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Day 5 – Out with the butanding April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
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Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.butanding-in-donsol-sorsogon-manila-philippines

First a quick introduction to the whale shark. The whale shark, locally known as the Butanding, is not a whale. It is, however, a type of shark, though not the Jaws variety. It is the largest fish still in existence and not surprisingly, given humanity’s cluelessness, not much is known about it. We know that it is a filter feeder, surviving solely on plankton (microscopic plants and animals) and is completely harmless to humans. As to how many are in existence, why they grow to such a size (known to reach over 12 meters in length and 20 tonnes in weight), where their breeding grounds are, how long they live, where they go, where they come from…, well, no one quite knows.

What we do know for sure is that adolescent ones, measuring between 5 and 10 meters come to the Donsol area, between January and May, as the region is rich in plankton during that period. Ergo our presence there.

Our second day in Donsol started early. Soon after sunrise, we reached the Butanding Interaction Centre to get introduced to our BIO – Butanding Interaction Officer. After that we chose our masks and fins and got into his boat for the 3 hour butanding spotting tour. The boat was a wooden craft with wide out-riggers giving it rock solid stability. The sky was clear, the seas calm and the water was the same temperature as the air around us. It all augured well for whale shark spotting. That most of us on our boat could barely swim, had never worn masks and fins, had never used snorkels and never jumped into the sea was all but forgotten in the excitement.

vista

The BIO helped us with our life vests. Mine was loose and I was worried it would slip out over my head as soon as I hit the water. However, there were additional straps that he threaded through my legs that held it in position. Unfortunately, it did not do too much good for my dangling scrotum, as it got crushed every time I straightened my torso. So much for intelligent design!
on the boat

Twenty minutes into the ride, we spotted a grey form just under the water. Our first butanding! The BIO said he would take us over it and screamed “Jump! Jump!”. Not thinking twice, I jumped in and so did my wife. She, being the more attractive of the two, the BIO latched on to her and dragged her towards the butanding, leaving me floundering in the water. Not knowing what to do, I held on to one of the out-riggers for dear life. I am sure I cut a sorry figure. My wife, though, had a good darshan and described the butanding in excruciating detail, all breathless and excited.

swimming in the sea

I am on the extreme left (orange vest). Just ahead of me is the BIO with my sister-in-law.

Hoping, I would get lucky the next time, I sat next to the BIO and tried to get pally with him. Soon enough the next butanding came our way and this time my sister-in-law jumped in with me. Well, she being the more attractive of the two of us… enough said. This time, however, I was determined to pursue the whale shark by myself, come what may. I swam behind the BIO and my hapless sister-in-law but by the time I reached them, the butanding was long gone.

“Third time lucky, third time lucky”, I chanted to myself, hoping there would be a third time. Thankfully there was and I was the only one who jumped in. Having no choice the BIO dragged me unceremoniously to where the Butanding was and shouted “See! See!”. I hesitated, never having used a snorkel to breathe before. Then I saw the look on the BIO’s face and I knew that if I waited even a second longer, he would grab me by the neck and dunk my head in. So, I took a quick deep breath and put my head into the water.

It was all so quiet, serene and other-worldy. The water was murky all around, thanks to the plankton, but right there, almost within my hands reach, was the butanding. It was like an open aperture picture with the butanding in sharp focus and everything else fading away and out of focus.  The butanding was coming straight at me with its mouth partially open. It was clearly visible, white spots, dorsal fin and all. It swam right under us and as it passed by, the BIO grabbed my vest and turned me around. I put my head down again, and promptly drank a few gallons of water,  having unfortunately let go of the snorkel. But I had got my 30 seconds with the butanding. It was totally worth it.

There was a 4th and then a 5th sighting and I jumped in eagerly, but failed to reach the butanding before it dived deep. The BIO was disappointed that I got to see the butanding only once, such was his commitment. After 3 hours, we came back to the shore, elated and wanting to go back again, but hopefully after learning to snorkel properly.

The rest of the day was spent basking in the glory of our outing with the butanding and comparing notes on each others’ experiences. Back at the AGM, we continued our observation of the youth brigade, purely for scientific reasons, I might add. Finally, unable to contain our curiosity, we sent our stickybeak to find out the antecedents of the group. She took the easy way out and enquired at the reception. They turned out to be traveling as a group on a tour arranged by a company called FreeNEasy. That explained a lot. Some of us made a mental note to check out the site later, though on my part, it was purely for academic reasons.

