Diving in Malapascua, searching for thresher sharks
MALAPASCUA ISLAND, Philippines – Thresher sharks have been Malapascua’s treasure since time immemorial, but after super typhoon Yolanda, stories that the surrounding areas were deeply affected began to surface.
The creatures, fondly called threshers, are known for their distinct tails, which they use to stun their prey. They are on my extremely short list of “sharks to meet before I die.”
Included in that list is the thresher’s cousin, the great white shark, and the solitary hunters, the hammerheads.
I was so worried I wasn’t going to see the threshers anymore, so we decided to book a flight and take the long trip to search for these unique beauties.
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Day 1: Grueling travel to paradise
The trip to Malapascua Island is not for the weak. It is located in northern Cebu, and is a small speck on the Philippine map. It takes almost 6 hours to get there from Manila. You have to book a flight to Cebu (two hours including check-in and baggage claim), hire a van to drive you the port of Maya (3 hours drive) and then take a boat to the Island (45 minutes). Mostly hardcore divers and thresher-seekers are up for the trip.
We left Manila at 10am via Cebu Pacific Air and reached the island roughly before 5 PM, just in time to take in the sunset. I felt the prickle of excitement as we approached Malapascua and saw its stretch of white sand and quaint architecture.
The back pain and sore legs from the long trip were well worth it. We were here and I was determined to see the sharks.
Day 2: Adjusting
As much as I wanted to get in the water and search for the threshers, we needed to acclimatize. So Day 2 was set to check our scuba diving gear, check the water temperature (to find out if we would wear wetsuits or not) and lastly, to get acquainted with our dive master.
The first dive was at 9:30am, and we would stay out the whole day with surface intervals on the boat. We were diving around Gato Island, a marine sanctuary and home to white tip sharks, banded sea snakes, squid, mantis shrimp, and huge hermit crabs.
It was the perfect location to just get the feel of the water, and these were easy dives to ease us into the Malapascua experience.
(READ: Island time in Malapascua)
Day 3: This is it
Wake up call was 4am. The weather was freezing, but the stars were out and I could see the moonbeams hitting the water. I’d never been up this early for a dive. Anticipation was starting to build. After weeks of preparation, we had just these few chances to see the thresher sharks.
As our Dive Master Tong Dayday briefed us about the Monad Shoal dive, only one thought stuck in my head: we might have to dive down to 100 feet to see the elusive threshers. Sea Explorers Philippines is strict and requires Scuba Diving certification and more than 30 logged dives for this.
It was still too dark. What if I didn’t see a thresher? Some groups have gone down twice without seeing even a shadow of the thresher. Some even used NITROX (Nitrogen and Oxygen Composition) to stay down longer to search. We weren’t certified NITROX divers and to get certified in Malapascua is expensive.
I began to worry some more. The trip to get here was long, challenging, and if I didn’t see any – boy, would I be frustrated.
I pushed away all these negative thoughts and breathed a sign of relief as I saw the sun begin to rise. At least I could finally see what I was jumping into.
Time to go. I was determined to see the threshers. As I jumped into the deep blue and steadied myself against the current, I felt the cold through my wet suit. The sun didn’t help the water conditions as we sank deeper into the darkness. Each meter felt colder than the last.
As we reached the final descent to the thresher shark cleaning station (where threshers are cleaned by their little buddies called cleaner wrasses, which eat the dead bacteria from the shark's body), I squeezed my cousin’s hand in nervousness. We all assembled behind the designated line that separated the sharks from the humans, and stared into the blue.
From out of nowhere, the first thresher appeared. I felt the excitement bubble up in my chest; my cousin squeezed my arm. I knew she was feeling the exact same exhilaration. Within minutes, a bigger thresher appeared. The sharks seem to respect the line as much we respected it.
The experience literally left me breathless – meaning, low on air, and before long, we had to start our ascent.
As we slowly headed back to the boat, I noticed something big and gray following us. I stopped turned and saw a curious thresher shark following us. I started squealing underwater and tapping my cousin’s head. The shark scrambled away as my dive group turned to look at what I was frantically pointing at.
Seeing 3 on our first dive, I couldn’t ask for anything more… high fives all around as we reached the boat. I felt like I just climbed a mountain or jumped from a plane.
Malapascua after Yolanda
After sleeping off a huge celebratory breakfast, I decided to explore Malapascua on foot.
Jogging around provinces always gives me a sense of peace; at the same time I got to immerse myself in the culture– but there’s still rebuilding to be done in Malapascua. Tong, our dive master, recounted how scared they all were while watching the news and finding out that strong winds were about to hit their beloved island. They all hid in their brother’s store to wait out the storm.
As the sky turned pink, I said goodbye to the last sunset, promising to return, hopefully to cross out another shark sighting on my bucket list – the hammerheads (there were previous sightings in Malapascua).
Tong also shared how more thresher sharks are being spotted at the cleaning stations after Yolanda. That is great news for all the divers out there with shark sightings on their bucket lists. Piece of advice: visit the island gems as soon as you can – while you still can. – Rappler.com
Underwater photos and video by Tong Dayday of Sea Explorers Philippines