The tiny island of Malapascua in the Philippines is the best place in the world to see the elusive thresher shark. Dr Simon Pierce explains how the sharks have become a great example of successful eco-tourism.
Thresher shark overhead, Monad Shoal, Malapascua © Chris Mitchell
Diving Malapascua – Dive Happy Episode 22 Show Notes
- Simon’s NatureTripper.com article on Malapascua
- LAMAVE – Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines
- Thresher Shark Project set up by Dr Simon Oliver
- CITES – Convention onInternational Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
- Diving Malapascua: A Quick Guide – my overview of why you should dive Malapascua
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Diving Malapascua – Dive Happy Episode 22 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about the best scuba diving in Asia. My guest on this episode is Dr. Simon Pierce. Cofounder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation and publisher of Nature Tripper magazine.
[0:00:21.1] CM: Simon, hello.
[0:00:22.6] SP: Hey, Chris, thanks very much for having me.
[0:00:25.1] CM: You’re very welcome mate. Now Simon, you wear many different hats, you are principally a marine biologist but you are as I just mentioned, the cofounder of Marine Megafauna Foundation. Do you just want to briefly explain what that is?
[0:00:41.2] SP: Yeah, for sure. Just to say, I’m still trying to work it out myself really. I got into marine conservation and marine science through this sort of traditional kind of degree and then I did a PHD in shark conservation and I wound up afterwards working in primarily on whale sharks and I mean, the scientific work has been fantastic and that’s still largely my major focus but because I am so interested in like real world results for the conservation work we’re doing.
I found that communication is a huge part of that like the science is one thing but conservation is all about humans. If you’re not really getting the science across to the humans then you’re not really doing your job and we use our cameras a lot in our work, each whale shark and the things like manta rays and things are all photo identifiable one that they have individual spot patterns, usually had a camera on hand anyway instead of finding that sharing the photos that we were getting while we were working was a really nice way of engaging people with the work.
Also, just writing about it and so we thought, we might as well take that kind of one step further and have the Nature Tripper magazine and the associated websites sort of running in parallel with our more pure sort of science and conservation efforts as a way to engage more people with that work and kind of let them know more about the issues but also let t hem know more about how they can get involved and relevant to this conversation.
What kind of eco-tourism efforts and that they should support to have them the benefit for endangered marine wildlife?
[0:02:17.9] CM: Yeah, I mean that was the thing with the Nature Tripper magazine. I really enjoyed literally tripped over it on the web and I obviously really liked the nice, clean, simple format you’ve gone for. I haven’t actually looked at the pdf version but you’ve done a downloadable version as well, right?
[0:02:34.9] SP: Yeah, it’s downloadable as a PDF so it might have been kind of an end browser sort of thing but yeah, it was a lot of fun putting it together.
[0:02:43.2] CM: You going to be running that on a monthly or a quarterly basis or –
[0:02:47.3] SP: Approximately quarterly is what we’re aiming for now. It’s just – I mean, the bottleneck is kind of how fast I can write these articles often which is not as fast as I’d like where we’ve got the other scientific work going on. At the moment as well, with all the stuff going on worldwide of our staff members and scientific collaborators at home being productive, pumping out scientific papers so I’ve had a little bit more work on that front do than I was expecting. Far more productive than I have.
[0:03:18.0] CM: You’re having to supervise and peer review them, are you?
[0:03:22.2] SP: Yeah, sort of just kind of have opinions, you know?
[0:03:29.9] CM: Okay. With Nature Tripper, there are many great articles in there, the one that really caught my eye though was about the thresher sharks of Malapascua. It is a wonderful little island in the Philippines which you’ll get to in a minute but really, the reason the article caught my eye is because you are probably the first person. Well, you’re definitely the first person probably the last as well to compare the majesty and grace of the thresher sharks to Eeyore the donkey from Winnie the poo.
[0:04:00.6] SP: Yeah, I have a certain niche and I’m owning that niche.
