(Day Two of our Labor Day Weekend)
Because we arrived at around 10:00 and were taken directly by our UV Express Service van from Legazpi City straight to Brgy. Dancalan in Donsol, Sorsogon, we decided to pre-register at the Donsol Tourist Center.
There were three batches posted: 7:30 am (first batch), 10:30 am (second batch), and 2:30 pm (third batch). Based on my initial readings, reviews hinted to schedule for the 2nd batch as there are more sightings compared to the 1st batch which has plenty of guests but less sightings, while the 3rd batch was between hours which were already too hot for me. So before we travelled, I was already bent on availing of the 2nd batch tour.
We approached the Tourist Center window and talked to the Tourism Staff on duty. We asked about our interest to avail of the Whale Shark Interaction Eco-Tour. We had a lot of questions in mind, like: What time is the best to go? Which batch has many sightings? Will we really see Butandings? The Tourism Staff calmly reminded us that since Whale Sharks are wild animals, there is really no assurance whether guests will see them in their natural habitat. No matter how sunny or gloomy the weather is, no one can really predict whether Butandings will show up or not. Thus, no batch is assured of sightings, really.
Since we have travelled far, we pushed our luck and settled for the first batch the following day. We were handed forms which we filled up with the necessary details. After filling it out, we were told about the PhP 3,500 fee which was good for a group of 7 persons. Our party of four was okay with the price but since a mother-and-son team had no group yet, we agreed to share the boat with them. We also agreed to show up at the Tourist Center promptly at 7:00 am for our Eco-Tour.
Tip: It’s best that you pre-register the day before your intended schedule. This is to avoid and undue stress and hassle on your part. You know, having to wake up early, the task of filling out the form, the stress of ensuring that you are able hop on you intended batch. I didn’t want any of that. Another tip: The Tourist Center is the sole/ only/ lone agency which handles the Whale Shark Interaction Tour in Donsol. No other institution is accredited by Republic of the Philippines as far as Donsol is concerned
Before we left the Tourist Center, I found the board were sightings of guests were unofficially registered. I noticed that there were no registered sightings for the days preceding our Eco Tour. Eeeeep. Deep within, I panicked. From that very minute until I went to sleep that night, I prayed really hard. “Lord, a sighting of one or two will do. Just please, please. A sighting for us.”
The Big Butanding Day
Our party of four got ready when the clock struck 5:00 am. We took our turns taking body baths, then changed into our porma for the Butanding (Rhincodon typus) Interaction. By 6:00 am, we were outside our room gazing through the expanse of the resort checking out the shore and the still glassy sea before us. By 6:15, we were seated at the Kawnkita Restaurant for breakfast.
Aside from the reason that breakfast is the important meal of the day, the Interaction Tour us an activity which requires a whole deal of physical exertion. So really, don’t miss having your power breakfast. Tip: Order your breakfast the night before your Interaction Tour. You may request that brekky be served early.
By 7:00 am, we were at the Donsol Tourism Center talking to the staff. We informed the staff that we already filled out our forms and were pre-reserved for the first batch of the day’s Interaction Tour. He gave us a clipboard and asked us to look for our group’s forms which were already stapled together. He then asked us to pay the Eco-Tour Fee of PhP 3,500 (includes 2,500 boat rental, 650 BIO fee, and 350 Spotter’s fee), as well as PhP 100 per person for the Environment/ Registration Fee.
After payment, we were asked to go inside a room made of glass for the 5-minute video orientation of the Do’s and Dont’s of the Interaction Tour. After which, the Tourism Staff called for our names and were then introduced to our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) named Joseph. Before going to our assigned boat, we registered likewise at the logbook of the Philippine Coast Guard. I noticed that most of those registered were foreign nationals. 🙂
We boarded our boat and Sir Joseph, the BIO, introduced himself as well as the rest of the complement: the spotter who is always perched on top of the boat, and the boat men who will steer the boat. We were told as well were the jump off will take place and to which direction of the boat to start swimming. And our journey with the whale sharks began.
I believed we reached Catundolan Point (as reflected by Ippy), one of the places of interest I initially included in my itinerary. According to source, it is where whale sharks may usually be found.
Boat sails, Spotter spots, BIO dives in = Butanding!
