Mandarin fish, Synchiropus splendidus,

Leaving wet cold London and heading for a Tropical diving trip.

This trip was put together soon after a phone call with Pao. We wanted to go somewhere that is easily accessible (purely because limited time and lugging diving gears around isn’t fun) but hasn’t yet been exploited by the main stream tourism. Lembeh was the first choice but when Malapascua Island was tabled, we agreed almost instantly.

I have heard about diving with Thresher Sharks at Monad Shoal from another diver friend a few years back and always wanted to see them for myself. The only downer is that lights or flashes are not allowed during the dive to prevent scaring the shark away. That’s suck, especially for a photographers who need all the light to bring the colour or contrast out of the gloomy blue environment. Well, It’s not going be the I still want going there, with light or without!!!!!


London to Bangkok was no frill. The flight was leaving Bangkok at 11:30pm and arriving at Manila at 4am (local time). From there, we had two hours of transit before another one hour of flight to Cebu. Once we arrived at Cebu, we need to take another 3 hours ride to Maya bay and 30 minutes boat ride to Malapascua Island. Yeah, pretty accessible. All is good, except when do we get to sleep you may ask. Well, I have to admit that I forget to take the time difference between Thailand and Philippines. So we lost an hour of in-flight kip.

Philippine airline

Getting There:

After a spectacularly screw up from Terminal-A booking resulting in a refusal from Philippines airlines to let us check in. We had to buy a new ticket (again)  I am please to say that Terminal A has gone under administration, taking with them my 300£.

5:00am at Manila Ninoy Aquino Airport. Our flight is not due to leave until 7am.


Uh huh……  This begins to feel like a deja vu. Another set back, another airport, another bench and another rough night.

Ninoy Aquino Airport
and finally, the dawn has arrived. Time to set off for Malapascua Island.

Taking off.

By the Dawn's Early Light

View of Manila from the air shortly after we took off. It’s a beautiful morning especially when you don’t have to go to work.


We were picked up by two local guys in a van arranged for us by the resort. Gears thrown in the van (actually it was nicely carried and laid down) and off we went.

Touch Down:

The ride from Cebu city to Maya pier took 3 hours. The road passes through beautiful rice paddies, villages and gorges. We saw these views like and flashes of images through our sleepy eyes and nodded off. The midnight flight has taken its toll.


Bangka (Outrigger) boat made the ride to Malapascua through choppy waves a very smooth ride. The boat is so beautiful that I want one myself.

Outrigger boat

You can just see Malapascua Island on the horizon.


Just like in my dream…

Coconut trees




We stayed at Tepanee resort. Not the most luxurious place on the planet but it has everything I need and beyond. (hey, I’m easily satisfied)




We dived with these guys Thresher shark divers . They are very good, friendly and helpful bunch of people. Daily diving was arranged by put your name in the sign up list on whichever of the 4 destinations you wanted to go. Gato Island and hammerhead shark are very popular and filled up very quickly.

Meet my new huggable dive guide.


Off to the room to assemble the gear together.

My wish is to have a dedicated underwater camera with infinite battery power, memory and 10mm-105mm F/2.8 zoom lens. Please please please let me know if anyone has invented it because I really hate having to go through the o-ring cleaning regime 2 times a day in a dry clean room while everyone else is having a good time or chilling out in the bar. Oh, it must be cheap and light weight too!

What ? surely it’s not too much to ask?

All Blue:

The next morning, thresher shark dives started early at 5am to increase the chance of sighting. Malapascua didn’t let me down. We had a sighting on our first dive.

This was probably my best shot of the elusive Thresher shark – Alopias vulpinus. You are not allowed to approach the shark. Strobes and torches are also prohibited. At 18m depth and very low light, there is no way to get a decent picture unless the shark swim right over you which the silhouette shot can be shot. Chances are they’ll stay well away from you so extremely wide angle lenses may not be the best option here.

Thresher shark, Alopias vulpinus

A supermacro shot of a nudibranch Hypselodoris apolegma’s anal gill, using Nikon AF105mm lense.

Hypselodoris apolegma

Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus bargibanti, in a pink seafan. The difficulty is not taking the shot itself but trying to locate the miniscule seahorse through the very small portion of a magnified image. Without any aid of my buddy’s finger pointing to the exact spot I tend to spend 2-3 minutes panning around trying to home in on the seahorse.

Pygmy Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti,

Broadclub Cuttlefish, Sepia latimanus

Broadclub Cuttlefish, Sepia latimanus

Reaper Cuttlefish – Sepia cf mestus. This subject is easily approach and will stand their ground, making it simple to photograph.

Reaper Cuttlefish, Sepia cf mestus

In one swift move, the cuttlefish is complete transformed. I manage to capture this shot just before he swam away.

