Avid traveler and an amateur underwater photographer Gautam Khattak takes us below the surface at the Philippine biodiversity hotspot of Malapascua, Cebu


I grew up by the ocean outside of Boston, but had never been comfortable in the water. I was paranoid about fish or really any critter swimming around me, and I hated the plants touching my feet. Each time I was in the water, the apprehension got worse.

I decided the best thing to overcome my fears was to sign up for scuba diving lessons. Even after my certification, I didn’t dive much because I was still anxious. The only time I became fine was after I fully submerged and entered the amazing world underwater, but the idea of leading up to it still made me nervous.

After 12 years of being certified, I only had about 18 dives in my logbook. Some friends then convinced me to do a 7-day liveaboard (staying on a boat at sea) in Raja Ampat (really the middle of nowhere!). I said yes, but like usual, days before the first dive, I was freaking out. I forced myself forward as always. By the third dive I was doing okay, and by day two I was hooked!

Back to back diving is a great way to overcome your fears. Since that liveaboard trip, I’ve done at least half a dozen more liveaboard trips, gone on 200 more dives, and got certified to become a Rescue Diver!

Squat Shrimp (also known as Sexy Shrimp) jump around and always look like they’re having a good time

Discovering Malapascua, Cebu

My diving friends told me how Malapascua was the only place in the world with daily Thresher Shark sightings, so of course I was eager to go there. It was also right after I bought my first underwater camera kit, so I was excited to go and test out my [very] amateur photography skills!

I thought Malapascua would mainly just be about seeing the Thresher sharks (which is still awesome by itself!), but I was very surprised by the rest of the diving the island had to offer. The water was amazingly clear, and yes we did Thresher shark dives early every morning, but the rest of the dives were also outstanding!

Other than the sharks, we had lots of other critters to find. There was ample opportunity to see giant frogfish, mandarin fish mating at dusk, sting rays, octopus, pipefish, pygmy sea horses, and a seabed of sand dollars. Apparently you can also see up to 200 Hammerheads on the Kimud Shoal dive site between December and May, but sadly I went later in the summer so didn’t get the chance. ☹

Pink anemone (clown) fish aren’t as famous as their Pixar friend but are beautiful nonetheless
Zebrida (Zebra) Crab riding a sea urchin in style

Diving with the thresher sharks

You’ll want to have your Advanced Open Water to dive Malapascua, because the Thresher sharks hang out mostly between 25-35m. You don’t have to have the Enriched Air (Nitrox) certification, but I do recommend having it or getting certified onsite, because then you can spend more time deeper with the sharks. Nitrox certification is now a dry course (no dive necessary), so getting it easy.

Three to four days is a good amount of time to dive Malapascua if you’re already certified. If you plan on getting your certification onsite, then a week is better so you can learn for the first 3-4 days and then go exploring.

Malapascua boasts very good food options; better than most dive spots I’ve been to. Angelina’s is a spectacular Italian restaurant; Once I discovered it, I went daily for their amazing pizza and calzones. The restaurant at Exotic Island Dive Resort was very good as well. It is a diving island so night life is very limited, but that’s okay because Thresher dives are at 6am every morning!

Thresher Sharks have a uniquely long tail which they use to whip a school of fish, creating a shockwave to stun several at a time to then be gobbled up)

Gautam’s Most Memorable Dive Sites in Malapascua:

Lighthouse: Really great place for a Night Dive. Mandarin fish can be seen mating at dusk. Lots of different kind of crabs coming out at night

Lapo Light: Good Night Dive

Gato Island: A marine reserve and sea snake sanctuary. It has at least five dive sites with a huge diversity of marine life.

Gato IslandWhitetip Alley: You are almost guaranteed to find whitetip sharks sleeping under rocks, and if you are lucky you will see them circling.

Gato Island – Nudibranch City: You figure it out!

