by Dylan Dellosa
DONSOL, Sorsogon—I’d only ever heard of Donsol in the news, which often features the sleepy community in Sorsogon as home to the butanding (whale shark)—the largest non-mammalian sea creature on earth. This last bit, one must experience to truly grasp its meaning. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rewind to the day before: So, having had lunch at the Legazpi transport terminal, we boarded a van that brought us to the town center of Donsol in a little over an hour. That is, after an eternity of waiting for the blasted vehicle to load fully. We eventually decided to hit the local tourism office to inquire about our quest to catch those gentle giants under the sea. A PhP 50 tricycle ride later and we were being welcomed to spend the night within the tourism compound—in stark contrast to our Pagudpud experience, boo-hoo. On a shoestring budget and with our trusty tent in tow, the word No just went out our collective mental window. Of course there’s the requisite video orientation on the regulations for whale shark-watching, where we learned that you could be escorted back to shore if you violate even the smallest of them. We were informed that the whale sharks make an appearance during the months of April and May. Thankfully, for the past days, there were still numerous sightings. We crossed our fingers for that. We also learned that a boat ride costs PhP 3,500—to be split among its 6 passengers (max per boat, up to 3 hours). Finally, we learned to hope to find company to share the bill, praying through the night as we tossed and turned on the hard concrete floor where we’d later “pitch” our tent.
But since it was still mid-afternoon, we figured we’d return to the town square, mainly to people-watch. Kids emerging from school, playing tag or volleyball in the park, rehearsing a dance routine. Folks doing last-minute dinner shopping, gossiping in corners, rushing to get home. Yes, it was abuzz and looked and felt every bit Filipino. As we roamed the streets, one thing became clear: these have got to be the friendliest people in the world. We must’ve looked like neurotic backpackers, yet no smile ever went unreturned. Whoa. I couldn’t help but smile just writing about it, and I could already imagine them smiling back at me. These folks, I tell you.
We bummed around some more at a riverside community, which had marvelous views of the sea at dusk AND of the majestic Mayon Volcano. It was all we could do not to fall into a trance. Thankfully a gang of kids started wading in the water, apparently looking to catch some talangka (little crabs). This quickly turned into a riotous photo opportunity and actual storytelling. But this time it was Jerard and I on the listening end.
Bidding the kids goodbye, we grabbed a quick dinner of kinunot (sting ray—please don’t judge us—in coconut milk, with malunggay leaves) at the local marketplace. We then boarded an outrigger boat for some firefly-watching adventure. The night was dark but free of terrors. The Lord of Light was certainly feeling generous, as we were treated to a phantasmic show of bioluminescence. Trees were pulsating with light, as swarms of fireflies went about their business of whatever it is nature has them doing. In the low tide, we moved from tree to tree, at one point walking through the mud just to reach a low-hanging foliage. Seconds later we were swathed in firefly light, and I promptly drifted off to nirvana. Needless to say, we were thoroughly satisfied, never mind the strained necks and mud-soaked feet. And tomorrow the whale sharks await us. Golly, what fun!
We returned to the tourism compound for the night, taking a shower in the public restroom—definitely a first for us—and setting up our tent in the roofed lounge. We’d wanted to pitch our tent in the shore, but we weren’t sure how the seawater works in that part of Luzon, and so decided against the whole idea. Taking comfort in the knowledge that the local guard was dutiful in his watch, we slept like babies—still reeling from those fireflies and already seeing those whale sharks in our dreams.
The following morning came with an answered prayer: fellow travelers started pouring into the compound. We immediately plotted to approach the lone ones until there were 6 of us, yay! Meet Megumi (Japan), Radek (Czech Republic), and sisters Aimee and Alane (China, sort of):
The first few glimpses of a whale shark is an indescribable experience. So I won’t even try. Let’s just say that it’s dumbfounding in every sense of the word.
I remember Jerard fervently wishing to get at least 10 good seconds of video footage for our project music video. Instead we got close to two hours of actual sighting not just one but four whale sharks! Again, lucky fools! I also remember saying a little prayer underwater, that these gentle giants continue to thrive and show the world just what awesome means.
We rode back to the shore, washed out the saltwater (this time in an actual shower—we didn’t know there was one the night before), and bid our new friends goodbye. We had a flight to catch in Legazpi, with 3 hours left. We did the match and figured that was just enough. An hour-long van ride later, we were already prancing about in the one place that has arguably the best panoramic view of the Mayon Volcano—the Daraga Church, itself a national heritage site. We couldn't decide which to pay attention to first, really.
Boarding the boat, we received last-minute reminders and instructions from Gerry, our butanding interaction officer (BIO—how cool is that?). No more than ten minutes onto the open sea and he was already yelling, “Ready your gear!” We scurried about in our seats, ‘cause what that really meant was that a whale shark had been spotted. Oh, talk about lucking out! The next hour was spent stalking and trying our darn best not to touch this marvel of nature:
Having to run off yet again, we grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby Graceland store. We treated ourselves to a final helping of Bicol express and pinangat, both of which we’ve been having at virtually every stop in our way. We topped it off with a shared bowl of halo-halo, and, feeling the dawning conclusion to this beautiful adventure, exchanged smiles in complete silence.