Of Gentle Giants and Lights – Donsol, Sorsogon, Philippines

Of Gentle Giants and Lights

Donsol, Sorsogon Philippines

Fuel for 13 hour drive to Donsol: Php 1000
Woodland Resort Accomodation & Meals: Php 2,000
Swimming with the whale sharks: PRICELESS!

What a weekend! It was filled with ‘firsts.’ The best of which were: first visit to Mayon Volcano, first Firefly river cruise, and best of all – first time to swim with the whale sharks!

After a very, very long drive, we arrived at the Woodland Beach Resort in Donsol, a seaside town in the province of Sorsogon in the Bicol region, about 550 kms south of Manila. We arrived at 7 pm, just in time to have dinner with those in our group (we were 38 in all! – mostly foreigners working with the UN or ADB) who had either taken the bus or flown in. The rest of the gang was arriving the next morning, we were told.

Close Encounters of the Whale Shark Kind
Close Encounters of the Whale Shark Kind
We got up bright and early the next morning, had our breakfast and proceeded to the Butanding (the local term for whale shark) Interaction Center for registration and our video-clip briefing. We found out that we had just missed GMA, President of the Philippines, who had her whale shark encounter the previous day.

We were then divided into groups of five-six on bancas (outriggers) and off we went in search of those magnificent creatures.

Let me give you a little information about whale sharks: they are the largest shark and also the largest living fish, they are surface feeders and they feed on plankton and small fish, the greatest size recorded is about 40 feet but there have been some 50-60 ft. sightings.

In our banca, we were accompanied by Michael our BIO (Butanding Information Officer), the navigator and two spotters – one up front and the other perched high up on a pole. The spotters scan the sea for tell-tale signs, usually a large shadow beneath the surface of the water and, less commonly, a dorsal fin skimming the surface.

Our Whale Shark Spotter
Once they see a whale shark, they shout, “Butanding!” and point to its location. Michael then told us to get ready and position ourselves on whatever side of the boat he told us, at that point we geared up with our masks, snorkels and fins and waited for his cue to jump. Then Michael, with my underwater camera strapped to his wrist, shouted “Follow me!” and jumped into the water. Like obedient children we jumped in, careful not to make a splash, and swam after him.

The water was pretty murky because it was filled with plankton. So at first I didn’t see anything. Just green nothingness. And then all of a sudden there it is! Out of nowhere, it appeared right below me! I was awe-struck. I was humbled. I was frozen on the spot. I saw one eye, its enormous flat head, I saw how long his mouth is, the spots on its body.

I didn’t realize I had grabbed hold of my friend’s arm in shock. So I let her go and continued to stare at this beautiful, peaceful shark, just floating there lazily. He was so close, I could have reached out and touched him but I reminded myself that’s not allowed.

I was worried I’d kick him with my fins, so I forced my legs up higher behind me. I swam past its dorsal fin towards its tail, thinking I could circle him to the other side. But just as I reached his backside, he disappeared almost as quickly as he came.

The five of us surfaced and almost simultaneously we spit out our snorkels and let out a whoop! We were cheering and laughing, out of breath, our hearts beating double time! Wow. WOW! It is then I started to panic a little because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. What with all the adrenaline pumping through my body, I felt exhausted.

We swam back to our banca and climbed up. Our heads were spinning. We were all grinning from ear to ear, Antonio and Christina kissed like lovers on their honeymoon. They, like myself, were overjoyed. I told Nico, “I can die happy now.”

Michael, the spotters, and the rest of the team were back at work, looking for the next whale shark. We did this for about three hours, and the group I was with saw a total of six. It could have been more if we didn’t have that much competition. There were so many outriggers out on the water at the same time. You have to back off when another group finds a whale shark first because you don’t wanna freak them out with so many people.

Whale shark spotting needs lots of patience and luck and each encounter is unique. There is no guarantee of a sighting. But on clear days, and early in the morning, you can see as many as one whale shark every 10 minutes.

The length of each encounter varies as well. Some can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as one hour. The smaller the whale shark, the faster they are. But on the average, they swim at a speed of five kph.

It was past noon when we headed back for shore, tried but happy. We didn’t realize how hungry we were until the food came. As we ate, we happily shared our experiences with each other, and playfully boasted about who saw the most or the biggest. This will surely be a favorite dinner topic for many years to come.

A Dazzling Display of Lights
Our heads still reeling from the morning’s experience, we spent the afternoon just lazing around the resort. Some took a nap, others went for a walk, most of us chose to hang out and chat until the late afternoon. We had yet another adventure planned for the day – a Firefly River Cruise which we were eagerly anticipating.

Donsol River is a very long stretch of mangroves, coconut trees and shrubs, making it a perfect haven for the fireflies which thrive on lush vegetation, particularly near bodies of water and in tropical climates. (Did you know they aren’t actually flies, but beetles?)

I remember when I was little, seeing fireflies was not so uncommon especially in the provinces. One time at a beach house in Dumaguete, I saw a tree entirely blanketed with these bugs. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen and I longed to see it again.

We hired three outriggers to take us there and just before the sun set, we made our way to the mouth of the river from the sea. The ride itself was already pretty special – the water was calm, the wind was flowing through our hair, the hum of the boat’s engine lulled our senses and we had a most beautiful sunset backdrop.

Beautiful Sunset
Beautiful Sunset
We putt-putted our way from the resort and into the mouth of the river and under a bridge. Here we were met with a scene reminiscent of the movie “Anaconda”, and I half-expected the giant snake to burst up from the unassuming waters and swallow us up. When I succeeded at pushing this thought off my mind, I took in the scenery.

By this time darkness had set in and the sound of crickets filled the air over the din of the banca‘s motor. The sky was completely covered in stars, I had never seen anything like it! I’m talking gazillions!! It was so beautiful. Van Gogh himself would have been inspired. We stared up at the sky almost forgetting what we came here for until our the voice of our bancero (boatman) brought us back to reality.

He called our attention to a nearby tree along the river bank where a number of firelfies were dancing. I loved it! I think I could stare at them for hours. Did you know that in Japanese poetry, the firefly is a metaphor for silent yet passionate love? We lingered here for a while watching this romantic courtship of light before we continued on down the river.

If you drag your hand in the water, you can create a bright silvery effect on the surface because of the presence of luminescent plankton. I like to think of it as liquid moon. I was so fascinated by this phenomenon that I removed my flip-flops and dragged my foot as we cruised along.

Every once in a while, we would spot a tree filled with fireflies and we would dock the banca there for a bit and just watch. Sometimes they would fly above our heads, dance at our sides and skim the water beside us. Our boatman caught one for us, and we passed it around gently before letting it go. It was like being in a planetarium, only this time there were stars above, around and below you! It was surreal. I felt this rush of emotion course through my body. I now have a newfound deeper respect for nature.

Just when we thought this whole night couldn’t get any better, we saw the first of many local fisherfolk scouring the river for shrimp and crabs. You see, they aren’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill fisherman. These have a kerosene torch (gasero) strapped onto the top of their heads, and they wade in waist-deep water. They use a sudsud, a V-shaped net to catch their harvest.

The glow of the torch casts eerie shadows on their faces , and their slow wading movement in the glassy water makes them seem almost supernatural. I wish my camera could have captured this sight! Seeing them in pairs and then in groups was just amazing. We even had the boatman kill the engine, just so we could watch them in silence.

Each element of this journey – the fireflies, the stars, the plankton, the fishermen – possessed its own magic, but all of it put together made for one unbelievable, magical experience!