Malapascua Island, Visaya Group, Philippines
About the Island
This tiny island is only about 1km by 3km and lies 8km off the north end of Cebu island in the central Philippines as part of the Visaya group of islands. When the Spaniards arrived here it was a stormy Christmas Day. They thus named it Malapascua or “unfortunate Christmas”.
It has lovely white sand beaches and clear blue water. The government here did a great service by not allowing the hotels to build right at the water’s edge. A sand path separates the beach from the resorts, though it is all “on the sand”. It makes for a very attractive landscape.
Most of the hotels are situated along Bounty Beach and while there are numerous hotels, there are no mega resorts so the island still has a small town feel. The best hotels on the island are a solid 3-star, though clean, well appointed and air conditioned.
Just behind the hotels are local houses accessed by dirt paths. It’s a great way to meet the local Filipinos.
Malapascua is a popular destination for German and Swedish tourists and is becoming popular among the Chinese, most of whom stay at one particular hotel called Exotic. This is the largest hotel with many dive boats and the closest thing to “cattle boating” we saw. We would recommend avoiding this one.
It’s a quiet island if you are not a diver. The beaches are quite nice and if you are looking for a place to hit the beach with a book and a cocktail, it would do quite nicely for a few days. If you are a diver, it is one of the Philippine’s paradise locations!
Why did we go there?
The Philippines is a difficult place to get a handle on when it comes to diving. Weeks of research drove me to the following conclusion. No one seems to be able to agree on where the good (and bad) diving are.
So the plan was to book two weeks into a couple of dive resorts at specific locations and then leave the other two weeks open to serendipity (a good way to travel no matter what!). We figured that once we arrived in country, we would get the “real scoop” on the best locations.
We talked with everyone from Dive Masters to resort owners to locals and the consensus was the same.
There is no consensus.
Everyone agrees to disagree on the best dive areas.
And with over 7100 islands in the archipelago, it’s hard to make a decision.
At one point we decided on Malapascua. Why? Mainly due to the presence of the rarely seen thresher sharks. I was a bit unsure because I didn’t want to make the schlep only to hear the fateful words, “oh, you should have been here yesterday” after sitting at 70’ waiting for an elusive fish. As it turned out, this was not the case. We were quite successful spotting these long tail beauties. Whew.
Getting To Malapascua Island
Malapascua is not a “convenient” place to get to, but then again, most of the best diving destinations aren’t. There are a couple of ways to do it.
First, fly to Cebu Island at Mactan Airport. Then arrange a private car to drive you four hours to the north end of Cebu island. From there, take a public or private boat from the town of Maya (literally the end of the road). The boat takes about 30 minutes. Then either schlep your gear up the beach to your hotel (there are no cars here) or for a few pesos, there are usually willing Filipino guys to haul it for you.
We came to Cebu from Bohol so our route was a 2 hour ferry to Cebu City followed by the rest of the itinerary listed above.
Private cars are expensive but they are air conditioned and well…private. Expect to pay $100 each way for the van. The issue with a private car is that the quality of drivers can vary dramatically. Our driver had spent the night partying at the disco. The sooner he could get home the better. So while the drive only took 3 1/2 hours, I’m surprised we arrived in one piece! I heard many similar stories over the next few days.
For the return trip, we decided on the local bus. Two options here. The first is the air conditioned bus with wifi. Sounds great. The kicker is that it can take more than five hours. Because it uses it’s power for the AC, it is a slower bus and it only runs a couple of times a day.
We opted for the window cooled bus that left every half an hour. While it was dusty and a bit warm, it really was fine. I felt safe and we arrived spot on at the bus terminal in Cebu city in exactly four hours. And for only about $6 each.
Hotels on Malapascua
Personally, we prefer to stay at a hotel with a dive operation to make it easy “one stop shopping”.
However, as we decided last minute to come to the island and as it happened to be Holy Week, we had a difficult time finding accommodations. Here is our experience:
Malapascua Garden is one Place we Would Not Stay Again. This was about the only place with availability and now we know why! While the room was clean and the AC worked well, that was about the end of it. We had many communication issues with the local manager on site and ended up leaving before our reservation was complete.
I won’t get into the gory details but on second to last night when our doorknob broke, so did the proverbial camel’s back. We became weary of crawling in and out of the window! Seriously. The night it broke the maintenance guy was drunk and passed out and even the next day no one came to fix it. And after the manager accused us of “breaking her doorknob”, we happily fled!
