The Ghost in the Sea
She rarely returns anywhere - too many new places to dive - but Malapascua could prove to be the exception
I PEER INTO the dusky blue and a sliver of grey flashes. Wait, was that a shark’s tail or the glint of bream scales? The sun is barely over the horizon, so it’s too murky to tell.
I suck in deep nitrox breaths and check my camera settings just in case. Hovering next to me at 32m is my guide Tata, also on the alert.
Whatever it is, it’s traversed the wall and is circling back around. The shadow glides towards me, revealing a silver snout and black saucer-like eyes. With a twist of its torpedo-shaped body I glimpse its long tail, almost half the length of its body.
I still my breath in awe. Bingo! A thresher shark – my first-ever sighting.
The shark swims off but circles back moments later. When a second one joins the fray, I relax. Grooming has begun, so they’ll be here for a while. Visibility is 5-10m but the water is clear, and minute by minute the dawn-light improves it.
Most divers will never see a thresher in the wild. These migratory deepwater sharks live along the continental shelves of North America and Asia and hunt mainly in open ocean at night.
They’re rarely seen at normal diving depths – unless you travel to the small island of Malapascua, off the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines.
Here, just after sunrise, threshers ascend 200m up the walls of Monad Shoal to a series of cleaning stations.
The six threshers we spot on this dive are all of the common variety – pelagic and bigeye are the other species. Common threshers are the largest and can grow to 5m, though ours were within the 1.5-2m range.
Two minutes before I slide into deco we traverse to a flat natural “stage” at 20m, another favourite shark hang-out.
No luck, but a swift movement on the wall catches my eye. I’ve disturbed an octopus mating. Oops, my bad.
The male dashes into a nearby hole and eyes me for the pesky tourist I am. Tata waves me over, pointing to two harlequin shrimps under a ledge. I sigh and hug my wide-angle lens.
“It’s OK, Marie,” Tata tells me later with a confident nod, “we see harlequin shrimps at Lighthouse. Promise.”
Tata is one of Thresher Shark Divers’ most experienced guides. After many years of diving, he still gets a thrill seeing the sharks. There are 23 dive-operators on the island but TSD is the longest-running and most experienced, so pretty much has the run of Monad Shoal. As a result, it never feels crowded.
On our second 5am shark dive we turn left at the mooring line and head for Monad Wall. Even without the chance of seeing threshers, it’s spectacular. From the sandy top at 18m, the wall drops vertically to 34m, where it gradually slopes down to a deeper drop-off. Its amphitheatre shape is perfect for shark-spotting.
We don’t have long to wait before a ghost of a shark’s tail flicks in our direction. The shark hesitates before swimming closer – good news for us, as the vis is low this morning.
Soon two more sharks arrive, looping circles below us. When it’s time to head back I spot another, a whitetip this time, with a school of fusiliers trailing behind.
The reef is surprisingly void of fish life, but who cares? The threshers more than make up for it. Four 5am dives later, I still haven’t had my fill of these sleek Zen-like creatures. Knowing this is the only place in the world where you’re guaranteed to see them daily fills me with a sense of privilege and wonder.
THRESHERS MIGHT BE Malapascua’s main draw-card but there’s so, so much more – walls, wrecks, bustling sea-mounts and pinnacles, an abundance of critters and the infamous cave at Gato Island.
Mention Gato and Tata’s eyes light up. It’s one of the more popular day-trips. In fact, TSD has a saying: “You come to Malapascua to see the thresher sharks, but you leave remembering Gato.”
This small rocky island, a leisurely 90-minute boat-ride north-west of Malapascua, has a lot to live up to.
As we descend at the Guardhouse I feast my eyes on rock formations and boulders veiled with pink and white soft corals. Tata and I spend many minutes inspecting red and yellow seafans looking for pygmy seahorses. Alas, a spindly spider-crab is our only treasure.
