My quests in the blue world were not without challenges, some phenomenal but mostly intriguing. Summing it up I enjoyed every bit of these experiences, always coming home with renewed spirit and increasing admiration and love for the depths. It meant traveling far, passing a night at the airport, spending fortune, neglecting comforts, entrusting my life to strangers and extending limits of my self-imposed modesty. Sometimes it was surprising I have gone that far. The scale of challenges is increasing. Yes, I have gone that far.
My search around the country is still on-going and few of them stand out for their mystic and charm, like sucking senses and left a diver fazed in wonder. Here are few sites that captured my heart and curiosity, it felt like I can’t get enough from my descent on its depths.
Pescador Island, Moalboal This lowly island held surprising secrets, the phenomenal sardine’s run will stir your curiosity how these millions of small fish come together and synchronize for a tornado. It is so tempting to come and be amongst in their assembly and get lost in their midst!
The Canyons, Puerto Galera
Swept off by the current!
Hole in the Wall!
Rich in marine life…
Dropping at Escarceo Point, drifting fast with the currents passing field of colorful acropora corals, and race over several drop-offs to reach the Hole in the Wall. Steadying for the entrance, I was completely surprised as I was sucked in the hole in a split second! There, the Canyons teeming with marine life.
Akitsushima Maru, Coron
There is that rush what’s beyond!
A cannon ball hole?
Who’s afraid of the dark?
All the World War II wrecks concentrated in Coron Bay gave me that rush for the penetration but Akitsushima is different. She is simply beautiful, one of the few true warships among the wrecks. We penetrated chambers, crevices, holes and square openings. Mysterious and truly engaging, the dark and its secrets and historic value held so much attraction to me. Its externals is teeming with fish life, remnants like broken crane, canon ball hole, artillery and funnel. It is an advance dive due to depth and currents.
Monad Shoal, Malapascua
Watching a flock of quirky thresher sharks swimming before me on early morning was one of my unforgettable underwater experience, I almost cried in amazement! I can sit at the viewing edge and watch them until they are gone. Threshers are deep inhabitants but a herd always gathers every morning at the shoal to be cleaned from parasites and algae on their bodies by wrasses, more of a symbiotic relationship as these wrasses were fed from the sharks. Monad offer guaranteed sightings everyday on early mornings!
Banaug Shoal, Mantangale
Denise pygmy in corals!
Resident scorpion fish
The shoal is about 22 meters depth from the surface but this underwater hill can never be outdone in terms of diversity in marine life. The swarm of damsels, red snappers, angels, sergeants, wrasses amidst hard corals and tangling soft corals, it is always as colorful as it was. Moray eel, stone fish, leaf fish, lion fish, nudis, sea stars are just few that inhabit the small hill. It is always tempting to go deeper to explore what’s beyond. This may not be in the diving map but its richness can be at par with exotic dive destinations.
Have you tried diving from any of these sites? I’m still in search for sites and I know I will never exhaust them in my lifetime. There is yet a lot of secrets to unravel right here in my home country.
NB. All photos courtesy of Angel using Tough 8000 with PT 045 casing
“Why and what did take us too long to be back in Malapascua?”
Our first visit to this northern most island in Cebu almost three years ago was in many ways memorable, I was struck when I first set foot on its shores. I remembered I was almost running on the white sandy beach after I jumped out from the boat towards our simple cottage. This is a backpacker’s dream spot, I thought. Although we missed the thresher sharks at Monad Shoal, we had a great time discovering Kalanggaman Island and its depths. The place is practically left with time, no exact road network. No pave streets but a criss-cross of trails for motorbikes to traverse to any point of the island. Practically a flat site similar to Maldives, like 6-10 meters above sea level.
Well, coming to exotic place is always posed with challenges, with everything in place the weather was our only possible hindrance. So, a typhoon came affecting Visayas & Mindanao and on the morning of my flight it was pouring rain! It was almost cancelled but was grateful we made it when the skies over CdeO cleared, Angel was already waiting in Cebu.
Long – Awaited Return
We arrived Maya port past noon already with the sun shining bright, actually the heat was scorching which was to our advantage, obviously the weather would offer good visibility for the dives. Wishing to reach the shores fast but our cruise to the island slowed down as if teasing us again – the island looming larger in view as we approached. The water taxi (tunda) was there to meet us and transport in groups finally to the station just near our dive shop. It was good to see again Ms. Amelia of Divelink, somehow it’s more comfortable to dive with people you knew and trusted, unfortunately the DM assigned to us before had left the island already.