Chocolate Island: Another good Macro site

Doa Marilyn: Wreck dive of a 100m ferry ship that sunk in 1988. When I went, the current was really strong and we were getting stung by invisible stingers in the water. I’m sure it can be a good dive, but I didn’t like it!

P.S. If you’re planning on making a side stop to Coron (another of the Philippines’ amazing dive haunts), check out this list of the best dive spots in Coron!

The many-spotted Juvenile Sweetlip move constantly so it’s very difficult to get a full profile picture of them!
Nudibranch (the name means naked gills) are tiny gastropods famous for their brilliant colors so they’re fun to find and photograph. There are more than 3,000 known species that come in very different shapes and colors.

Getting certified

I would recommend getting certified in your home country if possible, because then you are entirely focused on learning rather than fitting it in amongst other holiday activities. Then, when you go on holiday, you’re not worried about studying at night – you just get to enjoy the diving as an already-certified diver!

I got my SSI Open Water certification during college. I actually got certified in central New York in November, so I also had to get Dry Suit certified too because the lake was almost frozen at the time!

I got my Advanced Open Water PADI cert at the Great Barrier Reef.

Mandarin Fish are famous for their shyness but in my opinion they’re not sooo shy, because if you do a dive at dusk you can see them making sweet sweet love to each other!
The Banded Sea Krait’s venom is 10x stronger than a rattlesnake or cobra, but luckily they swim slow and aren’t aggressive toward divers.

Since moving to Hong Kong, I’ve definitely fallen in love with diving and underwater photography, and have done almost 200 dives in the last 5 years.

In Hong Kong, I highly recommend the instructors from Splash HK. The instructors ensure you learn how to dive as opposed to some holiday dive shops which might just get you your certificate but don’t care if you really understand the basics.

In Southeast Asia, the great dive outfits I’m familiar with are Anilao Critters in Batangas (Philippines), Atlantis in Puerto Galera (Philippines) and Dive Komodo in Indonesia.

Arrow crabs have eight spider-like legs and has a head that is exceptionally pointed at the tip. The legs can be more than 3x its body length!

Beyond Malapascua

Palau is currently my favorite spot. The diving was absolutely amazing, and being able to penetrate WWII wrecks was an unbelievable experience. Komodo, Indonesia is fantastic for diving with big creatures (Mantas, Sharks, Rays, etc) but I always enjoy doing Macro photography in the Philippines (Anilao) or Super-Macro in Lembeh, Indonesia. I do almost all my trips with Simon Lorenz of Insider Divers, so I just trust that whatever destination he picks has something very special worth seeing.

My bucket list for the next 12 months? Underwater, I’m super excited to go to Truk Lagoon, Chuuk in the ‎Federated States of Micronesia in October with Insider Divers. I’ll get to dive amongst 60 wrecks of ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks, cars, and even tractors.

I’ll do a dive in Guam too, where on one dive I’ll swim through both a WWI and WWII wreck! After that, I want to spend more time in the Philippines, going back to Malapascua, Bohol, and I haven’t yet gone to Apo Island.

Above water, I’m hoping to go to Laos, Sri Lanka, and Melbourne in the next 12 months 😀


Gautam Khattak is an American Technologist and PADI Rescue Diver living in Hong Kong since 2010. An avid traveler and amateur underwater photographer, he also acts as advisor for an experimental learning program with The Nature Conservancy NGO; Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Artesyn Embedded Technologies, and  Executive Committee member for the HKUST MBA Alumni Association

Feeling inspired? Ready to go on your next dive or get certified? Check out Trip Guru’s dive and snorkel experiences in the Philippines’ Cebu and Bohol region.


  1. As a Korean living in the Philippines, I have grown to love this country and consider it my second home. I love the warmth not just of the weather but of the people as well.

  2. You Filipinos are so lucky! You have almost 8,000 beautiful islands to explore and each one has its own unique beauty to offer. I can’t wait to visit them all!


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