Not Just the Whale Sharks, There's the Shrimp Fishermen of Donsol Too!

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May 23rd 2011
Published: June 2nd 2011
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The Shrimp Fishermen of DonsolThe Shrimp Fishermen of DonsolThe Shrimp Fishermen of Donsol

His name is Joel. He shrimp fishes using a triangular net which he drags through the sea bottom to harvest shrimps feeding on algae. On a good night, he collects 3 kilos of shrimps which he sells for only US$3 per kilo.
Late February of this year, I had my first encounter with the whale sharks of Donsol. Called Butanding by the local folks, my awesome experience with these "vegetarian" whale sharks boosted my confidence to bring the entire family to Donsol as our summer holiday. It was the end of the "Butanding" Season, and there was a raging typhoon around the area at the time we arrived in this fishing town of Donsol.

A Long Drive to the Southernmost Province of Luzon"

Leaving Makati, Metro Manila as early as 5 am, we managed only 2 pitstops for a heavy breakfast and a very late lunch. Several pee stops and 10 hours of driving after, we reached Donsol, Sorsogon in the Bicol Region just before sunset. Bicol Region is the southernmost part of the major island of Luzon , famous for the Mayon Volcano with its near-perfect cone and Donsol, claimed to be the whale sharks capital of the world. The whale sharks pass through this migration highway and stay from as early as November till May. No one knows exactly where they go for their next plankton and krill meals, but some suspect they swim towards Mexico in
Twilight in Donsol, SorsogonTwilight in Donsol, SorsogonTwilight in Donsol, Sorsogon

We drove ten hours to get here from Makati, Metro Manila. An otherwise sleepy town if not for its whale sharks, fireflies and shrimp farmers.
South America where they stay until the next "Butanding Season" in Donsol starts in November. Confident of these huge animals' meatless appetite, I jumped into the waters that February as soon as my Butanding Interaction Officer (B.I.O.) Randy barked the orders to jump. Had an adrenaline high long after that interaction. I stayed in touch with Randy through cellphone messages even after that February encounter. I told him I'd be back with my family, which includes 2 grandchildren aged 10 and 13, for the same awesome experience.

The children were good travelers, sleeping nearly the whole 10-hour drive. We were just too happy to arrive in Donsol, with my entire family eager to meet their first whale shark. But that had to wait till the 3rd day. We wanted a leisurely day after a tiring day on the road. But we weren't too exhausted to miss 2 more activities in Donsol. One is the scheduled firefly tour. Some of us have done this in the past, but we wanted the not so little ones to have this magical experience too. The unscheduled, unplanned activity is to watch shrimp farming, unheard of till I found some photographs of shrimp
Ready to Shrimp FishReady to Shrimp FishReady to Shrimp Fish

Net spread out, Joel will now do the "sudsod" which literally means "dragging through or scraping the bottom", which is exactly what these shrimp farmers do to collect shrimps from the harvested algae from the sea bottom.
fishermen taken by a foreign photographer based in the Philippines.

The Shrimp Fishermen of Donsol

Another magical experience. It was near sunset when we met Joel, a shrimp fisherman. Joel shrimp fishes nearly every night from sunset (around 6pm here) till 9pm. All of 3 hours, and all for a harvest of only 3 kilos of shrimps "on a good night". Joel claims the average catch is more like 1-2 kilos, which they sell for only 150 pesos a kilo. (Note: In Manila, these shrimps are priced at P300-450 depending on the size) What a hard way to earn a living. Joel is one-eyed, and I was too afraid to ask how his one eye was lost. The shrimp fishermen of Donsol use the primitive way of catching shrimps, called "sudsod". Literally this means "dragging or scraping the bottom", which is exactly what they do with their triangular nets. Joel opened his net to drag it on the sea floor of knee-deep to waist-deep waters. They then "pick" the shrimps from the harvested algae and drop them on a container attached to their backs. God knows how many times they have to repeat this action to
Reunion with the ButandingsReunion with the ButandingsReunion with the Butandings

The whale sharks are called "butandings", which I hear comes from a not so pleasant expletive since fishermen then thought these whale sharks feed on the fish they catch.
collect 2-3 kilos of shrimps on 3 hours of shrimp fishing. Joel earned my respect for his industry and quiet dignity. It is not easy work. And there I was worrying about walking on "sinking sand" to get to Joel's fishing station. My photos from a P&S cam can't do justice to what we saw this magical night.