[0:04:05.6] CM: Yeah, I mean, threshers do look permanently startled but yeah, I go that connection.
[0:04:12.9] SP: Taking the photos, it was kind of like, is it me? What are their first thinking?
[0:04:19.0] CM: Yeah, can you tell me a bit ab out how you ended up going to Malapascua. I mean, you mentioned when we’re doing the intro that obviously shark conservation and shark research is your main bag. Can you explain a bit about why Malapascua is so special and what as well is so special about the thresher sharks themselves?
[0:04:40.3] SP: For sure. Yeah, I first got to the Philippines, I was working with Lamave a large marine vertebrates research institute in the Philippines and we’ve had a few collaborative whale shark projects with them. I was down visiting them and down by Oslo and I was just chatting to them about the diving opportunities in the area and things and they said, places like Moa Boa and then I mentioned Malapascua and I’d heard of the island as one of the only places where you could see thresher sharks.
You know, there’s so many sites that they saw this special kind of shark. Once three years ago and they’re still marketing it now. I was never quite sure about okay, is it really that good? I was chatting to one of the scientific directors of LAMAVE. He actually did his dive master up there and he was like no man, you should go check it out. I think you’d really enjoy it. Took the bus up there and spent several days the first trip and I was just blown away like I mean, the island’s really fun except that the diving is so consistent and it’s so good and thresher sharks are just amazing.
I actually went back the next year as well for two weeks just did not quite get my fill, definitely get a little bit more opportunity to spend time with them. Yeah, it really is one of the only places where at least consistently you can see the thresher shark. I understand you can maybe sporadically see them in the Red Sea but Malapascua is definitely the hotspot for the dive chatter and research that I’ve done.
Yeah, I was really excited to go and check it out for myself and also really excited to see that yes, the hype was real, it is great.
[0:06:20.1] CM: So can you, for someone who has not been there, it’s a pretty magical if tiring experience, can you explain a bit about the format of how – basically how you come out and find the sharks?
[0:06:34.5] SP: Yeah, for sure, the thresher sharks, I’ve got some cleaning stations on – a kind of sea mount and managed all, it’s a few kilometers away from the island itself. The threshers, they can’t be cleaning – a cleaning station is an area where sharks raise other fish, we’ll go and there’s lots of smaller fish that specialize in picking off parasites and things like dead skin and like, they can help them with wound healing and things. It’s kind of like, a carwash or a spa kind of thing for day spa for sharks.
The problem with diving one edge, the only problem with it is that the dives usually go out fairly early in the morning so you’re going pre-dawn which is painful. I’m not going to lie, you get sunset on the way out and things and some of the boats actually are quite large beds on them so you can have a look and nap on the way out which is pretty nice.
But then, when you actually go out there, it’s still quite dark in the water but these cleaner fish, they direct during the day time so they’re really hungry first thing in the morning. The threshers seem to be aware of that and so they turn up early as well to get the most efficient clean when the cleaner fish aren’t just kind of going through the motions really.
The thresher’s there for the specific reason, it’s taking them away from the foraging of things. They want to get cleaned as well as possible, as quickly as possible. Seems to be the first cab off the rank really and get there early.
[0:08:07.7] CM: They like to turn up punctually first thing in the morning at first light and then, Malapascua is quite a big area isn’t it, there’s quite a few different stations but they seem to be coming up from a very deep place because a ledge just drops off into nothing, is that right?
[0:08:27.8] SP: Yeah, I think it is. I’m not sure of the actual depth surrounding the shelf but I understand it was coming out from deep water and the – I mean, the thresher sharks, they’ve got this enormous eyes and they are probably very well adapted to foraging at depth for the fish and squid and things.
I am assuming that they might be hunting like at night and then probably yeah, turning up first thing from the surrounding area to get some money shot. My understanding, the science, they can come back after longer excursions too. It’s definitely like probably important part of their life turning up to Malapascua in particular as this cleaning station where they know they can consistently get themselves healthy and sort of well sorted.
