Swimming with sharks in the Philippines
A thresher shark off the coast of Malapascua Island, Philippines. (Kelvin Aitken/Thresher Shark Divers)
Nestled in the centre of the Philippine archipelago, the island of Malapascua is the Philippines’ new unspoiled, not-yet-hot spot for beach lovers and scuba divers.
Every day, when most vacationers are still asleep, a small group of divers from around the world don their wetsuits and masks. When the misty pink haze of dawn’s first light signals them that it is time to go, they push their boats off Malapascua island’s southeastern shore. As the sun rises over the horizon, the divers descend into the deep.
Nearly 25m below the surface, on the Monad Shoal, the waters are quiet. But after a few minutes of waiting, dark shadows begin drifting into sight. These are thresher sharks. Each morning they rise from deeper waters to the top of this underwater mountain, where cleaner fish nibble off the sharks’ parasites and dead skin, akin to an upscale exfoliating spa treatment. It is one of the only places in the world where these majestic and muscular sharks can be seen nearly every day.
Eager divers watch in wonder as these five to six metre creatures swim stealthily around the shoal in search of breakfast, their distinctive tails cutting silently through the water. Manta rays and hammerhead sharks also occasionally roam the shoal’s sandy bottom.
Despite conventional wisdom about the danger of shark attacks, diving with threshers is relatively safe. Simply follow the dive guide’s instructions, such as keeping a safe distance from the sharks and not deliberately provoking them.
Monad Shoal is classified as an intermediate dive, and most shops require divers to have advanced open water or deep dive certifications since the depth surpasses the normal 18m limit for open water divers. Divers without a certification can earn one at Thresher Shark Divers, Sea Explorers and other reasonably priced local shops on the island that offer safe and quality dives and courses.
The sea around Malapascua has far more for divers than just the Monad Shoal and thresher sharks. A myriad of dive sights teem with exotic and colourful sea creatures. Gato Island, a 40-minute boat ride from Malapascua, is home to delicate seahorses, kaleidoscopic fish and multi-hued corals, as well as a labyrinth-like cave where whitetip sharks are often spotted sleeping during the day. Lapus Lapus Island, an easy dive for beginners, has variegated soft corals, spiny lionfish and rainbow-coloured nudibranches (molluscs). The Doña Marilyn wreck, a passenger ferry that sank in 1988, is another interesting dive site. For those who prefer to stay closer to the surface, Calanggaman Island offers an exquisite coral wall visible to both divers and snorkelers. Most dive shops rent snorkelling equipment and bangkas (small motor boats) to individuals who want to explore the surrounding sea on their own.
Back on shore, fine white sand beaches fade into the calm azure water while soaring palm trees line the beachside path. It forms a perfect medley of sand, sun and sea and is an ideal spot to slip away from reality.
While the nearby tourist hot spot Boracay is renowned for its “perfect sand”, Malapascua has the same quality beaches, minus the crowds. Those in the know have touted Malapascua as “the new Boracay”, the way it was before the island was overrun with tourists searching for the perfect beach holiday.
You can also walk the length of Malapascua in a couple of leisurely hours. Exotic flowers line small trails throughout Malapascua, perfect for nature photographers.
Magenta pinks, brilliant oranges and muted purples streak the sky as the sun sinks to the west. After sunset, you can wander into any of the quaint restaurants and bars that line the beachfront, grab a mango shake and join the locals as they sing old melodies with their guitars.
Malapascua can be visited year-round, but you are most likely to see clear skies during the dry season of March through May. There is no airport on the island itself, but flights to Cebu City on the nearby island of Cebu run from most major cities in the Philippines, as well as regional hubs like Hong Kong.