Thursday, 27 September 2012

Between two worlds: diving in Malapascua

Me (left) diving in Papua New Guinea in March
© Thierry Dardare/2012
There’s something astonishing about stepping out of one world and into another. I’m reading a book about the moon landings and in many ways it reminds me of diving, the key difference being the speed of the transition. With diving, you kit up and step off the back of a boat, and within minutes you’re weightless and submerged. The world of ocean surface, boats and islands is replaced by an alien, underwater realm of iridescent coral, shoals of brightly coloured fish and – if you’re lucky – a huge thresher shark gliding through the blue haze.

This February I was in the Philippines, researching a book I’m writing about the islands. After visiting the historic sites of Cebu and interviewing a church historian, I took some time out to go diving at Malapascua, a tiny island just off the northern tip of Cebu and one of the top dive sites in the world.

My journey started at the bus station in Cebu city. I had an old copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook, from my first visit in 2009, and it neglected to mention the new, modern bus service. Instead, I ended up on an old, shabby bus with seats so close together that I couldn’t get my knees in, let alone my luggage. Luckily it was half empty so I could stretch out on the front row. The door was left open and a youth hung out the doorway, shouting the destination at potential customers. Vendors would jump on and off whenever we stopped, folded bank notes clasped between their fingers.

At one point, an evangelical Christian came on board. She went round handing out leaflets then stood at the front singing: “By the power of the cross we’ll truly be transformed, we’re so amazed and I give you praise.” She then went round again asking for donations.

The grey city gradually gave way to green countryside then, about half way through the six hour drive, the bus broke down. I waited in the shade of the vehicle with my fellow passengers for the next bus. This one was busier and noisier, with US rock music blasting out of the stereo and a cockerel tied to a back seat by one leg. The chicken’s senses seemed to have been scrambled by being in the bus and every time we went over a bump it would crow as if morning had just arrived. Adding to its distress, a small boy sitting on the seat in front kept trying to pull its tail feathers.

At the northern coast of Cebu, we left the bus and piled into a small wooden speedboat, which also broke down twice on the short trip to Malapascua, but landed just in time for a well-earned sunset beer.

Children playing on Paradise beach, Malapascua island, at sunset
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
At Malapascua I met up with my friend Jerry who had taken a year off work to travel round the world, beginning by driving an ambulance to Tajikistan. Jerry is a more fearless traveller than I am and he had some interesting stories, including being held up by gunmen on the Tajik-Afghan border.

“It was after dark and we were just setting up camp when we realised we were surrounded by barely visible figures in camouflage gear crouching in the bush and pointing machine guns at us,” Jerry recalled. “None of them spoke any English and we waited for a nervous fifteen minutes with our hands in the air, until a decrepit white Lada pulled up with some senior officers in it. They phoned a translator and through him suggested that we might want to beat a hasty retreat to the nearest village. Until that point we were not sure whether we were being held up by a Tajik border patrol or by a gang of drug smugglers who may well have shot us and dumped us in the river!”

Jerry and I are both diving enthusiasts. In 2005, we travelled together in Cuba, where we dived with bull sharks sans-cage, an experience that was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. In particular, I remember our cowboy dive instructor cutting up a barracuda and waving the bloody end around in the water to attract the sharks.

You can do shark dives in Malapascua too but with thresher sharks, much less dangerous cousins of the bull sharks. We both signed up for the sunrise dive to Monad Shoal.

Shark’s tale

Thresher sharks are so called because of their distinctive thresher-like tail
Photo from Smithsonian Magazine
I got up at 4:30 the next morning and walked down the beach to the sea. The sky was still pitch black except for a liberal sprinkling of stars, including one large yellow light low in the sky that could have been Mars. At 5 am, the sky started to lighten slightly in the east and our dive boat set off in that direction. In the time it took us to get to the dive site, the sky slowly lit up, changing colour and detail every minute. The horizon to the east gradually emerged as a jumble of mountains and low lying clouds, often leaving us guessing which was which.

