Malapascua’s main tourist draw has always been the daily sightings of majestic thresher sharks. But almost five years ago, in the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda, all that nearly disappeared, threatening the future of the island and its residents.
It’s 4am and the Visayan Sea ahead is a whispering mass of black. Under the glowing moon and twinkling stars, we wiggle into our wetsuits, sling heavy scuba tanks over our backs and, by flashlight, cross the beach to clamber onto the rickety wooden boat waiting for us in the shallow waters. As the engine roars into action and the boat tears across the dark sea, the excitement among all onboard is palpable, in spite of the lashing rain and lingering pain of the pre-dawn wake-up call. We are about to go diving with thresher sharks.
A tiny dash of white sand off the northeast coast of Cebu, Malapascua had been a forgotten fishing community for centuries. That all changed 20 years ago when local fishermen noticed thresher sharks jumping up from the waves like dolphins. Divers were sent down to investigate and they discovered something wonderful: These rare sharks were using a sunken island called Monad Shoal as a cleaning station each morning. As they lingered around the rocks, local wrasses would eat parasites from the sharks’ bodies.
That revelation kick-started a tourism boom in Malapascua, which only escalated in the early noughties. “When I first came to Malapascua, there were about five dive centers,” says Joseph Dean, aka “Dino”, the British manager of Thresher Shark Divers, who has lived on the island for a decade. Today, there are more than 20 dive centers, and a whole strip of boutique hotels lining Bounty Beach, the idyllic main strip of sand. “People are literally flying for 12 hours just to come and do a day of diving with the sharks at five in the morning,” Dino adds. “Threshers are the golden goose for Cebu.”
There are three species of thresher sharks: the bigeye, the common and the pelagic, which is the type found in Malapascua. Threshers can grow up to 6m in length, about half of which is their huge scythe-like tails, for which they are named. Threshers use their tails to stun fish, making them easier to catch. Rissa Arriesgado, a PADI divemaster at Thresher Shark Divers who was born in Malapascua, says people are drawn to the gracefulness of the animals. “They are so elegant in the way they swim due to their long tails, so they appear to be more gentle than a tiger shark or great white shark does in the water.”
Malapascua is the only place in the world that offers daily sightings of these whip-tailed wonders. Nearly every one of Malapascua’s 4,000 residents — from the fishermen who supply the restaurants to the hoteliers and dive instructors — depends on those sharks in some way to make a living.
On November 8, 2013, however, the island came frighteningly close to losing what essentially props up local tourism. At 9.30am that Friday morning, one of the strongest tropical cyclones the world has ever seen struck Malapascua head on. As Super Typhoon Yolanda tore across the tiny island — 2.5km long and 1km wide — palm trees snapped, hotels roofs were swept away and sand was blasted off the beaches.
“We lost almost all of our trees; our island was almost bare,” Rissa says. “Almost every house and business was blown away or suffered major damage; it was a scary time.” Tourists had been evacuated days in advance, and locals provided with safe shelter on the island, so none of the 6,300 lives claimed by the storm in the Philippines were from Malapascua. In that respect, the island was lucky. “Had it hit earlier in the day, I’m sure people would have died,” says Dino, who watched the mega-storm roll in from his balcony.
Once Yolanda passed, the task of rebuilding began almost immediately. Fabienne Wyss, a Swiss diver who arrived on Malapascua in 2005 and opened the Ocean Vida beach resort in 2011, says that 80% of the island was destroyed after the typhoon, including the second floor and restaurant of her hotel. “Sharks are a unique draw, and Malapascua has had a lot of repeat customers who have come for many years — they helped us after the typhoon,” she remembers. Donations poured in from around the world to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, but in the aftermath of Yolanda, there was a bigger question than money on the divemasters’ minds: Would the thresher sharks still be there?
Eighteen days after the typhoon hit, the divers went out to assess the damage below the waves. “It was so bad,” Dino says, shaking his head. “The typhoon took away all the sand from the reef to 30m down. The coral all went. Nothing survived Yolanda; nothing shallower than 30m. All the cleaning stations were damaged and turned upside down.” Thankfully, the sharks were still there, albeit skittish and “very, very confused”.
From that moment, it was a race against time to repair the environment so the thresher sharks didn’t decamp.Dino’s team, along with other dive centers from the island, immediately set about building artificial reefs using pipes, or whatever they could find, and making pyramids out of underwater rocks that would serve as cleaning stations. After four or five days, all the cleaning fish came back.
Today, Malapascua has rebuilt itself entirely. The only hint that devastation ever visited its white-sand shores are the snapped palm tree trunks dotted across the island. Furthermore, the rebuild gave Malapascua the chance to develop.
It also gave dive centers a reminder, if they needed one, of just how vital conservation of the threshers’ environment is to the island’s future. Twenty of the dive centers are now members of the Malapascua Marine Preservation Fund, an experimental project that works to protect the threshers from illegal fishing (thresher sharks are fished for their tails, which are used in shark fin soup). Today, any diver taken to Monad Shoal by any of the fund’s member dive centers must pay a P50 tax, on top of the government-levied marine park fee of P150. This extra money pays for locally hired, government-trained marine guards to patrol the Visayan Sea for illegal fishing 24 hours a day.
We spy one of those patrols, a little dinghy in the middle of the sea, when our boat finally arrives at the patch of water from which we will descend into the deep blue. Dawn is breaking, and streaks of pink light rush across the sky. All around, boats are turning off their engines, and divers are plopping feet-first into the water.
This is not a beginner’s dive. To witness the thresher sharks undertake their morning ritual, divers must descend to about 20m, a depth that exceeds the basic Open Water certification. And there is, of course, the risk that the sharks won’t show up once you get down there, but our Swedish diving instructor Joel Boethius says that happens about “three times a year”. Since the conservation program got going, more and more threshers have been coming to Monad Shoal. Sometimes, they can be found in groups as large as 20, politely queuing to be cleaned — all the more special, as threshers are solitary animals that generally hunt alone.
Once in the water, Joel guides us to a rough blue rope, which we follow down to 15m below sea level. From here, we descend to Monad Shoal, a barren, sandy shelf, where we perch nervously on the seamount edge. There are no cages. We will be just meters, perhaps even inches, from the sharks.
Threshers are not a danger to humans, although every now and then, Dino warns before our dive, they might suddenly rush to the surface. “If you see a thresher jerk, that’s a good sign it might breach from irritation. It’ll make a beeline for the surface at a great rate. You’ll hear everybody scream underwater when they do that. One of them broke one of the outriggers on our boat once.”
That breaching, of course, is how the fishermen came to know the sharks were there to begin with. I try to put this thought out of my mind as we prepare for our encounter. We wait for 10 minutes, checking our oxygen, breathing steadily. And then suddenly from the misty blue ocean, a thresher emerges, elegantly sashaying through the water like a sea snake. We remain perfectly still, taking in this incredible moment. Then, the shark swims on.
Back on the boat, everyone is exhilarated. It was so close — its bulging eyes so watchful, its movements so peaceful — we exclaim. Peeling off flippers and unzipping our suits, we marvel at the wondrous animal that Malapascua almost lost.
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Thresher sharks are found at a depth of 20m. PADI Open Water divers are certified down to 18m. Those hoping to see the thresher sharks at Monad Shoal, therefore, will need to have their Advanced Open Water certification. Alternatively, those with Open Water certification can sign up for an Advanced Open Water adventure dive, which will allow a divemaster to take students down to a maximum depth of 30m. That dive counts towards Advanced Open Water certification. For more details, contact Thresher Shark Divers. malapascua-diving.com
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Smile magazine.