Reaper Cuttlefish, Sepia cf mestus

Venustus Cleaner Shrimp – Periclimenes venustus

periclimenes venustus

Harlequin crab – Lissocarcinus laevis,

Lissocarcinus laevis, Harlequin crab

Tambja olivaria. This is a beautiful nudibranch with amazing colouration. It can be identified by the olive green colour and yellow and blue markings.


For those who having trouble ID-ing these little gems. try these websites:

It’ll help if you can, first of all, differentiate the order of the animal. People often mistakenly refer to Sapsucking Slugs. Seahares. Sidegill Slugs and  Headshield Slugs as Nudibranches. In fact, they are classified as different order. Also, if you are geeky enough to be able to differentiate between various suborders of nudibranch, it’ll narrow down you search significantly.

Getting Intimate:

A guaranteed sighting at the lighthouse dive site is the Mandarin fish Synchiropus splendidus ritual mating, This photogenic fish will come out of the coral rubbles at dusk and perform a mating dance together. The activity lasted around 15 minutes. Again, no torch is allowed as it interferes with the behaviour of the fish. The challenge here is to get the camera to focus on the subject. You can try to put the red filter on the focus light as most of the marine animals are insensitive to that that end of the spectrum.

Mandarin fish mating, Synchiropus splendidus,

Mandarin fish, Synchiropus splendidus,

Mandarin fish, Synchiropus splendidus,

Once the mating has finished, the mandarin fish dashes back under the protection of rock and coral rubbles.

Mandarin fish, Synchiropus splendidus,

Back up Shots:

If you didn’t manage to capture the mandarin fish, don’t worry. There is another guaranteed sighting at this site – the seahorses. Yes it’s not quite as exciting as those Mandarins but they are also as cute and mesmerising to observe nonetheless.

Estuary Seahorse – Hippocampus kuda

Estuary Seahorse, Hippocampus kuda

Estuary Seahorse, Hippocampus kuda

Thorny Seahorse – Hippocampus histrix

Thorny Seahorse, Hippocampus histrix

Spotfin Lionfish – Pterois antennata

Spotfin Lionfish, Pterois antennata

A special find- a tiny Bobtail squid – Sepiolida in midwater


How small? Ah well….

Bobtail squid

The Hunt for the Hammerhead:

Even more elusive than the Thresher shark, the next morning we set off for a dive before the sunrise in search of  the Hammerhead sharks at Kimud shoal.


The boat dropped us off over a shallow pinnacle (I’d say at the depth of around 20m) in the middle of the nowhere. Around the pinnacle, the sea bed sharply dropped into the abyss and bottomed at 500m. There was a visible layer of planktons below the 15m mark. The condition was perfect for sighting the hammerhead but less so for photography – low light, lots of particles, no visual reference, moderate head current. My camera suddenly felt like and giant parasol on a windy beach.

Anyway, some of us managed to see a glimpse of the hammerhead.

‘The soup’


Another Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus bargibanti, at Laplight. It’s quite interesting at this magnification that allow you to see the thin mucus layer around the seahorse which has a high diffracted ratio making it looks like a bad Photoshop job.

Pygmy Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti,

Halgerda batangas nudibranch. This particular specie is featured on the cover of Nudibranch Behavior book.

Halgerda batangas

Squart Shrimp, Thor amboinensis

Squart Shrimp, Thor amboinensis
Clark’s anemonefish – Amphiprion clarkii. Very common and territorial. They will charge at you even from 5m away.


Dragonface Pipefish – Corythoichthys haematopterus

Dragonface Pipefish, Corythoichthys haematopterus

Sea Moth – Eurypegasus draconis,

Sea Moth, Eurypegasus draconis,

Sea Moth, Eurypegasus draconis,

Phyllidiella pustulosa nudibranch

Phyllidiella pustulosa nudibranch

A very nice comensal. Anemone shrimp Periclemenes holthuisi identifiable by the V shaped marking on it’s back.

Periclemenes holthuisi


Black saddled toby, Canthigaster valentini

Black saddled toby, Canthigaster valentini

It’s not bad for two and a half days of dives. We managed to see a lot of small stuff and a thresher shark. Too bad about the hammerhead but you can never guarantee a sighting, especially on a single dive.

Malapascua is an amazing island. You walk everywhere and we enjoy going into the village, chatting with the locals. One guy did offer us a raw (or very slightly cooked) anemone salad. We tried and it tasted like jelly made out of sea water. Taste terrible even for my standard but point is people were very friendly there.



We also stayed over at Mangrove Oriental Resort. It’s on the west side of the island slight further north from tall the activities. It’s very secluded.


The room at Mangrove Oriental. Nice room but a little quiet than the atmosphere around Tepanee.








To get back to Bounty beach, you have to walk through the village. This is the best part of staying at the Mangrove as you get to interact with kids and local people on the way. They were very friendly.




Heading back: I wish we’d stayed longer but like all the good things must have an end.


Cebu Tricycle



Bantayan Island as we flew out from Cebu city to Manila. Malapascua is just under the cloud in the middle right.

… until next time.