Philippines · Sorsogon · Travel Tales

Travel Tales: Chasing Fireflies and Whale Sharks in Donsol

Our picture with a butanding (for lack of a digital waterproof camera)
Andy, Czhar, Moore and Joey with a butanding (for lack of a digital waterproof camera)

I guess I should start this story with the taxi ride on the way to NAIA-3. The driver asked me where I was going.

“Legazpi po,” I answered.

“Ah,” he said. “Taga-Bicol ka?”

“Hindi po,” I said. “Bakasyon lang.”

“Saan?”

“Donsol po.”

He smiled. As he sped and wound his way through Sucat Road (and as I held on for dear life, wondering if I’d ever get to the airport after all), he explained to me that he hails from the province of Sorsogon — two towns away from Donsol, in fact. I told him that this was my third time in Bicol, and told him that I’d been to Matnog, Bulusan, and Barcelona. He told me about Donsol which, quite apparently, I was visiting because of the whale sharks. He told me to pray for clear skies. I’d been doing so for days now, I said.

This also happened to be my second trip this 2013 and, I’m proud to say, the first item ticked off my 30 before 30 list. We were supposed to go to Donsol last October but learned (early enough) that whale shark season began in December and ended in May. “May season ng butanding? Parang mangga lang?” quipped my friend Moore.

Luckily for us teachers, the EDSA revolution holiday this year fell on a Monday, so we booked flights to Legazpi for this long weekend. For days prior, it rained as though it was August. We alternately prayed for clear skies and cursed climate change. It was slightly overcast in Manila when we left on the morning of February 23.

Upon arriving in Legazpi, we headed out for a late lunch in windy Kim’s Bowl, as recommended by the tricycle driver we hailed at the airport.

"Bicol express pala ang hanap nyo, ha?" said the cook (in my head). This version has lots of pineapple.
“Bicol express pala ang hanap nyo, ha?” said the cook, while slicing a few more jalapeños than necessary (in my head). This version has lots of pineapple.

Then we headed to the central terminal to take a van to Donsol. It took us two hours. One could actually take the same route in a little more than an hour, but our driver had several stopovers, for some reason. He dropped us off at the Poblacion, right in front of the town hall.

Andy: "Hindi ko maintindihan kung alin sa kanila ang butanding."
Andy: “Hindi ko maintindihan kung alin sa kanila ang butanding.”

Another tricycle ride and we got to our lodgings, the pretty and peaceful Amor Farm Beach Resort in Barangay Dancalan. The rooms were bungalow-types and were not crowded. We had a couple of fan rooms.

Amor Farm Beach Resort
Amor Farm Beach Resort

I chose this resort because it was a relatively cheap option and it was in front of the beach, plus it was only a few minutes’ walk to the tourism center. We spent the next hour watching the sun set. The beach in Dancalan isn’t the best in the country. (After having been in some really great beaches in the country, I’ve had certain standards. That’s the thing about being a relatively well-traveled Filipino.) Yet it has spectacular sunsets, and I read that on clear days, one could even make out the silhouette of the Mayon on the horizon.

Dancalan sunset
Dancalan sunset

That day wasn’t the clearest, though, and we’d heard that overcast skies did not bode well for butanding seekers. That evening, we went to Barangay Ogod to go see fireflies by the river, and here’s where we got news that there were no butanding sightings that day. The day before that, there were sightings, yet that month (which is supposed to be peak season), there were days when there were none. Last December, though, there were sightings everyday.

Our guide in Ogod, seemed disappointed as well. “Di ko rin maintindihan,” she told us when we asked why. She explained: whale sharks go to where there are plankton, and the people’s initial theory is that there isn’t enough plankton to go about. They cannot just feed plankton to satisfy tourist demand, though, unlike in Oslob, Cebu, where whale sharks are hand-fed by fishermen. Here in Donsol, rules are strictly implemented by the local tourism office under the guidance of WWF-Philippines so that visitors could interact with the butanding in their relatively wild habitat. Unfortunately, this means that sightings are not guaranteed.