The Firefly Tour

The firefly tour was scheduled after dinner. Judging by how the heads of the little ones are nearly drooping from yesterday's long drive, we decided to do the firefly tour before dinner. Besides, there was a weather news broadcast about Typhoon Chedeng hitting the Bicol Region anytime soon.

No flashlights. No headlights. All's quiet on this evening with the fireflies. Kuya Emerson and Kuya Renante ( "Kuya" means older brother in our language) gave us a rundown on the fireflies of Donsol and how this fishing town has re-invented itself as a tourist destination not only for the more famous "butandings" but also for the fireflies found in the dark spaces along Donsol River. Well, they have yet to come up with another tour program with the Donsol shrimp fishermen. That should be
Look Ma, It's A Shark!Look Ma, It's A Shark!Look Ma, It's A Shark!

This whale shark showed off its dorsal fin for all to see. As soon as my girls jumped to swim with the butanding, it promptly dove into deeper waters bidding them goodbye.
another "hit" even for a local like me. One of my girls caught a firefly at least 3 times, and just as many times lost it. One of the kuyas caught one and showed us how a firefly looks. With flashlights on, we can't tell if it was a male or female firefly. (The girls blink their lights more often, while boys blink at 3 second intervals. ) 😊 There goes a female. Blink Blink Blink 😊

Reunion With the Butandings: The Sea Pets of Donsol

It was also a reunion of sorts with Randy, my Butanding Interaction Officer or B.I.O. last February. This time around, I asked for a 2nd B.I.O. so my 2 grandchildren can jump simultaneously with their 2 "kuyas".

The gentle giants didn't let us down. The 1st jump for the apos (plus 1 of my girls) was a hurried one. No chance for dear Martin, my 10 year-old apo, to change his mind. The minute the spotters alerted Kuya Bong and Kuya Randy that a butanding lurks beneath the waters near our boat, they ordered them little ones to jump with them. Oh, I was so proud of them!
What A Show-Off!What A Show-Off!What A Show-Off!

This whale shark eluded all the whale shark "hunters", but we could see its shadow from our boat.
No hesitation. No second thoughts. They jumped in tandem with their BIO kuyas, and promptly raised their thumbs up shortly after seeing the whale shark which Martin described as "as big as a Honda City car". Not exactly huge. But its size is enough to get these kids all smiling and proud of their experience. You bet it was the start of non-stop chatter from this excitable 10 y.o. till he grew tired and fell nearly asleep on the boat.

The duo of these kids' mom and auntie was next. They made 2 jumps, without success. The first time, the butanding even displayed its dorsal fin for all to see. I was so excited I wanted to push anyone in front of me just to get a good shot. The second time around, they were just around 15 meters from the butanding whose shadow we can actually see from the boat. Oh, the frustration for these 2 ladies! The 3rd time around, and because the kids are so eager to have their turn, the BIOs allowed the 2 kids to jump with the 2 adults. Guess what. These butandings must have sensed the presence of my 2 apos
A Lovely Morning to Meet Our ButandingsA Lovely Morning to Meet Our ButandingsA Lovely Morning to Meet Our Butandings

Majestic Mayon Volcano in the background. Who would have thought that a day after this, they declared Typhoon Signal #2 in Donsol and other parts of Bicol Region?
that this 10 meter whale shark stayed with their new little friends for a while. I was beside myself on the boat, taking photos, when I saw them raise their thumbs up a second time. Happiness.

