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The Philippine`s Malapascua Island: Stalking Sharks, Seahorses and a Suntan

I found Malapascua by chance. I was actually searching for places to see whale sharks, such as Donsol in the Philippines, but then I stumbled onto Thresher Sharks: strange sharks with long tails and big eyes. Sharks we know very little about. I figured, will I snorkel with whale sharks this year, where there are hundreds of other people about, or will I swim with the scarier kind? The kind with sharp teeth and the lust for blood?

Jaws won

Malapascua is a tiny island about a four-and-a-half hour bus ride north of Cebu City. It’s a quiet place, seldom recommended as so few know of it; the kind of place where locals stop you as you walk along just to say to say hello, where children take your hand and put it on their forehead in a form of blessing, before running off to play amongst the palm trees, disappearing as quickly as they came.

After arriving at Mactan International Airport you make your way to the Northern Bus Terminal to catch a bus to Maya, where you get a ferry to Malapascua. There is no general schedule and you have to play it by ear. Leaving your worries is essential, your time schedule and your first world rush at the airport, otherwise your vacation will be hell. Go with the flow, ‘cause it’s island time.

At the small Northern Bus Terminal, you will encounter two bus companies: Rough Riders and Ceres Liners. Walk past Rough Riders; they apparently live up to their name. Look for the Ceres Liners. Their ride is a bit smoother with fewer people packed in, but don’t expect the Korean luxury bus standard since the legroom is pretty limited. Just ask around and you’ll soon find a bus scheduled to leave. Also, don’t be surprised if you share a journey with several roosters, a box full of chicks and the whole vegetable section of a grocery store. The roosters, as it turns out, are the pride of the family: they’re cockfighting champions!

Maya Port isn’t exactly a port: it’s mainly a big open space where the buses park, a small structure saying Malapascua: 80 pesos and a thatched roof on four pillars where you can hide from the ever-brightening sun. The captain will assure you that they will leave soon—if there are at least 15 passengers. If not, they will wait another half-hour.

With low tide you will take a longboat to the ferry and glide on perfectly clear water in the most amazing cobalt blue. You will fall in love even before you reach the island.

Like many other diving island spots, the main beach is lined with dive shops, guest houses and restaurants. However, as soon as you pass that screen saver of luxury and pleasure, you will find the real island life. A life where families still build their fishing boats by hand and where children amuse themselves by floating empty cola cans down small rivers. It’s not an easy life, but one lived with smiles and warm welcomes to visitors. Since living in Korea, I have never seen children this happy—playing around the boats, making up their own games with a piece of rope tied between palm trees, or playing basketball on the village square. You can hear laughter from afar. They know how to play and be kids.

Seeking out the sharks

Malapascua is mostly known for the diving, with very little other entertainment than walking around the island and sunbathing. It’s a place where your imagination, National Geographic documentaries and reality meet, with the major attraction being the thresher sharks.

You wake up before dawn to stumble down a small sandy path to the dive shop in the light of your torch. The island only recently got 24-hour electricity and there are very few street lamps.

By the time you gear up on the boat, about half an hour’s ride from the beach, the adrenaline is pumping with the sunrise and you are wide awake. Today you will see some sharks—without a thick glass wall between you.

Look down! Look down! Reggi, my divemaster, demanded excitedly the moment I reached her in the water. Surely enough, meters beneath me was the dark shape of a circling shark. It’s graceful long tail steering him in circles at the cleaning station. My heart leapt and I couldn’t stop smiling, even though my mask was already flooding thanks to the happy-wrinkles around my mouth. All I wanted to do was to watch this mysterious creature go on with its daily schedule, until I realized I was using most of my air on the surface!

At around 25 meters we made it to a cleaning station on the shoal and saw a shark being serviced. Moments later another came to stand in line and waited patiently. Soon after a third made its appearance, swimming right over our heads. It’s hard to guess distance and size in those crystal clear water, but watching my video clips afterwards, I realized they were actually pretty damn close. Even at that depth you feel like sitting in a big bathtub.

With their long tails, big eyes and small mouths, thresher sharks rather resemble something out of a comic strip than a thriller such as Jaws. They are graceful, steady and overall awesome creatures to watch. That’s when you wish you had gills only to be able to sit and observe for hours.

Back on the boat you realize what a privilege it was that these fish tolerated your presence while they are in a completely vulnerable state and outside of their normal habitat, being the deeper oceans.

More than sharks

After the excitement of the shark encounter, you make it to some other dive sites—and you won’t be disappointed. Coral walls at Gato Island await you that would make botanical gardens lower their heads in shame. If you’re lucky you can get a glimpse into the sleeping hours of some whitetip reef sharks and even come across banded sea snakes hurrying along past you on their hunts.

There is something everyone, from the weird and wonderful pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish and frogfish to WWII wrecks strewn with old bombshells, human bones and fern-like black coral.

The only things missing are the schools of fish. Dynamite fishing is still a sad reality. Not alone does it scare away the fish communities and destroy their habitat, but it can scare the hell out of a diver especially after you’ve just been pointed out some old bombshells near a wreck. It is possible to jump of fright under water. Luckily the dive sites are considered mini-marine parks and the actual fishing doesn’t take place near it, but sound travels fast and far underwater.

After a week of soaking in the sun, breathing fresh air and getting a glimpse of a wonderful world underwater, it was time to head home. Malapascua, you are a hidden gem.

Getting There: There are direct flights from Busan to Cebu with the cheapest being Air Busan or Cebu Pacific Air. From the airport, take a taxi (20 minutes, US$5) to the Northern Bus Terminal to catch a bus to Maya (4 1/2 hours, $14). The Ceres Liners are told to be the best.

From Maya, catch a ferry (30 minutes, $2) to the island. If it’s low tide you will need a longboat to the ferry and/or the beach ($0.50 each way).

There are many dive shops on Bounty Beach and each shop has at least one adjacent guest house and restaurant. We shared a room for $35 per room/night at Celtis Resort, about a 10-minute walk from the beach, very minimal but clean, with hot water, a garden and free WiFi.

Dive prices start at $35 (plus gear rental), but if you book packages ahead, it gets cheaper.

Photos and video by Marié Joubert

Main image (Wiki Commons)



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