives on a spherical wire structure. Three lionfish have made their home in another jeepney, while yet another jeepney houses a big cuttlefish. On the sandy seafloor, there are razor fish, shrimp gobies, sole and sea biscuits, which look like mice.

Nudibranch, Gato Island.
Nudibranch, Gato Island.

Malapascua is one of south-east Asia’s richest areas for tropical marine life. The Exotic Dive Resort is one of the best land-based diving resorts and the locals are very welcoming. You can walk freely around the island and visit the local villages. It is a magical place where you will be given the opportunity to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences and sights. The thresher sharks alone make the trip worthwhile.

MORE ABOUT EXOTIC DIVE RESORT

Exotic was the first dive shop/nitrox station on Malapascua Island. It offers accommodation, dive shop, restaurant/ bar/espresso, transfers, dive safari boat and internet service. The PADI dive centre offers a complete range of dive courses, from junior open water to dive master. It operates four traditional Filipino outrigger dive boats, called Bangkas. The 24m long Exotic 3 is one of the biggest and fastest outriggers in the Visayan Islands.

A wide range of accommodation options are available at Exotic Dive Resort.

A wide range of accommodation options are
available at Exotic Dive Resort.

The Exotic Dive Resort has beach frontage and the rooms range from standard rooms with fan/air-con to deluxe air con. Exotic’s restaurant offers both local Filipino and international cuisine. Its banana, mango and pineapple shakes are amazing!

HOW TO GET THERE

Fly to Manila, then Cebu, where you will be picked up by Exotic, and transferred to Malapascua by mini bus and boat ?– a 3.5-hour transfer, each way. Once there, it’s feet in the sand, plenty of diving/snorkelling, and happy hour at the bar.

 

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