Threshers of Malapascua
Threshers of Malapascua
Photo's and Text by Mike Gerken
©2014 All Rights Reserved
A Pelagic Thresher Shark of Malapascua, Philippines.
I try not to discriminate against anything based on appearance. I believe all living things should be given equal due respect regardless of what they look like. However, in the western world, some creatures are placed on higher pedestals than others based on, what I call, the 'cute and fuzzy factor'. i.e. If you fall in to the 'adorable' category then you have a better chance of not ending up on the dinner plate. I do my best to practice this belief but, every now and again a critter comes along that tests my good senses. This is what happened to me when I met the thresher shark. The large round sentient black eyes, the smooth blunt nose and the mouth slightly ajar all convey a human expression of surprise or even innocence. "Charming" is the singular word that pops in to my mind when I saw these guys swimming across the reef.
It was in Malapascua Island in the Philippines where I had my first encounter with Alopias pelagicus, the pelagic thresher shark. Malapascua for some years now has been one of the 'go-to' locales for a near guaranteed sighting of these magnificent sharks. After viewing plenty of images on the internet, I decided it was time to check these guys out in person.
Annette Papa and myself arrived in Cebu, Philippines on board the dive vessel M/V Odyssey for the vessels scheduled three year refit. (Presently, I'm the captain of the Odyssey in Truk Lagoon and Annette is the dive instructor for six months out of the year from June till January.) After a few weeks of cutting, pounding, scrapping and painting during the dry dock, it was time for our scheduled two week holiday. We decided to head to nearby Malapascua Island to stay and dive at the Evolution Diving resort which is owned and operated by Matt Reed (no relation to Evolution Underwater Imaging). I first met Matt in 2003 when he worked on board the Odyssey while I was working on the neighboring Truk Aggressor II. After Truk, we bumped in to each other now and again in our work and travels and stay in touch via Facebook.
Annette and I found Evolution Diving to be perfect way to spend a quite holiday in a rustic island setting. The staff were courteous, friendly and always went out of their way to make sure you had everything you required. The facilities were very comfortable and ideally located right on white sand beaches. The diving of course, was beautiful with a great diversity of macro life and soft corals. However, the signature dive site for all of the operators was Monad Shoal, a 'cleaning station', where near guaranteed thresher shark sightings are conducted. It was explained to me that the threshers dwell mostly in depths of 100-300 meters. They come up to the shoal in the very early hours of the morning, when the reef comes to life, in order to have parasites picked from their mouths, gills and bodies by cleaner wrasse.
To dive with the threshers, one must arise from a deep vacation slumber around 4:30am too catch a 5am departure. That's right, 5am! It was still dark as I stumbled down the beach to the banca (local style boat) which would take us too the dive site. The run out to Monad Shoal from Malapascua was an easy 20 minute boat ride. The divemaster gave us a quick briefing explaining that there is a roped off viewing area at the top of the shoal that no diver is permitted to cross. This is done to prevent the shy thresher shark from being spooked by invasive divers during their morning cleaning. In addition, we photogs were told that flashlights, strobes or any artificial lighting was prohibited on this dive. Spending most of their time in deep low light environments, the light sensitive threshers startle easy when powerful strobes and video lights are blasting away at them. With these rules at hand (necessary rules at that), I knew getting a killer shot of this awesome shark would be difficult but, I always rise to an occasion and looked forward to the challenge.
The dive itself is pretty simple. Swim down to the shoal at about 70 feet and wait behind the rope for the threshers to show up. On day one, we managed to see only one thresher; my first one. At around 8 feet in length, this was a nice specimen but, did not come in close for a good photo. It was exciting to have this incredible shark, that hunts by whipping and stunning prey with their long powerful tail, swim right along side me. The dive guide at the end of the dive looked disappointed due to there being only one shark since upwards of a dozen can be seen on other days. This dive in my book was still a success even though I had no photos to show for it. Such is the way it goes when you are an underwater photographer. Patience is required in getting 'the shot'. I would be back.
Day two yielded a better dive however, the first 20 minutes there was nothing. Nada. No sharks and things looked bleak. That was until our dive guide had a hunch and led three of us down deeper away from the primary viewing area to see if the sharks were being coy. Sure enough, after a 5 minute swim, three threshers in 80-100 feet arrived and were swimming loops around the sloping wall while cleaner wrasse darted around their head and bodies like a hungry man at a breakfast buffet. With every swing passed me, I hoped they would come is close enough for a clean shot. As luck would have it, I managed to collect a handful of 'keeper' shots for the portfolio and to share with you all in this blog.
As my stay with Evolution continued, my thresher shark dives each day got better and better. More sharks with great close-ups left me like a kid in a candy shop and wanting to go back for more. Unfortunately, duty called and it was time to head back to Cebu to assist in completing the work on the Odyssey before heading back to Truk Lagoon. Something told me that I will be back to dive with these sharks again one day soon.
While viewing my images on the laptop, I couldn't help but chuckle every so often at the endearing and clueless expression on the thresher sharks face all the while reminding myself not to fall for these sharks based on their looks alone. I couldn't help it though. At the end of my editing session, the thresher definitely gained ground in my list of favorite sharks based on a perceived personality. In the end, I guess I am a sucker for a cute face after all.
Visit my web page for more photos from Malapascua.
Tips for Photographing Thresher Sharks
1. Stay low to the reef so not to spook the sharks but, do not damage the corals. Perfect hovering is a key skill in obtaining eco-friendly shots.
2. Do not chase the sharks. You will lose this race. Be patient and at the ready and wait for the shark to come in close.
3. Flash photography is not permitted so use a wide angle lens with the widest f-stop you can afford. My Nikkor 16-35mm, F4 was sufficient but, I wished for a F2.8 or better.
4. The sharks are moving targets. Shoot at a minimum of 1/80th of a second to prevent blur. Any faster than this and your light will be too low.
5. The dive is very early morning and ambient light is low. Pump up the ISO to as high as your camera will go without excessive noise. I was shooting stills at ISO1650.
6. Try to get low and shoot high to allow more light and better angles with more contrast in your shot.
Malapascua diving has more to offer than Thresher Sharks.
False Clownfish of Malapascua.
Topside scenery at Malapascua Island.
Wow, your shots are amazing! I went for three days straight before the sharks came in close enough for us to see them...and my photos look nothing at all like yours; more like shadows. Looking forward to one day returning to Malapascua (being married to a Filipino means it's likely) and encountering these beauties again.
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