Malapascua Island, January 2017

I emailed Threshers Shark Divers to handle all the arrangements for my trip to Malapascua. They booked the transfer for me from the overnight accommodation I'd stayed in near Cebu airport. A minibus turned up 5 minutes early and we drove up to the north. It took about 4 hours before we got to Maya where the boat left from where we were met by Threshers staff and transferred onto one of their boats for the short trip across.

Sea horse
On arrival, we dumped all our dive kit in a crate at the centre and walked the short distance to our accommodation. I was staying in the Cocabana and paying ₱700 a night for a room with a fan and ensuite bathroom. It was reasonable for the price. The water was a but intermittent, mostly in the night, though this could have been a island wide problem.

There are various places to stay all along the south beach of the island and also a selection of bars and restaurants. There's the local village a couple of blocks behind which has some small shops and restaurants. Above the dive centre was Oscar's, a bar and restaurant and you could have food and drinks put onto your final bill. I went there for breakfast most days as they were open at 7am, giving plenty of time before the 8am meet.

The first dive trip was to Kalangaman. This is an uninhabited island run as a national park surrounded by marine park. It's quite a long way taking over an hour. The dive site itself was a wall dropping down to over 50m. We did two dives on two sections. The visibility was patchy with some dark plankton in the water in places. The coral looked healthy though there wasn't that much fish life. There was smaller stuff like anemone fish on the reef but certainly no shoals of fish that day. We did see a large turtle.

In between the dives we went onto the island and had a BBQ lunch which was pretty good. This is the most expensive trip offered as, in addition to lunch and fuel surcharge, there's a marine park fee of ₱500 for the island.

The next day, I did the trip to Gato island. This is more of a large rock than an island, so there's no going ashore. Lunch was a prepacked sandwich and some fruit.

Ornate ghost pipefish
Getting in, we entered a short tunnel at 8m. It was pretty in there with the walls covered in soft corals though the waves made it quite surgy so with a group of 8, some with less than perfect buoyancy control, there were bodies everywhere. Exiting the tunnel, there was another cave opposite with some white tip reef sharks under an overhand inside. We also saw another white tip later on.

Gato is known for its sea snakes and we saw several, all of the black and white banded krait variety. There were also some small though not pygmy, seahorses living in some of the weedy patches on the rocks. Visibility again wasn't fantastic, though 15m is reasonable.

The signature dive of Malapascua is to Monad shoal to see the thresher sharks. The shoal rises up to about 15m from the seabed. It's mostly sandy but it's a cleaning station for the sharks which inconveniently turn up there at dawn.

I leapt out of bed at 4.30 and the boat left at 5am. It was still dark when we left. I'd recommend putting insect repellent on as I'm sure that's when I got most of my bites. The dive plan is to go down to 30m or so and wait for the sharks to turn up, which they duly did. I saw about 5 and they come within a few metres of you. Their tails are their distinctive feature and what gives them their name and they really are big. Visibility and the light that early meant I didn't get any decent photos unlike my friends the previous morning, but it was still a good encounter. It's rare that they don't see them.

The other dives I did were local dives. I was supposed to dive the wrecks of the Dona Marilyn (33m) and Pioneer (55m) , but the weather blew , so they had to be cancelled.

The local dives weren't bad. The soft corals were particularly good and I saw some interesting stuff like a sea horse and ornate ghost pipefish and as well loads and loads of normal pipefish. However, there just weren't the usual clouds of things like anthias and trigger fish that you expect on reefs. I'm not sure why.

Ornate ghost pipefish
In retrospect, 7 days in Malapascua was a bit too long. There just weren't the variety of dives or places to eat and drink. Possibly I would have felt differently had I had a chance to do the wreck dives, and the plan had been to do them with a twinset and a stage. The groups were on the large side, I felt. 8 divers plus a guide is a lot especially when the standard of some of those divers was not high. The briefings only really covered safety aspects rather than the dive site. You were just expected to follow. On one of my dives, an inexperienced diver missed the line going down in a current. Then two others started to feel uncomfortable, so the guide took them up signalling to me to do the dive with my buddy. Obviously I was fine with that but as he left, I remember thinking to myself that I had no idea what the site looked like or where I should go to find the highlights.

My bill at the end was a bit more than I had anticipated and not because of what I'd had in the bar. All those marine fees, lunches on the boat and fuel surcharges start to add up.