[0:09:13.1] CM: The other thing about the threshers that we haven’t mentioned yet which is possibly the most obvious thing about them is that they – well, unique looking. I mean, no other shark or actually, no other creature looks like them.
[0:09:25.1] SP: Yeah, I mean, the characteristic feature of the thresher is about the half of the length of its tail. They are quite – they’re a big shark anyway but like, the common thresher is the largest species and they get up to about six meters total length but half of that is this very long whip like tail. They do feed quite differently to other sharks so they’ve only got quite a small mouth and instead of sort of chasing down fish and biting them, grabbing them, they actually will look for schools of fish and come in and whip them with their tail and they’ve actually got video footage of that from places like around down near Moa Boa.
Piscator island I think it is where they did schools of sardine, just the most amazing thing to see and so threshers now have also got these really large pectoral fins, the ones that come out of the side. They act a bit like propping wings when they’re on the open ocean so they can just like gently sort of sink down and save lots of energy by traveling long distances while they’re also going down into the water column as well.
But, more specifically, when they’re like swimming as fast as they can towards these bait fish schools, they can actually like kind of flare out this big pectoral fins and like putting out a parachute to stop them suddenly and then that helps them whip their tail right over their head to stun or kill a bunch of the bait fish that they can pick off at their leisure. Pretty amazing stuff.
[0:11:02.3] CM: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like a scorpion isn’t it? When the tail comes over their head.
[0:11:06.6] SP: Yeah, I mean, it’s just like, you see them because on the cleaning station obviously, they’re swimming nice and slowly and they’re very relaxed to allow these small fish to come up and keep up with them and be able to clean them effectively and things like that. Seeing them and hunting them must be pretty spectacular.
[0:11:26.4] CM: Yeah, you’ve got that great on the Nature Tripper page which I’ll link in the show notes for this episode, you’ve got that great sequence of the stills from the video where it actually shows the tail, the side of the shark going from relax mode and then the tail coming over the head and actually hitting the fish. It’s just absolutely incredible.
I think I’ve seen that video and it has to be slowed down because it’s over in less than a second, right? It’s just bang. There’s some serious yoga going on there. As you call them ninja sharks.
[0:12:02.1] SP: Well you know, it’s inescapable really isn’t it?
[0:12:06.3] CM: You said that you did your two trips there and so were you sufficiently enamored with the thresher sharks that you were gritting your teeth and going out every single morning to see them?
[0:12:16.2] SP: Definitely. Yeah. It was funny, the second time I went there was like, okay, I’m going to go for a longer period and that’s fine because I mean, you know, the thresher sharks diving is really early in the morning and then I can do some of the macro diving in the evening, I’ve got a full work day, you know? This is such a remote working web but what actually happens is I’ll get up really early, come back, have breakfast, so exhausted, I didn’t have to sleep for two or three hours. Yeah, just shave wood and confuse and get a few h ours work in but the thing is with Malapascua and why it’s – I think for me certainly and for others I’d recommend as well.
Spending a bit of time is that I mean the threshers are their number one attraction and they are amazing but also the macro diving and things around there is really, really cool. So I kind of explain this as like you know come for the Thresher, stay for the macro because there is a lot of other nice diving into these to be head around the island too.
[0:13:16.9] CM: That was exactly my experience. I’d actually been to Malapascua years ago as part of a Live Aboard where you obviously just do the turn up, jump in, try to see the sharks, leave again and of course because Monad Shoal was only my sort of experience of Malapascua I just assumed, “Oh it is all basically like a fairly barren reef and maybe you’ll see a shark and so what?”
And then when I went back there and did a proper stay not only did I have epic shark encounters, I was stunned at how rich the macro life was it. We saw 12 different kinds of seahorse I mean it was nuts, yeah.
[0:13:56.6] SP: I mean I had so many firsts there. I hadn’t done a lot of really serious macro diving previously but I mean all flamboyant cuttlefish and these hairy frogfish and my first blue ringed octopus and I was just like squealing underwater I was so excited. It is a really cool place.
