Going to the Philippines without indulging myself with some relaxing time on a paradise island? No, of course, that was not possible! But instead of going to the overcrowded Bocaray, I decided to end my island hopping tour in the Visayas by Malapascua, the tiny island on the north-east tip of Cebu Island. Only 2km long by 1 km wide, the island of Malapascua is well-preserved from invasive tourism. It has suffered terribly from the typhoon Yolanda in 2013 but its inhabitants have rebuilt everything in only a couple of months. Since then, hotels keep popping out on a regular basis but nothing compared to Bocaray where you can even find a huge golf park in the middle of the island.
Diving in Monad Shoal: wake up at dawn and hope for the best
4 am. This is the time you will need to set your alarm clock to take a chance to dive with the thresher sharks at Monad Shoal. At dawn, the thresher sharks – which are usually swimming and hunting in much deeper waters – are ascending to recreational diving depths to go to their favourite cleaning station. The underwater plateau of Monad Shoal is at 12m deep and then drops to 30m deep where there is an observation spot. There, you need to stay behind a rope installed to try to restrain divers from bothering the sharks (please, don’t be that stupid diver who does not respect the rules).
Theoretically, the sharks are always there. Yet, they are very shy animals and, like most pelagic fish, they are not huge fans of our bubbles. Thus, my very first tip for enjoying Monad Shoal is to be the first underwater as much as possible. Arrive in advance, before the big groups (they are slower to move, make sure to book with a dive centre that only takes small groups of divers). On my first visit to Monad Shoal, my guide, my buddy and I were actually sea-sick because of the conditions that day (yes, even experienced divers can be sea-sick sometimes). Even if we were still a bit sleepy, it was actually kind of perfect to speed up as we all knew we would feel much better on the surface of the water. This is how we were 10 minutes ahead of everyone and saw 6 thresher sharks! I don’t think it was the case of the other divers.
The thresher sharks are so elegant when swimming. Their long gracious tail behaves like a vigorous ribbon. They actually use it to knock out fish before eating it, but it is also a really good propulsion device for them. The melancholic look in their eyes makes them even more beautiful because it makes them mysterious. There was not a single moment when I regretted my early wake-up time!
Beside the number of divers, sometimes visibility is going to be against you. This is what happened on my second dive in Monad Shoal. With very low visibility, about 5 m, we couldn’t see any shark at all! I think they were still there but we just couldn’t see them. So let’s say you have a good 80% chance to see the thresher shark when diving in Monad Shoal but be sure to allow enough time in Malapascua to dive there maybe 2 to 3 times.
The reason I wanted to dive there a second time was to take advantage of the learning I experienced on the first dive one for my pictures and videos. I didn’t have enough time on the 1st dive to find the right settings. I unfortunately discovered too late what shooting a video with fixed unlimited focus meant. Otherwise, the video below would have been really awesome! One day I will come back to Malapascua with more experience in video and will travel between March and May when the visibility is the best. Another thing I learnt is that peak season does not mean the best conditions.
Beautiful dive sites of Malapascua Island
Diving in Malapascua is not only interesting for the dive with the thresher sharks, its richness and diversity of dive spots all around is stunning so it made it to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them, but Malapascua is a famous place to see the cute couples of Mandarin fish during sunset dives.
How to spend a week on the tiny island of Malapascua
I really took a chance when I decided to spend the last 10 days of my trip on an island of only 2km². Lucky me, Malapascua is an authentic island with a vast underwater playground. During your stay do not miss the opportunity to go around Malapascua Island. Just a few minutes walking away from the touristic activity of Bounty Beach, you will discover that the island is full of hidden gems including deserted beaches and fishermen villages guarded by a white lighthouse. Do not miss the opportunity to go around during your stay. Just take any path!
Beyond the famous dive spot of Monad Shoal, staying in Malapascua also gives the opportunity to go on amazing day trips in the Northern Visayas. Thanks to French Kiss Malapascua day trips, I could visit the islands of Gato, Kalanggaman and Carnaza while logging more exciting dives in the Philippines. So between the dives near the island, the scuba diving day trips, the exploration of the island, I wish I had 2 or 3 more days to try a few more times to dive in Monad Shoal.
- Kalanggaman Day Trip: Imagine a far far away paradise atoll… Imagine a strip of white sand separating the sea from the sky… Imagine an underwater breathtakingly deep wall with thousands of fish… Open your eyes, this paradise is just between the shores the island of Cebu and the island of Leyte in the Philippines. It is 1h30 boat ride away from Malapascua and it will blow your mind…
- Gato Island Day Trip: About 1 hour of boat ride from Malapascua, the tiny rocky island has a secret that only scuba divers can reveal: an underwater tunnel of 40m crossing the island from one side to the other and ending in a huge cavern which is a usual meeting point with white tip sharks. Life on the reef all around the island has many more surprises.
- Carnaza / Doña Marilyn shipwreck Day Trip: We headed first in the morning to the island of Carnaza where we spent a couple of hours exploring it before lunch. It has many natural wonders such as pristine creeks and colourful caves. It is also a historical place as it used to be an American air force base during the Pacific Battle of WWII. On the heights of Carnaza, you can go to the landing strip and enjoy a breath-taking view of Leyte and Gato islands. After lunch, we went wreck diving on the Doña Marylin. The story of the Doña Marilyn is not a happy ending and most of all the company which owned it was responsible the year before of another accident on the overcrowded Doña Paz. In 1988, with more than 400 passengers on board, during the typhoon Unsang, on its way to Tacloban, the ferry sank on its side at 30m below the surface. Only 147 persons survived.
How to go to Malapascua?
Not less than 4 hours of driving on average are necessary to reach the port of Maya in the North of Cebu where you are able to take the boat to the island of Malapascua. From Cebu City, you need to go to the North bus terminal to take either a Ceres Liner bus or a minivan in the direction of Maya. Depending on the number of stops the bus will actually make (it can stop anytime to take people on or to let people off) the journey can be between 4 and 6 hours. What is really important to know is that you absolutely need to be in Maya Pier before 4 pm, time for the last boat to leave for Malapascua for a reasonable price. After that time, you will either need to spend the night in Maya, which is not really the best option or to pay for a “private” trip up to 3,000 PHP instead of the normal 80 PHP. The best solution is actually to take a minivan, and this is what I did on my return to Cebu City. Much faster, about 3h30, and only 180 PHP instead of 160PHP for the bus!
Once on the boat (remember the price is 80 PHP, maybe maximum 100PHP if you are travelling with scuba diving gear, but not 300, 500 or even 1,000 PHP as I heard sometimes), this is only a 15/20 minute ride to reach Malapascua. The total time will actually depend on the tide and the waves. If the tide is low, you will need to take a small flat-boat (20 PHP) to go on or off the boat, which, if there are some waves, can take some time to transfer people and luggage safely.
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Photo credits: huge thank you to my friend André from Switzerland for the amazing pictures he took of the thresher sharks in Malapascua in May 2012
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