The B&B where we stayed packed a picnic brunch for us. No one wanted to eat. Or can't. Too excited. Adrenaline pumping high. Me? I had this ill-timed eye infection that I stayed on the boat the whole time, snapping photos in between coffee and sandwiches shared with the boat crew. Though I've "met" the butandings just a couple of months back, I wouldn't mind interacting with them again. But the glee I saw on the faces of them little ones and my girls are priceless. Empty stomachs, yet excited over this awesome animal experience. Too excited that 13 y.o. Patricia was swimming away from the pack, and without a life buoy at that! Enough to send her aunt into near-panic mode. But this grandma was watching the whole time. So did the 2 BIOs, Kuya Randy and Kuya Bong. We all knew that in glee, we sometimes make silly moves. But not that silly for my swimmer apo. Patricia , and
The Cheerful Shrimp FarmerThe Cheerful Shrimp FarmerThe Cheerful Shrimp Farmer

3 hours in knee to waist deep waters, repeating a scraping/dragging activity just to earn US$10 on a good night's harvest. You just have to respect these fishermen.
her brother Martin, would likely not forget this experience for a very, very long time. :-)

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


Shrimp Fishing @TwilightShrimp Fishing @Twilight
Shrimp Fishing @Twilight

Like an artist painted the sky. Lovely!
All Done for the Night for JoelAll Done for the Night for Joel
All Done for the Night for Joel

I dare not ask how he lost his one eye. I only know Joel earned my respect this lovely night. I really hope more tourists searching for Butandings will also seek out the shrimp fishermen.
Firefly: male or female?Firefly: male or female?
Firefly: male or female?

The females blink nearly non-stop. The males blink at 3 second-intervals. Hmmmm.
We passed this procession along the way.We passed this procession along the way.
We passed this procession along the way.

Kids dancing to a beat. One of them holding a small religious statue.
Hi there!Hi there!
Hi there!

Guess who came to say hello. A day after we went, I heard there were no more sightings. Must be the typhoon. Besides, butanding season officially ends in May.
The Spotters of DonsolThe Spotters of Donsol
The Spotters of Donsol

They used to be whale shark hunters. Now they earn a decent living as butanding spotters. They spot them so many meters away, ready to alert our BIOs and us to jump off the boat.
Losing Hope, But Not For LongLosing Hope, But Not For Long
Losing Hope, But Not For Long

For a while there, we thought the adults won't meet their whale sharks. Nearly 3 hours on the boat, a few unsuccessful jumps/dives, no butanding.
Ready to JumpReady to Jump
Ready to Jump

Ten year old Martin looks like he is not breathing here as he gets ready to jump. :))
Guess who is swimming away!Guess who is swimming away!
Guess who is swimming away!

Delighted with her first Butanding sighting, this 13 year old was found swimming away from the pack. Looks like I have good company when I do my annual pilgrimage here.
Happy Martin!Happy Martin!
Happy Martin!

All of 10 years. Too happy to meet his 1st Butanding friend.
Everybody Happy!Everybody Happy!
Everybody Happy!

Some had 3, others had 2 butanding sightings. But it only takes one to make it an awesome animal experience. The lucky ones!

2nd June 2011

Another great one!
I've got to get to the Philippines.
2nd June 2011
Firefly: male or female?

i've heard of that trivia too. i watched a firefly show in Palawan too where we were taken in the middle of a lake by a boat. it was all pitch black and then we saw those fireflies just lit up while dancing in the sky. it was indeed a great experience. did you happen to have that firefly tour in Palawan as well?
3rd June 2011

Firefly Tour
i had the firefly tours in Bohol, and then now in Donsol. But not in Palawan. Magical, even a 2nd time around. The kids said they were like Christmas trees with blinking lights!
3rd June 2011

I may just be meeting one of our TravelBloggers, arriving today from malaysia. Come, Dave and Mary Jo!
3rd June 2011

tita lili, this experience is so exciting, hope to be able to see that someday. :)
8th June 2011

Another awesome blog
Youve convinced me I NEED to go to the Phillipines Liliram - arent fireflies just awesome? Like mother natures little elusive fireworks.
13th June 2011
Twilight in Donsol, Sorsogon

Oh My!
What a fantastic picture. Is it really that beautiful of a daybreak?
13th June 2011

Yes, it was magical!
Only had a point and shoot camera, but I can't seem to do anything wrong with my cam. Not me, I know. It's simply magical out there.
2nd November 2011
Twilight in Donsol, Sorsogon

Found it!
Hi Lili, This photo came up on the front page some time ago - but by the time I got around it commenting on it, it had moved on. Just saw it there again now - love it!

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