Shooting Sharks at Malapascua

Malapascua is a wonderful tropical dive location sites with something to suit everyone’s tastes. You can find seagrass muck dives full of macro life, remarkable night dives with a lot of curious creatures, shallow reefs with healthy corals, dramatic drop-offs, a couple of good wrecks and some outlying islands to explore. However, what makes it stand out from most other Philippines destinations, and makes it arguably one of the very best dive spots in South East Asia, are its thresher sharks. They are what put Malapascua on the map.Thresher shark-7938

The pelagic thresher shark

This Indian and Pacific Ocean species is about three metres long, and almost half of that length is made up of its spectacularly long tail. Any pelagic shark is a stunning sight but the first time I set eyes on a thresher shark, using lazy tail swishes to glide effortlessly water, I was filled with awe. It is hard to imagine a sleeker or more perfectly evolved animal to its environment — if I had to choose one creature to represent the strange, beautiful and alien world of the ocean, this would be it.

Pelagic thresher sharks are believed to use their tails to stun small fish while hunting. It is a shy species which poses absolutely no threat to humans (like most sharks, actually). Sadly it is often a bycatch victim of commercial fishing; and it is also specifically caught for the shark fin trade. We did wonder whether the shark below, who circled past us several times, had managed to get away from such an accident — take a look at its dorsal fin. Thresher shark-7817

Diving Monad Shoal

Monad Shoal, a 25-minute boat ride from Malapascua, is an underwater seamount about 1.5km in length and a cleaning station for thresher sharks. Around sunrise, the sharks can be seen at this site swimming slowly while small cleaner wrasse approach them to nibble off parasites. The likelihood of seeing the threshers is pretty high — but don’t believe the operators if they say it’s guaranteed. On my first trip to Malapascua, I had to do three dives at Monad Shoal before getting a good sighting. This time around we were lucky and were treated with circling threshers for the entire 60 minutes of our only dive at Monad. It’s worth scheduling a few dives at the shoal to increase your chances of seeing more than just a shadowy silhouette in the blue.

Other large species can be seen at Malapascua. Kemod Shoal, a second site a little further away, offers a chance of seeing hammerheads at certain times of year, and rays can also be seen here. We did one dive there on this trip but we were unlucky, the sharks remained elusive; we only caught a fleeting glimpse of a manta, like a passing shadow. Thresher shark-7905 The dive boats for Monad depart at around 5 a.m. (4.30 for Kemod) in order to reach the site at dawn, and if you don’t show up for a dive you signed up for, the shops will charge you for the dive anyway, so it’s best to go to bed early! It is also ideal to use nitrox for this dive. You will be spending the entire time in the 20-25m range, so nitrox will extend your no deco time. The top of the shoal itself is barren and largely devoid of coral — but divers are encouraged to hover or ‘fin pivot’ while looking out for the threshers to avoid damaging it further. Frankly it is in all the dive shops’ interests to ensure the divers behave themselves here because these sharks are their livelihood. Thresher shark-7973

Shooting threshers — photography advice
  • To get a chance of a good shot, I would firstly advise you to schedule as many dives as you can at the shoal during your stay. The sharks sometimes come close to the divers but not always. You need to maximise your chances.
  • At Monad Shoal, stay very low over the ground and if you see a shark is coming towards you, try to move as little as possible — it might just come right over your head! If you rise up or try to swim towards the shark, it will turn away, and you ruin the moment for everyone. Be patient and calm. Allow the shark to come as close as possible.
  • Be aware that strobes (and flashlights) are not permitted at Monad Shoal so as not to scare off the long-tailed residents. Don’t worry, there is enough ambient light to shoot at dawn, but you will need to use a high ISO setting and a wide aperture. I started the dive on ISO 2000, 1/100 and f/4 and reduced the ISO and increased the shutter speed progressively through the dive as the ambient light increased.
  • On this occasion, we were stationed at the reeftop facing east, into the sun, with slightly low visibility, which made it difficult to get a nice clear shot. This is pretty much the worst direction to face for taking photos, and a lot of the sharks came out as hazy silhouettes in my pictures. If you can try to face slightly south or north, so that the light is coming from one side, this will make for better photos. Of course, you can’t control where the shark is coming from, but different operators do use different viewing spots. Enquire in advance with your shop.
  • If you can, shoot RAW and then in post-processing use software to adjust the white balance so that your sharks don’t look completely blue (they’re not!). Alternatively, convert your shots to black-and-white later which can save a too-blue photo, adds drama, and can accentuate the shape of subject (see above).
  • It’s all about the tail with thresher sharks. Try to get the tail in mid-swish. Once you are OK with your exposure settings, if you can, put your camera in burst mode and go shark-paparazzi crazy. You don’t need to worry about flash recycle time, since you won’t be using one. You can delete all the rubbish ones later, but you won’t miss the tail swish.

Thresher shark-7821

Dive shop recommendations

I have visited Malapascua twice and used two different operators: Evolution and Exotic. Both were very professional, efficient, and safety- and environmentally-conscious operators, with excellent facilites and boats in good condition. I would happily recommend either for recreational diving, and would (will) certainly return. Exotic are the original dive shop on Malapascua. They have a very large facility and a large number of boats. They offer very decent mid-range accommodation too. Evolution pretty much occupy the technical diving and training niche on Malapascua and are fully equipped for this (Exotic can offer tec also, but at present their tec facilites are more limited). I would also highly recommend Evolution’s bistro, the Craic House.

Thresher shark-7792

So long, thresher sharks! I hope to come back soon!

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  1. Excellent article. I am a big fan of Malapascua, it keeps surprising me – and now there’s Kerikite!
    On the thresher shark tips I would add 1) using a bright, mid-to-wide range lens with good focus speed. I tested the 10-22 canon with a 500D CF lens and it was too slow, the Tokina FE 10-17 with the 1.4 TC was great and the 18-55 was also surprisingly good, all behind a 6 inch dome; 2) using noise reduction in post production along with the proper white balance can generate great photos. I agree that patience and multiple dives are mandatory, they are not easy to photograph, but if you go enough times, they will come near and that’s the shot you’re looking for.

    Liked by 1 person

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