The Philippines: Malapascua island

It’s hard to imagine exactly what Malapascua island was like on November 7th last year, the day before typhoon Yolanda (aka Haiyan in Vietnam where we were at the time). And thanks to lots of hard work by the islanders and aid agencies, it’s also hard to imagine what it must have been like on November 9th. Considering Malapascua was on the direct path of one of the worst typhoons ever which killed over 4000 people, it is amazing that no one died here. Other Philippine islands were not so fortunate.

Apparently a major difference still noticeable is the loss of trees; only the sturdiest palm trees survived and even they generally only have leaves left on the side furthest from the direction the wind blew. Those which fell, either lie upturned on the beach or have been chopped up and stacked in neat piles. Dotted around the island now are little circles or arcs of pieces of wood, sticking out from the ground. Initially they look like the remnants of a children’s game until you realise they’re in fact protecting a tiny new sapling.

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The sandy paths by Bounty Beach seem to be swept each morning but in some areas the piles of clothes left behind daily by the sea remain. At one end of the beach lies a boat graveyard, though it’s much smaller now and diminishing as more repairs are carried out each day.

Tourist resorts along the beach are in various states of disrepair – a few are completely up and running, some are rebuilding slowly, one bungalow at a time, or have just opened for diving. We stayed at Malapascua Legend which had possibly the only pool on the island and a new-seeming restaurant but work was still underway on some accommodation I think. Apparently it’s roof – tin covered in tiles – was one of the most dangerous with fragments being found all over the island in the aftermath. Evolution, the resort we dived with, lost most of its roofs too and the entire restaurant had to be rebuilt, only re-opening very recently.

Further inland, the evidence of the typhoon’s destruction remains amongst people’s homes yet everyone we met was smiley and pleasant. Organised piles of corrugated tin, plastic, wood, bicycles and brick – ready to bury, reuse or remove – suggest that most of the houses probably lost at least their roof, others would have been completely destroyed. Many of the wooden houses have been rebuilt and some concrete ones but there’s still lots to be done. People are still working in the blazing sun, painting, sawing, hammering or carrying construction materials. You wonder whether the new structures will serve them any better than the old ones in another similar typhoon.

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Our main inland destination was the schools. There’s a high school and an elementary school next to each other. We decided to go into the elementary school which has around 900 pupils aged 5 to 12. The classrooms formed a square around the playground but about half of them were roof-less (and some were missing a wall or two) so each class was being taught for half a day. The teachers not teaching that morning were cooking the dinner in big pans over fires at the edge of the playground.

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The head was sitting at a table on the verandah outside one of the classrooms doling out plain paper from a single ream and waiting for the electricty to be available for her to use her laptop. This used to be her office:

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In front of her, kids were playing basketball using some new hoops that had just been donated.

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We chatted to the kindergarten teacher, Amy (second from left), for a while who, like the other staff and the kids, seemed incredibly cheerful considering she had to teach sixty 5 year olds on her own in a classroom with no resources because they’d all been destroyed!

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She said she felt teaching was not her occupation but her obligation and seemed to really genuinely care about the children. As many of the parents keep the kids out of school to work, she says she is always telling the pupils they have a right to go to school. We decided that Amy would be an ideal person to donate our wedding presents from Jo, Stephen and Emma Gotheridge and Nick Warbuton to. She agreed to use the money to buy some books for her class. We also made a small contribution to the school to put towards the rebuilding of the stage. This is the old one:

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By no means is the island restored to its former beauty but I think it must be well on its way.  Here are some other photographs from an evening on the beach:

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You may be wondering why we went to  Malapascua given all this! Two reasons: firstly because we read an article encouraging tourists to come to help fund the island’s rebuilding and secondly because we wanted to dive with thresher sharks!

Monad Shoal is (we think) the only place in the world where they come up shallow enough for regular divers like us to see them. I say ‘like us’ but actually I wasn’t qualified to dive below 18m with just my Open Water certification. So I had to do the dive as a Deep Water Adventure qualification which meant reading a book and answering questions then going through it all with an instructor the day before. Given my limited (and not altogether trouble-free) diving experience thus far, this was actually really helpful.

My instructor, Dannie, was great at explaining things thoroughly and, as it was 1:1, I was able to ask questions and revisit the stuff I wasn’t completely happy with previously. In general, Evolution was by far the best of the dive companies I’ve so far experienced; they were organised and helpful, the equipment was in good working order and it all felt much safer.
The actual dive entailed a 4:30am wake up which I wasn’t too keen on, but once we were in the middle of the sea with the phenomenally starry sky above us, I forgot all about it. Soon the sun began to come up which was beautiful and by 6:15 we were kitted up and jumping off the boat. We had about 5 or 6 sightings of the thresher sharks which seemed massive, graceful and actually not scary at all. At 27m, it was far too deep to take our camera so I just got these from the internet to show you what they look like (I had no idea until this week!), plus a couple I saw painted on walls:

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The highlight was towards the end when one swam in circles for a while directly in front of us! Amazing!

Should you feel compelled to make a donation to directly support Malapascua’s community, then let me know as I have contact details for an NGO called Rebuild Malapascua (which is associated with Evolution) who I know will channel the money straight towards those who need it.

For the next few days we’re on Bohol island where we hope to see some tiny primates with huge eyes – tarsias – and possibly snorkel with whale sharks!

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