The best animal encounter in Asia – we have the certificate to prove it!

Posted: May 5, 2011 in The Philippines
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After our wonderful time in The Cordillera, we headed back to Manila for an overnight stay before our flight down to Legaspi. We traded up to a plush apartment at the A Venue Hotel Suites and though expensive for Asia, at £50 we had a big suite with our own lounge and kitchen. After 8 months of budget travel we were living large and even had our own DVD player.

Our flight was at 09.10 so it meant another early morning. It seems to be a bit of a habit this. Even though we are free to do as we please, we always seem to have early morning journeys. On landing, despite the vocal pleas of the local taxi militia, we scooted to the Immigration Office for the small matter of our visa extension. For the princely sum of $60 each we got the required stamp. Rather annoyingly, in the Philippines you get a free 21 day visa on arrival but the only extension option is for an additional 38 days. You can’t just have 1 more week like we needed.  Oh well. Sting city.

Despite taxi drivers offering us a ‘bargain 1,000Php to Donsol’, we remained firm and took a tricycle to the bus depot. 45mins later we were on our way in a shared mini-van for only 75Php per person. Patience can be a virtue. We arrived around 1pm and checked into Giddy’s Place Dive Resort, having already booked ahead to guarantee a touch of luxury. My tiredness made me initially think we had been conned as the place looked nothing like the website photos but on further inspection it was pretty sweet. And later that evening we discovered the swimming pool and veranda that I thought had been fabricated for the website. Yes, I do make inaccurate snap decisions, quite often.

Having checked-in with our whaleshark adventure company and watched the briefing DVD, we headed home for an early night to prepare for the 6am alarm call.

Waking up for whalesharks

It’s not often I’m able to get straight up at 6am but my excitement got the better of me. After a rushed breakfast we took a tricycle down to the tour company office and awaited our departure. I was as twitchy as a basket of frisky kittens.

At just after 7am we were on our way with 2 Filipino brothers from Manila and an English dude and his Indonesian wife who hail from Essex. We had a great boat as the crew and passengers were all lovely. A Butanding Inspection Officer (BIO), who is qualified and responsible for upholding the rules of the whaleshark interaction, captains the boat. According to the briefing DVD, the local authorities respect the Butanding (local world for whaleshark) and are committed to ensuring human presence is respectful and does them no harm and causes them no stress. The key rule is that there may be no more than 6 people following any whaleshark at one time, with a maximum interaction time of 10mins per shark. In theory it is simple and easy to administer. In reality, people are idiots and have no ability to be controlled and respectful to nature. Especially Americans and Russians.

We sailed around for over an hour. The weather conditions made it hard for the crew to spot the Butanding. It was overcast and the water choppy, so visibility was low. However, these guys are highly experienced and have eyes like hawks. As my enthusiasm dimmed and I started to think we might not spot one of the sharks, an excited shout came from one of the other boats. The whalesharks were in town.

We were given the sign by the BIO to get in the water. Alas, I was too busy chatting so my mask and snorkel were nowhere near. By the time I got in the water, the whaleshark had disappeared. Muneeza was better prepared and had a good sighting as it was close to the surface. She had a big smile on her face and part of me was rather jealous. Still, plenty of time and my enthusiasm returned.

About 15mins later, we were given the signal again. This time I was ready and in there with swimwear. I looked down and initially saw nothing. However, we were in the shallows and the ocean bed was no more than 10m below me. Out of the darkness emerged a shadow and then the silhouette of a huge whaleshark came into view. As the clouds parted, the whaleshark was illuminated. I was no more than 3m above a 12m adult (our BIO estimated the length when we were back on the boat). It was a beautiful moment. The Butanding are the largest of the sharks and have an incredible pattern of bright white spots on their dark grey skin. They almost look phosphorescent in the sunlight. It’s quite surreal to be swimming alongside something this huge without fear. Luckily these animals are human-friendly and feed on plankton and fish.

Butanding in Donsol

However, the issue that would blight our morning soon became abundantly clear. I dived down to take a closer picture with my new underwater camera. I was just steadying myself to snap when another person swam in front of me, oblivious of my presence. Then another person, and another. They blocked my shot. I then tried to surface for air to discover lots of snorkelers above me, their legs thrashing wildly as they tried to follow the Butanding. They had no awareness of anyone else around or below them. One arsehole kicked me in the head with his flippers, yet he carried on regardless. I counted nearly 30 people following the same whaleshark, yet the briefing told us no more than 6 people were allowed to do this at any one time.

