Monday, May 24, 2010

Close encounters of the Massive kind

When you read of lands that live under the shadows of smoking volcanoes and those that have seas inhabited by massive sea creatures, you might dismiss it as figments of a writer’s fertile imagination. But before you do that, I would suggest making a visit to Legaspi and Donsol in the Philippines. Here, there are sights beyond your comprehension, even after seeing them. Read that as the active volcano Mount Mayon, and the whale sharks that swim in the seas during the months of December to May.
My husband and I had wanted to explore the region for a long time now. We had even made the twelve hour long bus-ride to Donsol for a much awaited encounter with the whale sharks. Yet a Tsunami alert had banned us from the waters and we had returned disappointed. This time, we had caught a last minute flight in from Manila and had our fingers firmly crossed.
We started by hiring an All Terrain Vehicle or an ATV to follow Mount Mayon’s 2006 lava trail. The humongous tires ground pebbles firmly into the volcanic ash and made its way through streams up the trail. Driving through what was once a river and now a grey wasteland we reached a dead end, a 60 feet high wall of volcanic rocks. We clambered up loose sand, holding onto rocks and emerged to see the tops of coconut trees. We were standing on a sea of rocks that extended all the way to the crater. From July to October 2006, Mount Mayon had spewed fiery lava that had burnt all that stood in its path, which was mainly, the coconut farms in the area. It had slowly cooled down till this sea of rocks had been formed, as a memorial of sorts.
Yet, there is no sadder testament to the destruction that Mount Mayon has wreaked than the Cagsawa ruins that stand forlornly in the town. Seeing an ancient church tower that is the sole reminder of an entire town that was engulfed by an 1814 eruption of the volcano is indeed a sobering sight.
However, we had no time to dwell on past misfortunes as we made our way down a winding road to Donsol. This sleepy fishing town has now been dubbed the Whale Shark capital of the world.  We quickly registered at the Whale Shark interaction centre for the next day and were herded into the AV room to watch a video on the ‘Butandings’ as the whale sharks are called here. The video talked about how the whale sharks were the biggest fish in the world and that they grew up to forty feet or more and lived up to 150 years. It ensured us that there was no reason for alarm as these gentle giants only fed on plankton. That last part was reassuring to say the least.
To calm my nerves, we decided to head out on the ‘Burning bush’ tour.  This is the very imaginative yet apt name given to the firefly river cruise here. We settled down in a canoe to be slowly rowed up Donsol River that is lined on both sides by mangroves. As we looked on, certain trees lit up as if adorned by fairy lights. “Fireflies” our boatman told us in a hushed voice, as we watched entire trees flicker radiantly in the darkness.
The next morning, we were back at the Butanding interaction centre at 6:30 am. Within half an hour, our boat had left the shore. Thrilled on finally getting out there, my husband and I quietened down to listen to our Butanding guide’s instructions.  We would be taken around twenty minutes into the ocean. There was a whale shark spotter who would stand in front and instruct the boat on when to halt. By then we had to wear our snorkelling mask and fins, and sit on the edge of the boat. As soon as the guide yelled ‘Go’, we would jump into the water and swim behind him. 
As we neared the waters where the Butandings were said to flock, the spotter took his place. My heart was pounding uncontrollably. Suddenly he gestured with his hand and the boat’s motor was abruptly killed. “Ready, Go!” our guide called out. Before we knew it, we were jumping behind our guide into the open sea.
We jumped into the cold green water and swam after the guide.  As soon as I reached near him, he held my hand and said with urgency, “Look Ma’am! Look!” I instantly plunged my head into the sea. I could see nothing but murky water, when suddenly out of nowhere a huge head emerged. It was as wide as a double bed and was a dark grey adorned with a pattern of criss-crossing dots in shades of white and blue. It was my first encounter with a Butanding and it was swimming directly towards me. I panicked and jerked my head out of the water. Despite the video and photographs I had seen, nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of what was indisputably the biggest fish in the world. I wrenched my mask off, took in a deep gasp of air and then put it back on, to peer into the water again. To my astonishment the Butanding was still majestically swimming below me, swishing its forty feet long body gracefully as it dove to deeper waters.
We swam back to the boat only to make many more jumps through out the interaction. We ended up seeing nine Butandings in the course of an hour. We were very lucky our guide told us. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. But not just because of the number of whale sharks we saw, but because we had gotten the opportunity to intermingle with these magnificent creatures that taught you a thing or two about perspective. After all, once you’ve encountered a century old massive sea creature, you can no longer have illusions about the grandness of the human race.

New Indian Express, May'10

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