For some years divers from all over the world have been descending on the island of Malapascua, a tiny paradise in the Philippines, in search of the rare thresher shark. I was equally keen to see and photograph one of these elusive creatures.
 I arrived at Cebu City International Airport, and was picked up by a private car arranged by my hotel. The driver told me to expect a leisurely three-hour journey to the ferry port.
 After three hours of honking, swerving, braking and death-defying overtaking, I felt lucky to be alive by the time I stepped out of the car, but as we left the dock, I soon forgot my troubles.
 The captivating azure waters of the Philippine Sea entranced me. And as Malapascua hove into view, I stood on the bow and drank in the sights. White sand stretched from one end of the island to the other. Small fishing boats hustled back and forth along the beach, seeking the evening meal. The tranquil scene gave me that instant mushy feeling characteristic of a tropical holiday.
 I spent a few hours checking out the small island, and went to bed early in anticipation of my first day of diving.
 The best time of day to spot thresher sharks, I had been told, was early in the morning, and after travelling halfway around the world, I did not intend to miss any shark-spotting opportunity.

So I dragged myself out of bed day after day to join several bleary-eyed companions on our search for this elusive creature. And we did find thresher sharks on every dive. The only trouble was, they were unco-operative.
 These sharks are wary of large groups of bubble-blowing divers. I found it difficult to get close to them, and became increasingly frustrated at the lack of photo-opportunities.
 As my impatience grew, I decided to take a break and try my luck on the reefs. From what others had written about Malapascua, it seemed that thresher sharks were its only attraction, but I wondered what else was on offer there. What about all those little treasures found elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region - would I not find nudibranchs, frogfish, or pygmy seahorses
 No one ever mentioned the islands reefs, but was Malapascua in fact a hidden gem of diving splendour, awaiting its turn in the limelight
 Late-morning and early-afternoon dives are typically conducted on the small islands surrounding Malapascua, and one such site is the protected marine sanctuary of Gato Island.
 I asked about the diving conditions there and was told that the island was home to a shallow reef rich in corals, nudibranchs, lionfish, anemones and even the odd frogfish. This was what I was looking for, a chance to dive a healthy reef in South-east Asias legendary golden triangle.
 A brief boat journey brought us to Gato Island, which was nothing more than a large rock sticking out of an otherwise empty sea.
 True to my theory, it seemed that the other divers staying at Malapascua were interested only in thresher sharks.
 I was the only diver interested in diving the reef that day. Peter, my personal dive guide, told me of the many wonders awaiting us: pygmy seahorses, scorpionfish, thousands of anthias, clusters of multi-coloured soft coral, and even a sea snake or two.
 He helpfully pointed out a sign attached to a nearby rock which stated that Gato was a sea-snake refuge. How ironic, I thought, Ive come all this way to dive with sharks but will perish at the whim of a highly venomous sea snake.
 Once in the water, I was immersed in a world of colour. Every exposed surface was covered in vibrant pink and purple soft corals. I was delighted to have brought two cameras with me on this dive, one for macro, the other wide-angle. With Peter keeping a sharp eye out for the small stuff, I took the chance to feast the wide-angle lens on the brilliant soft corals surrounding me.
 Everywhere I looked were thousands of tiny orange and purple anthias, carpets of multi-coloured corals and sea-fans of every shape and hue. It was a non-stop opportunity to fill my camera frame with bold, saturated colours, and I swam about in a frenzy of photographic motion, using up my film in 10 minutes before turning my thoughts to the smaller denizens of the reef.
 I gathered up my macro camera and noticed Peter, who had been exploring, frantically waving to catch my attention.
 Swimming over to him, I discovered what had captured his interest: a cunningly camouflaged scorpionfish perched on a ledge. After several exposures of this hidden hunter, I moved on to a pair of mating nudibranchs. And a steady stream of creatures followed, all of them dream subjects.
 Every time I looked up, I found Peter motioning me over to view another great find. Squid, cuttlefish, a Spanish dancer, innumerable varieties of nudibranchs and flatworms, harlequin ghost pipefish and schooling juvenile catfish were just some of the incredible variety of creatures we found on that one dive. Once again, I was soon out of film.
 After lunch we hit the water with one thing in mind - pygmy seahorses. Peter knew of a sea-fan that was home to a community of these thumbnail-sized seahorses. My obsessive desire to photograph everything that caught my interest must have frustrated Peter. I couldnt pass up any of the photo-opportunities he was passing by. I guess his experience on these reefs had immunised him from the allure of a pair of hunting reef squid.

