Simplified, the idea seems incredulous, if not ridiculous. You look for a fish in the hundreds of hectares of wide open sea, jump into the 200-foot deep water and chase a creature which is in its natural element and you are not.
Sounds crazy, right? Well it may sound that way, but many have traveled hundreds of kilometers, spent a couple of thousands of pesos and braved personal fears to do just that. Together with my wife, my in-laws and some staff, I jumped into the waters off Donsol, Sorsogon, and swam with one of the most wondrous creatures on earth---the whale shark, or locally known as “butanding”.
“Butanding” has come to mean more than just a fish, or a variety of shark. Perhaps owing to the mild, docile nature of the creature that the word is attached to, “butanding” now seems to be a term of endearment, and a reference to a national treasure.
I’ve heard stories, saw photos and watched videos of other people interacting with the butanding. It certainly attracted my interest, so when I had an opportunity to visit Bicol as part of the Tour of Hope, I made sure to squeeze in some time to go to Donsol, Sorsogon, now tagged as the “Whale Shark Capital of the World”.
Actually, we were billeted in Camarines Watersports Complex in Pili, Camarines Sur where the Tour of Hope ended. Since our flight back to Manila was going to be from Naga City, our trip to Donsol was just a daytrip. We left CWC around 4:00 AM and after a leisurely drive of just over two hours, we arrived at Donsol in time for a good breakfast prepared for us by the locals.
Even before our trip, we were told that we might not have a good chance of encountering the butandings since the rainy season had already set in. The peak season for butanding encounters are said to be from February to April and that at this time, the end of May, we might not see any at all.
As we finished our breakfast and headed for the boats, I noticed that the sky was still overcast, in spite of the advancing time of the day. But the waters were still and the wind calm, so we were confident that it would get better as the day wore on.
There were fourteen of us in the group and we had to be divided between two outrigger boats for safety’s sake and for easier handling by the Butanding Interaction Officers. The “professionalization” of what I would call whale shark wardens is a step towards the right direction of controlling the interaction of tourists and whale sharks and nature conservation. Hopefully, it does not start and end just with the conferment of official titles such as “Butanding Interaction Officers”.
In the outrigger with me was my wife Trina, my sister in law Cila and her husband Jim, my wife’s brother and sister, Ichi and Michelle and staff Charina. In the other boat were my cousin Jomer and Rene, Andy, Roland and Bong, all of whom are my staff.
While the motorized banca was pushing out to open sea, the BIO gave us a briefing on what to do, what not to do and what to expect. After that, we were all excitedly chatting for about thirty minutes when the first sighting occurred. Another group was already at the site, but by the time we got there, the butanding already dove deeper. So we didn’t jump in yet. But at least we got to see what we’re supposed to do when we have our own encounter. I noted that the people in the water were all wearing the thick orange lifejackets which made it difficult to swim in the water.
Well, I wouldn’t blame them for making sure that they won’t go under the waters which was so deep it was dark blue in color. A thought crossed my mind…if it weren’t for the prospect of the thrill of seeing the butanding up close, I don’t think people would just jump into waters this deep for fun of it. It looked foreboding and evoked images of the movie The Abyss.
The anticipation of swimming with the whale sharks fueled our excited chatter as the outrigger cruised around the bay. There were other groups scouring the sea, about ten other outrigger boats loaded with tourists eager for the chance to have a close encounter with the butanding.
Off in the distance dark clouds began to swell and after a few minutes, what appeared to be grey curtains rolled down from the clouds and onto the distant land mass. Rain was falling on the shore, although from where we were, it was still clear.
For some reason which up to now I do not know why, the boatman steered oour outrigger towards the area where dark clouds loomed and rain fell in the distance. I didn’t bother to ask why, assuming that the boatman knew what he was doing. As we neared the swirling clouds and the pelting rain, we shivered in the cold wind that blew into the tiny shelter of the outrigger.
Soon the rain drops felt like tiny pricks of needles on our faces, and we got wet even before we dove into the water. We continued to cruise around the bay under the rainshower, which fortunately enough, did not bring with it strong winds that would cause the waves to grow bigger.
About a hundred feet from us we passed by a lone fisherman paddling his small outrigger, with no choice but to ride out the rain. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a living that way. But then again, I’m sure he’s also glad that he doesn’t have the complicated life I have, which is even made worse by the bad reputation that my profession has among the people. Maybe he’s better off than I am. Anyway…..
We cruised around for about 45 minutes to an hour until the sky cleared. Good thing it did, because otherwise, the money we paid would have been washed away without us getting its worth.
Not long after, our guide called our attention to get ready. I strained to look at where the spotter was pointing to but I couldn’t see anything. But after several seconds, I saw the brownish shadow lurking just under the surface, about 50 feet from our outrigger. I’m impressed at how they could see the butanding under the surface. But it’s what they do for a living so I guess they have to be good at it.
Just as instructed, we put on our snorkeling gear and sat on the edge of the banca, ready to dive once the signal is given. Immediately, it stirred my imagination to pretend that we’re a team of Navy Seals, ready to launch for a special mission. In my mind, I played a sound track appropriate for the scene. My heart was pounding, but I was very eager to get wet and meet the butanding face to face. I looked at the faces of the people with me…they’re all as eager as I was. Here we are, ready to rock and roll.
