It’s pretty dark at 4:30 am on Malapascua Island in the Philippines. The waves leave stretches of glistening black ink upon the shore, and the stars blaze with an intensity found only in places utterly free from light pollution. During the day, the island hums with the sound of rebuilding in the wake of the devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda three months ago; this early in the morning, however, the only sounds are those of the gently breaking surf and the defiant crowing of the roosters that survived last Sunday’s cockfight. The rest of the island is asleep, except for those who, like me, are getting ready to meet the thresher sharks, Malapascua’s most famous underwater residents.
Thirty minutes from Malapascua is the sunken island known as Monad Shoal, where thresher sharks come in to rid themselves of parasites at the reef’s cleaning stations. These sharks are what drew me, and many other divers from all over the world, to Malapascua. Monad Shoal is unique not only because it is possible to 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.
There are several charters on Malapascua; I chose Thresher Shark Divers, which still functions with more efficiency than most places I’ve ever been despite suffering considerable damage during the typhoon. I was given an in-depth briefing and fitted for gear the day before due to the early start. The briefing focused on diver safety, and more importantly, on how to have as little impact as possible on the sharks. Strobes are banned on Monad Shoal, which was a little heartbreaking for the photographer in me, but serves as an admirable example in terms of respecting marine life. The dive itself has a maximum depth of 98 feet, with a lot of time spent at around 82 feet waiting for the threshers to arrive.
When I turned up on the morning of my dive, all the gear was already stowed aboard and a skiff was waiting to take us to the larger dive boat waiting in the bay. The boat itself was a real beauty, constructed of wood and equipped with two heavy bamboo outriggers in keeping with Philippine tradition. The excitement in the skiff was palpable; a handful of strangers huddled together in anticipation of something incredible, the moonlight gilding the bow’s wake with silver and the stars taking their curtain call before dawn. The sky was tinged with the grey 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 to Monad Shoal 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, but one look beneath the waves confirmed that the conditions were indeed perfect. The top of Monad Shoal lies at about 49 feet, and the visibility was top-to-bottom. As we descended I felt almost drugged, the vertigo effect of crystal-clear water and the indigo half-light making the reef appear fantastical, while giving me the impression of being inside an aquarium display after hours. We descended straight down and over the lip of the Shoal, leveling out at around 82 feet and moving off along the reef. 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 unsuspecting threshers in the vicinity.
We were just 5 minutes into the dive when the sharp tapping of the guide’s tank-banger alerted us to the presence of our first shark. She swam toward us along the wall, her unmistakable form materializing in the distant gloom like a wraith from the darkness. I have wanted to see a thresher shark for many years, and the sudden realization of that dream caused a temporary lump in my throat and a sharp acceleration of air consumption; she was so exquisitely beautiful that I found myself utterly mesmerized. 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 (I definitely broke the first rule of scuba for most of the dive), but true to the shy nature of thresher sharks, she disappeared back into the empty blue from which she came. It was only after she had gone that I realized we were kneeling by a bed of garden eels, their inquisitive little faces staring 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. They are definitely the strangest looking sharks I have ever encountered, but without question one of the most beautiful. Threshers are utterly ethereal, and by the time our decompression limits forced us to return to shallower depths the whole experience already seemed surreal. Perhaps my excitement prevented me from truly taking in the sharks while they were with us, but I think that the dreamlike quality of that dive had a lot to do with the inevitable magic of a dawn encounter with these wonders of the ocean.
As we ascended up the mooring line, the sun finally reached full tropical force and its rays filtered in beams of gold through the water around us. The reef fell away below like a land lost in time, and we soon left the spectral realm of the threshers behind. As we motored slowly back to shore, I reflected that there’s something infinitely wonderful about coming face-to-face with such magnificent creatures, and still being back in time for breakfast.