Category Archives: Malapascua Island

Thresher Sharks SCUBA Diving

SCUBA Diving with Thresher Sharks – Philippines

Introducing Thresher Sharks!  Imagine seeing a shark with a long tail that can be as long as the total body length. Thresher Sharks can only be consistently spotted in a few places in the world, so when was in the Philippines I had to see them up close.

What’s a Thresher Shark? 

In this post I’ll cover why thresher sharks have such long tails, what thresher sharks eat, how big thresher sharks typically are, and where to find thresher sharks, in addition to showing some videos of threshers in motion.  I’ll also detail my specific experience SCUBA diving to see thresher sharks  at the bottom of this page as well.

Thresher sharks are mostly known for the size of their tail (“upper caudal fin lobe”), which is typically equal to the length of the rest of their body!  Check out this below photo:

Thresher Shark  shows off its impressive tail - Thresher Sharks Philippines
Thresher Sharks have tails equal to the rest of the size of their body. Photo credit: Rafn Ingi Finnsson

Why do Thresher Sharks have large tails?

Thresher sharks are active predators – they use their huge tails not only to swim, but also to swat and stun much smaller prey fish. Whack!   When hunting schooling fish, thresher sharks are known to “slap” the water, herding and stunning prey.

Thresher Shark diet – what do Thresher Sharks eat?

Thresher sharks eat squid, octopuses, crustaceans and small schooling fish such as bluefish, mackerel, needlefish, lancetfish, lanternfish, and more.

How big are Thresher sharks?

Threshers range from 8 feet long on the small end, to as big as 20-25 feet long! That’s 2.5 meters to 7.5 meters. 1,100 lbs!

Thresher Shark swimming by
we waited and waited to catch a glimpse of the Thresher Shark

The scientific name of the three most common thresher sharks are Alopias vulpinus, Alopias superciliosus, and Alopias pelagicusBelow is a diagram from this site:

Thresher Shark diagram of features
Diagram of Thresher Shark Features
A thresher shark showing off its impressive tail - thresher sharks Philippines
A thresher shark showing off its impressive tail.

How are thresher sharks like the dolphins??   Thresher sharks are one of the few shark species known to jump fully out of the water, making turns like dolphins, this behaviour is called breaching. Here’s a photo and example for a thresher shark that wandered towards Europe, jumping out of the water.

Videos of thresher sharks:

Where can you find Thresher Sharks? 

They are generally not found deeper than 500 meters (1,640ft). You can find thresher sharks everywhere from off the coast of southern California to South Africa, but there’s not many dive sites that see them with such regularity.

The best place in the world to spot thresher sharks is in the Philippines off the coast of Malapascua Island in the Visayan Sea, located across a shallow strait from the northernmost tip of Cebu Island, at the sunken island sea mount of Monad Shoal at a dive site that’s now called Shark Wall.

Why is Monad Shoal the best place to spot Thresher Sharks?

Why do thresher sharks go there?  Monad Shoal is near the Filipino island of Malapascua – it’s a sunken island at 18-24m whose sides drop off to 230m. The thresher sharks live and hunt in this deep water for most of the day, but in the early morning, before it gets too light, they come up to the Shoal, attracted by its “cleaning stations.” Here they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the small fish called cleaning wrasse, which eat dead skin and bacteria from the shark’s body, its gills, and even inside its mouth. Because the cleaning benefits these huge animals, the sharks would never think of eating the wrasse as an early morning snack. The cleaning stations are like a carwash for fish!

My experience SCUBA diving to see Thresher Sharks

Most boring dive ever!  While I find thresher sharks to be fascinating, the actual dive was actually the least interesting SCUBA Diving experience I’ve ever had. You depart around 430am, in order to arrive before sunrise. The top of the sea mount is about 80 feet down. There’s almost no fish or coral and once you get to the optimal viewing spot, you just sit on the ocean floor. Yes really. Visibility was poor.  We sat on the ocean floor doing nothing but waiting and watching for 24 minutes of the dive. Eventually we were rewarded with a thresher shark whizzing past us. Other divers said people often spot Manta rays and schools of devil rays, in addition to hammer head sharks and reef sharks. Also common near the cleaning station are batfish, flutemouths, barracuda, tuna, mantis shrimp, pipefish, scorpionfish, free-swimming lionfish, moorish idols, schooling bannerfish, unicornfish, squid, octopus and various moray eels.

