“Ma’am, sir,” our Butanding Interaction Officer, Manong Henry, addressed us slowly, choosing his words carefully,”Gaya ho ng sabi namin kanina, wala pong kasiguruhan na makakakita tayo ng butanding ngayon. [Just as we had told you earlier, we cannot guarantee seeing whalesharks today]”
It was nearly lunch time. The sun was boring down on us, a group of nine on a boat bobbing off the coast of Donsol in Sorsogon. The ocean breeze was making me sleepy, and, even as our last meal was nearly four hours ago, I wasn’t feeling hungry at all. Or maybe I was, but the hunger wasn’t nearly as bad as how my heart had felt that moment, hearing the words come out of our guide’s mouth.
Mt. Mayon was—as it has been for the past 24 hours—visible from one side of the horizon. Boy was she really beautiful, not to mention incredibly showy at that time. I remember with disbelief how lucky we had been when, 24 hours earlier, we saw her in full regalia from above the clouds. I, along with my companions, considered it a good omen for our trip.And I refused to believe that our luck would run out—just like that.—not this time, when we had traveled all the way from Baguio to Bicol (DARNIT!) and drove to Sorsogon to be on this boat at this time of the day, only to find out WE MIGHT NOT BE SEEING A SINGLE FREAKING WHALESHARK IN THE WATERS AFTER ALL.
“Kung okay lang po sa inyo, babalik na po tayo, [If it’s okay with you, we’ll now head back to shore]” Manong Henry said, even more slowly this time, as if to gauge whether any of us was about to go ballistic and blame him for NOT SEEING A SINGLE FREAKING WHALESHARK IN THE WATERS THAT DAY.
Resigned to our fate, I managed to heave my head to a nod while looking at his direction. He did look sincerely apologetic, although I’m sure we were just one of the many groups he had to say that to, especially this summer season.
Months before heading for Donsol, we had been reading accounts about a steep decline in whaleshark sightings this year. Some people I know who had gone there saw nothing. Ten straight days without whalesharks. One day, one whaleshark.
Then the drought begins again.
I was disheartened by the news, and so I started hatching Plan B: if there were no whaleshark sightings the day before our schedule, we would not go for it.After all, we were paying Php4,000 for that three-hour boat trip alone. Letting go of that much money and going home empty-handed was something I wasn’t willing to have.
We knew too well though that seeing whalesharks in the wild works pretty much like the lottery—you can’t win if you don’t gamble.
The odds resetting every single day is a double-edged sword too—seeing one today is no guarantee for seeing another the next.
And so we decided to go for it.
A few hours before, Manong Henry was telling us stories about past groups he had guided for the whaleshark interaction tour.
“I had one foreign guest who stayed here for a week. We went out into the waters every single day. No whaleshark. The day of his flight, right after he had left, one whaleshark appeared.”
I asked him why he thought the sightings have dwindled.
“Ang butanding kasi, ‘pag walang makain, hindi umaakyat yan,[Whalesharks don’t surface if they don’t have anything to eat in the waters.]” he said.
Another local I had asked the day previously said, “Kapag sobrang init ng panahon, sa baba lang ang mga butanding. [If the weather gets too hot, whalesharks will remain in the deeper parts of the seas]”
According to this and this, climate change is indirectly responsible for the changing migration patterns of whalesharks in Donsol. The mangroves along Donsol River—which opens up to the Donsol coast—is responsible for feeding the plankton which the butandings consume for food, the very reason they come to Donsol in the first place.
Warmer weather due to climate change may mean less food, and therefore, less whalesharks, or sometimes none at all.
Butandings have not always enjoyed such reverence, at least not among the locals of Donsol, including Manong Henry.
“I was a fisherman before. We hated the butanding because it was eating what was supposed to be our catch. We considered it our competitor.”
Donsol’s waters are rich in krill, among others, which whalesharks feed on. Filter feeders, whalesharks eat only plankton through their long, thin mouths. While some locals still fish for a living, a huge chunk of the local men get their livelihood from Donsol’s whaleshark tourism:
The BIO—Butanding Interaction Officer—leads the pack of local guides in a single whaleshark interaction tour. Local men train for certifications under the local tourism office. They usually start as boat crew, then get ‘promoted’ to boat captain. The next higher position belongs to the Spotter, who has to undergo a visual competency test to get certified—he has to be able to spot a whaleshark from a 200-meter (yes, meter!) radius. For us, he has probably the hardest job of all—the Spotter has to stand on top of the boat the entire tour to, of course, do his job. That’s like free skin cancer right there. But the pay, according to Manong Henry, who started as boat crew himself, was way better.