The boatman deftly navigated the outrigger in a tactical maneuver, placing us in a position that would rendezvous with the submerged creature. At the right moment, the guide shouted, “Talon! Talon! Talon!” (Jump! Jump! Jump!). After a fraction of a second’s hesitation, we all jumped into the water. The second I hit the water, I got my underwater camera and turned it on, ready to shoot and quickly swam after my wife who was being guided by the BIO. A strong swimmer, that BIO was.
The water was a bit murky, and in the wake of the BIO’s and my wife’s paddling, bubbles were obstructing my view, but a few moments later, I saw the distinct tail fin of the remarkable . I almost could not contain my excitement, although for a micro-second, I hesitated. But my eagerness overcame the hesitation and I paddled faster to catch up with the butanding.
I found myself swimming beside the big fish, although it did not seem as big as those I had seen in pictures which looked like submarines. But still the excitement of swimming alongside it overwhelmed me. I struggled to get my camera into position, but even though I’m a photography hobbyist, I couldn’t get an acceptable position. So I just clicked away, just hoping that I would eventually get a good shot.
My wife was better off since she was with the guide who managed to tug her to the right position. No sooner was I able to get a good frame of her and the shark when suddenly several people appeared all around and over the whale shark. Other groups had already converged on the butanding when they saw us jump into the water and the water was suddenly full of men, women and even children, all flapping and splashing to marvel at the creature.
Unfortunately, one swimmer couldn’t contain himself and touched the whale shark, something which was prohibited by the BIO’s. Perhaps sensing the violation, the butanding started to dive into the murky deep, escaping from the throngs of tourists.
It was just a short encounter but truly an amazing one, the stuff that unforgettable memories are made of. We all climbed back on board our outrigger, very much excited about the experience, everyone talking at the same time expressing sheer pleasure at the close encounter.
I quickly reviewed the photos I took. Although I was able to get a record of the encounter, the quality was something that left me unsatisfied. I needed to see another butanding.
After that first swim, we were eager for more. Our outrigger once again patrolled the ocean, our guides and spotters covering all angles watching for the telltale signs of the butanding. After a while, the spotter pointed to a dorsal fin protruding from the water. We all excitedly put on our gear while the boatman steered the banca towards the shark. The guides said this was a big one, judging by the size of the fin.
As we got near, the girls in the group jumped into the water ahead, with the BIO guiding them to the butanding. We followed them, but when we got to where they were, the butanding had already gone deep. But the girls were ecstatic since this was a bigger one, much bigger than the first one we saw. Unfortunately, the camera was with me so we weren’t able to take photos. Once again, I was left with the insatiable desire to see another one, hopefully a giant.
This time around, it took us quite a while looking for the next encounter. The excitement waned and the exhaustion brought about by the adrenaline rush and the early morning wake up call and travel from Camarines Sur to Sorsogon also set in.
We could see other boats patrolling the bay, once in a while gathering together in certain spots. It was also an amusing sight to see, the outriggers rushing towards a spot where there’s a sighting. Again, in my mind, a soundtrack played as I watched the motorized bancas racing along the water. “Ride of the Valkyrie”, which was played in a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now where squadrons of choppers flew in formation, was playing in my head as an imaginary background to the movement of outriggers.
After a while, we saw another dorsal fin, and our boat rushed to the spot. Other bancas raced towards the spot, but before we could jump in, the shark disappeared into the depths. We then saw another crowding of bancas so our boatman turned towards the spot. We got there just in time to see a big tail fin break the surface with some people on the water crowding around it. Our BIO told us not to jump in anymore since the fin indicated that the shark was diving deep.
We continued with our quest as the sun was climbing higher into the late morning sky. The heat was taking over and it was a good thing we were all wearing rashguards to protect us from the searing heat of the sun. But we just had to see one more whale shark. We just had to.
Finally we were rewarded with another sighting. We raced to the spot, along with about six more boats filled with tourists. We quickly jumped into the water and swam with all the energy left in us. Within a few seconds, I was right there beside the big fish, and made sure that I was able get a good video shot of the butanding.
The shark lingered long enough for me to get a good shot before it disappeared into the blue. I was very pleased. At least the experience will not just be in my memory which may be forgotten, but saved as a digital file which I can post, pass on and preserve.
We went back to shore just in time for lunch, which was also prepared for us as part of the package. As expected, we exchanged stories among ourselves, reliving and reviewing the wonderful experience. We all agreed it was well worth the effort to go there, and look forward to a future visit.
Truly, the Philippines is a beautiful country. The diversity in the people’s culture is matched by the richness of its natural resources. The encounter we had was just one of the many experiences that is available for us to enjoy. All we need to do is take it all in and enjoy them.
But more than the wonderful experience of seeing the country’s natural beauty, it is the realization that all these are there for us to enjoy, created by a Father who wanted the best for His children. The world is our playground. Thank God for His creations.
Of course, it follows that we should take care of it.