Swimming with Thresher Sharks Seems Like the Obvious Choice When You Decide to Give Yourself Up to the WorldBy Claire Bidwell Smith
July 12, 2007
I couldn’t go home yet. I’d made it this far out into the world—surely I could go a little farther.
The PR woman in charge of the Filippino press trip I was on arranged to have my stay extended, and I eagerly researched methods to get to a small island north of Cebu called Malapascua.
I chose Malapascua because my guidebook listed it as one of the few places in the world to dive with thresher sharks. The common thresher shark ranges in size from 10 to 25 feet and has a tail shaped like a scythe, with which they use to stun their prey. A pelagic species, thresher sharks generally reside at depths too dangerous for divers to reach.
Perfect, I thought. No matter that I hadn’t been diving in years. No matter that the thought made my chest tight, my breath short.
According to my guidebook, Monad Shoal, off the coast of Malapascua, is one of the only places in the world known for daily sightings of thresher sharks. It’s here where the thresher sharks convene every morning to have a symbiotic relationship with the small wrasse fish who cleans them of bacteria, eating the dead skin from their bodies and even the insides their mouths.
My diving with sharks, a creature I was deathly afraid of, seemed the perfect antidote to the raging desperation I felt inside. I was 25 years old and my father had just died of cancer two months before, leaving me parentless and quite alone in the world.
On the morning that I was due to return to Los Angeles, I instead waved goodbye to my fellow journalists and watched as they clambered into the air-conditioned van for their ride to the airport. Then I climbed into the backseat of a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the local bus station.
Getting to Malapascua was no easy feat. The journey began with an eight-hour bus ride through the jungle up to the very tip of Cebu where I would then have to find a boat willing to take me out to the island.
I sat by myself in the old un-airconditioned school bus and stared out the window at the passing trees and densely tangled vines. The bus, like most Filipino transport, was decorated with an outrageous assortment of fringe and beads and wildly painted colors. American classic rock blasted from little speakers strategically placed throughout the interior, ensuring that no one could hear anything but ABBA’s finest.
The other passengers on the bus turned around frequently to stare at me and whenever we stopped, people along the side of the road would grab their companions and point up at me: this wide-eyed white girl traveling alone. I didn’t mind their stares, my lips curving into a slight smile in return. I had a week under my belt of this kind of treatment. I was beginning to get used to it.
I also just didn’t care anymore. At some point during this trip—perhaps walking through the Chinese cemetery in Manila at dusk—I had decided to just give myself up to the world. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose.
And seemingly the world responded in kind. For the rest of my trip I was handed off from person to person. Everyone seemed interested in the young American woman traveling alone. The taxi driver, the bus driver, the young ticket-taker boys all inquired after my journey. Where are you going? Who are you going with? You’re alone? Where are your companions? Where is your husband?
I answered their questions honestly, admitting that I was very much alone and transparently clueless about what I was getting myself into. Each of them took it upon themselves to hand me off to the next. The taxi driver made sure I got onto the correct bus. The young ticket boys on the bus walked me out to the docks at the end of the island. The boat driver assured me that he would see me to his aunt’s resort (a series of ramshackle huts on the beach). And each of them, true to their word, made sure I reached my next destination.
I’ll never forget sitting perched on the edge of that rickety catamaran on my way to Malapascua. I’d been the last passenger on the bus when we reached the end of Cebu and the young ticket boy escorted me over to the docks. Hey, this girl wants to go to Malapascua, he called out to several men lounging around the makeshift port.
And soon I found myself scudding along the clear blue ocean, my face lifted to the sun, all signs of land disappearing from view as I went farther and farther out into the ocean.
No matter how sad I was, no matter how wrenchingly lonely I felt, no matter how bottomless my pain seemed, there never disappeared a part of me absolutely determined to live my life. I closed my eyes to the warm ocean breeze and I knew this about myself.