We arrived at the dive site just before six am, the only dive boat in sight. It was light but the sun had not yet cleared the horizon. I was diving with an Australian girl and a Filipino dive master called Tata. Together, we strapped on our oxygen tanks and diving equipment and stepped off the boat into the sea. Tata checked we were both OK, then made the thumbs down sign to descend.

Beneath the surface, the water was perfectly clear and a deep dark blue. Light slanted in from above at a shallow angle. We descended to a rocky shelf and, almost before I had time to take in our surroundings, I saw my first thresher shark. It was a beautiful beast, at least four metres long from tip to tip, with a small mouth, large eyes and silvery, luminescent skin. It circled around us, moving further away until it was just a shadow in the gloom, then coming back in close. Nearly half of its length was tail and as it swam away from us its tail rippled gracefully in the slipstream.

There are three species of thresher sharks, which are found in temperate and tropical oceans. The name is derived from their distinctive thresher-like tail or caudal fin. They are active predators and their tail is actually used as a weapon. When hunting schooling fish such as bluefish and mackerel, thresher sharks are known to slap the water with their tail to herd their prey. The tail is also used to swat smaller fish, stunning them before feeding. Threshers are one of the few shark species known to ‘breach’, jumping fully out of the water and making turns like dolphins.

We dropped over the edge of the shelf and went deeper to 26 meters. I was training for my advanced diving license and Tatu had an exercise to illustrate the dangers of ‘nitrogen narcosis’, which is a bit like being stoned with the effects increasing as you go deeper. Tatu took out a blackboard and chalk and wrote a sum on it: ‘22 x 2 + 10 =?’. Now it’s been a while since I did Maths but I was top of my year at school and can normally do a sum like that without any effort, but this time it was a struggle. I had to think about it carefully and work through the equation slowly. Eventually I got it, along with the lesson about diving at depth. I took the chalk from Tatu and wrote ‘54’ on his board.

Tatu gave me a divers’ OK sign, making an O with his thumb and first finger. We went back up and along the rocky shelf, until we came to a point where an outcrop jutted out against the deep blue. There were more divers here, along with three thresher sharks, which had arrived for their early morning clean. They swam lazily around the outcrop while little cleaner fish darted in and out, picking edible morsels from their skin. It was a classic example of symbiosis – a behaviour that is beneficial to both species. The sharks were placid and made no aggressive moves towards the fish. Watching it was an incredible experience, the sort of thing you see on a David Attenborough documentary, but I was right there in the ocean with the sharks.

We surfaced just before 7am. The sun was up now and more dive boats had arrived. I was pumped with an adrenaline high and gave both Jerry and Tatu a man hug. “That was awesome!” I said to Jerry. “Even better than Cuba.” Where our previous shark dive had been a bit staged, almost like a circus show, this time it felt like we had witnessed a moment of pure unadulterated nature.

Me (right) with dive master Tatu after the thresher shark dive
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
Cave of horrors

We were back at Malapascua in time for breakfast, with a whole day ahead of us, so we signed up for an afternoon cave dive to Gato island.

This time I was diving with Jerry and a German couple. Our instructor was Vin, who was more macho in his approach than Tatu. “Let’s rock and roll!” he shouted as we jumped in. The water was cloudy here but it added to the atmosphere. This time, we followed a rope down to into the murky depths, going hand over hand and stopping occasionally to equalize the pressure in our ears.

The rope was anchored in the underwater rock wall of Gato island. From here, we swam into the entrance of a natural tunnel that passed through the centre of the small island and out the other side. Looking back, I could see a brilliant blue crevice, with two divers silhouetted at the mouth of the cave. Near the entrance, there was a tiny bamboo shark sleeping under an overhang. “That’s its normal size,” Vin said afterwards.

I turned and followed Vic into the cave. We’d brought torches along, tied around our wrists, and I turned mine on. We followed the tunnel around a corner and were plunged into absolute darkness. The effect was claustrophobic. In the beam of my torch, I could see Vic’s flippers and the floor of the cave. Swinging the torch upwards, I could see the roof of the cave less than a metre above my head.

