Malapascua Revisited

While Ultimate Diving were supporting the Philippines tourism stand, I was lucky enough to get chatting to Becca Johansson the Dive Centre Manager at Exotic Dive Resort in Malapascua, we discussed mine and Tom’s 2008 visit to Monad Shoal, a cleaning station about 30-40 minutes from the resort. I remember being disappointed, as I didn’t get up close with the shy thresher sharks during my visit; some tantalising glimpses were all that was available from 4 early morning dives at the shoal. Our conversation sparked my interest, seeing thresher sharks in their own habitat, is illusive and despite many divers reporting amazing chance encounters their shyness seemed to make them inaccessible, “we see them nearly every day now” Becca announced as I explained my previous visit. As she showed me footage that has been recently shot. Well I just had to see it for myself.

Malapascua is situated 3 hours’ drive and 45 minutes boat ride from Cebu City (CEB) airport, Cebu is situated in the centre of all the islands of the Philippines and can be accessed directly from Hong Kong (HKG) or domestically from the better serviced international airport of Manila (MNL). Direct CEBU connections are also available from Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Korea and China. Malapascua is a small island of, while I remember it was idyllic on my first visit, it was hit by typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in November 2013 and much of the island suffered terribly, I was looking forward to seeing the recovery complete and witness the development on the island for myself.

As part of a wider visit to review new and existing resorts in the Philippines for Ultimate Diving I travelled to Manila on 9th April, overnighting in the Remington before a domestic Philippines Airways flight to Cebu the following morning. I chose the Remington because of its location, it’s got an airport shuttle so getting rest and getting back to the airport for the onward journey was key. If you have a little more time to explore Manila before your onward journey the Makati City Hotel is great stopover, the airport transit is just a bit longer at 45 to 60 minutes dependent on city traffic.

The transfer is an experience in itself, met at the airport and comfortably shuffled into a private air conditioned mini bus, the journey through Cebu gives you a stream of views that gradually remove each layer of your busy life at home and settle you into the lifestyle so treasured in Asia but no more so than on this tiny island.

The boat transfer is by traditional banca, despite their somewhat strange design with large outriggers, they are perfectly suited to transportation over water in the Philippines, it’s somewhat amazing other areas of the world haven’t adopted them. I’ve always felt safe but at the same time in touch with my surroundings when on board bancas in the Philippines. They are also the dive boat of choice, so you start to feel the elements of what is to come, coming together. As you approach the island anything that was still plugged into the reality of home is thrown off as you arrive on a sandy beach, surrounded by palm trees on an island you can walk the circumference of in next to no time at all. You’ve arrived at the desert island you always dreamed about.

Exotic Island Dive Resort are the pioneers of Thresher Shark encounters, the oldest dive resort on the island extended its facilities in 2009 to include a spa, classrooms, new dive shop and equipment areas, without noticeably changing its character it’s a fully grown PADI 5 Star IDC resort 5 paces from the beach. I don’t travel with all of my dive equipment, I think I’ve got the essentials, and it’s always our policy to use rental gear on resort visits so we can check everything is well maintained, so BCD, Fins, weights and wetsuit are always on my rental needs. All of the rental equipment is well maintained and in great condition, the Aqua Lung BCD's have resisted the fading and appear brand new, despite being in use for over 18 months already. This trip I had some new equipment on test, my Suunto Mosquito packed up during an electrical storm so I’d replaced it at the show with a D4i and transmitter deal from Underwater World Dive Store, I’ve heard a lot of stories about transmitters and to me it seemed frivolous, but the deal was so good I had to give it a try, my trusty Cressi SPG was staying right where it was anyway. During the entire trip I’m happy to report it didn’t fail or misbehave in any way over 37 dives. One dive it did not connect, the channel change process being linked to tank opening and closing is a bit annoying, a pre-dive check is therefore essential. Jump into dive mode with the tank open and verify the bar/psi, you are good to go.