We left hurriedly after the necessary arrangements for the next day dives, with no decent meals since last night dinner, at 4pm we were both starving. Before we settled in our lodgings we had a meal summarized in one – well, fitting for my abstinence! Actually we devoured our pasta and salad.
Our alarms went off at 4am the next morning, we need to be early as the assembly time was at 445am. My second time to be up that early for a dive – only for the threshers! After the long wait, Angel and I both hoped that we will encounter this phenomenal specie. It was still dark as we got to the shop. We were joined with five Thai divers, who all looked Filipino to me.
The shoal is a mound that rose up from 250m depths, it had walls with sandy slope that created like a plateau, where the sharks converge every morning for the cleaning, the wrasses having early breakfast in return. In short, they are co-mensal to each other. There were five boats already anchored as we approached the area, we were the last to arrive I guess. The cold waters splashed as we all entered in giant step one by one, we all went for the line for the descent. At 10 meters, Angel and I had our first morning surprise when two threshers quickly appeared in view swimming restlessly as if looking for a cleaner wrasse. So beautiful, it’s there with its long tail and prominent dorsal fins! We were lead by our guide James down to the wall at the viewing deck, where the divers lined up waiting for the threshers to appear. Practically, it was a sit and wait activity as we were told during the briefing – like watching a movie! No one is allowed to swim around or cross the viewing ground so as not to disturb them, the air bubbles from the tank can scare the sharks mistaking it as fishing nets – based on research and observation.
Indeed, after awhile threshers came to the ground intermittently when it reached five I stop counting and just enjoyed the view. Obviously I dismissed all other marine life in the area but like others focused alone on the sharks. But Angel said, there were at least eleven sightings of threshers. We went further but stayed close to the wall with James and found more, we went back to the viewing deck as other divers left the area. The last shark I had went nearer and it was a face to face encounter – those glassy round eyes gazing and its tail finning for swift movements averting its directions as if teasing me then. It felt so beautiful I wanted to cry but quickly reminded myself my tears won’t allow me to see clearly the sharks. I still wanted to linger on ground holding the line but my dive guide signaled for my dive computer, alas my NDL was down to 3 minutes! He summoned me for the ascent, Angel was already moving up away to the slope. It was so amazing I hardly took any photos, it was truly magical only your heart and mind captured the scene!
I still had the adrenaline rush I carried the tank on my back up the boat (which is rare) and gave Angel a quick warm hug for an afterglow of the incredible thresher sharks encounter. It was overwhelming I can’t contain, it was worth the wait…
Our two remaining dives was scheduled at Gato, an uninhabited island shaped like a cat in back view, off the coast of Malapascua about 30 minutes away on boat. We were joined with two other lady divers (foreigners too) with DM Nick. The Thai divers still joining, we were divided into two groups as we increase in number, reasonable as the site requires more care and work.
From distance, the island looks ordinary and bleak – like a big boulder punctuated with few trees and vegetation, it has a guard house being an MPA but the surrounding waters was raging. DM Nick briefed us to search overhangs and crevices and the possibility of currents. We descend on a slope decorated with soft corals, tropical fishes, sea stars, clams, urchins and more. Most surprising was the sighting of white tip shark hiding under an overhang, I think it was resting or sleeping unmindful of its visitors. It was a big one, it can’t just wiggle away from us! We found a juvenile yellow frogfish, so cute it sat on the sand near the urchin. DM Nick inspected anemones and we found too cleaner shrimp and few nudis. We went around on some rocks and found another big white tip under a crevice, sleeping again. Well, white tips are nocturnal so they went to hunt prey on night when other critters are sleeping. The shark sightings in the shallows was a real treat for me and Angel, it was unexpected. We ascend after 49 minutes with my air still at 80 bars.
