The Butanding Experience

Date posted on June 11, 2008

This trip to Bicol was one of my last out of town trips before I left for London. We were originally aiming to get all the Manila-based Council members to go, but Concep was also going to Legaspi the following weekend and Jean found out that she was already dilated despite only being 7 months along (she’s given birth to a baby boy last June 5 – Council’s first baby!). In the end, it was just me, Alexa and Joni who went.We decided to fly in to Legaspi instead of taking a 12-hour bus ride. We arrived early Saturday and was met by Joni’s sister Joan and brother-in-law Neil at Bicol’s pride, Bigg’s. After breakfast, we took a quick side-trip to Cagsawa. That was really for Alexa who was the only one who hasn’t been there. Unfortunately, we only got to see the majestic Mayon for a few minutes as clouds quickly covered it up. (Malas kasi si Alexa – everytime nililingon nya yung Mayon, natatakpan). What’s most striking though is how much the surrounding areas have changed. Upon getting there, we were greeted by kids who hawked pictures of both the Cagsawa ruins from decades before, when more of the buried church’s tower was intact, as well as pictures of the devastation caused by the typhoon Milenyo. It’s tragic how badly affected the area was, but it’s amazing, almost miraculous, how the flash floods from Mayon seemed to avoid the Cagsawa ruin itself.

We went to Tiwi right after our quick detour and had lunch at Joni’s house. After a quick nap, we cooled down with the famous DJ’s halo-halo. Our agenda for the afternoon was Corangon Island off the coast of Tiwi. It was a small sand bar (smaller than the white beach sand bar of Camiguin, in fact) at the point where the tides seem to converge from different directions, which I suspected was the reason why that sand bar existed in the middle of the sea even though it was considerably far from the mainland shore.

The local government of Tiwi is very protective of the sand bar that they actually prohibit visits to Corangon. We were lucky to be with Joni’s mom and sister who were well-connected in Tiwi. After asking permission from the baranggay council, we spent the rest of the afternoon on Corangon. It didn’t have any structure at all so we had to bring our own umbrella and picnic mats, plus our afternoon merienda (snacks) of course. We had a great time despite the searing heat of the summer sun. The beach was lovely, and from the island, we had a beautiful view of the Mayon (well, beautiful if not for Alexa’s malas, which kept the volcano hidden behind clouds all day).

Later that afternoon, we attended Mass in Tiwi (which meant that I heard it in Bicolano). After which, I drove the Mosatallas’ family car to Tabaco to have dinner in a local videoke bar/restaurant with Lex and Joni. We retired at around 10PM only to wake up three hours later for our Donsol trip. We had to leave really early since the butandings were in the province of Sorsogon, while Tiwi was actually in Albay.

Chauffeured by Joni’s cousin Kuya Jake, we made it to the Butanding Visitors’ Center in Baranggay Dancalan at 7AM. Joni’s Bicolana alindog failed to get the registration fee waived, but we didn’t mind. Though there were only three of us to split the cost, we gladly forked out around P4000 for the registration and the boat and equipment rental. We were that confident every cent would be worth it. After all, our primary agenda was to see the butandings.

The outrigger boat took us to the middle of the ocean as our BIOman (Butanding Interaction Officer) ran us through a quick orientation. His most important reminder: Don’t panic! After drilling that in our heads, we put on our floater vests and were no sooner on the lookout for the whale sharks.

Within ten minutes of being at sea, our Bioman rallied us to the edge of the boat for what was to be our first encounter. At his signal, the four of us jumped off the boat at the same time, submerged our masked faces underwater and frantically scanned the dark depths for the gentle giants.

And there it was… our first butanding.

He was swimming in our direction a couple of feet below us. It was a magnificent sight, and it was an incredible feeling to be in its presence. Interestingly, like John Rae said of his experience, I wasn’t scared, which was what I expected to be. Instead, I felt I overwhelmed and in awe of… it. Or perhaps, overwhelmed and in awe of the moment – that we were swimming along side this extraordinary creature. The butanding was massive, yet unbelievably gentle. It was about 8 to 9 meters, our Bioman later told us. It was huge enough to gobble us up, but we excitedly swam with it, matching its pace and swimming right on top of it for a few minutes.