First days diving were check dives, first up the house reef, my dive master for this dive was Ted, not the first happy dive guide I’d ever had but certainly excited and entertaining, relaxing, after all I am 7 hours out of kilter so I need the first dive to wake me up anyway.

The house reef was hit really hard by the typhoon but the new layout lends itself to some interesting sights, including the new thresher shark sculpture providing a base for new coral growth. This dive was about checking me out so I was focussed on me as much as the site, my video camera also sat the first dive out. I’m a bit fussy like that, first dive, my buoyancy and kit check, let’s get the basics right before we jump in with all the video gear as well. I checked out, 60 minutes, max depth 15m, Average 11m, good I’m not busting my air either. Second dive of the day was a test for the video housing, despite never letting me down “touch wood” I don’t travel with a spare video camera so this dive to 23m sandy bottom was about testing the housing after the journey, again Ted gave a detailed briefing setting expectations clearly, despite his referral to dive briefings as blah blah. “Okay time for blah blah”. The housing checked out no leaks, the box all my dive gear was transported in was smashed to bits in transit but all the gear inside was in working order and so was the operator. An afternoon’s rest before dinner. Monad Shoal is booked for the morning. Exotic has a large restaurant that serves guests from the resort and other resorts on the island, it’s menu is wide ranging and throughout the stay I didn’t manage to catch them out on something they didn’t have from the menu despite trying my hardest. Ultimate Diving for me is about the small details, if a restaurant offers food on the menu, then it should within reason always be available. How they do it I don’t know.

Becca runs the dive centre with her partner Joa Löfström, over dinner we discussed diving at length, it’s clear these two have a passion for the entire field including teaching to a high standard with Exotic Dive Centre being an PADI IDC Centre. What was also clear was the thresher sharks and their habitat was very important. The resorts on the island realised that the thresher sharks at Monad needed protecting and instigated a funded ranger to protect monad shoal and underwater dive policies shared by all the operators on the island to respect the habitat. New boundaries had been installed past which divers were prohibited from going, enforced rigorously by the islands local dive guides. Over the years the thresher shark population has improved and the sightings have similarly increased. Despite the long journey, the tiring day and the excitement about the early morning dive I slept like a log. I was so relaxed it was hard to imagine that 48 hours ago I was at my desk turning on my out of office.

When you say it out loud 4.30 seems early, I admit it does, but when my alarm went off to get to the dive centre I was ready to go and felt well rested. The furthest you can possibly be from the dive centre is about 45 seconds walk to it doesn’t take long before your wetsuit is being pulled on. Everything else though is already on the boat waiting for you. The box you made up and dived from the previous day is rinsed, stored overnight and ready for you on the boat for whatever dive you are on. Ted is up for this dive too, his blah blah is a bit more detailed this morning, explaining the rules and where we will try and go if we don’t see them at the first spot, keeping in mind the dive is typically 23m, but up to 28m in certain potential viewing spots, I was glad of Nitrox for these dives, if you don’t have this qualification you can dive the shoal on air, but your no-decompression times will get shorter every day, a 2 dive PADI Enriched Air course with the associated bookwork can be completed within a day providing the ideal combination for diving at Monad and Kemod each morning. All I needed to do was put on my wetsuit, boots, and grab my camera housing and walk to the boat. It’s still dark but the dive occurs just after sunrise, so the journey to the shoal never disappoints, it’s sunrise on a boat from Desert Island, I mean, come on.

As the sun rose the moorings were deserted, other boats were on the way but the organisation for diving at the shoal appears to ensure it’s not diver soup under the water and the small groups have plenty of viewing places to go, it feels private and peaceful. We descend to the deeper viewing area at 28m, visibility seems good and fish swimming around some coral provide local stimulus, but it’s the blue I’m staring into, glancing at the other divers and the dive guide expectantly. First a glimpse then as the shark circled and came closer the unmistakable shape of a thresher shark emerged, in my first dive I was seeing the detail of the shark with my own eyes, it’s enormous tail so obvious, but now I can see it’s whole body, it’s big round eyes and it’s shyness, but something else, it’s got the look I think all sharks have when they feel comfortable with the presence of divers, their inquisitiveness is clear.
We headed up to a shallower area at 23m to continue the dive, another Thresher shark came into view, much clearer, it certainly seemed brighter, the sun was rising and the clarity in the water was obvious, visibility was really good. Two sharks in one dive was an immeasurable improvement on my previous attempts 7 years ago.

