The Butanding Whisperer

His name is Randy. He hails from this very place that crosses the whale sharks’ migration highway. Randy has “known” these whale sharks since he was 12. He is now 31. I never asked, but I suspect Randy never had formal swimming lessons. Nor diving lessons. But he sure could hold his breath down there , donned only with his snorkeling equipment. When Randy barked “swim forward”, me and them boys were focused on only one thing. To see our first Butanding. After all, we have been waiting a good hour and were near frustration with one of the boys depressingly saying “I only need to see ONE…..” These boys were with another team the day earlier, and they have not been lucky. Today is their second attempt, and the overcast sky was no encouragement. You see, those butanding spotters find it doubly hard to see the “shadows” on a cloudy day like today.

When one of them prayerfully chanted “Butanding…….Butanding………Butanding”, Randy very ably balanced himself (while the boat is cruising) on the bamboo pole crossing the front of the boat and assisted the spotters. As we all chorused and chanted, the boat crew were so focused on their jobs. I admire their patience, their quiet competence. As if on cue, Randy gently reminded us to get ready on the left side of the boat. Frankly, I was so afraid I couldn’t balance myself sitting on the edge of the boat and would have jumped in before Randy’s signal. Mercifully, I was ready when Randy barked “JUMP”. We swam forward, or rather, Randy pulled me forward so I can “swim” in tandem with the boys. I’ve never been so excited in my whole life. What an adrenaline rush, just knowing a Butanding lurks beneath us. When Randy barked “Look down”, I almost panicked to see the Butanding right beneath me. Maybe 2-3 meters below me. I was so afraid my legs would touch its head and send the whale shark on a wild spree. I could see the 3 boys in our team swimming under me and beside the gentle giant, with good old me contentedly swimming over this unbelievably gentle sea creature.

If I could frame my feelings now, you would see a framed painting splashed with a quiet solitude, evoking a serenity heretofore unknown. I do not know how far we were from our boat. Who cares? Until I saw another man dive deeper under the whale shark , swimming along,as if reuniting with an old friend.  I recognize his swimming shorts. I know that pattern. And remembered they were Randy’s! So who’s swimming with me? I looked up to catch my breath to see the ends of those snorkeling tubes, as everyone in our team and those from another boat were busily watching the whale shark swim underneath us. It must have been a full minute, likely longer. But without Randy by my side, I cannot swim forward WITH the whale shark. By the time Randy came up, the Butanding gently showed its side and white underbelly as it dove deeper. Perhaps in search of it plankton meal. Our boat suddenly appeared from nowhere. Perhaps Randy gave the signal that our new friend has left us for his meal. The crew put out the rusty ladder for me to climb up as the other boys waited for their turn. I was onboard , happily watching each of the boys get on the boat, hugging Randy and jumping up and down with joy. I was still feeling “high” from the experience, and my mind captured those scenes way better than any camera could . Pure joy. Young men in their mid-20′s acting like little boys. Randy almost too shy as these 3 young men hugged him so tightly in gratitude for this awesome animal experience. Yes, that memory will stay in my mind for many, many years. Another “framed feeling” stored in my memory bank. Randy very kindly allowed us to have our 2nd and 3rd Butanding experience in the 3 hours that we rented the boat. The boys longed for a 4th and final encounter, as I opted out, quite happy with the 3 sightings. Randy stayed on the boat, hoping to get the Butanding to “show up” for the benefit of my new Nepalese friend, Ava, and Beth, both of whom chose to stay on the boat. Without the Butanding whisperers, the young men in our team came back empty-handed. But no way are they complaining. Three sightings in a couple of hours ain’t bad! Especially on a cloudy, rainy day like today. As for Ava, coming from a landlocked country like Nepal, this boat ride by itself is a most cherished adventure for her. Everybody happy!

