IT’S FIVE IN THE MORNING, an early start to what I feel in my bones will be a spectacular diving day. A day that can’t wait to get going. We have barely settled on the edge of the drop-off when the first thresher shark emerges from the gloom and shimmies restlessly across our field of vision.
It’s some 3m long and about 10m away, in visibility that hardly extends beyond 12m. It’s a pelagic thresher, the smallest of the three species that make up the Alopius, or fox-shark, family.
Thresher sharks don’t resemble foxes in any way that I can see, least of all in their elegant tail department, though their way of life might be said to reflect a fox-like cunning.
They hang out where shoaling small fish can be found and, when hungry, corral them with their sickle-like tails, which they then crack like whips to stun them. They also breach, and have been known to take down seabirds from the surface with those tails.
But at Monad Shoal in the early mornings, it’s not breakfast but pest-control that’s on their minds.
These sharks visit the top of this Philippines seamount because of the fish that staff its cleaning stations. Threshers spend the daytime hunting down to several hundred metres deep off Monad Shoal. They have big eyes, so don’t need much light. But, being susceptible to parasites, they ascend to the 20m-deep plateau around dawn to let peckish fairy and moon wrasse nibble away their irritating copepod hangers-on.

THE BLUE-TINGED SHARK with its saucer eyes vanishes, and shortly afterwards another appears, this one rather bigger – perhaps of the common thresher variety – with a scar on its head.
After a while we shift to another vantage point and gaze into the slowly lightening water as other threshers flit in and out of view.
They are hypnotic to watch, as those incredible tails, which match the length of the body, furl like banners with every rapid shift in direction.
Thresher sharks exist all over the world, but when it comes to diving encounters, Monad Shoal off Malapascua offers a rare window of opportunity – and a window that, knock on wood, stays open.
Scientists believe that this is a shifting rather than resident population, with normally solitary threshers from all over the Philippines drawn here at various times.
It’s as if these endangered sharks realise that the sunken island is a marine park and offers sanctuary. The site has become an invaluable resource for dive tourism in the Philippines, and some dozen dive centres now cluster on little Malapascua island, a half-hour’s bangka-ride to the west.

TODAY’S DIVE started at 5am, tomorrow’s gets underway at 5.30, then it’s 6 and so on. Malapascua’s dive-shop owners co-operate in staggering their attendance, to save the site from overcrowding.
Shark sightings, which seem to follow no particular seasonal pattern, are said to have increased since this rule was enforced.
For my four days here, gratefully rising a little later each morning, I will see thresher sharks every time.
Malapascua lies off Cebu in the Visayan Sea. It took me about 24 hours to get here from London, but even after limited sleep it’s surprising how easy it is to leap lightly out of bed in the early hours when a thresher-shark encounter is on the cards!
My diving companion from Exotic Island Dive & Beach Resort is long-serving divemaster Paul Quinto, a man with that precious instinct for being in the right place at the right time.
Every morning we descend the Monad Shoal mooring-line, greet the giant octopus that guards its concrete base, and take our places above the precipice.
On the second day we change vantage points at frequent intervals and see perhaps four different sharks coming and going, including Scarface, as well as a big mobula.
As we depart, one of the threshers rolls its body joyously towards the rising sun, which glints off its flank to leave an image imprinted on my memory. It’s a great 70-minute heart-starter of a dive.
And on the third day, in murkier visibility, Paul and I are first down and are rewarded with a sighting before we’ve even reached the lip of the drop-off. The shark then surprises me by whipping round and coming in overhead, closer to us than any have come before. The action is soon over, and it has gone very quiet by the time the other divers arrive.
In fact it stays quiet until towards the end of our hour, when I notice Paul wandering into the territory of a very large triggerfish. My buddy doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the titanic struggle that ensues as the fish makes repeated battering-ram charges on him, and both parties seem reluctant to concede ground. I stay well out of it; I’ve been there before.
On the last day we drop onto a different part of Monad Shoal, again in indifferent vis. We wait some 10 minutes before being rewarded by the sight of an enormous manta ray wheeling in close.
The poor creature is trailing a tangle of hooks and line from its tail. It disappears, and Paul signals for us to leave the group.
He crosses a bite out of the edge of the drop-off that’s perhaps 5m wide, and settles on the far side. Trailing behind, having paused to watch a colourful mantis shrimp, I see him signal, so I pull up on the other side of the gap.
The same giant manta is flying in directly above us – I see its far wing almost graze Paul, and can feel the wash from its nearside wingtip on my own head, as I lean back to try to keep it in frame. I watch in awe as it floats in and passes on. Paul tells me later that he hopes to cut away the offending line if he ever gets the chance.

