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Published: August 20th 2007
Sooner or later every journey will end, like everything in life - so the last destination of my Southeast Asia journey were the Philippines. In the past I used to make fun about the Philippines, so whenever friends asked me to visit them there, I was like "What? Philippines?! Hell, noooo way, that's somewhere in the middle of nowhere?!", and it actually is somewhere in the middle of nowhere - indeed!!! A bunch of countless big and small tropical islands, laying somewhere on the other side of this greenblue planet and surrounded by the greenblue water of the greenblue Pacific Ocean...
...but when I stumbled over an article saying that one can see whale sharks in Donsol, Southern Luzon, Philippines... I decided that it was time to fly over there and to find out what "the Middle of Nowhere" actually is like... so I headed east towards ... nowhere... - Manila -
I flew from Jakarta to Manila, arrived early in the morning and met Peter, Leslie and Mela for breakfast in Makati city, a fifteen minutes taxi-drive from the airport. Before I came to the Philippines several people had told me that this country is a kind
of strange and the people as well, but didn't tell me why. "You will see when you're there!" one of them said, so I was wondering what is so strange about the Philippines and Filipinos?
I have actually known some Filipinos but never really noticed something strange about them. Anyways, the first thing caught my attention were the Spanish names of the people here, so it's a kind of surprising to see someone apparently Asian sitting in front of you but with a name tag that says something like: I am Asian but my name is "Julio De Santa Domingo"! Well, the Philippines used to be Spanish colony but still it's somewhat odd, but then quite charming!
In addition most Filipinos speak more or less pretty fine English and after travelling in Myanmar and Indonesia that fact made travelling a way easier.
The breakfast was nice, we didn't have much time as I had to return to the airport for my onward flight to Legaspi around noon. But enough time for a chat and enough time for Peter to get me a miniature Jeepney as a souvenir. Thanks for that, I placed the jeepney on my bookshelf
Her majesty the whale shark
here in Hamburg!
At the airport I met up with Pierre, an old buddy of mine from Paris. He has been working in Singapore for several years and decided to join me on the third leg of my trip, as I didn't make it to Singapore. I met him at the Beijing Culture and Language Univeritsy in China back in 2000 and haven't seen him since his study in Berlin, a few years ago. So it was nice to see that bloke again.
Our originial plan was to meet up somewhere in Southeast Asia for some scuba-diving, like Southern Thailand, Indonesia or Cebu in the Philippines. But when I stumbled over the already mentioned article about "swimming with whale sharks" in Donsol, I immediately sent Pierre an e-mail saying: "Mate, forget Southern Thailand, forget Cebu... we are going to Donsol for some whale sharks!", so we decided to meet up in Manila, fly down to Legaspi and then to Donsol for the "gentle giants" - and that's what we did. - Donsol -
In 1998, this sleepy backwater town at the southern tip of Luzon, made the front page of one of the Philippine's biggest
Fisherman watching the sunset
newspapers when it reported some unique visitors: an unusual aggregation of "butandings" or whale sharks congregating in the muddy but plankton-rich waters of Donsol.
So whale shark spotting in Donsol became a word of mouth passed on to every tourist exploring the Philippines. As thousands of visitors arrive each season to swim and witness their friendly behaviour, the unknown town of Donsol, in which its economy was initially reliant to fishing and cottage industry alone, now benefits from higher revenue brought by the presence of these giant fish locally called "Butanding".
At first bewildered by the sudden influx of visitors, Donsol's government and residents quickly realized the gold mine in their hands and, they set up a community-based eco-tourism program with the WWF.
For getting to Donsol from the Legaspi airport, we shared a minbus with an Australian couple. The town of Donsol is 1,5 hrs drive from Legaspi and we got there around 8:00PM and checked into our ressort next to the beach! Well, beach ressort sounds like luxury and loads of tourists, but there was not much of luxury and maybe an handful other travellers. We stayed in a beach hut with communal showers outside
swimming with the whale shark
and loads of mosquitoes inside. The whole area along the sea was, despite of the whale sharks, still untouched and partly even backwatered with one small road. It kind of felt like "stranded at the end of the world."
