After swimming with whale sharks on the island of Leyte I spent two days traveling by bus and ferry to Malapascua, a tiny island about 5 km from the northern tip of Cebu. There is really only one reason that people visit Malpascua: to dive with thresher sharks, enormous sea creatures that can grow up to 500 kilograms and are easily identified by their long whiplike tail.
There was just one problem: I didn’t know how to dive.
Learning to Dive
When I arrived on Malapascua, I signed up for diving lessons at Fun and Sun Dive and Travel. Truth be told, Malapascua is rife with dive shops. There’s probably a dozen or more to choose from. I chose Fun and Sun because their prices were reasonable and I liked the instructor that I met there.
Completing the open-water scuba diving certification usually takes at least four days, but since I was eager to learn and my father, a recreational diver, had taught me a lot of the techniques when I was young, the instructor said he’d try to get it done in three, which would leave just enough time for a dive at the thresher shark cleaning station before I left.
Fun and Sun, like most dive shops, follows the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) curriculum. This entails reading and being tested on the contents of a 272 page manual, learning to calculate how deep, how long, and how many times you can dive before risking decompression sickness and completing a confined water dive and test and an open water dive and test.
Needless to say, I spent the next three days with my nose in a book and my butt in the ocean. Fortunately, since I was comfortable in the water and had practiced several of the techniques before, everything went smoothly and I passed all the tests.
Diving to the Cleaning Station
The Cleaning Station is 24m below the surface. That puts it just six meters short of PADI’s recreational dive limit of 30m. As such, it’s considered and an advanced dive and open water certified divers like myself must be accompanied by an instructor.
It was also the first dive that I did after I finished my open water certification, which puts it very high on my list of intelligent things that I’ve done in third-world countries.
Thresher sharks normally hunt at depths much deeper than 24m, but each day they come up to shallow water to be cleaned by mall fish called wrasse eat the dead skin and bacteria from their bodies. That is why the dive site is called the Cleaning Station. The Cleaning Station is located on the Moanad Shoal, an underwater island where wrasse congregate. The edges of this island drop steeply to depths of about 230m, where thresher sharks hunt. So, each morning before it gets too light the sharks swim up the wall for a quick cleaning before returning to deeper waters.
We met at the dive shop at 5am and boarded our banca boat. Despite my lack of experience, I wasn’t worried about the dive. When done with reliable professional guidance scuba diving is perfectly safe and I had full confidence in my instructor.
After about a 40-minute boat ride (my estimation may not be perfect due to the extremely early hour and the fact that I may or may not have fallen asleep on the boat) we arrived at the dive site. A dozen or more boats were already there.
We put on our suits, hopped in the water, and began to descend. We arrived at the wall to find what looked like between 80 and 100 divers kneeling on the bottom along the cliff’s edge staring into an inky abyss. We skirted along the edge of the wall looking for a spot. Eventually we found an opening and joined the line of kneeling divers.
After about fifteen minutes my instructor pointed into the dark blue. First there was a vague outline. Then the thresher shark emerged and circled above us. It was a majestic site. Although I had my GoPro camera with me, the light at that depth was too poor to record good video. What we saw, was very similar to the video below.
Afterwards we swam along the bottom back toward the boat following a small manta ray.
Later that day we went for a second dive. This time we got in the boat and headed for nearby Gato Island where we dove Whitetip Alley. Whitetip alley was also an advanced dive, not because of the depth (though it is 20m) but because of the strong current. Whitetip Alley is known as the best place near Malapascua to look for whitecap reef sharks.
We descended into the current and began swimming slowly into it, my dive instructor peering into small caves and under rocks for whitetip reef sharks. Most of the dive passed without finding any. We did, however, see a beautiful sea snake winding its way toward the surface.
Then, just as we were nearing the boat, the instructor waved us down to a narrow crevice. He moved away so I could fit in. At the bottom of the crevice was a small cave and in it were two two-meter long whitetips. They were about two meters from my face, sitting perfectly still, and appeared to be looking at me. It was chilling.
I moved out of the way so that the others could see them. Afterwards we returned to the boat, spotting a cuttlefish — truly an alien looking creature — along the way.
It’s hard to find a negative in my sea experiences in the Philippines. In the space of a week I swam with whale, thresher, and reef sharks, and saw numerous other exotic underwater creatures. It was amazing, but I’m now left with a problem.
On my first two dives I saw sharks. Now, how can I ever be satisfied with boring ‘ol coral and fish?
I’ve been spoiled by the Philippines.
I was provided discount diving lessons by Fun and Sun Dive and Travel, but I recommend them because I had a genuinely great experience with their instructors. If you’re planning to go to Malapascua, I recommend contacting them.
Fun and Sun Dive and Travel
Address: Bridges Town Square 143 Plaridel Street, Alang-Alang,
Mandaue City, Cebu, Philippines 6014
Phone: +63 32 343 3410