BEYOND THE WHALE SHARKS PHENOMENON
(By AILEEN LAINEZ of the Manila Bulletin)
SORSOGON, for January 18, 2000 - Sorsogon used
to be a little-known destination located at the southernmost tip of Bicol.
But in early 1998, events took a detour and gave the province instant popularity,
especially among nature-lovers and adventure-seekers. A scuba diver showed
to news media his personal underwater video of the biggest fish in the
world, the whale sharks, swimming gently in the nearby seas of Donsol town.
Since then, curious travelers have found their
way to this little quiet town, either by enduring a 12-hour bus ride or
flying comfortably to Legaspi City and taking another one-hour ride to
Sorsogon. To accommodate the tourist influx, the local tourism council
has set up whale shark interaction tours, which includes swimming with
the butanding, local name of whale sharks.
Donsol accepts the most number of tourists
in between the months of January and June, the time when the spotted giants
Spotting them is not always easy. The whale
sharks swim in their natural habitat and therefore, their swimming area
is a wide expanse of sea. Whale shark spotters, fishermen who have this
uncanny ability of seeing where the fish are, can be hired. However, spotters
are still no guarantee, a risk butanding visitors have to take. Many are
unperturbed and continue to seek the elusive gentle giants.
Unknown to many, when whale sharks are nowhere
in sight, there are land-based attractions in the province that they can
visit allyear round. The Sorsogon Tourism Council is now working to promote
the province's other beautiful sights and sounds. Eco-tourism is the buzzword
nowadays, and this is what the council aims to achieve. From the paved
roads of Sorsogon, one can get a view of the almost perfect cone of Mt.
Mayon in the nearby Albay province. Mt. Bulusan is Sorsogon's very own,
which may not have a cone as picturesque as Mayon's but certainly as scenic.
The active volcano is located within the vicinity of the Bulusan
National Park, a natural wonder that only few visitors have seen. At
the bosom of the national park are lush rainforest and stunning turquoisecolored
Over the centuries, the place has maintained
an aura, which can only be described as enchanting. Nature-lovers find
it spectacular and overwhelming as foreigners call it the "Switzerland
of the Orient."
The park stands 2,000 feet above sea level
and covers a land area of 16 ½-hectares, teeming with diversity
as variant as any rainforest in the world. Rare plants and endangered animal
species abound here. The park is believed to be 3,074 geological years
Visitors can picnic, fish, swim, relax and
enjoy the scenery. A concrete pathway around the lake was built for people
who want to trek and look for best picture-taking vantagepoints. The verdant
forest has kept the atmosphere cool and refreshing, even at the time of
the day when the temperature is at its highest.
The tourism council is still in the process
of exploring opportunities in the national park, advocating only the activities
that do not have any destructive impact on the environment. They will allow
only kayaking, fishing and trekking. Hotels, resorts or other structures
that entail heavy construction will not be allowed. After all, the best
way to have a perfect commune with nature is by blending with it.
Ten minutes from the national park is another
favorite nature hop of Sorsogeños. Palogtoc Falls is modest in size,
but it flows all the way to a natural pool that has become a favorite swimming
hole among the locals especially on hot summer days.
Rizal Beach in the town of Gubat is considered
the Boracay of the Bicol region because of its long stretch of white beach
in a perfectly symmetrical cove. The water is crystal clear, calm and cool
for swimming. It has lately become quite a favorite vacation spot because
there are a couple of inexpensive resorts in the area.
During the whale sharks season, visitors can
also stop by the town of Bulan on the last weekend of May and join in the
celebration of the colorful Bandalaan sa Bulan Festival. Bandalaan comes
from the word bandala, the Bicolano term of the abaca fiber. Abaca fiber
is the basic ingredient in making the Manila hemp or rope, a local product
whose uses were sought after all over the world for many centuries in the
past. A simple commodity it is but certainly placed the Philippines in
the world map.
