Idyllic Malapascua is just a teeny blip on the Philippine’s tourism radar in comparison to bigger stars like Boracay or Palawan — and that’s part of what makes it so alluring to those who do make the arduous journey to get there. Those that do are mainly in pursuit of diving experiences
that are hard to replicate elsewhere, like spotting shy thresher sharks or getting up close and personal at a sea snake breeding ground.
While time and budget constraints kept me from exploring the underwater world of Malapascua to the extent that I desired, I did get a taste of what it is that attracts scuba enthusiasts from around the world.
Monad Shoal Thresher Shark Dive
Malapascua’s most famous dive is at the Monad Shoal, where boats assemble before sunrise, filled with divers hoping to spot elusive thresher sharks and manta rays. This has the potential to be either the best or most boring dive of your life — divers line up on a 25m deep ledge and sit shoulder to shoulder behind a rope, waiting for the elusive creatures to show. They often do, thanks to the underwater cleaning station of wrasses in the area, but even so, poor visibility can make them near impossible to see.
But that’s fine, because who doesn’t love to get a 4:00am start on their day, anyway?
While swimming to and from the shelf, there isn’t too much to see, maybe a few butterfly fish here or a scorpionfish there or a cheeky sea worm catching a ride. But we were absolutely fascinated by the jellyfish and long strings of transparent things that filled the water. We tried asking around about the long stringy things, but the best answer we got was a guess that they were egg sacs. Any marine biology geniuses out there care to share?
Heather and I ended up subjecting to ourselves to the 4am wakeup not once buttwice, as we weren’t so satisfied with our first crack at the threshers. We saw one, but it was kind of similar to our whale shark experience — blurry, and blink-and-it’s-over.
The second time we left more satisfied. Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t great while we were there, but still — we were able to experience the majestic whip of their tails, the shy smirks on their faces, and the heart-beating excitement of one swimming into your camera frame.
Prices vary around the island — don’t be afraid to negotiate. Heather received a discount for being a PADI professional and I received one for having my own gear, and so we each paid 1,350 pesos, or around $33 for each thresher shark dive.
Unfortunately, most of the reefs closest to Malapascua have been destroyed by dynamite fishing and other past mistakes. Luckily, nearby biodiversity hotspots like Gato Island are still thriving marine sanctuaries.
We signed on for a two dive trip to the island, and set off hoping for an experience like we had diving off Donsol the week prior.
While nothing could quite match up to Donsol, we did have two fantastic dives at Gato. The coral is healthy and diverse, and there was a wide variety of fish species to keep us happy and snapping. We were, however, kind of underwhelmed by our divemaster and fellow divers — though they did give us plenty of inside joke material for years to come! Normally I think diving is a foolproof way to meet cool people, but I guess there is an exception to every rule.
Hands down, my favorite discovery of the day was this particular anemone, which would glow with magnetic neon intensity from the ocean floor. The only word I have to describe my reaction to this creature is swooning.
I was able to see how bright it truly was when on our second dive, we entered a cave so dark we had to take along dive lights. The divemaster had assured us that at the other end of the cave, we would find circling white tip reef sharks. Sure we would, I thought sarcastically.
Well you could have knocked me over with a snorkel, because when we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we too saw the silhouette of a circling white tip reef shark. We all watched in awe for as long as the shark allowed until he was finally drawn away from the entrance. It was a beautiful moment.
While I was setting up my camera to take this shot, some debris seemed to be in the way. When I moved my camera to clean the frame, I saw that it was aspanish dancer flatworm! It was the first one I had ever seen swimming in the open water, and I was overwhelmed by my luck. While I was trying to line up a shot of him, a sea snake shimmied by.
And then my brain exploded.
While I never quite wanted to leave the cave, the beautiful reefs that awaited us on the other end were a fine consolation. After my mask and camera fogging debacles in Donsol, I was thrilled that all my equipment was behaving as it should. However, my camera battery died at the end of the second dive! I always travel with two, but I hadn’t thought ahead to switch to my spare. Luckily I had gotten some great shots already, and Heather took care of the rest.
Diving at Gato is a little pricier than local Malapascua dives due to the distance and the fact that a torch rental is often required. Keeping in mind our discounts, Heather and I each paid 3,000 pesos, or around $73 usd for two dives. Strangely, no lunch was included but we were told to bring our own — the first time I’ve run into that particular setip.
I didn’t go on any night dives in Malapascua due to budget constraints and work deadlines and uh, hating night dives. Heather however was enticed by the fact that it was mandarin fish mating season, and set out one evening at dusk. While I can’t tell you much about this dive, I wanted to show these amazing images for anyone who is considering night diving in Malapascua. They almost tempted even me!