Our last night was spent at SunSplash Resort, a basic hotel with AC for about $60 a night. They were very nice and the room served our purpose just fine. However, if I were actually on vacation, I would spend a little more and stay ON the beach with a hotel WITH a dive operation.
Hotels with Dive Operations on Malapascua we Recommend
Only on the rare, rare occasion will we dive with a dive operator who has not been personally recommended to us. Here on Malapascua, we had two great shops recommended to us along with their respective hotels. We would gladly stay at either of these places.
Evolution Dive Resort. (http://evolution.com.ph/).
If you are a technical diver, this is the only place for you. Matt Reed and David Joyce are the owners. They live and work side by side with their attentive staff. Matt is a very accomplished tech diver who is currently exploring and is always seeking out new wrecks in the area. It’s fascinating to sit and talk with Matt and see where his next project is taking him.
We spent our first two days diving with Matt’s operation and were very impressed with the professionalism.
Matt did not have room for us to stay at the hotel because of the busy holiday but we did get a look at the rooms.
The original rooms are backpacker style, some with and some without AC. They would not have been our choice for accommodation. However, Matt and David now have completed brand new higher end rooms at the back of the resort. While they are not “ocean view” they are quiet and still only 50 steps to the beach and away from the dive shop, restaurant and bar. Solid 3+ star rooms. (there is nothing 5-star on the island).
The entire property is on the sand and is complete with a very unique Irish restaurant and bar called The Craic House. We had two wonderful breakfasts here after our early morning dives. Dinners are European style and while they are a bit more expensive than the other restaurants on the beach, they have a certain flair and are a change from Filipino food if you want.
Diving with Evolution
We dived with Jojo as our dive master for two days. This was our first experience with the thresher sharks and Jojo did a masterful job of getting us to the sharks and around the crowds.
We kept one eye on him and one eye in the blue. His eagle eye and keen shark senses determined our route along the plateau. We stayed shallow enough at the right times to allow us the most bottom time. Combined with our great ability to conserve air, we were able to “outlast” all the other divers and end up with just us and the sharks. Amazing!
Ocean Vida and Sea Explorers (http://www.ocean-vida.com/)
The other hotel and dive operator we would recommend on the island is Ocean Vida and Sea Explorers.
Ocean Vida has the “atmosphere”. The rooms are directly on the beach with ocean views. I was concerned about the noise factor since the rooms are right on the sandy path but the restaurant and bar close down fairly early so there didn’t seem to be any issues. While divers like to party, they also know that dive time is early. And here on Malapascua, if you are diving with the sharks, your meeting time is often before 5:00am! (more on that later).
The biggest draw for us with Ocean Vida are the beanbags. Yep, that’s right! A brilliant move by someone, every afternoon, happy hour begins with low tables and beanbag chairs on the water! And Ocean Vida has perfected an amazing drink, the mango daiquiri and at happy hour they are priced at an astounding 150 pesos for two (that’s about $2.50 each). YUMMY! You don’t have to be staying here to enjoy the happy hour.
So no matter what we were doing, we seemed to migrate to OV’s happy hour at some point before 6:00pm each day. You can also have dinner on the sand at beanbag paradise central while watching the sunset. Two drinks, dinner on the sand and then 10 steps to your room and asleep by 8:00 pm!
The rooms are among the nicest on the island with balconies where you can sit looking out to the sea.
We dived two days with Sea Explorers. They also did a great job and took exceptional care of us during our stay.
Our thresher shark dive with Sea Explorers was a bit different. Each of the dive operators have their own mooring at Monad Shoals. We found that we didn’t like the mooring of Sea Explorers as much. It was a much deeper spot and at this particular time it was below the “murk” so photos were not an option and dive time was shorter due to the depth at close to 90’.
We had a basic idea of how the shoal was laid out and so once we saw the situation, we took things into our own hands. Our young divemaster, didn’t know what we were up to but we kept signaling him to go down the plateau. He kept saying we should stay where we were but we (sorry!) ignored him giving him no choice but to follow. We swam and swam until we finally reached the spot where we had dived with Evolution the days before and there and behold! We found thresher sharks in blue, shallow water (60-70ft) and no other divers! We did come across Jojo and we high-fived each other under the water!
