Moved around like contraband among anxious smugglers, I stepped out of the minivan and immediately onto our banca, or Filipino outrigger boat, under an ominous midnight sky. This was to be our vessel for the 30 minute journey from Cebu to the island of Malapascua.
The crew of four remarked in an accent that was at once Asian and Latin that they wished we’d arrived earlier. At first I assumed they were annoyed at having to sail the ocean long past their bed time. But the frown of the captain as he stared at the twinkling lights of our destination indicated something else was bothering him.
But let’s start from the beginning.
We arrived in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, to chaos. From my experience of South East Asian capitals, I expected as much within the city, not at the airport. This was a significant moment, for over the years I’d had the privilege of meeting many Filipinos, whether that be flirting with a nurse at 15 whilst out of my mind on morphine or working with them. The situations differed, but a universal response I received when proclaiming my desire to visit their homeland was to, “Be careful.”
Not only this, but this was Duterte’s Philippines. For those that avert from international affairs, Rodrigo Duterte is the current president who built his campaign and subsequent legacy on a ‘no-nonsense’ drug war. This ‘nonsense’, in Ole Rody’s opinion, is the adherence to ‘annoyances’ such as human rights, fair trials and the general judicial system.
Duterte promised to ‘clean’ the streets of drugs, and his policies have been carried out in brutal fashion. By the end of January (2017), 7000 killings had taken place, with less than 50% attributed to police operations. Yet despite incidents of stray bullets killing children in their own homes, the President remains a popular man, at least according to his questionable poll ratings. This unfortunate reality meant I approached the Philippines with trepidation, but also anticipation of some fascinating political discussion.
We had just one objective when we arrived: change airport terminals to meet a flight from Manila to Cebu. Simple, right?
Bouncing from airport official to policeman to ‘bus driver’, all whom seemed to have an agenda of extortion, we somehow walked onto a bus for airline staff. The driver’s incessant grin and passengers’ tagalog whispers gave little reassurance, but for 20 pesos (£0.40) it was worth the gamble. As our bus squeezed among vibrant jeepneys amidst Manila’s notorious traffic, I focused my thoughts on our destination.
The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of approximately 7500 islands. We’d picked Malapascua because it’s one of two places in the world where you can reliably find the elusive thresher shark – a shy predator made distinct by a long tailfin which it has been known to use to stun schools of fish in a split-second whipping motion. A mere speck in the Visayan sea, it’s accessed by a supposedly short boat ride from the much more widely visited, Cebu.
Having eventually arrived in Cebu, we tasked our reluctant driver with taking us 5 hours north past jungle, late night markets and Catholic processions, to meet the aforementioned boat crew. It’s safe to say, the thought that “these sharks better be bloody worth it” had crossed my mind more than once.
As our banca eased out of port, engines roaring and lungs filled with diesel fumes, I quickly noticed that the sky, which was already as black as the midnight hour, was somehow becoming darker. Then I realised the air that had previously cloyed my pores with humidity, carried a cool breeze to the extent that it felt thinner. The signs became obvious: anxious captain; darkening night sky; low barometric pressure – our bamboo fishing boat, now in the open sea, was sailing into a tropical storm.
Clouds directly above us, it wasn’t long before the first rumble and the sound of rain crashing towards us.
With no chance of wrestling the surge that had risen as if Neptune himself had belly flopped next to the boat, our crew of four sought out refuge by steering us into the nearest bay. Dropping anchor and huddling behind cover of the boat wheel, our captain gave us a reassuring, “This is no’ good.”
Tossed and drenched relentlessly from every angle, I huddled into Elise and scanned the coastline to plan contingencies in the potential event that we were thrown overboard. There’s a moment in a life-threatening situation where you realise that survival is completely dependent on your sole capacity to deal with it. This natural stressor was compounded by the fact that I had someone’s daughter, my girlfriend, to keep safe.
Our monochrome surroundings became colour for an instant with each lightning flash, and I calculated a swim of 150 metres to the first rocky outcrop. Risky in stormy currents, but manageable. I forced a smile at one of the four crew members, and anxiously tried to remember if I’d ever been baptised and wished I’d thrown more yen into Japan’s Shinto shrines.
I must’ve thought of Mount Olympus, for Neptune eventually finished diving practice. And as the clouds gradually passed, and the thunder rolled away, the beats of my heart were slowly absorbed by the soaked shirt that clung to my chest. The captain saw his chance and we stormed across the ocean strait ourselves, the hull of our boat safely scraping the sandy beach of Malapascua at two in the morning. What should’ve been a half hour boat trip had taken two.
So were the sharks worth it?
Malapascua is a spit of sand and palm trees that sustains a contrasting community of island village hamlets and Western-owned dive centres, that cater to international holidaymakers and wealthy Manilans. Little surprise then, that it’s often named ‘Little Boracay’.
We discovered a sad, recent history in that the island was hit particularly hard by super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) back in 2013. Left completely isolated with no electricity, running water, and 80% of boats destroyed, the island’s inhabitants were completely reliant on international aid. Anecdotally, I was told an uplifting story of how an American biker gang contingent organised relief from neighbouring Cebu.
Tropical islands, as beautiful as they are, are also a reminder of how vulnerable human settlement can be. Machete-wielding locals removing coconuts and palm trees in an effort to reduce ‘natural shrapnel’ were an indicator that the island was expecting another typhoon during our stay. I felt a sad sympathy for the local villagers, at the mercy of this annual natural phenomenon, and curious admiration for the foreign business owners, who continue to invest their resources despite the constant risk of destruction.
The diving sites are renowned for their macro life (read: small creatures, which at my standard at the time, I was too incompetent to appreciate without getting urchin spikes to the face). The manta rays have all but disappeared and we have irresponsible fishing to thank for that – there were several times when a tranquil dive was jolted by the squeak and boom of illegal dynamite fishing nearby.
But then there were the thresher shark dives.
Waking at 4 in the morning, we sailed under a navy sky to find the dive site. Dawn breaking and safety checks done, we deflated our BCDs and sank 27 metres to find the buoy line which would guide us to the ‘cleaning station’ – a section in the reef frequented by large marine life to have parasites eaten by smaller fish.
I make this sound more seamless than it was for in reality Elise, who was certifying at the time, had a panic attack and attempted to swim off into the deep.
With buoyancy maintained, we stared expectantly at the dark blue void ahead of us with nothing but the sound of metallic breaths and bubbles. Suddenly, a glimpse of silver teased in the distance. Moments later, our aquatic target was revealed – its stub-nose, bulbous eyes and tail as long as it’s body defining itself as it glided effortlessly past.
Like all wildlife matters, no sighting is guaranteed. Prior to the dive we’d met divers who saw sharks in abundance or nothing at all. And to know that I had one swimming right in front of me, from a depth of hundreds of metres, in one of the few places in the world where you can see thresher sharks, and that I’d braved tempestuous seas to find them, was a very special moment indeed.
When we rose to the surface, morning glow in full swing, something even more wonderful happened. Being in the right place at the right time, a thresher shark rocketed to the surface, breaching several metres into the air. Elise and the crew witnessed this rarely documented behaviour twice.
But obviously, I myself was struggling with a mask that was vacuumed to my face. I missed it both times.