The butandings may frequent Donsol, but tourists are not always assured of an encounter. Our Bioman told us how some tourists spend all day at sea and go home without seeing a single one. So even though the interaction officers aim for exclusive encounters for every boat, they sometimes resort to sharing a butanding to ensure that all the tourists go home satisfied.

That’s what made that encounter truly special. Not only was it our first, it was also the only time in the trip when we had a butanding all to ourselves. Our next encounters were all shared with the other foreign and local tourists.

I remember in 2003, when I first visited Donsol, there used to be this life-sized replica of a whale shark at the Butanding Visitors’ Center. I didn’t quite trust its accuracy, thinking it was probably an impressionistic version thought up by the locals. The spray-painted patterns on the butanding model made it look, well, artificial. Our Bioman eventually told us that aside from the size, these patterns were how they distinguished one butanding from the other. In reality, the patterns on the butanding pretty much looked as it did on the model, though the real-life butanding looked so much better of course. With its imposing size and contrastingly mild demeanor, it just felt surreal to be in the water with them. I think my exact sound bite was, “unreal.” Something about the silence while swimming with a butanding underwater made it seem like a solemn affair.

On our third encounter, I decided to take off my life vest so I could swim freely. That was perhaps my best encounter, as I was able to swim with the butanding for what felt like forever (which in reality was probably only around 10 minutes). Our Bioman, Alexa, Joni, and I started out swimming with the other tourists, and by the end of it, I was by myself. I would’ve gone on tirelessly had the butanding not decided to swim deeper and out of sight. It was calming swimming with the butanding. It didn’t even occur to me how far from the boat I was, and how deep the water was.

Since the whale sharks swam so close to us, we had to resist the urge to just reach out and touch them. We truly were tempted, but we never attempted. At the end part of our 7th encounter, our Bioman gave us a treat. He took Alexa and Joni’s hand and made them touch our 7th butanding. Syempre, I followed suit 🙂 (For those going there, I wouldn’t advise you do the same though…)

Our 8th encounter was the biggest butanding we met, I think. More than 12 meters, our Bioman said. In total, we had 10 encounters in three and a half hours, which was pretty good. Exceptional even, our Bioman said. Despite having 10 encounters, however, we actually met just nine butandings. Our last two encounters were with the same butanding called “Lambing.” He seemed to be the most comfortable in swimming with humans. He swam undauntedly and really close to the surface. So close that we had to struggle to avoid kicking him. I was afraid that if I kicked one of them, they’d hate us humans and migrate to Australia, denying us Pinoys of the privilege of swimming with them. (Our Bioman said that there are also sightings in Australia, but tourists there can’t swim with them. They only get to see the whale sharks from helicopters).

I think the only time I ever felt scared was on our last encounter, when we jumped right in front of Lambing. That would’ve been okay since that already happened a few times before. What made that 10th encounter different was Lambing was feeding on planktons at the time, and so he had his huge mouth wide open, and swimming toward us. I had to let go of Lex as I scrambled to steer clear of its path. Luckily, he didn’t suck us in. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if we didn’t get out of the way. Certainly his mouth was big enough to swallow my feeble body. I actually wondered if he would’ve choked on me if that happened.

We enjoyed the butandings so much that we decided to stay in Donsol instead of heading back to Legaspi. We found a reasonably priced homestay lodging along the main road. There we met some European backpackers and lunched and dined on home cooked meals. Later in the afternoon, we went for a walk around town. Donsol was busy preparing for the Butanding Festival the following week. There was in fact a basketball tournament and carnival (read: perya) rides and games at the town plaza. We sampled those in the evening, after we went firefly watching in the river.

That whole Bicol trip was special. Swimming with the butandings, in particular, was just magical. Profound. Priceless. Miss Maya and Sid Lucero said something similar when swam with the whale sharks during the filming of Donsol (directed by my friend Adolf). You can’t help but be humbled by how a creature this great could be so gentle. I’m glad I insisted on going to Donsol before leaving the Philippines. I kept telling Alexa and Joni that we had to go there soon, afraid that Mount Isarog & Mayon’s eruptions would affect the biodiversity in that area and drive away these welcome visitors. I would’ve tragically regretted it if that happened without me ever experiencing how it was like to swim with the butanding.