Friday, March 04, 2011

Wow Philippines! * Donsol Whaleshark and Firefly Encounter (March 2011)

Finally, on my second attempt, I was able to experience this one of a kind experience swimming with the Butanding, the giant whalesharks in Donsol, Sorsogon in the Bicol province.  One word to describe this is "breathtaking", both to denote my amazement at the close encounter with this wonderful creation of God as well as my panic moments, haha.

Why panic?  Well, swimming just a bit more than a meter above the giant whaleshark is scary, esp given that I'm not really a good swimmer enough to be able to swim away in an emergency situation.  Well, that's me, over anticipating, haha.  On top of that, I wasn't really physically fit and the jumping on and climbing up of the boat for every dive is exhausting, haha.  During the swim, while I was struggling to deal with the water entering my mask, I was more scared of kicking the whaleshark with my fins because of the close distance I am to the giant creature.  Well, I guess one meter is really still quite far, but it really felt like we were swimming quite near them, probably because of their size.  Most of them are enormous, reaching 15 meters in length.  All I could see were white spots on what seemed like a giant boat bottom.  It took a while to absorb everything and realize that it was a live giant whaleshark that I was swimming with.

But the panic moments quickly turned into amazement as I realize this great creature is actually quite gentle and mild-tempered.  It swam so gracefully and it felt almost like it was showing off its graceful moves to all of us.  The excitement took my breath away.

Prior to the boat ride, we would go and watch a video as part of the orientation, then we would proceed to meet our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) and in we hop onto our boat.  With snorkling equipment and fins at tow, we boarded the boat ready for a wonderful encounter with nature.  As we headed out to sea, we spot a wonderful rainbow, first few moments showed half of the rainbow, and then later we see the rainbow end to end.  This is the first time I ever saw a rainbow that complete.  It was indeed a great way to start the adventure!

A wonderful rainbow appeared as we headed out to sea.  And our Butanding Interaction Officer began to spot the whalesharks.

Our BIO explained to us the instructions and guidelines.  This time, I didn't feel too stressed, probably because our guide was calmer compared to the last time, haha.  I got my mask and snorkle on, wore my fins and sat on the side of the boat ready to jump off at the BIO's go signal.  I saw some of the nearby boats and folks have already spotted one and have jumped off.  The pace of their swim was ok, and I knew that my fins would allow me to move that fast.  So, no sweat :-)

Several boats were nearby and the pressure to see our first whaleshark was increasing, as competition is increasing as the boats crowd toward the same area.  We decided to go onto another area instead.  When it was our turn to go, the boat slowed down and when the BIO gave us the go signal, we all jumped.  Since the boat was actually moving, it was easy for us to get out of the boat's way and swim towards our BIO.  I reached out for the orange floaty being pulled by our guide so that I can follow more closely.  As I put my head down the water, I could not really see anything except water.  Then suddenly, our BIO pulls my arm and points his hand down and there it was - spots!  That was the first sign of the whalesharks, then I slowly realized those spots belong to a great whaleshark when I finally get to see its shape.  I still could not decipher which part of the fish I was looking at.  All I could see is a big wide blob with spots.  Then I realize I was suddenly swimming above it.  And it looked like I was really close to it.  And that's when I get my panic moment and I would lift my head above water, fearing that it would actually swim up towards the surface and I'm blocking its way.  But afraid of missing the wonderful moment, I try to remove the water off my mask and then quickly look down again.  In just a few moments, it slowly swims away.

We all lifted our heads above water and waded in the water, reflecting on the exciting encounter.  Our BIO then signals for our boat to come to get us, we had to remove our fins under water then climb up the metal make-shift stairs hanging on the side of the boat.  That part was more tiring than the actual swim with the whaleshark, haha.  Not even a minute passed, and we would be signalled to put back our fins and get ready.  Ok, now the pressure is on as we don't get to rest this time.

At one point, we saw the whaleshark above water, which was really exciting.  I suddenly remembered my whale watching in Boston a few years back.  We were in a big boat and there were just so many whales coming above water to say hello.  Contrary to those, the whalesharks in Donsol primarily swim just below the water although they do take a peek above water once in a while.  Unfortunately, we were ready to jump off so we didn't have our camera ready.

