With Omar Nepomuceno, our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO)
One of the more unforgettable experiences of the kids' young lives will be the whale shark adventure we did a couple of years ago. I had been hearing about the butandings in Donsol for some time but just never got around to planning a trip there. Then one day in the middle of summer, my take-charge and adventurous friend, Cecilia, volunteered make all the plans for the group as long as we could make ourselves free at a moment's notice. Does it get better than that? We were in.
photo from here
We took Cebu Pacific to Legaspi City in Sorsogon, part of the Bicol region. Donsol is 50 km away from Legaspi city through a nicely paved and scenic road. making the road trip quite enjoyable.
A few friends who did this trip in the past stayed right in Donsol at the Vitton Resort. Since this was such a last minute trip and Vitton was booked up, we had to settle on staying in Legaspi City, and then driving to Donsol first thing the next day. This worked out even better because it allowed us to explore the historic and beautiful sights of Legaspi City (Cagsawa Church, Hoyop-hoyopan cave, Mayon volcano, etc) on the day we arrived and also on the day we left. Look at Days 2, 3 and 4 on this site, -- it's exactly what we did.
The butanding encounter begins at the butanding center with a video briefing. Some guidelines of a butanding expedition include things like: do not touch or ride the butandings, only one boat can trail an animal at any given time, only six people per boat, and most importantly, a BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) must accompany each boat that goes out. I was pleased that there was some sort of order to these things. Apparently it's regulated by the Department of Tourism.
They have fins for rent here!
After the briefing, we boarded the banca with our BIO. You can rent snorkeling equipment there, but we came prepared and brought all our own gear from Manila--mask, snorkel, fins, and small life vests for the kids.
Our BIO, Omar Nepomuceno, came highly recommended by a friend Denise, who at that time was doing some work for the Department of Tourism in that general area. Omar was very not only extremely knowledgeable about the butandings and the area, his service as a BIO was exceptional. He is a great resource--he entertained the kids with educational shark info (with matching shark model!), was very helpful and strong in the water, alert and quick to respond to any safety concern.
Aboard the banca, Omar told us what we were going to do...
Omar: Okay, ganito--when the spotter sees the butanding, we'll position the boat so that when we jump in, we are right in front of the shark. When I say "jump", jump in, okay?
Cecilia: Yes, the kids are all swimmers.
Omar: But jump in right away ok?
Liza: Yup got it!
Omar: Jump kaagad okay? No waiting...
Me (nakukulitan na): sus naman we're all divers. No problem!
After two missed sightings because of delay getting into the water, we finally figured out that when Omar said "jump", he really meant jump in NOW, and all together! (Omar's thought bubble--"sabi ko nga ba...") He told us that divers really had that problem in the beginning precisely because they are divers--they check their mask, look at each other, and then jump in, look at each other again, and in the process, miss the shark altogether! Guilty, guilty and guilty!
We quickly got up to speed and ended up positioning ourselves with legs hanging over the side of the boat ready to jump within a second's notice. After awhile we were experts at jumping in all together, and also knew exactly where to train our sights. As soon as we hit the water, that gigantic creature would be just two meters below our fins! After it swam under us, the more energetic ones would turn and swim after the shark and keep pace for a couple of minutes.
(We pause now for a safety commercial) Because of sheer excitement, there is the danger of being so engrossed swimming after the butanding that you could get cramps! Lifevests are a must)
And what were we seeing under the water?
Picture from here
They are called the "gentle giants of the sea". They move very slowly, never any sudden movements.
From the June 2005 issue of Mabuhay inflight magazine
We were in the banca for about 3 hours. The first hour was spent cruising-- just chatting with each other while Omar and the "spotter" tried to spot the whale sharks. Then the next two hours were filled with frenzied activity of jumping into the water, swimming after the sharks, getting back into the banca and then sharing with each other in equally frenzied detail what we saw down there and what we felt.
After the 6th plunge (eight actually counting the two times we jumped in late), we were tired of jumping in--well, it's really the getting back up into the boat that was tiring. We encountered and interacted with six butandings that morning!
We had a simple lunch at Vitton, then lazed around until dusk. We were going to the Donsol river to see the fireflies as soon as it got dark. Omar also arranged this activity for us.
Our van brought us to the place where we would board bancas for the river trip. The sun had just set and it was going to get dark very quickly.
Off to see the fireflies!
By the time we got to the mouth of the river, it was already quite dark. We found out that Omar was the one who pioneered bringing tourists to the Donsol river to see this wonder of nature. Other adventures of his, in and out of Donsol, were amazing and I remember at one point thinking that this guy's life can be made into a movie! His passion and enthusiasm for Donsol as well as his deep respect for the environment is admirable. Omar is a big asset to Philippine tourism.
Fireflies cluster around trees creating interesting patterns of light down the river. Photo from here
We spent a couple of hours in darkness at the river. The firefly tour was a a nice ending to an activity-filled day. We headed back to Legaspi city thrilled to have experienced the beauty of Donsol. The next day we were going to continue exploring the pictureque city that is home to Mayon volcano, before eventually heading back to Manila.