Sounds are limited to rhythmic, gurgled breathing and dawn’s first light has only just started to illuminate the underwater cliff that we are standing on. This, along with the incredibly dark blue backdrop, are all contributing to the eerie feeling that comes with waiting for a shark beneath the open sea.
We are in Monad Shoal, an underwater island on the edge of a 200m drop-off, and the only known point in the world where the deep water-dwelling thresher sharks congregate every morning, all year round.
These large, long-tailed sharks, which have been listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union since 2007, come here daily to have themselves cleaned or, occasionally, give birth. It’s here, off the small island of Malapascua in north Cebu, that these fish with huge, scythe-like tails jettison their solitary instincts.
Divers have coined this part of Malapascua’s waters the thresher sharks’ cleaning station. A mix of colorful and light brown cleaner wrasses are abundant here. These smaller fish are parasite pickers that use their thick lips to eat dead skin and bacteria from the sharks’ body and gills, and are even courageous enough to go looking for snacks inside their mouths.
Anywhere from two to seven sharks show up every morning. Today, three sharks have come here to unwittingly give a free show to an audience of more than a dozen divers. We hold a rope and form a line as the sharks swim parallel to and above us. Some are swimming so near that we can just about reach out for a feel.
“At first, I was scared. They’re very impressive. But eventually you’ll see that they’re actually very friendly,” says Anastacia Chaves, a diving visitor from France. Like many others, she has been lured by Malapascua Island and amazed by the animals that drive its tourist trade.
To test concentration and alertness, we had to prove we could add 110 and 246, and then assemble a child’s puzzle before diving under the water
GETTING HERE FROM THE CITY OF CEBU is easy; it takes around three hours on the road to the municipality of Daanbantayan, with two short boat transfers. The island is so small that you can take a motorcycle and circle the entire expanse within an hour or two, depending on how much time you take ogling coconuts or snapping photos of the surroundings.
Malapascua Island has no bank and bicycling in inner parts can be hard, as maneuvering in soft sand can be tricky – the reason why it’s more common to see motorcycles being used. Gasoline is imported from the mainland and usually sold in 1-liter soft-drink bottles.
Before the dive, we thrill-seekers were educated about dos and don’ts under the water. In addition to avoiding quick movements, we were instructed to follow the rope and stay with the group. To test concentration and alertness, we had to prove we could add 110 and 246, and then assemble a child’s puzzle before diving under the water.
Our adventure to Monad Shoal had begun on the beach at 4.30am. Like hardworking fishermen, we waded to a small blue and white boat, flashlights on hand, under the dark sky. Our slow pace betrayed the tiredness we felt, but you could tell that everyone was excited.
A five-minute ride took us to a larger boat where our scuba equipment lay waiting, as shades of magenta, orange and lavender swirled together above a still dark sea. This magnificent sky served as the only sight during the 30-minute trip, but it was more than enough. By the time we arrived, the light show had already ended and the bright rays of morning were ready to illuminate our sub-aquatic adventure.
Suited up in scuba gear, we followed a rope underwater and plunged to a depth equivalent to a six-storey building to reach the underwater coral plateau. It was on this cliff edge that we waited for the sharks.
Thresher sharks, which have big, dark eyes and small, sharp teeth, usually feed on schooling fish such as mackerel and herring. Their slender bodies can be spotted completely jumping out of water. They use their tails to hunt and stun prey; their predatory instincts begin so early that their pups even eat each other inside their mother’s bellies.
However, even these sharks’ powerful tails cannot protect them from another hunter: humans. Like most magnificent creatures, the thresher sharks are also hunted for their fins and meat.
Overfishing has caused a steady decline in their numbers – but help is at hand.