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An occasionally belligerent mother of five and an autism parent / advocate who believes that traveling, good food and good company are vital to keep one sane. I've worked as a news writer/newscaster, a quality systems auditor, a ISO9001 consultant, an FM radio DJ, a Filipino tutor, TOEFL reviewer and have gone into the food industry both as an entrepreneur and as a mommy chef, giving a sponsored demo on healthy cooking in a mall and on local TV. My favorite job however, is being a mom and a wife.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I Will NEVER Eat Shark's Fin Again! (Our Donsol Adventure)

Have you ever come up with a bucket list? For the curious, a bucket list is a list of things you'd want to do before you kick the bucket (or, in plain english, right before you die). For Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the movie The Bucket List
(quite obvious, dontcha think?), it was climbing Mt. Everest and sky diving (among other things). But for me and Mr. P (life co-adventurer), it's swimming with the whalesharks.

Surfing the web brought us many options on which travel agency to use, which airline company to fly with or how to go about things if ever we chose to take the backpacker's route. Perhaps it was serendipity that led us to choose Eco Donsol Travel and Tours last year (2010). From start to finish, our trip to Sorsogon was nothing but pure joy. From the pleasant people, decent and comfy accommodations to authentic Bicolano food, this trip was one for the books.

Our trip started off with a 45 minute flight from Manila to Legaspi City in Bicol via Cebu Pacific. Going on land via Manila-Bicol buses takes about 11 hours. To maximize your first day, taking the 7 am trip is often a preferred option as Donsol is still another 45 minute ride via van, from the airport. Upon landing at the Legaspi Airport, we were picked up promptly by a staff of Eco Donsol. The latter gave us a quick tour of Legaspi and Cagsawa, home to the ruins of Cagsawa Church ( a.k.a. one of the pitstops at The Amazing Race-Asia) . He also managed to bring us to an atm machine(last stop, be warned that from Donsol, the nearest atm is about 1 1/2 hours away and that there are no credit card facilities in that area) , buy some snacks and breakfast, as well as acting as our tour guide and driver. I gotta say, the guy was efficient. But I'll save our Legaspi / Cagsawa experience and pics for another blog.

Day 1
Our first stop upon arriving at Donsol was to register at the Visitor's Center for all the activities we were planning to do in Donsol, namely the Whaleshark Interaction and the Firefly River Cruise.  We were also introduced to our Donsol tour guide, Arnel (another well-informed and pleasant chap). 5 minutes later, we were off to our resort, which was conveniently 5 minutes away, by car.

One of the cottages at the Amor Farm Beach Resort

Arriving at the Amor Farm Beach Resort, we were quite happy to be brought to a newly renovated  and modern cottage (minus WiFi, but hey...we went there for the whalesharks right?). There was a hot and cold shower, air conditioning and yes, a clean, new toilet :) The prices of both the accommodations and food at the place wasn't bad either. Our room cost us around 1700/night.

Our home away from home

The view inside our cottage
Our tour package at Eco Donsol (which we thankfully bought at the Travel Tour Expo at the SM Mall of Asia) included, a 3d/2n stay at Amor, transfers from the airport, the resort, the visitor's center and vice versa, a guided tour of Donsol and Legaspi, daily breakfast and 1 lunch as well as arrangements and fees for the whaleshark encounter and firefly river cruise. The package for 2 adults and a child set us back around 12,000 php, and the total roundtrip airfare, around 6,000 php.

Amor has it's own restaurant, Kawnkita, that serves both local and continental food. An average meal for 3 would cost you around 300 php, plus drinks. The food is also delicious and the portions, quite adequate. One of the "must try" items on the menu  is the Kinunot or stingray or shark cooked in super hot chillies and coconut. Basically a seafood Bicol Express.

Beautiful shell chandeliers hang from Kawnkita's ceiling

The free breakfast that we got was also quite filling and you actually have choices. As is the norm in provinces, the restaurant closes quite early (like 8 or 9 pm), so you might as well grab some grub. They also have a sari-sari store/souvenir shop in the compound just in case you need more toiletries on top of the complimentary ones that the resort provides.

Believe it or not, aside from The Amazing Race contestant/tv host Rovilson Fernandez, we were the only Pinoy guests in the place (as shown here in a shot of Kawnkita's interior)
In our own Amazing Race 
On our first night, our tour guide Arnel, arranged for a boat to pick us up at sunset, along the shore of the beach at Amor. We were to head off to a Firefly River Cruise. The tides were quite low (emphasis on LOW) when we got to Donsol, that the boat that we were in stopped right in the middle of the sea (a couple of kilometers from land at least) because we hit a sandbar! The boatmen actually went down from the boat and pushed us, boat and all until the water reached their waists!

To illustrate how low the tides were, here's MAX; quite a long way from the boat. As a reference point, the boat is about 5 ft from the shoreline.

Another cool thing that we saw that night was how clean and rich in plankton the waters of Donsol are. To demonstrate, our guide reached out his hand into the water and agitated the waters a bit. To my surprise, tiny fluorescent lights lit up underwater. He explained that these were the whaleshark's favorite food, the tiny plankton. The water was teeming with these creatures, making Donsol the perfect place for the gentle giants to hangout in.

the clearness of the  sea water at Donsol

the dark colored sand is where the shoreline normally is

loooooow tide

Eventually our boat stopped (after around 30 minutes) at the bottom of a bridge close to town. From there, we got on another boat, that was made to cruise shallow waters. 

