Saturday, June 23, 2012

Diving off Malapascua, Cebu, Philippines, June 20-23, 2012

My logged dives #1128-1138

During our stay in Malapascua we did 15 dives, the first on arrival June 18, to North Point to find a frogfish. On June 19, we did our next three, our first thresher shark dive at dawn, and then an excursion to Gato Island, followed by a swim with a whale shark off the beach from the dive center. So far so good.

We skipped the night dives on those days because we were travel-weary but we managed to get ourselves up the following morning June 20 for another dive on Monad Shoals, where again we saw a thresher shark, or its body in one part of the gloom followed a moment later by its unmistakable tail. After that encounter we returned to the beach, where sometimes the banca went all the way to shore, and at lower tides had us transfer to smaller boats. Again we were so tired we didn't book another morning dive, but went back to our room and slept instead like zombies, skipping breakfast and lunch and getting up just in time to wander down to TSD for a 2 p.m. dive. This one was a return to Monad Showls, to the side called Old Monad, where mantas had been spotted recently, so we signed up hopefully, but with realistic expectations. Mantas are elusive in general but so are thresher sharks, so it was actually a treat when we saw a thresher shark buzz the periphery of the reef. He was still in the haze, but this time we saw the complete animal in one piece, an improvement on earlier sightings, apparently unusual to see them during the day.

After our nap we were starting to feel energized again so we signed up for a night dive and I went for jog down the coast, exploring the trails far enough to reach the village past Pillar's Place on one of the coves. Bobbi and I met back at the dive center before dusk. She had gone for a walk but got lost and a motorcyclist stopped to assist and gave her a lift to Thresher Divers. She wasn't carrying money so she promised to leave some at reception. She asked how much and he said 'as you like' so we asked the dive shop staff how much to leave and followed their advice (50 pesos, a little over a dollar). We have no idea if he came back to collect it, but he probably did.  Anyway, the incident gives you an idea of how people treat each other on this pleasant island.

Despite the wealth brought in by dive tourists, most of the diving businesses are western owned, so despite the employment and boost to the local economy, there is obvious poverty on the island. My daily jogs took me eventually to the fishing villages at the far end of the island. These were in coves between rocky outcrops with trails so rocky and steep that motorcycles couldn't go there, so each was isolated apart from being easy walks from one another. They looked peaceful, though overcrowded with people living in close quarters in beach shanties, with pigs and chickens roaming on the beach, and the sea and fruit trees providing the only obvious livelihood.

We read that kids on the island would skip school to collect shells to sell to tourists, and that these items were illegal to export from the Philippines. Tourists were asked not to perpetuate this by purchasing from the truant kids, in hopes that this would help return them to school. After one meal walking back along the beach at night we came upon some kids innocently playing in the sand. One girl about ten had fallen playfully in the sand. She rolled on her back as we passed. When I looked down at her and her friends, she looked up suggestively, still half playing in the sand, and said “My pussy very good.” Bobbi and I were shocked not only at the inappropriateness of the proposition, but at the sense of paradise lost.

Better to go night diving and observe the mating habits of the randy mandy, the tiny mandarin fish that attach themselves to one another at dusk and rise up together in a puff of sperm. We spent half an hour of our night dive waiting for this to happen, and like many sex acts, weren't sure when it happened if we had seen it or not. It was at least an excuse to go night diving. On the remainder of the dive we found devil scorpion fish and large sea horses clinging to coral, always in pairs entwined about each other.

Now that we had got our energy back the rest of our stay fell into a routine of three dives a day, except we couldn't do the third dive our last day since we needed to fly the following morning from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur. Each morning, while it lasted, we were up at 4:30 to catch the banca out to Monad Shoals to try our luck with thresher sharks. The boat trips were short, about 20 minutes over placid sunrise orange-tinged green water. Monad Shoals is deep, 22-33 meters from reef top to drop-off, depending on where exactly we went on the shoals, and our minders liked to keep us 5 minutes from deco, so dives lasted only 30 minutes or so, and we'd get back to the beach near Thresher Shark Divers by 7 or 7:30. The second dive was at nine, and that might be a two-dive day trip, or one dive at 9:00 and a second dive at 2:00. I liked to go jogging when we got back from our afternoon dive, exploring and sometimes getting lost on the sand tracks, but enjoying the motorcycle tracks leading to the sea and then running into the villages where the local water-well and the school were the most popular attractions. It took about half an hour to jog the length of the island, about the right timing for holiday jogging. If I timed it right I could get back before sundown and Bobbi and I could enjoy the view of the sun sinking into the haze on the horizon from our west-facing beach where our “resort” was. Our resort, the Tepanee, whose reviews online were perhaps more effusive than we felt the resort warranted, was a property comprising of a dozen or more cottages on a low hill set amidst trees and greenery, with a path to a private beach we never visited. There was an adjacent restaurant but no other facilities available, and the wifi timed out under the most modest bandwidth loads (another thing we liked about the Blue Coral was decent wifi in our room).

