As the jeepney pulled into the market place in Donsol I began to feel apprehensive.
People bumped and jostled by me as I hefted my backpack down from the roof rack. Except for a few tables set up to sell fresh vegetables and food, the market place seemed full of people simply loitering.
A quick glance around made me realize indeed how small Donsol was. Most of the buildings were small wooden affairs that looked like they would have a tough time standing up in a strong wind. There were no chain stores, none of the fast food outlets I had grown accustomed to seeing in Manilla. Most strangely, I seemed to be the only foreigner.
I hailed a motorbike side car taxi. After asking to be taken to the closest hotel I was informed that the only accommodation were homestays.
The sleepy fishing village of Donsol in Sorsogon Province in south western Luzon seemed an unlikely tourist destination. There were no fine white sand beaches, no active volcanoes, no old Spanish Churches here. That first day in Donsol I began to wonder if what I had come here to see was in fact here.
This small village, set on the coast alongside muddy waters was supposed to be home to the butanding. That's Tagalog for whale shark.
That dark water, so black and dense with particles that you can't tell if you're looking 30 meters or 30 centimeters, is so rich with plankton that whale sharks congregate here in the hundreds from February to May.
Here in Donsol, the self proclaimed whale shark capital of the world, the best place to see and swim with the biggest fish in the sea, and I was the only foreigner?
There had to be a mistake. Maybe I was in the wrong place. Maybe there was another Donsol on another coast where you could buy hamburgers, cocktails and stay in an air-conditioned room with HBO.
Not that I wanted that, but that infrastructure normally meant there was something worthwhile seeing. Maybe I had made a mistake. Or maybe swimming with a fish the size of a bus didn't appeal to people the way it appealed to me.
At the visitor center, a small concrete building about twenty minutes by dirt road out of Donsol, I checked the signing-in book. Indeed there were foreign visitors, a total of seven just that past week. None of which were still in town.
The BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer), an effeminate local nicknamed Kazky, confirmed that I was the only tourist in town right now. All that meant was that I got the entire boat to myself. I also noted it meant I would be covering the 2700 php rental fee all by myself.
Still you can't cheap out when it comes to swimming with whale sharks. I booked the boat and the crew for the following day.
That night Kazky took it upon himself to get me a ride back into town. There he introduced me to his Uncle's Karaoke bar, where they also served food, thank god, because without any visible restaurants I was getting ready for a dinner of sky crackers and orange juice. Kazky explained the guidelines of an "encounter". Normally groups around a butanding were limited to six. No touching, as it could harm the fish and getting that close to a whale shark could put you in range of it's tail. No one wanted to be swatted by two tons of fish.
Normally he'd brief people the day before at the visitor center. This briefing took place over drinks; while in the background a pop star wannabe wailed the lyrics to "Like a Virgin".
Another perk of being the only tourist.
After a night of drinking Ginebra I showed up bright and early back at the tourist center. Kazky hadn't arrived yet. I suspected he may have a hard time getting up, despite the fact he had insisted he was fine as he had stumbled off into the dark with his glasses slightly askew.
The Captain of the banca, a traditional filipino outrigger boat, was apparently Kazky's brother though they bore no resemblance to each other. While Kazky had been round and soft looking, the Captain was a dark, worn man who would have looked at home raiding yachts with a machete, except for a congenial smile that he flashed frequently.
Soon we took to the water, the Captain, myself, an engine man, and two spotters.
Water sprayed up from the pontoons mixing with the wind blowing past us. We squinted into the sun reflecting off the dark blue waters looking for some sign of the giant fish below. In the distance the coast of Sorsogon rose up from the ocean, it's jungles a rich green. Skimming the ocean joyriding in a banca seemed worth the price of admission.
Good thing I enjoyed the boat ride because hours later we still hadn't spotted anything. My back had started to hurt and the sun burned my face, still sticky with salt water mist.