As the boat sailed towards shore, the boys swapped stories of their experiences. One of them excitedly said that I was always on top of the whale shark. Thanks to Randy. I suspect the butanding stayed with us long enough because of Randy. They must be friends for 2 decades now. Perhaps playmates is the more appropriate word. This shy, quiet young man has been interacting with this whale shark since he was 12. When I asked him what he does off – season, Randy said he goes to Manila to work with a landscaping team. He does gardening. Talk about flora and fauna. He must really have a green thumb for the flowers, and a gray thumb for the whale sharks? I don’t know. But I truly, truly respect the quiet dignity and warm kindness of Randy and his crew. They took good care of us. Not much fanfare. No fuzzing over us. But we know they were all watching out for us. They all seem too shy. They love their butandings, knowing how much these sea creatures have improved their lives. The Donsol fisherfolks offered a safe harbor for these gentle giants, and they have been rightfully rewarded.

When you come to this area, be sure to make this one hour trip from Legazpi City to Donsol, Sorsogon. Best time is from November through May. I will most certainly go back, next time with my family. (I actually did, in late May. And my “elves” to this day talk animatedly of their whale shark encounter, as narrated in another blog) These fisherfolks make for a good example of ecotourism. And these Butandings with their broad, flattened heads and large, very terminal mouths with checkerboard patterns on their backs are truly a sight to behold. Very gentle, friendly and playful, allowing humans to swim and interact with them, as they gently glide alongside our boat. And while you’re here, be kind to this community of about 47,000 fishermen and farmers. They live off the livelihood gained from the Butanding phenomenon half of the year, and scrape a livelihood the remainder of the year. More so when the typhoons hit them. And they get it way too often to have a decent living. They never ask, nor do they even drop hints. But it will go a long way to help them with a more generous tip. After all, they deserve them. Treat these locals as you would treat a place where you would “park” your pets. You may not be around the whole time, but you draw comfort in the fact that there are guardians , caretakers and caregivers for your pets. The Butandings are here because these locals take good care of them and leave them unharmed. They play with them, interact with them. Despite the poverty, it never crossed their minds to harm these gentle creatures. Such kindness deserves to be rewarded. My Butanding Encounter is by far my most awesome animal experience. Another one off my bucket list. The idea of swimming with the graceful butandings is scarier than actually interacting with them. Really. I do not know if I’d say this same thing if I saw the Butanding we sighted open wide its big mouth. But there you go. Mouths closed, they are simply fascinating. Go!

Thanks to our Butanding Interaction Officer (B.I.O.) Randy!

More photos in my TravelBlog site.

************************************************************************************ Trivia

Butandings or whale sharks are vegetarians. They only eat plankton and krill, which are found abundant in the very very salty waters of Donsol. There is no report of whale sharks taking humans as prey!

Donsol is a quiet community of only 47,000 people. They live off farming and fishing until a big concentration of whale sharks were sighted in 1998, inviting the attention of WWF and ATF. The sightings changed the landscape and ignited an economic boom in the area. Whale sharks live over a hundred years old. “Puberty” at 20 years old!

Biggest fish in the world. They only measure from 15 ft. to as long as 40 ft. in length! Our boat can easily rest on it silvery, polka-dotted back. They swim near the surface, allowing the “spotters” to see their shadows. Donsol is now not only a feeding place or “dining area” for the butandings. Of late, they sighted baby whale sharks. That means, the place has now become a berthing ground for the butandings. Who knows where they go after May? Anybody’s guess. But the locals are confident they will come back, for yet another wholesome ecotourism adventure.

Most important trivia: You need not know how to dive nor swim to have a Butanding Encounter. Just be sure you have a good B.I.O. like Randy to swim with you, and PULL you towards the nearest Butanding. You may reach Randy with this number : +63910 5485647.  

Btw, Randy took a “summer job” or should I say “gap job” as a messenger. When I told him to see my friend for an interview, it was  a stormy day and there were no boats from the island where he lives (last barangay in Donsol, he says) and Randy had to walk 2 hours just to make the interview.  Such is life for these hardworking folks. 

This is my entry to the September Blog Carnival hosted by Marky Ramone Go of Nomadic Experiences on the topic  “Unforgettable Human Encounters on the Road”.