Shark tales

The beautiful little island of Malapascua is one of the best places in the world for close encounters with the rare and awe-inspiring thresher shark. K. Grace Fonacier goes in at the deep end

Photos by Caloy Legaspi. Underwater photos by Gutsy Tuason

Bounty Beach in Malapascua

Our outrigger boat, the Arbert, was riding six- to seven-foot crests, its bow rising and crashing with every wave. Roiling sea underneath, white rain from above. From where I sit, the world is mostly water. 

Sure, this was not a smooth boat ride, but then again, this entire trip is about adventure. We had braved the unseasonably rough passage because we were on our way to swim with sharks, hunt manta rays, look for shipwrecks.

The crew of the Arbert, perched on the outriggers and holding on to the masts, were grinning. They would occasionally whoop when the boat rode high, pointing to the island in our sights. Caloy, cool as a cucumber, leaned over and said calmly, “Malapascua doesn’t look like it’s getting any nearer, does it?”

Malapascua, an hour by boat from the tip of the Cebu mainland, was at the tail-end of a weeklong spate of bad weather. The amihan -- the northeastern monsoon -- was  blowing in, heightened by the La Niña weather phenomenon. As the Arbert’s dinghy pulled in to Malapascua’s long beach, my gaze rose over bone-white sand and clear waters. Even in gloomy weather, Malapascua seemed abundantly beautiful. The wide expanse of white sand on Bounty Beach was clean and not a soul in sight, despite a good number of cottages and resorts up and down the beachfront. The red-and-white international symbol for divers can be found everywhere.

Diving became a fully-fledged industry on the island with the entry of Malapascua Exotic Island Dive and Beach Resort in 1997. Dik and Deoscora de Boer, owners of Exotic and the two people who may well be responsible for discovering and developing Malapascua’s potential as a world-class dive site, are still around. They came to Malapascua as tourists in the late 90s, diving the waters around the island and asking the local fishermen for tips.

Malapascua's pristine tourist beach

They were pointed to a nondescript site, 45 minutes away by boat from Malapascua, teeming with fish, and where the occasional shark could be seen on the surface. Dik and his friend Mikael Persson went to dive the Monad Shoal, coming up close and personal with the amazing thresher sharks, and starting the germ of an idea to offer dive tours.

Today, diving is a thriving business on the island. Thresher sharks have come to symbolize Malapascua, seen everywhere -- on t-shirts, on all kinds of signage, painted on the sides of boats, on postcards, on logos. The island became firmly entrenched on the international dive map when National Geographic sent a team to Monad Shoal to feature the threshers.

Threshers are rarely seen because they are shy deep-water creatures, easily spooked and not interested in getting close to humans. It is the extremely long upper lobe of their tail fin --- a unique, whip-like structure which grows up to a third of their full body length --- that distinguishes the thresher shark from other sharks. At Monad Shoal, however, their sighting is almost guaranteed.

Threshers only come up to the top of Monad Shoal in the early morning so I planned for an early night on my first day. Towards the middle of Bounty Beach are other dive resorts and more bars, for divers and tourists who want nighttime action. Exotic, however, was nicely located near the end of Bounty Beach, just ten minutes walk from the center, but also far enough away to afford seclusion and quiet. And so, a good meal and cool beer later, I was off to bed at 9pm.

The pre-dive briefing. Thresher shark sightings are not guaranteed, but Exotic is a fairly good tracker. It once played host to National Geographic’s Jonathan Bird, whose Sharks of the Ocean Desert and Jonathan Bird’s Blue World were partly shot at Malapascua Exotic

I woke up six hours later, realizing with a start that I’d nearly missed the 5am wakeup call for the thresher dive. There is never any guarantee of a thresher shark sighting, but if there’s any dive resort who could track the threshers, it’s Exotic. They’ve played host to many professional documentary filmmakers, including National Geographic’s Jonathan Bird, whose Sharks of the Ocean Desert and Jonathan Bird’s Blue World were partly shot at Malapascua Exotic. Then there was British television personality Monty Hall, who featured threshers on Monty Hall’s Great Ocean Adventures, shown on Animal Planet.

