Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sorsogon: Butanding and firefly encounters in Donsol, Sorsogon

It was a long drive to Sorsogon, the southernmost province of Luzon island. We left Manila at 10 p.m. and arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, just in time for the whale shark or butanding encounter. I was with Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet, Ivan ManDy of Old Manila Walks and his friend Jenny Tan. The best time to interact with the whale sharks is in the morning, as much as possible, before 11 a.m.

When you arrive in Donsol, there are directional signs which point you to the Butanding Visitors' Center of the Donsol Tourism Office in Barangay Dancalan. There you will need to register and pay the appropriate fees which include PHP100 per head for registration for locals, and PHP3500 per boat which can accommodate a maximum of seven people. You will also need to rent snorkeling equipment for P300, mask, snorkel and fins included. Make sure you have fins or else you'll regret it.

There were just four of us and good thing we met a group (Isa, Meg and Raf) and decided to share the boat. Isa actually recognized Ivan ManDy since she had been on one of his tours. And it turns out, she was trying to look for Donsol info here in my blog but didn't find any. And the funny thing is we did Donsol together.

Anyway, each boat has a well-trained Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) who will serve as your guide in the water, plus a spotter who will look for these gentle creatures for your group. Although there is no guarantee you'll see i>butandings, the crew members are expert spotters. Since we were at the tail-end of the season which is from November to May (peak is February to April), we kept our hopes up.

Just a few minutes from the shore, our spotter located a butanding and at the signal of our BIO, we jumped into the water. The butanding however disappeared quickly so I wasn't able to see it. So we went back on the boat and looked again. The second try was more successful since I was able to take photos of it. It was a really exciting feeling swimming on top or beside the whale shark. We got to see six of them that day! But the interaction was a bit short that day, just a few seconds. Our BIO said that his longest was an hour and 45 minutes! He was also GMA's BIO when she visited Donsol and after 30 minutes, the president was the one who begged off. That's why it's really best to visit during the peak months.

We called it a day after the sixth sighting. By the time we got back, we were so hungry since we hadn't eaten breakfast (if we stopped for breakfast, we would have missed the opportunity to check out the butandings). So we decided to have lunch at the Woodland Farm Resort Canteen where we ordered adobado (adobo with gata), kilawin, bicol express among others. We also decided to stay there for the night and got an air-conditioned room with two queen-sized beds for PHP1500. After lunch, we got some sorbetes from a vendor outside the canteen. It turns out, the Bicol version has coconut milk in it.

Jenny had to rush back to Manila that day to so we brought her to the bus station at Pilar Port (which is where the Masbate boats dock) in the neighboring town of Pilar. I was awed by the view of native houses amidst the colorful boats at Pilar Port. I hope towns in the Philippines preserve this kind of scenery but all of it is being replaced by concrete and hollow blocks. In Sorsogon however, you saw nipa houses lining the road to Donsol and it really made you feel you were in the Philippines.

We got back to Donsol at 5 p.m. just in time for another boat trip, this time along the Ogod River to check out the fireflies, Donsol's no. 2 attraction. Each boat is PHP1250. Again, we joined forces to bring down our costs. That's what backpacking is all about, trying to share expenses with new friends.

The river was a sight to behold with mangroves and nipa on each side. In front of us was a silhouette of the Mayon Volcano. We waited for darkness to arrive on an island in the middle of the river. At 7 p.m., we boarded the boat and started our trip back.

Then they appeared. Like fairy dust hovering around the trees, the fireflies gave an enchanting feeling as they flickered in the dark. One could say they looked like Christmas lights dancing around the trees. Sadly, we could not record them on our cameras. Indeed, the Philippines is blessed. I just hope local stakeholders could balance tourist arrivals with sustainable development and conservation.

The group had a sumptuous dinner at the Amor Farm Resort. It was all raves for the delicious food! We had laing, kinunot (malunggay with fish meat), inihaw na pusit, buttered shrimps, curry shrimps and Bicol express. If you do get to visit Donsol, make sure you have a meal at Amor. The night wasn't over since we had one last stop at the only bar in Donsol... BARacuda!

I liked the ambiance of the place. They serve meals too, but they have no menu, only the catch of the day. I was told that one meal was about PHP500, quite pricey for Donsol, but a hit among foreigners who visit the place. The bar owner, Juliet, is very friendly and interacts often with her customers. She explains that the prices also control the quality of the crowd and thus you don't get any of the town drunkards in her place.

We ordered margaritas and caipirinhas (a Brazilian drink similar to the mojito of Cuba) for PHP150 each. But since we were Pinoy, she gave us a discount which was quite nice of her. If only we didn't have to wake up early the next day, it would have been so much fun to stay and chill out there the whole night. She also has one room which I'm sure people willing to splurge would enjoy. Tired and sleepy, we called it a night at 10 p.m. More photos in Multiply.
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