I have to be honest, this trip was entirely about “show me the sharks!”…Thresher sharks to be more precise. Visiting Malapascua has been near the top of my diving bucket list for a number of years, I just never actually got around to it, because if I was going to all the hassle of getting there, I wanted to make sure I made the most of it.
In the end, I booked myself a trip to Malapascua for Christmas for a week and a half, and then another week in Anilao afterwards for some muck diving. Logistics wise, I flew Townsville – Cairns on Qantas, and then Cairns – Manila – Cebu on Philippine Airlines. I then got picked up by a resort rep in Cebu and driven north to Maya, where there was a boat to take me over to Malapascua. I’d then booked in for a week at Buena Vida Resort. I had initially wanted to stay at Evolution and dive with them, as they undeniably have the best reputation on the island for their dive operation, but because I left booking this trip until quite late, availability for Christmas was an issue. The only place I could get a room was Buena Vida. While I didn’t care so much about where I was staying, I did care about the quality of the dive operations. Turns out Buena Vida run their diving from the Sea Explorers dive op. A bit of Google research indicated that they were ok. So while I didn’t end up staying where I’d originally wanted to, what I did get was acceptable as an alternative. I will discuss the wisdom of hindsight momentarily…
However, it’s worth noting here, that the diving package that was booked for me in conjunction with my accommodation was less than ideal. I was going to be in Malapascua for 9 nights (with 8 diving days), and the dive package only included 12 dives. At 3-4 dives a day, I’d blow through that in a few days – predictably, I wasn’t especially happy about that. So in order to fill up the rest of my time in Malapascua, I emailed Evolution…And booked the remainder of my diving with them. So I had 4 days diving with Sea Explorers, and 3.5 days diving with Evolution (the last half day I needed to off-gas before flying). Hindsight…
The Buena Vida Resort was nice enough, a little way back from the beach (unlike most of the other resorts which have beach fronts). But honestly, it was less than 100 meters to the beach (I heard people complaining about it), but you know what? I don’t care. Less than 100 meters. The dive ops are on the beach, so you only have to take your gear down and back once – again, less than 100 meters!!!
Rooms at Buena Vida were fine. Hot water, flushing toilets, aircon, wifi. I was comfortable. Food was good. The resort package only included breakfasts, so lunch and dinner was wherever I wanted. There’s a variety of options around, but in the end I found the Italian place next to Sea Explorers (Magellan’s I think? The one attached to Hippocampus at any rate) had the best food.
The dive op that I went with first, Sea Explorers, were based at Buena Vida’s sister resort Ocean Vida on Bounty Beach. I’d pre-booked nitrox for the trip, so that was fine. I liked Sea Explorers – it was well run, I had a great guide, it was reasonably priced, and I honestly had nothing bad to say about them. My guide Lydio was fantastic, particularly with the critter spotting on the muck dives, and most of the time I pretty much had him to myself, as with a couple of exceptions, I was usually the only guest diving nitrox.
The dive op that I went with after my 12 dive package with Sea Explorers was up, was Evolution. Which had been my preferred option in the first place, but anyway…Evolution tend to get the best reviews, but my experience was less than ideal. I took my dive gear down to get checked in, do paperwork, and set my gear up, and started pulling everything out of my dive bag to put in the allocated tub. Took out my muck stick – and it was like I was suddenly the devil incarnate. I had one of the local dive staff who was doing my intro briefing call me a bad diver because I had a muck stick. No joke. Proper use of a muck stick prevents damage to coral, assists with stability during photography in a current so you’re not kicking up muck, and nearly every DM who works in areas with muck diving uses one. Apparently Evolution think they’re the scuba police or something – something that several other divers on the island mentioned to me in passing conversation as well. If they’d just politely said “sorry, but we don’t allow you to dive with muck sticks here”, that would be one thing. But the guy who said this was just so condescending and sanctimonious about it that I was thinking “woah, what have I got myself into here?”…Everything was fine when we got out on the boat to dive, and this may have been a once off incident, but sadly first impressions stick.
