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Published: July 21st 2008
Mount Mayon was, without doubt, the most impressive sight we saw in the countless hours on the bus from Batangas to somewhere and now on to Legaspi
. Dubbed "The world's most perfect volcano" Mayon's slope, which rises dramatically above the flat of Albay, is almost perfectly symmetrical. But Mayon is as dangerous as it is beautiful having claims hundreds of lives. The most recent eruption was in June 2001. Spotting Mayon told us that Legaspi was near but as soon as we arrived and saw big-city Legaspi, we hopped on a jeepney bound for Donsol. In Romblon, we had learnt of strange, unbelievably large creatures that visited Donsol regularly each year. They were Rhincodon typus
and could grow to 12.65 meters (41.5 feet) in length and 7 meters (23 feet) in girth. For easier comparison, they can be longer than a yellow school bus or longer than the standard-size Caribbean house. These giants could weigh up to 21.5 tonnes (47,300 pounds) and can easily eat their body weight in food. These creatures, the Whale Sharks also affectionately called "Butanding" by Filipinos, tend to congregate around Donsol and we desperately wanted to have an audience with them.
Compared to our 2005
skydive 14,000 feet above the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, this was literally going to be a swim in the park
. Whale Sharks are totally non-threatening and pose no significant danger to humans. As a matter of fact, humans pose a much greater threat to whale sharks. (We stress this point early just in case our parents and loved ones ‘freak’
out). The Butanding Interaction Center significantly lightened the load in our hip pockets with charges for snorkel sets, a Butanding Interaction Officer and a pump boat complete with ‘spotters’. After a short introductory video we climbed aboard with Captain Jack (No, really!
His name was “Jack”) and pushed off. A few hundred feet off the shore, the search started. The ‘spotters’ climbed the mast and strained their eyes to see the telltale shadow that indicated a Butanding below. For our part, we simply couldn’t determine what
these guys were looking for and so we turned our attention to the coastline.
The patch of cloud covering Mt. Mayon’s peak drifted away revealing Mayon in its full glory. What an astounding sight it was, majestic, regal-like and dwarfing everything else. The shore was dotted with palm trees and broken up
Comparison - Man vs Butanding
Image sampled from wikipedia.com
occasionally by tiny barangays. The reality of what we were about to encounter had not yet impacted us. We could well have been on a sightseeing boat ride but when Captain Jack yelled “Get Ready”
the right amount of adrenaline pumped into our bloodstreams. We strapped on our flippers, donned the masks and sat on the edge of the boat, our hearts thumping. Another captain took over and brought the boat skillfully around. We still couldn’t see ‘the shadow’. Jack suited up. “Shark in the water”, he said. “When I tell you, jump in and swim hard”. He grabbed Shanna’s hand, turned to Vibert and said “Follow us”. The beating of our hearts almost drowned out his words. “Swim in the park”? Yeah right! This was a huge animal, a shark, the largest fish in the world, a shark, we were in open sea, in its… “Quick, jump in.”
We hit the water hard and our legs starting paddling.
Visibility was terrible, only about an arm’s length. Somewhere in the frenetic swimming we thought “Lots of plankton. This is why the Butandings like it here”. And then, it was right in front of us. A huge black wall with
white dots. THE BUTANDING LOOMED LARGE. Visibility was soooooo bad that we didn’t see the whale shark until we were (well) only an arm’s length away. Screeeeech!!!!!
We slammed on ‘water brakes’
we didn’t even know we had until this moment. The flight instinct kicked in. And Panic. Reverseeeeeeee!! But wait, it’s not troubled! It’s just…swimming. We’re still alive! Captain Jack half-dragged Shanna over the Butanding while it opened its ultra-wide , cavernous mouth and revealed hundreds on tiny teeth. We turned and followed the creature which moved along at about 5 km/h. This speed is very slow for a shark and it is because this type inefficiently uses its whole body to swim instead of just its tail. We fired off a few pictures and made a movie. Nobody would believe this.
This Butanding was relatively small, about 8 meters (26 feet). A few pilot fish swam close to its broad, flat head probably for protection from predators. We swam alongside for quite a while occasionally dipping beneath the surface to catch better looks and snap a few pictures. And then, without notice, it just sank into the depths leaving only an illusion of its presence - the
illusion you get when you stare at black and white dots for a long time.
Thrilled to bits and breathing hard, we dragged ourselves back on board and chattered excitedly like children around an ice-cream truck. “Did you see THAT?”, we’d rhetorically ask each other. “Butanding, 3 o’clock. Jump in”
and off we went again. Screeeeeeeeeech!! Water Brakes.
We had two encounters before 1 pm and then Captain Jack called lunch break and drove the boat right up on the beach by a different barangay. And what do you know, this barangay was in the midst of its ‘fiesta’. Food and music were everywhere. We chowed down and had ‘seconds’ all the while gushing about the Butanding encounters. Jack guided us out from one home and into another and, although we were full, we couldn’t refuse another helping. Around 3 pm we pushed off and had another two encounters with the accompanying ‘water brakes’ and post-encounter animation.
Tired to the bone, we returned to Donsol and bumped into Marianne, an animated Filipina who took us walking throughout the small town. At one point, we strayed into the market where an elderly vendor took an instant liking to
Vibert (‘tall, dark and handsome’, she called him) offering a bunch of bananas and inviting him to be her ‘text mate’. Her complete lack of teeth somehow made this sound like an indecent proposal. Vibert declined. Then Marianne took us to a ‘karaoke’ bar (Pinoys love karaoke) and serenaded us and even though she sang almost all the notes off-key, the machine registered a quality score of 98%! (MISSING)Look out for Marianne - coming to a concert hall near you.
On board the overnight VIP bus to Manila, we stretched out in the reclining seats dreaming of gentle giants and water brakes. 😊
😊 Captain Jack and the Butanding Interaction team
😊 Vibert’s not-so-secret admirer
Note to selves: Scratch “Swim With Sharks” off of the to-do list.
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