Joe and the Whale Shark – The Philippines

“Hey Joe!” yelled the darkly tanned men with weathered faces and ragged clothes fishing along the inaccessible riverbank as we floated through the jungle in our rubber raft last weekend.

“Hey Joe!” yelled the men illegally cutting down small trees in the national park as we drove past in our ancient dusty Jeepney on Saturday morning, our bodies covered in so much dust we looked like ghosts.

“Hey Joe!” yelled the children playing on the fallen coconut tree trunks in the river mouth as we paddled past them in our kayaks on Sunday morning on the way to Charlie’s Point to go surfing.

“Hey Joe!” yelled the drunk farmers in the roadside bars; tipsy after a long drinking session in the Sunday afternoon heat as we slowly drove back to Manila.

“Joe” comes from the term “GI Joe”. For a long time in the Philippines, America’s colony until 1946, the only Caucasians the people saw were American military and out in the Provinces anyone white is still assumed to be such, and therefore deserving of the name Joe. I guess it is preferable to being called “Cano”, short for Americano.

In the last two weekends I have been feeding my water sports fetish. Whitewater rafting along a 35km stretch of river through the rugged mountains of Quezon Province last Sunday, and taking a long and tiring weekend journey in a Jeepney to the East Coast of Luzon Island to surf kayaks in the waters off Baler in Aurora Province.

The Jeepney originated when the US jeeps left behind in WW2 were stretched to carry more passengers and have now become the workhorse of the Philippines, carrying everything from people to chickens to coconuts. The original jeeps have all been worked to death, but new vehicles are now handmade here in the Philippines along the same design, with underpowered diesel engines, long heavy chassis, poorly damped suspension and heavy steering that would challenge a champion weightlifter. They are impossibly slow and cumbersome and are one of the main causes of the traffic jams and pollution in Manila, belching out clouds of black diesel smoke as they rumble around the streets doing their job as the main form of public transport in the city.

The Jeepneys are the first thing you notice when you arrive in the Philippines. Smoky vehicles with personality, honking and wandering all over the road, stopping wherever they want, decorated with huge chrome hood ornaments, colored lights, colorful paintjobs, and as much chrome on the body as the owner can afford. The drivers pretty much live in their vehicles, sleeping in them at night, eating in them during the day, and the dashboards are decorated with statues of The Virgin, a family photo or two, plaques of bible quotes. In ours there was a long hand-knitted banner strung across the windshield with the words “GOD HELP US” knotted intricately into the cloth, almost black from years exposed to traffic jams and diesel fumes.

I did a bit of white water rafting in Chile and Argentina when I was there earlier this year, but for the price it was rather disappointing, as the rivers we rafted were pretty mild. So when I found a website listing one or two day rafting trips from Manila I had to do it, and arranged for a group of guys from work to go along. We all met up with Chip, our rafting guide, at 4am on Sunday morning (a difficult thing to do) at the local McDonalds, and began the long minivan ride up into the mountains. We reached the river at 8am, got geared up in lifejacket and helmet and pumped up the raft.

We set up on a gravel bank beside the river and a few local children in ragged clothes came down from the small huts made of bamboo, palm trunks and palm leaf roofs to stare at these crazy strangers a while before wandering off to play in the water. Some adults on the opposite bank worked hard, loading freshly cut mahogany planks into 5 meter long dugout canoes until they barely floated, then swam them across the stream, unloading the planks onto waiting Jeepneys. This was my first experience of illegal logging going on in the forests across the Philippines, largely overlooked by local police and politicians who get a cut of the profits in return for allowing the destruction of their country.

There were seven people in the raft – six paddlers to be the engine and the guide to steer and we took off into a gentle current at 9am, having opted to try to do what normally would be a 2-day trip in a single day. In the previous week the wet season had been doing it’s job and the river was up high enough to cause some concern, but at least we would have a quick ride. The forest grew denser and the river valley narrowed, constricting the river flow, the current increasing and the wide shallow gravel river bottom being left behind for a narrow turbulent stream racing over and between huge boulders.

We came to the first rapid, the water speed increasing and raging through a narrow gap between boulders. Paddles held tight, we listened carefully to the orders given by the guide over the roaring water, and the raft raced through the narrow gaps, down over the small drops. After 20 seconds of excitement and adrenalin we came out into a quieter section of river, but with more rapids in sight at the next bend in the river and another 9 hours and 35km of river to go.

As the raft drifted closer to the second set of rapids, the noise from the water was louder than the previous rapids, and the drop was obviously bigger. Again the raft sped up and surged through between rocks, the passengers paddling hard on command from the guide to avoid the obstacles and more dangerous turbulent waters. Almost through the rapid the current slammed the raft into a large rock, but instead of the inflated rubber bouncing us off back into the current we stuck, with the strong undercurrent spilling over the side of the raft. People toppled into the river and the raft flipped over to land on the struggling paddlers and spun off down the river, people struggling for breath, tangled up in each other, paddles lost in the chaos.