This pattern continued. All the boats circled like vultures and anytime our BIO, also irritated by this human commotion, found a quiet spot and prepared us for the next interaction, the other boats would swoop upon us. We would get perhaps 20-30 seconds of calm before the idiots from the other boats disturbed the water, killed the visibility and drove the whalesharks into the murky depths. I really wanted to hit them. One time I shouted at them, “Only 6 people at a time you lemmings” (bad words edited to save my parents’ blushes). It may have achieved nothing, but it made me feel better and got a laugh from the people on our boat.

Some people are so ignorant. All they care about is getting what they want and who cares if it inconveniences other people. It’s a soulless pursuit of tourist attractions with no care for the environment they are so lucky to have access to. After a while we told our BIO we didn’t want to go back in the water whilst the other boats were near us. It just wasn’t enjoyable, neither was it good for the Butanding who deserve greater respect. This is their home, not ours.

Our BIO understood, he had even pushed some of the other idiots away when we were in the water but to no avail. Thick people just come back for more. We headed away from the frenzy to find a quiet spot but then the storm clouds set-in and visibility was too low for any further spotting. We headed back to shore.

Whilst the ignorant fools who flouted the rules annoyed me immensely, we had a fantastic experience. The rare moments of tranquility swimming alone with the Butanding will be forever etched in our memory. They are beautiful creatures and swimming alongside something that is 12m long is not something you forget in a hurry. If we ever come back to the Philippines, I will come and try this again but make sure I hit the quiet season.

Butanding Donsol

Fireflies at night

This wasn’t on our itinerary but the brothers on the boat told us they were going to see the fireflies down by the river and Muneeza decided we should go too. And what a fine decision it turned out to be.

We met up with our fellow whalesharkers just before 6pm at the bridge where the river meets the ocean. There we paid our 250Php each and met our guide, Josh, a young local chap who spoke incredibly good English and was up for a laugh.

We climbed across a dilapidated old boat into our vessel, a slightly rickety wooden canoe with catamaran-esque wooden supports on either side. We sailed up the river as Josh gave us a brief history of the indigenous Filipino firefly. He really knew his stuff and I was pleasantly surprised at how interested I had suddenly become.

To cut a long 2hr story short, we ended up drifting with the ebb and flow of the soft current beneath a large tree in which the fireflies had gathered to perform their nightly dance. The sight was mesmeric. Initially each fly emits its own light sporadically, the females every 5 seconds and the males every 2 seconds. Give or take. Then, after a while something magical happens. The fireflies start to synchronise their flashing. The tree transforms into a living organism, a symphonic pulsing of light, rhythmic and enchanting. Waves of soft white light pulse along the boughs of the tree, above which the night sky is backlit with an array of stars. You can’t help but be enthralled by the spectacle. I never realised fireflies could be so mesmeric. They light show is repeated at intervals along both banks of the river, like a natural homing beacon inviting the boat crews home.

An unexpected diversion

Over dinner our Filipino friends, Jose and Michael, informed us that they were staying an extra night and would be able to drive us back to Legaspi in the morning, if we so desired. The added bonus was them throwing in a visit to the Mount Mayon viewing platform. An active volcano, Mt Mayon is one of the big draws in the Bicol region so we thought, mange tout.

The downside was another early alarm call, again at 6am. Wearily we climbed on board and set-off for Legaspi shortly after 7am. The journey was fun and we enjoyed our conversation with our friends who are well travelled and interesting.

Once in Legaspi they tracked down the viewing platform using the locals for directions. The viewing area is atop a small hill that is no more than 2km from the mountain itself. The top affords wonderful views, not only of the volcanic cone but of the surrounding countryside and the coastline. Muneeza spotted a zipline so I indulged. I splashed out on the ‘superman’ rig, with a triple harness that ensures you zip along headfirst and horizontal. For 20-30secs of fun it was a touch expensive but a lot of fun. To my left was the imposing shadow of the volcano, to my right lush gardens and Muni’s camera.

We then headed to the ruins of a church that was initially gutted by the Dutch in the 16th century, and then razed by a volcanic eruption after it was rebuilt. Nowadays all that remains is the bell tower, standing proud though ravaged by time. It makes for a stunning photo shoot – in the background you can see the slopes of Mt Mayon.

Our friends dropped us off at a restaurant to kill the few hours before the flight and I sit here on the airport floor, killing yet more time thanks to another delay.

Our detour to Donsol was most enjoyable. It was a long way to come and sucked up the cashola but it gave us one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Perhaps we will make it ‘twice in a lifetime’ but there’s no guarantee. It was money and effort well spent. If you come to the Philippines, make the effort to go to Donsol.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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