The highlight of the festival is a dance parade
participated by high school students. The male dancers wear costumes composed
of sinamay shorts and an armor made out of pili fruits. Their bodies are
covered with bright techni-colored paint with moon designs. The female
dancers, on the other hand, wear bizarre and eye-catching outfits made
out of sinamay cloth, appearing like grown insect queens. Their dance depicts
a farmer ritual of thanking nature for a bountiful harvest. The last weekend
of May 1999 was the first time they performed before their townsmates,
although they were frequently invited before to perform in other parts
Bandalaan organizer, Nonong Guyala, hopes that
this won't be the last. He says that the festival aims to promote the little
town of Bulan as a tourist destination. Since the whale sharks are rare
in their side of the province, they believe they can realize their aim
Bicol's own pintados culture and homegrown
industries like the abaca and pili products. He believes that if the local
abaca industry will come back to life, it will definitely help Bulan, Bicol
and the whole of the Philippines.
The festivals do not only happen during the
month of May. In October, many towns of Sorsogon are lively with festivities
as the local residents celebrate the Pantomina sa Tinampo, or Pantomine
in the Streets. Teachers, students and government employees put on their
best Filipino outfits and dance their own depiction of a dove dance.
Quaint towns are another attraction that truly
makes Sorsogon one-of-a-kind. They provide visitors a glimpse of its rich
illustrious history. Barcelona town, for example, houses Bicol's oldest
church, St. Joseph's Church built in 1874 by a Spanish friar from the Franciscan
order. It was built huge, the usual Baroque-style dome-like structure,
to accommodate the large number of parishioners. Aside from its age, its
foundation makes the church all the more interesting. It is made of coral
stones fastened by eggs.
The Spanish influence is very evident in the
church's interior. The windows were built high and wide for the purpose
of giving light and ventilation to the parishioners. Just as fascinating
are the hand paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross inspired by
the art paintings made by a Spanish painter hanging in a Naga seminary.
Fronting the church is the ruins of an old
American military headquarters completed during the war. Strong typhoons
destroyed the building in 1947 leaving a small portion of its foundation.
Only big adobe boulders are left. From the ruins is a good view of the
San Bernardino Strait, where the Spaniards often passed by during the time
of the galleon trade. The town reminded them so much of the Barcelona back
home, they named the town after their city.
Barcelona is also known for the best souvenir
hunts. Many women of this town are very skillful weavers of hats, colorful
baskets and native bags in different shapes and sizes using only local
materials like buri palm fiber. They organized themselves 10 years ago
and formed a cooperative of weavers to ensure equal division of labor and
profit. Each member worked hard in providing quality products that the
group eventually tapped the export market.
Since then, they have successfully expanded,
clinching contracts with permanent buyers from all over the country and
abroad. More job opportunities were given to many families who find this
their main source of livelihood. This job has helped them put food on the
table and brought children to school. The cooperative's shop in Barcelona
is open to all pasalubong buyers during the daytime. The capital town is
the namesake of the province. Sorsogon, the capital, is where most of the
economic activities happen and important building structures are found
such as the provincial government, hotels and pensions, and business establishments,
as well as the pier, public market and the gothic-inspired church.
Sorsogon is a major bus route from Manila all
the way to Mindanao, so it is no surprise that the biggest bus companies
have terminals here. Its 85,000 inhabitants are mainly engaged in fishing,
farming, and cottage industries. Great cooks are what they are also famous
for. All-year round, visitors can find here a variety of sumptuous Bicolano
delicacies, like the famous tasty-spicy-hot Bicol express, laing,
pili nuts and fresh seafoods like crabs and prawns.
The people of Sorsogon are grateful to what
the whale sharks have introduced them to, a flourishing tourism industry.
However, it is up to them how they can sustain the industry, and one of
their best bets is through caring for and preserving their natural environment.
Risking its health means jeopardizing their main source of wealth.