The diving itself was incredibly hit and miss. The thresher shark dives were worth the trip to Malapascua – I thought the part of Monad Shoal that Evolution went to was a much better spot for the shark sightings than where Sea Explorers went. Overcrowding during this dive was an issue at times – regardless of which part of the shoal we went to. Again, too many people and not enough space. Combined with the fact that the majority of the divers there seem to be relatively inexperienced, and despite the dive ops all saying “be careful with your buoyancy”, hardly any of them actually realise how much crap they’re kicking up (and repeatedly kicking people in the face and landing on top of others because they have no spatial awareness *cough*).
I did a day trip to Gato Island, and while I thought the outside of the island had some reasonable diving, the tunnel swim through was totally overrated. There were 5-6 boats at Gato Island that day – and if you’re not the first ones on the dive site, there is so much sediment kicked up from the bottom due to people with poor buoyancy control (you’ll notice this is a recurring theme), that it pretty much ruins the dive for anyone who comes after them.
This was a problem around Malapascua in general to be totally honest. There are way too many divers there and a limited number of dive sites, meaning that all the dive sites get overcrowded because the dive ops on the island seem to make absolutely no effort to coordinate schedules for the different sites. This is what I like about the muck diving locations around Indonesia – the resorts actually cooperate with each other, so that Resort A goes to Site 1 on Monday, Resort B goes to site 1 on Tuesday…etc. This is particularly important on small dive sites (like for the sunset mandarin fish dives) where the dive is totally ruined when you’ve got 50+ people on a tiny bit of coral rubble trying to see something. Which is exactly what happened at Lighthouse one evening when I decided I wanted to go see the mandarin fish…Subsequently followed by idiots who didn’t seem to understand the whole “turn your dive lights off” request which meant the fish didn’t want to come out. And none of their guides saying anything to them about it because heaven forbid you actually tell someone they’re ruining the entire dive for everyone else in the vicinity.
I attempted to get to Calanggaman Island 3 times – cancelled each time due to either numbers or the weather. I also attempted to get to the Dona Marilyn wreck one day, cancelled.
The rest of the diving was basically muck diving around Malapascua Island. And I have to be totally honest here – the Sea Explorers guides were way better at the critter spotting than Evolution. The macro was nothing to really write home about by any means, I mean it’s there and there’s critters around, but nothing really noteworthy.
So yeah…Overall, I have to be honest and say I was not particularly enamoured by the diving around Malapascua. The thresher shark dives were the one redeeming aspect of this trip, and for that single reason I’m glad I went. I’m happy that I got to cross the threshers off my “must see” list, but Malapascua is not somewhere I can see myself returning to. I spent 10 days in Malapascua – in hindsight, 4-5 days would have been more than enough. It gets too repetitive after that because there’s not a whole lot of dive sites around in the first place (this is why the sites are overcrowded – lots of resorts and not many dive sites). And the sheer number of divers in the water really made for a poor experience. In an effort to put a somewhat positive spin on things, I want to make it clear that I can see the potential in Malapascua for some good diving, but unless the dive ops do something to limit the overcrowding, I don’t see that potential being reached.
Photography was interesting. I wasn’t entirely sure about lens selection, as I’d basically been told that Malapascua was a mixed bag. Aside from the threshers, which was obviously a wide angle dive, the others were all over the place. The day trip they run to Gato Island really required both a wide angle and a macro lens. And given the boats they use for these trips have no genuine “dry space”, changing lenses mid-trip wasn’t practical (my macro lens is a wet lens, but my wide angle is not). You had to basically choose one in the morning and then stick with it for the rest of the day on the full day trips. Mildly frustrating at times, but it is what it is.
One other thing to bear in mind with the photography in Malapascua, is that strobes and lights are banned on the thresher shark dives. You need to turn your strobes and camera flash off, and no video lights. It’s policy at all the dive ops, government regulation or something, so there’s no avoiding it. You can use your strobes, flash, and lights on any other dive, just not with the thresher sharks. Hardly a big issue, but something to be aware of.
A few photos below, and some video of the thresher sharks 🙂