There’s certainly no shortage of critters here, however – anemone shrimp, zebra crab, spotted scorpionfish and our first brightly coloured nudibranch (Nembrotha milleri) appear. A few fin-strokes later Tata points out two examples of my favourite nudi – the Spanish dancer (Hexabranchus sanguineus).
My next treat is a frogfish. It’s hard to miss, a bright tangerine blob perched on top of a rock. A few metres further and a smaller beige one pops into frame. When Tata finds me a painted frogfish, I throw him a thumbs-up.
As my dive week progresses, I realise that frogfish are as common as nudibranchs. On Chocolate Island, I find two large black ones, each bigger than a human head.
Moseying along the reef, I accidentally startle a pufferfish. It speeds off, revealing a hole guarded by a peacock mantis shrimp, eggs clinging to its body.
Meanwhile Tata searches around in soft white coral and unearths a pale pink seahorse, followed by a deep red one wafting gracefully off to the side. Under a ledge a giant moray opens and closes its mouth at me – its head is the size of the Incredible Hulk’s bicep (no exaggeration).
AS WE ASCEND we follow a juvenile banded sea-snake poking its head into holes along the reef. Gato Island is not only a marine reserve but a sea-snake sanctuary, so they’re another common sight.
At the safety stop we hang over a pyramid-shaped bommie covered with floaty soft corals and gaze at a school of big-mouthed mackerel circling us, mouths gaping.
After a tasty picnic lunch, we jump back in for a second dive, descending 24m to the Cave’s entrance. I follow my guide into the dark cavernous mouth and shine my torch on the walls; a mosaic tapestry of yellow daisy coral dazzles me, along with giant clams and vibrant peach, pink and orange sponges.
I search for baby whitetip sharks, often seen lying on the sand, but find only crabs. Ahead, the tunnel widens and the silhouette of a juvenile batfish leads us through the exit. Just outside the cave, we explore numerous overhangs and swim-throughs draped with pink, orange and blue corals, as if someone has casually thrown a multi-coloured feather boa over everything.
Now I understand what all the fuss is about. Gato Island, you did good.
If you spend more than a couple of days on Malapascua (and you should), you’ll probably dive its prettiest reef (with the unprettiest name) Bugtong Bato.
It bristles with fish life, and don’t get me started on the macro – so much macro!
Dropping to 18m, Tata points out a colourful nudibranch, then, five fins later, another, then another… and so on. It’s a garden of gastropods!
Focusing on the sea-mount, big balled anemones, juvenile catfish and a cowfish keep me amused for a while. Then Tata waves me over. I think “jeez, not another nudi?” but no, it’s a large speckled frogfish, not a species I’ve seen before.
Next to it a peacock mantis shrimp twitches at me. Towards the end of the dive, while Tata looks for critters, I hover above the reef, admiring the landscape of sprawling soft corals and anemones.
LAPUS LAPUS IS a quick boat-trip north. We drop into 14m and I’m instantly reminded of the pretty coral gardens around the Great Barrier Reef.
Clusters of coral-heads sprout yellow, black and red featherstars. A small school of juvenile catfish hunt in the sand, skirting around beige pipehorses.
I find my first squat lobster on pink soft coral. Next up is a shy moray eel, then harlequin and a zebra crabs.
There’s so much macro on this reef that I don’t even give the mantis shrimp or lionfish a second glance.
Towards the end, Tata signals for me to fin like crazy. Later he tells me an octopus was galloping across the reef. I’m not too miffed to have missed it as I spot a hairy albino frogfish, with a fat frumpy jaw.
When it’s time to ascend we hang over a pristine soft coral garden at 8m, a perfect safety stop. Something scurries beside a pink anemone – another peacock mantis shrimp. Nice.
I’m noted among diving friends as being “she who avoids night-dives”, but the promise of mating mandarinfish gets me in the water. The diversity of Malapascua’s creatures keeps me going back for more. Of course, it helps that the water temperature is a toasty 29°!