Meanwhile, we were on a boat, and the only light as we meandered along the muddy Ogod River came from the almost-full moon and a small flashlight. There were the five of us, plus our guide and two boatmen.

It was almost eerily quiet but for the rudder and the tugs-tugs-tugs of dance music in some far-off areas. Every now and then we would see trees glowing with fireflies as though Christmas lights can now move around trees. Going closer, we’d find that the fireflies emitted a yellow-green light. They would also light up almost in sync. This was a mating signal, apparently. Our guide clapped her hands and enjoined us to clap as well. Lights flashed a little more strongly: a danger signal. Sometimes the boatmen would catch a firefly and put it in our hand, where it would create light before we set it free.

According to folk legend, a tree studded with fireflies is supposedly resided by a good supernatural element. Ogod River was pretty a magical place, and I’d believe the legend.

My experiences in Donsol have taught me that some awesome things in life cannot be captured by a camera. So I just took this picture instead.
My experiences in Donsol have taught me that some awesome things in life cannot be captured by a camera. So I just took this picture instead.

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The next day, I woke up at half past six, when the sky was relatively clear even though the wet sand right outside our room was a tell-tale sign that it had been raining a few hours prior.

DSC_7161
Carabaos wallowing in the rice paddy. The baby carabao looked so content and cuddly.

The morning sun warmed us as we went to the tourist center a five- to ten-minute walk away from Amor Farm. We were still in our pajamas. On the way, we found a group of tricycle drivers congregated and looking seaward. Naturally we were drawn to them, and they pointed us to white boats crowded in the middle of the sea and told us that there were whale shark sightings that day.

We were excited the rest of the way. Boats for the 7:00 AM time slot were all booked, so we booked for the first boat out in the next time slot, which was at 10. We all looked out of place among foreigners already in their gear.

DSC_7160

We ate breakfast at one of the carinderias near the tourism center: I had bread, fried egg, and Kopiko brown for P37, my cheapest meal for the trip. Then we went back to Amor Farm where we played some two-on-two volleyball. Then, at around 9:30, we went back to the tourism center and rented gear.

I got a snorkel and mask plus fins for P300. I wondered aloud how many mouths had been around the snorkel mouthpiece. Oh well.

We watched a video on a short backgrounder on Donsol and the rules of butanding interaction (don’t touch, don’t block their path, only six people to a whale shark*, no SCUBA gear, no flash photography, etc.) As soon as the first boat from the 7:00 AM interaction came back, we climbed aboard and donned life jackets.

Andy with the boatmen and our BOI. He is almost indistinguishable.
Andy with the boatmen and our BOI. He is almost indistinguishable.

There were four other people besides us: the boatmen, the spotter, and our guide, who’s also called the awesome name of the Butanding Interaction Officer (BOI). He told us what we had to do: essentially, be ready when he says “Ready,” and jump when he says “Go.” The butanding won’t wait for anyone, he said, so we had to be vigilant. Also, he warned us (slowly and clearly) that if we ever touched the butanding, he’d send us back to shore and will never be allowed to come back.

The water was not as clear as in, say, Caramoan, so we had to rely on our guides  to point to us where there were butandings. There were other boats, and the excitement was palpable especially when we could see people jumping off the boats.

“Ready!”

We sat on the gunwale on one side of the boat. I wanted to scream with excitement, but I was biting on the snorkel mouthpiece, and anyway I felt strangely calm.

And before we knew it, someone pointed at a dark shape in the water and a dorsal fin sticking out. Our BOI yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”

I had maybe half a second to take a deep breath before hopping into the water. The first thing I saw were bubbles from whoever jumped in ahead of me. Then I swam a bit. And I saw the small butanding, maybe less than two meters long, swimming almost lazily away. Its white spots appeared to glow on its dark skin in the dark waters. It was so near I could almost touch it. I attempted to chase it with my awkward human limbs, all the while telling myself never to get too close, and like a prima donna it ignored me, smoothly gliding away until it disappeared.

Breathless, we bobbed up and down on the water until our boat picked us up. Climbing aboard was difficult because of our fins.

