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An Expedition to Remember!

By Gonzalo Araujo, Director, MARECO

I’ve been lucky to have lived and worked in the Philippines for almost a decade. During this time, I spent a considerable amount of time in provincial areas where I’ve seen the beauty and the hardships of life in remote parts of the Philippine archipelago. On my very first visit to this country I now call my second home, I went straight to Malapascua Island – north of Cebu in the Visayas region. This Island was, and still is, world-famous for encounters with the elusive thresher shark. There are three species of thresher sharks globally, all of which occur in Philippine waters: the common, the pelagic and the big-eye thresher. Off Malapascua however, one more typically encounters the pelagic thresher Alopias pelagicus.

Back then, we’d get up at 4 am to make sure we were at Monad Shoal (a shoal about 5 miles from Malapascua) for first light. We would jump in the water as soon as the sun broke the horizon to ensure we got a glimpse of the thresher sharks that come get cleaned by primarily blue-streaked and half-moon wrasses on the shoal. The cleaning stations we’d visit at Monad were at 25-30 m, so pretty deep. When you added the very low light of the morning, it meant that most encounters were in fairly dark conditions. As strobes and lights are rightly prohibited at this important habitat for threshers, photos and videos were always tricky to get.

For last December 2022, we designed an itinerary with Atlantis Azores to highlight the best marine megafauna spots in the Visayas, whilst still making the most of the incredible reefs and macro opportunities, within reasonable distance from Dauin (Negros Oriental, about 30 mins from Dumaguete airport) where we started and ended our expedition. It is no surprise that one of the highlights had to be the thresher sharks! And boy did we get lucky. No early starts, no ‘dark’ conditions, no limited visibility. We had thresher shark galore on a different shoal called Kimud Shoal. Pelagic thresher sharks were coming in from every direction, including the top of the shoal at 7-10 m. With incredible visibility and sunny skies, the ambient light was just perfect to capture these animals’ natural silvery shine. The encounters were so good, that we decided to extend our diving there by an extra day!

Our trip, hosted by my friend and legend Cipooz, and myself for Marine Research and Conservation Foundation (MARECO), hit other incredible sites around Cebu, including Cabilao, Capitancillo and Gato. We then moved southeast to Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte, where the reefs of Napantao, San Francisco, showcased their incredible biodiversity and biomass, the coral bommies of Cogon, Pintuyan, showed us reef communities separated by sandy habitat, and the whale sharks played hard to get! The community-led whale shark watching operation from Son-ok (led by KASAKA) worked hard to find whale sharks, which they did at the eleventh hour to the delight of everyone. Whale sharks do play hard to get – trust me, after working with them for over a decade, this is still part of the thrill! We were even lucky to capture one from the drone. To top it off, we dove the Macrohon pier at night which has every critter imaginable, including elusive stargazers.

We then made our way west through Anda and Balicasag in Bohol in search of macro and turtles respectively. Balicasag is an important turtle habitat with shallow seagrass beds and stunning reefs. From schooling jacks to feeding green turtles, Balicasag never disappoints and remains one of my favourite dive sites in the Philippines. It was a great site to finish our 10-day expedition in partnership with Atlantis Azores. A percentage of the proceeds from the trip was donated to MARECO which will feed into our whale shark conservation efforts, including the support of students doing shark research in the Philippines. We would like to thank Atlantis and our amazing guests for a fantastic trip – we can’t wait for the next one!

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