As they always say, the more painful the journey, the prettier the underwater sights promised.
This one had us on a bone-rattling car ride after a flight to Cebu City; up North to the port of Maya (I say port but it’s really a jetty – a drop-off point with a little pier leading up to tiny boats anchored to the shore with ropes). This is followed by a bumpy boat ride to the island of Malapascua. All things electronic were stuffed deep away from the splashing waves. The clothes on our backs weren’t given that luxury.
Everyone comes to this island for one thing – and it’s the same thing that drives the entire economy on this island of around 4000 people. There are no hospitals, a handful of schools, and a smattering of villages. Everything happens on one stretch of beach – and it is on this stretch that we gingerly disembark, awkwardly lifting our bags of dive equipment over the seawater and across the sand.
‘Just two years ago, this was all jungle’. My dive guide waves carelessly at the throng of foreigners perched on the sand. His wife works at the restaurant on that same stretch of beach which we eat at every day. His brother is a fellow dive guide on our boat. Their sister manages the front desk at our resort. I wondered just how those thresher sharks would feel, knowing that the livelihood of so many humans depended on the sharks’ very existence; and the amount of money and effort spent by humans to observe these sharks casually going about their day.
It is a painful start to the day. Call time is 530am, so our alarms go off at 5am and we trudge down to the dive centre in the dark, shivering as we pull on our damp wetsuits in the cool dawn air. To say that the boat ride to the dive site was bumpy is somewhat of an understatement – the image of Jesus calming the storm in that biblical miracle kept coming to mind. Alas, this particular prayer was not answered and we all jumped in with a negative entry and descended quickly to 30 metres. It suddenly hits me just how far down we are; but before my mind can properly process the columns of seawater above me, a dark shadow looms in the distance and grows larger as the shark approaches – the unmistakeable outline of the thresher tail. Unbidden (and entirely unwelcome), the Jaws theme starts to play in my head. Once the initial nervousness fades, I can finally start to admire them. These creatures are majestic, and utterly unperturbed by us. They swim well within the clearing, which has been carefully marked out by the locals, using ropes to set out the boundaries which the divers shall not pass. Many minutes go by before another sighting. Everyone waits patiently. All around us are bubbles from the many other divers – we must outnumber the sharks 50:1. It is a constant exercise to fin away from the bubbles to prevent being lifted by them to the surface. Again, I found myself wondering what these thresher sharks thought of us humans, going through this entirely inconvenient process to view them in their natural habitat. Here we were, the alleged intelligent human apex predators, merely guests in this vast ocean and expanse of the dark unknown.
Back on shore, Happy Hours are happier and the sunsets more vivid than those back home. Divers piled on beanbags with sand between their toes, sharing their ‘battle stories’ of the day’s dives and photographs of the macro underworld. A mix of dated nostalgic hits and current chart toppers plays through the speakers. Time moved at a different pace here. Ever had that feeling where you had all the time in the world?