[0:14:14.6] CM: Yeah and the other great thing is that the guides, obviously you need an eagle eyed guide but they are fantastic at just digging out all of that – sorry, not digging out literally that should be bad but at finding good stuff.
[0:14:29.0] SP: Yeah finding a purely camouflaged animals, yeah.
[0:14:31.2] CM: Yeah, exactly because most of the time the only thing with Malapascua I found, I did go the same time with year in October both years, the vis is not so great and we went actually on the bottom. It’s fine. It is good enough for seeing little things but it certainly not particular great most of the time. So yeah those guys without them you are not going to see much else I don’t think.
[0:14:57.2] SP: It was hilarious to me because I mean as I said, I haven’t done too much macro diving previously and my eyes were just not in. So they’d be pointing at something, sort of like, “Hmmm!” and like kind of animal, vegetable, mineral, what? I just don’t know what that is so I ended up getting all of these things like photos of these really interesting like shrimp butts and stuff and eventually when I was going back and reviewing my photos and I realized, “Oh it was facing the other direction.”
So I had to do that 360 degree approach. If I couldn’t work out what it was, at that point you can ask me and it is probably cool and I am going to get it but I only put the time in here.
[0:15:37.2] CM: Yeah, well it is nice to hear a scientist say that because I am pretty sure every diver does that but never wants to admit it, right? I don’t want to taking a fight all over the guide because I didn’t bought it so.
[0:15:47.1] SP: No shame here.
[0:15:50.0] CM: Yeah, so I would tell this is a great mix of macro as well as the sharks. The island I think relies about 80% of its income comes from tourism. So, how do you feel like when you put your marine biologist hat on, how do you feel about how they’re managing the conservation there and is it sustainable and so on and so forth? I mean is it generally net positive or there were lots of sort of things to sort of raise eyebrows about?
[0:16:20.8] SP: It’s always an interesting one. So I think these marine tourism often starts and develops before there’s too many structures put in place. So often you’re kind of putting into place mitigation. I think this from at the start, I mean some of the dive guides showed me in the water where when they first started diving Monad Shoal where the cleaning stations used to be and those were just destroyed and I mean they do have cyclones coming through and things.
But mostly from divers rolling around in them ultimately and what they’ve done is now fortunately there are plenty of different cleaning station options for the sharks and with the cleaning stations they use now they’ve actually put in copy blocks and put ropes between the blocks so that divers could hold onto them and I think that is a really practical solution because it shows people exactly where they can be in the water and have a really good view that the shark is not disturbed.
And most importantly, the actual cleaning station itself, which is like the area where these little fish live like this is their home. It means that their habitat is not being disturbed. So my impression of it was that definitely the sharks were not bothered by the divers especially when people are being just that little bit back from them. So they still can mix some view and the thing is when the sharks are relaxed like they clearly were, often they would swim right over your head because they’re just not bothered.
Like they feel in control of the situation whereas if they’re constantly edging forward, you’ve got their issue of scaring the sharks but also obviously there was a bit of habitat destruction going on. So I’m really glad that they got onto that early and put in place some mitigation strategies too to solve the issue but on a broader thing as well I mean Thresher sharks have still been heavily fished in the Philippines including surrounding areas.
Like I think they have Cebu itself is a shark sanctuary now but certainly some of the areas that are quite close to Monad Shoal they’ve still been fishing for Thresher sharks. So having that economic value of the live sharks is great for Malapascua but what they have also done with it is they have really envisioned protecting that resource. So they’ve got like rangers out on Monad Shoal stopping people coming in and fishing illegally because it is a marine protected area.
But also that gives them the opportunity to do more work in those surrounding areas where threshers are still getting fished. So that is really positive too but on the very broad scale like the international scale as well as the popularity of Malapascua and the work that’s been done there in terms of conservation is actually linked to the pledge of threshers being included on CITES. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species.
