Close Encounter

After breakfast we headed back to the tourist office for one more shot at a whale shark before leaving Donsol, the most likely place to see them in all of the Philippines. The ocean was as smooth as glass and there weren’t many clouds; as both conditions are conducive to spotting the large beasts from above water we allowed ourselves to be a little more hopeful. We got out on the boat earlier too, this time accompanied by a solo Russian with little English and 3 Israelis of typical demeanor. As we headed out to deeper waters even I could spot the many fish skirting along the calm surface like skipped rocks. Sean said most did so to avoid predators but I think I did see one true flying fish propelled with specialized fins. Aside from that there wasn’t much action and I succumbed to my overwhelming narcoleptic tendencies once again.

Waking to the engine at full throttle, I realized that we, along with every other Bangka boat on the horizon, were racing to where a whale shark must have been sighted. With great excitement we prepared to get in the water, but to our disappointment it was a false alarm as the shark had disappeared to deeper depths by the time we reached its location. The collection of about 8 boats looking for sharks that day dispersed, slowly patrolling the nearby area waiting for the whale shark to resurface. Before long the throttle was open again and as we donned our snorkel gear we realized this time was the real deal. We all sat on the narrow deck and on the guides command we grabbed the bamboo bar in front of us, swinging far enough away from the boat to avoid its propeller as it passed us. Every other tourist on every other boat had done the exact same thing and amongst the chaotic sea of madly scrambling limbs I recalled watching re-enactments of Normandy landings on TV. Flustered from the chaos and realizing that there was an enormous, unseen shark in the vicinity I forgot to put my snorkel in my mouth and when I finally managed that I found myself frantically hyperventilating. The water was thick with plankton making visibility incredibly poor, and I could see nothing but clouds of bubbles created by the dozens of flailing bodies. Eventually the mad dash of all the snorkelers which I had been caught up in slowed down, transforming to civilized people happily bobbing in the water. Then I heard Sean discussing how amazing the whale shark had been with the guide and realized with great despair that somehow I had been the only one to completely miss the 10 m shark that was right below us! I boarded the boat with huge disappointment, as I had been dreaming of encountering a whale shark before our first plane tickets were even booked.

Back on board, I learned Sean had looked down into the water below to see the white dots of the shark and its dorsal fin directly below. He swam as hard as his legs would let him, but watched the huge tail disappear into the murky water several meters ahead. I was really happy he had seen it, and in a streak of luck just as he finished his story the engine roared to full capacity once more, signalling I might have another chance to see the rare beast. With even less time we prepared in a flurry and I looked back from the deck to see Sean still sitting in the boat, motioning that his snorkel had broken at the worst time possible. I felt awful for him but it was now or never so I jumped in the water with the rest. As soon as I surfaced I saw our guide lock eyes on me, motioning me to swim over to him through the ensuing chaos. He must have overheard that I hadn’t seen the shark the first time, as he grabbed my hand and instructed me where to look. Much more collected than I had been on the first go, I looked down into the green murk for only a moment before the massive face of a whale shark materialized directly in front of me. Its enormous mouth was closed and it was so close I could clearly make out its small eyes on the sides of its head. The guide had let go of my hand and the whale shark kept steadily advancing; before I could react I was floating so closely above its head I could have reached my hand down and touched it. Instinctively sucking in my stomach to avoid the massive, moving beast, I could see the spectacular pattern of white and blue markings with staggering clarity. As the behemoth continued to pass below me I frantically lifted my head out of the water, knowing I was too close to begin with and wanting desperately to put some distance between myself and the shark before its dangerous tail reached me. Sean had just told me on the boat that morning that the whale sharks tales are so powerful they’re known to break ribs unintentionally when people get too close. Of course all I found was the insane sea of backsides and the crush of people were pushing against me to get closer to the shark, leaving me no room to manoeuvre in any direction. I returned my face to the water in time to see the ridges of the sharks back merging closer together until its tail was directly below me. The whale sharks tail is characteristically shark-shaped, rising up higher than its body and so close to me I could have easily grabbed it. For a split second that felt like a day it held perfectly still before whipping away from me to the right and the whole incredible encounter was over in maybe a minute.

Completely in awe I rejoined Sean on the boat, regretting terribly that he hadn’t been with me. We waited with great hope that there would be a final sighting of the shark to give Sean a second chance, but our time was up and the crew headed back to shore. Sean had gotten a flash of the shark on video and in the great hurry before I jumped in the second time I didn’t bring the camera, but I’m almost glad it didn’t interfere with the experience. I realized all the “strict” rules regarding responsible shark interactions that I had been naively impressed by were for nothing but show, and seeing how things are really done I’m surprised they haven’t had a serious injury yet. I feel bad for the whale sharks facing such constant harassment and a little guilty at partaking in it despite how breathtaking it was.

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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.