The diving was always interesting. The main attraction was the thresher sharks at dawn. Bobbi said she expected we would go to a spot in clear water and kneel down or hover and watch them swirl around us, but it was not at all like that. It was a challenging dive requiring divers to watch their deco time primarily and of course guard their air consumption, though deco was usually the limiting factor. Visibility was poor on the shoals. Divers were kept behind the coral drop-offs so as to protect the habitat of the wrasse who attracted the sharks to their cleaning stations, though the sharks we saw were on the move or perhaps put off by the people they encountered, so they kept their distance, usually just at the edge of our visibility. It took a sharp-eyed dive-guide experienced in spotting them who knew what to look for. He would point into the void, and then we'd catch a glimpse of a tail or a silhouette that resolved into a thresher shark only because the guide was pointing so insistently that we could see after a couple of seconds that it was one. Other groups of divers might see two or three up close, or none. One divemaster had made 5 trips to the shoals and had never seen a shark. We were lucky in that respect. We saw them on every trip to the shoals except for one. My best sighting was toward the end of a dive at Old Monad spent peering into the silky haze, and then in front of me at 20 meters it materialized zooming in over the reef. It looked at first like a comet and it was only after a second or two that I twigged it was a shark, clearly from its tail, a thresher shark. This one was silver, and in full view, and it was my honor to bang my tank, as I saw it before Gibb, our guide, did.

We were also lucky when one afternoon we were taken out to the shoals to look for manta rays, which they said had been spotted there occasionally. On that dive I also saw a thresher shark pass above the reef. But even when we were not finding threshers there were interesting things to see in the water. The shoals were home to large colonies of garden eels. On our last dive our guide pointed out what he said were 'vipe' creatures in the anemonae, which looked like tiny pipefish wriggling between the bulbs. There were scorpion fish, and nudibranchs, and no telling what we would see on any dive. Once a guide picked up a blob of sluggish cytoplasm off the sea bed with his tank banger, and when he let is slide off midwater, it turned magically into a Spanish dancer.

The water was always a refreshing 28 degrees no matter what the depth, the temperature I like my shower on a hot day. I had a 3 mm wetsuit which I abandoned in favor of a half mm lycra and my 1 mm rash vest. I was comfortable every dive. I dived with 4 kg of weight and no air in my bcd, so I was trim with the correct weight and buoyancy.

Our least favorite dive was a wreck some distance to the north. Due to that distance we were all charged a negligible 50 peso ($1.25) fuel surcharge. The wreck was combined with a stop at Gato Island on the way back, which was interesting because Bobbi had rented a torch so she could go in the tunnel that runs from one side of the island to the other. The wreck was a bit deep for a second dive of the day, 33 meters, and so we were constantly pushing deco and had only 30 minutes on it. It was a very large wreck, a passenger ferry that had gone down in a typhoon with loss of life. Visibility was good enough that we could see most of the wreck, a good portion of its 100 meters in length. It was on its side with the high side 18 meters deep, so it was about 17 meters abeam. It was an impressive hunk of metal covered in soft corals and anemonae, but we didn't find any large animals on it and few small ones in the limited time we had there.

The tunnel at Gato Island was more interesting. There were lots of small critters inside, and one large catfish the size of a baby shark hiding in a hole. We had torches of course, so we could illuminate the marine life. Also on the large side was a huge red hairy hermit crab who'd absconded with a prize shell I had trouble grasping in my hand extended as wide as my grip would allow, so I could put it where we could see it better before letting it scramble instinctively back against the wall.

Another really nice dive was a muck dive in sea grass. This was home to colonies of red fast walking sea urchins who drew sand in off the bottom and converted it into tiny pebble-size lumps they extruded out the orange process on the top. An examination of this apparatus revealed zebra shrimp hiding in among the spines. Also on this dive we saw white banded sea snakes and a devil scorpion fish, glass spiders, many kinds of tiny shrimp, nudibranchs. On a dive later that day at Deep Rock we found a bright red frogfish and an octopus in addition to many of the other animals living in the fan coral and anemonae.

Thresher Shark Divers at Malapascua were highly professional, friendly, and accommodating. The owner Andrea was helpful via email as we planned our trip, Marian managing on site made sure all our personal and diving logistics were taken care of, and the dive guides Alex, Boyet, Gibb, and Balt were top notch and knowledgeable about what we would find underwater. They were also healthily conservative in their diving. Our groupings were small, often only Bobbi and I, sometimes one or two others. Happy hours at Oscar's upstairs from the dive center were extended for divers and somewhat addictive. A meal with plenty of tasty food and all we cared to drink was typically 1000 for the two of us, about $20, the same at Craic down the beach (both excellent meals) and half that if we ate at Ging Ging around the corner (also great food, reasonable drink prices with no need for happy hour pricing). Our favorite resort was Blue Coral at 1500 a night for a fan room, while 4 nights at the Tepanee in a smaller room cost 2,500 a night with a/c that blasted on us all night and we could have done without (we'd booked 4 nights online, in advance). At the end of 5 days of diving, 15 dives each, we paid a little over $1000, and $200 of that was for transport from Cebu hotel in a private car 3 hours to the small port at Maya, and then a banca to the island, and our stuff deposited in our room there (plus the reverse journey). So 30 dives between us cost $800, or a bit more than $25 a dive, tanks and weights (we had our own gear). The most charming thing about the place was the island itself, beaches and coves with a laid back resort strip for those with a taste for foreign food, and local hamlets and banca harbors for all the local amenities. Every dive was a good one, much recommended!

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