SO THAT’S IT, Malapascua, one of the few places in the world where you can drop straight into a spectacular world of thresher sharks and giant manta rays.
Except that there’s more. I hadn’t appreciated this before my visit, but even if you took the incredible Monad Shoal out of the equation, Malapascua would still more than hold its own as a diving attraction.
For a start, there’s the Doña Marilyn wreck, which we dive after breakfast on that first day. This is no artificial reef but a real wreck, and a tragic one at that.
It’s sobering to remember that more than 250 people died when this 100m inter-island ferry was sunk by Typhoon Ruby back in 1988.
The intact vessel lies in a sandy area on its starboard side, sprouting black and other soft corals. Large numbers of fish have been attracted to this comparatively recent reef. We dive it in strong surface currents that require a fairly rapid descent down the line to the midships area.
We drop to the sand at 33m out of the flow, then move slowly along over the deck towards the bow, stopping every now and then to observe a resident cuttlefish or scorpionfish.
Returning along the port side, peering through gaps into the interior as we go, we can feel the current blowing.
Penetration is possible, though it isn’t on our agenda – I only wish there was time to visit this impressive site again.
It’s not the only wreck around here either. If it’s rust-busting diversions you seek, WW2 relics such as the Tapilon, the deeper Pioneer and a landing craft at Lighthouse Reef are available to divers.
I don’t see any of the whitetip reef sharks that I’m told hang out on the Doña Marilyn, but we find plenty at Gato Island, another of Malapascua’s claims to fame, on the third and last dive on that dazzling opening day.
The sharks are clustered under a low coral arch, too many bodies to distinguish, and I can get within touching distance without disturbing their lazy day. They just keep me under observation with their baleful lemon-pip eyes.
These requiem sharks won’t usually get out of bed for any money until night falls, although I do notice one maverick out in the open later on the dive.

GATO IS A PRECIPITOUS limestone island thick with foliage and cracked through by a cave around which terns and bats wheel.
Beneath the surface it’s all interesting swim-throughs and gullies, and the site is a declared sea-snake sanctuary, though I don’t see any there. I may have spent too long with the sharks.
Pelagics and wrecks apart, it’s photogenic critters that populate the other side of Malapascua’s tempting triangle.
A mandarinfish dive at the Lighthouse site is obligatory. Small groups of females return to the same hard-coral maze every night around sunset, like teenagers in a town centre.
Hopeful males turn up looking for action, and if there are big fish among them the smaller guys tend to be given the cold shoulder by the females. By “big”, I mean six or seven centimetres.
Eventually the couples rise together about a metre off the reef in an ecstatic mating dance before darting apart. They leave in their wake nothing but a milky cloud of eggs and sperm, and often a clutch of misfiring photographers.
We arrive a little late to find the mandarin show already nearing its climax, but it’s just the prelude to a stupendous hour-long night-dive.
A bewildering maze of hard coral is the showcase for Malapascua’s smaller attractions – many large seahorses, exotic varieties of crab, nudibranchs and flatworms, Spanish dancers and a tiny bobtail squid that poses patiently.
Daylight dives confirm that Malapascua will satisfy most macro maniacs. Sea-slugs turn out in force on richly coralled walls at the Lapus Lapus site just off the island’s northern tip, and Gato and Obang Bato are also major haunts for nudibranchs.
Peacock mantis shrimps, scorpionfish, whip coral shrimps and garden and snake eels are common sights.
My attention is drawn at Gato by squat anemone shrimps clustered around what looks like a crimson tub, in which orange ceranthid tentacles are waving, like flames licking the edges of a burning brazier. Not sure exactly what it is, but it’s a really hot look!
And talking of things I don’t recognise (there are so many), my favourite turns up at Obang Bato on my final dive.
This is the richest critter site I visit in my four days in Malapascua, but it’s while safety-stopping on the line in a middling current, with a fair bit of debris in the water, that I notice that one strand of vegetation appears to be swimming rather than drifting.
Paul sees me trying to make it out, and brings his keener eyes to bear. I set to photographing the mystery swimmer.
Diving most days of 12 years in Malapascua, there is little Paul hasn’t seen, but he tells me when we surface that this creature is new to him.
The pictures show what looks like a pipefish but with a white-tipped broom-like tail and a raffish scarf-like arrangement in the neck area.
Angel Navarro, Exotic Island’s dive-centre manager, later posts the pictures on social-media sites, as does divEr later. I know that the Coral Triangle is awash with unidentified species, and as time passes without a positive ID, I dream of becoming the (suitably modest) discoverer of Syngnathus weinmanus (or more properly, I suppose, Syngnathus quintus), and must admit to hoping that no sensible suggestions would emerge.
Such hopes are eventually dashed by an impeccable authority, icthyologist Jeff Johnson of Australia’s Queensland Museum. He identifies the fish about which I’ve become so proprietorial as a juvenile bent-stick pipefish.
I remember that someone on Facebook had suggested Trachyrhamphus bicoarctatus early on, but I had dismissed it because the adult looked quite different (apologies to that poster).
It was because it was a juvenile that it had the odd tail and neck effects, but I am consoled by Jeff’s assurance that it’s “quite an unusual find”.

ONE MIGHT EXPECT IT TO BE a little galling for Dik de Boer, who owns Exotic Island, to have to share Malapascua with so many other diving operations today. After all, it was the Dutchman and his Filipino wife Cora who set the place up as the island’s first dive resort 14 years ago, after witnessing the thresher show at Monad Shoal.
Today Exotic Island provides a fine base for divers. A 5* National Geographic IDC resort, it offers, inevitably, its own Thresher Shark Speciality among the full range of PADI courses. It was also the island’s first technical-diving centre, so it would be handy for a mixed-gas dive on the Pioneer.
The resort provides clean, comfortable rooms with all the facilities you might expect, including bathroom and balcony, tasty food and free wi-fi access in the open restaurant/bar area, and a spa.
The dive centre is an integral part of the resort and operates four large bangka outrigger dive-boats and a couple of smaller ones. Nitrox is available.
So that’s Malapascua, then – it’s all about thresher sharks. And massive manta rays. And wrecks. And generous helpings of smaller stuff, including “mystery” creatures.
You may want to take more than four days to explore it. Enjoy.