Under the water, disoriented by the turbulence, washing past hidden boulders and not knowing which way was up I stopped struggling and let my lifejacket do the thinking. Floating upwards I ended up under the raft, the lifejacket pushing me up, the weight of the raft pushing me down.

Ok – time to breathe – no chance. Ok – get to the edge of the raft. I pulled myself towards the side of the raft, but as I did so the raft drifted in that direction. I pulled myself towards the other side of the raft, but the raft was spun by the current in that direction. On the third attempt I broke the surface beside the raft and held onto the side while I gasped for breath.

We were now past the rapid and I looked around to count the heads. All seven were visible and conscious so we maneuvered the raft into a quiet area behind a large boulder and flipped the raft right-way up. Everyone had managed to grab their paddles and six of us were with the raft. We got back in and looked over at the last paddler on the other side of the river, gasping and spluttering and clinging desperately to a rock. We shouted at him to climb out of the river, then paddled up our quiet side of the river then out from the bank into the current which carried us to him. With all of us in the raft, wet, shook up but unharmed we headed downstream to the next rapids.

At the time it seemed like I had been underwater forever. Thinking back on it now with a clear head I was probably underwater for only about 15 seconds, and with a lifejacket and helmet and so many other people in the water there was never any real risk and it was fun being scared.

We had a few more scary rapids, and then had to stop for a waterfall and a really dangerous rapid where the paddlers climbed around the riverbank over the rocks and the raft was lowered down on a rope. We stopped for lunch under a rocky overhang and waited for a thunder and lightning storm to pass. Back on the river, below the worst rapids now, we drifted past fishermen with nets on the riverbanks, families in dugout canoes coming upriver with large sacks of rice from the nearest town, and women and children on the riverbanks who quickly walked away as we got near. Some of the people we saw walking away into the forests were straight haired Filippinos who have now pushed far into the mountains in search of rainforest timber but some are curly haired Negritos.

My understanding is that there were two waves of migration down through the Pacific during the ice ages when the sea levels dropped and land bridges allowed migration. The first wave brought curly haired peoples with darker skins. They migrated down through Asia and Australia as far as Tasmania. Then the seas rose and they were isolated on the islands for thousands of years before the second ice age when the seas dropped and a second wave of straight haired and lighter skinned people migrated down through Asia. The second wave of people were more aggressive and displaced the first settlers in most of the places they went, either chasing them to remote places in the mountains or jungles, or out breeding them. The second wave of migration did not make it as far as Tasmania, and so the Tasmanian Aboriginals found by the original white settlers were curly haired and different from the Australian mainland Aboriginals.

In the rugged jungle blanketed mountains in the Philippines live tribes of curly haired, dark skinned nomadic animists who subsist almost entirely off the forests and avoid contact with outsiders. Like the original Tasmanian Aboriginals who were almost entirely wiped out by the British settlers these Negritos are also descendants of the first wave of migration. They have avoided thousands of years of Malay settlers populating the Philippines, then hundreds of years of Spanish and American colonialism, but now their forests are shrinking and I wonder what will become of them in the 21st century.

The further we went down the river the closer we came to relative civilization. Big rainforest trees became scarce, coconut and banana trees started appearing beside the river along with thatched huts, then the occasional chicken or water buffalo and a bamboo fish trap in the river. The large timbers cut from the rainforest giants are slid down the hills to the river, tied together and floated down to a sand or gravel bank where they can be sawn into planks and then floated further down for easier road access. For hours we lazily drifted past these scenes, occasionally having to paddle the raft through quieter stretches of the river, and right on sunset at 6:30 the raft was beached at a gravel bank with convenient road access and deflated. The road was too rough for normal vehicles and so we loaded everything into a Jeepney for a 20-minute rock-n-roll hang-on-for-life ride over the muddy rutted road down the mountain to our van, swapped vehicles and headed back to arrive in Manila around 11pm.

After a week in a cozy office recovering I was ready for more adventure so on Friday night I waited with two others at the local McDonald’s and at 9pm we were picked up by the oldest Jeepney I have seen. Complete with red and silver paintjob, worn tires and three chromed horses on the hood it was an amazing sight coming through the crowded Manila streets with four kayaks tied down on the roof. We met Chip again, jumped into the Jeepney and began the long fight with Manila traffic to get to clean air. Jeepneys don’t have glass windows to protect against pollution or air conditioning to protect against the tropical heat and are just open to whatever black diesel smoke decides to waft into the vehicle to choke us as we honk our horn and grind our gears at walking speed through the chaotic traffic.

Manila is a jealous city, and escaping requires patience, and the willingness to suffer in the fight for freedom. The smoke fills your lungs, makes you cough and if you blow your nose it comes out black and gritty. The noise from honking horns and diesel engines with rusted mufflers is at times deafening and the experience of fighting the traffic is so unpleasant that wealthier Manila residents prefer to fly to Hong Kong or Singapore in an hour rather than spend three hours driving to a dive resort 100km from town.

We stopped for the night at 2am in a small town called Cabanatuan for some sleep, then up at 7am for another 5 hours drive to Baler. About an hour after leaving town the concrete sealed road through the rice paddies and coconut plantations ended and the dirt, dust and forest started.