Thresher Shark
Photo credit: Rafn Ingi Finnsson

 

This 1st video below is a 9minute chronicle of the experience that’s fairly similar to ours (except he saw a Manta Ray, aka Devil Ray):

2 more videos of thresher shark videos:

How to get to Malapascua to see Thresher Sharks?

Getting to Malapascua Island to see Thresher Sharks isn’t easy. Fly into Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. Then arrange a private taxi for 4 hours up to a tiny town of Maya (there’s an unreliable bus but I don’t recommend it – it randomly doesn’t come on many days). You’ll need one of the local fisherman to take you to the boat for a small fee, and then there’s a ferry that “leaves promptly at 8am” (more likely whenever it’s full). They operate on frustrating Philippine Time / Filipino Time, so schedules are never strictly adhered to. That’s quite a bit of effort, but once you get there, Malapascua Island is wonderful!

Additional info at MarineBioWiki, and here.

My other shark experiences in Asia: While I started my trip terrified of sharks, over just a few months I’d end up swimming with massive Whale SharksWhitetip Reef Sharks, Blackfin Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, and now the experience SCUBA diving with Thresher Sharks.

Snorkeling in the Philippines – Malapascua Island

While I’ve never gone snorkeling with so few fish in Malapascua, Philippines, the water was clear and we had a great group and our first ever encounter with a Sea Snake! I’ll post about the Sea Snake soon, but in the meantime, here are some fun pics from our snorkeling experience below.

With hardly any fish and great visibility, we mostly just played. Our international group of friends were from Italy, Sweden, England, Holland, and the U.S.

"Philippines

 I’m often asked, is there good snorkeling in Malapascua?  If you’re looking for clear water, it’s wonderful. If you’re looking for lots of fish, I don’t recommend. With that said, I had an amazing time!

"Sea

"Photo

Snorkeling in the Philippines near the Island of Malapascua

"Antihas

"Fish

"Philippines

Sea Snake in Malapascua Philippines Visit50 Feb2011

Who needs sunscreen?

While many people in the United States tend to soak up as much sun as possible, the exact opposite is true in most parts of Asia. People go to great lengths to avoid any exposure to the sun – especially on their face, as you’ll notice in this below photo from the Philippines.

To protect your skin from the sun, you could use SFP 50, wear large hats, or you could avoid the sun entirely. If it’s completely unavoidable, why not wrap your face in towels like a mummy. See below.

Smile for the camera!

Fear of sun in the Philippines
Smile for the camera! We asked the guy behind me to smile for the photo. Really, he’s smiling. Can’t you tell?  — Photo taken on the way to Malapascua,Philippines
Who needs sunscreen when you can wrap your face like a mummy! - Philippines
he reeeeeally doesn’t want any sun on his face

 

 

Where Rum costs less than Coke

Every now and again the pricing on a menu makes you do a double-take, but not because it’s ridiculously affordable or too pricey. Check out the below menu and see if you notice anything interesting.

On the little island of Malapascua, in the Philippines, at Malditos bar, you can order a Rum and Coke for 60 php ($1.43 USD). A double rum-and-coke, with twice the amount of rum, actually costs 50 php (10 php less, $1.19 USD). Huh?  Want to drink a triple rum+coke? Good news for you, the price goes down another 10 php to 40 php ($0.95). Amazing. The Coca-Cola is actually much much more expensive than the rum. Obviously we ordered doubles and triples!

Notice the Rum+Coke pricing. 60 php, or 50 php for a double Rum+coke, or 40 php for a triple. I thought it was an error but they confirmed – apparently the rum costs less than soda. – We obv ordered the triple.

It looked like an error so I pointed it out to the bartender, but surprisingly it’s correct.  The rest of the menu seems logical, for another 30-40% they’ll make your Gin+Tonic a double or Screwdriver a double.

Sandra and I have triple rum and cokes for 40php. A regular rum+coke cost 60php. Huh? Yeah we didn’t understand either

Sidenote – the rum is predictably not high quality. At $0.95 for the triple rum+coke, I think it’s priced just right.

Malditos, one of our favorite spots for drinks on the island of Malapascua, Philippines

Frustrating Filipino Time

Filipino Time – The Philippines is one of my favorite countries that I’ve visited, but one aspect that I certainly don’t miss was their businesses’ apparent lack of appreciation for people’s schedules. Travelers refer to it as “running on Filipino Time” or running on “Philippine Time” or “Pinoy Time.” In the Caribbean I’d experienced what it’s like to be a place “operating on island time,” but this is much worse.  Perhaps being “prompt” is a western concept.  The customer’s time is consistently not valued. It was as if the times listed on published schedules were merely guidelines.  Schedules for flights, buses, and boats were often delayed or canceled without notice or reason.