As the passage narrowed, we had to be careful not to scrape our air tanks along the rocky roof. I knew the emergency drill if anything did go wrong: share oxygen with my buddy (Jerry), exit the cave and ascend slowly to the surface, stopping every ten metres to decompress the air in our bodies. But in the dark, narrow cave it was hard not to feel a bit anxious. I was relieved when we turned another corner and saw the welcome blue light of the open ocean, framed by the rocky mouth of the opposite cave.

Exiting the tunnel, Vin led us down to a smaller cave where two reef sharks were sleeping. I had to lie down on the sand and look in with my torch. At this time of day, the sharks were sluggish and moved slowly. Vin was indicating that we could touch them. I misunderstood his signal but Jerry got it. “The shark’s tail was smooth but its body was rough, like sandpaper,” he said.

Do the evolution

Pigmy seahorses camouflaged against red and yellow fans
Photos from Tumblr
Beyond the shark caves, we came to a wide, flat sea bed where there were two large fan corals – one red and one yellow. Vin gestured for me to come over and pointed at a spot on one edge of the red fan. For a while I couldn’t see anything, then he made a seahorse sign and suddenly I saw it – a tiny pigmy seahorse less than a centimetre in height. It was perfectly camouflaged, its skin mimicking both the colour and texture of the plant. Amazingly, on the yellow fan coral we found the exact same thing, but here the seahorse was bright yellow instead of dark red.

It was a remarkable example of evolution in action. Presumably, both the fan corals and sea horses used to be the same colour – either red, yellow or somewhere in between. Then, as the fans evolved into two different coloured species, the seahorses must have done the same – some moving off to join the red fans and others to join the yellow.

It was like Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches and further proof – if any were needed – of the genius of his theory. Commenting on the closely related birds that fed in different ways on different islands, and had differently shaped beaks as a result, Darwin wrote: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”

The last thing we saw was a so-called Spanish dancer (actually a nudibranch), a reddish disc-shaped animal that was lying on the seabed. Vin flicked it gently with his diving stick and it rose up, swimming by undulating its whole body in a rippling motion like a flamenco dancer’s skirt. It swam or danced directly towards my face mask in slow motion and I watched fascinated, turning my head aside at the last minute to let it past.

Spanish dancer - as it swims it looks like a flamenco dancer’s skirt
Photo from National Geographic
Back on the dive boat, it was time for lunch. During our dive, the boat crew had found lots of small dead fish on the seabed. “This is a protected area but there’s no guard on duty today so local people have been dynamite fishing,” Vin said. “Afterwards you can always find dead fish.”

Dynamite fishing is an extremely destructive practice that destroys coral reefs, and is supposed to be banned in Malapascua. I asked Vin how it was done. “You take a bottle and fill it with fertiliser and kerosene,” Vin explained, acting it out. “Then you put in a fuse and light it with a match. You close the bottle and lower it into the water. When it goes off the fish die and sink to the bottom. That’s where we found these.”

The crew rinsed the fish in water and ate them raw with rice. “Vin seemed to know a lot about it,” Jerry observed quietly as our dive master tucked into a plate of fish and rice.

During the dive, I had collided a couple of times with the German woman, and assumed it was due to clumsy swimming on my part. But she came up to me on the boat to apologise. “I thought you were my husband and I was trying to hug you!” she explained.

After lunch, we set off for Malapascua. We were back by late afternoon and Jerry and I decided to explore the above-water part of the island in the cool hour before sunset. But that’s the subject of another blog.

Jerry on Paradise beach, Malapascua island, after the cave dive
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012


  1. Wonderful article, Andy. I felt claustrophic while reading this post(and I mean it as a compliment), because although I've gone diving several times, water has never been truly my element. I've always felt this certain kind of claustrophobia every time I dove. Your article makes me kinda miss that wildly terrifying feeling of being down there. :D

    P.S. I love the reference to the Galapagos finches! (Haha, sorry, I'm a Darwinian, too.)

  2. Thanks Gina! You just need to dive more often. I felt like that when I started but now I usually relax and enjoy it. Yeah Darwin rocks, particularly as explained by Dawkins.

  3. Nice pictures! We have been to Malapascua Island but not tried diving. Will definitely try in the future.