The Philippines is well known for its beautiful islands, friendly people, and amazing diving. Some of its best diving is in Cebu, an island in the south about 1 hr from Manila by plane. While most tourists flock to the vacation hotspots of Borocay and Palawan, I chose Cebu for its diving and spent a week in this little slice of paradise. Cebu’s most famous attraction is certainly the thresher sharks in Malapascua, a tiny island at the very northern tip of Cebu. That was certainly my main draw, and the reason I flew 30 hours from New York to get here. It didn’t disappoint. Along with diving with hundreds of Manta Rays in Komodo, coming within striking distance of a thresher shark will rank at the top of my diving experiences.
In addition to the thresher sharks which are only found in a handful of places in the world, there is a enormous sardine run in the beach town of Moalboal, located in Cebu’s southwestern tip. I’m talking about MILLIONS of sardines swimming in tornado funnels around me. I spent just over a week diving both locations and finished with one conclusion, I need to go back!
Getting to Malapascua
Malapascua is located at the very northern tip of Cebu Island. Cebu is a large island, and Cebu City is one of the larger cities in the Philippines. AirAsia and Cebu Pacific have multiple flights from Manila to Cebu every day. There are also direct flights from Taipei and Hong Kong. I paid only 1,200 pesos (~$25) for one way flights!
The flight is only one hour from Manila. Upon arrival, I had no plans to stay in Cebu City because there really isn’t a reason to unless arriving late at night.
To get to Malapascua, you’ll need to take ground transport to the northern tip of the island, to the port town of Maya. From Maya, you’ll need to take either a boat to the island of Malapascua.
There are essentially two ways to get to the port town of Maya from Cebu Airport:
Bus to Maya Port
From Cebu airport, take a taxi to the North bus terminal (~150 pesos). From here, there are buses that depart every hour to Maya. These buses aren’t luxury by any means but it’s only 200 pesos. Ceres bus company is the preferred company for tourists especially as some of the newer buses have air conditioning. Note that the bus is slower than a car, and takes around 5 hours to get to Maya.
Taxis and Ubers!
In Cebu airport, there are taxis waiting outside. The white ones are fully metered so there is no risk of being ripped off. There is also Uber available in Cebu and prices are comparable to the metered taxis.
The car ride to Maya from Cebu Airport is roughly 3.5 hours. It’s not close, and the traffic on Cebu is atrociously bad. A taxi ride to Maya with the metered taxis is around 1,800 pesos. However, because it is so far out of the way, most taxi drivers usually charge a flat fare. The guy wanted 3,500 PHP from me at first, but I bargained it down to 2,500 PHP (~$50) which seemed to be the going rate which seemed very fair considering the dive resort quoted me double the price for a pickup.
The ride was mostly uneventful. We stopped for Cebu lechon along the way, some of the best food the Philippines has to offer (suckling pig with chiles, spices, and garlic fried rice mmmm). My driver talked about Manny Pacquiao the entire way as he is somewhat of a God in this country.
Ferry Ride to Malapascua
After getting to Maya, I took another boat to Malapascua. These leave every hour until it gets dark and cost 100 PHP per ride. The weather was a bit crazy that day and I thought the waves would for sure flip our boat over. Thankfully, the ride is only 30-45 minutes and I made it in one piece!
Where to stay and dive in Malapascua
This island was entirely a fisherman’s island two decades ago. With the discovery of the thresher sharks and killer diving, dive resorts began opening in Malapascua rapidly. Nowadays, the island is teeming with dive shops. As a whole, compared to places like Utila and Ko Tao, Malapascua is still more rustic as far as dive islands go. There are at least two dozen dive shops on Malapascua nowadays and many guesthouses and hostels. I chose to dive with Evolution divers. They came highly recommended by a friend, and had top reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m certainly happy with my choice. They were a great shop and had great Divemasters and Instructors.
I stayed at the dive resort as well, in their cheaper “fan rooms” for 1,800 pesos/night. In hindsight, there are SO many guesthouses on the island that were close to the resort for half the price, and with beach views!
