You’d hardly think it, but fifteen years ago, Malapascua Island was just another small fishing island in the Philippines.
The guidebooks tout Malapascua as the next Boracay. When I tell Oliver Mischo, Marketing Director at Malapascua Exotic Island Dive Resort, this, he scorns. He’s right; it’s not the next Boracay.
True, Malapascua’s Bounty Beach is brilliant and water off shore is calm and clear-blue. But unlike Boracay, development here is discreet and under control. An island-wide statute prevents hotels from rising above the palm trees. Resort development is now more or less limited to a half-kilometer-long stretch of east-facing white sand beach.
We’re sitting at Exotic’s restaurant, with tables adjacent to the beach. I dig my toes in the sand under the table and a slight ocean breeze blows through. I can’t help but think about the fact that this is Mischo’s office.
There are several dive outfits on the island, but he is proud of Exotic. “We were the first ones. Fifteen years ago, our owner came here on holiday, spotted the thresher sharks while diving, and stayed.”
That, in turn, spawned a whole diving industry on Malapascua. Other hotels and guesthouses have continuously sprung up over the years.
Thresher Sharks and Pigmy Seahorses are the real draw for divers, which they nearly always see.
“This is the only place in the world where you can see Thresher Sharks on a regular basis, year round.” Mischo tells me. I’m already getting excited for the next morning when we’ll head out at 5am with the diver’s going to see the sharks.
There are some twenty dive sites within reach that Exotic and their mini-fleet of outrigger boats regularly visit.
They’ve recently built a house reef as well. With a bit of effort, they’ve somehow sunk an old jeepney (after taking out all the toxic parts). This acts as a haven for fishes. Offshore about 100 meters, it’s actually Mischo’s favorite locale to dive.
In reality, Malapascua Island is a square kilometer or so of sand out in the middle of some crystal-clear, blue-green sea in the Visayas of the central Philippines. This is great for northern souls who are seeking a tropical paradise, but for locals, it’s a different story.
Not much of anything grows on the island. Even to get a papaya to sprout here, you’re got to create your own soil out of compost. Before tourism arrived, fishing was the only means for locals to eke out a living. Hard times led to destructive fishing practices, like using underwater explosives (common around the Philippines). This damaged coral and fish populations. Now officials patrol the waters to make sure fisherman use safe means of taking fish.
The underwater ecosystem has been recovering ever since, and thanks to tourism, the reefs, coral, and fish species have been given a second chance.
While nearly everyone on our boat was diving, Juno and I were snorkeling. You wouldn’t believe the clarity of the water here. Snorkeling on three different mornings we were able to spot a whole host of fish and coral: Banded Sea Krait (snake), tuna, Mappa Pufferfish, Blue Sea Star, Indian Cushion Seastar, Giant Trevally, and a whole bunch of others.
Back on the island, a maze of sand alleyways winds behind the resorts. Cocks reign here. Tethered up to their roosts, they are well feed and groomed for the local cock fighting industry. Small wooden houses sit close together. The local neighborhood seems to act as a support network solely for tourism. Kids run around playing and stray dogs are too hot to move.
While I was warned about crime in much of the Philippines, Malapascua is safe. Theoretically, you could walk around at any time of day or night, but Malapascua more or less winds down at around 10pm. (You could probably linger at Exotic with cocktails for a while longer.) Nightlight isn’t much on the island as a whole, but that’s not why you come Malapascua. You come for the beach, the water, and the diving. If you want to dance and drink all night, that’s why there’s Boracay.
We stayed at Malapascua Exotic Island Dive Resort. Although we didn’t dive, we went out with the divers most of the mornings with our snorkeling gear. Exotic’s staff is knowledgeable, their equipment is of high quality, and they are safety conscious—all important things to look for when choosing a dive outfit.
The most common way to reach Malapascua is by taking the regularly-departing bangka from the northern tip of Cebu Island from the small port town of Maya. Here the ferry should cost you 80 pesos ($2 US) and the ride should be less than one hour. Ask directions to Exotic once you arrive, it’s about a 10-minute walk. There are no roads on the island. In order to get an intimate feel for Malapascua, I would plan to stay for at least three nights. Most people come to dive and stay a bit longer than that.