Donsol Whale Shark Encounter
By Teena Santiago
In 2004, the Time Magazine has identified the WWF-supported whale shark
interaction program in the Philippines’ Donsol River as the “Best Place for an
Donsol is known as the whale shark capital of the world because of the
high number of whale sharks, locally known as butanding, found
in its municipal waters. For decades, whale sharks have migrated to the mouth
of the Donsol to feed on plankton. -- World Wildlife Fund Philippines -
Last April 24, my friends and I embarked on the first leg of our Donsol
experience. We made a lot of new friends along the way who shared the
truly awesome butanding (what the whale shark is called locally)
to popular belief, it is not a whale. The whale shark is the biggest shark
and the biggest fish. It has a huge mouth which can be up to 4 feet (1.4 m)
wide. Its mouth is at the very front of its head (not on the underside of
the head like in most sharks). It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout,
small eyes, 5 very large gill slits, 2 dorsal fins (on its back) and 2 pectoral
fins (on its sides). The spiracle (a vestigial first gill slit used for
breathing when the shark is resting on the sea floor) is located just behind the
shark's eye. Its tail has a top fin much larger than the lower fin.
The whole butanding encounter starts with your BIO (butanding interaction
officer) and the rest of the boat crew looking out for these beautiful
creatures. As soon as one is spotted, you jump in the water and your BIO
expertly guides you so that you are right in front of the butanding as it swims
towards you. Just when you think the shark will either open its mouth and
devour you or knock you senseless from its pretty steady charge forward, the
butanding slowly descends and you get to watch its entire body pass closely
Seeing the whale sharks up close really gives the term “gentle giants” a
whole new dimension in meaning. On the way to Donsol I was anxious about
having the courage to jump in with these enormous creatures and yet when I
finally took the plunge for the first time, two things popped into my head:
1. being with the butandings is a truly peaceful (maybe not everyone will agree)
experience and not at all scary as I first thought; and 2. whatever made
me think that I could handle taking photos underwater when I couldn’t really
swim to save my life!
Despite not being a swimmer, I found myself “swimming” with the butandings in
600 ft deep water. Along the way, we even spotted a pawikan
(sea turtle) as it gently surfaced to breathe. And as if that wasn’t
magical enough, that night we were treated to a show that can be enjoyed in
Donsol even when whale shark season is over.
That night, along with our new friends, we made our way to the mangrove where
our boatman silently maneuvered in the dark as we embarked on an uncomplicated
yet truly rewarding activity of firefly watching.
Fireflies are good indicators of the balance of nature and the ecosystem.
With constant and uncontrolled development in urban areas, a lot of people are
missing out on a truly visual and even spiritual way to experience nature.
I was little, there were a lot of fireflies in our backyard and I would play
with them and imagine they were tiny fairies bestowing magical gifts on me.
But not even that childhood memory prepared me for the hundreds and maybe even
thousands of nature’s tiny blinkers that gently guided our trip downstream.
While on the trip, I would constantly look up to the clear night sky and
behold the beautiful full moon perfectly framed by millions of blinking stars.
I would then look at the river before me and see the moon and stars mirrored on
the glass-like river surface. And on both sides of the boat, a myriad of
blinking lights would gradually break the pitch-black surroundings in a luminous
but silent display of fireflies as if on its own star-like parade.
Our boatman even maneuvered our banca several times through trees filled and
lit by the fireflies. The experience was so surreal because it just felt
like we were on a tour of the galaxy with stars above, beneath and around us!
Looking back at my Donsol experience I replay the movie in my mind of the
butandings, the fireflies and the warm hospitality of the Donsol locals and I
can’t help but feel all choked up by emotions of utter humility and complete
gratitude for the grace to have been given the chance to experience these truly
magnificent events. It certainly enhanced my perspective on life.
Now, whenever I feel the urge to drown in a glass of water with whatever
mundane issue that crops up, I recall my experience of Donsol and I am reminded
that I am just a really tiny part of a big beautiful whole and all my trivial
everyday pet peeves melt away into nothingness as I find my consciousness
flowing into everything… and nothing.