Diving with Thresher Sharks in the Philippines

A plane, another plane, a 4-hour drive, a small boat, a larger boat, another smaller boat, and at last my toes touch the squeaky-white beaches of Malapascua Island. It’s one of the premier diving spots in the Philippines, and with 7000 islands, this is a country that’s full of them.  The water is a balmy 84 degrees, visibility can reach up to 35m, and the Visayan Sea is teeming with life.   For recreational divers in love with big animals, there’s a much bigger hook:  Year round, this is the only place in the world where you can dive with thresher sharks.

At the friendly Exotic Island Dive Resort, I meet my sun-blonde instructors, Jules and Mimi, who make me feel right at home.  Popular with Asian and European divers, Malapascua Island has exploded in the last 10 years thanks to budget flights from Manila.   A Dutch couple founded Exotic Island, the first resort on the island, and are credited with discovering the shoal where the threshers gather. Everything – people, supplies, water – has to come in daily on boats, so I’m amazed with the resort’s exhaustive dining menu, as the girls fill me in on what I can expect. 

“Thresher sharks are different from other sharks.  They’re shiny, with big eyes and that giant tail. And they’re so sweet, I just want to pet them, ” explains Mimi.  Adds Jules: “You have to respect them, but you can’t feel afraid.”    We suit up for a night dive to Lighthouse, just to warm up and enjoy the seahorses, mandarin fish, huge hermit crabs and flamboyant flatworms hanging around a nearby reef.  It’s only my second night dive, and to my delight, the inky ocean feels comfortable and safe.  Bio-luminescence surrounds me on my ascent, as I surface by the traditional wooden outrigger, under a bright crescent moon. I see why they called this Exotic Island.

It’s a 5:30am start to Monad Shoal for my thresher shark encounter. I’m nervous: it’s not every day you swim with big animals, and worse yet, what if they don’t show up?   The best time to see the sharks is at sunrise, when they are drawn to a natural cleaning station on the shoal located about 20 minutes from the resort.   Manta, devil and eagle rays, along with hammerheads, are seasonal visitors too.   We submerge and head to the edge of the shoal. Within minutes, Mimi’s flat hand is on her head.   A 6ft thresher comes into view, appearing out of the depth below us.   It’s distinctive tail looks like an Ottoman sword.   There’s barely time to register before another appears, and another.  Judging Jules’ reaction, I’ve stumbled upon a bumper day on the shoal.  During our hour-long dive, we count about a dozen threshers.   One circles back and eyes me out curiously. That moment instantly converts me into a lifelong macro diver. 

Back on the banka, the traditional outrigger, there’s huge smiles on the faces of a dozen divers. “It was an effort not to see a shark today,” laughs Mimi.  At this remarkable spot in a remarkable country, nobody is going home disappointed

Exotic Island Dive Resort offers daily dives with thresher sharks and other sites around Malapascua Island, with a full PADI training program and fully equipped dive shop.  The resort offers comfy and clean accommodation, free pick-up and drop-off from the mainland, and an excellent restaurant.   Learn more at: http://malapascua.net/.