As we set out, the sea had already calmed down a little, although it was still cold, and there was a drizzle. On the pre-dive briefing on the boat, the divemaster told us that Monad Shoal is a “sunken island”, an underwater plateau about 19m (16feet) in diameter, with sides that drop off to at least 250m. Thresher sharks come up from deep water to the plateau, not to hunt or feed, but to get themselves cleaned by wrasse fish that live in the shallower depths. We were to dive straight down to the plateau, find a good, quiet spot to settle, and then wait for the sharks.

We descended slowly, found our spot, and watched. When it happened, I thought it was a dream. First, a blur in the blue-gray water, then a silhouette that came closer and closer, until the shape became a shark. The thresher came straight at us, fluidly and gracefully, before taking a slow turn to follow a path right in front of us.

This thresher was about two meters from nose to tail, its long caudal fin swishing behind it. Usually it would use the fin to stun its prey or propel itself out of the water like a dolphin, but right then the thresher was peacefully swimming while the cleaner wrasse kept up underneath it and at its tail. The thresher wasn’t fearsome at all ---- it had a blunt nose, more like a dolphin than a shark, and a small mouth --- but it was completely awe-inspiring. You never forget your first sighting of a thresher, I was told, and it was true.

We spotted the same thresher twice, swimming back and forth with the wrasses, before our dive master signaled us to come and position ourselves on another point on Monad, in the hopes of sighting another one.

It was a busy day on the shoal. Five minutes in and another shark, large this time, came in from the edge of the shoal. It was a little more shy, and disappeared quickly back into the blue after its initial parade in front of us.

After waiting in vain for it to return, our dive master decided to take us back to our original position, to see if we could push our luck and spot any more sharks. We settled down nearer the edge of the shoal, where a lobster was looking at me suspiciously with its eyes. I was still looking down at it when my dive buddy tugged at my BCD urgently. There! Look! 

It was the thresher we’d spotted before, still swimming following its well-documented triangular pattern over the shoal. If it saw us, it didn’t seem to mind. This thresher swam back and forth a few more times before our dive master signaled that it was time to surface.

It was a busy day on the shoal. We spotted the same thresher twice, swimming back and forth with the wrasses

Besides Monad Shoal, there are other diving sites to explore around Malapascua and its surrounding island. My next dive would be with Cora de Boer, the gracious owner of Malapascua Exotic, who offered to show me their award-winning house reef. The weather by then had eased up, and the sun had come out.

Just a short five-minute ride away from shore, the Exotic house reef has a number of steel structures, including an old jeepney, submerged to serve as artificial reefs, providing shelter for fish and a frame for new corals to form.

You can dive all day, if you like, but there are limits to the amount of nitrogen your tissues can absorb. Fortunately, Malapascua has lots to offer the beach-lover, so there’s plenty to do if you’re not diving.

You can take your boat to circle the island, which is only about 2.5km long and 1km wide and can be circumnavigated in less than half an hour. On foot it should take you about two hours. 

Bounty Beach is the island’s busiest stretch of beach, along the southeastern shore. There are a number of resorts on the beach catering to every stripe of tourist. Among these are the Cocobana Beach Resort, owned by Freddy Krummenmacher, which was the first to open shop in 1992. That, along with Blue Water Resort, which followed a few years later, are the island’s pioneering resorts. They still remain favorites, testament to their commitment to good service.

If you’re looking for top-of-the-line amenities, try the Mangrove Oriental, tucked away in a cove fifteen minutes away from Bounty Beach. To hear her tell it, owner Josephine Macazo put up the resort almost by accident, at the behest of her children. “First they said they wanted a beach house to relax in… and that’s where it all started,” Josephine says. Only in its fourth season of serving guests, today the Mangrove Oriental is the island’s most luxurious resort, with weight beach cottages and three themed hillside villas.

