take two on bucolia: fireflies, whalesharks, and the journey that is in itself a story (part 1)

a week before holy wednesday, i popped by the ali mall bus station in cubao, in the hope that i was early enough to actually purchase a ticket that would get me to donsol, or at least, somewhere nearby, like legazpi. i was out of luck, as everyone else seemed to have better foresight than me, and had booked much much ahead of time. i then realized that don has connections with an owner of a common carrier that ferries people to the region, so i sent him a message. i said, very clearly, that i needed to get to legazpi. i may have misspelled the name of albay's capital city, but that did not admit of any other interpretation. don replied that same day that yes, i was booked for a trip on one of those buses with the less than 30 seats and the toilet, 9.30pm. he even said i'm getting seat C, which meant i was beside the window. my other friends all had tickets reaching all the way to sorsogon, but i could not join them in their 6pm trip as work will require me to be in the office till around 9pm on the eve of the onset of a long holy week.

so on wednesday, in which we were suffered to work till the late hours while most offices sent off their employees after lunch, i lugged along a 60 liter backpack, my deuter act lite 20, a yellow SM plastic bag filled with 2 liters of domecq, and a third bag containing my snorkeling gear. i showed up at the ali mall and immediately spotted don. he accompanied me to the station, and we located the peñafrancia bus that was to bring me to my destination, albeit 4 hours behind all my friends. they were scheduled to do the butanding interaction on thursday morning. i didn't fret since i'd done it before. what counted for me was being with them, and spending the long holiday in the pursuit of adventure.

don and i had to walk through a sea of people with all sizes of bags. all of them were headed somewhere south. and all of them, unlike me, had no reservations. don pointed me to my bus. on the window was the word naga, in bold, capital letters. i appreciated don's efforts to get me out of manila and down to bicol, but naga is still about 4 hours from donsol. i told him that i was supposed to go further south. "gusto mo bus papuntang legazpi?" he asked, and i nodded. "o sige, hanap kita." one look at the throng that gathered outside the buses, and i was almost scared to step out. every now and then, there would be small stampedes at the back of the station, as passengers would scamper and box out one another for available seats in several -- but still precious little -- additional trips. don assured me that there would be vans going to donsol from naga. "sure ka dyan ha!" i said, and settled into my seat. pretty soon, we left cubao. i called up rhyan to inform them of my location, and they said they were somewhere in batangas. i would've assumed that being 4 hours ahead of me would mean they'd already be in quezon, and i thought maybe rhyan was unfamiliar with the places in the south. i quickly fell asleep even as a martial arts film played.

in that 9 hour trip, the bus made several stops. in none of those stops did i even bother to rise from my seat, not to answer a call of nature, not to stretch my legs, not to eat. i had a bagful of groceries with me, and i chewed on a muffin when i got hungry, or gulped on a huge bottle of lipton red tea which promised to contain a lot of anti-oxidants. in what promised to be a long, stressful trip, i needed all of that and more. at around a quarter to 7am, we arrived in naga. i quickly looked for the van to donsol, but found none. i wanted to wring don's fat neck. his assurances, like many of his tall declarations, weren't true at all! so i asked what i could possibly do to get there, and although there were some doubtful characters there, i was told i could get a van to daraga, and ride a jeep to donsol. i did that. i did not at all appreciate the idea of making several transfers, not with more than 4 bags! just as my van left naga, niel called me up. he reported that they were in iriga, which is also in camarines sur, about an hour away from where i was.

i found it to be unbelievable, but then again, i wasn't surprised. my bus driver was possessed by the devil. he drove fast and with great risk: there were times i'd stay awake when the bus jiggled, and i would find us on the other side of the road. maybe no one was headed for manila at the time, because this happened as long as 20 minutes at any given time. when we passed quezon and entered the bicol region, i noticed how bad many sections of the road was along quirino highway that dissected camarines norte and camarines sur. i couldn't help but feel that poor quality cement was used to build these roads, and the countless cracks are doubtless proof of the corruption of the local officials there. i eventually reached daraga around after 9am, and there, i transferred onto a jeep headed for donsol. i toploaded along with 3 french girls because there was no longer any room inside. despite the impossible heat, i wore my yellow TNF jacket for fear of burning. besides, provincial scenes, with people waving uncontrollably at these 3 white girls, are incomparable up there.