While I was still trying hardly to find out why Filipinos are supposed to be strange, another charming fact caught my intention that besides of having Spanish names, some people have Spanish facial features as well, like the daughter of the owner who served us our dinner. Her name was Maria and to me she looked 99% Spanish and not Asian at all even though her parents looked totally Asian. So the Spanish have obviously not just left their names but their genes here as well, besides of some other things I guess.
I became a bit anxious when I read a note in the guestbook of the ressorts from someone who came just 2 days before us and wrote something like: "Nice place, friendly staff, kitchen is veeerrry slow (up to 2 hours for dinner)... nice sea BUT we haven't seen any butandings!!!" As we were on tight schedule, what should we do if we won't see whalesharks
The gentle giant
on the next day? Flying all the way to the Philippines for nothing but just a boat trip? What a horrible imagination! But we were lucky!
The following day was our big whale-shark day!
The whale shark (Rhincodon Typus) is the largest known fish and a true giant of the sea. It reaches 15m in length, and may reach 18m or more. Its weight can exceed 10 tons. The whale shark is usually a dark grey color with white/yellow spots covering the back of the animal. Its mouth is at the very front of the body, unlike most sharks whose mouths can be found under the head. This creature ranges all tropical waters, and infrequently strays into temperate ones. It is mainly solitary in nature, and, despite its impressive appearance, it is harmless to humans. Scuba divers and underwater swimmers have clambered unmolested over its body. The whale shark feeds chiefly on plankton, but also consumes sardines and anchovies.
These gentle giants arrive from as early as November but the official season starts from February and runs until end of May, where the sea of Donsol is at its clearest and calmest. Local tourism officials and professional
The gentle giant
a 7-8meter long one
divers have strict guidelines on proper whale shark watching intended to maintain safety and to defend the creatures from over exploitation.
After registering at the muncipal hall, we watched an instructional video on whale shark interaction "dos and don'ts" before being assigned to a "banca", a motorized local boat with outtriggers. Each group was accompanied by a spotter and a butanding interaction officer who was our guide.
Interestingly, some guides and spotters come from the ranks of former whale shark hunters, which explains why they are so good at spotting. And the former hunters earn more doing these tours than working as a fisherman.
Once everyone was onboard, the boat headed out to sea. The spotter stands high up on a small platform nailed to one of the masts, looking for the tell-tale shadow of the butanding feeding on the surface.
Heading out into the sea under the blazing sun and the glassy sea, I looked back towards the mainland to try to have a glimpse on Mayon Volcano dominating the landscape, but Mayon was hidden behind a dusty sky.
It did't take long before the spotter screamed "Butanding!" and our guide gave the order:
Here he comes
"People, get ready!!!" We put on our masks, fins and snorkels and as the boat came up along the behemoth, we slipped into the water to swim with the world's biggest fish, the gentle giant. But it's not that easy to actually swim with the butanding as some play hide & seek, disappearing after everyone gets into the water only to resurface later. So, the interaction can be as short as not seeing the whale shark at all or less than a minute or as long as an half hour, as some whale sharks are in no hurry to escape humans, who must seem like tiny birds to them.
We jumped into the water like a dozen times within the first 2 hours. I am not sure how many different whale sharks we saw, I am sure we have seen some of them twice or triple, but at least 4. A small one, 2 middle sized ones and a big one with about 10-12m length.
I had the luck to swim with the big one for almost 15-20min. It's an amazing feeling to be side by side with that giant, to see right into his huge mouth and
No, do not eat my fin!!!
eyes or to see his back-tail gracefully moving from side to side, the whale shark was so big that I hardly could see its dorsal fin from his tail section. The head and mouth were like an open car hood as they swim right next to you just below the waters surface, sucking in food. Ironically, the biggest fish in the ocean subsists on its smallest - plankton.
A magical encounter and worth the effort of flying all the way from Jakarta to the Philippines.
The sun was burning us all alive while we were snorkeling in the sea, backs facing up and unprotected to the sun... so Pierre and I ended up having terrible sunburns on our backs.
Pleased with what we have seen, we returned to our beach ressort and met a bunch of Americans working for the American embassy in Manila. Later in the evening we rented a boat for all of us to head into the sunset and then to the nearby Donsol-river for watching the fireflies at night! It was a bit chilly and not too impressive for me, but alone the boatride on the sea at sunset was worth it.