Malapascua had not let me down and the stories Becca had told me at the dive show certainly proved true. Back in time for breakfast, first dive done, it’s a 2 dive boat trip to Gato Island for the rest of the morning, Gato island is a marine reserve, it takes about an hour by banca to reach, famous for its cavern, swim through, and white tip sharks, it’s a day out on the boat, soaking up the sun, while moored next to a tiny island.

Gato Island surprised me, I’d forgotten what a wide range of diving Malapascua has access to other than the thresher sharks it is famous for, the sights of Gato included a lot of soft corals, large boulder features, and some macro life I hadn’t expected. The swim through was everything it promised with sharks patrolling as silhouettes in the blue as we swam through the cavern, having watched a circling white tip shark in a side cave we pushed on to take in the smaller creatures, nudibranch the like of which I’d not seen before, moray eels and banded sea snake through to a scorpion fish, not even bothering to hide itself sat as plain as day on a boulder. If a scorpion fish can “sit” that is. Two dives done we headed for home, early afternoon and plenty of time to rest and enjoy the island before sleep. I’m committed to going to Monad again in the morning, I feel like it’s drawing me in. I’m not sure you can ever get bored of the peace and tranquillity of a sun rise, to get to enjoy my hobby and my job in such is place certainly makes me feel blessed. Talk the night before had been all about the threshers, what the island is doing to look after them and the PADI thresher speciality course, including the resorts commitment to continually improving it. Sightings by the boat crew in the mornings of the threshers breaching seemed farfetched, thresher sharks rise from deep water to the cleaning station and often return back to their hunting ground so for one to approach the surface seemed like different behaviour.

Today we entered the water a bit later, and headed straight for the 23m viewing area, blocks of concrete roped together form a visual boundary on the sandy floor, it’s obvious a lot of effort has been gone to in order to organise the diving here. Two separate viewings within the first 10 minutes of the dive followed by an amazing encounter, while watching a third shark circle, it made a series of twitches, whether it wasn’t receiving the cleaning it wanted or was showing off, I doubt I’ll ever know, but after a couple of rounds the shark began to head upwards, it continued slowly but in a definite direction so I kept the camera on it, as it approached the surface two or three fast flicks of the tail and it was out, the whole thing tail and all left the water before coming back head first and swimming off into the blue. Show off or annoyed cleaning customer, I’ll let you decide that. Click Todays post breakfast schedule includes a dive to Ubang Bato, followed by the Night Dive at the Lighthouse, Mandarin fish mating followed by a night dive as the sun sets, well that promises to be an experience. Ubang Bato is a Macro Dive, I’ve developed a bit of a habit with nudibranch, I think it’s because they sit still while you try and video them, or at least slug slow at moving. It’s also their diversity, you see them all over but to see so many different species at Ubang Bato, it really shows the diversity of life in these Malapascua waters. Not to be left out a moray eel, scorpion fish and some juvenile cat fish put in an appearance, despite poorer visibility this site provides plenty to see today, it can only be better when the water is even clearer.

All the local island dive sites are about 15 minutes maximum distance, and the Lighthouse, yes it’s situated at the site of the islands Lighthouse so deserves the name is no further than 10 minutes.
As the sun set we jumped in post blah blah, as is the case if you’ve ever dived to see Mandarin fish mating at dusk, it’s a waiting game, these fish won’t be rushed and as we watched the males and females swimming around, seemingly ignoring each other as the sun went down despite us willing them to notice each other, once the light was barely left, and only our eyes would see it, the ritual begins, from what seems a lifeless area of broken coral these beautiful Mandarin fish with their iridescent colours rise from the waste in coupling. It’s not the only place in the world you can see it, there are a number of sites so I would not claim it was unique, but to be able to get this along with the other sights on the itinerary, Malapascua was more diverse than I remembered.

