Diving with thresher sharks on Malapascua Island
It’s pretty dark at 4:30 am on Malapascua Island in the Philippines. The waves leave stretches of glistening black ink on the shore, and the stars blaze with an intensity you’ll find only in places utterly free from light pollution. Most of the island is asleep, except for those who, like me, are getting ready to dive with thresher sharks, Malapascua’s most famous underwater residents.
Thirty minutes from the island is Monad Shoal, where thresher sharks come in the early dawn to rid themselves of parasites at the reef’s cleaning stations. These sharks are what drew me, and divers from all over the world, to Malapascua. Monad Shoal is unique not only because you can see the threshers here all year round, but also because sightings are both reliable and completely natural. There’s no baiting or feeding; divers can encounter thresher sharks in their own environment.
An early start
We got an in-depth briefing the night before and picked up our gear as well due to the early start. The briefing focused on diver safety, and more importantly, on how to impact the sharks as little as possible. You cannot use strobes on Monad Shoal, which was a little heartbreaking for the photographer in me. But it does serve as an admirable example in terms of respecting marine life. The dive itself has a maximum depth of 98 feet (29 m), with a lot of time spent at around 82 feet (25 m) waiting for the threshers to arrive.
When I arrived on the morning of my dive, all the gear was already stowed aboard. A skiff was waiting to take us to the larger dive boat waiting in the bay. The excitement in the skiff was palpable; a handful of strangers huddled together, anticipating something incredible. The sky was tinged with the gray glow that precedes a new morning and the reef slipped by beneath the keel, ghostly but visible through impossibly clear water. Once on board, we spent the 30-minute journey watching the first stain of sunrise paint the horizon in watercolor hues of ochre and gold.
The ocean when we reached our destination was almost violet, a sure sign of good visibility below. The sun was still not fully up by the time we took our giant strides off the front deck. One look beneath the waves, however, confirmed that the conditions were indeed perfect. The top of Monad Shoal lies at about 49 feet (15 m), and the visibility was top-to-bottom.
Thresher sharks appear
We descended straight down and over the lip of the shoal, leveling out at around 82 feet. The reef itself is mainly rock; there is very little coral and the fish life consists mostly of shoals of cleaner wrasse and bannerfish. To the left, the shoal dropped away into the abyss. to the right, the reef wall provided the necessary shelter to hide a group of divers from any nearby threshers.
We were just five minutes into the dive when the sharp tapping of the guide’s tank-banger signaled our first shark. She swam toward us along the wall, her unmistakable form materializing in the distant gloom like a wraith from the darkness. She kept her distance, the graceful curve of her long tail silhouetted against the surface as the soft morning light glinted off her body.
We knelt in the sand and willed her to come around again. Sadly, true to the shy nature of thresher sharks, she disappeared back into the empty blue. It was only after she had gone that I realized we were kneeling by a bed of garden eels. Their inquisitive little faces stared curiously at us, staring into the deep.
Three more thresher sharks appeared on that dive, two of which were little more than fleeting silver shapes on the edge of visibility. The fourth, however, came closer even than the first, and I got my second proper look at these fascinating creatures. Their large eyes are pools of liquid blackness, and their slender bodies are surprisingly robust up close. By the time our decompression limits forced us to return to shallower depths the whole experience already seemed surreal.
As we ascended up the mooring line, the sun finally reached full tropical force. The reef fell away below like a land lost in time, and we soon left the spectral realm of the threshers behind.