We traveled east and crossed the Sierra Madre mountain range, driving for 3.5 hours at low speed, covered in our own dust, and choking when another vehicle passed us. We were hoping to do some whitewater kayaking on the rivers in this range but it hadn’t rained for a week and the rivers were barely a trickle. Of course, nothing in the Philippines is simple or works as expected and as soon as we started our descent of the steep windy dirt road the driver lost the use of the foot brakes, and when we asked, told us that the hand brake didn’t work either.

On a rare level spot we stopped the Jeepney and while the driver looked at the problem the rest of us walked up a nearby creek, stripped off and climbed up a cooling waterfall, happy to be refreshed and rid of our coating dust. On returning, the driver told us that there wasn’t enough brake fluid but that we could get some at the bottom of the mountain. With a loud crunching we dropped down to second gear and crawled all the way down to Baler on the coast. The brake fluid was topped up, we found our hotel, checked in, and at about 3pm headed off through town and then along on a long bumpy road through the coconut plantations down to Charlie’s Point, a local surfing spot on the sandbar where a river meets the Pacific Ocean.

The waves weren’t too big, but for someone who hadn’t ever surfed a small kayak before I was happy with them. I’m used to a surf ski where you sit on top with a paddle, but with a kayak you sit inside and have a rubber skirt to keep the water out. Unfortunately I’m not too confident with the Eskimo Roll and when I got wiped out by the first big wave I had to bail out of the kayak, swim it to shore, empty it out and then fight my way back through the surf. I got more confident rolling and coming back up after the wave had passed, but a few times the waves were so big that when I wiped out and the kayak cartwheeled down the face I was launched out of the boat. There were a few local Filippinos with surfboards near us catching waves, highly amused by our clumsy equipment, but we got on okay and there were enough waves around to keep out of each other’s way.

After about an hour of surfing Chip shouted out that he had seen a fin, but couldn’t tell if it was a shark or dolphin. We all saw the fin the second time, and it was definitely a very big shark – over 5 meters. We turned toward shore and started paddling, but trying to work out what kind if shark it was I didn’t think that the fin looked right for a Tiger Shark, the only dangerous shark that could possibly grow that big in the tropics. I turned my kayak around to go back and look more carefully at the shark, which was following us in towards the beach.

The dorsal fin and tail were very big, sometimes sticking up to 50cm out of the water, and the dark shape of the shark was clearly visible swimming towards me. The body was one meter across, but the fin was the wrong shape with brown carpet pattern mottling on the skin, and as I got closer I saw the head was the wrong shape.

“Whale Shark!” I yelled out, “Plankton Eater.” The others stopped their kayaks uncertainly – “Are you sure?” they asked. “Whale Shark,” I repeated.

The shark was swimming towards the river mouth, and it had just been coincidence that we had been between it and it’s feeding grounds. We stopped paddling and the shark came up to within a meter of us, swimming past with slow flicks of the tail, mouth open, filtering the water. Paddling around the shark, following it towards the shore I waved to the surfers, indicating the fin and waving them closer to get a better look at this amazing endangered animal. Of course, the surfers, being further away from the shark, and more exposed to attack took one look at the fin I was pointing to and I have never seen surfers paddle so fast. They didn’t stop until they were on the beach out of harm’s way, and out of hearing as we yelled out to explain that the shark was harmless.

For about half an hour the shark casually swam back and forth across the river mouth filter feeding and unconcerned about us, then went on it’s way. I honestly think it was having fun, enjoying the strong surge on the sandbanks the same way dolphins surf the wake in front of a ship. The surfers eventually came back in the water and asked what type of shark it was and we explained. Hopefully their friends are not fishermen because though the rare Whale Shark is protected in the Philippines the meat from a large one can sell for the equivalent of a few year’s salary for the local fishermen who probably haven’t been told it’s illegal to catch these sharks.

We surfed till sunset, headed back to the hotel for a shower, out for a quick meal and off to sleep after the long day. Sunday we were up at 7am, a long casual breakfast at a beachfront cafe then off on the Jeepney to go surfing again. The tide was lower than the previous day, and the waves were smaller. This time, instead of driving through the coconut plantations, we stopped the Jeepney on a highway bridge (yes, you can park anywhere in the Philippines, even on highway bridges) and carried the kayaks down to the river. Our entry to the river was only about 10 minutes paddle from the ocean and we had a casual paddle downstream past fishermen and children playing in the water to the surf.

Another two hours of surfing, a 30 minute paddle down the beach to the hotel, load up the kayaks, and at 1pm we headed off on the long way back to Manila, through coconut plantations, rice paddies, forested mountains, along what locally passes for a highway, and back into the Big Smoke (literally). We arrived dusty, grimy, sweaty and grumpy at 10pm, absolutely exhausted and coughing up dust and smoke. But it was worth it to get out of Manila, breathe clean air, see the beautiful countryside, go surfing in clean water, and play with such a beautiful and rare creature.

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