Illegal fishing and pollution threaten sharks and other marine creatures all over the world. Sharks, in particular, face challenges that if ignored, will have severe consequences for the balance of our ocean’s ecosystem.
Many people fear sharks because of the man-eater stereotypes the media has created for them. However, what people should fear is a world without sharks. These apex predators eat other animals lower on the food web, which helps maintain species diversity. Biodiversity plays a vital role in maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem. Without this diversity, the health of the oceans will be threatened.
Each year, humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide. Tens of millions of sharks are caught every year for their fins, which are one of the world’s most expensive seafood products. In comparison, less than ten people die each year from a shark bite.
In 2010, scuba diving centers on a tiny island in the Philippines came together to take the first step in doing what they could to protect sharks from the growing threat of extinction.
Today, let’s take a digital scuba diving trip to this tiny Filipino island called Malapascua. On this trip, we’ll find out what’s being done to protect sharks and how scuba junkies can help in the conservation efforts.
The Adventure – Diving With Thresher Sharks in Malapascua
Scuba divers from all over the world come to Malapascua Island to dive with Thresher Sharks at the famous site Monad Shoal. This is a very special dive site because it’s the only place in the world where divers can consistently spot this type of shark every day of the year.
A trip to Monad Shoal requires a bright and early wake-up call. Boats leave at 4:30 am sharp. The early morning hours are when these deep-sea swimmers come up to the shallows to have their skin cleaned by other fish.
After a short ten-minute boat ride, scuba divers gear up, get into the water and make their descent below the surface. The group swims along the seamount looking for sharks.
The divers stay close to a ridge of rocks and wait patiently. After a few minutes, thresher sharks start to appear out from the blue and come to the cleaning stations. Sharks come to these cleaning stations to have small fish eat parasites off their skin.
Divers are briefed to stay close to the rocks and not to approach the sharks as it might disturb them. There is no feeding allowed, which allows divers to see how the sharks naturally behave.
The sharks come and then disappear out into the blue again. Pelagic Threshers need to swim in order to breathe. They have to swim fast enough for oxygen-rich water to flow over their gills. They can’t hangout at the underwater health spa for long so they swim by several times until they have had most of the parasites and dead skin picked off of them.
Thresher sharks are unique in their shape and facial expression. Their long elegant tail and friendly smile make them look quite cute. Like most sharks, Threshers are timid and usually swim away once they see a diver. They are not aggressive. There has only been one documented Thresher Shark attack on a person, and it was provoked by the man grabbing the shark’s tail.
While the Thresher Shark dive is what attracts many divers to Malapascua, there are plenty of other sites and creatures to see. You can spot Hammerhead Sharks (Dec-May), Whitetip Reef Sharks, Manta Rays (Winter-Spring), Pygmy Seahorses, Devil Rays, Mandarin Fish, Blue Ringed Octopus, Ornate Ghost Pipefish and Frogfish among others.
There are two options to get to these dive sites. Option 1 is to visit Malapascua, stay in a hotel, and make day trips. Option 2 is to go on a liveaboard that visits Monad Shoals as part of the itinerary. You can learn more about these kinds of adventures in our article, The Best Philippines Liveaboard Trips.
Before divers started to come to Malapascua, the local economy depended on fishing. Until just a few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for fishermen to catch Thresher Sharks then sell their fins and meat. Dried shark fins can be priced up to $340 per pound depending on the size and type.
In the early 1990’s, people started to come to Malapascua to dive with the Thresher Sharks. Now, in 2019, in this region of the Philippines, 80% of all income comes from scuba diving tourism. This boost in the local economy is starting to change the perception of sharks, and people are beginning to realize that they are worth more alive than dead.
The scuba industry creates many jobs from boat captains, dive guides, scuba instructors, and staff. To reach the dive sites off of Malapascua, scuba divers need to stay on the island, so all the hotels and restaurants also have job opportunities. There are also several liveaboard boats that run tours in the area. These boats have Filipino staff who work as captains, engineers, deckhands, cooks, and guides.
In 2010, many of the local dive centers teamed up to establish the Malapascua Marine Protection Fund (MMPF). The group oversees the collection and the management of donations made by scuba divers. The fund is financed mainly by charging divers to Monad Shoal an additional 50 pesos (US $ 1). In 2015, around 1 million pesos (US $21,000) was collected.
Through the work of the Malapascua Marine Protection Fund, 28 former fishermen were converted into Bantay Dagat aka ‘Sea Guardians.’ These rangers patrol and protect Monad Shoal. They enforce fishing regulations using three small patrol vessels.
Since the surveillance started, illegal fishing has decreased dramatically, and thresher shark sightings are rising. The real beauty of training ex-fisherman to become Sea Guardians is it allows local people to be part of the solution.
The Ocean & Marine Life
Monad Shoal and close by Gato Island are home to thousands of species of marine life making it an essential ecological region for the Philippines. Aside from the famous thresher sharks, you can spot eagle rays, marble rays and devil rays. Gato Island in particular is well known for macro diving. There you can find many species of seahorses, pipefish, shrimp, crabs and over 100 types of nudibranchs.
In 2015, Monad and Gato Island were designated as the first shark and ray sanctuaries in the country, with no fishing allowed. This legislation makes the Philippines one of the few countries in the world to have domestic protections for sharks.
With the support of the Malapascua Marine Protection Fund, the local government and scuba divers from all around the world, illegal fishing in the area is declining, and marine life on Monad Shoal is increasing.
Vision for the Future
By choosing to go diving in Malapascua, and diving with a dive resort that contributes to the Malapascua Marine Preservation Fund, scuba junkies start a chain of events. First, the individual gains a new perspective of sharks and their role on our planet. Second, job opportunities are created for locals, which reduces the pressure to earn an income by fishing. Third, the increase of divers coming to the island demonstrates the value of the sharks to the leaders of the Philippines, which plays a crucial role in their decision making.
Sharks play a crucial role in the health of our oceans. Sharks feed on the animals below them in the food web, helping to regulate and maintain species diversity.
As more divers come to this part of the world, more people will value, understand, and protect the creatures who live here. This is why we do what we do at The Adventure Junkies. We know that getting more people into diving is a key part of the lasting solution for marine conservation.