No matter where you stay, Malapascua opens opportunities for some amazing activities. There’s diving, of course, and island-hopping, snorkeling and kayaking. Ironically for such a tiny island, there is simply too much to do, too much to fit into one trip. “You’ll keep coming back,” is what regulars tell the first-time visitor. And more often than not, it’s true.

Getting to know your thresher shark

Although other types of thresher sharks have been spotted in Malapascua, it is the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus) that is commonly seen in its waters. The pelagic thresher is the smallest in the thresher shark family, with adolescent males growing to about 2.75m (9ft). Females grow to about 2.6 to 3.3m (8.7 to 10.8 feet).

The long upper lobe of the caudal fin (the “tail”) is used as a weapon to corral and stun its prey and to propel the shark out of water. This is called “breaching,” and the thresher is one of very few sharks known to exhibit its behavior. Threshers are identified by their long, sweeping tail fin, measuring about a third of their entire length. Their skin is counter-shaded (the upper side is darker compared to the inner side. When sunlight hits, the shark is camouflaged.), and they have large, black eyes that help them see at great depths.

Malapascua’s Monad Shoal is the only documented dive site in the world where thresher sharks can be seen almost on a daily basis, in depths suitable for recreational diving

Thresher sharks belong to the Lamniformes shark family, which also includes the fiercer mako sharks and great white sharks. This family is among the fastest in the ocean.

Malapascua’s Monad Shoal is the only documented dive site in the world where thresher sharks can be seen almost on a daily basis, in depths suitable for recreational diving. In most other places threshers are rarely seen by divers because they are deep-water sharks that live in varying depths between the surfaces and about 360 meters. The shoals around Malapascua (Monad and Kemod) are adjacent to the Cebu Trench, and these deep waters probably contribute to the presence of thresher sharks in the area.

Monad Shoal is usually described as “a sunken island,” about 16m at its shallowest point, with sides that drop off to more than 300 meters. This shoal is home to colorful cleaner wrasse. Sharks come up from the depths to be cleaned by the wrasse. The cleaner wrasse pick off loose skin as well as annoying parasites from the sharks’ mouth, skin, and gills. This happens at specific locations on Monad Shoal called cleaning stations, and it is very important to go with a dive guide familiar with these sites. Experience has shown that thresher sharks are most likely to be seen in the early morning, just after sunrise.

Malapascua Exotic operates dive tours and offers dive courses. The thresher shark dive specialty course is P9,900 (US$ 213).

How to get there

Cebu Pacific Air, AirAsia, and Philippine Airlines fly daily from Manila to Mactan Cebu International Airport.

From Cebu’s Mactan airport, take a taxi to the Cebu North Bus Station, and board one of the frequent buses to Maya town. Travel time is about three and a half to four hours to the town, the jump-off point to Malapascua Island. If you prefer convenience and comfort, you can also hire a van from the airport or via your hotel. Try Avis Rent-a-Car. Most resorts on Malapascua are also happy to help arrange transport for you.

At Maya, you can buy a ticket to Malapascua from banca (outrigger boat) operators. Bancas leave the pier every half hour up till about 2pm. Sometimes it is also necessary to take a dinghy out to the boat. It is best to ask your resort to arrange a private banca ride for you to get the best rates (about P1,500 per boat). The boat ride to Malapascua takes 30 to 40 minutes.

Where to stay

Malapascua Exotic Island Dive and Beach Resort 

Credited for pioneering thresher shark diving in Malapascua, Exotic offers dive trips and certification classes. It has 30 rooms, ranging from budget to deluxe. Each one is well-maintained and clean, with airconditioning, its own shower, minibar, and 24-hour electricity. Prices at peak season start at about P2,800 per night for standard rooms.

Malapascua Exotic Island Dive and Beach Resort, P.O Box 1200, 6000 Cebu City; Tel: +63 917 327 6689, +63 999 997 6601, or +6332 516 2990

Originally published in InFlight Traveller April to May 2008. Updated October 2015