Ever heard of an orange scorpionfish with white pectoral fins? Nope, me neither. But I found one on Lighthouse wreck, easily my favourite night-dive.
This Japanese WW2 landing-craft was bombed just before landing a large shipment of cement. More wreckage than wreck, it’s shallow (3-5m), great for new divers and another perfect location for critter-spotting.
Next to the wreck is the famous Lighthouse mandarin site. At dusk you’re almost guaranteed to see their psychedelic mating ritual.
Such rare sights have their drawbacks – mainly the rest of the dive community. I’m not a fan of underwater crowds, so my guide and I fin off in search of harlequin shrimps. Not only does he find me a pair, but he’s on top form tonight. When he points to something in the sand my first thought is “flounder”, but then the camouflaged critter moves, scooting across the seabed as it flashes blue circles at me. Ha! A blue-ringed octopus.
Switching to my red strobe, I spend 15 minutes observing the little dude hunting, changing colours and generally being awesome. This tiny cephalopod carries enough poison to kill me, so I don’t forget to give it a wide berth.
NOW WHEN I THINK of crabs I think “meh… booorrrring”, but the sheer abundance and diversity of species around Malapascua is astounding.
Plus, these creatures have character. I can’t help but anthropomorphise a pretty anemone crab with long pink eyelashes – she’d get a starring role in a Disney animation, for sure. And her “brother” along the reef, the one sitting on a rock sporting a dashing cape? A shoe-in for the next evil crusader on Finding Nemo 3.
Other macro offerings hold up their end too – starry morays, a pair of pegasus fish, twin-spot lionfish, seahorses, large flounders with luminous lime-green eyes, cuttlefish, Chromodoris nudibranchs and banded pipefish. Just under the boat, a demon scorpionfish claws its way along the sand, and I add it my list of potential Hollywood villains!
Warning: if you do your first night-dive on any of the Malapascuan dive-sites, you’ll be spoilt for the rest of your diving career.
A trip to Calanggaman Island consists of a delicious barbecue picnic on an idyllic sandy beach splattered with palm trees. It’s a good four-hour return boat-ride, but worth it.
Beneath the waves, it’s even more enchanting. The TSD outrigger drops us onto the top of a reef at 8m, and we swim over to the wall’s edge. My heart thuds as I descend the wall; the deep calls to me. It’s only common sense, training and survival instincts that keep me from going further.
Instead, I follow my guide to 32m and search fans for pygmy seahorses. Tata wafts his hands along a red fan, looking for movement, and I concentrate on a yellow fan next door.
I scream smugly into my regulator when I spot a tiny thread of yellow – a Denise’s pygmy seahorse. Result! Tata gives me a thumbs-up.
Not too far along, we float past bubble coral harbouring a bubble-coral shrimp. Other macro treasures include an imperial shrimp, Henderson’s hingebeak shrimp and an orangutan crab.
I peer out into the clear deep blue, hoping to spot a manta or eagle ray. A titan triggerfish rushes past, and a school of bannerfish. The other group are luckier – they glimpse a thresher shark in the distance (so rare!) plus a turtle swimming in the shallows.
A FEW WEEKS LATER I’m back home and still thinking about the sharks, and those crabs! Then there’s the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of the island itself, with its great food, Oscar’s Bar’s homemade ice-cream and the friendly professional people at TSD.
There are plenty of quiet restaurants and bars on the beach and in the narrow backstreets; no cars, only bicycles and motorbikes. Non-diving activities include eating, drinking, watching sunsets, walking and snorkelling.
The last few years I’ve done mainly liveaboard trips. I had forgotten how easy and rewarding island-diving can be.
I always like to move on to new places, but Malapascua is one location I’ll need to itch again.
Especially as I missed out on diving the Dona Marilyn wreck – I’ll bet there are heaps of crazy-looking crabs there too.