 

The Philippines would be difficult to navigate even if transportation sources were reliable, but this adds to the challenges.  It might be the least efficient country when it comes to reliability of scheduling (Singapore, the country I’d visit next, was easily the best in this area).
Music Interlude on Filipino Time / Pinoy Time:
I was starting to think we were just unlucky so I asked around and did some research; it’s apparently known as an element built into Filipino culture in the Philippines. This article takes a deeper dive into this phenomenon. It’s interesting because this part of the culture doesn’t seem to be present in my Filipino friends in New York.
Urban Dictionary defines Filipino Time as “Things get done whenever they get done.”
Below are 3 examples from my experiences:

Filipino Time example #1: Flight delays/cancellations

On a beautiful sunny day, our flight was delayed again and again and then canceled, “due to weather.” Whaaat?  Local residents said they do this routinely when the plane is undersold. It’s just Philippine Time / Filipino Time.  Perhaps that’s a lovely concept when you have no schedule, but when you have connecting flights, we found this lack of reliability to be reeeeeally frustrating. Don’t rely on Cebu Pacific or PAL, the two major airlines that operate within the Philippines.
Getting around in the Philippines is often challenging, and built-in Filipino Time is a wildcard that certainly doesn’t help.

Filipino Time example #2: Buses and Ferries

For example, the tiny remote island of Malapascua is known for being one of the best places in the world to go SCUBA diving to see Thresher Sharks, but it’s not easy to get to.
Starting in Cebu, the closest major city, you have to get to the top of that island in a town called Maya. There’s a bus with a posted schedule, but it never came, or at least not within two hours of the posted time. Local residents told us it doesn’t leave every day, and never keeps to a schedule. We met some backpackers that said they went two days in a row and the bus never came, with no refund or explanation.  The bus, even if it comes on time, doesn’t seem to be coordinated with the ferry to Malapascua schedule, which leaves once per day at 8am. Local residents later explained that’s done deliberately to get people to spend time and money in Maya.

filipino-time

The alternative way to get to Maya is a 4-hour private taxi to Maya. This is way more expensive, but given the lack of reliability of the bus, we found a mini-van taxi to take our group. We were picked up at 4am, in order to arrive before 8am, and then waited for the 8am ferry. 830…and waited…9am. And waited. The ferry didn’t leave until 930am; we later learned that they never leave until the boat is full, even if it takes hours, and were lucky to leave within 90 minutes of the schedule. So we took a taxi at 4am to make sure we took an 8am ferry, which sat docked for 90-minutes.
We had similar challenges enroute to Donsol and Boracay.
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Tik tok. We got up at 430am only to have to wait 45min for the boat to come pick us up.  More “Philippine Time”

Filipino Time example #3: SCUBA diving (with Thresher Sharks)

Upon arrival at Malapascua Island, we booked our SCUBA diving trip to see Thresher Sharks for the following morning. We’d need to be out on the water before sunrise, but to catch a glimpse of Thresher Sharks it would be worth it.  After prematurely ending our evening early (by 1am), we got up at 430am to ensure we’d ready to rush out to the dive site, only to have to wait more than 45min for the boat to come pick us up. Eeerrgh. Thanks “Safety Stop” (dive shop in Malapascua). Yet another example of running on frustrating Filipino Time.
filipino-time

How widespread is this issue? It’s common enough that the term Filipino Time is all over the internet. Some examples are from Urban Dictionary, the newspaper PhilStar, and here and here. Most refer explain it as Pinoy people always being 30 minutes late to a scheduled time, and point out that it’s built into the culture. That’s fine, but it’s much worse when it’s actually businesses with scheduling. It’s unprofessional.

Conclusion: Despite these mild annoyances, I loved my time in the Philippines. If you go, I just recommend you leave lots of extra time.