A rule to always remember: TRUST (big word) your BIO at ALL times. When he says READY, get ready by putting your snorkel gear on and sitting on the assigned side of the boat. When he says JUMP! Just jump without hesitation. Plunge into the water at lightning speed. Otherwise, you will miss your chance to see the Butanding. Once you jump into the water, swim your way to the rear and the BIO will guide you. When he points at a certain direction and motions, LOOK! Immediately submerge your head underwater and you’ll see the magic: the Butanding is right there.
Because I obeyed the above rules, I am grateful that I was able to have clear sightings at ALL the five times I immersed myself into the water:
First: I saw the whole length of the First Butanding, from head to tail. Albeit at a distance, seeing it for the first time in all its length overwhelmed me. It’s much longer than a bus and our boat for that matter. A big fish, it is!Second: I saw the First Butanding’s width this time. We were swimming on top so the dots were all underneath me. It’s width again is much wider than a bus! I believe it’s almost a full two-way highway even.
Third: The moment I submerged my full face underwater, I was greeted by the Second Butanding’s full head swimming straight toward me. Yikes! I almost panicked and made sure that my feet were above the sea so as not to step on it. It was that near! I saw it’s flat head and mouth, and its gills as well. I thought that the tail was somehow gonna hit me so I tried paddling to the side.
Once we were above water, I asked our BIO whether it was really gonna hit me. He said that it only seemed near because of the lens of the snorkel mask and the water magnified it further.Fourth: We swam alongside the Second Butanding. So I saw how it gracefully glided. From head to tail. I wanted to chase it further but other interactors were ahead of me and their artificial fins created bubbles. So no matter how hard I try to swim forward, my vision was blurred by action in front of me.
Fifth: Again, we swam alongside the Third Butanding. I paddled so hard just to keep up with its pace. I have not paddled that hard in my entire life! Hahaha. But with the lack of skills to breathe underwater, I put my head up and was able to drink salt water when I submerged my head again. Poor coordination skills. Haha.Sir Joseph the BIO seemed tired already so we called it a day. After all, quota na kami sa sighting. Our boat began to head back to the Donsol Tourist Center. We gave out a warm applause to everyone in the group. We were that joyous that we were able to experience something we have never really imagined would happen. But wait, there’s more!
Sixth: A bonus sighting! One of the Spotters suddenly motioned our boat man to stop the motor. There was a puppy ahead. We went crazy! Amid the calm green sea was a brown shadow heading to the right side of the boat. It swam peacefully beside us and the dots appeared much prominent when the puppy got near, I also saw the our other boatman signal other boatmen behind us to stop their engines as a puppy was on its way.
So yeah, I got six Butanding sightings: 5 while submerged in water and 1 while on the boat. Victory, unlocked! The Lord did hear my prayer. 🙂
It’s an Interaction Tour. You get to interact by swimming above or alongside this gentle giant of the sea, but you don’t disturb them in their natural habitat so as to maintain a balanced and healthful ecology. It’s among the declared State Policies under our Constitution, mind you (Article II, Section 16. The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature).
I know you’ve seen these famous dots before but I’m posting them anyway. This is all what we manged to take because we were too bewildered to see the real thing than to take pictures. It’s the first time we used Ate Dulce’s camera so settings weren’t yet reset. Our bad.
Post-Eco Tour Reflection
Once we reached the shore and the Donsol Tourist Center, we did not miss unofficially registering our sightings.
I must admit that I had apprehensions jumping into the ocean with a big fish swimming somewhere only the BIOs know. I did not know how to swim so the life vest and the BIO aka Aquaman kept me secure. When I looked around and saw initially apprehensive people like me jumping in and out of the water, I was scared no more and I joined the huddle.
Seriously, when your eyes are underwater, you think of no one else. It’s just the green sea, you, and the Butanding. And believe me, it is an experience you will cherish for the rest of your insane life. Silly me was even waving at the Butanding while I said “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” in my mind. It’s a different kind of high, I tell you. I’m willing to do it all over again. 🙂
Want to experience swimming with whale sharks, too? Head on to the Donsol Tourist Center located at Brgy. Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon.
Thank you, Donsol. Thank you, Butandings. Thank you, Universe!