Malapascua is famous for its thresher sharks and is known as the best place to see those rare and graceful fish. It was also the reason for my decision to become a dive professional on this island.
The small sandy island lies over 100 km north of Cebu City just off the north tip of Cebu Island and can be reached by a four to six hour ride on a public bus and a short ferry ride. On the ferry people, food, cockerels and piles of bags are squeezed in to transport as much as possible on one trip which, of course, means more money for the owners. The boat owners might try to get more money from tourists and it helps to say it’s not your first trip to Malapascua to avoid paying too much. After the 30 minute ferry ride the beautiful island is reached.
Find out more about how to get there in the guide to Malapascua diving.
Once setting feet on the beach of the paradise island porters will help carry your bags to the accommodation. Around 15 dive shops can be found on the island, I can highly recommend Thresher Shark Divers. They have the best local dive masters who are experts in finding small critters. Which is the other highlight of diving around Malapascua besides the thresher sharks.
Arrival time at the dive shop for the shark dives is between 4.30 and 5 am, pretty early for me. I joined the shark dive every second or third day and still loved it even after dozens of times. Getting up might be hard and everyone looks very tired on the boat out to Monad Shoal. However, on the way back everyone is happy and full of energy. I couldn’t imagine a better way of starting a day.
Monad Shoal is an underwater plateau around 40 minutes from Malapascua. The plateau is at the edge of a 200 m drop off. It starts at 15 meters and the cleaning stations are down at around 34 m. This is where the thresher sharks can be observed almost every day. In my 40 dives in Monad Shoal only two ended without any sightings.
Do I see a shadow?
Normally we were first going down to one of the deep cleaning stations and waiting for a couple of minutes to see if a shark would show up. Even before reaching the cleaning stations the divers are searching the blue (which is a pretty dark blue just after sunrise) with their eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of a shark. Is it a shadow or are the eyes making something up from too much staring? And then that moment realizing it actually is a shadow which is moving, which has a very long tail and coming closer. Holding your breath (which you should never do while diving, don’t forget the first rule even when seeing a huge shark), waiting for the shark to come even closer and when passing by it seem as though he’s looking directly into your eyes.
The thresher sharks are curious and often pass close to the divers to have a look at those weird bubbling creatures. Because of their big eyes they are actually very cute and they always seem as though they had done something bad and were saying “it wasn’t me”.
The sharks come up to the cleaning stations at a shallower depth to get rid of parasites. Due to their huge eyes the threshers are very light sensitive and normally stay at a depth of 100 m. This is the reason why Monad Shoal has to be reached at sunrise when all the life at the reef awakens and yet it is not too bright for the sharks.
When lucky it is possible to watch the sharks circling over a cleaning station for several minutes. On some dives there are just one or two of them passing by in the distance and during others it is possible to have many sightings including some species hanging around for a while. This is not seasonal but changes from day to day.
It is believed that the thresher sharks move by in the deep trench as this is the deepest area in the whole region. They might also be resident sharks but not too much is known about these elegant creatures. A team of researchers is trying to learn more about them and a tagging project, which is pending approval, could lead to more clues about where they come from and where they go after being cleaned.
The pelagic thresher shark which is the species that can be observed in Malapascua is the smallest with a length of up to 3m. The other species can grow up to 5 or 6 m, respectively.
What is known for some years is that the threshers use their long tail to hunt. Scuba divers have seen and recorded the sharks swimming into a school of small fish where they smash the fish with their tails caused by a quick body movement. The fish can then easily be collected.
Other reef life at Monad Shoal
Besides Thresher sharks many other sorts of reef life can be found at the dive site Monad Shoal. Most of the time the divers don’t see any of it though as everyone is staring into the blue hoping for a shadow to appear. It is possible to find sleeping white tip reef sharks under a rock, morays, lionfish, shrimp, nudibranchs and devil rays.
More diving in Malapascua
After the morning dive at Monad Shoal it is possible to do a day trip or to enjoy the local dive sites around the island. Mostly muck diving on small reefs and pinnacles is possible. Which dive sites are chosen depends on the tides which cause strong currents around the island.
Mostly small stuff can be found including pipefish, (giant) frogfish, pygmy seahorses, mantis and other shrimp, crab, banded sea snakes, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, morays, juvenile batfish, juvenile sweetlips, scorpionfish and lionfish.
A very special dive happens at dusk. In the shallow waters close to the island, at a dive site called Lighthouse, every evening a special event takes place. The vibrant mandarin fish come out of the hard coral where they are hiding all day to find a partner for mating. With some luck and patience it is possible to see the mating.
When a couple has formed they swim up from the coral towards the surface about half a meter, where they release the “love cloud” and race back to their separate hiding places in the coral. While it is almost guaranteed to see at least one mandarin fish during the dusk dives it is a unique experience to be able to witness the mating process.
A day trip brings you to Gato island, which is about 45 min by boat from Malapascua. It is my favourite place besides Monad Shoal. The first time we visited the island we started our dive in a small cave, at the exit of which three large white tip reef sharks were circling. What a beautiful and rather rare sight. The sharks can be found on most dives but are normally sleeping under rocks.
Gato is a marine reserve and a sea snake sanctuary. So obviously many banded sea snakes can be found around the islands in addition to many other small creatures. Colourful soft coral covers the rocks, swim-throughs and the walls. The critters to be looked for are pygmy seahorses, (ghost) pipefish, frogfish, harlequin, mantis and other shrimp, crab, leaf fish, scorpion fish and cuttlefish. The last named can often be seen mating as well. We once saw three of them but it wasn’t entirely clear which ones were actually mating.
This is a 100 m long wreck which sank in 1988 in a typhoon. The dive site is reached after a 1 ½ hour boat ride and is often combined with dives at Gato Island. The wreck is covered in various types of coral and inhabited by a variety of marine life. It is also possible to penetrate the wreck with the necessary certification or to take a wreck speciality course.
The wreck lies between 18 and 34 m and sometimes strong currents make this a dive more suitable for advanced divers.
Calanggaman Island is probably the most beautiful beach in the whole region, a perfect white strip of sand leading out to the turquoise crystal clear water. This sight and the photo opportunity make it already worthwhile taking the 1 ½ hour trip to reach this uninhabited island.
In addition it offers walls covered in beautiful coral and sea fans. Shrimp, crab and nudis (hammerhead!) can be found on the dive site plus, when lucky, pelagics out in the blue.
Between the dives a barbecue is prepared on this paradise island. A wonderful day trip if the weather is great, I wasn’t that lucky and only made it there once on a rainy day.