Note to businesses: It would appear there’s a business opportunity to start a company in the ultra competitive shipping/ferry business which can actually be on time (like Cornelius Vanderbilt did in the United States 200 years ago).
Request to the Philippines tourist board: please address this! To attract more tourism money, you’re going to need to improve this aspect, as not everyone has unlimited days to arrive places. If travelers can’t depend on posted schedules, travelers won’t include the Philippines on their trip.
 The government of the Philippines even tried to make it a law. So strange! Details at this CNN link:
http://cnnphilippines.com/videos/2016/01/04/The-real-time-Filipino-time.html
Frustrating Filipino Time - Philippine Time - ferry to Maya
We took a 4am van from Cebu City so we’d arrive in Maya to catch the 8am ferry, only to wait more than 90 minutes for the boat to fill up. errrrg! Frustrating Philippine Time / Filipino Time.

Malapascua island

Introducing Malapascua island – now with electricity!

Some of the friendliest people I met were in the Philippines on  Malapascua island – we didn’t want to leave!  Everyone seemed to genuinely appreciate having us on the island. Tourism can be a double-edged sword. The influx of money can do wonders for a local economy, but it often strips that town of its own culture (I’m talking to you Thailand, specifically Phuket).

While people have been coming to Malapascua to see Thresher Sharks for years, it’s VERY difficult to get to, and it didn’t always offer electricity.  It’s still difficult to get there, but thanks to some generators, the island now has (nearly) 24 hours of electricity in most hotels. It’s new enough that you see signs advertising that they have 24 hours of electricity; it reminded me of old motels growing up that would advertise on signs that they have color TV. Ooooh!

Malapascua Island, Philippines

The beaches on Malapascua island were both empty and beautiful – it’s so difficult to get to, so only travelers that are very determined will make it. The people that are most determined tend to be going there to see Thresher Sharks. More on that in that post (click the link).

Malapascua Island has some of the best sunsets in the Philippines

These friendly kids (below) stopped by every day. At first they were trying to sell us shells, but eventually just wanted to hang out with us. They’d request us to play music for them – interestingly, they’d nearly always request the same some. “Play Waka Waka!” Every day.

my new friends on Malapascua island, Philippines
my new friends on Malapascua island, Philippines
View on Malapascua Island from the Blue Coral hotel
Raymond takes in the view from Blue Coral, our hotel. It was 1500 php per night, so at 750 php that’s $17/night for each of us (most I’d spent on lodging in weeks!)
Rum is cheaper than coke on Malapascua Island in the Philippines
Notice the Rum+Coke pricing. 60 php, or 50 php for a double Rum+coke, or 40 php for a triple. I thought it was an error but they confirmed – apparently the rum costs less than soda. – We obviously ordered the triple.
man-made BBQ on Malapascua Island in the Philippines
Malapascuan BBQ – suspend a metal rack from a triangle tent of 3 bamboo sticks with a fire pit beneath it.

Here’s the song I referenced:

For more  posts on Malapascua – click here.

Click for more posts on the Philippines, including Boracay and Bohol.

The Moral Dilemma of Buying from Children

“Buy some shells?” An adorable 8-year old asked me this on my first day on Malapascua Island in the Philippines, and proceeded to ask us every day on the beach. While relaxing on my beach chair, I was typically immersed in my book, so I didn’t notice them at first. When I’d finally look up, I’d find myself surrounded by three kids with their saddest faces, asking me to buy shells or hand-made jewelry or some other trinkets.

I was planning on traveling for another 3 months, so there was no way I was interested in having any additional possessions or keepsakes (even ones I might actually want when I’m home). None of that matters, because I’d be happy to help some children and at first glance, any amount of money you give them seemed like a wonderful donation. Then I learned more about it. There’s a bit of a moral dilemma of buying from children.

The kids tried to sell us these shells every time they saw us. Every time.
These are the shells we bought – but I still don’t know if it was a good idea.

We talked with the kids for the entire week we were in Malapascua, and as it turns out, many kids are deliberately kept out of school to beg for money for their parents. Unfortunately this ensures their lack of education and eliminates any chance of getting out of poverty. With that said, you often don’t know what their alternatives to get money to eat really are. In the U.S. there are welfare programs that act as safety nets, but it’s difficult to determine in a five-minute conversation with a child. These kids were kind and respectful, but in some places you’re really swarmed at every turn (like in Siem Reap / Angkor Wat in Cambodia). We did buy a few shells but mostly we’d buy them food. What do you think?

We decided it was better to ask the begging kids questions and give them food directly. Some will open up and tell you about their world.  I would never want to be the reason why kids weren’t going to school…what would you do?

The moral dilemma of buying shells from kids
The kids tried to sell us these shells every time they saw us. Every time.