After more than an hour of surface interval we geared up for the last descent, which according to DM Nick was a mini-cave dive. We listened intently for the instructions, reminders and demo how to fin once inside – our careless movement can cause clouding up the sands. We will traverse the dark tunnel about 30 meters long, so we need to light up our torch as we enter the waters. The boat moored near the guardhouse but the water was still raging. Our group entered the waters and swam first for the spot which was an advantage as we will get the viewing first! With our torches on, we headed for the dark carefully finning, it was wide enough to accommodate us. The overhangs partly concealed the area, then we stop quietly perching controlling our buoyancy as if waiting for a scene. Lo and behold, slowly looming were white tips swimming coyly, circling around five in all like a family – big, medium and a pup. A pair of trevally or jacks was playing, glistening as I point my torch on them. Hovering nearby were group of snappers and few groupers. Such a wonderful sight – watching these creatures in their own habitat!
We proceed to traverse the tunnel and went to a sandy slope punctuated with soft corals, headed to a reef and were surprised when a white tip quickly passed by and disappeared in a blink of an eye. We sighted banded sea snake – a pair of juveniles and a big one slithering on the corals. There was a lionfish, anemone fish and the shy moray eel. Keen eyes were needed for the macros, the cleaner shrimp and the jumping juvenile scorpionfish didn’t escape DM Nick’s searching mode. We surfaced after 56 minutes with my air still at 100 bars. Exhausted and the waters still choppy, I hold on to Angel as we swam back to boat. Still overwhelmed we were asking ourselves as we took our seats on the boat, “Why did it take us too long to be back in Malapascua?”
High in spirits, we chatter now and then about the sharks – at the diveshop, on our way to the lodge, during dinner, in the sleeping room. Angel declared it as his best dive, next to Tubbataha cruise I commented. Indeed, you’ll never know the mystery of an island – more than on the surface. Many are paradise in the depths, its unspeakable grandeur is more than what the eyes can see. This trip was without challenges but turned out to be about sharks – a great sharks day. And guess what, the proverbial rainbow appeared before us as we cruise back to Maya port the following morning, its other end in Gato Island! It wasn’t drizzling and the early morning sun decorated the horizons, yet the rainbow – right, our heavenly sign of a blissful trip…
It was a face to face encounter with Thresher Sharks (Alopiidae) early morning one Saturday at none other than the Monad Shoal, Malapascua Island north of Cebu province. After almost three years I finally had a close encounter of this interesting pelagic.
Malapascua Island is almost synonymous to thresher sharks, not to mention the pristine white beaches, generally this pelagic drives the local dive and tourism industries, fuelling 80% of the regional economy. Myself included was first drawn to this southernmost tip island of Cebu province almost three years now, aiming to catch glimpse of the phenomenal presence of the shark in shallow waters.
This pelagic thresher Shark (Alopias Pelagicus) is an oceanic species whose biology and behavioral ecology are largely unknown due to study limitations. Fisheries and by-catch data indicate that it is found in warm and temperate offshore waters, matures late, has low fecundity and is vulnerable to over-exploitation. International conventions have recognized almost all shark species to be threatened, promoting nations to implement protection policies. These listed species comprise those which have received comprehensive scientific investigation, and whose biology and behavioral ecology are well understood. The fact that thresher sharks regularly visit a sea mount in the Philippines presents a unique opportunity to study this rarely observed oceanic shark. Preliminary investigations of the site identified significant relationships between shark presence and cleaning activity conducted by resident Cleaner and Moon wrasses (Labriodes Dinidiatus and Thalassoma Lunare). Cleaning activity relating to sharks has never been investigated in the wild before, but this observable interactions seen at this site explained why these mainly oceanic sharks venture into shallow coastal waters, where they are vulnerable to fishing and disturbance from dive tourism. Understanding their behavioral ecology will provide important information to support the protection plan for the specie.
Monad Shoal is located within the Visayan Sea, 8.16 km due east from the southern beach of Malapascua Island. The sea mount is an open water site rising 250 meters from the sea floor to 15=25 meter depths. Early morning presence of thresher sharks on the shoal attracted local dive and tourism industries to Malapascua Island.
It is with these facts and reasons that the Thresher Shark Research Conservation Project initiated, it started in 2009. The project aimed to investigate the behavior of thresher sharks in response to resident cleaner fishes, the correlations between parasite presence, to improve established methods of observing the specie, to assess also the population dynamics of visit frequency, and to provide relevant information to conservation initiatives in relation to managing impacts of fishery and dive tourism. The project is developing a model for managing Monad Shoal as a protected area for the thresher sharks.
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