we whizzed through small towns between daraga and donsol, circling pilar before turning to the whale shark capital of the philippines, and probably of the world. along the way, i counted at least 10 signs congratulating people for passing the bar exams. i never had a banner of my own back in 2003. at the market in donsol town, i got down, and along with the 3 girls, took a tricycle to the tourism office. i got off at a place somewhere between amor resort and the tourism office, where we'd be setting up camp for the night. when i arrived, they told me i arrived just about 15 minutes behind them. from there, we walked to one of the resorts, ordered lunch, and i organized a team to market our dinner. roger and monica, two of our guests, agreed to go with me.

i decided to prepare pork adobo, fish sinigang, and buttered vegetables. when we got back, i left the fish sinigang with the caretakers of the place, and soaked the pork in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, pepper, bay leaves, garlic, and herbs. at 5.30, 4 small boats arrived to take us to the river for a dazzling display of lights. the river that empties out into donsol bay is lined with dense mangroves and many rotting trees. it is also one of 3 places in asia, at least we were told by the video, where there is an unusually high concentration of fireflies. we entered the river from the sea. there is a portion, where the river's and the sea's beds converge, that is so low, we all had to get off while the pilot pushed the boat to less shallower waters. i was with roland, angel, nette, and her guests. dusk was just arriving, and we very calmly cut through the murky waters of the shallow and narrow channel. silence was abundant here, so much so that when we all closed our mouths at the same time, it was possible to hear a pair of insect wings fluttering in the darkness. after around 30 minutes, we sat still and waited. and the show began.

the lights arrived from all directions. they concentrated and gathered on certain trees, and transformed these gnarled silhouettes into christmas trees adorned with an array of blinking lights. first, there was only a handful. then they multiplied, until tens of thousands of fireflies lit the darkness surrounding the trees briefly, but in the most amazing way, to rival not just the number of stars fixed on the sky, but even the size of their lights. i asked the boatman what brought the fireflies there, and he could only offer an insufficient explanation, perhaps even an uneducated guess. when the fireflies did fly close enough to us, we discovered that they were in fact very tiny insects, the color of brown, almost like the shape of a cockroach, but charged with enough chemicals to momentarily lit their bodies and declare their presence. when we went back to the mouth of the river, we found trees where the flashes of light were synchronized, as though the fireflies perched on the leaves and the branches were in on a conspiracy, sending out secret messages, or warnings, or taking part in a presentation, in tempo with an unheard choir song.

when we left the river, we notice that the stars in the sky numbered more than they usually do in the urban cities. the air was so clear that the brightest stars that mapped out patterns in the sky appeared confused. the sea lapped at our feet, and when we returned to our beachfront digs, we noticed that the stars were reflected on the still waters of donsol bay, except that the reflections appeared to be embers from blue coals floating on the surface, riding on the splashes of the rigs. they were numerous, and dotted the dark, silent sea in the thousands. the pseudo-biologists that we were, we surmised that they must have been some kind of plankton, the same organisms that drew whale sharks to the bay by the hundreds. in the distance, the moon hung perilously over the low canopy of coconut trees. it was red, and cloaked by dark, brooding clouds.

when we got back, i immediately fired a few stoves, and continued to cook dinner. half an hour later, we were feasting on my very good adobo, perfect rice, and a very bland fish sinigang. and after dinner was served, we consumed my 2 liters of domecq reserva solera (which cost me almost a thousand pesos!), another liter of grand matador, and a bit of rhum. i volunteered to make the socials a little more interesting, and brought the guests in front for "interviews". i was actually trying to convince each of them to join AMCI, while at the same time pretending to be a lot drunk so i could ask silly questions. the word for the evening was "ruse", as in: "i'm just using my feigned drunkenness as a ruse to be silly." i harassed nette's guests and niel's co-employees. by past midnight, we were all out of alcohol, and only rhyan, niel, and myself were left talking about many things. everyone other than myself traveled for an aggregate total of 17 hours, so exhaustion arrived very early. thankfully, since there were no bars low enough for genie to reach, she didn't have any of her acrobatics. instead, she just climbed a coconut tree, and ended up meowing because she couldn't get down.