Malapascua was incredibly small, maybe one mile by two. The electricity shut off every night at 10 p.m. and the running water only ran twice a day. The entire time I was there I only encountered three other tourists: two American Peace Corps workers and their traveling friend. After I checked into one of the huts on the beach I walked over to the dive place and introduced myself to the dive master, a friendly British guy named Duncan.
I got certified as a diver when I was fourteen. Both of my parents were divers, my mother the more serious of them, and we went every year on our annual trips to Grand Cayman. My mother and I were always dive buddies, checking each other’s gear and swimming alongside each other. She loved to point out anemones and eels, which she’d find hidden in secret little crevasses among the coral. We’d nod at each other, our eyes wide in our masks, mouths smiling around our regulators.
But I hadn’t been diving in years. I didn’t know where my certification was, didn’t know if I even remembered how to read the gauges or adjust my buoyancy level. I didn’t care, though, and I told all of this to Duncan. He assured me that it would all come back easily, that it was a simple dive, and handed me a form on which he jokingly suggested I sign my life away.
I scribbled out my signature as he explained that we would dive Monad Shoal early the next morning. The dive was 80 feet, he described, and we would simply descend and kneel on the sandy bottom to watch the sharks as they went through their morning routine. I looked around the dive hut at the pictures on the wall, those enormous grey fish, their tails almost as long as their bodies. I nodded at Duncan, told him I’d see him in the morning.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the island. I wandered through the tiny village and out into the mangroves, walking from one end of the island to the other, clouds floating across the sky before me and the ocean stretching out for unknowable miles. I thought about my parents and my life and what they would want for me and what I wanted for myself. And I knew that I was doing it, whatever it was.
The next morning I showed up at Duncan’s dive hut at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark out, but just as Duncan had said, the roosters woke me on time. We set about loading up the boat with gear—we would be the only divers, although there was a young Filipino boy who would remain on board the boat while we went down. Monad Shoal was a good half hour out into the wide, open ocean. I could only faintly see land in the distance once we finally reached the buoy that marked our dive spot.
My anxiety mounted as we assembled the gear. I hadn’t been diving in years. I’d hardly ever gone without my mother and never without a large group of people. Dawn was barely beginning to break and the ocean was dark and choppy. I tried to imagine the sharks eighty feet below us. Duncan said there were usually around thirty of them. My heart was pounding as I dropped backwards over the edge of the boat in my mask and fins, my B.C. and regulator.
As soon as we began to descend into the water, my hands tight around the anchor rope, my heart began to pound even harder. My chest was grew tight. I was terrified. Visibility was poor; I could hardly see five feet below me and I could not tamp the rising sense of panic thinking about the school of sharks pooled below us.
I shook my head at Duncan, cut my finger across my neck to call it off; I couldn’t do it.
He was kind about it, pouring me a cup of coffee from a little thermos and wrapping a towel around my shoulders, but sitting on the bow of the boat as we skimmed across the water on our way back to Malapascua, I felt foolish. Tears slipped down my cheeks.
What was it I was so desperately trying to prove to myself?
I’ve told this story a hundred times and it never ceases to be anti-climatic. But the truth is that I didn’t have to dive with those sharks in order to know that I was living my life. The moral of the story is that old adage: it’s not about the destination, it’s what gets you there. It’s the journey itself that matters. I didn’t need to swim with sharks to prove that I could handle the deaths of my parents.
I returned to the Malapascua that morning with Duncan, thanked him one last time, and ran off to meet my new friend Melanie, a Malapascua native and sole bartender at the one of the island’s two bars—the floating one. Melanie and I spent the day snorkeling off the southern tip of the island, pointing to the brightly colored parrot fish and carefully concealed eels.
Heading back to Cebu a few days later, my back stuck to the pleather seat of that old school bus, Boston blasting through the tinny speakers, I knew I’d found what I’d gone looking for and I was grateful that I didn’t have to dive with sharks to find it.