We actually planned to have some dives as well, but heard that the water was a kind of shallow with limited visibility. As people were not allowed to do scuba-diving in Donsol with the whale sharks, because scuba divers could disturb them (damn, how?), the only way to dive was to rent a boat at the local diving base and to get to some spots 1-2hours away from Donsol. But the 2 or 3 diving spots were a kind of difficult to dive. Like the "Manta Bowl", where Mantas suppose to gather, with extremely strong currents. The guy at the diving base told us that we have to jump off the boat and go straight down to 25m depths immediately where we would reach a rock that looks like a bowl but upside down (what would in my opinion rather make it look like a mushroom than a bowl), we would have to use some hooks which we have to ram into the rock, otherwise the extremely strong current would just take us away into the depths of the ocean... I didn't like the imagine of being taken away into the darkness of the ocean just because I missed to
Man watching the sunset
get that hook into that bowl or mushroom rock or just taken away by the current before I have reached that bowl in 25m depths at all... so I convinced Pierre to skip that adventure! I know that now and then I am a chicken! But rather a chicken, alive and kicking than an adventurer laying on the seaground with a fucking silly hook in my hand! ;-)
Anyways, as we have achieved our task, snorkeling with whale sharks, we decided to head back to Legaspi and Mount Mayon on the following day. - Legaspi -
Even the beautiful must belch from time to time. Mt. Mayon, whose name derives from the local word meaning "beautiful" has been violently spewing forth ash about every 10years since 1968. Mt. Mayon is for many scientists and experts the most beautiful valcano on this planet with what is widely haled as the world's most perfect cone!
I wished that I could climb Mt- Mayon but didn't. First I was on a tight schedule and second I was not in shape for conquering such a difficult volcano which would take at least 3 days. And frankly speaking, it would be
Boat at the shore
a shame if something as majestical as Mt. Mayon would be climbed by someone like me!
But Pierre and I ventured a bit into the countryside and had a walk to nearby villages on the food of the volcano. But that was the closest we got to Mayon! Maybe one day I wil come back and climb that volcano, but before that I have to show that I am worth and deserve to stand at the crater rim of such a beauty!
We had a relaxing time in Legaspi, a nice little town with some nice reastaurants and bars with good live music. For unknown reason taxi and tricycle drivers kept coming up to Pierre starting conversations like this: "Sir, you want a lady?! XXXX Pesos!"- NO!, "Ok ok, you can have a pretty lady for XXXX Pesos!" - NO, I don't want any ladies! , "Ok Sir, so you want boys?!" - Hell, no!!!
I couldn't help but to poke fun on Pierre saying something like: "Not that I mind, but there must be a reason why they always ask you and not me. Mate, I think you probably look like one of those horny white guys!"
To my surprise, Pierre wasn't really amused by my jokes! Well, I always knew that French have no sense for humor! The only things they have a sense for are probably cheese, baguettes and froglegs... :-)
Pierre and I flew back to Manila and split there as I had to fly back to Kuala Lumpur and he continued his trip in the Philippines for some few more days before heading back to Singapore. And just for the record and to whom it may concern, I haven't found any plausible reason why Filipinos supposed to be strange! :-) - The end of a journey -
So my journey was ending soon. I spent the last days in Kuala Lumpur doing nothing, just eating in Chinatown and sleeping. Pinky had unfortunately left for a short holiday in Southern Thailand and wasn't in town, so that she couldn't accompany me this time.
The last days of a journey are always a time of reflection, you know, you look back the timeline and try to reflect what you have seen, learned or what you have missed or failed to do. What people you have met along your way. Good and
Beach & Palms
I made this Southeast Asia trip as I wanted to close a chapter by visiting the last Southeast Asian countries which I haven't seen on my last trips - and I accomplished that task. Therefore, I felt good. Sadisfied. Had peace with myself.
I had finally hunted down that travel bug (see first entry), which had been bugging me for much too long. But then... travelling is like blood... and we travellers are like blutlusting vampires, always thirsting for more and more... fresh, sweet, seductive, inspiring new BLOOD...
The End of "Southeast Asia 2007"
---------------------------------------------- Next trip - East Africa: Kenya & Uganda
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