What in Shark-nation!

Once we arrived in Malapascua we were fairly exhausted from a long day. The island is tiny, and the tourism there is centered solely on diving. Dirt paths connect everything; there are no cars, only motorbikes, and walking end to end only takes 40 minutes. Expensive and fancy dive resorts dot the landscape here and there, but the locals live in huts of woven together palms, corrugated metal, and bamboo. Some of the wealthier ones have concrete. The streets are lined with playful children, stray puppies and cats, and, like most of the Visayas, fighting roosters.

I don’t believe I’ve mentioned yet the one constant sound we’ve encountered in every place we’ve visited in the Philippines: rooster crows. Chickens roam freely in most places, but the prized fighting roosters are always tied to stakes in the ground outside homesteads. Cockfighting is legal and encouraged here. It’s a cultural event (one that I haven’t attended as I refuse to support it) attended by men, usually filled with alcohol and gambling. We’ve seen the arenas around, everything from small woven rings with only standing room to large concrete arenas surrounded in bleachers. It’s incredibly popular, and although I don’t see the entertainment value, I can definitely understand the need for entertainment here. And the constant presence of roosters means constant crowing, at all hours of the day and night, in every direction. From multiple directions, really. It’s a sound I won’t miss.

After a quick visit to the dive shop we settled in at our night’s accommodation: hammocks in the open air deck atop the restaurant Villa Sandra. What a neat place! Villa Sandra, a hostel dedicated to backpackers, had a very hippie vibe. Psychedelic murals and inspirational signs covered every wall, and the restaurant served only vegetarian and vegan food. Delicious food, by the way. For dinner I had “green pasta”, spinach pasta covered in a creamy sauce loaded with veggies and some fried veggie balls, while Keenen gorged himself on shakshuka, an delectable Israeli dish that looks difficult to make and is even harder to describe. With our bellies full we retreated to the hammocks to read for the night.

The next morning we set out with Divelink Cebu, the only locally owned and run shop on the island, and seemingly the only one more focused on conservation efforts than money. We went to Gato Island, no more than a little outcropping of rock jutting above the surface of the water where white tip reef sharks like to hang out. The dive began with a short swim through a cavern that goes through the middle of the island, and at the end, SHARKS! We saw three gorgeous white tips circling around the mouth of the cavern, and as we were the first divers there they weren’t incognito yet.

The rest of the dive we explored the reef surrounding the island, which had plenty to offer. Our dive guide, Nhato, is the resident “spotter” at Divelink- he’s quite good at finding all the nifty small stuff. We saw seahorses, nudibranchs the size of a baby’s foot (normally they’re the size of my pinky), a Spanish dancer nudibranch, and a pipefish that looked like a miniature dragon. Before this dive, we remembered that we had brought our Go Pro 3 with us all well, which has a perfectly functional dive casing! Though we’re kicking ourselves for forgetting it on every other dive, at least we could get footage here (albeit not as good as the 5 would’ve given us). After our long day on the water, we went to our resort, Mr. Kwiiz, for some dinner and rest. And mango floats. Mr. Kwiiz had great mango floats- they were frozen, so it tasted like ice cream. So great that we cleared them out.

**Pro-tip: We got a super awesome deal for a private room at the resort through our new favorite booking app, Agoda! Seems to work very well in Asia and is widely used by hotels, hostels, and resorts. And you can pay for your booking in full on the app, a nice way to spare your cash for the good stuff since most places don’t take cards here.

The next morning we woke before the sun for the dive we were most looking forward to: Monad Shoal. Monad Shoal is a sunken sea mount as big as Malapascua itself about an hour boat ride from the island. The top of the shoal rests at around 30 ft. deep and is surrounded by much deeper water on every side. The best spot to see threshers is a small cliff maybe 10 ft. wide jutting out from the sheer walls of the plateau, a cleaning station around 90 ft. deep. We jumped in the water with about 30 other divers just after the sun broke the horizon and made the decent to 90 ft., then sat on a line eagerly awaiting the appearance of our second favorite elasmobranch. They come up over the ledge and swim by the line of divers, eerily appearing as shadows out of the blue before you can see their whole body, then sinking back in to the shadows and out of sight just as fast. We saw two or three different sharks about 7 times during the time we were safely allotted at that depth and relished every moment of it.

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Thresher sharks are particularly cool predators because of the way they hunt. Unlike most sharks, the upper lobe of their tail is as long as their entire body. It ripples like a banner behind them when they swim. When they hunt, the slap their pray with the tail to stun it. It moves so quickly through the water that it causes cavitation- so much energy that the water boils, creating a pressure wave that leaves their victim powerless. Once the food is stunned, it’s easy picking for the shark to turn around and swallow it. The first sight of one took my breath away, and I had to remember to breath as we watched them swim peacefully by to be cleaned by the tiny fish at the shoal.

For the rest of the dive we returned to the top of the shoal for some exploring. On our way up we saw some tiny yellow pygmy seahorses the size of my pinky nail hanging out of a huge sea fan. It was beautiful but relatively uneventful, although we did learn how to create bubble rings with our knuckles! After a quick stop on the island for breakfast, we went back out on the boat to do a drift dive over a soft coral garden. The current never came, but we still got see most of the red, purple, pink, and violet garden softly flowing in the water. We even got to witness a feather star swimming, an incredible sight. All of it’s feathered arms dance up and a down in a way I simply can’t describe. It was very serene.

As we were incredibly tired after our adventure, we spent the remainder the day resting in room until dinner time, where we returned to Villa Sandra for another excellent vegetarian meal. I had a black bean and banana heart burger with loads of veggies and homemade mango ginger sauce, while Keenen enjoyed a veggie sandwich.

Since once wasn’t enough, we woke our butts up before the crack of dawn to see the threshers once again. This time the visibility wasn’t as good and we only got to see three sharks, but we had a special moment during our ascent. Around 75 feet around the corner of the cliff face a thresher swam right by our little group, which consisted only of Keenen and I, our divemaster, and divemaster-in-training. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet away, and we were the only ones who got to enjoy it. The remainder of the dive we saw many lionfish in their natural habitat (it was hard to fight not to want to spear them on sight, an old habit from our time in Jamaica), as well as many beautiful fish and coral species, eels, and another leafy dragon pipefish hiding in a feather star.

We spent the entire rest of the day napping and binge watching TV in bed, since Malapascua doesn’t much in the way of entertainment outside the water. The following morning we set out for Cebu city with a ferry and a long bus which took us back to the mall for our flight to Donsol the following day. In Donsol we hope to accomplish another life dream: swimming with manta rays and whale sharks.

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