About an hour after we set off, and while everyone was still in a cheery mood, Manong Henry proposed to take us snorkeling at one side of the coast. We remember him telling us before this that the group he handled the previous day was snorkeling on this same spot when a whaleshark appeared on the opposite coast, and that, though they attempted to catch up, they ended up empty-handed because they were too far off.
We told him our concerns, but he assured us that, apart from the corals being ‘maganda’, they will remain alert for any sightings while we swim.Of course, we knew he was doing this as an early consolation should we end up like the group before us.
At least we were able to snorkel. Nabasa man lang kami ng tubig.
Whatever. It turns out, the corals were a disappointment. Or maybe they were indeed beautiful, only that the water had been too murky to allow us a good enough view.
That said, I was happy to be in the water again.At least I was able to snorkel.
Fifteen minutes came and went and our outrigger boat noisily made its way back to we-don’t-know-exactly-where. We could squint through a handful of other boats, but certainly not the 30 or so we heard would usually flock to a single whaleshark these days.
“Pag nakakita ng butanding ngayon, parang may pyesta dito. Lahat ng bangka magpupuntahan doon, [Because of fewer whaleshark sightings of late, boats would flock to one whaleshark and make the scene look straight out of a boat festival]” Manong Henry said.
It was, again, one of those double-edged swords—once you see a whaleshark, would you deny your guests the chance to see it? But then again, 30 boats zooming through the waters meant 30 noisy engines ganging up on a lone (albeit big) fish.
I could understand the sentiment of others who see this as unsustainable, as this can eventually scare all whalesharks from Donsol and kill off the town’s lucrative tourism industry—and the livelihood of Manong Henry and hundreds others. But what the heck was the point of all this if we don’t get to see a whaleshark when it’s already there?
The air was silent save for the drone of our boat’s engine. Each one of us seemed to drown in our own thoughts as our boat finally swerved to face Mayon and head back to land.
There was a whaleshark.
THERE WAS A FREAKING WHALESHARK. Everyone in the boat, except I and my friends, was in a frenzy, shouting words we could not understand.
SO THAT’s how it felt to be stupefied.
Everything followed in a rush. Trembling hands trying to put a fin into an unfeeling foot—TWICE (why is it ALWAYS so difficult to put them on?!?!). Gingerly putting on mask and snorkel, finding it too loose, removing it again to tighten, putting it back to find out it’s too tight.
I was barely paying attention to my companions either. I might have fired fifty thousand cuss words the whole time and not have noticed or remembered any. For some reason, I found us all sitting on the edge of the boat, a few seconds—or minutes—afterward, waiting.
No less than 20 boatloads of tourists so close to one another, spotters and BIOs and boatmen shouting directions here and there. We were still on the right side of the boat’s bow, waiting for our BIO’s go signal, ready to plunge into the waters at any moment’s notice.
“OTHER SIIIIDE!” Manong Henry shouted, pointing to the other side of the bow.
WHAT?!?! Unthinking, we scrambled to get our finned feet to the opposite side of the bow and resume position. How we ever managed to do that is beyond my understanding and recollection. To my friends who I may have hit in my haste to get my webbed feet out and into the opposite side, I am DEEPLY sorry and please trust that I was not in my proper senses then (and neither were you, so quit it).
We were not tailing the whaleshark; our boat crew was anticipating the fish’s path and going way ahead, so that by the time we are in the waters, the butanding will be passing by before us. In short, they designed our route so that the whaleshark will come to us instead of us chasing after it.
He jumped first into the water, and, senses still numb, I plunged.
Our boat was moving away. Manong Henry and my friends B and L were tailing him. Owen and J were behind me, disoriented for a moment before swimming forward.
I was like a robot on voice command. I shoved my head down, thankful in retrospect that my mask and snorkel were there (my friend L recalled being so caught up in the rush of things and forgetting to put on her mask when Manong Henry told us to look down).
Through the murky, blue-green water, an enormous grayish body specked in white was moving slowly right in front me. I was probably less than three feet from it, and it might have been as large as our boat, but I wouldn’t have cared any more about dimensions than distances at that time. My breath hitched in my throat as the giant glided past me. I could only mutter two words, snorkel still in my mouth—HOLY SHI*.
My heart was in awe.