Dive Sites on Malapascua Island
Malapascua is billed as having everything that the other dive areas of the Philippines have but all in one spot. They claim incredible macro diving, reef diving, wreck diving as well as the thresher sharks. While the macro diving we saw was good, we thought it was better in Dumaguette and while the reef diving was good, we preferred Balicasag. So it just depends on how much you want to schlep around the country to see the absolute best or get it all in one place but not quite as good, on Malapascua. That’s our preliminary finding, though we’ve only done four days of diving here. There is still MUCH for us to explore here.
With that said, there definitely are a few different types of diving here. The big reef diving is done at Kalanggaman Island. It is a beautiful island with lovely sandy beaches.
The wall is gorgeous with nice soft corals and blue blue water. Fish life is a bit scarce due to overfishing in the area but still worth doing a 2-tank visit and a great overall day. When we dived it with Evolution, we brought our own lunches and had two nice dives (we went after we did the thresher shark dive so it makes for a great 3 dive day). With Sea Explorers, they charged a bit more but had a bbq on the beach which was a nice touch. They also had the only singing dive briefing I’ve ever heard complete with guitar!
All the dive operators dive the same sites on Kalanggaman from what we saw.
Gato Island is another “day excursion” where, after returning from the thresher shark dive, you go out and do two dives with lunch. The habitat at Gato Island was quite different. The water was much greener, which for wide angle photography is a bummer but it was so rich in nutrients that we had phenominal soft coral life there and good critters.
Wreck Diving/Macro Diving
We did not have the opportunity to do any wreck diving while we were on the island but they say there are a couple of nice ones. Locally, on house reefs, there are good macro sites and even a place to shoot those amorous sundown lovers, the mandarin fish.
Once again, if you are a technical diver, stop over at Evolution and get set up to dive with Matt. He regularly dives deep wrecks to 100 meters and also dives deep with the threshers who, during the day, are regularly at depths below recreational diving. He is completely set up for all your mixed gas and rebreather diving needs.
Thresher Shark Dive
Lastly, let me say a word about the thresher shark dive. First, we LOVED it and it was truly a sight to behold to see these behemoths up close and personal.
It is one of the only places in the world to see thresher sharks as they come up to recreational depths early in the mornings to clean.
Because of the popularity of the dive, it has become somewhat crowded at the dive site. To do the dive, you meet at 5:00am and hit the water at sunrise around 6:00am… with everyone else. I inquired as to why they don’t stagger the dive times a little bit. It was explained to me that by having all the divers at the same time, the sharks were only “subjected” to the “great wall” of bubbles for a short time each day. I completely understand this logic.
So then I inquired as to why the dive shops don’t rotate. Half go on one day, half on the other. The answer to this one was explained to me in one word. Greed. I also understand, though don’t agree, with this logic.
What the dive shops have done is to get together and put down some rope lines and each dive shop has it’s own mooring and “area” where they go to watch. The rope line gives a separation of divers and sharks allowing the sharks to have space along the top of the plateau to be cleaned. Divers stay “behind the line” and our experience was that divers did respect it. It’s not unusual for the sharks to cross the line over the top of the divers. This gives a thrill to the divers and doesn’t seem to bother the sharks in the least.
The biggest impact divers have made here seems to be on the reef top. Divers have basically destroyed the reef top here. While the dive operators we worked with tried very hard to keep divers off the bottom, the damage has been done. Hopefully having divers stay behind the lines, the reef top will come back to its former glory. One of the main issues is that without a healthy reef top, reef fish will disappear. Remember, the reef fish, especially the cleaner wrasse, are the reason the sharks are there. If the fish disappear, so go the sharks.
Overall, we loved the vibe and the atmosphere on Malapascua. We loved the thresher shark diving and the variety of other types of dive sites. We loved the beanbag chairs and the mango daiquiris.
We didn’t love Malapascua Garden Hotel. We didn’t especially love the schelp to get there but it’s definitely not a deal breaker.
We are happy that just two years ago, the island was finally blessed with 24 hour a day electricity!
We are planning to return to Malapascua in April of 2014. It will be as an extension to our 10 day adventure to Dumaguette and Bohol for world class macro and reef diving.
If you are planning to join us for this grand adventure, be sure to take a couple of extra days and come with us up to Malapascua. You will love it too!!!
Oh, and PS: There are manta rays too!!