Diving in Malapascua
Finally, on to the good stuff, diving! I spent 4 days diving around Malapascua, making sure to dive with the Threshers each day, as well as seeing what the rest of the are has to offer.
Malapascua’s claim to fame is the Monad Shoal, the epic dive site filled with thresher shark cleaning stations. The dives here depart daily at 4:45am which is the earliest time I’ve ever had to wake up to dive. There’s something special about riding on the open ocean watching the sun slowly rise in front of you. Boats assemble at the dive site with scores of eager divers hoping to find thresher sharks, and the occasional manta ray. As a dive site, Monad shoal is not the prettiest in the world. It is meant for one thing, and one thing only, the thresher sharks. Therefore, if you don’t see them (although they are almost guaranteed), this dive could be one of the most boring dives ever.
As we descended into the depths, the visibility wasn’t great and there wasn’t much to see. After swimming around for a few minutes, we found sharks! Not one, but two! I was ecstatic that I saw them right away.
These sharks are known for their body length scythe-like tails and giant eyes. They looked bigger than the pictures (although everything looks bigger underwater), and watching them swim around was incredible. We were joined by at least a dozen other divers from other dive shops, so do not expect to get many private encounters. The threshers tend to be in deeper waters (~20-25m) and we had such amazing encounters that I was pushing the limits of my no-deco time. There was a shark swimming around me when my no deco time hit 1 min. I so did not want to leave but I figured hitting deco on my first dive of the trip was not the smartest choice. Lesson learned. Use Nitrox!
Monad Shoal Day Two
The first time was so good, I had to go a second time. Perhaps I’d be lucky enough to even see a manta ray or eagle ray! I thought it’d be difficult to top the three sharks I saw on the first day. Nope. I was wrong. Minutes after descending for our second thresher dive, I was face to face with one again. This time, the shark swam within a few meters from me! It came so close to me, I thought it might hit me before one whip of its huge tail and it turned around. Shortly after, another thresher joined the mix and I had two threshers swimming around me! I have the footage to prove it.
I was planning on diving Monad Shoal every day, but after these back to back amazing experiences, I figured I should just end it on that high note. Here is my video to prove it!
Kalangamman Island is a secluded island with idyllic beaches and waters, with a large sandbar extending out into the ocean. It’s a popular day trip option for people staying in Malapascua and is probably one of the nicest beaches in the country. For divers like myself, dive shops will bundle in a day of diving along with relaxing on the beach.
The diving is quite good near Kalangamman Island as well. It’s not as good as the famed Gato Island but there were plenty to see here as well. Sticking with the theme of Malapascua, the dive sites here had great macro life with ample amounts of nudis, frogfish, and seahorses. The coral conditions were beautiful with colorful soft and hard corals abound. The Philippines are known for its giant fan coral which can be many meters in diameter.
Video of Kalanggaman diving:
Sadly, most of the marine life around Malapascua has been destroyed due to dynamite fishing. However, Gato Island is a smell islet one hour from the mainland that is still teeming with beautiful corals and ample marine life. It’s offered as a day trip from Malapascua with two dives and lunch provided.
The diving on Gato Island is great. We had two dives here, with the second one being a special dive into a cave where we had numerous white tip sharks waiting for us. The first dive was filled with schools of fish, pretty corals, and abundant macro life. There are two resident seahorses here, one red and one yellow that are always cool to see.
We had a crazy encounter with THREE cuttlefish on the first dive. There were two male cuttlefish fighting for the right to mate with a female. I absolutely love seeing cuttlefish so seeing three at the same time literally fighting with each other was a great experience. This went on for at least ten minutes and we were completely mesmerized by their colorfully lighted tentacles swinging at each other.
On the second dive, we dove through a 40m tunnel in a cave. I’m a big fan of diving in caves and there were plenty of things to see in this place. It’s a hotspot for white tip sharks and sea snakes. We saw both. Three white tip sharks were swimming around us and they got so close to us, even I was a bit nervous.
Going to Moalboal next
After almost a week of diving in Malapascua, I spoke with numerous other divers on the island that told me I needed to go to Moalboal to see the huge school of sardines. I was convinced immediately and proceeded to travel to the opposite side of Cebu to see this famous school of sardines.
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