As our boat goes near the creature, we all jumped off again and swam towards the whaleshark.  Again, a really amazing sight.  Although their size is a bit daunting at first, we later realize its gentle nature.  As it swims, it seems like they are dancing the ballet under water.  Even as they descend deeper into the sea, it was always very gradual.

We managed to go down six or seven times, but I passed on a couple to experience the excitement above.  Of course, it wasn't as exciting as swimming below, but seeing the folks anticipate, then jump off to swim towards the whaleshark was also a fun thing to see.  If you didn't know there were whalesharks below, you would be wondering what the people were doing, all swimming quickly and converging in one spot, haha.  But having gone down the first time, I can now imagine what was under these folks.

My last jump was the best, where I had a chance to see a much smaller whaleshark.  This allowed me to see the entire body, from head to tail, not in one look, but with little maneuvering and slowing down, I could see it swimming forward.  We saw the little fishes swimming with the whaleshark too.  I was swimming above the whaleshark again this time, and I managed to keep water off my mask for a longer time.  I also managed to calm down a bit which allowed me to enjoy the swim better.  We swam for a good length, until the whaleshark bid us goodbye as it descends deeper into the water.  The spots became less clear, but I get to see the rest of the body, like the fins and tail too.  The mouth was quite wide.  As I surfaced above water, the rain was already pouring and the waves were getting a bit stronger.  Timing was perfect, as we were heading back to shore now.  I felt very thankful to experience this great encounter.

An amazing experience indeed, and I would do it all over again if given another opportunity.  Hoping for better weather next time, so that we can see even much clearer with the sun shining down on the ocean.

And oh, I said this is my second attempt.  The first attempt was years ago but it just turned off season that week, and the whalesharks have gone for the year to wherever they would go.  We managed to go on the boat ride still as there have been some encounters in the past, but we never got to the point of jumping off the boat even, despite the stress the BIO gave us about the difficulty of the swim, haha.  Well, this is nature as it is and as all things made by God are His and sometimes can't be comprehended by men, this is one of those things we can't control nor understand.  Whalesharks appear in Donsol from November to May, and then on the rest of the year, they go somewhere else or just stay deeper.  It is still a mystery - one of God's greatest creations!

We stayed at the Elysia Beach Resort which was very near the jump off point for whaleshark encounters.  It is quite nice resort, one of the more upscale resorts in Donsol.  They even had a pool in the middle of the resort and the rooms surrounded the pool.  We were hoping to hang out on the pool at night, but it was closed at 9pm.  Instead, we headed to Barracuda Seafood and Bar to get a drink and have some great seafood.  It was pricey (you could practically find all the guests are foreigners) but I still think it was well worth it given the good food and great ambiance.  In our earlier trip years ago, we stayed at the Amor Resort, clean but pretty basic and because it was off season, it was harder to find a nearby place to eat, we had to take our car out to town.

Also as part of our side trip in Donsol, we went to see the Fireflies in Ogod River.  My first visit to a firefly farm was in Malaysia, we had to drive hours outside of KL to get to the place.  And because you only get to see them at night, the drive was especially challenging given that we did not know the way and not able to converse in Malay, the local language. But it was a really great experience, esp going on a flat raft across the very dark mangrove.  But the glistening light of the fireflies quickly took our focus away.  At first, it looked like Christmas lights, and it took a while for us to really see them flying around.  This is my 3rd time to see firefly farms.  My 2nd was also in Donsol but on a different area.  The wind was blowing a bit, so we could not really see a lot.  But this time, the guide actually caught one and put in on our hands.  Cool!  The Malaysia experience was still the best though, because of the volume of fireflies we saw, it was pretty much all around the Mangrove while here, it was seen only in a few of the trees.  Malaysia and Philippines are actually two of the famous places for seeing tropical fireflies, the type of fireflies known to blink in unison.  In fact, I used to see fireflies in our garden when I was small :-)  And yes, this was in the city.  We used to live near a small river.

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