Back on the boat, we swapped stories. Our BOI told us that this young whale shark (at least in whale shark years — their life span is 70 years) could move fast, unlike its older counterparts. “Sinabi ko nga sa inyo, walang hinihintay ang butanding,” he said.

“Parang pag-ibig lang,” I volunteered.

He also told us that as much as possible, they never tried to disrupt their lives here; ages ago some scientists tried strapping remote sensors on the whale sharks’ bodies, but these whale sharks were never seen again. What they do now is to identify the whale sharks based on the pattern of their spots; apparently, each butanding has a unique set of spots.

A few minutes later, we got the signal again to be ready. We sat on the starboard side of the gunwale, looking around for the dark mass in the water. And then there was commotion again. I might have been looking too far off because there was a whale shark, about four or five meters long, swimming right beside out boat, right where we about to jump!

“Go! Go!” yelled out BOI.

I jumped. The outrigger nearly hit me on the head (it might have hit Czhar). But this butanding was really bigger. It swam past me, about two meters away; I was pretty much awestruck.

We did the same thing — jump off, watch the butanding, swim back to the boat — five, six times. I figured out toward the end that I swam best in my own goggles and the fins I’d rented. I think we might have encountered a whale shark for less than ten seconds in each jump. Regardless, every ten seconds was awesome. I thought, then, that I’d go back to do this over and over again if given the chance.

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We went back to land by 1 PM, had a celebratory lunch in Amor Farm — their laing and Bicol express had a lot of gata and were oh so good.

Probably the best Bicol express of the trip.
Probably the best Bicol express of the trip.
I admit I scooped this laing onto my plate down to the last sauce.
I admit I scooped this laing onto my plate down to the last sauce.

We rested until afternoon. We went back to the tourism center to buy t-shirts, probably the first time I ever bought a souvenir t-shirt for myself.

On our way we met officers from the tourism center who must have had recognized us among the sea of foreigners that morning. One of them, the one who manned the reservations, grinned at us. “Uy, masaya sila. Nakakita kayo kanina, ano?”

We concurred, laughing. Truly we were in high spirits.

Later on as we rode a tricycle to town, I saw the murals on the walls of the elementary school. Whale sharks figured prominently there. People also kept on asking us if we saw them, and they really did seem genuinely happy to see how happy we were. The gentle giants truly are a source of pride among the people of Donsol.

I’d read that before the late 90s, the locals were afraid of the butanding, thinking them dangerous. Hunting the whale sharks was not uncommon. Now, though, the same whale sharks have given new life to this fishing town. I am just amazed by how well the local conservation efforts and the education of the people have worked here.

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Czhar’s high school friend who lives in Donsol had texted her, offering to tour her around via his family. We thus visited their renovated ancestral house and their farm.

The Lumang Bahay is a quaint house made of wood and nipa. I loved the capiz chandeliers and the antique details!
The Lumang Bahay is a quaint house made of wood and nipa. I loved the capiz chandeliers and the antique details!
Have window, will pose.
Have window, will pose.
Czhar is ready to welcome a new life. :)
Sunset at the Alims’ farm. Czhar is ready to welcome a new life. 🙂
Prenup pic?
Prenup pic?

For dinner it was Giddy’s Place, where we ate non-Bicolano food for once (seafood pasta and seafood pizza), and videoke in a deserted restaurant not too far away.

After Sunday morning’s clear skies, it rained all morning the next day in Donsol and Legazpi. We were extremely lucky, really, to have clear skies on the day we were supposed to go see those gentle giants. Or maybe my companions pray hard enough. In any case, apparently, prayers do work, and I’m ever so glad. 🙂

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A Backpacker’s Guide to Donsol

* Actually, I did wonder about the six-people-per-whale shark rule. Does it mean six people per whale shark at a given moment? Because I think all boats (there were something like eight boats in all) that were crowded during our time slot were seeing the same whale sharks. The noise might also pose a problem. Does that bother the seemingly serene whale sharks we saw?

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3 thoughts on “Travel Tales: Chasing Fireflies and Whale Sharks in Donsol

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