Later that evening, we went to a bar called Baracuda and had a few beers. It was a lovely place run by a Briton. The bar itself was built like a log cabin, on the beach facing the ocean. There was a power outage for a short while and the place became even more magical, if that was possible. We wrapped up the day with dinner which included Kinilaw – a raw fish dish that was delectable. Life was good.

The next day, we returned to Legaspi and flew back to Manila, our short trip to Bicol over too soon.

Day – 4 – Enchanting fireflies April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
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Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Everything in the Philippines is understated. Nobody touts the Philippines as the greatest country, Mt. Mayon as the most active volcano, San Miguel the best beer, the beaches the whitest, or the island nation the safest. That’s nice and refreshing for someone like me, coming from a country that is forever taking credit for every little thing that is even remotely connected to it – be it references in history, India’s bio-diversity, Indian-origin people doing well in some part of the world or even Jonty Rhodes’ daughter.

However, the Filipinos did not tell us that Donsol was probably the greatest place to swim with the butanding (whale shark) or that the butanding tour would be a most extraordinary experience or that the firefly cruise would be unbelievably beautiful. And that I think is criminal.

Anyway, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Day 4 marked the arrival of the last component of our family puzzle. Having set aside what we hoped would be the highlight of the trip, we waited for her to come from Sydney to Manila, then to Legaspi and from there to Sorsogon, in time to join us on our journey to Donsol to see the butanding.

potted plantsWhile we waited for her, we walked down Magsaysay street to get a feel of the morning life in Sorsogon. It was clearly morning rush hour with tri-cycles and jam-packed Jeepneys scurrying about, some with people, with expressions that suggested that nothing was out of place, perched precariously on them. Along the roadside were shops, nurseries with lots of pretty plants, shops selling beautiful pots and even a specialty shop selling engraved headstones, all one next to the other. Were the plants and pots for homes or for the cemetery, we wondered.

We walked about a kilometer and back looking for a place that served breakfast. Not finding one, we returned to Fernandos and ordered their omelette. The spanish omelettes was fluffy and filling, and the coffee, though instant, was hot, aromatic and flavourful.

By the time we finished breakfast, the last member of our contingent arrived and we were ready to leave for Donsol. After an uneventful two-hour journey we reached AGM resorts by about lunch time.

AGM, at first glance, looked like a quiet, small beach resort with just enough rooms for the 12 of us. We thought we would have the resort all to ourselves. We checked in, had lunch and were thinking of jumping into their tiny pool when a group of over 30 youngsters landed up. From their accents, they appeared to be American or Canadian. A mixed group of girls and boys, not young enough to be a college group, nor appearing old enough to be a working group. All of them, bar one, were in good shape.  They checked in (AGM somehow had conjured up more rooms), changed into trunks and skimpy bikinis and came back to the poolside. Our group’s stickybeak and the rest of us, apprentice stickybeaks, watched and speculated while the lively bunch splashed around in the pool. A part of our contingent went to the Butanding Interaction Centre to plan for the various activities, while the rest of us enjoyed the view, the sunset being spectacular.

firefly watchingThat evening, after watching the Butanding interaction video, we went on the firefly tour. We took two boats, each with a guide and traveled down the Ubod river, also called the Donsol river. The guide quickly introduced the tour saying if we were lucky we would see three different kinds of fireflies that day, ones on the trees, ones in the water and those in the sky. I distinctly heard her end her introduction with “I will stop now with the introduction and continue later because I believe Indians are too lazy to listen to the whole thing”. My sister sitting next to me was not so sure, but then she has only one good ear, so I might have to go with what I think I heard. Though one cannot tar 1.2 billion people with the same brush, the cynical me was willing to admit that the guide’s assessment was possibly a close approximation, at least speaking for myself. That was the only rude thing we may have heard during our entire trip.

The firefly show was truly spell-binding. The females glowed steadily while the males flickered (or was it the other way around?). Sometimes, a whole bunch of them pulsated as one, to some beat that only they could hear, putting to shame the brightest of christmas decorations. While we were thus enthralled, some things started glowing in the water. It turned out that some of the plankton, the reason why the butandings come to Donsol, were bio-luminescent. The fireflies in the sky turned out to be the night sky. With zero light pollution, a new moon and not a speck of cloud in the sky, we had the greatest view of the milky way. It was unbelievable. We also spotted a satellite racing across the sky which added to the overall thrill. The guide salvaged herself by telling us that the trees on which the fireflies landed were the Indian almond tree. Our pride in India knew no bounds!

We walked back down the Donsol Pio-Duran road, had dinner at another resort and came back to AGM. The young group was nowhere to be seen. We hit the bed early so we could be up bright and early for the Butanding watching tour the next day.