And that means that international trade for the fins and things is only legal if they can be dimmed, if the fishing is demonstrably sustainable. So actively, without having proper data and proper management in place it affectively stops international trade in those thresher sharks because that data is not available. So it’s been a really good protective mechanism because I mean these are quite long lived animals as well. They only have a small number of off spring.
And so they can’t handle sustained fishing so I think for me Malapascua is an excellent example of where tourism has really developed into ecotourism and then they have taken that type of really making it beneficial for the animals and I always think when you are out working with threatened or endangered species like there has to be part of their thinking and what is the benefit to the animal.
[0:20:08.9] CM: Right, yeah and that is awesome to have it and put in that context and also obviously I was aware of the CITES but I didn’t quite realize it was how should I say that potent in terms of actually stopping it. I thought it was one of those things that yes, it’s all been internationally agreed but then it is really quite hard to enforce and that is obviously not the case.
[0:20:32.7] SP: So, I mean CITES is good for legal trade; illegal trade is another thing entirely but I haven’t got any specific information on that from the Philippines but it’s a good start. It gives people – it is not necessary an end point for all species but it is definitely an important step I think and because also like I mean the Philippines is normally pretty good on marine conservation I think. Certainly some of the places have been excellent.
So it is good to see them taking on that step and recognize the importance of the immense resource for sure for tourism and things but also just like generally protecting the species.
[0:21:15.1] CM: Yeah, excellent. When we were talking before we start recording, we were talking about Dr. Simon Oliver who I believe runs the thresher shark project and he is actually based on Malapascua, is that right?
[0:21:26.8] SP: I think he was based on here or spend a lot of time on there for his actual PHD work. I think he is based in the UK University now. I haven’t actually met Simon but yeah, I am super impressed with the work he’s done on the threshers and I mean they have been so little field study of any of the thresher species really before the work in Malapascua was done. So a lot of that knowledge comes from Simon’s PHD and ongoing work afterwards as well.
[0:21:55.5] CM: Oh so his work has sort of concretized what we know about threshers and sort of throw up all that scratch in it.
[0:22:04.4] SP: Yeah it is like there’s been this kind of evolution over the last few years, a decade maybe almost all of the shark science used to be based on kind of fisheries biology. So basically you are researching dead sharks and that can be very informative from a fisheries management perspective and things and learning about the life history like their age and their growth and their reproduction and things but obviously it doesn’t tell you much about what they actually do when they’re alive.
So it is awesome to see these real pioneering sort of field work like they had cameras in place on the cleaning station to be able to monitor what sharks are doing and all of that kind of stuff and I love that kind of stuff because that is where my head is at as well like I am interested in what the live sharks are doing. So yeah it was very cool to see and very like when I was doing a bit of research for that article is really interesting to read those papers to see how it all kind of tie together and how that lead to that much improved management now.
[0:23:03.1] CM: Yeah that is awesome. So as we just finish up here. I mean when you’d see say you went back to Malapascua twice and you pretty much dived every morning. So can you remember how many thresher sharks you saw at one time on one dive?
[0:23:18.9] SP: Ooh maybe up to about four. I think the thing is sometimes they are like there can be several cleaning stations and if there’s my suspicion is there is more than a couple of sharks on a cleaning stating, the others will probably find a slightly different place. So they can be ensured of getting the cleaners’ full attention. So on those busier mornings then I suspect they’re probably a bit more spread out but yeah certainly it was very consistent seeing sharks.
So I think it was only maybe when I was there for about two weeks, I think it was one morning where we didn’t see a shark so yeah, pretty good at rate.
[0:23:58.2] CM: Yeah it’s amazing. Okay Simon, thank you so much for talking to me about the thresher sharks and I hope you have great luck with continuing the work of the marine mega fauna foundation.
[0:24:08.4] SP: Fantastic, it was lovely to chat with you.
[0:24:11.3] CM: Okay, cheers mate.
[0:24:12.3] SP: Cheers.
[0:24:14.2] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the show notes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you and finally if you enjoyed the podcast, please tell other divers about it.
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