Then one of the spotters yelled something and pointed behind us. The boat veered and did a quick 180-degree turn. I stood staring intently on the patch of water ahead seeing nothing. The spotter spoke with an excited certainty to the Captain who smiled and slapped me, telling me to get my mask and fins on. I did as I kept watching skeptically ahead of us.
Then I saw it. A small black triangle that rose and ducked beneath the surface. It seemed almost the same colour as the water. The spotter yelled excitedly again. Suddenly I felt the same surge of energy. We pulled in close to them and the Captain switched to high gear.
"C'mon!!" He yelled still smiling as he slipped out of the still moving banca and ducked under the moving pontoons into the water. I suddenly became aware of the outrigger's speed as I watched the Captain get shot out from behind the boat.
I decided the only thing to do would be to follow, to try to duck fast enough not to smash my head on the pontoons and hope for the best. The alternative would be to wait until the boat slowed, but maybe we would have lost the whale sharks by then.
I slipped off the edge of the boat the way the Captain had and the pontoons shot past me. After hours in the sun the water seemed like it was freezing and as I finned my way toward the Captain, I realized how dark the water really was. Somewhere down there were fish large enough to swallow me whole.
I reached the Captain and he pointed, urging me to follow. I finned hard trying to see anything in the water, still thinking about man eating fish. Ahead of me where there had been nothing but darkness suddenly appeared a tail. A giant grey tail that swayed gently back and forth propelling the whale shark forward at a leisurely pace while I kicked hard, guzzling air through my snorkel to keep up.
Ironically, staring at this giant of the sea, my thoughts about being devoured disappeared. I could feel water leaking into my mouth because I was grinning like an idiot around the mouthpiece of the snorkel.
The Captain looked just as excited as me. He pointed at the tail and dove down. Apparently Kazky never had his 'don't touch, don't get near the tail' talk with his brother, because the Captain went straight down and laid a hand on the tail before coming back up to the surface.
He grinned at me and increased the pace.
We got to the back of the animal now, it must have been three to five meters below us. The sight of that giant fish below me was unreal. We followed it for what seemed like forever. The whale shark arced up and down gently in the water seemingly oblivious to us. Then it arched downward towards the deep and it's tail disappeared into the darkness.
With the fish gone I realized my heart was pumping hard, part excitement, part fatigue from trying to keep up. Looking around I saw the banca far in the distance. The Captain smiled and screamed something at me. I nodded dumbly and put my head back in wondering if I could get another glimpse of the giant.
I got more than that.
Right below me another whale shark was coming up from the depths, it's huge rectangular mouth wide open heading straight for me. That was a difficult time to remember that whale sharks were filter feeders, that they strain plankton through their open mouths.
All I saw in that moment was a giant fish coming up fast from underneath me; and I reacted accordingly. I swam like crazy.
Just before breaking the surface the whale shark arched and went deeper beginning the same "S" pattern of swimming we had seen from the previous fish. We continued to follow it but with a better view of it's head this time.
Watching it move gracefully through the water I felt foolish for being scared. It's mouth was large and open but there was nothing menacing about it. There were no glistening sharp teeth, in fact it looked decidedly gummy like someone's dentureless grandfather. The way it sashayed through the water, the whale shark seemed content with it's meal and the sun shining through the water onto it's back.
Then the giant dove down and it was gone.
The Captain and I climbed back onto the banca, both of us talking excitedly - though I doubt either of us understood what the other was saying.
After that we went back to the tourist center for lunch, after which we would head back out to spot more butanding. Walking back to the visitor center I felt stupid for doubting Donsol. The sleepy village without hotels and restaurants wasn't over hyped or some kind of mistake. It was a rare find. A gateway to a unique and amazing travel experience that hadn't been contaminated by the commercialism of tourism. A travel experience that was still pure.
Kazky had appeared with his glasses in place.
"How was it?"
I just shrugged and smiled. What could I say?
It had been amazing.
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