April in The Philippines: Ho Hum Diving

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It was time to get to the next main island. Not even considering a ferry ride now, I flew out of Coron on another one of those small propeller planes. The view was stunning as usual.


It was my last propeller plane ride of the trip.


My next stop was Moalboal in Cebu. The most interesting thing that happened was that I had tropical fruit pancakes for breakfast. I kid you not. Aside from the pancake place (very aptly called Last Filling Station), there wasn’t good food to be had in walking distance.


The diving was boring, as I had a mediocre dive guide who couldn’t even take care of himself let alone me. He didn’t point out anything at all. Once he saw a whaleshark but didn’t even bother to signal me and upon surfacing asked me whether I saw it. (Obviously not.) When I spotted what looked like a blue-ring octopus (neon blue pulsing rings anyone?) he told me it was a fish.


April in The Philippines: Butanding!

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Nothing really prepares you for your first glimpse of a whaleshark. We’d talked about it the entire lead-up to the trip and saw the pictures and the cute wooden model. Sure, we’d also seen the video and sat through the briefing. At Donsol, south Luzon, the whaleshark is known as butanding. We were divided into various outrigger boats in groups of six, each boat with two spotters who stood high up on the masts and a butanding interaction officer (BIO) who instructed us to don our fins, masks and snorkels when the spotters saw a suitable shadow.


Once the BIO gave the signal, we would all drop into the water and paddle after him to snorkel with the butanding. We were to stay at least 3m away from the head and body and at least 4m away from the powerful tail.

The first trip into the water was a false alarm. The butanding went too deep to be seen in the blue water, murky from the large amounts of plankton that they feed on. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise because we now knew how hard we had to paddle to keep up with our BIO. We also had time to fix a fin strap. K was almost in tears when the foot strap broke just as she was hurriedly donning her fins.

We sat at the edge of the boat, staring expectantly up at the two spotters balanced high on the bamboo masts, almost biting our nails. Then the signal came. Jump! Jump! Splash! And we were all in the water, paddling hard to get away from the boat and keep up with the group.

Suddenly, a blue-grey head with characteristic markings of white spots and lines loomed up from the deep. This was a 10m long beauty, its flat nose going past us almost too quickly. We all screamed with delight and the sheer wonder of seeing such a large and gentle creature up close. It came up closer to the surface, so much so that I felt I could just dive down and touch it. Paddling a bit harder, I got in front and looked down to see its mouth opening slightly, head tilted upwards to let water gush in, trapping plankton and other goodies for lunch. Then I hung back to the side and its tiny round eyes blinked placidly at me. I felt that its eyes were twinkling at me as if I was a friend. I then admired its gills and how they flapped slightly in the current.

After a few minutes of this, it started diving deeper and we couldn’t keep up anymore. Its tail swept slowly, effortlessly as it glided away, its outline blurring in the deep.

We were lucky this trip: eight sightings in two days. Of course, some were so brief that we only saw the shake of a tail. Others involved swimming in one direction of one, then changing course only to see anotherĀ  surface. Each interaction lasted between a few seconds to a good 10 minutes where some of us got exhausted by the constant paddling to keep up.

Seeing these beautiful creatures touched something deep inside me and I know for sure that I want everyone to have a chance to see this. It’s a bit silly to admit, but only on seeing a whaleshark up close did I realise that big fins must come from big fish, so the giant fins you see displayed at shops and restaurants must come from the whale shark, the biggest fish on earth. I’d already stopped eating shark fin and this strengthened my resolve to go a bit further by telling people at Chinese dinners why I don’t eat it. I’ve since persuaded a few just from my butanding story not to eat shark fins. Even the smallest number makes a difference.

[No photos because I still hadn’t bought an underwater camera at this point. Pris has some great photos on Facebook. Check them out!]

From discovery.com

From discovery.com

April in The Philippines: Donsol

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We flew into Donsol and were surprised to see in the background Mt Mayon, most likely the most active volcano in The Philippines or the world(?). However, we were intent on our purposes and only stopped to take a picture of the symmetrical peak as we left the plane.


It was the Donsol Tourism Office that was our first stop. We had to first register here and listen to a briefing, complete with cool video of whalesharks, before venturing out for whaleshark watching the next day.


We were to get out in an outrigger early the next morning, fins and mask ready for snorkelling with the whalesharks. The hard work was mainly to be done by the shark spotters who would balance on the flimsy looking masts of the boat.


Having nothing much else to do, we watched the sunset over the lovely bay…


… observed the fishermen coming back with their dusk catch…


… and enjoyed a barbecue dinner of fresh seafood. After which, we adjourned to a neighbouring bar for beers and the largest grilled prawns ever. Each was longer than my hand and were thick and juicy. What a way to start the whaleshark leg of the journey!