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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.

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