An Illuminating Experience in Donsol

Feeling like zombies from another painful all-nighter, we landed in the Manila airport. Our flight had been delayed due to an earthquake in the capital city but we still had a few hours to wait before boarding our second flight to Legazpi. As soon as we stepped off the small plane we could see Mt. Mayon, a perfectly conical volcano towering over the city. We then took a series of tricycles (motorbikes with a carriage supported by a third wheel mounted beside them, just like Hagrid’s flying version!) and jeepneys (American transport vehicles left over from WW2 and converted to a dominant mode of public transport) to the neighbouring town of Donsol. Needless to say we immediately crashed for a few hours of much-needed sleep as soon as we arrived.

After a day of catching up on sleep and our journals, we were ready to make our first attempt at observing a whale shark, the largest shark species alive even though its diet consists of plankton. Early in the morning we walked over to the neighbouring tourist office, where we were briefed with a video on the protocol of whale shark interactions set in place to protect the sharks from harassment and the viewers from injury. I found these rules impressive after realizing how absent stewardship values are in a lot of this part of the world; they included limiting snorkelers per shark to 6, boats per shark to 1, maintaining a distance of 3 m from the body and 4 m from the dangerous tail, and prohibition of scuba gear. Following the briefing we anxiously awaited for the arrival of the other 4 snorkelers who would share our boat, and Sean excitedly took some good pictures of hermit crabs. Finally we were able to board the Bangka boat with a pair of Dutch fellows and a couple of Colombia/Spanish descent living in Germany. We had three hours on the boat while crew members scouted for sharks from atop the roof, but unfortunately we didn’t see anything except some pretty scenery. Everyone on board had been excited at the sight of flying fish, but somehow I had been blind to all of them.

We had signed up for a firefly tour that evening so at 6 we took a relatively long tricycle ride through town, stopping at a dirt driveway in a more rural area. At the end of the road we found a small shack right on the Ogod river. The sun had already completely set so in the dark we boarded another Bangka boat with our guide Antop and an accompanying French tourist. The silence of the night was broken as the crew started the noisy motor and we headed down the still waters in search of fireflies. We saw a few in the trees during our 15 minute ride but they were nothing compared to the large swarm we stopped at. Up until then I had been admiring the thousands of stars above us, but the glowing mass of fireflies put them to shame. As I watched them mesmerized, Antop told us all kinds of facts about them he had learned from a WWF project in the area, like how they subsist on the worms that infest the mangrove trees. He got us to clap our hands which made the fireflies light up all at once in fear. They became more active as the night wore on, becoming ever brighter. Eventually the bugs glowed so brightly that they illuminated the leaves of the mangroves they hovered in, as if someone was shining a flashlight on the trees. Fully active, the flickers of each individual fly synched up, sending strips of darkness pulsing through the glowing swarm, like the Wave in a crowded hockey arena. When Antop caught 2 of the flies in his hands I involuntarily exclaimed in awe and to my delight I got to hold the next one he caught. Heading back up river we stopped to admire a couple other groups of fireflies, but none were as impressive as the largest one we had floated beneath for so long.

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