Shark diving in Malapascua

One of the great aspects of being self employed is that I no longer wear a watch, and I rarely have to set an alarm. So when I woke up at 4.40 am my body was just confused. I rolled out of the bottom bunk and grabbed my swimsuit and toothbrush before shuffling into the bathroom.

I tossed on a button-up over shirt and headed out into the starry night, making my way along the dimly lit path to a hut that forms the nucleus of the backpacker-resort. The Thresher Cove enclave is nestled on an isolated, private white-sand beach on the far side of Malapascua Island. And what does one come to Thresher Cove for? Well to see thresher sharks, naturally!

My pre-morning excursion had two scheduled dives: Kimud Shoal just after sun-up, where we would hover 30 meters down in the blue abyss, waiting for hammerheads to appear, followed by Monad Shoal where local thresher sharks have a ‘cleaning station’.

As I watched the sun come up over the rows of compressed air tanks I tried to clear my head. I hadn’t been diving since last August, and even then  I had to skip my initial dive after a little descent-induced panic attack. However, in my list of mythical-creatures-that-actually-exist-but-are-seriously-implausible, hammerheads rank pretty high. So high that I’m ok with risking underwater suffocation for the chance to see one.

Kimud Shoal

“It’s a blue abyss dive. If you don’t see hammerheads, all you’ll see is blue. Keep an eye on your DM, it is easy to get disoriented out there.” I was warned by one of the instructors, in partial explanation as to why his student wasn’t allowed to do this as her first deep water dive. This didn’t ease my mind much, since it was only my second deep-water dive.

Minutes later, in the pastels of morning, I still proceeded to don my wetsuit, booties, weight belt and mask. I slipped into my BCD and tested my regulators. All OK – accompanied by the diver hand signal ‘OK,’ instead of a thumbs-up, which in diving means ‘I’m going up’. Then it was SPLASH and a HISS as I inflated my vest, another OK from the dive-master and then the exhalation and bubbles that indicate sinking… down… to… the… sharks. Blub blub blub.

As we dropped I promptly spotted a pulsating transparent mass in the promised abyss: a Ctenophore or ‘jelly comb’. My dive-master’s black wetsuit made a perfect background for a photo, since it was otherwise almost invisible in the crystal-blue waters.

Comb jelly Malapascua

A few minutes later I looked up to see a sea-turtle paddling overhead, little more than a grey cloud but with a distinctive enough shape to identify it as a turtle.

And that was about all we saw during the dive. No hammerheads or manta rays, *le sigh*.

To cheer us up our dive-master showed us how to make rings out of our air bubbles during the safety stop on the way up. Here’s a photo.

Bubbles at the safety stop

Monad Shoal

Next up was Monad Shoal, where the long-tailed thresher sharks are almost guaranteed, if you go first thing in the morning. However, since we had spent sunrise searching for hammerheads we were a bit late to the game. But it was worth a go anyhow.

This site itself was a little more interesting, and I immediately realised I might miss a passing shark due to my fixation on the little to medium stuff: giant sea slugs, angelfish and a lazy grouper were all hanging around.

But that’s what the dive-master is for! After about fifteen minutes of swimming back and forth between viewpoints he suddenly began waving frantically, and yelling – which is one of the worst ways to communicate underwater. A couple whacks on the tank with a metal object usually do a much better job of catching divers’ attention.  At any rate, we kicked up the pace and followed him to a ‘viewing area’ just as a thresher came into view.

Looking out into the blue it is really hard to tell both distances and sizes, but I would guess the shark was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, exclusive of the sail-like tail behind it. At the closest I would say it was 5 to 10 meters (15-30 feet) away.

Thresher shark one

She did figure-eights for a while, gliding past us, retreating and then coming back at another angle:

Thresher shark twoAnd the million dollar question: was I terrified the shark was going to come and eat me for lunch?

No. And not just because it was still just breakfast time. The thresher was totally indifferent to our existence, and as a biologist this creature’s large eyes (=nocturnal) and small mouth (=eating something not human size) made me think sleepy divers aren’t their normal snack of choice. And on a non-biologist level I was just so excited to see a shark that I forgot to feel terrified – somehow my wetsuit suddenly felt like an impenetrable suit of armour.

It makes sense they didn’t give two shakes of their giant tails about the misplaced Homo sapiens gawking at them. Here at Monad Shoal the threshers are just enjoying a little pre-bedtime spa. The nocturnal creatures ascend to the tip of this submerged mountaintop to have the cute little resident cleaning wrasse (Labroides sp.) pick them free of parasites and debris.

Note on the Kimud and Monad Shoal dives: You need to have the PADI deep-water (30 M) certification for these dives! This isn’t always really clear on some dive companies web sites – so be prepared to pay extra to do the course while seeing the sharks in case you don’t have the qualification already!

Butong-Buto

We had a quick return to shore, where I devoured my bounty from the local bake shop (seriously, there are three bake shops to a city block everywhere in the Philippines!). Then it was back on the boat for the third and final dive of the day.

This time I was off to Butong-Buto, a macro-dive site. This basically means that there are loads of tiny critters to discover among the beautiful, colourful corals. There were only three of us on the dive: myself, a whiney Swiss man who proclaimed after the dive that he would rather be onboard the boat smoking a cigarette than swimming against the current (then why do you dive!?!?!) and our local dive-master, Vic, who has a real knack for spotting little monsters among the sponges.

The site was a living rainbow – and best of all there were nudibranches everywhere! Don’t know what a nudibranch is? Go ahead and google it. I’ll wait here.

OK, back? AMAZING, right? We saw red and green ones, little pasty white ones with purple lungs flapping in the current, one that looked like a pile of frog eggs and so many more I can’t even remember. Here is a somewhat blurry photo of one (in the foreground):

Nudibranch

There were a number of other cool sightings, including scorpion fish, lion fish and puffer fish. And I even remembered most of the diving hand signs for these guys, which I learned last year in Honduras from the superstar DM John. Here is an unpuffed puffer fish:

Puffer fish

At the end of the dive we hit a strong current and had to head back to the boat, which took more energy than anticipated. I was a bit bummed to finish off the dive after just about 30 minutes – and with over half a tank of air left – but as this was the third dive of the day we were running towards dangerous levels of nitrogen in our blood. We took a decompression stop, followed by a safety stop and got back onboard.

Despite what the grumpy Swiss man said, it was a stellar dive with tons to see and I already regretted that we would be moving on the next day. But Moalboal is promised to be equally as exciting, with schools of sardines and sea turtles galore!

 

Where in the world is Allison? She’s right here:

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ling says:

    Hi, im a single traveller and open water diver (but not very pro, so i need a reliable licensed dive centre for security reason haha), am contemplating between going moalboal or malapascua to dive. Which would you recommend? 🙂

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    1. biorambler says:

      Hi Ling!

      It is hard to say, they are both fantastic and there are good dive shops in both places. I would say as a solo traveler you might have more fun in Moalboal, as it is a bit more social (Malapascua is also great, but *slightly* more resort-y). In Moalboal you won’t see any thresher sharks (probably), but the diving is beautiful, the schooling sardines are unreal and there are some good beginner drift dives. Also – you should always go with a reliable dive centre, regardless of how pro you are! 🙂 Enjoy your trip!

      Allison

      Like

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