Monday, August 26, 2013

Thresher Sharks and Malapascua

I googled this picture as the ones I took were too dark.

Like whale sharks (butanding) and Donsol (Sorsogon), the fate of thresher sharks and Malapascua (Cebu) are inextricably intertwined. Unlike the whale sharks in Donsol that seem to have fled the vicinity (except perhaps for a handful of appearances a quarter), the thresher sharks of Malapascua still appear at Monad Shoal at the crack of dawn like clockwork.

Before one of our dives in Malapascua

During this particular scuba diving excursion organized by our friends at Planet Dive (many thanks to TB, Gerard and Dencio for a wonderful trip), we had two early morning attempts to view the magnificent thresher sharks. On the first try, there were already four diving boats ahead of us and only the first batch in our group had a brief glimpse of one thresher shark that quickly disappeared into the deep blue sea. The following morning, we were the second diving boat to arrive and (eureka!) we saw at least two thresher sharks meandering along Monad Shoal. Noteworthy is the the thresher shark's unusually long tail fin, which is not only pretty but apparently critical to the creature's survival. Thresher sharks use their tails like bullwhips to kill or stun prey. The brief video clip below was taken by Philippe Wong during our August 23, 2013 early morning dive at a depth of about 90 feet. Well done Philippe! 

According to the local divers, the thresher sharks visit Monad Shoal regularly to get cleaned and to rid themselves of parasites--dutifully done by the resident cleaner fishes. However, all is not exactly well. The boat loads of scuba divers (as many as 20 scuba diving boats congregate above Monad Shoal at the crack of dawn during the peak months) that visit these days are currently brought to a new section of Monad Shoal. That's because the thresher sharks rarely show up in the "old" section, which begs the question: what scared-off the thresher sharks from the old section in the first place? Moreover, are we, in fact, scaring-off the thresher sharks from the new section of Monad Shoal? Only time will tell.

Our group spent a portion of our final diving day at Gato Island, a marine sanctuary about an hour away from Malapascua by boat. Most enjoyable with its varied topography and good coral conditions. Our second dive at Gato Island was also my first dive through an underwater tunnel, which reinforced what I already knew--I don't like confined spaces, particularly underwater.

One of the first things we saw upon entering the water at Gato Island was dead "dilis" (shiny silver fish about the size of your small finger but much thinner) sprawling all over the sea floor--a result of dynamite fishing, according to the local divers, that apparently still occurs in the vicinity. These illegal fishermen should be caught and executed in full view of the public to mitigate these downright ignorant and destructive practices.

Malapascua itself is a relatively small but beautiful island with white sand beaches that rival Boracay. There's a resort priced like Shangri-La Hotel and others for cost-conscious travelers. For hearty meals without frills, go to the restaurant at Kokay's Maldito Beach Resort. Angelino's is a real gem of an Italian restaurant in this island paradise. It's run by a friendly Italian couple, who I hope will teach as many Malapascuans their delicious Italian recipes.

In the case of the whale sharks in Donsol, it appears their eco-tourism story has come full circle and it's not a happy ending. The whale sharks are virtually gone and so is the eco-tourism livelihood in town. Oslob (about 3 hours drive south of Cebu City) appears to be faring better than Donsol, even though Oslob's methods are a bit controversial. They feed the whale sharks that keep them coming back for more. To date, more than 120 individual whale sharks have been identified visiting the shores of Oslob for some free chow. Again, only time will tell if Oslob is really doing a better job than Donsol at balancing environmental protection and the livelihood of the local community.

After having viewed both the thresher sharks in Malapascua and the whale sharks in Oslob during this trip to Cebu, I wish that every individual would have the opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures up-close and personal for many generations to come.

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