April 29, 2007

Gone Whaling

For the longest time I had scheduled, cancelled and re-scheduled trips to Donsol. Blame it on proximity. I guess I was not really that keen on discovering a place that was only an hour or two from where I am.

Three Wednesdays ago, I finally (and almost literally) jumped into butanding bandwagon. It was a trip that didn’t take that much planning. The day before, my brother said he wanted to see the whalesharks. My sister got in touch with a cousin, and the cousin made all the arrangements. I was iffy about the whole thing. Up until the last minute a least, when the thought of a day out of the office proved really irresistible.

We woke up at five, took off at six and took the path frequently travelled: the Maharlika route from Sorsogon to Castilla to Pilar. A little past Putiao we turned left and started up the curves leading to Pilar’s interior hamlets and eventually to Donsol. Everywhere are reminders that it’s election season again: campaign materials hanging from electric wires, tacked on gates and (sadly) trees and posted on post-no-bill fences.

We got to Donsol at past seven, and, after heavy snacks at an auntie’s house drove off to Dancalan Beach. We were supposed to watch a briefing video prior to jump-off, but the electric company chose that very day to schedule an outage. Doused in sunblock, and lifejackets secured, we boarded the banca for what is touted as the best animal interaction in Asia. (A banca for a maximum of seven has a flat rate of P3,500.)

Barely five minutes out at sea, our spotter alerted us to a humongous black outline in the emerald waters. There it was, our first butanding, lumbering its way in search of plankton. It was still a “baby,” said our guide, but I have to say that the sight of something “bigger than big” is quite a jolt.

We encountered nine other butandings, all within minutes of each other. At one point, there was this really huge fish, swimming alongside and under our banca. It could have easily overturned the boat if it wanted to. Instead, it went on its gentle way, disappearing into the calm waters. One wonders: how can something so big be so gentle.

In our party of seven adults, I was the only one who did not dive in for that very, very close encounter. My sister, a non-swimmer, swore it was a really moving experience: it almost brought her to tears. I understood. Sitting in the banca, while everyone else were out diving, and with the gigantic butanding bobbing up every now and then, I felt so small—a mere dot in the vastness of the sea. At our old house in Molave, my sisters and I would climb out the window and into the roof, gazing out at the starry skies. It is, I realize now, the same heady high: of being lost in the great void. If anything, an encounter with the gentle giants puts things in perspective.

Back in our aunt’s house, we traded stories about the butanding. Apparently, the big fish have been appearing in Donsol as far back as my cousins can remember. Only then it wasn’t that hyped up. In fact, my cousin said, when the butanding became an attraction in the late 1990s, they would flock to Dancalan not so much to see the whalesharks as to see the celebrities that they were attracting.

Obviously, proximity has its rewards.

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