The night dive continued with Ted now in full spotting form, sea horses, crabs, baby squid, and all manner of critters you only get to see at night. It’s amazing that they are all hidden away out of view in the day but at night when you find them by torch light you wonder where they’ve been. It’s a shallow dive so we go as long as we can to enjoy the experience, 70 minutes max depth 10m, a lovely way to end the day. Something different from the menu again and an early night, tomorrow is Keymod shoal and the potential of Hammerheads. There have been sightings but I don’t hold out much hope, I’ve always wanted to see one, even a glimpse but despite everyone’s best attempts with fists at the sides of their heads I’ve not had the pleasure. Kemod is a switch for the Monad early morning dive, today there is a boat going to both so we all excited about what we might see. I admit to being drawn back to Monad again for another encounter but I’m drawn into the hammerheads so much and I have to go to Kemod.

It’s a great dive site to dive as a wall dive, excellent coral and fish life, but this morning is about getting a glimpse of a hammerhead, we push out into the blue, heading for a max depth of 28m, we will hang in the blue and multilevel up managing our bottom and no-decompression time, some jacks swim past but other than that we see blue for over 20 minutes and start to rise, to 20m, as we level out at 16m after half an hour of blue, there’s a rumour from our dive guide, he dare not shout and an arm pointing directly into the blue, we all turned and the tail then the head of the hammerhead came into view, it was a glimpse as tantalising as the first I’d had of a thresher shark 7 years ago and I’d always wanted more, for now that satisfied my craving, to see one in these waters seemed special.

Bugtong Bato and Chocolate Island are the next two dives up for the day followed by another visit to Lighthouse, despite there being so many other dive sites to choose from I’m drawn back to the sea horses from the previous night and more of the critters you’ll only see if you go out after dark. It’s my last full day of diving so I want to make the most of it, Bugtong Bato is a muck dive great for macro, we’ve also got the added excitement of Joa and Becca diving with us today, Joa running his re-breather through it’s paces, and his buoyancy while photographing. A great dive with some amazing glass shrimps in anemones and more varied species of nudibranch and even a harlequin shrimp. Chocolate Island is a small island, surround by sloping reefs and walls, it continued the diversity of the morning from Bugtong Bato, with the topography and views continuing, a great dive and making good friends on the boat I was already sorry I had so short a time to visit the island. Tonight’s visit to Lighthouse didn’t let me down, a mantis shrimp, something I had yet to see and more of the sea horses I’d had a limited view of the previous night Ted was continuing to spot new things like a laser, a particularly colourful hermit crab with soft corals extending in all directions, and a crab at least a foot across completed another 60 minute dive and as an extra treat the boat ride back was with clear skies, the band of the milky way clearly visible the sky looked amazing. Both above and below water the perfect location had drawn me in. I had an early departure tomorrow so thought that was my last dive, as I got to shore there was a surprise in store, it’s a land transfer in the morning, no flying so I have time for one last visit to Monad Shoal. Amazing, I get the chance to say goodbye before I leave. Another early morning seems like nothing, I’m truly into the swing of the island, I haven’t worn shoes since I got to the resort, despite it being the 4th sunrise in a row, it’s unique and beautiful again, Monad does not disappoint, it was our dive guides first dive lead, and he was eager to find the right spot, 25 minutes passed and I thought it would be fate that they would elude me on this farewell dive, but one of the closest encounters was in store, as we hovered making as little noise as possible, a shark circled ever closer 6 or 7 times, before passing right over our heads without a care in the world.

Malapascua has made great efforts to protect this animal; it shows in the organisation and in the behaviour of the animals. To have achieved this along with the islands recovery since Yolanda is nothing short of amazing. Exotic Island Dive Resort for me is the essence of what the island is all about, education, safe respectful diving practices, great food and amazing company, if you’ve not been it should be at the top of your list, if you’ve already been, visit again, above and below the water the encounters are unforgettable.