The jump off point of our Firefly River Cruise (taken during the day)

As explained by our tour guide, the fireflies live in the mangrove forests in the area. Away from city lights, that may confuse a firefly's patterned blinking (no blinking, no mate. no mate: banishment from the colony, and eventually, a short, meaningless existence..I tried to UN geek the explanation lol), one may find these insects along the rivers of Donsol. Using a camera flash has that same effect as well, so we weren't able to get the camera settings prepped for these low-light shots.

Barracuda Bar 

After an hour of being one with the fireflies in total darkness, we headed back to the docks and rode a tricycle to a place listed in The Lonely Planet Philippines Guide Book, the Barracuda Bar. Owned by a wonderful person named Ms Julia, a Donsol native who married a German national, we had great (though a bit pricier than the local restaurants)  food. From prawns that were roughly 8 inches long and an inch thick (cooked in garlic and olive oil), to some splendid pasta with tomato chunks and this nice potato dish for our toddler MAX, our dinner was quite enjoyable. The ambiance was relaxing, the people friendly and warm. Barracuda Bar made us forget that we had only arrived in Donsol early that day! We were so excited to taste the food that we actually forgot to take pictures of that splendid meal.

Barracuda Bar (wishing now that we stopped focusing on the HUGE prawns and taken better pictures instead!
Day 2
This day was the day we were gonna hook up with the gentle giants. Whalesharks (locally known as Butanding) typically grow anywhere from 25 to 46 feet long, making it the world's biggest fish. The good thing about them is that they only eat krill and plankton.
MAX and Papa gear up for the whale shark encounter

Our travel agency, Eco Donsol managed to book a boat for just the 3 of us. As mentioned earlier, all the fees and arrangements were taken care of beforehand by the agency, and that all we had to do was pick up the diving suits (MAX brought his own), snorkels and attend the short seminar on the dos and don'ts of the whaleshark interaction. To give you an idea on how things go down at the Visitor's Center, (should you opt to take the backpacker's route) click here
The 3 backpacking Spaniards we met at the Whale Shark encounter

Since the other tourists had to wait for their boats to fill, a group of Spaniards asked if they could join our whaleshark encounter team as we were all set to go (We were promptly reimbursed by our travel agency for this). Our Butanding Interaction Officer Rommel was a DOT accredited guide who ensured the we did not harm or disturb the butanding and that our safety as well as our maximum satisfaction from the encounter was his priority.
Trying to summon the courage to swim with the whalesharks

Spotting a butanding is a hit or miss thing. The peak season is normally determined by the presence of these fishes. We went there sometime in February, where the climate and weather was quite pleasant and cool, and the place wasn't filled to the brim with tourists.
Super BIO Rommel and trusty guide Arnel
After about half an hour, our boat's butanding spotter pointed us to the direction of the butanding. I was sooo hesitant to get into the water with a huge creature lurking underneath, that it took me quite awhile to jump into the water. Even kids of MAX's age are allowed in the interaction. But somehow, my fears stopped me from allowing our BIO to bring MAX into the water as well. Eventually, I ponied up and went in, (with my mouth opened..swallowing what could have been the saltiest yet clean tasting water ever :p). 
One Big fish

As soon as I went in the water, our BIO told me to look down. With my goggles and snorkel on, I did just that. Once again, I let out a scream (underwater, if I may add...soooo not advisable) as I saw one of the biggest mo fos a few inches under me. We had to swim alongside or above the fish so as not to hamper its movements. With a life jacket on and the BIO pulling me, swimming in open water was easy peasy. Every time I brought my head out of the water, the BIO would urge me to "look down ma'am!", and every time I did that, the baby butanding (which they told me later) was still there! It was the length of a room! Another instruction given at the Visitor's center was to NOT touch the butanding. However, what do you do, when the butanding touches you?! Which was exactly what happened to me. Without warning, the butanding right under me decided to surface. I felt it's rough dorsal fin and eventually it's body, bump me on it's way up. Once again, I screamed (underwater..why me?!). A little later, our guide told us that when butandings mate, the males bump the females to show that their "in the mood". And yes..I got teased about it. I defended myself by saying that it's a baby, to which my brother (who was in Donsol the week before us) replied "then I guess it was looking for its mommy" :p
Heeeeere's Baaaby!!!
After our boat's crew scooped us out from the sea, our group managed to  find an even bigger whaleshark! With my heart still racing from the last encounter, I declined to go back in the water. All in all, the experience was THE highlight of our Donsol trip (as intended). For all my underwater screaming, I have to admit, these fishes are just awesome! 

The rest of our stay at Donsol was a blur after the whale shark encounter. The one thing that stuck in my mind however was that, big as they are, these gentle sea creatures need our help. These animals may live to be a hundred, but they reproduce ONE of it's kind every 50 years.  After hearing stories of foreign fishermen who have killed a couple or more of these animals for their fins, or local fishermen who try to kill the Butandings simply because they tend to swim into their nets, causing it to tear, I promise to do what little I could to make people aware of the whale shark's plight. Check out the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on how you can help make a difference. 

I applaud how the Department of Tourism has successfully integrated in the minds of the locals that the butandings are our friends and that instead of killing and selling these creatures for a profit, ecotourism  is the way to earn a living as well as ensuring sustainability of their trade (most of the BIOs were former fishermen). 

Knowing what I know now...I will never eat shark's fin...ever.

From TMW, may all your wanderings be better than ours!!!

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

Instead of eating shark's fin (for those who do), why not try 

the everdelish Lechon Manok? That's not all! Did you know 

that you could win a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci Bag through the 
humble lechon manok? Click on this link to find out how:

1 comment:

  1. The rest of our stay at Donsol was a blur after the whale shark encounter. The one thing that stuck in my mind however was that, big as they are, these gentle sea creatures need our help.