i slept at about 2am after doing a round of the area. i set my alarm for 5.15 am but didn't get up until a quarter to 6 despite mosscake's banshee scream repeating every 9 minutes. i prepared a quick breakfast: tuna omelet and corned beef. by 7.30am, we were marching towards the tourism center. a crowd had already gathered there and we were told we won't be sailing out till around 10am and this disconcerted some of us. but by 8.30am, we were out in the bay. sansu and i injured our toes even before the interaction officially began, and i was afraid the blood curdling on my big toe would attract the more aggressive cousins of the whale sharks.

only a few minutes later, we saw our first sighting, towards the far right of the bay. a dorsal fin had breached the surface and we approached it with speed. it disappeared. another pair of dorsal fins also appeared somewhere and they too submerged before we could see them up close. we were more fortunate with the third butanding. a shadow rippled in the water, as though something large was swimming just below the surface. it could have been the shadow of a passing cloud, really, but our boatman maneuvered us in such a way that we would meet the gentle monster face to face. almost all at the same time, we leaped into the water, kicked as fast as we could, and from out of the dark, murky void, a shape appeared. i was headed for a collision with an averaged-sized whale shark. its mouth, possibly a meter across, was open. it was speckled with white dots, and lined with irregular white stripes. it looked menacing, with its sharp fins jutting out on its sides and on the far end of its back, its gills throbbing. it was gliding through the waters of donsol bay without haste, like a slow-moving predator inching forward to its unknowing prey. and at that precise moment, although i could not distinguish its eyes from its many spots, i felt that it had its sights on me: i was prey. if i could, i would've jumped out of the water. i quickly pushed water away and moved out of its path. somehow, i worried that its dorsal fin would cut me in half, and i would be remembered as bloody flotsam on the bay of donsol.

immediately after i had left its path, i kicked and pushed water again, in a vain attempt to follow it. i observed its entire length, from the flat snout that elongates, expands, and narrows at the tail. its span is about two arm stretches, and its size, about the same as the little boats we took for our river cruise. quietly, it descended, and my raggedy orange life vest would not allow me to go deeper than the surface of the water. i looked up and there i was, alone in the bay, my companions at least 10 feet away from me, floating precariously, far from our boat. i had that strange feeling of being in open water, an unwilling bait to the unknown creatures of the sea. i had asked our butanding interaction officer (BIO) if there were other residents in donsol bay, and he assured us that there was none. but no matter how much i am assured of just how gentle the whale sharks are, i cannot help but think that there might be one among them with a lose wire. i harbored these what-ifs, but nevertheless plunged into the water without hesitation, without fear, and with a lot of excitement.

in the next three hours, we would make several more sightings, and at least twice, i put on arlene's fins. i swam like a fish, as fast as the whale shark, extending my interactions to as much as 20 seconds. and in the next few hours, our mouths would froth with stories of our interactions. even as we prepared to travel to camsur, we had nothing else to talk about but these giant creatures. the experience is really quite amazing and far from ordinary. traveling to donsol, whether completely on land or not, is fraught with difficulties. but the guarantee of having to swim with these creatures makes the trip all worth it. before we set out to sea, i chanced upon a schoolmate, bodi pulido, and he asked me: "sigurado ba tayong makakita ng butanding? i mean, we didn't travel all the way here to see nothing." and i replied by saying, "are 20 butandings enough for you?"

nevertheless, you ask yourself certain things. why are they congregating here? why can something whose diet consists almost exclusively on the smallest creatures in the sea, such as plankton, krill and algae, get to be among the biggest inhabitants of the ocean? why can something that looks as terrifying as this, be as gentle and harmless as dolphins? my questions gave birth to more questions, and the absence of appropriate answers made me delirious.

although i'd done this before, the quality of the experience has been far from eroded. the swirl of terror and awe that i felt simultaneously upon my encounter with the whale shark was just as fresh as when i expressed these thoughts two years ago:

“talon, alman, talon!” i heard my companions shout as i sat on the edge of the banca’s hull. i did, but despite my efforts, i propelled myself only a little. but not much effort had to be exerted, because whale sharks, indifferent as they are to my presence, will, with mouth agape, go about their business of filtering plankton and thousands of thousands of liters of seawater through its enormous gills, and if you happen to be floating in its path, you might find yourself in the peculiar and unique feeling of coming face to face with these gentle giants of the deep. in spite of their humongous size, whale sharks are completely harmless to even the most inquisitive of humans. and they don’t get more inquisitive than me, and fish -- or shark, for that matter -- don’t get any larger than these megamouths. so there i was, swimming, rather awkwardly on the water, and my masked face submerged, with my legs, kicking in all the might they could muster, when out of the hazy void, appeared a creature of the sea which sparked in my heart a confused mixture of fear and awe, of dread and wonder. any person in the right state of mind would have leaped out of the water. but based on what i’ve so far done these past four days, i was far from being completely sane.

so there i was, swimming with this whale of a shark, paddling the fastest i could, observing from the deceptive distance of the tempered glass on my mask, the alternating spots and stripes on a fish whose colors resembled a cross between an inverted dalmatian or a reverse zebra. the shape of the fish was unmistakable, and my childhood memories of watching “jaws” were kindled with a kind of agitated surprise. nevertheless, in that 20 second window of opportunity, when i followed the butanding as best i could, my entire constricted vision filled with the enormous length and girth of its body, with my emotions dithering from terrified to amazed to unbelieving, i came to understand many things. and then it was gone, swallowed by the deep, unspoken mysteries that is the sea. i lifted my head up, and the shrieks and applause of my friends on the boat were indistinct. i had apparently gone in a direction different from the banca, and i had that troublesome feeling of being a man overboard. i freestyled back to the boat, and when i managed to hold on to the katig, our guide said, “dyan ka lang.” fish food, i quickly thought. with my legs dangling in the water, i was bait, all 150 pounds of me, for the less gentle inhabitants of donsol bay. i’ve always had an inexplicable fear of deep water, partly because i can’t swim very well, partly because i think great whites are everywhere, and largely because i fear the unknown. then july instructs me to cock my head into the water. few people are ever this privileged.

beside me and under me, a whale shark that ané has appropriately called jumbo was gliding, almost without effort, and the banca whose outriggers i held on to securely, followed at nearly the same pace. 30 seconds felt like eternity, and eternity felt a little too short. but it was a tremendous interaction. without much exertion on my part, i followed this animal, looking at it, just looking at it, marveling, and wondering why it could not live above water, asking what might have caused those nicks on its dorsal fin, tantalized by its throbbing gills, and its flat, friendly snout. and then, almost imperceptibly, it turns away, and as it does, i had this odd feeling that its tail would hit my foot, and that it would be cut in two. the tail was large, and looked every bit menacing, even razor-sharp. i clambered my feet onto the katig but kept my head in the water, and watched as the fish of my fancy swam gently away. on my way back to the banca, i was drugged. seriously. i trembled. i was hyper. i was ecstatic. i talked non-sense. i spoke truth. it was bliss, and the P550 was all worth it.

throughout that morning, starting from half past 9 till a quarter to 12, we made around 20 sightings. most of the time, i just looked from the safety and distance of my banca, allowing francis to take the plunge. but in five instances which account for less than 2 minutes, i had my slice of up-close interaction with these creatures. everything that’s been said about them is true, and i wondered if ané and joseph had nearly the same fulfilling experience, interacting with the fish vicariously through our exaggerated narrations. july said that after noon, the number of whale sharks dwindle, because the plankton submerge deeper. with our appetites for huge bowl of shark’s fin whetted, we headed back to shore.

the philippines may not have big cats or elephants or bisons or bears. but it has marine wonders unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and that is from someone who hasn't even gone beyond an intro to scuba diving. i think the butanding interaction is something everyone should try at least once in their lives, fear of the deep and the unknown be damned.
and I was in Tubbataha without any contact with the outside world. pure bliss except I didnt see any butandings! i should go to donsol.
you should TB. although you can just take a long look at xenon or nette and imagine them with spots and stripes. haha.
just dropping by
Hi Alman, just checking out your blog updates. forwarded this link to monica since she may be interested to read your recap of our holy week trip. It was the donsol trip she enjoyed most.