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Whaleshark (Butanding) Interactions at Donsol – A review of Day 1 April 28, 2010

Last April 2010, my husband and I went to Donsol to celebrate our decade anniversary. We booked a flight last February 2010 to Legazpi to reach Donsol. Since it was just about less than 2 months before our expected arrival, we were not able to look for seat sales. The round-trip airfare cost us about 5k for two (excluding the air-fare tax). We planned our stay in line with the butanding festival which runs from April 26 until April 30.

Day 1: We left Manila at 6 am and arrived in Legazpi 10 minutes before 7 am. Before descending, we were surprised to note that you will have a very good view of the Mount Mayon from the plane. Just a trivia, Mount Mayon is one of the best examples of a perfect cone volcano. It is still active and we were told that if you took pictures of it at night, you can still see the recent lava flows on the side of the mountain to be a glowing red. Thus, it is best to get your cameras ready if you want to get a shot of this astounding volcano while in the air and capture the landscape below as well. We were also told that taking a picture of the Mayon is better when done early morning because there is not much clouds blocking the Mayon. We also took pictures of the volcano after stepping down the plane.

At about 7:30: We were the last to leave the airport due to some preparations we have to do and it was a lucky coincidence that we met our driver. He was supposed to pick-up somebody but because this person did not arrrive so nobody will pay for his return trip. Thus, he looked for visitors who are going to Donsol and offered his van for P200 each or about P400 for the two of us. If we opted to commute we will be paying about P230 (50 trike, van 65 x 2, trike 50). So my husband and I decided its already a bargain to pay a few more bucks for our convenience especially we have several bags to carry with our snorkeling gears.

Arriving at our hotel, we readily checked in at Vitton. We were brought to our rooms where we changed to get ready for our Butanding interaction. The Butanding Ecotourism office is just a stone-throw away from Vitton. Again, it’s convenient if you are hoping for less stress to reserve a boat right away, get more zzzz’s and lessen your carbon emissions since you’ll be just walking to and fro places. We heard our hotel is about P500 more expensive than other hotels which I think is a popular notion because everytime we mention our hotel the people’s first reaction was that it was pricey. However, for the fast service and polite and courteous staff around I considered the P500 to be my tip. Still, if we could find a better place which is cheaper and with the same service we will definitely consider it.

By 10:00 we were at the Butanding office where we paid for our registration (P100 for locals and P300 for foreigners). A boat costs P3500 which will accommodate 6 guests, include a BIO, a spotter and another boat man who will help you look for whalesharks in the span of 3 hours. You can reserve a boat and look for people who will join you or you can just leave your registration forms to the friendly attendants and when there are enough people in the boat you guys can pool in your money and pay for the boat. On the first day, we were joined by a French couple and a Dutch backpacker, Tays.

Our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) helped us interact with 5 whalesharks. For this trip, the last butanding encounter was the best one because it was the biggest and closest we have seen that day. In comparison, an average sized butanding is about as big as a bus with eyes as big as your closed fists. Butandings will have its characteristic spots and stripes and blue-gray color. Popularly known as the gentle giants, these whalesharks eat planktons and small fish only.

Hungry and extremely tired after 2 and a half hours of looking and swimming after Butandings, we went back at Vitton to grab lunch as it is the closest restaurant to us. The resto is run by Aling Nem’s who is the sister of Dr. Alcantara, owner of Vitton. We ordered half a chicken and a bowl of garlic rice good for 4 people, two bananas and 2 12 ounce of softdrinks. Our bill was about P350. Because the serving is big we had take-out chicken leftovers after our meal. Now full but still very exhausted, my hubby and I changed and slept the rest of the afternoon.

At about 5:30 pm, we woke up to get ready for some firefly encounters. We were told by Annie, manager in Vitton, that we should go to the “tulay” or bridge where there will be boats to take us to the fireflies. A boat will cost P1250 and can accommodate 5 people. We hired a trike to get there (which cost us P100) to bring us to the tulay and back to our hotel. When we arrived there were a group of people already reserving a boat. They were just waiting for two more people to complete a group of 10. We left in two boats and our boatman and tourguide, Manong Earl, brought us to a Talisay Tree which is also known as a Poison Almond Tree. According to Mang Earl, fireflies choose this tree particularly to nest and mate. We left the bridge at about 6 pm and the sun was still up by the time. When we arrived at the site it was already dark. However, thanks or no thanks to the almost full moon that time it wasn’t pitch dark. On your way to the fireflies is already an experience. You can see different birds, hear different animal sounds like gecko’s and bird calls, see bats and there are also locals catching shrimps. We heard that a serving of those fresh seafood will cost you about P10 bucks or not more than 2 dollars and its already dinner. Unfortunately, our tour guide is not familiar how it works and we were not able to partake of how this freshly prepared meal can be delivered to us.

Like I said no thanks to the bright light from the moon, we couldn’t see the fireflies too much. Only when you go under the tree where there is shade that you can really see hundreds if not thousands of fireflies doing their synchronized blinking. They really look like Christmas lights. We were fortunate to have one firefly visit us but to get a picture we would have to use the flash of our camera. This is not advisable because it will scare the fireflies away. Another thing not recommended is to smoke or cook while you are near the trees because it will drive the insects away as well. And fireflies being insects will move away as well unless what you want to visit you are just plain flies.

At about 7:30 we decided to leave the first site. We stopped by two or more trees to get more upclose and personal. However, there is no hope for a picture with lighted fireflies as it was too dark and our boat is not stable to be able to get a good focus of the area. It is one of those experiences you just have to engrave in your memory that in one night of your life you were surrounded by these amazing creatures in an ethereal place where nature sounds and soft breeze covered you.

At about 830 we were back for dinner. My husband and I did not feel so hungry so we just decided to eat our leftover chicken and order a big bowl of garlic rice. The staff at Manang Nem’s kitchen kindly reheated our dinner. For the bowl of garlic rice, 2 12 ounce softdrinks and 2 bananas we spent about P180. While dining, our friends from WWF visited. They informed us that there are about 129 photo-id’d whalesharks this season which is smaller than the 160+ sharks last season. They are worried that the intense commercialization of the place might drive the butandings away. Hence, their information campaign are still ongoing. I really hope that for the sake of these gentle giants there are more efforts to protect these amazing creatures. I will tell you more about it when I write our Day 2 experience.

We spent the night eating our simple dinner and after that my husband decided to look for ghost crabs. Being a marine biologist, he is really the expert on a lot of sea creatures. He had fun throwing them bits of rice and banana peels. Apparently crabs, don’t like garlic and preferred the sweet banana. There is no internet or television in the area. Not that the hotel does not want to provide it but because there is no cell sites or signal for Internet and cable television. You can opt to stay at the Morena bar for some drinks before you retire and just chat with your friends or better yet find new friends if you are still not sleepy. As for us, we have an early day tomorrow for our last butanding interaction for this trip so we decided to get some zzzz’s early.