Little darlings
We wound our way through several canyons and caves and arrived at a fairly nondescript purple sea-fan. True to his word, Peter quickly pointed out six tiny seahorses clinging to its fragile branches. If not for my eagle-eyed guide, I could have spent a long time scouring the area for these camouflaged little darlings.
 They may be small but I detected a high degree of intellect. Each time I tried to take a photograph they seemed to tilt away from my lens. Its aggravating to be outwitted by a one-inch beastie.
 It was an eye-popping showcase of exotic life we left behind as we headed back to Malapascua. I was excited to have had a successful days photography after my ill luck with the thresher sharks, and couldnt believe I was the only diver on hand to experience it.
 From then on I got real, and started anticipating great frogfish encounters rather than shark sightings.
 My second day of reef diving consisted of a short jaunt to a site called North Point. Again I was astounded by the seemingly boundless variety of marine life. Peter was able to point out more nudibranchs in 20 minutes than we had found throughout the whole day at Gato, but it was frogfish that were preoccupying me.
 Peter had read my mind. Finning through a small canyon, he waved at coral head. Following his hand, I was confused - what was he pointing at Then I saw it. Nestled in a patch of cabbage coral was a perfectly camouflaged, 30cm-long, yellow frogfish.
 I went to work trying to capture the personality of this peculiar predator. These canny hunters disguise themselves as part of the reef to be able to pounce on unsuspecting prey, and their need to remain motionless makes them fantastic photo subjects. Unlike the elusive and wary thresher shark, I could get as close to this frogfish as I wanted.
 I certainly wasnt dying of boredom on Malapascuas reefs. In fact, I began to worry that I might run out of film. I couldnt get enough reef diving to fill my newfound passion. Every dive site presented not just one but 10 or 15 new creatures more suited to Science Fiction Weekly than our oceans.
 Thresher sharks What were they I now woke in anticipation of my afternoon reef dives rather than of early-morning shark encounters. Thresher sightings can never be guaranteed, but with the extensive and colourful fish and invertebrate life available, no diver, and certainly no photographer, should leave Malapascua disappointed.


Anemonefish at home in Malapascua. When divers take their eyes off the thresher sharks, there is a wealth of smaller marine life to be found there,

including frogfish

and harlequin ghost pipefish

Larger than life - a pygmy seahorse

One of a stunning variety of colourful nudibranchs




GETTING THERE: Fly to Cebu International Airport via Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. A car to the town of Maya costs around £30, and the ferry to Malapascua takes about half an hour.
DIVING : Malapascua Exotic Island Dive Resort, www.malapascua.net; Bubble07, www.bubble07.com or Sea Explorers (www.sea-explorers.com)
ACCOMMODATION : Exotic Island Dive Resort runs the only all-in-one resort, dive shop and restaurant, with 17 rooms available. The other dive centres can book accommodation at independent bungalows.
MONEY :£1 equals about 104 pesos
HEALTH : Regular tropical vaccinations. Malapascua is not a malaria zone.
LANGUAGE : Cebuano but English widely spoken.
WHEN TO GO : Any time, but December through April is prime thresher-shark season , so commands higher prices. July through October is manta ray season but wetter.
COST : Airline travel from the UK to the Philippines can vary greatly with return flights from £630-1250. Return flights from Manila to Cebu cost £55. Accommodation ranges from £8 for a room with fan to £26 for full aircon (low season) to £13/£32 in high season. Diving costs£11 a dive or £13 with full rental gear.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Philippines Department of Tourism, 020 7835 1100, www.wowphilippines.co.uk