Barely a week after my first encounter with a whale shark in Davao Gulf, the sea gods favored me with four more close contacts with thresher sharks and eight with whitetip reef sharks. This time, in Malapascua, Cebu.
My friend from high school, Rex, his son Uno and I dove the world-famous Monad Shoal off the coast of Malapascua Island last Saturday, for a glimpse of thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus). As soon as we descended to the “cleaning station” (about 80ft/25m), one magnificent creature had already made an appearance. He was gliding gracefully through the dark waters (it was still before sunrise and the sky was overcast).
When my group settled into our observation spot, another adult shark appeared, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Then a third came, slicing through effortlessly, his whip-like caudal tail fin strikingly black against the bluish-green water. He swam towards the north, then doubled back, passed us and then circled the shoal until we couldn’t see him anymore. It seemed as if he was putting on a show for us!
Seeing those three from a distance of maybe 20 to 30 feet (6-9m) was mind-blowing! Here were large predatory animals, and there we were in their territory. Although I already knew that there was no danger of being attacked by these greatly misunderstood animals, it was still an adrenaline rush to be so near them!
And then a fourth one shot past from behind us. I actually felt its wake somewhat as the sleek shark passed through our little group.
There are three types of thresher sharks, and we have two of them in Philippine waters: A. pelagicus and A. superciliosus (“big-eye thresher”). All three species have the distinctively long caudal fins, which they use to stun their prey. Even divers are stunned by how long their tails are! :D
These sharks pose no threat at all to humans. But we, on the other hand, have caused all three species to become vulnerable to extinction. Thresher sharks are hunted for meat, their fins, liver oil and even their skin (for leather). Why couldn’t we just leave them alone? If we kept to scuba diving and observing them from a good distance, we’d have a win-win situation.
Talking to the folks at Fun & Sun Dive & Travel, the excellent dive shop that we used in Malapascua, I learned that each shark brings in US$1.8 million to the islands each year. It’s not hard to imagine, because foreign tourists do dominate the scene there. (I actually felt like the minority when I first set foot on the island.)
The locals used to do dynamite fishing there — and it’s evidenced by the awful state of coral cover in that part of northern Cebu. But for several years now, Malapascuans have been giving the marine environment a chance to recover. For one, the dive operators are very strict about certain guidelines, such as no gloves or pointers allowed, and even no flash photography at Monad Shoal (harsh strobes of light apparently disturb thresher sharks). And, dive boats don’t drop anchor there. Mooring buoys are installed in the area and are religiously used by boats of all dive operators.
Dive operators collect a marine park fee of ₱150 per day of diving. I didn’t mind paying that at all, because I could see that the marine environment is actively being protected by everyone concerned. I wish we could see the same level of participation among locals here in the Davao Gulf someday soon…
Malapascua is a delightful little island. They have high-end resorts there, but also budget accommodations. I saw a pizza stand, a decent billiards place, a few unobtrusive souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. Some resorts offer free wifi. The island has electricity 24/7, and the plumbing is reliable (but please drink only bottled water).
Some describe Malapascua as like Boracay but without the noise or the crowds or the garishness. For starters, the place gets quiet at around 10pm. While we saw practically hundreds of foreigners when we were there, the island still had an idyllic charm. It’s much more relaxed there.
Other diving attractions: whitetip reef sharks, hammerhead sharks and rays (not sure which type though). They also have a good spot for underwater macro photography.
I can’t wait to go back to Malapascua! But first, other untried destinations await…