WITH THE air pollution in Bangkok at its highest, I unfold my map and search for a place where I can breathe more easily. My usual refuge of Chiang Mai seems to be even more affected than the capital city, so I opt for the Philippines, picking the diving paradise of Malapascua Island for a well-earned winter break.
We land at Mactan International Airport on Cebu Island then grab a cab to take us on the three-hour drive to Maya Port. From there, it’s an easy crossing to the island on a traditional Filipino Bangca boat, a long thin vessel with a central hull and a solid, buoyant wooden outrigger made from bamboo sticking out from both sides.
The beach is dotted with colourful Bangca fishing boats in late afternoon.
Even with the light drizzle, the emerald waters are so clear that we can clearly see the coral reefs that seem to stretch for miles. The sun comes out just as our boat drops anchor at Malapascua Island off Cebu’s northern tip, where we have booked ourselves an exclusive four-day programme of scuba diving.
Spread over two square kilometres, this idyllic island is covered with flatlands to the south while the northwest is home to a cape and small green hills. Its name translate as Bad Easter and legend has it that some Spanish sailors found themselves marooned on Lagon Island after a storm sank their ship on Christmas Day in the 15th century and, presumably because they were stuck there until at least Easter, renamed it Malapascua.
In the 1980s, the first underwater explorers discovered a gigantic submarine plateau called the Monad Shoal, which was home to a wide variety of marine creatures and coral reefs at depths from 14 to more than 100 metres, making it a world-class diving destination.
Focusing on sustainable tourism, the diving shops are careful in their management of marine tours and take good care of both the environment and the tourists who come to admire it.
A thresher shark appears to greet visitors at Monad Shoal.
We’re up before first light and clamber aboard a boat for the 30-minute cruise to Monad Shoal. Equipped with air tanks, our group of divers jumps into the water and finds the best spot to watch the thresher sharks as they enjoy a relaxing spa session.
We hold on to a long rope that’s stretched around the underwater cliff and kneel down in the indicated positions just a few metres away from the teeming marine life. A lot of blue streak cleaner wrasses and moon wrasses are busy cleaning the thresher sharks’ mouths and getting rid of parasites and dead cells.
An ancient species, the long-tailed thresher-like sharks are considered predators. Also known as the fox shark and ninja shark in a nod to their big round eyes and sly behaviour, the threshers have been in existence for 49 million years and are found in all temperate and tropical oceans though Monad Shoal is the only place where visitors can spot the pelagic thresher sharks that can grow up to three metres in length.
We look up to the surface and spot manta rays, eagle rays, turtles and squids, while the thresher sharks wave their fins and meander behind us.
A shoal of blue streak cleaner wrasses and moon wrasses groom the thresher sharks.
Returning to Malapascua in the late morning, we have breakfast and prepare our equipment for the next dive. This is located to the far north of Malapascua and is a 45-minute boat ride away. The area is known as Gato Island – the name coming from its resemblance to a cat crouched low on its haunches.
A lofty limestone cliff towers above us as we dive through a tunnel to a mysterious sea cave, which is home to skeleton shrimps and on this occasion, three white tip reef sharks taking a nap. The seabed is blanketed with diverse corals in different colours around which schools of blue- ringed octopus, colourful frogfish and sea snakes feed and play.
Other popular dive sites in the area include Kemod Shoal where it’s possible to catch a glimpse of hammerhead sharks and devil rays and Kalangaman Island, which boasts a pristine beach popular for picnics.
A little Bobtail hunts for his dinner
Back at our resort on Malapascua Island, we rest up for the next dive, a sunset excursion to Lighthouse Reef, a 15-minute boat ride from Bounty Beach.
Under the beam of a dim red light, we observe mandarin fish mating – the females releasing some eggs and males fertilising them. We also spot a school of seahorses in yellow, red and brown floating amid hard coral reefs.
Next morning, we wake up to spectacular sunrise over the turquoise waters and hire bikes to cycle around Malapascua to admire the local life. The narrow lanes lead us to the white sand beaches and the Lighthouse, a perfect backdrop for selfies.
Standing alongside its namesake beach, Guimbitayan village is inhabited by local fishermen, who stick to the old traditions and a simple way of life. They still interweave fishhooks by hands and build and repair their own boats with traditional techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation.
A fresh market is set up in the middle of the hamlet, selling a wide range of seafood and local dishes at reasonable prices. The island might be remote but the villagers have access to public utilities and education. And with the number of tourists steadily growing, boutique resorts, guesthouse, restaurants, diving centres, schools and even a health care centre have sprung up, making this a perfect destination for families as well as backpackers.
IF YOU GO
>> Several airlines operate direct flights from Bangkok to Cebu Island. Visitors can travel to Maya Port by bus or taxi. Prices ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 pesos (Bt1,830 to Bt3,100).
>> The Maya New Port provides Bangca boat transfer to Malapascua Island. The fare starts at 100 peso (Bt60) per person.
>> Find out more details at www.TourismPhilippines.com.au.
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